Sunday 17 January 2016

SO(U)L Camp 2015 - a Stepping Stone

My participation in the SO(u)L Camp in Sremski Karlovci in August 2015 was an important stepping stone in my growth as a global educator; an experience which convinced that together united, we can make a difference.

SO(u)L Camp in Sremski Karlovci 2015

To be honest, I was not even planning to go on a teacher training summer course when the CaLiMeRo Competition for TESOL MTh members got announced and it was only because of the nature of the task to be completed that I got interested. Candidates were asked to design and deliver a 45-60 minute lesson for learners of English based on the theme of 'social justice' and then submit a reflective essay on how it went. It felt like the task was specifically tailored for me. That's how I won a place on the Sharing One Language, SO(U)L, Camp in Sremski Karlovci, Serbia, taking place  from 13 to 20 August, 2015.

Photo: Margarita Kosior

After receiving the first emails from the organizers, I realized that it was not going to be a conventional teacher training experience. What can you expect if you are asked to bring: a book in English that you would be prepared to give away, a small object that somehow represents your country/culture that you would be prepared to give away, a sample of national food to share at the international dinner, something connected to a river in your country, a small box of matches, and… a pebble?

On my arrival, I was warmly welcomed by the trainers and organizers of the camp: Mark Andrews, Mike Harrison, Vladica Rakić and Sanja Čonjagić and introduced to my co-trainees, women from Slovakia, Albania, Serbia, FYROM, Romania, Croatia, Russia and Hungary. It didn't take us long to realize that, despite the different places of origin, we had much more in common than only our passion for teaching. That night, in a cozy restaurant on the banks of the Danube, we started bonding.

The exchange of foods and drinks from each person’s country and singing songs from each others’ countries were among the most memorable nights of the camp. We tried different kinds of wine, sweets and snacks, which very often served as a springboard for discussions about our cultural differences and… similarities. Being a representative of two countries (Poland, my country of origin, and Greece, my home for the last fourteen years) and therefore two cultures, I shared with others some dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice) and a popular Polish folk song.

Exchanging books and presents took place at a local winery, Vinarija Došen, which was a perfect venue which added to the very unique atmosphere of those two nights. There is something special about sharing objects which are important to you or which you hold close to your heart. Sharing a symbol of your home, of your country or town, makes you proud. The participants brought a wide range of presents which represented their home and which they were willing to give away: traditional objects, little statuettes, candy, pictures and paintings, postcards and books, or even precious childhood possessions.

Photo: Margarita Kosior

One of the highlights of the course was our visit to the first Serbian Grammar School founded in Sremski Karlovci in 1791. We couldn't have had a better guide than Vladica, one of our tutors, who had worked as an English teacher there for twenty years. Being a fantastic storyteller, Vladica did not simply show us around. We traveled back in time with her: silently strolled along the corridors, inhaled deeply when we walked between rows of old books in the library, sat in the awe inspiring assembly hall with beautifully adorned walls and a splendidly decorated high ceiling, and a grand piano next to a window overlooking the main square of the town.  Were we in a school building or in an old castle..? When we sat down at the desks in the classroom which used to be hers, Vladica started telling stories from all the years when she was a teacher at the school; funny, fascinating, inspiring and nostalgic stories. Was I the only one in the room who could almost hear the voices in the corridors and the bell ring at the end of the recess…?

Ljiljana Jovanovic, whom we met by the Danube, was yet another inspiring figure on the camp, "the guardian of the forest". In her unique manner she showed us an easy way to take our students out of the classroom and out to nature, and let them smell it, touch it, observe it and listen to it. Standing in the middle of a clearing in a beautiful forest by the river, listening to the sound of tree leaves, cows mooing in the distance, and bees buzzing right above our heads, is among my fondest SO(u)L memories. It made me wonder: why have we lost touch with nature? Why not try and rediscover the power and joy of it?

Photo: Margarita Kosior

Photo: Michael Harrison

Photo: Eva Nagyova

Discovering our history is just as important as discovering the beauty of nature. Only if we go out to the local and get curious about the past, will we be able to understand and experience the here and now and its problems. During our excursion to Novi Sad we visited a historical site of paramount importance: a monument erected in memory of the victims of the Novi Sad massacre of January 1942, Jews and Serbs, pushed under the ice covering the Danube by Hungarian troops. This made us all think about the atrocities of the past and the present and of the ways in which education can help end them today and prevent them in the future.

Photo: Michael Harrison

On our return to the hostel, we further discussed this burning issue with our trainer, Mark Andrews, trying to answer the question: at what age can a child, a student, be introduced to the topic of genocide in order to raise awareness and challenge discrimination, racism and fascism? Opinions varied, just as our backgrounds and perceptions. The task which followed, preparing a lesson plan around the issue of racism, fascism and genocide, got us all deeply engaged. The debate and discussion resulted in a poster with numerous ideas, reflections and recommendations. We were not just English teachers during that discussion, but a team of passionate educators fighting for a common cause on a mission to make the world a better place.

Photo: Michael Harrison

Every single day on the course was a highlight, so I could just go on and on: a brief course of Serbian with Sanja and Vladica, a visit to a viewpoint over Sremski Karlovci, a visit to the Chapel of the Virgin Mary of Peace and Mike’s classroom arrangement session, a drama workshop, morning yoga sessions, a visit to Belo Blato and talking with the headteacher about the multilingual school experience, Ilhana’s spontaneous “Find a Cause” session, Mike's open discussion session and others. Every single one equally memorable.

Serbian Lesson
Photo: Margarita Kosior

So there I was, on a teacher training course I had not even planned to attend, enjoying myself to the fullest, sharing ideas, listening and talking, discussing, chatting, laughing, singing, dancing, chanting, learning, relaxing, absorbing, reflecting, and… throwing pebbles into the Danube with the hope that the ripples go far. And the ripples WILL go far if we all try to apply in our teaching what we learnt during that week on the SO(u)L camp in Sremski Karlovci. Once we do that, we will have every right to repeat after a fantastic educator, the late Rita Pierson: "We can do this. We're educators. We're born to make a difference" (from TED Talks Education 2013, "Every Kid Needs a Champion")

Vladica, Mike, Sanja and Mark
Photo: Margarita Kosior

More pictures from SO(u)L 2015 in Serbia available in my album.

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