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Camp-to-Camp Exchange with Partners in Russia

By by Lara Ravitch | Published: July 18, 2017

At Concordia Language Villages, we engage in a grand simulation, asking villagers to join us on an imaginary trip to a village in another country … crossing borders, changing identities. As countries and cultures change, the village, too, must evolve. This summer, I and three of my leadership staff from Lesnoe Ozero visited Russia after many years of absence to immerse ourselves in language, contemporary culture and summer camp in Russia, with the specific goal of improving the Russian Language Village experience.

In June, I traveled to Russia with Assistant Dean Rebecca Natasha Blankenship and Team Leaders Kari Karina Meyer and Colleen Sonya Wood. The experience was funded by a Peer-to-Peer grant from the U.S. Department of State that promotes collaboration among peer organizations in Russia and the U.S. We spent a year talking and writing with a leadership team from Forest Camp, an English language summer camp in Zadonsk, Russia, about our different approaches to camping, language immersion and pedagogy.  This summer involves exchange visits—first by the Lesnoe Ozero team to Russia in June, and then by Forest Camp to the U.S. in August. 

The Lesnoe Ozero team at St. Basil's Cathedral.
The Lesnoe Ozero team at St. Basil's Cathedral.

We began with a three-day stay in Moscow to explore locations of cultural significance. We were delighted to see all the elements of camp in their native context—a troupe dancing to our much-loved song Moldovanka on Russia Day; delicious blinipelmeni, and borsch; and the beautiful and efficient Moscow metro, which plays a central role in one of our evening programs. But there were also, of course, many inspirational new ideas: How can we re-create the experience of visiting the Kremlin cathedrals? Which paintings from the Tretyakov gallery would be best for the villagers to try re-creating in an art activity? And clearly we need to add smuzi (smoothies) to our menus!

Both exchange teams at the entrance to Forest Camp.

Next, we headed to Lipetsk to meet our partners from Forest Camp: Sergei Zubarev and Irina Arseneva. They drove us to their beautiful camp location outside of Zadonsk on the banks of the River Don. Forest Camp immerses participants in English through high-impact and experiential activities. When we arrived, we were immediately impressed with how motivated the campers were. They bounced up to us, telling us about themselves and their preferred activities at the camp. As we talked, it was easy to see why they were so excited. Forest Camp is a blast! With high ropes courses, laser tag, paint ball, and hip hop dance, the kids were having fun all day, every day. The more we watched, the more we realized that we could bring some of this unbridled excitement back with us to Lesnoe Ozero. We could see that our cultural focus (which was less present at Forest Camp) could be enlivened with some novel activities. Why couldn't our culture class on the Soviet Space Program feature simulations using laser tag? Why not learn about the significance of trade on Russian waterways through stand-up paddle boarding?

While in Lipetsk, we also had a chance to visit typical Russian camps—that is, the Russian equivalent of a YMCA or Girl/Boy Scout camp experience. These visits helped us to identify commonalities in services, schedule, infrastructure, and programming that we could bring back to Lesnoe Ozero to make it a more authentic “Russian-style” camp. One universal element is the camp kontsert, a performance that is rehearsed with diligence and focus during the entire session and culminates in a show for parents. At each of the camps we visited, the campers put all their energy into rehearsals. And the camp directors took them very seriously, often giving extensive feedback. We look forward to incorporating this creative, collaborative project into Lesnoe Ozero in the near future.

It was hard to leave Russia after such a short and inspiring visit, but we are excited to see what we can add to the Russian Language Village this year—and even more excited to welcome Sergei and Irina to Minnesota when they visit Lesnoe Ozero in August.

About the Author

Lara Ravitch has been dean of Lesnoe Ozero since 2005. A former villager, she has an MA in Language Teaching and works with international students at the American English Institute at the University of Oregon during the school year. She is a frequent presenter at language teaching conferences, with research interests in language and identity, heritage learners, and language program administration.

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