What does it mean to be a man in today’s world? How do the sights and sounds of our everyday lives influence our perceptions of masculinity? How can we begin to look beyond stereotypes and respect each others’ authentic selves? Can we build a brotherhood of men? These are the questions that I asked my students to grapple with this weekend as I hosted my second (and final) English Camp at SMK Padang Tengku: #BROcamp2015.
I know what some of you must be thinking: Why is there a hashtag? Why is “BRO” capitalized? Has Kyle ever even said the word “bro”? He doesn’t seem like the “bro” kind of guy…plus, I’m pretty sure no one even says that anymore, so.
There is certainly a lot to talk about. While no camp experience is perfect or without a few snags, I’m exceedingly thankful for the opportunity I had to share my passion for gender & identity work with these young men, many of whom I’ve come to care for deeply. We got the chance to hang out, play a few games (that were secretly educational), and engage in meaningful conversations outside of the normal, academic context.
Oh, and we had s’mores. What a way to kick off my last month!
So, the name: #BROcamp2015. There’s a hashtag because, well, I wanted to put one there. Even though attaching a hashtag to things feels a bit overwrought in today’s fast-moving world of pop/internet culture, I still genuinely like the idea that hashtags make things easily searchable and quickly curated. I asked all of my students to use the hashtag in whatever photos they post online, and while many of them aren’t nearly as active on the social media outlets that I use more commonly, it’s still a great way to find and collect memories from the weekend. Hashtags also allow me to see their photos without being friends with them on Instagram, which is a plus 😉
“BRO” is an acronym I came up with pretty early on in the planning process. I knew that if named my camp “Mr. Kyle’s Weekend of Talking About Authentic Masculinity & Why the Media Don’t Want You To Feel Comfortable In Your Own Skin (And Also You Should Respect Women),” I’d have very few participants. I needed some sort of catchy name that would capture the theme of the camp as well as the attention of my young male students, many of whom are usually less than enthusiastic about any sort of extracurricular school event. While the word “bro” has basically fallen out of use in the States (except in either ironic or surfer dude circumstances, of course), it’s still used pretty commonly here among young men, especially in the “Manglish” (Malay-English-Chinese mix) that many young people speak. As I was thinking about the main goals of my camp, what I really wanted to accomplish, I knew that conversations about brotherhood and authenticity would play a major role, as well as discussions related to respect and the treatment of women.
I got pretty lucky. Brotherhood, Respect, & Originality: BRO.
As far as Fulbright English Camps go, this one was not nearly as intense or full-scale as I initially envisioned. I was disappointed by this at first, as I had this vision of a large camp that lasted two full days and was attended by fifty or more students and a slew of ETAs from all across Malaysia. In reality, after a few scheduling conflicts (October means exams, and exams mean craziness) and the realization that a smaller group might be more effective for these kind of conversations, I ended up running the camp from Friday night through Saturday afternoon with a total of sixteen students and five Fulbrighters. The size ended up being perfect, honestly, and I think it contributed a great deal to the camp’s success and our ability to really engage with the students who came.
The guys arrived on Friday evening and spent a few minutes getting settled in before we started our icebreaker activities. While they all knew each other before coming to the camp, I think it’s always important to set the tone with some sort of game or activity to get things going. In this case, it was a game of balloon races that basically involved lining up in teams, holding balloons between their chests and backs (no hands!), and racing back and forth across the canteen. It was silly, and it wasn’t too challenging, but I think they got a kick out of it. Once we warmed up, I facilitated an activity from my days at Elon called The Gender Box, which I renamed The “Perfect Man” Box. Basically, I asked the students to write down adjectives or descriptions of what they thought the “perfect man” might look or act like in an attempt to help them identify stereotypes of masculinity; their responses were pinned on a board, meant to symbolize the way we put ourselves into boxes that might limit our self-expression.
The students, though, were not nearly as stereotype-minded as I expected. While there were certainly some who wrote down things like “have a six pack” or “be athletic,” there were just as many, if not more, who wrote that the perfect man should “believe in God,” be “wise and smart,” and “be gentle.” This was encouraging to me in a way, and it led to an interesting conversation between students and ETAs about the reality of having it all, of attempting to actually be the perfect man. A few students expressed the difficulty of this endeavor, and we discussed the need for setting priorities: What do the good men in your life prioritize? Do you respect [your father/your uncle/your religion teacher] because of his mustache or because he is a wise man? This got the guys thinking right away, and I think it helped set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
Friday night was filled with campfires, capture the flag, and s’mores, all of which were incredibly fun and well-received. While a few of the students had eaten a marshmallow before, none of them had ever been treated to the classic American s’more; the process of roasting the marshmallow (and definitely overcooking it a few times), making the sandwich, and savoring the warm, gooey goodness felt like gourmet cooking as we sat around our bamboo fire in the middle of the school’s field. Classic Malaysia.
After what I’m sure was a late night of ghost stories and general teenage avoidance of sleep, we got right back to the good stuff Saturday morning. In small groups, I asked the students to define “brotherhood,” a term that some had heard before but couldn’t quite articulate at first. With the help of an ETA, the guys came up with the definition that felt most true and realistic to them. After sharing these with the rest of the students, we put our heads together to create one united definition, based on aspects of brotherhood that had been highlighted in the smaller groups. After a bit of wordplay and maneuvering, here’s what we came up with:
I had the feels, to be sure.
Next came a team builder (also taken from my Elon days) meant to help foster communication, creative thinking, and group problem solving. Specifics aside, the point of the activity was for the guys to figure out a way to transport “nuclear bombs” (aka squishy balls I picked up at the 2 Ringgit store) from one end of a futsal court (the size of a tennis court) to the other without using their hands, arms, or mouths. There was a sizable section of the court that was “no man’s land,” meaning no one was allowed to cross it; one student was responsible for getting the bombs from his side of the court and over no man’s land, while the rest of them had to find (very) creative ways to catch and carry the bombs to the other end.
Shifting gears, I had the guys return to their small groups and create a list of the people in their lives that they respect. Then, I asked each ETA to help them think of ways that they show respect for those people, being as specific as possible. We had a brief conversation about the different kinds of respect we can have for others, ranging from the way we listen to and revere our elders to how we can respect our friends, family, and all the people we meet in our lives. To get them thinking a bit more creatively (and moving more, because sitting still in the heat is no fun), each group then had to develop a short skit about respect that illustrated a specific scenario they might encounter in their lives. While many of the guys were quite shy to get up on stage and perform their very relaxed, not-at-all-intense skits, I was proud to see them try, and even prouder to see how maturely they tackled the topic.
The most challenging session of the camp came right before lunch. I brought the students to the library and showed them a few minutes of the following video clip:
It’s taken from a documentary called The Mask You Live In, and it helps identify a few basic male archetypes that we see almost constantly portrayed in movies, television shows, and video games. After watching the video twice, I asked a few questions to make sure the guys understood the gist of it: What were the four types of men shown in this video? What are their characteristics? How are they realistic or unrealistic? This concept is a difficult one for even native speakers to discuss, so I understood the initial silence that greeted me after hitting pause. What was a bit more tricky to navigate was the subsequent discussion, in which the ETAs and I attempted to facilitate conversations about archetypes, the influence of the media on our lives, and other gender/stereotypes/representation issues. I have to give major props to Dan, Ethan, Greg, and Ben for doing their best here. I knew going into it that this session might be more of a challenge, and my expectations were definitely met–but everyone, to their credit, was trying. I saw dictionaries and Google translate apps out as students (and teachers) attempted to translate what was being said, and some groups even wrote their thoughts down in whatever language they could make sense of in an effort to help clarify their thoughts. At the end of the day, I know this part of the camp was probably the most confusing (my post-camp survey results corroborate this gut feeling), but I’d like to think that a few seeds were planted, that some of these ideas of authenticity and originality in the face of media pressure stuck with the guys in some way. I guess only time will tell, and I know now that all I can do is keep providing them with opportunities to grapple with this and other difficult topics.
The last two activities were designed to lighten things up after the media session, and I think they definitely worked. First, I gave each group of guys English language magazines and had them flip through and cut out any images of men or masculinity that they saw, positive or negative. I wanted to help them continue identifying stereotypes and to see just how prevalent some of these images are, especially in visual media. Then, they designed their own magazine covers by repurposing the images they had cut out to convey a message or a lesson they had learned from the camp–what did they want to tell other men about being a real man? Some of my students are extremely (and intimidatingly) talented when it comes to art and design, and I was blown away by the covers they created!
It was nice to see that, while some of the concepts and more abstract ideas of the camp might have been a lot to handle, many of the other things we had talked about still made sense!
The last thing we did before packing up and heading home was a lyric fill-in activity with the song “Brother” by Needtobreathe, one my favorite bands of all time. Here’s the song, in case you’re not familiar:
It’s a great song, and I think it hits on a lot of the themes that we focused on during the camp, brotherhood especially. It was also a bit of an unexpected challenge, as the lead singer’s accent and pronunciation are much more difficult to make sense of than I realized. I’ve been listening to them for so long that I guess it just comes naturally to me–whoops! Either way, the guys loved this song, and I made sure to include it on the CD I gave each of them as a prize for attending the camp. Other songs included classics like Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” the Disney hit “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” and the still popular “See You Again” from Fast & Furious 7. It’s an eclectic mix, but I love any chance I get to share music with my students, and I know they appreciate the opportunity to learn new English songs and artists.
Okay, so this was a long post–thanks for sticking with me and reading about the camp! I really am happy with the way it turned out, despite any last-minute setbacks, and I would love the chance to continue these conversations, both here and when I return home (in one month and three days).
So, what do you think? As you were reading, was there anything that surprised you or that you maybe would have done differently? How can I continue to engage with my students about stereotypes, media pressure, and authenticity? Any hints, tips, or suggestions are always appreciated! Let me know in the comments 🙂
Until next time,