Teaching camp songs – a journey from the USA to Laos

All Posts, Laos, Teaching experiences

Teaching English can be hard sometimes – as a teacher you never want your pupils to become bored with the language. I have always been passionate about English and want to give the same excitement to the children I work with. To make English more fun and interactive, there are many ways to engage and involve the pupils. You can motivate them with games, for example, or write class letters or emails to pupils in another country, and you can also sing and dance English action songs.

I find singing to be a great way to encounter a foreign language. You can quickly memorize the words because they are connected to a melody, a rhythm, and because they often rhyme. Action songs are performed in combination with movements, so you do not only sing them, you do them. Therefore, Singlish (combination of the words “singing” and “English”) has been a part of the “Teaching English in Laos” project from the beginning.

During my studies of English and history in the primary education degree at the University of Education in Karlsruhe, I had the opportunity to study at Presbyterian College in the USA for two semesters. During a summer job fair, I got to know about summer camp jobs, so I applied for the job of a “camp counselor” in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

As a camp counselor, I was responsible for a new group of 10 children each week and joined them in their activities like outdoor camping, rafting, archery, and swimming. Every night after dinner, the counselors made a big camp fire and all the children at camp gathered around the fire to sing songs – so-called camp songs. There are similar offers for children in Germany for the summer holidays, usually offered by local youths groups and there is also the old “Pfadfinder” (“scouting”) tradition, yet in the USA these camps have a special tradition because pupils have longer summer breaks, so there is a lot of opportunity for children to be active at camps when they have no school.


What are camp songs?

At camp, we sing upbeat fun songs that are easy to remember. Camps offer great conditions for singing in a big group without pressure. The children learn a repertoire of songs, and alongside that expand their vocabulary, strengthen their song-leading techniques, and are provided with joyful singing experiences. Every camp has their own song repertoire and their own variations of songs – you can find numerous different varieties of a camp song on the Internet.
The amount of songs at a camp constantly changes as well – when a child was at a different camp before, for instance, and teaches the new camp a song from the previous camp. What I like about camp songs myself is that you do not need any piano players or guitar players and you do not even have to be a gifted singer – but if you have fun singing and dancing, you will have the time of your life!

I remember the first time my co-workers at camp showed me their camp songs: It felt a bit strange to me, because they used their whole bodies when singing, put on crazy facial expressions and really over-emphasized the words, putting a lot of emotions into every line. Coming from Germany, I was not familiar with this kind of extrovert singing, so in the first few weeks I hesitated and was not as loud and cheerful as the rest of the camp members. That totally changed after two months – I was screaming the songs at the top of my lungs and danced to the lyrics as if no one was watching – and I had so much fun! The best part about it was to see all the happy children singing along with me. That is where I started to think that these songs could be adapted for my English lessons back in Germany. If I could bring my pupils to have even half as much fun as the children at camp, my mission to communicate excitement and joy about the English language would be accomplished.

Journey of the camp songs (part 1): From the USA to Germany

When I came back to Germany in the fall of 2016, I started a semester-long internship at a primary school. I taught English in grade 1 and grade 4, and my university mentor happened to be Prof. Martin. My goal was still to use camp songs during the English lessons. However, I was worried. The grade 1 pupils told me that they did not like the English language, since they were not aware of the importance of a shared language in a connected world. So how would they react if I stood in front them and tried to get them to sing and dance to an English song with me?

I sang “Chilli, chilli” with them. The objective of the song is to move your body to the lyrics “Hands up, Chilli, Chilli/ Hands down, Chilli, Chilli/ Touch the ground, Chilli, Chilli/ Turn around, Chilli, Chilli”, and then to pick out one child in particular to make any body movement in front of everybody: “Come on [name of child]/ Do your thing/ Go ahead and show us your boomerang!” The terms “chilli” and “boomerang” are nonsense words in this context. A “boomerang” is whatever the child wants it to be (for example clapping their hands or turning around), and the entire group repeats it. Then the song starts from the beginning, and each time you pick out another child. The class loved it so much they requested it every day, and they loved it so much in the end that they forgot they “did not like” the English language.

In grade 4 I encountered an active class. They had a hard time sitting still and were hard to manage.  However, I thought there is a right camp song for every situation, so there was a camp song for them as well. To start the lesson, the whole class had to stand up and without any further ado I went right into the song “Bananas of the universe” (a similar version can be found here). Here, my focus was to get the attention of the pupils at the start of the lesson and to create a positive fun beginning for the next steps that followed.

As expected, the pupils had a great time following my “silly” movements, i.e. forming a banana with their arms over their heads and then slowly putting each arm down while saying “peel banana, peel peel banana” to act out the banana being peeled. Following the banana, together with the children I formed all kinds of vegetables and fruits (orange, corn, potato) in each successive stanza until we “buil[d] the house” and in the grand finale “rock[ed] the house!” They even sang along with me the chorus of each stanza, for example “peel the orange/ peel peel the orange/ peel the orange/ peel peel the orange”, and, as most of the words were known from the English lessons (potato) or were similar in the German language (English “universe”, German “Universum”), it was not too hard for them to follow. The children were crazy with joy and laughter and kept telling me they had had so much fun.

This did not go unnoticed by Prof. Martin, who had observed my lesson and asked were this action song came from. When I told her about the camp songs and that I had more of them in my repertoire, we agreed on a time and place so I could share them all with her. When we met, she also brought her student helper along, who later helped me as my “assistant” when I had the honor of doing a workshop in her “Global English: Teaching English in Laos” course. As her own “Singlish” workshop was targeted at younger children, Prof. Martin welcomed my camp songs for the preparation of the volunteers (for Team V) who would work with (teachers and) pupils at secondary school. A lot of the songs contain lyrics that are too advanced for younger learners, i.e. a certain amount of experience with the English language is necessary to partake in such an activity.

It was funny to get the feedback from my fellow-students that the workshop had been so very “intense and loud”, and that on a very hot evening – my audience were also clearly facing the problem of leaving their “comfort zones” as I had done at camp before. I did not know at the time that two years later I would myself be part of Team VI, that my “assistant” (Fabian) would be on the same team with me, or that I would soon bring the songs from the American camp to yet another continent.

Journey of the camp songs (part 2): From Germany to Laos

When I got accepted for the “Teaching English in Laos” project I was overjoyed. When I received my schedule for the lessons I was going to teach for two months in Laos, I was happy to see that my field of work included giving two Singlish lessons during “Activity Time” every week at Ban Phang Heng primary school. (This is where I was placed because I am enrolled in the teaching degree for primary schools.) I was convinced once more that I could use the opportunity and pass on my excitement for the English language via singing the American camp songs at school, even to younger learners.

Before I started, I needed to think about which songs I might be able to sing that would be geared at the English level of Lao primary pupils. I have to admit that the number of songs I considered easy enough for them was limited, but I was so excited about showing the pupils these songs that I decided to just try things and await their reaction.

The first camp song I introduced was “A Roosta Sha”. The title of the song is a made-up word, i.e. a nonsense line. It does not exist in the English language and therefore has no communicative value whatsoever, but its sound and rhythm do not fail to please – and thereby involve – the children. You say the words “A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha-sha” again and again while swinging your body to the right and then to the left. You then interrupt this repetitive activity by announcing body movements: Start with “Thumbs up!” (repeat the chorus), continue with “Elbows back!” (repeat the chorus), then add “Knees together!” (repeat the chorus), and finish with “Chin up!” The pupils speak the chorus with you (“A roosta sha, a roosta sha, a roosta sha-sha”) and do the same swaying movements with their bodies, but this time in combination with the body movements announced for TPR (“Total Physical Response”) in between (single commands or several at once). This makes the movements harder, a bit sillier, and thus even more fun.

The reaction of the pupils at Activity Time were better than I could have dreamed of. They could not stop laughing and were completely engrossed in the activity. I noticed more and more pupils were joining our circle each time because they could see that something interesting was happening. Some pupils even came to me after Activity Time and sang the words back to me. It was the ultimate compliment – they had an English song stuck in their heads! In the following weeks, I sang the song a few times with the children, along with the other “Singlish” ones. I noticed that they got used to doing the silly movements and eventually also sang louder and louder. Lao children are not normally allowed (let alone encouraged) to act silly in a school lesson, but they soon got more comfortable with singing and performing nonsense – just like me when I was at the summer camp.

After some weeks of teaching “Singlish” songs in Laos, I wanted to introduce another camp song. This time I chose to do “Bananas of the Universe” with them, but with a different goal than when I used it in my internship in Germany. In Germany, I had wanted the pupils to wake up and get ready and motivated for the lesson, but in Laos it was important to me that the children understood what they were singing, so I needed to introduce the song in a different way. A lot of words used in this song are phonologically similar in German (they sound similar in both languages), so it is easier for German learners to get the meaning and connect it to the body movements. Since the Lao language is anything but similar to English, I needed contextualization for the children to understand the words. I used flashcards to introduce the words. Older pupils already knew some of the words, and the younger pupils could learn them as new vocabulary. After we practised saying one line of the song, we sang it. As the song has more lines and stanzas than “A Roosta Sha”, it took some time until everyone could remember all the lines, but during that process I could witness their enthusiasm for doing the body movements. When we finally sang the entire song together a few times, I was impressed by how much they remembered of the lyrics and the movements.

I am grateful that I had the chance to teach these songs in three different places now: They traveled from the USA to Germany to Laos with me. It was a special experience to teach the very songs in Laos that I had been taught only two years before – teaching them to others had become a personal interest of mine.

I hope some of the children will remember the songs for a long time and maybe sing them again with a future volunteer, and possibly share them with other children in the play-ground. And if one of them chooses to become an English teacher in the future, one fine day you might well hear American camp songs in a Lao schoolyard from time to time.

Text by S.Walschburger

Photos & videos by I. Martin, R. Lang, A. Lee & K. Nanthavongdouangsy

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