Teaching Abroad: Back to Back English Camps

Recently, the ATMA SEVA team and our volunteers conducted a series of three English camps in five days at three of our partner schools. Each camp was centered around a different theme, following topics the students have been focusing on with each volunteer. The camps are a great way for the students to practice their English conversation in a fun and dynamic way and a chance to speak with many different English speakers. It was also a great chance for us to try out new games, learn more about the students at each school and have a better presence at each location.

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Packing list game!

Our first camp was held at Bapong School in Doi Saket district. We decided to teach about different English speaking countries around the world with a theme we called, “Passport to English”. We focused on seven different English-speaking countries, including countries that our volunteers and interns are originally from. The students were broken into groups by country, created their own passports with their country with the national flag, information about themselves, and had blank pages for the “visas” from other countries. From there the students rotated between country stations to play a game or activity at each station. The Station games included: song word grab in America, matching animals in Australia, pizza making in Italy, matching sentences in England, teaching a song in France, scavenger hunt in India and a navigation game in a “fake city” in the Netherlands.  The group leaders asked for the passports at each station and wrote a phrase or drew a picture as the “visa stamp” for each country. The students enjoyed going on the tour around the world and were excited to show their passports at every station! For the second day, we created activities around a packing list of 27 items that could easily be found at home. (Ex: t-shirt, toothbrush, wallet, batteries, etc.) First we introduced all the items as a group, demonstrating their use and had the students repeat the words out loud. Next we broke back up into our country groups and each group leader took a few items with them to review using the phrase “What is this?” “It’s a ….” The group leaders then rotated to each station with their items so that each team had practice repeating all the objects using the sentences. To review all the items, we played a racing packing game. We collected all the passports from the students to call out random names, and had 2 students come up the front. There we had a table with all 27 items laid out and 2 shopping bags for them to fill. One person wrote 2 lists of 5 items on the whiteboard, while another volunteer kept the lists covered until the race began. When we said go, the students had to look at their “Packing List”, grab the 5 items and pack their bags as fast as they can. The students enjoyed the competition and were excited to help their friends by calling out the items and pointing to them on the table. This game is recommended for a large group to review vocabulary. After lunch in the afternoon we played a series of group competition games with a game called Who’s the Best (see Wiang Hang) and relay races.

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Birds in the nest game

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Group work

For our second camp we went to Pagnew School, another partner school in Doi Saket district. For a one-day camp, we decided to focus on “Body Parts” and played games and activities relating to naming parts of the body.  After an opening group game of Birds in the Nest, we reviewed parts of the body using Antoine as a human prop and having the students place labeled post it notes with the correct words on it on him! It was a bit windy that day so some of the post it notes fell off but it was a good way to place words and body parts together with a silly game and visuals. From there we split the kids up into groups by picking different body parts out a hat; the student had to find their match and get into groups. Each group went over the body parts by drawing their own people and labeling the body. This was also a good chance to go over numbers and colors with the kids. In the afternoon, we broke the students up into two groups and played a round of Simon Says and sang “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” and the “Hokey Pokey”! Even though they are simple games, the classics are still a great way to learn! After, we did a few rounds of “Body English” spelling body parts with their bodies! Then we had Relay races with a twist: the kids run to us and we point to a body part and they say the word before running back to their teams. Run, jump on one foot, dance, run like a monkey, were all fun relays. We ended the day with a big group game of freeze tag just for fun!

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Students with their certificates

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Reviewing vocab and new sentences

To finish out the week of camps, we headed up north to Wiang Haeng, where on-site intern Maria has been living and teaching for the last three months. There we had two days of activities and fun games to play with the students, however this camp was not focused on one particular theme, instead we played games to practice and drill vocabulary that the novices knew already but needed to practice. Since we had a large group of English speakers with us, we began by introducing ourselves, go over names and have the students repeat. Then to practice speaking, we split the students up into two teams, lined up next to each other and the volunteers stand in a semicircle across from the two lines. The first students in line run to a volunteer at each end of the semicircle and have to run to each in the circle and say their names correctly before the other student on the other team. After names, each volunteer had a vocabulary card that we went over related to questions in basic conversation, such as “birthday”, “sport” and “favorite”. The students enjoyed the competition aspect of the game and practicing the vocabulary in a fast paced game. After the game, we split the students up into small groups to practice conversation questions one on one with the volunteers. The students practiced basic questions like “What is your favorite sport?” and harder questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What DON’T you like?”. The small groups were a good chance for the students to hear the volunteers ask the questions multiple times and to practice asking and answering questions in conversation. The next day we only had a short time in the morning before making the drive back to Chiang Mai, so we played another few rounds of Who’s the Best, and the same relay races we played with the last school.

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Group work

Thank you to all the schools and volunteers who helped to put on a great series of camps! If you have any specific questions about games and activities or more tips for putting on your own camp, leave a comment below!

Katherine Devine



Photography Corner – Rocket Festival at Wat Doi Ku

This past Saturday, the ATMA SEVA team visited Wat Doi Ku in Doi Saket district for a very unique local festival. The Wat hosted a Rocket festival, where large bamboo rockets about fifty feet in length were shot into the air.  The festival is held to ask for lots of rain for the upcoming planting season.  The rockets are designed and created by different groups and tested against each other for greatest height and how straight the rocket flies.  A similar festival is also held in Issan province in North east Thailand, featuring a grand display of rockets and fireworks. This year the festival drew a large crowd and of course local food and drink carts were there to accommodate. Watching the rockets blast over the peaceful mountain backdrop was quite a sight to see and we hope you enjoy the pictures and video!

(1:27 start of Rocket Festival)




Two Blissful Months in Thailand

It has been almost a month since I returned from my sojourn in Chiang Mai. I am finding it surprisingly difficult to talk about my time in Thailand as there was no one place, person or experience that seems to take center stage. Each person, place and experience was so memorable that I can recount every moment of it. My two months were full of life experiences that will always stay with me and all this is due to my chance encounter with the ATMA SEVA website and meeting Programs Director David Poppe via skype!


Arriving in Chiang Mai airport!

My first 3 days were spent at Wat Doi Ku and I could not have asked for a more welcoming place. Ajahn Sirichai is a young, dynamic abbot of a small temple about 36 km NE of Chiang Mai. I was invited to join Sirichai for alms, or the collection of food by the monks that occurs daily around dawn. Giving alms is one of the many ways in which Buddhists can make merit, along with living life according to religious precepts and praying. When Buddhist monks make their alms rounds, laypeople prepare food and water and wait for the monks to approach them with their alms bowl. Once food and water are placed inside the bowl, the monk will place the lid on top of his bowl and recite a prayer blessing to the donor after which the merit-making is considered complete. Phra Sirichai allowed me to make some merit by carrying the alms for him. He also gave me a Thai name, ‘Kaa ja-om’ which has brought many smiles on Thai faces. It refers to the person who helps the monks on their daily alms rounds. It was a delightful experience as I met many welcoming villagers.

Ajahn Sirichai also invited the villagers to come to the temple as he now had an English tutor. That afternoon, three very eager boys came to the temple and we set up class for them in the basement. No sooner had they left, a young woman came to pick up a quick lesson – she was in Real Estate in Chiang Mai and most eager to work with farangs (a Sanskrit word meaning foreigner). While I was in “session”, Sirichai was able to recruit a few members of the local Thai military who were stationed nearby and eager to pick up a few words!

I would have enjoyed staying in Doi Ku and getting to know the villagers, but not knowing how to ride a motorbike and being a bit out of the way, I knew that this temple would be logistically difficult to manage. David had already made arrangements for me to stay in Doi Saket, just 7 km SW and a little closer to Chiang Mai with songtaews (shared taxis) leaving for the city every 15-20 minutes (and costing just 20 Baht!)

Me at Wat Doi Saket testing to see if I have good karma!

Me at Wat Doi Saket testing to see if I have good karma!

My first stop in Doi Saket was a week teaching at a local Gov’t school. I had never taught English before but the ATMA SEVA team helped put together lesson plans for each class and it was just a matter of following the guide book. Before I came, I had found several online sites that gave valuable tips on how to teach English as a foreign language. It was challenging as I did not speak Thai – Ad, the English teacher at the school, was very gracious in joining me for the initial classes, which was an enormous help. The young students were adorable; many of them live here during the school year and go home to their villages during the summer. What touched me the most was to see how disciplined and gracious the children were as they stood in line for their bowl of rice, got their own water from a water tank and washed their cups and utensils when the lunch was over. That week in itself was worth the price of my airline ticket. The experience was also a reminder of how it is possible to instill in our children the value of responsibility at a very young age instead of inundating them with electronic gadgets for constant amusement.

I ate lunch daily with the teachers who were a jovial group; unfortunately, most of them spoke no English and all humor had to be translated by Ad. After the school was over, I would teach a class to the teachers. They too were an eager bunch – one must understand that many of the local English teachers do not speak enough English to be able to teach a conversational class. In one assignment, I had them give me directions on how to go from Doi Saket to Chiang Mai, a very real situation they might encounter with a farang. Before the class, they would just wave in the direction where they think the city lies!

Me with all the teachers after English class.

Me with all the teachers after English class.

After my week teaching at the government school, I spent a couple of weeks doing a meditation retreat at Wat Rampoeng, an experience I’d be glad to share if anyone is interested. (I did have another 10 days at a meditation center in Bangkok just before I returned home to Atlanta in April.)  In between, there were trips to a Lawa & Karen village, Mae Sariang, and more, some of which are well described by on-site intern Jamie Shannon here and volunteer Dan here.

My second teaching stint was at Wat Doi Saket where I lived in the volunteer room reserved for ATMA SEVA volunteers. It was another two blissful weeks and an incredible way to learn about life in a monastery where novice monks live and are schooled along with senior monks. The Principal, Phra maha Insorn, has managed the school and the teachers for many years and is very engaged in various community and NGO projects. Because the semester had ended, I did not have an opportunity to teach a regular class along with my friend Natch Tankarp, the Director of the English program at Wat Doi Saket. Instead, I tutored two monks, a layperson who would come from the village and a novice monk who was there from Laos. Michael, a graduate student doing his doctoral research, was the primary tutor and it was a very rewarding experience to work with such motivated students. Because these students speak English, I could teach them arithmetic, geography and other subjects in English that would allow them to utilize the language in daily tasks.

Stairs leading up to Wat Doi Saket!

Stairs leading up to Wat Doi Saket!

I would be amiss if I did not write a bit about daily life at Wat Doi Saket. Without having lived at the wat, I would not have had such a rich experience. Most of all, I would have probably never learned what it takes to go from a novice monk to an ordained monk and what it is like to live as a monk. I did not need an alarm clock as I was woken up each morning at 5am from the sounds of the monks praying and chanting in Pali. Most often, I would go to the mondop so I could feel the energy of the prayers. The wat is located on a hill and there are two ways to access it: via a winding road or by 304 steps straight up that I counted several times.  There was always someone making a trip up or down the hill, but I typically opted to take the steps as I knew I would not have the privilege of being forced into such a good fitness program once I was in suburban America driving my 2000 pound SUV to the grocery store ten minutes away to buy a gallon of milk.

Thailand is very warm in March and April. There is not much AC around and you learn to appreciate the fans that are all over the place.  Evenings are wonderful- things cool down a bit and people are out and about. It’s not uncommon to see a scooter with two adults, a child in the middle and a child in front holding the handle bar – it is uplifting to be in a Libertarian country at such times. There is only one bar in Doi Saket and it actually has the best food that I found in the village; the owner is also the chef and she wants to come to America to open up a Thai restaurant. Her bar has a pool table and a TV showing some soccer games at all times.

I quickly fell in love with Doi Saket village, which is quite small. There is a market where I got my daily fresh coconut drink and fresh fruit fix, along with several roadside cafes. For 30-40 Baht, one can have a very healthy Thai meal. The 7-11 is the 24-hour store and seems to be the center of all activity in the village – a little expensive but not too bad as they have to compete with the street vendors and local markets. There is a pharmacy and the pharmacist and I quickly became good friends, as I would stop there almost every day to have my blood pressure checked. Pharmacists pretty much replace physicians for all routine stuff out here.  Luxuries like a barbershop shave or an hour-long foot massage that are expensive back home can be found here for very reasonable prices.

Sunset on the main road in Doi Saket.

Sunset on the main road in Doi Saket.

I chose to share my experiences in the hopes of helping those who have never lived in Thailand to learn more about the day to day life here. Doi Saket is no different from other small towns and Doi Ku is not that different from other villages in Northern Thailand. On weekends, one can take a songtaew from the village to Chiang Mai and participate in festivals and the many activities that are there. Chiang Mai has some of the finest hospitals in the world should one need to go there and the local pharmacies there are well stocked. To save money, I even had a checkup done at a fraction of a cost of what it would have cost me at home and without a long wait or hassle that I am used to!

ATMA SEVA provided not only teaching opportunities, but also the chance to experience a new culture like a native despite not knowing the language. Other than David Poppe, I was very fortunate to make friends with Natch, the English teacher at Doi Saket. When Natch was in town, we would go out for dinner and I never felt alone. He also introduced me to his family and friends, and without his friendship, I may not have felt at home as much as I did. One has to visit and spend some time in Thailand to really know the Buddhist culture and feel the warm welcome that they seem to have for visitors. There is very little crime in small towns and villages and I never had the feeling that I was getting ripped off. This was my 4th trip to Thailand and 2nd to Chiang Mai and so it was not a surprise and I pray that it does not change despite the onslaught of westerners that now come to Chiang Mai. I am very appreciative to all who made this a very memorable trip and I am looking to make this my annual pilgrimage.

If anyone has any specific questions about my experiences, teaching, living abroad, meditation retreats or anything else discussed here, please leave a comment below!

Hunaid Qadir



Where Are They Now? – Alison

In our latest installment in “Where are they now?” we check in with Alison who volunteered for one month with our Wat Doi Saket project in October of 2011.  Read below to find out about her time in Thailand and her reflections about her time with ATMA SEVA!

atmaseva1) How did you get connected to ATMA SEVA? Why did you choose to volunteer with the Wat Doi Saket project?

Back in the summer of 2011, I decided to take a sabbatical from work and travel/volunteer abroad. I sent an email to friends and family asking for any suggestions for volunteer options or recommendations for specific programs. My friend Chris Poppe responded that his cousin was running a volunteer program in Thailand. After reading some scary reviews of various programs, the idea of having a contact I could trust was very appealing. Coincidentally, I was invited to a wedding in India around the time that I planned to go abroad. Thailand and ATMA SEVA quickly became the best option.

 2) How did you like teaching English at a Thai government school?

Teaching at the school was absolutely amazing, although the road to amazing is not always a straight one. Initially I found the teaching to be incredibly stressful. I didn’t feel I was bringing enough value to the children and it made me feel like I was failing. Once I learned to relax and just enjoy being with the kids, everything changed.


Me teaching at the government school!

3) What were some of the challenges you faced?

I felt very isolated in the guest house I initially chose, classes were canceled often, and the teacher didn’t always show.

4) What is the most memorable moment from your trip?

So many wonderful places and people were a part of my time in Thailand – Wat Doi Saket, the kids at Ba Mai Dang School, the Australian missionary Peter (also known as the most positive person I’ve ever met). I’m not sure what would be the most memorable, but I can say that the most “spectacular” moment of my trip was watching my lantern fly up into the sky during the Loi Krathong festival!

Loi Krathong festival!!

5) Where are you now and what are you doing currently?

I’m back living and working in New York City as a Director on the regulatory consulting team for Kinetic Partners, an asset management consultancy.

6) Any travel plans on the horizon or other places you’d like to visit?

I’m heading to New Orleans next week for some jazz and a sazerac, but the next big adventure on the horizon is South Africa.

7) What did you learn from your time in Thailand and volunteering with ATMA SEVA?

Although research and planning is usually a good idea, sometimes you just need to let a place wash over you.

8) What advice would you give to someone who is looking to volunteer overseas?

Don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions about every aspect of the trip. The more information you have about your day to day activities and down time, the better. I was lucky with ATMA SEVA, but if you do not have a connection to the program, I would also recommend asking for testimonials from prior volunteers and the ability to reach out to them if desired.


I taught briefly at Wat Doi Saket and pictured is me with some my students!



Photography Corner – Wat Nong Bua (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Wat Pratum Sararam (full name of temple but people refer to it as Nong Bua) is located in the District of Doi Saket, which is roughly twenty-five minutes outside of Chiang Mai city.  This temple is very close to Wat Doi Saket, which is the main temple we work with and our headquarters for meetings and general project organization.  (Wat Doi Saket project)

Wat Nong Bua is a very small temple with approximately ten-fifteen monks and novices who live there.  Even though it is small it has unique attributes, like this stained glass window, and is surrounded by several ponds.  To better protect and conserve the fish, there is no fishing in the pond directly across from this temple.  Since fishing is not allowed, feeding the fish is one way some people choose to make merit.  Below is a short video of feeding the fish.

The Thai word for making merit is ‘tam boon’ and generally means donating to either monks or a temple.  Ordaining as a monk is also a way to make ‘tam boon’.  The Thai belief is that every time you make ‘merit’ you increase your good karma and it is something positive for this life and other lives.

The Abbott of Wat Nong Bua, Phra maha Sen, is a good friend of the program and has helped out with various projects.  I hope you enjoy the photos and if you have any questions please leave us a comment!


Photos by David Poppe


Wat Doi Saket project – Reflections on a week of volunteering

Although I only spent a single week teaching conversational English at the Papong school and living at Wat Doi Saket, I feel as though it was an experience densely packed with memorable moments.  Teaching English (even for a relatively short time) provided me with many memorable insights into the nature of Thai public education.  More than anything, I found myself consistently amazed by the seeming incongruity between the chaos that seemed to reign at the macrocosmic level of the school as a whole – with students running around wildly outside and class times shifting fluidly for no apparent reason – and the sense of calm serenity that dominated the classroom while I was actually teaching.  The students were very sweet and eager to chat with me about my life in Thailand.  Moreover, they generally exuded a fun-loving nature that was very endearing.  In addition to the various in-class experiences, I found it very gratifying to sit around and chat with the various other teachers during lunch and other “down times.”  The general ambiance throughout my entire week at the school was extraordinarily welcoming, and I had a great time teaching there.

In addition to my actual teaching responsibilities, I also found spending the week living at the Wat (temple) to be extremely interesting.  As an academic scholar of Buddhism, I sometimes find that my “book knowledge” of the Buddhist tradition outstrips my “experiential knowledge” of the culturally specific ways in which Buddhism is actually practiced in a country like Thailand.  Spending time residing at a temple is therefore very grounding.  For example, my stay at Wat Doi Saket happened to coincide with the annual Loi Kratong celebrations in the Chiang Mai area.  It was fascinating to be in a position to witness the preparations for the festival and chat with the monks, novices, and laypeople about what was going to happen, and then actually be there on the day of the actual festivities to see everything come together.  Furthermore, the fact that it was generally known that I was living at the temple for the week seemed to contribute to a general sense of comfort and belonging.  Rather than forever being trapped in the role of an outside observer, at times I began to experience a taste of what it feels like to be an actual participant in the goings on.  Past experience has taught me that opportunities such as that are very rare.

Jordan Johnson, November 2011

PHD candidate