The wisdom of Solomon?

Well hardly.  In fact I am only required to pick a number between one and five basically, and that’s it.  But I’m agonising more than seems either proportionate or humanly possible.

So, from week three, we have to start giving our students a grade based on their performance in class.  20% of the score students get is from attendance, 80% is based on how they perform in class.  Fortunately, we have been given some guidelines on this… unfortunately, this does not prevent me from over-thinking everything and becoming paralysed with indecision about how to score my beloved classes. So the guidelines are basically these:

Weekly Assessment (80% of Final Mark)
This is definitely not a test; it’s just to keep up to date with the progress of the individual student. After 9 weeks, students will be given a certificate of successful completion of the level if their assessing result is 50% or above. This also means that your students will be allowed to sign up for the next module.

You can give the score any time during the week, but as it is a mark about progress during that week it’s probably best to do it at the end of the week and give feedback where necessary for the next week.

The students’ performances which we want to observe are:

  1. participation and enthusiasm
  2. ability to understand questions/teacher
  3. ability to answer questions/teacher
  4. ability to use/reuse learned material
  5. ability to pronounce learned words correctly

Each observation/statement is ranked with one of the following:

To make it easier for you, you can just rate your students 1 – 5 . After week 9, the Academic Coordinator will calculate these scores and provide a draft for you to confirm.
When you are rating your students you need to remember that the CWF model is to create an informal and dynamic learning environment so as to encourage students to practice English as much as much they can. The CWF model having practicing and speaking English without teaching grammar as its core, you may find rating the performance of your students at number 2 and 3 don’t quite work with the lower modules; however, it’s just a guide for you and you will find the best way to rate them as far as you know them.

Attendance (20% of Final Mark)
The attendants score will be determined by Academic Coordinator, xxx by reviewing your students’ attendance list.

So that all seems pretty straightforward, but yet it isn’t. The issue is that when I’m assessing, I find it confusing to know how much are students progressing in the lessons (which should be the criteria) or how much have they brought with them.  Attendance is really erratic, so if a student only comes once in a whole week, clearly, they can’t possibly have covered the material in the chapter.  However, if I penalise them for this, then that is really a double penalty as they are already penalised for non-attendance (there is a minimum attendance requirement to pass the course).  Students who don’t attend but have been excused are even more problematic. The school has effectively said it’s OK for them to miss four sessions because they are on a trip to the provinces, but they just aren’t there, even if that permission is granted.

Then there are the students who hardly ever come, but when they do are so engaged, funny, creative and participative, it seems impossible not to give them recognition.  Other students make me laugh (always a boon) because they are so ambitious with their language and vocabulary. Thus pronunciation might be so distorted I have no idea at all what they are trying to say, yet you have to admire their tenacity and innovation in trying to be more adventurous and they are really using the language in original (sometimes VERY original and even unique previously undiscovered ways!)

I want to be fair to all my students, but it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the one who when instructed to use a model dialogue and play the part of a stall holder so others could practise vocabulary for buying and selling went entirely but hilariously off piste.  Rather than the more conventional ‘how may I help you?’  He went with the more authentic Cambodian traders techniques of ‘beautiful lady, for you I do an excellent price!’  I mean, that is certainly communicating in English and his meaning is clear.  So was the potential customers response ‘I don’t want to buy from you because you are a creep!’.  In the same session people protested at being cheated, over charged, tried to haggle and all sorts. I was in stitches.  I also taught them vocab for ‘I’ve changed my mind‘ so that was useful and important too!

Then there are the way more elaborate conversations I have with some of the students whilst waiting for others to appear. These are often completely off topic, but genuine communication takes place, and the motivation to understand and be understood really stretches learning.  So I have a student that is training to be a nurse who wanted to know the English for different types of stroke – (took a while to get there, he kept saying ‘sock’) – I think (from talking to another volunteer who is a nurse from Australia) that he was after the difference between haemorrhagic and clot caused strokes.  Another student is now able to explain she is studying to be a laboratory technician at university, but goes to the hospital on placement each day to gain practical experience. When you consider they can say this but not clearly intone ‘how much is that please?’ you may see the dilemma!  Should I reward students who are so advancing their language skills in that direction, or is that favouritism and too unrelated to the actual course.  Will students even care?  Ultimately, if I pass them and they don’t have the course book vocab nailed the may struggle if they move on to the next book series.  If I fail them they may become demotivated.  On the other hand, they come here because they want 90 minutes conversation with a native English speaker, what does it matter if they have to retake a course or not, they’ll still get that input whatever level they study at.

I find the genuine conversations much more interesting, if somewhat disarming at times.  I taught them all the words for bag-snatch, because I wanted to find out their experiences of crime in Phnom Penh. (What do you mean the students aren’t there purely for my edification and amusement?  I beg to differ!)  They enjoyed my acting this scenario out and all bar one have had stuff stolen.  Many of my students have come to Phnom Penh from the provinces for education and work. They too feel overwhelmed and disoriented by the traffic, the noise, the pollution the lack of green space and distance from friends and family. The students who are comfortable here and see its merits were born in the city, it is all they have known.

They defy stereotypes and generalisations.  No, they don’t like eating deep-fried tarantulas, at least one in my group seemed genuinely phobic at the very idea.  he did add in though sharks, crocodiles, snakes – I honestly have no idea whether they eat those things or not. They said they don’t eat dog though… I just spend my classes in perpetual cultural confusion.  Mind you, they do too.  ‘Why don’t you eat tarantulas in your country‘ one asked.  ‘We don’t have any‘ I said which is both true and the complete answer and doesn’t really convey the point at all.  I did go on to say that in my country it was considered very odd. Then they wanted to know what we ate that they would find odd.  I could only think of blue cheese, but didn’t really have any way to explain what it was even.  The principle of concept checking questions is all very well, but you need a way in…

When we were talking about different styles of cooking (frying, boiling, steaming, grilling, smoking) the conversations span off in all sorts of unexpected trajectories.  ‘What about smoking weed?’ enquired one student politely.  ‘Wood smoked food?’ I queried.  ‘No weed‘, the student persisted, eventually getting up and drawing a perfectly executed cannabis leave on the white board by way of explanation.  ‘oh.’  This is where it gets complicated with low-level students, you can’t do nuanced explanations.  ‘Do people smoke weed in your country?’ he persisted.  In the end, after correcting his vocab (it’s not weed, but more accurately cannabis – I didn’t bother with the word marijuana, they have enough difficulty pronouncing guava) I went with the ‘some people do but it is not OK to smoke cannibis in England’.  This was not enough, one had heard that it was OK, and lots of people did.  We ended up in quite a quagmire before I was able to move the topic on.

Who’d have thought steaming vegetables could also send the session into free fall.. One student added ‘in our country people get steamed too.’  Well, my eyebrows raised a bit at that one.  He meant steam rooms and saunas.  He is an intelligent and university educated young man with excellent pronunciation and better than average English.  I pursued the topic.  ‘Why do people use steam rooms?’ I asked. ‘because the steam rooms will make women’s skin go white‘.  I hesitated, was this a true belief or a communication issue.  ‘Will it make the skin go white?’ I asked.  ‘Of course, because the steam make milk come out of your skin and that makes it white.‘  I was a bit flummoxed.  This person is not stupid, but maybe this is ignorance in the true sense.  I think it is his genuinely held belief.  I didn’t want to ridicule it. Instead I sort of side-stepped it and said that in my country dark skin was considered beautiful and I thought it was very sad that women wanted to look other than they did.  I said I didn’t believe it would work. He gave me a look that suggested I was a bit stupid given the evidence to the contrary, mutual incomprehension not for the first or last time I suppose.

Sometimes at the end of classes I take a photograph of the white board so I can sort of grasp where we’ve ended up. I don’t know if it helps or not.  I post these on Facebook with a bit of explanation, well that’s the plan.  Sometimes student’s ask really clever questions.  I’d been explaining that if you say ‘I really don’t like such and such’ it emphasises the point.  ‘what about I don’t really like’ asked one.  Oh crap, that completely shifts the meaning doesn’t it.   Why is the English language so complex.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So the bottom line is that I think all my students are fab. I consider it nigh on miraculous that they communicate as well as they do and just three weeks in I’m not sure I can take any of the credit for that. I do believe I am giving them a lot of confidence to speak and that my approach motivates them to want to communicate.  It feels wrong for me to sit in judgement on them. I can barely say please and thank you in Khmer, and here they are explaining to me about bag-snatching and wedding ceremonies.

So, what will I do?  I’m taking 3 as the base.  If they get less than three they’ll fail.  So I ask myself, do I have a gut feeling this student deserves to pass.  If so, three minimum, if not, then I have to go to 2.  If they haven’t been at all, then 0 with a clear conscience as there is nothing to assess.  If they’ve only been once or twice, I don’t feel I can go higher than a three, and none of them are really outstanding, so I’m giving fours to a couple of students only, who seem particularly driven to extend their use of language.  They keep me on my toes too.  One thing I do need to watch though is gender preference.  Mostly in class I do things with students individually, so that isn’t an issue. However, i have noticed that when I do e.g. hot seat style games, the young men do dominate and the young women seem to fade into the background more.  I can’t assess what I don’t see, I need to be particularly alert to that.  I shocked myself by allowing that situation to emerge.  Gender inequality is everywhere alas.  Playing veg hot seat was still a lot of fun though.  I still think saying ‘Halloween’ to get a student to guess ‘pumpkin’ was a bit cheeky, but it made me laugh, which is obviously the priority!

Right, off to mark my students in pen now.  Eek.  I feel so responsible.  I hate summative  feedback, particularly when something is as nuanced as this.  Oh well, my consolation is that we can amend our results later on, I’m sure I’m not the only, nor first or last TEFL teacher to wrestle with uncertainty over grades!  Actually, my greatest consoloation is that I won’t be required to bisect an infant child either, so maybe I could usefully put some perspective on this.

Happy new year.  Here is an owl.  I don’t know if it’s wise or not, but it looks a little alarmed, thereby encapsulating the image of wisdom juxtaposed with a slight look of alarm that seems to me to capture the angst of indecision.  Right, need to stop now, I’m getting an allergic reaction to incense, someone somewhere is burning buckets of the stuff and it literally brings me out in hives.  Not a look many can carry off, me neither.  I need to shower and take evasive action.  Sorry if that’s over-sharing!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s