Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Teaching Tolerance through English: Forging Friendships across Baltic Borders

U.S. Embassy Tallinn hosted its first “Teaching Tolerance through English” Camp from August 12-18, 2013. Twenty-five boys and girls aged 10 to 14 years from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania came together for one week to learn about diversity, how to counter bullying, and how to act as a positive force in their communities. While campers’ native languages were Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian, all activities were conducted in English. This year’s was the third camp in a series in the Baltics, with the two previous having been held in Latvia.  
Lithuanian students teach fellow Estonian and Latvian campers about their culture
Five Lithuanian students—two fifth graders and three sixth graders—from Pumpenai Secondary School attended the event, along with Ms. Olga Daugene, who provided instruction on English as a Foreign Language. They, along with their peers from Latvia and Estonia, engaged in an interactive session with U.S. Ambassador to Estonia Jeffrey Levine, through which they gained an insight into American culture, even learning to make S’mores around a campfire.

Ambassador Levine shares thoughts on tolerance, acceptance, and the value of diversity
In addition to sessions highlighting U.S. themes, the camp also featured a visit from local pop star Dave Benton, who delivered a presentation on the importance of tolerance. Benton’s life story – spanning his birth in Aruba, immigration to the U.S., a thriving pop career, and eventual move to Estonia in 1997 where he became a local music figure and the winner of the 2001 Eurovision Contest – had a profound impact on the gathered campers, many of whom had limited exposure to racial diversity and the stories of non-European immigrants.  Benton shared his favorite childhood tales and his thoughts on what tolerance means.  He also discussed the horrible ramifications of bullying and intolerance, and the importance of being kind to everyone, despite real or perceived differences. 
Pop Star Dave Benton talks about the importance of tolerance

Throughout the week, campers participated in a stream of activities, which ranged from a role-play session in which the children acted out a variety of bullying scenarios and devised their own approaches to counter aggressive and demeaning behavior, to another in which campers engaged in an on-air mock interview to help with their English speaking skills. Campers also tackled a number of creative challenges designed to highlight the value of diversity in our lives, like learning dances from different countries, including a U.S. class on square dancing, and writing tolerance-themed proverbs.  Finally, collaborative projects that invited everyone’s involvement – including designing the camp flag –ensured that everyone felt part of the larger community. A uniting theme of “all together” concluded the week of activities.  Campers participated in a series of arts and crafts events, and then a graduation ceremony, in which they received diplomas signed by the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia!
Campers work together on arts and crafts activities
The camp will take place again in Estonia in 2014. Then, U.S.Embassy Vilnius is proud to announce that it will move to Lithuania for 2015 and 2016. Through these and other ongoing programs, Baltic youth can continue to gain from the experience of coming together to learn about tolerance, improve their English language skills, and make new, diverse friends.  Indeed, the relationships forged through this and previous years’ camps are already bridging significant national, linguistic and cultural borders.  As one young camper put it, “It’s great to have friends who don’t speak your own language!”