Friday, September 14, 2012

Have Mouth, Will Talk

Next week will be the end of my first semester as a teacher.  It has been filled with challenges, frustrations and joys.  My contract says that I am to teach English conversation to the Mattayom 3 and 4 students; Thailand's way of saying ninth and tenth graders.  At the time, I was given no curriculum, had never taught high school before and couldn't understand most of the people I work with and for.  As frustrating as that may seem, I decided to dive into teaching as far as I could to see where it would take me.  I have been on a journey I never considered possible in my life.

As logical as it may seem to have a plan, I went through the beginning of the year with little plan from day to day.  I researched lesson plans of other teachers on various ESL web sites, took their worksheets and printed them out and then tried them on my classes.  On rare occasion a worksheet or other plan worked, but more often I would be given blank looks by my class.  As they started to see that I wasn't getting through to them, they started to be noisier and noisier.  A few times a class would get the better of me and I found myself angry with them.  I didn't scream or swear but they could tell I was upset and, what was even more aggravating, it seemed they liked seeing me upset.  At least that was my thinking at the time.  The reason I had no plan was because I had no idea what they could and couldn't do.  It was like someone had handed me 700 blank canvasses and I was told to paint masterpieces even though I can't even draw.

I kept looking for ways to reach them.  I figured teaching is my last opportunity and I refused to give up.  A few times I connected.  I taught them songs and, as I can sing and play guitar, they seemed to appreciate me a bit more.  I also did all I could to control myself in front of them to not let them know I was having a bad day.  Frankly, many of the classes were quite wonderful.  They responded to my questions, repeated after me, did their in-class work and even did their homework.  Other classes just got smaller and smaller as students disappeared before I arrived.

The school wanted me to rate each student individually.  I was given class lists in Thai which I cannot read and pointed to my rooms.  After a month, I got my wife to translate the names to English.  That is when I realized that there are few duplicate names in any class.  I didn't touch the lists for a while and kept on plowing into whatever lesson I could do.  Then a couple of weeks ago, I realized that through most of the semester, I hadn't gotten any of them to speak, at least not in any gradable fashion.  That is when I went back to my own school days and came up with an idea.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher, a strict older German man, though his most important job was to teach us discipline.  He had a daily rating system of stars ranging from gold to red and for the worst offenders, he gave a black dot.  The boys, of course, did all they could to get black dots as they were a badge of honor.  To keep track, he walked around with a small wire-bound notepad always at the ready to mark anyone's evil deed.  I hated that system and still do.  Then I thought there must be a positive way to use it.  I bought a notepad and brought it to class, holding it up for all to see.  "Whenever anyone answers my questions or speaks to me conversationally in English, I will give you a point for the day."  Then a boy in the back asked me to explain the system again.  "What is your number?" I asked, as each student has a number and it is far easier to keep track of.  I wrote it down and said to the class, "See?  That is all I need from you."  After that I gave them an in-class assignment to give me directions on a map I handed out.  The students almost knocked me over to get to speak to me.  For each, I noted their numbers.  I also told them that I will give them points if they talk to me outside class.  Since then I have been surrounded by students wherever I go.  It feels great.

I did also tell them that 70 percent of their grade with me next semester will require them to speak to me to add some incentive.  I don't know if this will work in the long term and I have to make it more challenging over time, but I think they are starting to understand why I am there and how they can succeed with me and English.

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