A few weeks ago, seven fellow Fulbrighters and I held a two-day English language camp in Nuwara Eliya, a region high up in the central hill country of Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya has always had a special place in my heart, and it’s where I feel most at home on the island. My friends there have become my Sri Lankan family; they are wonderful individuals who always welcome me with open arms (and delicious meals!) when I visit. Jesse and I taught at a rural school in Nuwara Eliya when we were here in the fall of 2011, and so I’ve also always felt an affinity towards the students there. Needless to say, when my good friend Roshan (an English teacher in Nuwara Eliya) approached me a few months ago with the idea of holding an English camp for some of his community’s students, I jumped right on board.
One of the best parts about being a Fulbrighter in a country where you’ve lived before is that it’s easy (or at least possible) to bridge communities and bring your connections together when the opportunity arises. I was able to organize this English camp because of support from my Sri Lankan family and friends in Nuwara Eliya; the U.S. Embassy/American Center in Colombo; and my fellow Fulbrighters, scattered all over the island but who came together to run this camp. It took some work to organize and pull all the pieces together, but in the end, the camp was a big success. I’m really happy that these forces were able to join together to make such a great program happen, and as the camp was unfolding, I realized how much I live for these kinds of connections, for seeing what strong partnerships can produce. Incredible things can happen when resources are pooled and people/groups work together to achieve a common vision, and so often, all one has to do is ask.
The “English is Fun!” language camp was easily the highlight of my entire Fulbright experience. The two days were energetic, loud, joyful, tiring, impactful, and fulfilling for – I think it’s safe to say – all involved parties. Thanks to a generous grant from the U.S. Embassy, we were able to provide hot lunches for and present book gifts and certificates to each of the 140 camp participants. The students came from rural schools where they have very little exposure to English and thus very little enthusiasm to learn it. Our goal for the two days was to show these students – who ranged from ages thirteen to sixteen – how English can be both fun and useful. We knew from our respective teaching experiences throughout Sri Lanka that what English these students have learned has come from rote memorization, grammar exercises, and strict book work – and so we aimed to enhance such knowledge with ridiculously fun songs and games. (Think London Bridge, Hot Potato, B-I-N-G-O….) Most of these students have never raised their hand in class, spoken a full sentence of English, or played games in an educational setting. I’m sure none of them had ever before been encouraged to run around in circles singing “Ride My Pony,” either, but they did that and a lot more during the two days we spent with them. It was pretty special to see these shy but very capable young Sri Lankan students come out of their shells to practice speaking English, to interact with their peers from other schools, and to – most of all – have some good, old-fashioned fun. It was a privilege to be able to facilitate that and to see them happily sing and play and learn.
Roshan (my good friend and Nuwara Eliya English teacher) was the driving force behind this program. Holding a camp like this has been a dream of his for some time – and it came true! I’m so glad the camp was such a success, especially for his sake. He texted me the Monday after the camp saying, “Grade 10 girls are practicising ‘boom chicka boom’ for the past half an hour outside my classroom. That’s what you guys have done. Thank you again.” Ten minutes later: “Now ‘one potato two potato’ and ‘London Bridge.’ This is the first time I’m hearing any student using English they have learned in their free time!”
In the speech I gave at the camp’s closing ceremony, I briefly talked about how, when I first came to Sri Lanka two and half years ago, I never thought I’d return not once, but twice, to work with students and teachers in Nuwara Eliya. Looking around the auditorium, I remarked upon how my time in Sri Lanka truly felt like it had come full circle. I am so grateful I was able to help give back to a community whose people have given me so much, and to see the shining faces of students I have been so happy to see again and again. I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to work with such great people to coordinate and organize this English camp, and am thrilled to be leaving Sri Lanka on such a positive note. I just can’t stress it enough – it’s amazing what good can happen when people and communities work together to provide opportunities for others.
And, also, after two days of running around, shaking hands, and singing songs at the top of your lungs, there’s nothing like curling up to watch “Mean Girls” and “Remember the Titans” with some of your favorite Americans.