After my holiday I arrived in Sittwe and although tired from traveling I had the pleasure of attending a CEAL open mic night. I met a really excited student who sang in English especially for me; unfortunately he was so excited that he forgot some of the words!
After laying my head down for a moment, I heard the dulcet call of ‘Teacher’ and snapped awake. I clearly didn’t look as awake as I felt though and my student was soon apologizing for waking me. I assured him that napping in the daytime was for the weak and that I was merely still jet-lagged. We walked the 10 minutes through the village to the monastery where the group of 20 volunteer teachers were waiting in the small library. In exchange for 9 months of English lessons, the 20 youngsters must teach the 200 odd pupils ranging from grade 7 to grade 11; the year that Myanmar students take their university entrance exam.
We did some brief introductions and they got to practice their English on a real life native speaker. I have to admit, I dislike these public audience-cum-lessons that I am expected to pull out of a hat on a moment’s notice. On the way to a new place, I am often asked if I would like to teach the students. The immediate answers screaming inside my mind is: ‘no! lesson prep takes time, no wonder your system is broken is no one plans anything!’ The answer is usually a more polite ‘let me introduce myself and we’ll take it from there.’ whilst I frantically put together a mental outline knowing nothing about the level, ability, number or willingness of the students I am about to be faced with!
On the night of my arrival I did a mix of taught lesson and introduction / question answering for a couple of hours before the electric generator was switched off and the village was immersed in darkness. During the two hours in the library, the electric did go out twice; it was a reminder of just how tough it is for these remote village teachers. The library during daylight is a bright building though with windows, concrete walls in butter yellow, a cute mural painted by the CEAL gang, and plenty of bright posters displaying colors, modes of transportation, seasons and other basic level English vocabulary.
There were a handful of the 22 total students that I met who showed real promise. (There were 22 because 2 of the local teachers have been seconded to the next village to teach but were back visiting for the weekend and did not want to miss the opportunity to interact with a native English speaker.) I felt much better for meeting the students and agreed to lead a class the next morning.
The mornings in the village are alarmingly cold. Wrapped in a blanket, I pasted together a few sections from various introductory classes and returned to the now sunny library. I started with the basics of greetings; knowing that the students would be familiar with the vocabulary I wanted to check how co-operative and receptive they would be to group activities and dynamic participation. We started off with a smiley chart like you get at the doctor to show pain, and labeled it from Amazing through to unwell and angry. I dislike the knee-jerk reaction of ‘very well’ to the question ‘how are you?’ from students and was hoping to give them some more vocabulary with which to answer. I think it worked as the next day one student answered ‘so-so’ when we greeted him as we walked through the village. We then moved to Vanishing Lines. This game works a little differently in Myanmar because of the students' capacity for rote learning and remembering vast chunks of information. It was still a useful exercise though and introduced them to appraising information; producing it, practicing and using it in context before recalling. What I am hoping to achieve with this group of students is the ability to use language in a natural setting; not only responding to given prompts with a selection of per-destined answers.
Next we moved onto body parts beginning with a rousing rendition of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ Myanmar students are trained in school to parrot answers out loud in unison, and they can make a lot of noise when they all raise their voices together! We stepped outside for some total physical response activities before adding color adjectives to our body nouns. To finish we played a classic guessing activity where each student selects another student to describe without using his or her name. From the description, the others must guess the student. It incorporates writing, speaking and listening as well as critical thinking matching work. It works well in any classroom and is easy to do with very few resources. It plies the students with a great deal of vocabulary and helps to hone their powers of observation. I finished the successful lesson by reusing the vanishing lines from the start of class with the addition of ‘this is my friend….’
I was pleased with how cooperative the students had been for the duration of the lesson. There were a couple of hiccups with instruction comprehension. Overall, they coped admirably and were happy to work together to accomplish the tasks I set them.
Later that evening we built a bonfire and deep fried chopped gourd. It was tastier than I am making it sound; I promise! I wore the coat of my student’s mother to fend off the cold weather and sat happily sipping tea. Not a situation I had foreseen myself in when I imagined Myanmar, but when in Rome and all that. Inside the library became a karaoke studio with participants chosen in a spin the bottle manner. I had the pleasure of performing why my shy, promising teacher from Yangon. Unfortunately, neither of us had heard the song before. Despite me having a language advantage, it is hard to mime successfully when you have no idea of the tune or words and I think had I not been padded out in someone else’s clothes, I may have felt more comfortable. Although, the idea of public singing comes a close second to using a boat as my primary mode of transportation. The winners were declared to be the teacher who has intermediate level English and one of the other students. They had a rap song as their performance piece, and the young student did do a fantastic job of swaying to the music, waving his hand and air grabbing his crotch as rap stars are apt to do.
I was pleased to teach the students and to spend time with them socially. I slept soundly with the promise of lesson observations the next day.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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