TEFL Tips… then again, what do I know?

I’m supposed to be lesson planning right now.  However, I’ve been somewhat thwarted in my efforts.  No internet at home, I went to the gym first thing for a run (ish) and swim (ish), and then I had to go to school CWF for a meeting.  A one to one to touch base on teaching progress/ issues.  It was only half an hour, and honestly, although I am facing some challenges, I do feel everything I’ve encountered is within the bell curve of normality for someone new to this role.  I spend far too long on either planning lessons, or fretting about planning lessons.  I’ve (so far) not had any completely dud sessions, though I have had some activities work better than others within a class, and I misjudge how long things will take – though that also varies between my two groups.  I think my fragile confidence correlates directly to my lack of experience, it also means I can take things a bit personally or catastrophise when things don’t go according to plan.  However, I know from talking to other volunteers we are all on the same learning curve, and facing similar issues.  I am doing no worse than others and better than some.  Not that it’s a competition, we will all find our own way through this journey I suppose.  Anyway, speaking to the education director was positive, he gave nice feedback about how I’m doing – albeit that is based on the impression I give of what I’m up to, rather than direct observation or feedback from students.  They don’t do student evaluations anymore.  Partly because it is time-consuming, and partly because the feedback tended to reflect the level of English rather than the competence of the teacher.  Lower level classes always say that teachers speak too fast for example.  Evaluation exercises are not routine in Cambodia so the whole concept is a bit alien for these students.  It was good to share what’s going on  – am I too off piste with my discussions when I should be covering the course book (no that’s fine as long as do cover topics broadly and bring discussions back to focus).  It didn’t make me any clearer about what I’m doing later on, but I feel Ok with what I’ve done to date.  Maintaining it is another challenge of course.  I had planned to stay at the school to lesson plan there, but no internet that I could access there either.  Hence I have ended up back at Joma Bakery for the reliable greek salad and roasted veg wrap.  It is nice, but pricey, but the internet connection here is robust, and I can plug in my laptop too.  However, the ambience is more leisure than work, so I’m procrastinating by writing this blog post.

As well as the one to ones (of which this was the first, just over two weeks in) we have had a series of teachers’ workshops which have been excellent.  I keep meaning to write them all up properly, whether or not I will I know not, however yesterday’s session is worth an entry.  The topic was basically on using media in the classroom.  That is, showing short films or audio clips.  Not something I’m likely to do giving the unreliability of internet connections here, but still helpful to cover.  The essential points are any media clip should be:

  1. Short (maximum 5 minutes)
  2. Action packed (something must happen)
  3. Silent (optional, but idea is to get students to verbalise what they see, not struggle to comprehend e.g. complex dialogue)

So we were shown/ invited to watch on our own devices a YouTube Pink Panther Cartoon, ‘Pink of the Litter‘.

It was to generate discussion on the topic of littering/ pollution.

The next stage was to use scaffolding, to help build up to discussion,  This began with introducing necessary vocabulary – a photocopied handout showing various things he tries to do with the rubbish i.e. burning, recycling, burying, dumping, flattening, shrinking and littering.

The suggestion was that for lower levels you might focus on ‘language functions’ i.e.

  • It is not allowed
  • It is forbidden
  • No dumping
  • You should not
  • It is prohibited
  • You can not

these are all phrases that can be re-used.  Lower levels might also be encouraged to act out the scenarios – using chairs to represent the dumper truck or whatever, and practising the dialogue in mini role plays.

For higher levels a handout with a table and two columns get students to write down ‘what the pink panther tries’ on one side (to dump etc) and ‘why it does not work on the other’ (because it is prohibited and he gets caught).  Then they can rank the various approaches in best to worst and try to get agreement as a class.

This can be extended into a debating activity with higher levels by helping them with phrases giving arguments for and against (pros and cons) but not stating whether they are for or against each point.  (We are told debating and arguing are also unfamiliar techniques in the Cambodian education system, so you need to provide A LOT of supporting materials).  Get the students to identify which arguments are pros or cons, and formulate these into arguments.

A further activity might be around entrepreneurship and recycling.  The concept of using rubbish to make something new is also novel here, recycling not having fully taken root.  So you might need to start with a commonly available waste item such as a rubber car tyre, and bring in items that have been made from it. There is a stall in the Russian market that takes tyres and reworks them into shoes/ bags/ purses etc.   Ask students which price each should be sold for and why.  Then do exactly the same activity, but get students into groups, and give each group a different recyclable item (paper/ plastic bottle) and help them to come up with ORIGINAL (not a pencil-case/ shoes/ bags) item that could be made from it.  We were warned that this activity is more challenging than you might think for Cambodian students, not because of the language, but because critical thinking and creative problem solving are not rewarded through the existing education system.  It means that sometimes blank faces staring back are to do with cultural difference rather than incomprehension of vocabulary.

Another video clip was for ‘I forgot my phone‘ which might lead into a discussion about good/bad manners.  Get students to simply describe what they see.  ‘Where is she?’  (in bed, in the park).  Get students to share if they have used their phone in any of these places and is that OK?  is that not ok?  What is she feeling?  What is he feeling?  At one point someone used the word ‘disinterested’ to describe what he was feeling.  I’d struggle to get across that emotion using smiley faces emoticons, but hey ho.

So that was all tickety boo etc.  But the really interesting point about the session, was some of the little detours it took us down.  For example, I learned that most Cambodians get their news from Facebook, but a lack of critical thinking skills means that they tend to believe whatever they read.  They do not filter out fake news stories – a troubling thought given their ubiquity in recent months.

However, the central point I wanted to make – see I get there in the end, is around the insight we gained into musical tastes in Cambodia.  Our education manager was telling us about some really big Khmer hits that stormed the streets of Phnom Penh in the last few years. One was a touching story about a young woman who is pictured in the music video as having a nose bleed, which is but a precursor to her having a diagnosis of a brain tumour and a horrible death.  My personal favourite though was a sequence of three related music videos which tell a story. The first in the sequence is called ‘I love you’.  The premise is that a woman working in a restaurant has a crush on her manager.  She attempts to bake him a cake, but in doing so somehow, (as you do) sets like to his restaurant, destroying his business and giving him disfiguring burns.  Oops.  The second song in the trilogy is called ‘it’s OK’, during which the disfigured former restaurateur is now working dressed as a clown selling sweets or something on Sihanoukville beach.  She on the other hand has gone on to marry someone else and have children with someone else.  In the third and final show-stopping song, the woman turns up at Sihanoukville and espies her old love. Their eyes lock just at the big roundabout there – which is very distinctive with its big lions in front of which I myself have posed.  As they see each other and experience that flash of lovers reunited… she is hit by a car and killed outright.  How lovely!  Apparently this is a common theme of Cambodian songs. They tell sad stories. Graphically.  Culturally alien indeed.  Is it wrong that I find that hilarious.  Probably.

STOP PRESS – I have the links:

1) Here’s the first installment of the infamous three-parter song “I’m sorry”. She shoves the cake in the oven at 3:00 (don’t miss it!)
2) Here’s part two. He’s disfigured at 2:10 (the big reveal!).
3) The grand finale: they are run over by a car and die in unison at 7:40 (for reals!).

I’ll add the link to the video if ever I find it.  Meantime, here is me posing in front of the Sihanoukville roundabout lions with my Intrepid tour buddies by way of illustration.  We are roaring, in case that isn’t immediately clear.  If I’d known about the video, we could have done a reconstruction of that instead.  Next time maybe.



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