Progress Report: Grade 4 and the Teacher‑Class

Okay, this time I can really post about teaching. Like I said last time, I spent a month and half teaching Grade 4, and about three weeks now teaching Grade 6. (The missing time goes into the holidays and my early time in Grade 3.) In the mornings, I’ve taught high school kids for a month, and at lunch I do semiformal classes for the teachers whose English isn’t very good.

Can’t say it’s easy, but it’s all very rewarding…usually in a hard work way, but sometimes in small bursts of happiness. This post will talk about my first two classes: Grade 4 and the teacher-class.

Grade 4

At this point Grade 4 still feels a bit like my “home” class, though it’s sinking in that I’m done with them. As I said, I’ve taught them the longest of any class so far. I know maybe two-thirds of their names, and a number of them still smile at me, say hello, or sing a bit of one of their songs at me during breaks.

Grade 4 is about 35-40 students, though it’s rare to have everybody present. Because the students are placed into grades based on their skill level when they join the program, there’s a real mix of ages…maybe from 8 to 12. And of course age doesn’t really correlate with a student’s skill in English anyway.

The most common reason for absences is apsara dance lessons, which takes about 5-10 students out of the class for the whole morning or afternoon (i.e. all English class or all other classes that day). I can’t really begrudge the dancers the time, since it’s a semi-practical skill, and they perform whenever we have a welcome assembly for donors. (I don’t know if they do outside performances, but it would make sense.) And with regards to their schoolwork…well, a fair number of them are fairly smart, and one girl did apologize to me for falling behind.

The afternoon classes are broken into three periods of one hour, 45 minutes, and one hour, with 15 minute breaks in between. Three hours is a long time to study any one subject, and while some activities are less like studying than others (I’ll give some examples in a minute), the class is just too big for conversations, too cramped for movement activities or even line games, and lacking in resources for a lot of teaching methods I’d use. All we have is a whiteboard and whatever papers we copy ourselves and bring in, plus the students’ books. Now, since copying is actually quite cheap (not just in Cambodia but in the US too) that’s not so bad, but there’s certainly not, oh say, textbooks for every student.

(When I first got here, I really wanted an overhead projector…not a computer display, but a simple light-and-lens projector that uses transparencies. I’ve learned to live with just the whiteboard, but the advantage of transparencies is that you can prepare them ahead of time. I got in the habit of putting board-heavy activities at the starts of periods, so I could put up anything I needed to during the breaks.)

And what did I do with Grade 4? Well, there is a textbook for the class, but to be honest it’s not the greatest, and we only have the student books. Plus, it’s really hard to explain something like “met a movie star” when you don’t speak the language. (I can get “movie”, as “cinema”, and could probably fumble through “meet”, but I could not get them to understand “star”, and most of them were not ready to do any sort of past tense.1)

So, a typical day usually ended up starting off with a vocab review, then a run-through of whatever we did yesterday. I decided Grade 4 was most attentive during the second afternoon period, so for the most part new material went there. And during the last period, I’d try to come up with puzzles (word searches, jumbles, etc), and if the kids finished them with enough extra time, we’d play a word game…usually Hangman or a team version of GHOST.

The major units we did were calendars, weather (used as a vehicle for simple past/future sentences and “maybe/probably/definitely”), and compass directions. Sometimes I tried to get creative for how to practice, especially for the compass unit: doing a procedural dance outside on a tile grid (“North, South, East, West, Jump!”), “playing (Logo) turtle” on the whiteboard, running a maze as a class, or reading directions to the kids to make a picture (this time they’re the turtles). Some days, though, a simple “A/B/A” dialogue got more volunteers than any of my “creative” activities.

Oh right, songs! A week or so in, I decided to take the advice of Mad-Eye Moody (or Barty Crouch Jr.) and play to my strengths, i.e. do a song with the kids. We started off with the “Green Grass” song, which is just fun for its repetitive nature, and the kids picked it up quite quickly. Once that one was pretty set, I decided to do “Princess Pat” (maybe you know it as “Rickabamboo”), a song that’s been a traditional part of Theatre Rice pre-show warm-ups for years. I know it’s not just a TR song (my fellow volunteer Jaclyn recognized it, to my surprise), but it felt like spreading TR culture to Cambodia.

It wasn’t always easy getting everyone to pay attention, and I think a lot of what I “taught” didn’t really sink in. Because I don’t speak Khmer and the fourth-grade teacher doesn’t really speak English, I had to teach using pictures, explanations in simpler vocab, or sometimes just pattern-matching and diagrams. “Before” and “After” never really stuck for the majority of kids. On the other hand, I did get a class of 25-30 kids blowing “th” at me with their tongues between their teeth. (/θ/, the usual sound for “th”, isn’t in Khmer.)

I did a few exams, and usually found that even with major cheating they couldn’t really get all the answers. Especially for listening comprehension. There’s a problem here of learning to pattern-match, to run teacher-input through an English-machine and produce the appropriate response without thinking about what it means. (And they can speak English in little conversations with me, so it’s about not absorbing the material.) And it seems that while they’re used to writing things down in their books, they’re not accustomed to looking things up later, which makes me think that they never do it. In which case, a lot of what they write down is pointless!

But on the other hand, the kids in 4th grade did like me, or at least most of them did. Some of them learned from me. And now that I’m not their teacher anymore, I’m just a friendly presence in the area…so I’ll almost always get smiles from Grade 4 during break. One girl made me a little envelope with nice things written on slips of paper inside…a week after no teaching. The boys often go for a high five or sometimes a hug. And even in the last week I got a shout of “a rickabamboo!”

After I “left”, Grade 4’s English classes were taught for two weeks by Ms. Davy, the head teacher. She teaches Grade 3 in the morning, and her English is good enough to have a real conversation (definition of “real conversation” to come in an upcoming post). As of last week, though, they’re now taught by a volunteer from Denmark whose English is quite good…so I guess they’re in capable hands.

The Teacher-Class

During October, when I expressed frustration about only teaching in the afternoon, Ms. Davy asked, possibly on behalf of the other teachers, if I could do some sort of informal conversation lessons during our lunch break. (Lunch breaks in Cambodia are usually around two hours long, so it wasn’t like we would have to give up our eating time.) Sure, I’d be happy to! I had already started eating lunch with the teachers most days (in the beginning I had eaten with some of the kids), so this seemed like another way of getting into the group, or at least knowing the group. Not speaking Khmer makes Ms. Davy my single entry point for 90% of the day.

The problem with the class is that even more than the Grade 4 students, the teachers have differing levels of English. Even besides Ms. Davy, there are some who I’ve had conversations with, some who are limited on vocabulary and grammar but are fairly comfortable, and some who are really starting from very little. (And of course, those who attended for a bit but decided they’d rather actually have a break during lunch break.) Ideally this would not be one class…but sadly I have the sense not to take that much on.

So we started from basics: different kinds of questions. I assumed that even the least-comfortable students knew the English alphabet (which they did) and went from “what” to “who” to “which” (which turns out to be quite hard to explain, and I don’t know the Khmer equivalent) to “where” to “whose”. Then I started branching out, with requests (“can you”), measurements (“how long”), and invitations (“do you want…”). One teacher always uses “go swimming in the Mekong river” as his example action, which was great for the invitations practice.

Put it together and you get dialogues like this (my first):

A: Hello.
B: Good afternoon.
A: My name is __________.
B: I am __________.
A: What do you do?
B: I am a teacher.
A: How long have you been a teacher [here]?
B: Six months.
A: Nice to meet you.
B: Nice to meet you, too.
A: Goodbye.
B: Goodbye!

…my idea being that this is the sort of thing they need to interact with the visitors who come to the school. (They got a little more interesting since this one, which is from October.)

Ms. Davy drops in about every other class—even though she is quite good already, she still takes notes, asks me questions, or helps translate.

It’s funny teaching the teachers because of how much they’re just like the students…if anything my high school students are more mature than them. They’re all in their twenties or early thirties, but they’ll still tease each other, poke each other, sometimes even throw things at each other (“can you give me…?”). At first it was actually rather off-putting, but then I thought about it and realized that if I was relaxing with a bunch of TR friends, we could easily do the same. Remembering this proverb, which I, uh, first heard on Grey’s Anatomy…

Being mature is knowing when it’s okay to be immature.

Because I am silly and have a tendency to move on to new topics too quickly, I think I’ve let a lot of stuff slip away, rather than reinforcing it. I’m going to try to just do review in the next week or so, as boring as it may be for the teachers who already know a fair amount of English.

Even if I’m still not able to participate much in conversations, the teacher-class has allowed me to get to know the teachers—if not about them, then at least their personalities and their smiles. And I hope that it’s helped them, if not speak English fluently, then at least practice it a bit and keep it from slipping.

And the class and the lunches really have brought me closer to the teachers, or at least the teachers who stay at the school for lunch. They’ll often pass me a bit of their lunch to try, even though I still bring my boxed lunch every day.2 For my birthday I brought in cake slices to share (actually rather crappy cake, but I didn’t know that when I bought it). And when the teachers asked if I’d been to the Royal Palace yet and I said no, Ms. Davy set up a day for us all to go. (Yesterday, actually!) It makes me happy to know that while I’m not making local friends at Janina’s prodigious rate, I do have friends besides the other volunteers and Piseth. And even if I’m still a bit of an outsider, since I’m fairly straight-laced and don’t speak Khmer…well, I guess that means I just need to bite the bullet and take language classes.3

Grade 6 and Grade 7+

I’ve taught Grade 6 for less than three weeks, and my high school class just got turned upside down—I’m providing an “extra study” class in the mornings, but some kids go to the public high school in the afternoon and some in the morning. Obviously I can only teach the ones who are free in the morning, but it seems that each month they switch. So as of last Thursday I have a new class, which doesn’t change my basic structure so much, but does change the class dynamic.

Because of that (and because this post is quite long already), I’m going to hold off on talking about Grade 6 and “7+” for a week or two. See you next time…

  1. Hm…somehow I failed to note in any of the language posts that Khmer, like Chinese, doesn’t mark any tenses on the verb. If you want to note a time, add a time or an adverb. ↩︎

  2. Two reasons: I don’t want cost PIO more in food, even though they make it in bulk and most days there’d be enough, and I don’t want to offend Mami by turning down the boxed lunch! Though Kuoch is usually the one who makes it, actually, and I don’t think she would mind…hm, maybe I’ll switch over, at least for a while. ↩︎

  3. This is a decision that happened during writing this post. All my earlier excuses of already feeling busy, of having three lessons to plan, etc. should still apply, but I’m finally in a fairly good rhythm, my placement’s about half-over (!), and I think I’d really regret not trying harder than I am now. I’ll talk to someone about it today or tomorrow. ↩︎