Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Once and Always Camp Staff

As the readers who’ve never met me IRL may or may not know, I worked at a Boy Scout Camp in northern Wisconsin for three summers before my adventure in Mongolia. [1] My summers there were a big selling point in my Fulbright application process: I had worked extensively with horses (animals central to Mongolia’s culture); I had experience roughing it and making creative and resourceful use of limited supplies (as I would likely need to do in a non-first-world nation); I knew how to handle unruly teenaged boys unwilling to learn the material I was supposed to be teaching them. But even as I explained the experience and its many contributions to my skill set to my interviewers, I had no idea of the extent to which my years of scout camp would color my experiences in Mongolia.

Some background first: The staff at MaKaJaWan are not sleepaway camp counselors in the typical sense. We don’t sleep in cabins with randomized groups of kids; they come to camp as a troop, with at least two adults leaders to supervise them, and sleep on cots in platform tents. Instead, the staff focus on providing good program. We teach merit badge classes, run afternoon/evening activities, and keep the kids entertained in the dining hall, where we eat and talk with them and lead them in songs.

Yes, you read that right: Songs. It is indeed possible to get teenaged boys to do something as uncool as singing together. Every meal at camp ends with a staff-led song, most of which are ridiculous and all of which have accompanying hand gestures or full-body movements. After-breakfast songs tend to be especially movement-centric: “Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic” has hand motions, “Big Tub of Glue” involves clinging to a partner for balance, “Button Factory” and “The Penguin Song” result in full-body flailing while hopping, nodding, and sticking out your tongue, and “My Bonnie” and “The Grand Old Duke of York” involve copious amounts of high-speed sitting and standing.

I could go on about the lunch and dinner repertoire, but I think you get the point: I have an awful lot of these up my sleeve. And while I somehow managed to work at camp for three summers without once leading a song, I think I more than made up for that in Mongolia. Once I learned of the cultural importance Mongolians attach to singing, this stuff became my bread and butter.

As anyone who’s ever taught knows, songs are great warm-up and review activities, especially when they tie into the subject of your lesson. Teaching parts of the body? “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are classics, the former working especially well if you include nontraditional body parts like elbows, ankles, and so forth. Directions are a perfect time for “The Grand Old York” with MaKaJaWan’s typical side of TPR: stand for the word “up,” sit for “down,” half-squat for “halfway up.”

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up, you’re neither up nor down.

For more basic classes, asked my students to identify the “b” sounds in “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” For every word starting with the letter “b,” I asked them to stand if they were sitting or stand if they were standing. As you can see, the song results in a lot of movement:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me

I was also fond of “The Bear Song” when teaching the past tense. This one’s much longer, so I usually printed out the lyrics with some of the words blanked out, sang it a few times and asked the students to fill in the blanks, and then asked them to identify the verbs in past tense. Not the most creative lesson plan, I’m afraid, but the kids liked the story and it surprise ending, as well as the repeat-after-me format, so I suppose that something. [2] If anyone has suggestions as to a more engaging way to teach this song, I’m all ears!

The other day
I saw a bear
A great big bear
Oh, way out there
The other day I saw a bear,
A great big bear oh way out there

He looked at me
I looked at him
He sized up me
I sized up him
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him

He said to me
Why don’t you run
I see you don’t
Have any gun
He said to me, why don’t you run
I see you don’t have any gun

And so I ran
Away from there
But right behind
Me was that bear
And so I ran away from there
But right behind me was that bear

Ahead of me
I saw a tree
A great, big tree
Oh, glory be!
Ahead of me I saw a tree,
A great big tree, oh, glory be

The lowest branch
Was ten feet up
I’d have to jump
And trust my luck
The lowest branch was ten feet up
I’d have to jump and trust my luck

And so I jumped
Into the air
But I missed that branch
Oh, way up there
And so I jumped into the air
But I missed that branch oh way up there

Now don’t you fret
And don’t you frown
‘Cause I caught that branch
On the way back down
Now don’t you fret and down’t you frown,
‘Cause I caught that branch on the way back down

That’s all there is
There is no more
Unless I meet
That bear once more
That’s all there is, there is no more
Unless I meet that bear once more

And, of course, my favorite song to teach never had anything to do with the curriculum at hand, but the kids enjoyed it because it was just fun to do.

Little cabin in the woods
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at his door
Help me, help me, help!” he cried,
Before the hunter shoots me dead
“Little rabbit, come inside;
Safely you’ll abide.”

The bolded words all have accompanying hand motions, which the kids know quite well by the time you’ve finished singing: The song is sung not once through, but nine times. The first time you sing the entire thing; the second, you skip the word “cabin,” doing only the hand motion; the third, you sing neither “cabin” nor “window,” and so on, until every bolded word has been replaced by silent gestures. Because competitions always went over well, I often added the rule that everyone had to stand at the beginning, and anyone who sang out of turn would have to sit down. This was, of course, all but impossible to enforce, but as it made the kids  pay closer attention, I considered its purpose served.

In the end, I don’t know how much my students actually learned from these songs. In teaching them, I learned the Mongolian words for “bear,” “hunter,” “rabbit,” “ocean,” “up,” and “down,” so I hope they learned at least that much in English. But I do know that my students were always happier and more engaged when working on songs than the exercises printed in their books, and so I consider that a success. It helped me to combat my own homesickness as well, and I get a kick out of the idea that there are kids in Mongolia who might still remember a few American camp songs.

Fellow English teachers, I’m curious: What are your favorite songs to teach, and how do you work them into your lessons? Non-teachers, what songs are central to your memories of childhood?

[1] IRL friends all know this because I won an entire drawer full of shirts and hoodies bearing the words “MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation,” and wearing any of them invariably causes people either to tell me about their experiences at the camp, or to try and fail miserably at pronouncing the name.

 [2] I do wish I’d been able to team-teach this song with a teacher who spoke better English, so that we could demonstrate, little-kid-copycat fashion, what “repeat after me” meant. Without a collaborator, this was often unexpectedly difficult to explain!

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Greetings and Annou- er, Messages

I still think twice about saying that word. Even on Wednesdays.

Anyway, hello from my new blog location! Trying to work with tumblr was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; I think WordPress should be much more suited to my needs. Anywho, I did promise I had things to announce.

Message the first: I will now be posting content on a regular schedule. This month, you can expect new posts on Mondays and Wednesdays – barring issues like internet unavailability, of course. That’s always a possibility here.

Message the second: I’m not promising long blog entries because I’ll have other things to work on. I’m going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month, and I’m posting that here so that I have to follow through with it. Ideally, of course, NaNoWriMo would have taken place in October, when I had tons of free time, instead of November, when I’ll actually be teaching, but oh well. This will still be the least busy November I’ve had for a long time, so that story that’s been bouncing around in my head for four years needs to make it onto paper, even if it’s virtual.

Message the third: I’ve got a few blog entries on Mongolian culture drafted for future posting, but be prepared for some filler from Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been reading (and loving) a lot of what she has to say about writing – and it’s good, so I’ll be sharing.

This week, as our warm-up activity, I taught the kids a song and then asked them to underline the verbs in the past simple tense. The song in question? “Би Уржигдар Баавгай Харсан” – “The Other Day I Saw a Bear.” I think that explains the dining hall nature of this post.

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Cheerful Service: This I Believe

For one of my classes this semester, we had to write “This I Believe” essays. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, check these out; they’re pretty inspiring. http://www.npr.org/series/4538138/this-i-believe

Curiosity satisfied? Then here you are: this is mine. 

For the past two years, I have spent my summers surrounded by adolescent boys, up in the North Woods of Wisconsin. I took the job at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Scout Reservation in order to work with horses; the ‘Scout Reservation’ part of the title wasn’t terribly important to me. But the Scouting aspect of the camp, and the values it expressed, soon came to be a much more important part of my life.

As we turned onto the long drive into the camp, we passed a series of signs that enumerated all twelve points of the Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” I was reminded of these words on a daily basis, but particularly on Friday evenings, when we attended the fire at the center of the call-out ceremony for the Order of the Arrow.

I suppose these fires, with their imitations of Indian costumes and recitation of supposedly Indian legends, must seem hokey to some. But the staffers who participated in the fire and the scouts who had been chosen to join this Brotherhood of Cheerful Service took the ceremony seriously. Before I had been at camp very long, I dreamed of someday being tapped out for my own Ordeal.


That dream followed me home after that first summer at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan and carried me through a second. It remains a part of my desire to go back for a third. But as I sat at my desk this winter, mentally compiling a list of the achievements I could put on a resume and wishing I could include the OA among them, I realized that there was something wrong with my motivation. My aspiration to join the OA had as much to do with a desire to be recognized as a desire to serve.

Now, there’s a mirror hanging on the wall facing the bed in my room at school. Rectangular, with a simple wooden frame, it looks just like the mirrors in every other dorm room – except for the words scrawled across its surface in dry erase marker. He who serves his fellows is of all his fellows greatest, it says, and then,

Master, grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul.

When I grabbed the mirror, I was just looking for something visible upon which to inscribe the motto of the Order of the Arrow and the Prayer of St. Francis. But when I stepped back after hanging it on the wall, I noticed something highly appropriate about my choice of writing surfaces. The way the words floated in front of my reflection served as a constant reminder to put others before myself, turning an act of selfish vanity into a much-needed reminder to put that selfishness aside.


Perhaps it’s a little strange that I have the OA motto written on my wall, given that it’s a society I will probably never be able to join. But I believe in taking inspiration where you can, and the OA inspires me to be a better person. I believe in the Brotherhood of Cheerful Service and what it stands for.

Deep down, we all want to be recognized for what we do. We all want to be one of the lucky ones who will be grabbed by a grease-painted Indian and dragged down before that roaring fire. But I have to remind myself, time and again, that it’s not about the recognition; the embroidered white sash is not the point. It’s about making the conscious choice to live for other people, to put their needs before my own, and to always be mindful of what I can do to help them. It’s about fighting the urge to be selfish every time it rears its ugly head. It’s about being able to serve the newly-initiated OA members their hard-earned meal at the end of a long day and say, without jealousy or resentment, “Good job, boys. You deserve it.”

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Camp MaKaJaWan is a wonderful place with much to offer and teach us all. The scouts come here to learn from us—about scouting, about merit badges, about being a wild and crazy yet responsible role model. Camp has taught me all these things as well (though I’m still working on the last bit), but mostly, it has taught me more about myself and the person I want to be. Over the last two years, watching the OA ceremonies has inspired me to continue trying to be worthy of that honor. I want to be the kind of person who is dedicated to serving others, who embodies the scouting spirit. Last year, I was blessed enough to work for and with other such people. I learned from working with the other ranch staff last year, and I grew as a teacher.

This year was decidedly different. To most of the camp staff, this was the “best summer ever,” but for me, this summer has been a hard one. Both of the other girls on the ranch staff were cold and distant the entire time I was at camp. They never explained their system to me, never so much as introduced themselves when I arrived at camp. They would go off to the ranch together and leave me behind on a regular basis. When the three of us were together, they would talk to each other, but never to me. One of them was particularly nasty. I don’t think she ever said a single kind word tome; if she deigned to acknowledge me, it was to order me around or to sneer at me.

Towards the end of the summer, I did a couple of stupid things in one day—took Stanley out to Gilwell without asking permission, assumed the hummus the other two had gotten was for everyone. I apologized for both, and then I did what I’d wanted to do for weeks: I told M. that she had treated me like sh*t all summer (and yes, I actually said it, my first-ever use of that word), and that I wanted to know what I’d done to make her think I deserved that. She said that I brought it upon myself, because I was arrogant and incompetent, that I thought I knew more than I actually did.

Now, I’ll admit that that last accusation is probably entirely true. I accept that I may have been more arrogant or more incompetent than the other two; I made more than my fair share of mistakes this summer, including neglecting to ask permission for some things when I should have. All I will point out is that I was obviously deemed competent enough to be worth rehiring, and that don’t think someone who assumes the right to the front seat of the car and the first shower when we get back to the cabin ALL SUMMER has the right to call anyone else arrogant.

But, questions of my own competence aside, what really rankles is the idea that I deserved to be treated like garbage all summer. No one, no matter how stupid or incompetent or just plain mean, deserves to be made to feel worthless and unwanted, and I’m going to try for the rest of my life to uphold that conviction.

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Random Thoughts from Week Three at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan

  • How to insult a sixteen-year-old boy: tell him that you’ve known stronger eleven-year-olds.
  • The fastest way to clean a kitchen is to fill it with Klines. We were in and out of that kitchen in record time – it was crazy! Mikey and Brian Kline are unbeatable team in the dishroom.
  • Speaking of Brian, I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to spend any time with him while he was visiting camp. But I’m very happy for him for being tapped out this weekend. The moment was priceless. He leaned back to let the jumper pass—obviously he had no idea that Drew was going for him. But Drew grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and dragged him forward. “Welcome,” he said, to which Brian’s eloquent response was, “Aw, sh*t.”
  • I want to be in the OA so badly. For a lot of reasons. Some of them are selfish: I know it would look good on a resumé. Some of them are childish: I think it looks awesome. But the real reasons, the important ones, go much deeper than that. The OA represents the kind of person I want to be: someone who serves willingly, wholeheartedly, and without hesitation. 
  • Mama Kline used the word “schmutz” while we were cleaning the dining hall one night, and in that instant, I was home. It’s amazing, the power of a little Yiddish. Last August, I told Kristin that there was schmutz on the mirror, and she said, “there’s what?” Wherever I end up living, I’m going to have to find myself some Jewish friends or neighbors, because growing up in a largely Jewish area has had more influence on me than I realized before I left it.
  • I participated in a folk jam session up at admin earlier with Cory and Joe and a couple of adults who were going for brotherhood. It was AWESOME.
  • Note to self: Bring violin to camp next year. Also, learn the words to Hallelujah, Rocky Top, and Wagon Wheel.

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Let’s Play Catch-Up!

So for the last five weeks, I’ve been at camp, where internet access is very limited. I could go online when we went into town every week, but that sort of spoils the aura of camp. While I’m up in the North Woods, the internet does not exist; or at least, it only exists when I have to take care of Very Important Things, like arrangements for my study abroad next semester. 

But camp did give me a lot to write and think about, and a fair amount of it made it into a paper journal I kept. So over the next few days I should be transferring that onto this account.