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"How are you going to make it camp?": Inside the Virtual Villages

By Jackie Jaqueline Mauer | Published: December 2, 2020

There is a powerful moment at the beginning of every Village session—a moment I look forward to all year. It’s when the first villager steps foot on the soccer field that serves as the parking lot of the French Language Village. It’s like a mini Big Bang. Suddenly, Lac du Bois exists. 

This summer, however, that villager didn’t step off a bus—they logged onto a virtual meeting platform in their own home. 

Nicole has been a mainstay
of the French programs for
over 40 years.

My colleague, Karen Nicole Anderson, helped create and implement the French virtual sessions:  Les Voyageurs (camping and canoeing program) and Lac du Bois (traditional Village program). Given over 40 years of working at the Villages, Nicole has both a deep history with the CLVway, the Villages’ immersion pedagogy, and a strong connection to the lakes and forests where we normally gather. Her longstanding expertise in outdoor and experiential programming contributed significantly in shaping the French online sessions.

Jacqueline, part of the team creating
the online French Language Village
and 16-year summer staff member.

 

I, Jacqueline, am part of a team creating online French Language Village programs for this school year. I’ve been teaching in the Villages for 16 summers. Since I didn’t take part in the Virtual Villages this summer, I had some burning questions for my friend and mentor. 

Here's some snippets of our conversation: 

Jacqueline: Camp creates a meaningful context for the CLVway. I think of all the connections and traditions that are tied to Village sites. This spring, I heard many parents asking, “How are you going to make the Virtual Village feel like camp?” 

Nicole: When we outlined the virtual Voyageurs curriculum, we started the same way we always do … by talking about the four program pillars. They are: speaking French to the max; understanding the history of the fur trade in the region; building community; and living in the forest. “Living in the forest” wasn’t possible, so we swapped that for “celebrating nature” so that kids would be free to explore their own backyards. These pillars are the program, and we just needed to find new ways to bring them to life. 

We found some exciting opportunities right away, but also some significant challenges. For example, kids haven’t been able to access the internet to do their own research while they’re at camp. But kids can access lots of information in a virtual setting and this suddenly expanded rather than limited what we felt that we could do. 

J: One challenge must have been how to build community in this new format—forming bonds?

N: Community is completely infused with language learning at the Villages. At Les Voyageurs, we bond through moments of shared challenges while in our brigade (canoeing group). Each villager learns je suis mouillé (I’m wet) and j’ai faim (I’m hungry). We get through tough moments together. Language learning is intertwined with the sense of community that is created from those experiences. In planning for online one-week Voyageurs sessions, we realized that we needed to create a different way to bond. This was a big “Aha!” moment when we began to shift our traditional ways of doing things. 

For Les Voyageurs, we still formed brigade groups. We did icebreaker-style activities to learn about each other and played games like Loup Garou—a simulation where villagers have to work together to rid their town of werewolves.

At Lac du Bois, the daily soap opera bonded the community through a shared, funny experience that they could talk about in small groups to practice conversation. One week’s theme was about pets with a competition at the end. Kids brought their family pets to the last episode to share with the characters! 

Villagers in the Voyageurs Virtual Village creating a community with a new set of tools.

J: It sounds like you were often in mixed proficiency-level groups and still stayed in French. That’s also typical on a Village site. If a counselor makes an announcement that a participant doesn’t understand, there’s always someone who can help to reinforce the immersion setting. How did you do it online? 

N: We found some great ways to make things comprehensible that we wouldn’t be able to do while in the woods without computers. This summer we could prepare detailed slides with words and images ahead of time for presenting complex stories and abstract ideas in songs. Or when one counselor was leading a conversation, the other counselor could watch for confusion and provide support through the online chat feature. We succeeded in creating comprehensible input and staying in French mode. 

J: All in all, it sounds like kids sitting at the kitchen table still got the camp experience they were looking for. 

N: I really felt the French Virtual Villages captured the essence of camp, albeit in a different way!

When I look back on what colleagues have created so far, I am inspired by their creativity and courage to take on such a task. It's a bit like the blend of gumption and trust it takes to step foot on that soccer field for the first time at camp. I'm excited to now build on what was begun this summer and continue the adventure of the Virtual Villages as they go forward!

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