It’s Chinese New Year. Not actually today, but imminently. This isn’t a public holiday in Cambodia, not technically, but it’s pretty obvious from my students that it might as well be. Party mood has descended on proceedings, there is no class on Friday anyway, and students for my first class have already unanimously declared their non-attendance on Thursday. I don’t mind too much. I know I’m shallow, but I’d much prefer that nobody comes than just one, I have no problem with sitting about for 90 minutes prepping for my later lesson if my students are having fun cavorting about. English learning is supposed to be fun and voluntary, it’s up to students whether or not they come, I try to make it attractive enough that they want to do so, and mostly they do. But honestly, wouldn’t you rather hang out with your mates on a major festival day than head to a classroom in the evening for 90 minutes of language lessons irrespective of how delightful or otherwise you found your tutor to be?
So, it’s been a weird sort of week getting back to teaching again. After a 10 day break, it felt almost like starting a new job, I think the students were struggling a bit to get back into gear too, and it being a four day week means it doesn’t feel like a particularly serious reboot after the break.
For my first class, I did prepare stuff (we are now onto the topic of ‘the media’) but decided to put together a load of photos from my recent trip as a sort of warm up icebreaker. I’d already said I’d share these with the groups and they were pretty keen. It is a depressing fact that I will have seen far more of Cambodia in my short sojourn than most of them, and they are interested in their country. Also, it is less dry than some of the topics in the text books, plus they are of course massively curiously about me and what I make of their home. I wasn’t sure how much interest there would be, but in the event, we used the whole 90 minutes to talk about my break – as a spring-board for learning more about all of them. Both sessions were unexpectedly brilliant.
I am basically quite shallow, so I was incredibly touched by how many of them said they’d really missed coming to class. I shamelessly milked this though, getting them all to say that at the time class started they looked at their clocks and felt sad because they could not come. … one student pointed out that in fact he did come, only to find the whole building locked up and a note saying shut til next week. How he missed this fact of the half-term break I have no idea, it’s on the calendars, on their timetables, I put it on facebook and I mentioned it in class. Oh well. Shame for him though.
I had been worried that it would be a bit ‘soft’ and that learning might be a bit minimal, but in fact it was the opposite. They were so intrigued by the pictures of the flooded forest and the waterfalls it stimulated loads of questions and conversations where they were desperate to communicate. A lot of ‘new’ vocabulary was unexpected, they didn’t know words for things like bridge, waterfall, hammock, tent, camp-fire – even kitchen, but then why would they? This isn’t vocabulary that comes up in the text books. What I particularly liked though was how they shared their stories too. They recognised things like the casava drying and some of the scenes. My favourite photo of all time will now be this one of the rear view of an over-laden truck. I took it simply as a street scene example, you get these trucks everywhere. It took one of the students to excitedly point out it was laden with traditional Cambodian things. Pots with holes are filled with wood to make street side stoves. The shallow circular trays are used to toss rice into the air so their husks are blown away. They absolutely loved this picture, and explaining all the items to me, it was genuinely moving and exciting too, because the engagement was 100%. They spent ages focusing in on particular goods, and finding ways to explain to me what they were used for.
They were horrified by the rubbish in Stung Treng (rubbish and litter were also new words). This surprised me, as there is so much filth in Phnom Penh I thought they might be immune. I found out one of my nurses (I have four nurses across my classes now) wants to work in Stung Treng when he qualifies. He knows an organisation that can employ him, he wants to work with disadvantaged groups and also to be near countryside. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how spoilt much of it is, but it would still be a major improvement on life in Phnom Penh. They recognised the dragon boats on the silk island near Phnom Penh immediately, and told me all about the races and the water festival in the city. The beetle eating story they enjoyed, none of them would eat beetles – one maybe. The hundred pillar pagoda also went down very well. I think it features in a song, or the video backdrop for a Khmer song, they recognised it instantly despite it being so very far away. It was a remarkable and bonding sort of session with both groups. It is so much better when we are having a real conversation as opposed to a contrived one, I think they will retain more. Vocab may be a bit random, but it is based on a desire to talk, not arbitrarily imposed.
Of course, the session wasn’t without its blips. Like when I showed them the photo of me cycling and they said ‘no, that’s a man‘ and I said, ‘no it’s not, it’s me‘ and they still insisted it was a man. I know I am no beauteous incarnation of the feminine ideal, but I was hardly in disguise. I have a limited repetoire of clothes and have worn the very same outfit to teach in. Who would have thought putting on a pair of dark glasses and a cap would disguise me so effectively. Maybe I should consider a life of crime after all? On the plus side, I did teach them to say ‘you did all the work’ in relation to the kayaking, so that was good.
So that was Monday’s lesson, chatting about holiday snaps yes, but also hearing their stories and their dreams too. I learned where they want to go, what languages they speak. I even found out one of our group was in fact born in Vietnam and lived there until he was three. Another speaks Thai, one Chinese, what a talented lot. I love my students, there is so much to learn and be unlocked. We don’t have that much language shared, but with effort, it is amazing what you can communicate … there may have been the occasional resort to translation software, and there was definitely a lot of bad sketching on the white board too!
Goodbye Monday. Tuesday, well, we did technically move onto the book, but it was all a bit derailed by hilarity. I may need to rethink where the pendulum is on the swing from ‘making it fun’ and ‘speaking English’. Today in one class one of my students was laughing so much she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes whilst tears rolled down her cheeks. I’m glad she was so happy, I can’t know even remember why, it was a pretty unimaginative lesson. I was just using the book, but i do use high theatrics to convey things, well I don’t think they are that high drama, but I suppose the techniques are unfamiliar.
I had another new student join the second group on Tuesday (give me strength). This is disruptive, but not disastrous. She has chosen to move from another group which was too hard for her. It seems rather late in the term to do that, but hey ho. In fact, I think she’ll be OK, her pronunciation is abysmal, but she was quite game and coped with my exuberant class. Oh that was what set off the giggles, I remember now. I was making them all introduce themselves. They were a bit mechanical, so I was doing an example of speaking in a monotone, bored ‘nice to meet you’ sounding really insincere and uninterested, and comparing it to an OTT leaping to my feet, hand shaking enthusiastic introduction to make the point. The new student initially looked a bit scared, but got into it, and my lovely students raised their game and did completely exaggerated introductions. I loved them for it. She came back the next day anyway, so that was good. We laughed a lot, but made little headway on the topic, oh well, introductions are important.
Wednesday then. Attendance was dropping off. For the first group I began trying to use the book, but they weren’t engaged. There were only two of them anyway, and then one of them mentioned he was going away with a friend for the weekend and climbing a mountain in Kampot province. He produced a video clip (yes, I know, I colluded with that distraction too) and it was of him and his friend setting like to some kindling to smoke some bees out of a nest they had found in a tree so they could retrieve the honeycomb, which they ate with salt. It was such a good story. I ended up drawing it all out and then we constructed a couple of paragraphs about his trip, by the time the third student joined us half an hour later we were committed to this approach. We therefore spent the whole lesson on his story. I wondered if that was a bit too much for his benefit, but they all seemed interested. They like these conversations, plus more new vocabulary – hammock, honeycomb and campfire for a start. I made them each read it out, which they found really challenging. So I think it was educationally justified.
I’d picked up on the fact attendance was going to be lamentable for Thursday, so I asked them directly if they’d be coming. Pretty much unanimous ‘no’ one was wavering, but clearly the temptation of no-one else coming was too much. I went down to the staff area later and excuse slips tumbled out of my pigeon-hole like am impromptu ticker tape parade. Three names on one slip – indicating they had gone en masse to give their excuses – a dead giveaway for a collective impromptu decision!
The second group was on particularly good form. One immediately explained he was in a good mood because he had been given a bonus by his boss for Chinese New Year. He showed me a picture of four red envelopes with gold chinese script on it. He’d got around $100. There was much comical sucking up to him to try to get him to take us all out. It was explained to me that it is a tradition for Chinese New Year to give money – your boss or older siblings will give money. I rolled my eyes and said I supposed that meant I’d have to give money. So I got out my stash of fake cash and gave every student $400 dollars, which absolutely delighted them! Very sweetly, one of the gave me a 100 reil note in return! I was equally delighted – it amounts to about 2 cents – nothing really, but I’m going to treasure it! Love my students.
It was another riotous session, I think I worked a lot harder than them though! I’d round a news article about an unsuccesful robbery attempt by four moto riders in Phnom Penh. It was short, but had a lot of vocab. I ended up having to do a lot of acting out and running round and toppling of chairs to signify toppling of bikes, all of which they found extremely entertaining even as I was inwardly kicking myself for not realising how tricky it would be. The writer had used a lot of alliteration in writing, so for the students reading it aloud was like doing a whole paragraph of tongue twisters – so that bit at least was entertaining for me. I also told them about the fellow volunteer who’d been robbed… but had her purse returned. They were amazed to hear this. Interestingly, this group claimed not to have been targeted, I had the same conversation earlier in the year with my first group and all of them either had been victims of bag-snatching or knew people who had.
So at the end of the session I again tried to find out about attendance for the next day. Not looking good. Two young women delightedly told me they would be partying together. I think they have become friends through the class which very much pleases me. Four though are definitely coming. For the first group that would constitute enough for a formal class, but it’s only about a third of this one, so I asked what they want to do. Well, what they really want is a party. I’m not organising that, but was very pleased to demure to their alternative idea which is that we ‘just talk’. Brilliant. I might take along some Sheffield pamphlets or something, but otherwise, happy for them to use the time as they wish. Three of the students I know will be fine with this, one is new anyway… there was one absent student though who is more book focuses, I’m going to take a gamble he won’t come anyway. We shall see.
So that’s back to teaching for the post-break week. It’s been quite relaxed, good fun, I’ve not made great progress re the text-book, but I do feel that a positive relationship exists between me and my students and that does maximise the talking that goes on. It’s been a strange week too though, I found it hard after a week off. I’m a bit restless, I’m ready to move on I think. I don’t like Phnom Penh, and I’m tiring of the dirt, the noise, the pollution and the heat. I think this next month will fly by, and I’m scared about what comes next, but even so. I know I’ll cry when I leave, just because, but I also know I couldn’t make Phnom Penh or even Cambodia my long-term home. I had been toying with that possibility before I came. It’s been a blast though (mostly), an adventure sometimes and I hope in my small way my life is not inter-connected with that of my students, I’ll definitely remember them, and I really hope that some of them at least will remember me (in a good way!). Who knows?