Vacation camps: Teaching without a course book (the presentation I wish I gave)

Last Saturday I gave a 20 minute presentation about teaching without a course book and all the activities and things a teacher can do when not fettered by a textbook.

I wasn’t very satisfied with how I delivered the information. So this post is the better organized version of what I wanted to say there but don’t think I articulated very clearly. The PowerPoint is embedded below (just learned how to do that from this video!).

So, without further ado, the presentation I wish I’d given:

Vacation Camps: Teaching without a course book

I’d like to begin with a disclaimer. I am not jumping on the “materials lite” or “dogme” bandwagon here. I think there is a place for course books and a lot of good reasons to use them. I think even some camps have a place for course books. There are also good reasons for choosing not to use them and the type of camp I have in mind is one of those.

I’m working from the perspective of camps designed for elementary school students. Of course, most of what I say can be adapted to other ages and levels, and I’ll leave that up to individual teachers. In this presentation I would like to show some of the benefits to preparing a vacation program without a coursebook and also share some ideas and activities that can be used in lieu of “doing” pages in a book.

Starting with the benefits of preparing a vacation program without a course book:

1) Time

– To get to know the students and tailor activities to their specific interests and goals
Getting to know your students is important. Getting to know their interests, hobbies, or goals and showing them that you care about those things – as well as letting them get to know you – builds a relationship, fosters safety and reduces anxiety. And all that can lead to increased motivation. In a camp where you only have a short time with the students, you have to do this right away and sometimes jumping straight into pages 2 and 3 of the textbook (“Getting to know you”) is not enough and strikes the students as unreal. Also, the goal of “getting to know you” isn’t language learning (as in the book), but learning about each other through the language. Once you know your students interests and goals, and unfettered by a course book that forces language learning rather than language use, you can tailor activities specifically to your class.

– To not have to worry about “getting through the material” and “completing a book” that the parents have paid for and want to see used
There are a couple of big issues here. When you’re using a text book for a camp, the parents buy it and want to see it “done” (or so the administration believes). To them, “done” often means every page is written on and contains evidence of teacher checking with a red pen. But just because the students have done it, and have the correct answers (for whatever reason), doesn’t mean they have learned it or can use it. Most course books are also too long to allow for time to supplement their themes with more #engaging activities.

– To use your most valuable resource: the language, structures, and grammar that has been drilled into the students’ heads for years and years
All Korean students have been studying English grammar since first grade. Their regular classes drill grammar and sentence structures and the vast majority of textbooks used in English classes in Korea (I don’t care how they claim to be organized) has a built-in grammar syllabus. Instead of using another course book, in a camp setting we have the time to exploit the books the students have already “done” and give them the opportunity to practice and use the sentence structures and grammar they have been learning over and over in book after book. I don’t mean by telling them “now you’re going to use past tense to complete this task” but by letting them have the time to figure it out after setting the task, agreeing on the rules, and giving them support or guidance judiciously.

2) Freedom

– To try new things
There are so many activities teachers would like to try with their classes in order to support the materials the students learned in the textbook. With no new book to keep up with, now’s the time! The students have already learned the material. They’ve done the book. They know how to write and follow instructions using imperative; they’ve learned the verbs they need for cooking – so have them write the recipe and do that cooking class you’ve always wanted to do. Maybe it will be a disaster, but it’s worth the risk.

– To give activities a purpose (and perhaps an audience)
Too often we have to ask students to do activities without being able to explain why they need to care about it other than “language practice.” Time to add an element of purpose. Sometimes this is as simple as mixing up the groups so students work with people they don’t know very well and sometimes it can be as complicated as connecting your classroom digitally to students in another school or even in another country. EFL students don’t often get the opportunity to speak to kids their own age with a different L1. Something as simple as exchanging products (magazines, videos, blogs) and feedback with other students can give an activity meaning from a student’s point of view.

Not using a course book is all well and good, but what do we do then? What are these activities? I turned it over to the audience and asked: “What are some activities you have done with vacation camps in the past OR what are some things you wish you could do with your regular classes, but just don’t have time? Take a few minutes to talk in your groups and then we’ll come back and share.”

A sampling of activities shared by participants:

– Rap
– Playing outside (review games and activities)
– Exercise
– Cooking class
– Student-chosen themes (Like a Harry Potter week)
– Student productions

Some activities I have used:

– Role plays (including Airport Role Plays)
– Amazing Race game
– Linking classrooms through video or blog
– Cooking class
Songs and drama
– Comic strip art / story-telling

The missing conclusion:

I feel strongly that the greatest resource in the classroom is the students themselves. We can even ask the students to get into groups and propose activities of their own. Everything that we do in the classroom can be based on what the students bring in. So while vacation camps can be quite successful without using course books, the activities we plan are built on the students’ prior knowledge, much of which came from books. In this way, vacation camps can support the learning students’ do in their regular English classes.

Below is the PowerPoint I used in the presentation.*
*Disclaimer: see this post for things I learned about giving presentations.

Thank you for taking the time to read. Your feedback, comments, suggestions, questions, and polite disagreements are very welcome in the comments below!

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