Let’s talk.

I’ve learned so much from my students.


I was full of possible ideas for my students last week in CWF.  Maybe a year book, maybe an elaborate games week; personalised presentations? There are endless possibilities, but ultimately I’m exhausted.  I decided to just keep it simple, and I think, so far at least, that has been a good call.  So I just wrote out a load of questions and cut them out into slips and put them in an envelope. Students just take one out in turn, read it and then it prompts a discussion, or if not, we move on.

The questions are a mixture of review and revision; conversation starters; speaking practise; pronunciation challenges and just (I hope) fun.

  • What song did we sing at Christmas?
  • The price of rice is nice in my province
  • She sells sea shells, by the sea shore
  • What are the various stages of a Cambodia Wedding?
  • Which classmate is most likely to start up their own business?
  • Which classmate is most likely to study in America?
  • Which classmate is most likely to earn a million dollars?
  • Which classmate will be first to get married?
  • Which classmate is most likely to have ten children?
  • Who made the best paper aeroplane?
  • Which classmate is most likely to win The Voice Cambodia?
  • How many different fruits can you name?
  • Please introduce yourself to the group
  • Please make a noise like a chicken
  • How do you feel when you see a spider?
  • How do you feel when you come to English at CWF
  • What would you say to your idol if you could meet?
  • What are you going to do at the weekend?
  • What advice would you give someone who had toothache?
  • What time is it now?
  • What date will it be tomorrow?
  • What has been the best thing about learning English at CWF?
  • What would be your dream job?
  • Who is the tallest in the room?
  • Who is the youngest in the room?
  • Where is your favourite place in Phnom Penh?
  • Where is your favourite place in Cambodia?
  • lots more…..

You get the idea.

It was/is ridiculously simple, but pleasingly effective.  We sat in a circle, so it was quite intimate, but the trajectories the statements took us on were fantastic.

For example, in my second group,  four people considered themselves likely candidates to win The Voice Cambodia.  How to decide?  Well, obviously we had to have a competition in class. Each sang in turn, the rest of the group acting as judges.  Not only was this inherently brilliant and entertaining, my group are so lovely to one another. There is one student who seems a bit of an outsider.  He is from the province and has serious self-esteem issues.  I get the impression he is bullied at work (his boss gave him a smaller bonus than his colleagues, even though he works seven days a week); he works out on his own, but doesn’t seem to have any interests outside learning English on the internet, and he dropped out of university too.  He said he wasn’t good enough, but his English is very good, I think it is confidence (lack of). He sometimes fades into the shadows a bit in class, as the more boisterous others take over.  Well, I can report dear reader, that in this group, on this day, the class choise him as the winner of The Voice Cambodia. I know it might seem petty, but it was not just an appreciation of his talent (and he does sing well, though maybe lacking that elusive x-factor) it was like they gave him a group hug of recognition and acceptance, and he needed it, he really did.

Discussion on weddings led to quite a serious discussion about their own plans. Most of the young men (23 -29) in the group were adamant they wouldn’t think about marriage until they had saved money and were established in their careers.  A big wedding was important, yes expensive, but unavoidable and necessary.  One, the notable exception who unquestionably is smart and with an anarchic streak said he did not thing marriage and the wedding was an important thing.  He wanted to meet someone to share adventures with and travel the world.  I wanted to give him a standing ovation.  I think he means it, but whether that would be culturally acceptable or rather regarded with suspicion and as a lack of commitment I don’t know.  I expect the latter. It’s a shame, I can see him a future girlfriend plunging into the world together facing their futures side by side.  Maybe it’s lucky there are some language barriers, I’d hate to discover I have over-estimated his flair..

I asked them whether it was important to get a monk’s blessing on a possible union.  Yes.  Basically yes.  I asked what would happen if the monks said ‘no’ but you were in love.   One young woman in the group said she went to see the monks and they told her, her boyfriend was not good.  Her parents said so too, he is bad for her.  ‘What did you do?’  It is very difficult.  Upshot, they are still together, but the burden of this collective disapproval seems to weigh heavy on her shoulders.  Still, she perked up when she listed all the presents she had got on valentine’s day.  ‘What did you give him?’ I asked.  ‘Nothing! she guffawed.  I have not seen a diminutive Cambodian young woman guffaw so conclusively before.  It was a wonder to behold!

Fortune telling was also fascinating. They mostly claimed not to do this, but their parents would go if it was something important, involving money or business.  I’d told them the story of the guest house owner (Sary) who went to a fortune-teller for advice on whether or not to sell his business, even though he professed not to believe in such things.  This appears to my group of students at least an entirely consistent message.

There were some slightly odd moments.  One of my students said he was jealous because I was sitting with the female students and not with him.  I have to consider he might not be using the word as it is intended, but he looked really upset.  I had put myself with the women it is true, because the men can get a bit loud and take over, I was wanting to balance things out.  Incidentally, the one bit of language ALL my students can use is ‘just ignore him/ her/ them‘ and ‘that’s easy for you to say!’  It’s alarming (but pleasing) how frequently it is employed correctly within any one session.  It’s a great universal diffuser of tension though, if some students get too noisy, or speak Khmer or are in any way disruptive, the others love shouting out the phrases with appropriate gestures.  It’s very effective.  My work is (nearly) done.  I do love the thought of them shouting it out in class next semester with apt eloquence, and leaving their new teacher stunned and impressed in equal measure.  Loving it.

Even in the revision type questions they excelled.  So ‘introduce yourself’ went way beyond ‘my name is… I am from… in my free time I like to…’ Oh no, they talked about their idols, their dreams, why they were learning English.   I was just astonished.  I have no idea where all this language came from.  I haven’t taught them all of this, but I do think it’s like I’ve somehow given them the confidence to unleash it all.  Like a dam bursting the bottle neck of water/language, comes tumbling out. It is gushing, confused, and sometimes splooshing out all over the place, but it’s water all the same.  It doesnt matter at all if the grammar is confused or the pronunciation ropey, the important thing is that where there is a desire to communicate and understand their meaning is clear. They really, really want to share their stories. I  was worried my ‘lesson’ would be dull, and a bit lazy, but (so far at least) au contraire.  They love the challenge of not knowing the topic, and they rise to it every time, saying as much as they can.

The most contentious topic was really around who can make the best paper aeroplane. That’s OK, we’ll check it out again tonight.  I will bring paper plane construction materials, I will also bring a cake.  It’s my birthday, so it is apt, but it is also a way to say goodbye to them.  I’m hoping those dual distractions will be sufficient to fill the alloted 90 minutes for this our last ‘teaching’ session, before the final student party tomorrow.  Last gasp of farewells. There may be tears, and wailing and gnashing of teeth I expect.  Well, disappointment is inevitable at the BBQ KTV, I’m not expecting any vegetarian options on Thursday…

So maybe for teaching, it’s taken a while, but the best advice really is keep it simple, stupid. But dumbing down should only ever go so far.  Just look to America to see what might happen otherwise.

You’re welcome.



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