Summer Camp for English Learners Launches Teaching, Learning – and Marshmallows

By Laura Hoxworth

A summer camp collaboration between UVA and Charlottesville City Schools helps English learners adjust to life in Charlottesville while giving teachers-in-training valuable hands-on experience.

Photo: Quan Jones, a master’s student at UVA studying to become a teacher, assists local English learners with building a marshmallow catapult.

At the center of each round table sat a small pile of popsicle sticks, rubber bands, bottle caps, and mini marshmallows. The mission: build a marshmallow-launching catapult.

Each small group of students only had about 10 minutes to complete the challenge before competing to see whose marshmallow could fly the farthest. In case they needed some encouragement, they also had a helper ready to lend a hand – a new teacher-in-training from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.

Just a few minutes later, students erupted in fits of giggles as marshmallows sailed through the air. Behind the laughter and high-fives was a room buzzing with communication, teamwork, and problem-solving – the goal of the Summer Immersion Excursion, a summer camp program for English language learners in Charlottesville City Schools.

The four-week summer camp is designed for rising 5th through 8th grade students, many of them recent immigrants from all over the world. In addition to educational activities and hands-on, STEM-focused projects like the catapult, the students also go on twofield trips each week – picking peaches at Carter Mountain Orchard, zipping down ziplines at Triple C Camp, and creating original scribble art at the McGuffey Art Center.

Charlottesville City Schools’ Coordinator of Instruction Bev Catlin said the central idea is to provide opportunities for students to practice English, learn about the Charlottesville area, and gain confidence in their new school environment. But it’s also about making friends and having fun. “We wanted to have them out and about in the community, having a great summer experience,” she said.

Since it started in 2015, Catlin said the program has evolved to fit the changing needs of the community, expanding to include younger students and welcoming in intermediate English learners and those who have been in the area longer. In past years the program has been a joint project with Albemarle County Schools, and in 2018, they began collaborating with the Curry School teacher education program.

She describes the partnership with UVA as a clear “win-win.” At the Curry School, brand new teacher candidates, just starting a one-year master’s degree program, are placed with various local camps and summer school programs as part of an introductory course. Nine aspiring ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) teachers assisted with the Immersion Excursion this year, accompanying the group on field trips and providing extra support.

Natasha Heny, an assistant professor of education at UVA, created the curriculum and taught the corresponding course. She explained that while these aspiring teachers are just getting started on their degree, the immediate hands-on experience helps them connect what they’re learning in the classroom to a real-world setting.

Specifically, Heny said the goal is for UVA teacher candidates to practice connecting with students in positive, culturally responsive ways. Developing trust and understanding is a crucial teaching skill, especially when you’re working with children from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It’s a skill that takes time to learn, Heny said – and it’s never too early to start.

“They see first-hand, right way, what it means to acquire language or to want to acquire language. They also learn about some of the challenges the students come from and their backgrounds,” she said. “You can read about all of that stuff, but until you actually meet the child who was leaving a violent country, I don’t think it sinks in.”

Teacher candidate Emily Rapavi, whose mother is from Guatemala, grew up in a multicultural, bilingual home. She has experience working in schools and is familiar with ESOL education. Still, she said she was surprised by how eager the students were to share details about their lives, and how much that personal connection gave them confidence in the classroom.

“I used to think teaching was all about how to effectively teach the content,” she said. “After this experience, it’s made me realize how important it is to foster that positive relationship with your students. I realized that I was able to be more successful with connecting with students when they really felt like I wanted to get to know them.”

The fun, relaxed atmosphere of the program creates the kind of informal environment that facilitates relationship-building. Plus, by interacting with students of all ages and backgrounds learning through hands-on activities and field trips, teachers are exposed to a new idea of what teaching and learning can look like.

“They’re watching these kids do some incredible thinking, and doing these problem-based learning experiences – that’s the kind of learning that often needs to happen in classrooms,” Catlin said. “I think we’re modeling that experiential, hands-on piece, and I hope they take away how successful that can be with every child.”

On the other hand, the Immersion Excursion also benefits from the extra support and energy of eager soon-to-be teachers. Katie Williams, an ESOL teacher at Clark Elementary who led this year’s program, said the teacher candidates enrich the students’ experience by providing one-on-one support and facilitating conversation. Plus, she said, the children always enjoy spending time with UVA students.

Heny said she would love for the Curry School to continue supporting the program in the future, however it continues to evolve. “I feel privileged that they invited our students in and worked with them,” she said. “I think we’re so lucky to have that relationship and I just want to get it stronger and stronger. It’s so good for our students to be there.”

Looking back, teacher candidate Quan Jones said the marshmallow catapult was his favorite project of the whole experience – and not just because his group won the contest. He loved seeing the kids’ excitement and the fun they were all having together, regardless of their language abilities or cultural differences. “They’re all just kids,” he said. “They all come from these different countries, and they’re speaking different languages, but at the end of the day they just want to have fun.”