An Intense Experience, In All the Best Ways
JumpStart is an intensive four-week long English Camp designed to empower students with the knowledge, academic skills and confidence to make a successful transition to high school. In 2020, Peace Corps Volunteers hosted 20 camps throughout Costa Rica. Let's hear from Ruby.
“They used to call me bad names in school.”
Her eyes blink away tears as she lays her forehead down flat on the desk. Today we were discussing bullying and I noticed that she had removed herself from the rest of the group. I take Lorna to the corner of the room and ask the other girls to join me. I guide them to stand in a circle around her. “Okay,” I tell them “we are all going to say things that we love about Lorna.” The other girls immediately begin to shout out her positive characteristics and some offer personal anecdotes about a time when Lorna was kind or helpful. I keep an eye on her as I encourage the girls to take turns sharing more. Her tears have gone and been replaced by a timid smile. I thank everyone and we end with a big group hug with Lorna tightly squeezed in the middle. I lead the girls back to the boys and the center of the classroom. My co-teacher looks at me, with a confused expression. “I’ll tell you later.” I whisper to him on my way to the front of the classroom to review his and her pronouns for the 112th time.
JumpStart: a four week-long immersive camp designed to teach English to sixth grade students in communities around Costa Rica. After hearing fellow PCVs describe the experience that they had had the previous year, I decided to sign up and apply to host a camp. As a Youth Development volunteer, I feel comfortable around youth and facilitating for them, but I am not trained to be a teacher. That’s one of the things that I appreciate so much about the JumpStart program: the possibility for volunteers and community members to become confident in their teaching abilities and to realize that your energy and preparation count for a whole lot more than a certificate.
JumpStart is intense, but in all the best ways. The concept is to cover an entire year’s worth of material in a single month, often for kids with no prior English experience. It requires weeks of grant applications, material preparation, and communicating with families, until finally, on the first Monday of January, you are faced with 20 shy and eager sixth graders sitting before you in a semi-circle of desks
My experience with JumpStart has been extraordinary and has already (with two weeks down) exceeded my expectations. Witnessing the transformation of my students has been rewarding as well as enlightening (spending 20 days with a bunch of 12 year olds will show you a lot about human nature). I have observed how my priorities have shifted from ensuring that we cover the material towards ensuring that the kids are enjoying themselves. The kids in my camp have this irresistible charm that is continuously pushing me to think of ways to improve the dynamic of the activities and the potential of the content. My one objective is to create an environment for these youth to prosper, to connect, and to feel empowered; and it isn’t a mere coincidence that this is the aim of the creators of JumpStart as well. There is a visible (and thanks to MRE, measurable) uplift in the confidence of these students, as well as their interpersonal relationships as the days pass by. The camp structure is designed in a way that encourages interaction, participation, and group support, but it is up to the co-teachers to push as far as they can to motivate students and instill within them the self-esteem and self-efficacy that is so valuable in adolescence. Respect goes a long way.
JumpStart is where teachers can utilize all of their creativity without the strict rules of a traditional classroom environment. For me, it’s making my kids dance to the banana song every morning and having them applaud each other after every completed activity. For the so far successful camp, I have to credit my co-teacher, Bryan, who is the English professor at the local high school, and three very special high school students that have volunteered their summer vacations to work with the camp. Bryan is an exceptionally gifted teacher and has taught me so much about how kids learn and about how to fully capture and embrace their minds. The three high school students have not ceased to impress me since the onset of the camp. Their dedication to these students and their desire to become better teachers is a major benefit to the camp and to me personally; my job as the camp organizer is to give these students plenty of opportunities to facilitate activities themselves, rather than just assist with classroom management.
In my camp, the group norm that is most often repeated and called upon is “we are family”. We told the students in the first week to look around and acknowledge those classmates that they will be with for the next five years. These four weeks present the opportunity to become a unit, to become a family. The magic of JumpStart is that during these four weeks, you begin to see yourselves doing just that. The English part is pretty nifty too, but more so for the fact that students graduate the camp loving the act and process of learning more so than when they entered. Every time that I pass one of my students in the street, I am bombarded with some version of “hello teacher, I am fine, and you?” and that’s enough to make anyone smile.
And as for Lorna? She left the classroom that day laughing loudly, holding hands with two fellow students and wishing me a happy weekend. To me, that will always be enough.