Once more unto the breach dear friends… and a potato for the teacher

That’s probably a really inappropriate heading to be fair.  It’s not warfare teaching, au contraire, most of the time it’s hilarious.  Even so, a week off for half-term, followed by a rather patchy week of teaching due to Chinese New Year and thin attendance meant I wasn’t really feeling the love returning to teaching yesterday evening.  Last week was all fine and dandy, lots of laughs, conversations, messing about in English, but not much hard language learning. I felt I ought to return to the text-book and reboot the formal learning environment a bit, but was worried it might kill the mood dead. For me it is a dilemma, I find my ‘best’ lessons are definitely when we have free conversation, and try to communicate about ‘real’ topics of interest to us all.  However, I do have to concede there is a syllabus to be covered, and I do my students a disservice if I don’t engage with it adequately.

This week, the topic is ‘feelings’.  It’s pretty broad brushed at this level, encompassing everything from feeling hungry, to feeling in love or feeling bored.  No nuances here.   I had prepared endlessly, but still wasn’t feeling especially confident.  It’s so hard to know what they will find easy or already know, and what will be new, challenging and unfamiliar.

The first class looked like it was going to be very thin on the ground.  For the first five minutes it was just me and one student.  On the plus side, he brought me in some starchy root veg, which he called ‘Cambodian potatoes’ and which might be casava.  His mum had cooked it for me, I was really chuffed.  I didn’t try it until later on, and it is potato like, slightly sweet, maybe more like a parsnip?  Nice, but unremarkable, would be better hot and with some veg or something.  The picture is unfair, making it look absolutely rank, but you need to know my camera is finally in its death throes.  It is very, very sick. It sometimes splutters out a shot, and then gets really hot and bothered and a random light flashes and it wont switch off.  Photo taking is like the good old days of ‘proper’ film, when you just pointed your camera more in hope than expectation, and were grateful if it was broadly recognisable a few weeks later when the developed prints arrived through the post resplendent with the information labels telling you what was wrong with them.  My photos are all a bit over-exposed.  I probably should accept defeat and make the rest of my trip pictureless, but as long as the camera can spit out one or two, I’m reluctant to do so.  Anyway, here is the picture of my gift of ‘cambodian potatoes’ definitely an upgrade on the ‘apple for the teacher’ ruse in my book!

After another five minutes, a second student materialised.  All smiles. We had just about contracted to spend the time ‘talking’ when another two appeared.   One at 5.15, which had the effect of us marveling at how early she was, as normallly she has to lock up at work and so is always about half an hour late.  It is so true we teach people how to treat us. The student who was but 6 minutes later than usual is usually a couple of minutes early, so I had already marked him absent on the register. Double standards I know.

So, we did a bit of a ‘what did you do over the weekend’ chit chat.  That was quite interesting, I like hearing what they have been up to. Then we moved into the lesson.  I made the mistake/ genius move of seeing if they knew ‘if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!’ song, which I’d forgotten was lurking in the deepest recesses of my memory banks, it arose almost unbidden. It seems cometh the hour, cometh the nursery song!  Amazingly, my students knew this song, they knew it well enough to be hugely entertained by my rendition, and they knew it well enough to join in the clapping, but not well enough to sing along with me apparently. Hum, I have my suspicions.  It took us though into a delightful tangential trajectory requiring the vocabulary for clap, slap, kick, punch, hit.  Is it appropriate that we used quite a bit of the next few minutes acting all these out with gusto?  I like to think it is.  They will remember the vocabulary they actually want.

There was a bit of a wobble at one point as I was writing on the board wondering why I was there, and feeling a bit along the lines of ‘I’m done with this teaching malarky’ but it passed quickly into mutual entertainment.  I deviated quite a lot from my original lesson plan, but that’s very usual.  However, I did use some ideas that worked quite well.  I’d cut out images of lots of different people conveying e.g. angry, hungry, embarrassed and so on. I gave each student three random pictures.  (Well, they may not have been entirely random distributions, I may have deliberately given the ‘in love’ one to a student who has been espied with her new boyfriend of late, and possibly the ‘tired’ one to the student who was late because they had been asleep).  Then we did a variant of ‘I went to market and’ except they had to say the feeling they were experiencing, and then remember everyone elses wtih he’s sad, she’s angry whatever and keep it going until everyone had covered all three emotions.  It worked really well, it took a lot of concentration and got their pronunciation nailed for differences between ‘hurt’ and ‘hot’ say and ‘angry’ and ‘hungry’.  I was quite impressed.  They can’t say ‘thirsty’ though, I pretty much abandoned trying to correct that!   We had a good interlude when they wanted to know the difference between ‘speak’ and ‘speak up’ I just got quieter and quieter until they had to scream ‘speak up’ at me.  It was very effective.

Then we ratcheted it up a gear.  They had to complete a little template

Hello, how are you?

I’m…. (whatever the feeling is)

Really?  Yes, you look (whatever the feeling is) why?

I’m … (whatever the feeling is) because….

This exercise was a bit of an afterthought to be honest, I wasn’t sure they’d get it, or if they did that it would engage them.  Alternatively, I was worried that they would get it, but lack the language to come up with anything.  How wrong I was.  It was great, took a while, but was highly entertaining.  So for example we had ‘I’m mad because she slapped and punched me’ to ‘I’m sad, because my friend lied!  He said I tried to slap him but it’s not true!’ and ‘I’m bored, because my friends are always fighting!’ Brilliant.  I think I share with my students the capacity to make my / our own entertainment. It was very appropriate language usage, and I think they’ll remember it, I really do.

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The next class was six strong. They came through the doors en masse bang on 6.30, it was me who had to go take a comfort break.  When I came back, they were sitting in absolute silence.  I made a joke that they were trying to hide from me. It wasn’t the high point of my comedic career I know, and it didn’t get much of a reaction.  I think tried to explain ‘hide and seek’ by demonstrating hiding under a desk and being quiet for a bit, and then giving myself away by giggling.  This is apparently the funniest thing that any of them had ever witnessed, seriously, EVER!  It certainly livened things up.

We had a brilliant session.  I followed the same format, but it flowed a lot better with a bigger group to be honest.  Also, they were deliberately ingratiating which I appreciated ‘I’m happy because English lessons always make me smile!’  I’ll gloss over the ‘I’m happy because in five minutes I can go home’ one, it doesn’t serve my purposes.  Anyway, I reckon by the end of it we were all back in gear.  Granted, attendance isn’t where it should be, but people are still away in the provinces so those who weren’t there will just have to pick up from when they join.  I do need now to cement what we’ve done and build on it in the next few lessons, but it was a promising start.

 

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The second group had more interesting stories of their weekend sojourns.  One explained about honoring his ancestors as part of the celebrations  for Chinese New Year – a couple of others had done this two.  The same student also talked about spending a day helping his family with their business as they grow coconuts for export to Thailand.  I wrote it up and then paused ‘don’t they have coconuts in Thailand?’  much hilarity ‘no, no, not coconuts!  potatoes!‘  Well, frankly, I’m none the wiser, but he seemed happy with this point of clarification.  By the way, I found out in Stung Treng that Longans are imported from Thailand, so maybe some random crops do cross the border in both directions despite ostensibly similar growing conditions.  It’s great when students tell their stories though. I’m tiring of Cambodia, well Phnom Penh anyway,  in as much as days have become a bit too predictable, and I feel too much a visitor not integrated and without Khmer friends, and then a student will share a story or an insight and all is well again.  I will remember them I’m sure, I wonder if they will remember me?  Probably next time they try to imitate a chicken, or rooster, or chicks, we spent quite a lot of time doing that.  I still think my chicken cluck was best.

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Hmm, you can tell my camera is sick though, increasingly blurry photos, sooner or later it will offer up its last.  Oh well, it owes me nothing.

I’m finding the facebook groups I created for the students quite useful by the way.  Not only can I post up new information and reminders, but they have started using it more too. They put up posts of what they did over Chinese New Year, and that leads to little written dialogues, not just between me and individual students, but with each other.  Two of the students spent time together over the break, I think they have become friends through their shared class at CWF, which is really nice if I’ve got that right, or even if I haven’t.  It also creates the future possibility of contact further down the line. It will be interesting to see what the future does hold for them, this way, maybe I’ll get to find out.

So I wonder what delights will be uncovered tonight?  Time will tell.  There are just three complete weeks left to teach now.   Time distorts, days and weeks rush past, but individual moments seem slow. Time travel I suppose, more common than you might think.

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