I haven’t posted in just over a week – not due to forgetfulness, lack of motivation, or even the demands of my usual teaching schedule. In spring and autumn Czech schools routinely have ‘School in Nature’, and as I teach pretty much full-time at an elementary school, lucky me, I get to go too!
Detect a hint of sarcasm in that sentence? That’s probably because there is one, lurking, or at least there was before heading off for my seven days in the mountains. Back in October I went on a similar trip with my grade 5 class and a combination of poor weather, poor planning (on everyone’s part), lack of communication and a bitchy class teacher meant that it wasn’t a very fun experience. This trip, I’m thankful to say, was far better.
Not familiar with the premise of ‘School in Nature’? Basically an entire class, their teacher, and a few other adult helpers all head off to a chalet in the mountains for a week, where the children then have a combination of normal (ish) lessons, trips, walks, and outside games and activities. It’s a little bit like summer school, with the exception of the fact that the children are still in their usual school class and with their usual teacher. It’s pretty much compulsory, and I never fail to find it surprising how happily even quite young children (this trip was with grade 1 and 2) will merrily troop off to spend a week without their parents – mobile phones were banned and so the only contact the children had with their families was daily postcards (helpfully provided by the parents in advance so that no one was reliant on the Czech postal service!)
I have to admit that we didn’t do much formal ‘English’ during the course of the week – unlike the grade 5 trip the class teacher was more keen for me to simply help out with whatever she had planned, rather than giving me the kids on my own for an hour or so at a time, meaning that most of my nicely planned lessons/activities never actually got used. However it was nice to work with the children in a different environment to usual, to share in their memories of the trip and to see them trying to use their English to genuinely communicate with me, rather than simply producing the language I have taught/am trying to teach them.
My favourite memory of the trip is probably (bizarrely) on our excursion to the ‘mini zoo’ down the road from our chalet – to be honest a slightly depressing experience as it wasn’t a particularly ‘animal friendly’ zoo as zoos go. One enclosure contained a ‘Myval severni’. Now, although I can understand a reasonable amount of Czech (due to its similarity to Russian) my ability to speak it is almost non-existent, and a lot of vocabulary I simply don’t know. The Myval was hiding in its shelter, and so aside from a vague outline of fur I couldn’t see what it was. I asked both the children and one of the adult helpers (who spoke around intermediate level English) if they knew what it was in English. The description I was given was as follows: ‘It’s like a small bear. Or a cat. Part a bear, part a cat. It washes. It puts food in the bowl and it washes and then eats it.’ Any ideas? (*answer at the end of the post*)
What would I recommend for EFL teachers asked to accompany their students on a trip?
- Stay as flexible as humanely possible. It’s hard, it’s stressful… but it’s mandatory if you wish to maintain any sort of sanity.
- Be aware that anything: getting ready to go outside, packing suitcases, getting ready for bed – will take at least ten times longer than expected if you are trying to get children to do it. One morning I witnessed one of the girls take ten minutes to put a pair of trousers on.
- Try to enjoy it as much as possible! Make the most of moments that are funny, or beautiful scenery, or things that make you smile.
- Plan for wet weather. Chances are that at some point, it will rain. On this trip (despite being late April) it snowed almost every day. If all your activities are dependent on being able to go outside/sit on the grass, you’re going to have a problem.
- Have some back-up activities ‘just in case’. The teachers on this trip were incredibly considerate and helpful – but there was still the dreaded half an hour when I was asked to take all 48 of the children for some kind of activity, with less than five minutes’ notice. Having a back up will help your sanity.
- Remember that what you are doing is hard. If things don’t seem to be going to plan, cut yourself some slack.
*This, dear readers, is a Myval severni. It is part cat, part bear, and it washes food.