I had been looking forward to classes today, figuring it would be a breeze because I could just use the time for Christmas games. Easy. What I failed to take into consideration was that I’d be feeling lousy, that Christmas Games require more preparation than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve been there yourself, and also the complete incomprehension around Christmas for the majority of Cambodian people. On the one hand clearly it is not a festival that is celebrated here. On the other though, shops everywhere have Christmas decorations and the larger outlets enormous Christmas Trees so there is high awareness that Sunday is Christmas Day, but zero sense of what that is, not just in religious terms (I didn’t go there) but in secular ones too. It is comical really, how hard it is to explain Christmas to someone with no frame of reference when you have limited common language. Questions that particularly stumped me were around ‘is Father Christmas real?’ and trying to explain what mince pies and Christmas Crackers were. I did find a YouTube clip on how to pull a cracker, but I fear mince pies will have to remain a mystery. Not a great loss perhaps, I’m not a big fan of mince pies, though will always have one at Christmas and do a fist down into it ‘mouser’ as a tribute to my Dad who instilled this family tradition into me.
I also was in school in time to see other teachers who had already done their classes. (I always go in early to do prep, photocopying, and also to get internet access, it’s pretty erratic where I live – and at the school too, but you can but try). Those teachers reported blank incomprehension trying to get discussions going, and one who I’d done some lesson planning with (we’d had grand ambitions of interactive games) had found only two students arrived for her class, rather putting paid to many of her ideas. Uh oh. My confidence drained.
I went to my classroom early to take advantage of the air conditioning, and bumped into a returning teacher. He was good for my confidence actually. He was looking at the posters my students had produced the day before and seemed genuinely impressed at the physical output. I explained that it was somewhat tenuous as although the students had presented, there hadn’t been much talking at the planning stage, but he seems to recognise these issues as quite common and felt the presentations would have been valuable for students. Plus, when I explained about some of the students doing selfies with their creations threw his head back and laughed uproariously, agreeing that for these to have ended up on Facebook was surely all the validation any tefl teacher would ever need. It made me feel better!
The classes themselves took on different hues. The first class was heavy going. They didn’t seem all that engaged. One student who is normally really switched on looked exhausted and physically sat back a bit throughout. Was he feeling poorly, or just in dread of mandatory christmas singing, which I had warned them about. The format was similar in both classes. I began by eliciting what words they knew about Christmas. In the first group one is a really good artist, or good at drawing anyway, he did a picture of a Christmas Wreath for goodness sake! This activity led into Christmas Bingo. Where I realised they also didn’t understand why Rudolf? Why Turkey? I could explain Turkey, but Rudolf, that was hard. I showed a very few family photos of Christmas Trees, I don’t have many, but they did like that. It was also good because they were fascinated by the paper hats from the crackers. I so wish I’d been able to bring Crackers with me. I did think of it, but they are just too bulky to lug around. I am now wondering if I could have just brought the contents maybe, or got an assembly kit. Oh well, too late now. Here are pictures from Group One – all fell a bit flat, though they did try, they are very keen, but they weren’t feeling the love today, and my efforts didn’t really help.
Bingo was a bit flat with the first group, but a riot with the second. They are so into everything. They also really appreciated the new notes I’d got specially. In both groups I explained about exchanging Christmas cards, and handed out my rather flimsy improvised hand-made offerings. First group politely accepted them but were a bit nonplussed. The second group was genuinely excited. One student proclaimed it was his first ever Christmas Card and he would keep it for ever. I’d also distributed my tinsel to the second group, and this helped with the party atmosphere. Also in the second class, once I’d given them all a card, one asked for another, which I gave him. He then wanted to give it back to me by way of exchange, which was brilliant! I made them all sign it for me too, it was very sweet. Another student found a small package of biscuits to give me as a Christmas Present so they were definitely on it.
The groups are so very different. The next game was draw a star on the Christmas Tree, which involved wearing a blindfold, being spun round and then having to draw a star on the whiteboard. In the first group this was done and dusted in compliant rather than joyous style within a couple of minutes. In the second group they really got into it. Spinning one another dramatically to the point that one poor student was so disoriented he was really convinced the board was on the opposite wall to that it was actually on. I did have a few ‘health and safety alert’ moments, but crushed them for the greater good of uninhibited interactivity! Nobody died. Our education manager has said no student died from pronunciation practise (however inexpertly done) but he did not make any explicit reference to interactive games so it’s hard to be sure. Anyway, in the second group we ended up with a tie breaker rematch, involving three Christmas Trees, the winner got a festive tag that a fellow student had given me, it seemed a very fitting prize!
I can’t honestly remember the exact sequence of what followed. I do know with both groups we made sterling efforts with Jingle Bells. The first group did sing, but I couldn’t get them out of the room to perform to reception downstairs, so settled for them ‘performing’ for me. It was all ‘OK’ but not the riot of fun from the fun factory I’d been hoping for. With the second group it was a different story. It helped that some of then knew the whole of Jingle Bells – not just the chorus. So we could go through it all for some pronunciation practise, and all join in the chorus with the ‘hey’ loudly at the end. Then they did it without the song sheets, and I got them to stand as a choir before announcing we would go next door to perform for Teacher John’s class! (I had checked with him before hand that this would be OK). Their initial reaction was horror, but I was prepared this time, it was I who had instigated this activity, I would have to follow through, I must not show apprehension, hesitation or fear. I got them into the corridor, singing noisily, and then we burst into John’s classroom and broke into our song.
I was very proud and pleased with them. They sang with great gusto and loud ‘hey, hey!’s Genius. My fellow teacher was suitably awesome having prepped his students a little they were delighted by the interjection, one filming the whole thing on his mobile phone! We had a bit of banter because I said ‘Happy Christmas’ being from the UK, whereas in America apparently it is more usual to say ‘Merry Christmas’ not something to which I have previously given any thought whatsoever. Is that even true? It sounds plausible, I don’t know.
So our singing was an apt finale to the session. Which was a bit of a shame as I then still had 15 minutes to fill when we got back into our room. It was OK, we did some talk about when is New Year. Cambodian New Year is either 13, 14 and 15th of April or 14, 15 and 16th of April, I think. I rubbed the dates off the board before internalising them. We finished by revisiting the tongue twister specially created for Cambodian students ‘The price of rice is nice in my province’, there is a tendency not to pronounce the end of words, so this is hard for Khmer speakers. Afterwards one student (who is super keen, learns English off the internet and has very good skills already) asked about running the sounds together to improve fluency! Blimey, he’s way ahead of me. Yes of course I said confidently with my most radiant smile. These students are truly amazing.
So that was it. Christmas teaching done and dusted. I’m not sure what my overall reflections are. My second group had a riot and it was a genuinely good educational and fun experience. The first group? Well, not so much. I don’t think it actually bombed, just didn’t fly. I suppose not every session can be raucous play, and maybe there is room for silent concentration too, I just can’t judge whether those students got anything from the session. The vocabulary was so alien to them, and of limited relevance. On the other hand, if they want to engage with foreigners, and this is all about Conversations With Foreigners after all, then it is legitimate to spend time talking about this major secular and for some religious festival (though I didn’t get into any of the baby Jesus stuff).
In other news, a fellow teacher told me how walking to school he’d seen a child peering through railings at him, singing Jingle Bells, he sportingly joined in, and when it got to the ‘hey, hey’ end of the chorus, two local women in a tuk tuk, also shouted the celebratory chorus. That’s brilliant isn’t it. Jingle Bells is ubiquitous here – I’ve heard them singing it in the pre-school next door. They were having their Christmas party as I went to work. Tinsel, santa hats and an English language Christmas Quiz. ‘What goes on the top of a Christmas Tree?’ A star apparently, always. I thought sometimes an Angel, but maybe that is my family’s tradition.
Here are some random in the school building shots by the way, and views from around it. At the street behind out school is a primary school where we hear and see children running around the open walkways. The appearance of this building is significant, as the schools all have similar designs. It is quite chilling when you see how similar they are to S21, the converted school that was a torture and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge. I have been there, but still haven’t been able to write-up my experiences of doing so. (Actually, I have now, that was a jolly way to spend Christmas Day- with my account of S-21 and The Killing Fields!) It is so shocking, and such recent history, it is hard to comprehend. The architectural echoes of the torture centre and seeing a living breathing school someone compound the shock of what that building Tuol Svay Pray High School became. Again, this country’s history constantly brings you up short.
S21 – can you see the resemblance? I will get to this. The wire on the balconies was to stop women trying to jump to their deaths when being moved between cells to be raped by guards. That regime thought of everything. Happy Christmas everyone…
In other news, as we were leaving it was raining hard. I was not prepared for this, but it is never cold so I didn’t mind getting wet. My two fellow volunteers who live in the same apartment as me were however. This, dear reader, is what the beautiful people of Phnom Penh are sporting as wet-weather attire. You have to applaud a fine poncho do you not?