The idea of coursework during summer and winter vacations is quite foreign to most westerners–as is a school year that starts in March!  Unlike the west, schools in Korea begin their school year on or around March 1st.  Students are then in school until the end of July, taking their summer vacation throughout the month of August.  The second semester spans from the end of August until Christmas, and the students have a long winter break for all of January.  Weirdly enough, they come back for the first week of February for graduation, but then go on break again (for Lunar New Year) until the new school year begins in March.

However, students aren’t free to relax, go on vacation, or even really get much of a break during these “vacation” periods because they are required to attend “camps”.  Camps (and for us native English teachers, English camps, specifically) are additional special courses that students must enroll in during their summer and winter vacation times.

This is similar to how kindergarten started out as completely optional in the USA–wait.  Did you even know kindergarten was optional in the USA?  In fact, even today only 16 states mandate kindergarten enrollment!  Today, kindergarten is seen as such a norm and necessity we don’t even question the idea of enrolling our children in it.  Parents don’t want their children to be “left behind” their classmates academically and socially upon entering 1st grade, so the idea not enrolling them isn’t even given a second thought.
This is essentially the mentality behind Korean summer and winter courses, as well as the hagwon  (학원: Korean private school/academy) obsession pushed upon Korean students today.  Parents, and many times even the students themselves, are so obsessed with getting that extra leg-up against their peers that they’re willing to sacrifice nearly any and all free time.  Of course (just like kindergarten enrollment in the States), when everyone does it, it eventually becomes expected.  To not attend winter or summer camp would be seen as quite strange or lazy.
Most native English teachers (NETs) are asked to teach two weeks of camp in the winter, and two in the summer.  Some schools condense it into one, and others have even extended it into three or four.  It all depends on the needs of the school and the teacher’s mandated vacation time, which is why teachers at different schools will have different breaks and camp requirements.  As contracted public school teachers in Jeollanamdo, our contracts entitle us to 24 paid vacation days in winter and 8 in summer.   This means that for the long winter break of January and February, any days that are not in my 24 approved days I must be in school as I’m being paid for them.  Most schools will have teachers “desk warm” during that time (no classes to teach, just required to be present in the office), though the school has the right to utilize us for camp classes during those days if they so desire.
Last year, my elementary winter camp was one large group of 15 students between 1st and 6th grade.  They saw me for four lessons a day over the course of two weeks for a total of 40 lessons–that’s a lot of material to plan!  However, I was mostly frustrated by this because of the massive gap in English ability between a 1st grader and 6th grader, and it made it difficult to plan activities all students could either do and understand, or find challenging and fun.  My camp was environmental science themed, which led to some cool projects, but was a bit ambitious considering the wide range in levels and ages of the youngest participants.
Following my feedback, my school made a change to the camp format for my elementary winter camp.  This time, I had two groups of 10 students: my first group was 3rd and 4th graders, and my second group was 5th and 6th graders.  So, the students saw me for two lessons a day over 10 days for a total of 20 lessons, once repeated.  Although I was teaching for the same number of hours, I only had to plan half the number of lessons since they were done once for 3rd and 4th and simply tweaked and repeated for 5th and 6th.  This was actually much more beneficial for both me and the students, because I could dedicate more time toward making my lessons more fun, cohesive, and polished.  Plus, the students were organized in level- and age-appropriate groups so the content could really build upon their current knowledge.  This camp was more focused on fun projects and activities that used practical English, like following directions in a scavenger hunt or reading a recipe to cook gummy candy.  I didn’t worry as much about a special theme, and I think it made things more relaxed…and successful.

Some of my 3rd and 4th grade students following English directions to make gummy candy
(Hoecheon Elementary School’s 2015 English Summer Camp)
This past winter was my first year teaching a camp at the high school level.  I think this has been my most successful camp yet, both because of my own previous trial-and-error experiences and the fact that the students are at a higher English level.  This winter, I had about 20 high-level kids that were mixed between 1st year (sophomore) and 2nd year (junior) students.  We only meet for two lessons a day (which is a bit unfortunate as my lessons would have been more comfortably spread over four lessons) for the two weeks of winter camp.  That means my camp was a total of 20 lessons taught over 20 hours, so it’s the “smallest” camp I’ve done yet.  I think this was primarily due to the busy schedules of my students and all of the other winter courses they were required to take.  Most of them had several other classes at school on top of hagwon lessons that they were required to attend, so my average class attendance was around 13 students.

This particular camp was all about American culture and I was able to partner with my old high school for it, which was really cool! I contacted them about a month a half before my camp started, and they solicited questions from their students asking about Korean life and culture.  It was a really cool way for my kids to feel like the English they were learning and using had practical, real-life applications, and it definitely made “America” seem much more tangible and real.  My kids spent one hour learning about a certain aspect of American culture, and then for an hour we would discuss the topic in an informal Q&A.  At the end, students wrote down questions they had for American students about American culture.  On the second day, we did a light recap and the students received the questions about Korean culture from the American students.  They then had the remainder of that hour and the next to write and practice their responses, all before recording videos that we will be sending back to the American high school at the end of this summer!

I’ve heard many NETs express that they find camps to be frustrating, stressful, or a waste of time and resources.  I really think they have a lot of potential though: camp is what you make it!  Don’t blame it on your co-teachers not telling you in time or the students being lazy.  An effective teacher should be able to gauge students’ levels, abilities, and interests to create an exciting and engaging learning environment.  So, without further ado…

NomadicMadda’s Tips for a Successful English Camp:
  1. Don’t over-plan and micro-manage every detail!  Themes are great, but not if they end up making you compromise fun and lesson efficacy.  Have activities prepared and ready to cover additional time, but don’t be afraid to go with the flow and change your plan on the spot during class.
  2. Think about it from your kids’ perspectives.  Korean students study constantly.  Even in elementary school there’s a lot of pressure to study hard and be at the top of the class.  Vacation time is camp time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so intense.  This is your chance to break free from textbooks and co-teacher demands, and show your kids that English can be fun.
  3. Ask for a budget/materials.  Any NET who has been in Korea for more than a year knows you must be proactive if you want to get anything done.  Your school will (more often than not) have a budget for materials, though you must ask about it before it’s too late to order things!   Don’t wait around for someone to come ask you what you want for camp.  If I hadn’t been adamant about what I needed last summer well in advance, my kids would never have been able to make their gummy candies.  On the rare occasion that your school actually doesn’t have a budget, asking in advance will give you the time you need to gather materials yourself.
  4. Don’t be afraid to get active.  This goes for all levels, even high school!  Elementary kids will be thrilled if you give them a chance to get up and move, and middle and high school students almost never get the opportunity after finishing elementary.  The Korean school system often has a lot of lecturing, so this is a massively welcome change for your students.  The older kids may complain at first, but they always walk away from active lessons with a huge smile and have a much higher participation rate overall.
  5. Take control and initiate compromise.  This goes along with number 3, but I feel as though many newer NETs are hesitant to be more assertive among Korean staff for fear of coming off as demanding, bossy, or rude.  It’s important to be respectful of the culture and country we are living in, but don’t be afraid to stand up for your ideas, beliefs, and teaching philosophy.  If you think a scavenger hunt is beneficial for your students but your co-teacher thinks they should be seated in a room watching you explain a PowerPoint, you have an opportunity to show him or her a new way your students can learn–find a way to entice your co-teacher into a compromise.  If you have a great idea that you’re excited about, share it!  I’ve found that most of the time, when you really stand behind something and believe in it, your co-teachers can see that enthusiasm too.  They’re often more than happy to give you the chance to bring something new to the classroom–you just have to be confident.  (And hey, even if you’re new and don’t feel all that confident as a teacher on the inside…fake it ’til you make it~!)

If you’re a teacher and would like to see my full camp curriculum for my high school students, I will be linking to it here soon.  Good luck to everyone out there having their camps right now, and I hope you all get a chance to escape the monotony of the classroom and recharge over your vacations.  As for me, I’m off to Japan and the Philippines next week…life is rough!