Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Glimmer of Light

My teaching career has now gone on for almost a month.  When I started, I went into class with great dreams and goals, a planned out lesson and knew exactly what to say.  Then I was struck by reality.  The kids were polite, at least for the first class, but I quickly saw that I was already breaking one of the cardinal rules of teaching ESL.  I was talking too much.  When people don't understand you, speaking more doesn't necessarily help.  I kept think of the scene from the movie, Rush Hour, where the actor asks, "Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?"

Loud English is just as misunderstood as quiet, patient English. 

In the last few weeks I have tried a number of different approaches.  My first lesson I did what I was told.  Tell them all about me.  They politely listened and then I saw them gradually nod off to sleep. I was told to have them dictate words as I spoke them.  Unfortunately classrooms here are concrete and reciting words to be understood by my 50+ students is quite futile.  I run to the various ESL teacher websites for assistance, and occasionally find something that works, at least for a few classes.  Games seem to be a hit though even those can be an effort in futility.

One game I made up was to have kids compete to mark the syllables in words I write on the wall.  First I explained what a syllable was, gave them some words I marked and had them read them back to me aloud.  I explained the rules, as I understood them, formed teams and took "volunteers."  Actually I had to select kids but they generally came up willingly.  They were supposed to stand in back with their face turned to the wall until I wrote the word.  I would then write something on the wall, read out the word and have them come up to mark.  Usually the first group rarely got it but after that it became a real battle.  I would write the word and then stand back as they would run up and start marking the word as fast as possible.  Surprisingly, the little girls were often quite fast as pushing themselves up against the wall, pressing the bigger boys out and marking the words.  The competition went on for maybe 15 minutes and then the winning team was announced. 

What I discovered in explaining the game was that they had to learn vocabulary to just begin.  "Turn around and face the wall."  I would stand at the wall and turn around to blank stares.  I would then turn one kid around and the others were remain as they were.  I had to get them all to turn around before I could go to the next step.  I would go back and write a word and say, "OK, come up and mark the syllables."  The kids would remain facing the wall.  I went back and directed them to the front where the followed me and stared at the word.  One of them usually got it while the others watched. 

Fortunately, if other kids in the class got it, I started to hear Thai commands being yelled out.  A few classes never even got to yelling.  I would go through team after team to a completely tepid response.  Lesson plans are based on what you plan to do and how long you think it will take.  Getting an exact number is impossible, especially for a beginner.  But days where a game completely failed left me dumbfounded.  I do have 14 classes, though, and basically teach each about the same thing, so I got lots and lots of practice to hone my skills.  Ironically, whenever I thought I had mastered a game, I would go to a class who once again just didn't get it. 

As I saw that some days just weren't planned out enough, I started recording music onto my computer.  Most of my classes have heard, "We Will Rock You" and a number have gotten the chance to sing, "YMCA" with teacher, including the arm movements. 

At the end of the day I go back to my teacher cave and lick my wounds from the battles of the day and try to figure out what worked and what didn't.  As I have mixed success with activities I realize that certain factors, such as my ability to explain and an individual class' ability to understand, I try to not drop activities completely.  This week I also hit upon music.  I found the words and chords for John Denver songs, whom I always liked, and also a video of him singing.  I had the class listen to the video and then read the words aloud.  I usually got them to sing the chorus as I read the words.  We would then sing along with the video.  One class even had a guitar, so I picked it up and played and sang directly to them.  I did this in what I consider my most difficult class, 7th period on Friday, a class that starts at 3.  What could possibly be a worse time to teach?  I managed to get them to sing along, but felt like they still were too distracted.  I left for the day feeling a bit disheartened.  Then yesterday, many teachers and students were back at school to prepare for an upcoming inspection.  A group of boys from that last class walked by me and started singing, "Country Roads."  They said they were my fan club. 

Who knows?  Maybe I will figure this teaching gig out after all.

As Han Solo said to Luke, "Don't get cocky kid."


  1. it is very different .. I found that teaching Thai kids is a real stresser.. they are taught from the beginning to memorize, not learn .. for a foreign language that is not too bad, but they are so shy often it is hard to get them talking.. that is why they use group talking, like singing as they are used to doing things in groups .. you just have to be patient .better to teach them a little well, then to try and do so much they get nothing out of it ..

    work on real basics.. most can read pretty well, but the speaking is tough .. one thing I found is that I am large, standing over them was threatening to them, so I would kneel to get down to their level, it helped a bit .. if you can get them to pronounce some words correctly that is good

    you are correct, loud does not work any better than quiet.. repetition is good, take simple phrases and have the class repeat as a group . walk among them to see if they are getting it..

    then try to have small groups have a conversation, like role playing .. one says hello, the other how are you, the other I am fine and you, this kind of thing .. if you can get them used to talking it will help a lot

    good luck

  2. The memorization does give them a large vocabulary so I do what I can to take advantage of that. I am pretty green at organizing role playing activities. This week I am going to have them take orders from a KFC menu I found. KFC is the big chain here that draws kids like flies.
    I like problem solving. I just have to keep reminding myself that I cannot change the country, just a few souls.

  3. Hiya Roy - You are great - You attack a class like you would an audit - thinking each task through and what is hopefully to come of it. Am pulling for you seeing more and more 'breakthroughs'.
    Sesame street - that is where kids learn numbers and letters. Maybe if you download or copy some of those songs and plays, they can be used in your classes. Take care ~ Darcy