Friday, June 26, 2009

Summer Camp at Uvgun Jargalant: WE CAN DO IT!

After some administrative problems including being told we would have three quarters as many, then twice as many students as we'd planned, we had a good 5 days in the countryside at Uvgun Jargalant, "Ol' Blissful," a summer camp for children nearly 70 kilometers from Bayankhongor.

(Thanks to Peder for this photo). For more photos from the camp week, click here.

Our particular camp focused on English and life skills, and there was some physics rolled up in there too. As you might imagine, the planning and compromises that went into making the camp were many, including a surprise early morning flight back from UB for Leslie because two of the English teachers and the life skills teacher dropped out two days before we were supposed to leave. We nearly canceled the thing altogether because of the many frustrations and misleading, fanciful assertions made by some of the Mongolian staff, but like many kids who are forced to go to camp and then end up loving it, we found ourselves sorry to see the camp end.

The first two days were treacherously cold and it snowed on and off, sometimes for over an hour. We were advised to bring clothes as if it were winter, and we did a pretty good job layering. Unfortunately, we didn't quite take them as seriously as we should have because as it was snowing through the broken window of our room and we were hunkered down in our sleeping bags, our faces were ice, ice cold. We never thought it would snow in June, and in fact, the other two Peace Corps volunteers who went with us (Peder and Fahd) were so convinced it wouldn't be that cold that they didn't even bring sleeping bags. Brrrr.

Peder & Fahd took some of the kids on a day hike up a smaller peak on one of the surrounding mountains. Notice the storm clouds with snow rolling in.

Nathan, clad in every piece of clothing he brought to camp, waits to receive a pass from a student showing off his best Boomer Esiason.

Despite the cold, we and the 27 campers were outside much of the time. And much of the time was flexibly structured so we knew about what things should happen around what time. Thanks to some last-minute but pretty comprehensive planning, we came up with a schedule for the week and a theme for each day.

Our Daily Schedule at Uvgun Jargalant Camp




English lessons in 3 groups by level


Tea, butter crackers


Life Skills (1/2 hr), Physics (1/2 hr)




Free time


English (language games)


Tea or yogurt


Structured play time (hiking, football, sports tournament, scavenger hunt)




Event (drag show, dancing, plays, poetry-off)

Themes included family, sports, nature, weather, and incorporated several grammar points based on class level. Each American was partnered with a Mongolian English teacher so the teacher could learn from the lessons as well. With some mixed results among us, the system seemed to work OK, though if we had had more time to plan, the Mongolian teachers could have been more involved.

The first day we arrived at camp in the afternoon, so after a quick break for some soup and the first of many yak milk teas (not even as good as you might think), we interviewed each of the 10-17 year olds and grouped them according skill level resulting in some of the older kids winding up with the youngest kids. No matter, though. All the students were motivated and energized for each lesson, and we didn't have a single discipline or attention span problem.

Students used their bunks as desks and chairs. Much of the teaching was active and involved speaking or drawing, so they got along just fine.

The classroom was useful, but we were outside a lot. In fact, many of the highlights of the week for us included:

1. Nathan's hike up a steep mountain with 4 kids.

The five hiking guys stop for a quick photo.

[Left] The grounds of the camp. [Right] The kids found wild onions and a kind of sour wild leaf vegetable they called red cabbage. It was like grocery shopping on the mountain.

2. Football, including an 11 on 11 game.

Teaching and playing football was a big part of our camp. It started with just throwing the ball and ended in an 11 on 11 game, culminating in a well defended long bomb that hit its receiver on the run for a touchdown!

Early on we taught the campers some sports words and phrases.
Here you can hear them shouting, "Pass it to me!" and, "Throw it to me!"

They had the throwing part down, but receiving never did catch on.

3. And teaching music outdoors.

The kids do their best James Taylor on this Carole King favorite of ours, "You've Got a Friend."

One evening, Leslie and I turned in early while Peder and Fahd attended the camp drag show. We heard they were going to have a "Miss" competition, but didn't know it would be the boys dressing up as girls. Some of them really committed and pulled it off. The one older student dressed his version of Middle Eastern garb won the competition. Maybe less IS more.

Another day was filled with a Mongolian sports tournament that pitted us against each other in a tug of war. We broke the rope with our awesomeness leaving the competition in a draw.

And at the end of the evening, Leslie put on her dancing shoes to teach the Cha Cha Slide. Think of it as a kind of hip-hop line dance, where the recorded announcer instructs dancers when and what to do, like a solo square dance. It was a big hit.

"Clap your hands. Now hop. Slide to the right. Slide to the left. Cha-cha-cha," and so on.

On the final evening they put on English language skits of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (which they knew through Russian influence), and The Boy Who Cried Wolf was new, but a big hit. In the two latter skits, they came up with original dialogue and memorized it in between readings from the narrator. We were impressed.

What Nathan thought was most stunning from the week was how well Leslie was able to really instill some positive qualities through life skills training. Most notably, she taught them about sportsmanship, being a role model, and positive language. After the second day, the motto of the camp was "We Can Do It!" in English. This flavored everything we did from then on as kids happily shouted the moniker to their friends while hiking, working in class, and competing on the field of play.

It was a good week filled with more than we can put on one blog, so check out more of the action here. We look forward to doing the camp again next year working from the strengths and weakness of this year.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Training of Trainers: New Volunteers on the Horizon

For two weeks we have been in Ulaanbaatar (UB) planning for the arrival of the 20th round of Peace Corps volunteers here, the "M20s."

Leslie was already in UB after doing some seminars in other towns, but Nathan was able to fly in from our Bayankhongor. Interestingly, on May 28, his flight was delayed by three hours because of the (presumably) final snowfall. To fill the time in the low-traffic airport, he watched a rousing makeshift ping pong tournament among the staff.

By the time the plane arrived, nearly all the snow had melted and the flight was uneventful.

During the week and a half of training, we learned some higher level facilitation techniques, and feedback and evaluation strategies. Training for the new volunteers is broken into two halves. We will be teaching the second half. Because of budget cuts and the devaluation of the dollar, the training this year will be two weeks shorter than our training last year. This posed many new scheduling complications and curriculum adjustments, resulting in us spending much of the time working with our sector groups of three, which included one Mongolian specialist who has been hired for the summer and another volunteer who will be teaching the first half.

Esayas is a Sudanese-born Eritrean. He's lived in the States since he was boy, forced out of his country during the civil unrest of the mid-late 80's in neighboring Ethiopia. Because of his dark skin, flamboyant personality and fluffy hair, he gets a lot of attention wherever he goes, and he's perhaps the most petted American in Mongolian history.

Garrett hails from Summersville, WV, home of the Gaulley River and popular hiking and whitewater rafting destination for Nathan's Boy Scout troop in the mid 1990's. Garrett likes country roads that take him home to place he belongs, has been a WVU football tailgating enthusiast since he was a fetus, and holds a degree in accounting he tries to put behind him.

This is Mola's first year working with Peace Corps' community economic development (CED) training. She lived in Germany for a few years and then Denver, CO, working at the retail chain Old Navy, while her husband earned his masters. She has two little American citizens who live with her and call her mom.

Uugnaa is a university English teacher who has her own small NGO in Mongolia. She was the community youth development (CYD) pre-service training coordinator two years ago, so she can hold her own and really doesn't even need the volunteer trainers.

We worked in our sector groups to revise the teaching curriculum based on our experiences and the adjusted program guidelines negotiated by the Mongolian and American governments.

When training was done this past Friday, we mounted up all of our training materials to bring to the training site, about an hour outside of UB in the neighboring provincial capital.

Peace Corps Mongolia Headquarters.

Peace Corps got some new microbusses this year. They smell new.

Check out this stack of new tumpuns ready for trainee bathing and clothes washing.

After we unpacked and set up our temporary offices, we were treated to a lazy afternoon at a ger camp, how Mongolians do resort life. We had a great time tossing a Frisbee, playing catch with a softball, and hiking around with the Peace Corps staff and Mongolian language teachers discovering the history of the area.

Training Manager Chimgee sports an impossibly large visor. She's a taskmaster and has been quite an asset to Peace Corps during her nearly 20 years.

Some language teachers and Nathan take a break from a short hike up to a rebuilt monastery.

This site used to be a monestary that held over 1200 monks until communist revolutioanries in the late 1930's massacred them leaving only remnants of their quite life in the hills. Notice the terraced landscape around the lonely ger that used to hold the hundreds of gers.

We'll be back in the middle of July to help with the second half of training. In the meantime, we wish the new trainees good luck as we continue some grant writing, work at camps, and work back in Bayankhongor. Once again our separate work schedules will keep us apart for a few weeks, so eventhough we're happy to be busy with productive projects, the distance can be a challenge.