The sublime to the ridiculous… Cambodian Idols.

Lawks a lordy I have literally no idea how to process the last couple of days teaching experiences.  I genuinely don’t know if I have offered up a unique pedagogical opportunity to my fortunate students or belly-flopped rather than dived into educational areas of which I know nothing.  Maybe I’m trying too hard.  Maybe I can’t read the situations properly?  I do know that in the middle of one of yesterday’s class I would happily swear to having had an out-of-body experience, the situation was so surreal. I was aware of sitting nodding sagely at a student’s heartfelt presentation was simultaneously looking down on myself and crying, doubled up with the kind of explosive unstoppable laughter that only those who ever occupied Priory Terrace at the time of the mushroom incident will ever be able to fully appreciate.  I’m sorry for that niche audience reference, but no other analogy will do. (This one’s for you EWFM, work it).

So, what happened was this.  I am on a mission to make my lessons as interactive as possible.  On the whole, this is a good thing, it generates energy, but inevitably some of my initiatives will misfire.  So this week we had paper aeroplanes (hit), balloons (good in parts) and on Thursday it was ‘stop thief!’  Because we’ve been working on descriptions, I came across an exercise where you tell students there has been some crime committed, but the thieves have been caught on camera.  You give a description of each of the three culprits, and students have to listen carefully, and draw them as best they can.  The idea is that this should be FUN and ENGAGING and LIGHT RELIEF.  So I came up with a scenario that $100 dollar bills had been stolen from CWF as I was confident they’d get the joke immediately – fake one hundred dollar bills being forever scattered like confetti across my classroom.  The first time I did the exercise (with the later group) they got it immediately, it went well, they enjoyed it and it really did test their listening skills.  The second time I did it with the earlier group. Well, I’d say comical misfire.  In the first place, initially they were horrified thinking this was a real crime – despite the walls being adorned with the photo-fit drawings made by their student peers in the parallel group the day before.  In the second, they didn’t seem to grasp that it didn’t matter if their pictures were not quite up to gallery display standards, it was supposed to be FUN.  It was hard work, took ages, and although they laughed at their finished offerings it was more stressful than fun-filled as an activity.  It remains extraordinary to me how the same exercise can be received so differently between the two groups.  I honestly don’t think I did anything all that different in how I presented, if anything I did even more elaborate re-enactment of the crime the second time around.  You’d think with my exaggerated tip-toeing around and snatching of fake notes they’d have got the idea.  But no.  Is it because there is or because there is NOT a version of Crimewatch in Cambodia that they struggled with my (I thought brilliant) mime of a sneaky thief.  I have no idea.  Their pictures are fun though.  Look!  Though it’s lucky that crime didn’t happen, as with these photo-fits we won’t be capturing anyone any time soon, though you never know..

So then, continuing the describing theme, I got one group to do an exercise where they had to write a positive description of themself on a piece of paper.   They then crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it on the floor (variation on the snowball fight game), the paper balls are hurled around furiously, and then each student picked up one of the balls.  They uncrumpled it, and read out the descriptions but without saying the name of the writer.  Others had to guess who had written it.  This exercise was both hilarious and revelatory. I was frankly astonished at how well they did.  Also, how funny they were.  So titbits included ‘I am not famous yet, but I will be very famous one day‘ and another student described herself as ‘very attractive, studying to be a nurse but I hope to be a doctor one day.‘  she outlined her hobbies, her appearance and concluded ‘so if you are single and handsome, send me your CV.’  You go girl!  That’s great, aspirational, picky, focused.  She will go far!  By Jove, I think they’ve got it!  I can’t judge if I am teaching them anything at all, or whether they are using language they already came to class with. On a good day, I like to think I am motivating them to use this language.  Worst case scenario, they make me laugh.  A lot.   The thought that Cambodian students exist purely to provide me with enrichment on my travels may be shallow, but it is nevertheless a boon to my volunteering experience.  Oh, here is the snowball fight aftermath by the way:

Anyway, that was all a massive digression.    Sorry about that.  I really wanted to tell you about yesterday.  Yesterday was the climax to a whole week of build up to them giving their own presentations.  I have been banging on about this all week.  I think it is good for them to present in English, they find it hard, but seem to enjoy it retrospectively.  I had forewarned them, and told them the topic would be an idol of their choice so they could bring in a picture if they wished.  I was all set for this activity, having scoured the Russian Market for goodies they could use to embellish their posters.  As the hour approached, my nerve failed me somewhat.  What if they didn’t engage in the activity, I didn’t really have a back up plan as such.

In the event, both groups did engage, albeit in their own unique and idiosyncratic ways, this left me somewhat perplexed about whether or not we had done a good thing.  Oh well.

So in the first group only four students turned up. The two young women came armed with pictures of their idols – a Cambodian singer Eva, Jack Ma (founder of Ali Baba) and they were tooled up ready to go.  I could have kissed them. The two young men had made no such efforts.  They both went with Ronaldo and spent ages drawing a picture of him at the expense of coming up with any text.  I misjudged the timing a bit, which was a shame.  The presentations were a bit rushed, but I think it was still a useful exercise. I was impressed by them.  I’d like to do more with them about how to deliver though.  Not so much the English, but being able to face a group, and talk with confidence.  The English will come.  Here they are though, proudly working on and then displaying their work.

So, whilst they were all heads down working on their presentations and shunning my help. I hit upon the idea of giving each student who presented a congratulatory postcard.  I bought a load of postcards of scenes from the UK with me, but haven’t really used them as yet.  I wrote an individual card for each student, thanking them for their wonderful presentations, and had them ready to present at the end.  I saw this impulse through, but wouldn’t do it again.  Firstly, it was fraught deciding which postcard to give which student, as I was acutely aware that some scenes may have more currency than others.  Then, there was the fact we were running out of time, so basically, they wanted to escape the classroom, not hang on so I could dole out postcards to each of them. Finally, they were a bit nonplussed, not seeing the connection between the postcards and the activity.  Maybe they will when they read them later.  Ironically though, as they left, they did exaggerated thank yous with the palms clasped, so I think they did really like them, they were just caught unawares so to speak.  On balance, I think the session was worthwhile, but not as slick as I’d have liked, I missed some of the learning opportunities by not quite timing it right.  Ideally, they’d have had the chance to present the same posters again.  I think if I did that stretching it to the other side of the half term break that would be too much.  Oh well, I am a reflective practitioner, I shouldn’t beat myself up too much, just try to learn from it, and improve on it next time around.  Here they are in a group photo at the end though.  Aren’t they a super talented lovely bunch.. even if they are sporting slightly ‘I‘d like to go home now‘ faces!


So then we get to group two.  Who were sooooooooooooo focused, they basically worked in silence, pretty much shunning any offers of help. They were really engaged in the task.  Some had brought pictures with them, one had the bright idea of using a picture on his phone which he attached to the white board with double-sided sticky tape.  An initiative which I considered high risk, but it was a risk he was more than willing to take!

The thing that moved this session into a parallel universe though, was the request by one to give his presentation on a different topic.  He wanted to talk about hepatitis, he is a nurse, and interested in preventative health. I for my part am a naive and inexperienced TEFL teacher. I considered for a moment.  What could possibly go wrong?  I am a student-centred teacher.  If this student wishes to present on a topic he feels passionately about who am I to stand in his way.  I shall be flexible, I shall be the great enabler.  Why not.  ‘of course, that’s fine’ I said.  Without in any way, shape or form having any understanding of the consequences.

So my students laboured, I wrote my postcards in anticipation of their presentation successes, and made periodic forays towards each student offering help only to be shooed away.  They are truly independent learners.   The only one who needed help was the nurse who was struggling with more technical language – as was I.  It turns out how the liver functions is not one of my specialist subjects, even though I’m sure I did cover that at Biology O-level back in the day!

There was mixed take up of the proffered tinsel, felt tip pens and glitter, but hey ho, I showed willing.   Eventually, I called time, and one by one they took to the floor. They were, for the most part glorious.  I’m not allowed favourites of course, but allow me a soft spot for the student who gave a really impressive rendition of one of his idols most famous songs.  This spurred another student to rush towards him with a tinsel garland and pronounce him Cambodian idol.  I love it when they do this kind of anarchic but joyful improvisations.

Then there was the student who chose President Obama as his idol – what a great choice, and how timely (and poignant) right now.  In his presentation he noted that ‘President Obama is very good-looking, not as good looking as me, but quite attractive even so!’  Genius use of the English language.  I am looking at these students with their humour, insights, aspirations and I really wonder where they will end up. Where will their dreams take them. If I could help launch them on whatever trajectory they seek by a sheer effort of will I would.  Life in Cambodia is hard at times, but these students are grabbing the opportunities that present themselves, and in some ways they are fearless. Their grasp of English isn’t great, but their desire to communicate is so strong that communicate they will.  It turns out you need a lot less grammatically correct spoken language to build a rapport and a relationship than you might think.  I can learn from this insight too!

It was a diverse lot of presentations, all had merit.  Again, I wished I’d allowed longer so there could have been bit more finesse and polish, but each acquitted themselves with dignity and ‘took a bow’ at the conclusion of their talk. It was joyous!

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So, then the final student stepped forward.  He was to speak on his chosen topic of hepatitis.  Now, if I’d thought about it, I’d have maybe grasped this was not going to be a laugh a minute sort of scenario. If I’d considered the student, who is of a serious disposition, I might have considered that putting a time limit on the presentation could be a useful option. The thing is mostly the students aren’t able to speak at length on any topic, hence all the scaffolding, prompting questions and hints and tips about what to include on their posters.  With this new student, not so. He knew his stuff.  So it was, that following on the heels of five presentations which culminated with sentiments along the lines of ‘and if i met my idol I’d… ask to sing with them/ get a selfie/ tell them how much I love them.’ was basically a ten minute public health lecture on the dangers of hepatitis, covering symptoms, transmission and preventative health strategies. It concluded with the plea that if fellow students wanted to learn more they should seek him out afterwards and ask for advice in Khmer.

His sentiments were laudable, his presentation excellent.  The fault lay with me.  Why is it that I did not have the imagination to anticipate that by allowing this free spirit choice of topic that I would find myself, set grin on face, listening to a student imploring his fellow students to always use a condom and avoid blood to blood contact in their daily life as part of TEFL class with beginner students!  It wasn’t that his presentation was funny, far from it. It was just the situation was so surreal.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.  It was just the juxtaposition of advice on sexual health in one presentation, to another presentation where the speaker compared themself and president Obama on the physical attractiveness scale was beyond bizarre.  One poster showing syringes and pools of blood, alongside another featuring a piece of purple tinsel shaped into a heart.  I was struggling to keep a straight face.  Wishing to encourage, whilst simultaneously wishing I’d never got myself and my other students into this scenario.  I think you had to be there.  Retrospectively, hilarious.

They too sat blank faced, and somewhat nonplussed.  I didn’t see a noticeable queue form to ask for follow up advice on hidden symptoms.  In a way, this is a shame. Here is a young enthusiastic nurse, with an evangelical commitment to improving health across Cambodia. I presume he saw the chance to convey a message, and he took it.  Afterwards on Facebook I posted the NHS link to common ailments.  He was desperate for the correct vocabulary to describe everything from itching to jaundice, it  may help.  He was certainly appreciative of it on our CWF student Facebook group afterwards.  I hope the other student nurse in the group – the one who wants to be a doctor eventually, may also find it of use at some point.

So, his presentation over-ran somewhat, and I didn’t have the heart to curtail it. The consequence was some shuffling as time ticked by. The session finished late, and again, my attempt to present postcards (this with the added bonus of a 5p piece as a piece of England for them to enjoy) was also met with bemusement.  Appreciative bemusement, but bemusement nevertheless.

So I left the classroom, having scooped up the debris left behind, feeling a bit dazed.  Lawks a lordy – what happened there?

Good, bad, I honestly have no idea.  At least I tried.  Surely it is better to try these things.  It wasn’t the best-managed of my classroom exploits.  However, at the end of the day every student who attended did get up and give an individual presentation in English. That’s intrinsically impressive.  They said more than I knew they could, and for the most part spoke on topics they have a genuine interest in.  It was not a waste of time, but I could have maximised the learning better.  Oh well.  Nothing ventured.  It was certainly fertile ground for the generation of amusing anecdotes. At the end of the day, surely that is what will endure in the memory, not the sinking moment in my soul when I realised how badly I had misjudged setting the parameters for the task in hand.  Also, I now know loads more about hepatitis C in Cambodia – also about TB, and tracheotomies, and I’m not even exaggerating for comic effect… but that’s another story.  These nurses – students or otherwise, certainly have a lot of questions.  I may take comfort that whatever the limitation of my teaching style, I must at least be approachable… for better or worse.

Oh and remind me to tell you about how I keep overshooting CWF premises.  I think it’s a tale worth telling.

Now we have a week off.  Happy holidays!




2 responses to “The sublime to the ridiculous… Cambodian Idols.

    • Oh wow, this is completely genius! I’ve set up a closed facebook group for my students so this is easy enough to share with him and I lurve that it has Sheffield as a backdrop! Is it shallow that my favourite bit is 2 minutes in when a woman in a cafe in the back of shot waves frantically at the camera? Anyway, I thank you! Lx


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