Progress Report: Grade 7+ and Grade 6

Merry Christmas, everyone! On Friday, PIO had a Christmas party, and in the middle of all the kids dancing to club music and modern Khmer music, the special-occasion food, and the teachers kicking back during the lunch break, I got a strong sense of belonging. I’m already sad thinking about leaving everyone—students, staff, and teachers—in two months.

This week I’m going to post the second half of my “progress report” describing the classes I’ve taught. The first half talked about my time with Grade 4 and my ongoing semi-formal class with the teachers; this time I’ll talk about my secondary school class and my “real” class, Grade 6.

Grade 7+

I started teaching “Grade 7+” at the beginning of November—a class with a few boys, a few smart girls, and a second group of girls who were a bit less interested in English…a bit over a dozen kids altogether, though I don’t think I ever had a day where everyone showed up. This was a sort of “extra study” class for all the secondary school students who had free time in the morning, which the deputy director set up in October because I felt underutilized only having an afternoon class.

I went back and forth about what to call it in my mind and notes. High school class? Secondary student extra English? Eventually I decided on “Grade 7+”; the majority of students are in Grade 7, thus setting the level I teach at, but there’s a handful who are in the upper grades (8, 9, and 11, I believe). Most of the older kids already know what I teach, but they’re okay with playing along and doing the exercises…actually, most of them want to jump up and shout the answer without giving the others time to think.

One wrench in the works is that every month the secondary school students switch whether they go to public school in the morning or in the afternoon, so on December 1st (a Thursday) I suddenly had a new class. This group was seven students (now eight), only one of whom is a girl. Again, most of them are in Grade 7, but that doesn’t guarantee much about their level of English. Some of them are spot-on with everything new I introduce, but one has only studied English for a year, and basically can’t do anything with my lessons. I did not really handle his case well—ideally, I’d be able to teach him separately, but I’m kind of out of time in the day. So he limps along with the rest of the class, and, you know, does pick up a little. But really he’s only going to get the level of English that every public school student gets, i.e. not much.

(And it’s 12/25 now, so everything’s going to flip again after next week, and I get my first class back.)

Being an extra class, Grade 7+ doesn’t actually have a classroom. We meet in the library, where I have an old whiteboard at one end of the room. The students sit along a long table, or sometimes on the long table when they don’t have enough chairs. (There’s also a low white table that they use as a bench, but having three or four people on it every day—who tend to pick at it when they’re bored—is slowly destroying its structural integrity.)

Being an extra class, I take Grade 7+ a little less formally than my Grade 6. We do a lot of “let’s go around the table and say sentences or do dialogues”, because the class is small enough for that. I’ve done a lot of work with tenses, so I’ll put up a paragraph on the board with all the verbs un-conjugated, and have the students “fix” them. But we also played Ten Fingers to practice “have”, and I do real English songs with them, using a little speaker I bought at the O Russey Market. (My first class did “One Shot”, my second chose “Take Me To Your Heart”.)

Being an extra class, I only teach two hours instead of three. Originally this was 8:30-10:45 (with a fifteen-minute break), but my second round of students voted to move it up to 8:00.

The only real trouble I’ve had was on Wednesday. I got there early as usual, in time to see the students heading out from the school on their bikes. “What’s going on?” “[Staff member] said to come to the office.” “Today not study.” Um. Okay…

You can see where this is going. Sometimes they do have legitimate errands, but today it seems that only one of them had been called to the office, and the others were riding on that. This may be an extra class, but for these students it’s still supposed to be mandatory! The admins called the students and told them to get the heck back to school, where me and the head teacher grilled them about this. It’s probably not the first time, either, because I know they have errands, but I guess I really need to be more careful from now on. *sad*

Still, most of the time it’s pretty good, and I hope they are getting something out of it, even if it’s just more exposure to English.

Grade 6

Last time I said Grade 4 still felt like home; Grade 6 is finally taking their place. When I first got there, though, it was a crazy classroom filled with kids who don’t listen, kids who shout and throw things in class, kids who sleep in class, kids who play pranks on the teacher, and maybe two or three kids actually learning. And maybe a third of the class studied dancing, meaning I’d lose a huge number of kids (many of them the more well-behaved ones) one or two days every week.

Previous volunteer and friend Jaclyn had apparently done really well with them, so…what was going on?

It took maybe two weeks for me to get enough respect to really teach. During that time there were some bad days, including one where I didn’t teach for an hour as I waited for the students to wear themselves out. Protip: Grade 6 may be oldest but they still kids. I think after the self-conscious, composed Grade 7 classes I forgot that kids are kids—Grade 6 is at the peak of their energy before that sense of self-consciousness kicks in.

The admins also told me a sadder part of the story: while most of the kids at PIO are not orphans1, they probably don’t have the best home lives. A lot of them might have single parents, lazy parents, parents who drink, parents who gamble, parents who beat them or their siblings or each other. (And I say “parents” but the majority of the problems are probably “fathers”.) And parents who don’t really believe in the “value of education”, since you can’t see the benefit.

So after repeated speeches (weekly or more!) from both me and a few Cambodian teachers, and, probably more importantly, after some time for us to get used to each other, what do I have? Well…I have a crazy classroom filled with kids who don’t listen, kids who shout and throw things in class, kids who sleep in class, kids who play pranks on the teacher. But now somewhere between half and three-quarters of the class learning, and they’re a bit better at being quiet and listening when I ask.

It’s improvement. Also, now I’m attached to these kids like I was to my Grade 4.

(As of two weeks ago, I also have a Cambodian teacher who sits in on my class and helps when I need it; that’s also improved discipline, if only cause they’re more scared of her than me. She’s also my Khmer language teacher, so we’re on pretty good terms.)

Although I do a lot of lecture-teaching with Grade 6 (almost certainly too much), I have mixed in a few other things. I’ve done one worksheet, which I think did help as a wake-up call before their exam last week. I’ve done some of my Grade 4 games, but also added a “students-vs-teacher” Battleship (“Find the Ships”), where you have to answer a question before you fire a missile. (They got sick of that one, though.) I’ve done translation exercises with volunteers, where I use my tiny smattering of Khmer to tell if they’re in the ballpark, but have to check with the other teacher to see if they’re actually correct. Pronunciation listening exercises: the only time when the kids are quiet because they’re holding up fingers based on what word I said (“close”, “close”, or “clothes”?). And I’ve played a few speed games now, though using capped markers instead of flyswatters. (Thanks, Aunt Lies.)

On the discipline side, I decided early on that teaching these kids how to be quiet and how to learn was more important than any of the English I teach. So I carried over my two-finger quiet sign…only now it’s “eyes and ears”. Then I came up with four requests for the classroom: “quiet, look, listen, think!”. I started a system where kids who come late get less break-time. And I end most days by waiting until the kids are silent before letting them go join the line-up outside.

The kids have made these things their own as well, reminding me a lot of John Holt’s experience in How Children Fail (a great book about teaching). The kids who are early love to be the ones to write the on-time names on the board, and everyone wants to be higher up on the list for some reason. (“Teacher, name me!” (my name).) A number of the kids also like going by nicknames, so I agreed to that by making Wednesdays “nickname days”. Of course, when it was officially instituted, the names got more ridiculous, from video games (“AK”) to American culture (“Pink Panther”, though this kid is perfect for it) to K-Pop (“Park Bom” and “CL”, though no “Sandara” or “Minzy”) to just plain crazy (“Mr. Love Blind”). And the kids insisted I do it too, so I’ve been “Tanaka”, “G-Dragon”, and “Steve”. (Bonus Jordan points to you if you know where all three of those names come from for me.)

We’ve come a long way in Grade 6, and not just with our unit on giving directions. Each of my classes has had something unique now: Grade 4 has “Green Grass” and “Princess Pat”, Grade 7+ has the American songs and “Really?” as a dialogue meme. The teacher-class…okay, not too much, but “swimming in the Mekong river” is a meme there, and I did go with them to the Royal Palace. And Grade 6 has Chinese market one-hand counting…they can all count to ten, and I’ll use the sign for “six” to get their attention. On good days I’ll end class with “Who is the best? Grade 6 is the best!”


I have friends in all my classes and among the teachers. I share food, trade English words and Khmer words, sing with them, and, during the party on Friday, dance with them. They’re not all good students, but pretty much all of them are great kids, good people.

In the words of the kids at the end of the Christmas party…knyom som awkun PIO.

  1. Even the fifth or so that lives in the “orphanage” are a mix of “real” orphans and kids whose parents live in the provinces and are too poor to care for them. ↩︎