Two Days On The Job

I’m writing this on Wednesday, at the end of my second day teaching at the PIO school, created to serve the accompanying PIO orphanage.1 Already it’s exciting and exhausting and a little bit scary—while there seem to be many things about teaching little kids that apply to teaching college students, the reverse does not seem to be true, particularly when you don’t speak the kids’ native language.

Right now I am only teaching two sessions a day for “Grade 3”, a little over two hours out of my seven or so “at work”, but soon I’m slated to start teaching morning and afternoon sessions to Grade 4 as well.2 I’m still trying to get my footing here, but so far I’m mostly following whatever the actual teacher, Ms. Davy (pronounced “dah-VEE”, but with a [ʋ]), starts with in the morning. I come in and see what the day’s word set is, then read it over with the kids, so they can hear a native English speaker pronounce words.

There’s often a grammar note too, which I’ll try to clarify with some kind of chart. (For example, you can say “He wants it”, but not “Do he wants it?” or “Does he wants it?”. My explanation was that the “s” moves from the “want” to the “do”.3)

This feels like my usual modus operandi of “point me at a problem and I’ll solve it”, since I’m not generating so much original content myself. Maybe that’ll change as the days (weeks?) go by.

In the afternoon, after reviewing the initial material, I’ve made the kids write sentences, something which is a bit limited because (a) all the pieces are on the board anyway, and (b) everyone’s at a different level. Most of them spell fairly well, and the handwriting range is probably the same as what you’d expect for an American 1st or 2nd grade…not bad when they can already write Khmer. But their comprehension is all over the board…some are throwing in extra prepositional phrases for fun, others are struggling to make any original sentences, rather than just copying from the board. This is something I still need to figure out—maybe I can learn how to assign homework. (Small homework!)

I tried a partner exercise yesterday, but I think I need to nail that down a little more too, or at least learn how to say “partners” in Khmer.

Finally, each session we’ve ended up playing games. We started with Hangman, but I introduced a variant of Ghost that the kids have dubbed “the Left/Right game”…even when the teams are “Front” and “Back”.4 Each team takes turns saying a letter, and the first team to spell a complete word longer than three letters gets a point. If your team spells something that can’t make a word, you lose a point. I’ve also played with saying words and trying to make a sentence, which was supposed to catch grammar problems, but since the whole team shouts at whoever raises their hand very few have slipped by.

On that note, I’m trying to figure out ways to keep people from shouting out of turn. One way is by deliberately preferring to call on people who don’t shout out, but I’m not sure they’ve figured out that I’m doing that yet. Another way was by making “Yes/No” cards (just index cards with “yes” on one side and “no” on the other), and polling the room, Alex-Filippenko-style, about whether something is spelled correctly. Much quieter, but the kids didn’t like it as much.

This whole thing is one way in which these kids are different from those in my elementary school. I’ve certainly forgotten what it’s really like to be a kid—something I didn’t realize until I watched them play—but these kids don’t really have classroom discipline. There’s no real notion of being quiet or staying in your own space, and, not speaking the language, I can’t really provide negative incentives (i.e. punishment) to try to calm the classroom down. (Not that kids were always calm at my elementary school, far from it, but at least the assumption was that a classroom was calm.) This probably isn’t a Cambodia/US thing, though, just a quirk of the school and possibly a trait common to those living in a “family” of dozens. I don’t know. On the other hand, almost every student wants to participate, even if some are less than interested in actually learning English.

I’m trying to learn names, since I’ll be here for five months. Currently I’m going at a rate of one per day…but that’s still four months where I know everyone, right?

I’ve been spending my free time either just sitting and resting, talking (a little) to Ms. Davy, or with the kids. Yesterday I did origami for them (“you’re fast!”) and showed them how to stop a spinning coin under your finger; today a whole group taught me the Khmer words for parts of the body and for fruits, which I dutifully wrote down (in sloppy IPA) in my notebook. I also visited the orphanage yesterday (it’s only a block away), and played some games with the kids that I haven’t played in a long time: Duck Duck Goose, Down by the Banks (with different lyrics), and one with a chant that starts “sta-pa-rei”, which my mind parsed as “Star Parade”. In Star Parade, once the chant is over you have to freeze in some position, and whoever’s It will come around and put you in some pose. The first person to laugh is out and has to do some kind of forfeit—maybe lead a song, or maybe just get smacked by everyone in the circle.5

I’m kind of wondering if going to play with the kids on my first day was a bad move for getting the kids to respect me, since they were all watching me act like one of them, or rather try to act like one of them. They laughed pretty much every time I participated. But I think overall I want to be liked as well as be a teacher…even if that’s selfish. It probably did make the kids happy.

There’s plenty more to say about teaching English and about the PIO school/orphanage, but I think maybe it’s best to, say, finish one week before putting anything else down?

Still, how in the world can you teach a group a second language…

…when you don’t speak their first language…

…and they’re all kids, with more energy than focus‽

Your choice for the next topic: my host family, Phnom Penh roads and traffic (more interesting than it sounds), or the Khmer language! I’ll get to all three eventually, of course, and since I don’t check the internet very often I might just end up writing one or two anyway…

  1. “Orphanage” is a bit of a misnomer, since some of the kids have parents, but the parents live out in the provinces or just can’t afford to keep the kids year-round. These kids apparently still go home for holidays and such. I’ve decided I don’t really want to pry into who has parents and who doesn’t; it’s probably common knowledge among the students, but there’s no reason their temporary teacher has to know. ↩︎

  2. The grades aren’t particularly correlated with ages, which makes sense when you consider that the students probably didn’t come to the orphanage at the same age. “Grade 3” roughly includes some 6-year-olds all the way to one 13-year-old boy…again, not that I’m good at estimating ages. ↩︎

  3. When I took my Syntax class, the current hypothesis was that the underlying form of the sentence was “He does want it”, then the “do” is dropped and the “(e)s” attaches itself to the “want”. I think that’s too far from how the kids are learning it now, but it might be a good way to teach it, at least on paper. “This is how you say the sentence, but it gets shortened to that.” ↩︎

  4. All of this is because (being me) I wanted to avoid “team 1” and “team 2” or “team A” and “team B”. They seemed fairly happy with “Left” and “Right” once they remembered what the words meant. ↩︎

  5. Theatre Rice will recognize this as a variant of “Baby, I Love You”. Actually, TR is the closest I’ve come to kids’ games (not counting word games or sports) in the past several years. I considered teaching them Ninja but decided that (a) it’d be hard to explain across the language barrier, and (b) I didn’t exactly want to start more argument-fights between the children. ↩︎

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