Today I taught the head monk here at R.E.C in a class alongside the other teacher trainee whose English is weaker. This is my first experience of teaching a monk.
I dare say it’s his first experience of being taught by a foreigner, and I would bet my bottom dollar that he has never before experienced a lesson in which he engages his brain in a manner similar to that of children learning their native language.
I taught for the third time ‘there is, there are’ with plural and singular nouns. Next lesson we will move to plurals, then to these, those, a few, some, any and so forth. Prior to the 90 minute lesson I had only heard one sentence uttered in English from the monk; “She’s taller than me!” in surprised tones at the end of my first visit when we had the obligatory group photograph taken for posterity. The digital age has made this task much easier. One student lost his father at 12 and only has one photo of him due to the cost of taking and printing a decade ago. It’s no wonder that Myanmar students are obsessed by selfies when you consider that this village alone lost 8 people in one year and around a quarter of the volunteer teachers have lost someone in their direct family line.
The monk is good at remembering the “s” on the end of plural verbs; after a lifetime of silently learning grammar rules, it’s little wonder that he is one of the few Myanmar pupils who is able to apply what he has learned. Apparently monks study Myanmar grammar in Buddhist school and as such are also very proficient in English grammar which is similar. The monk is surprisingly good at ‘f’ and ‘v’ as well, although struggled with ‘p.’ Like one of the volunteer teachers, the monk has a nervous tick of coughing which somewhat inhibits his ability to pronounce the words correctly. Nevertheless, he put my other student to shame as he sounded out the words, contorting his mouth and eyes as he emphasized the sounds. I deeply suspect that he will turn a corner and be very skillful at English as the man clearly has a very solid base foundation from which to draw upon as we progress through the curriculum.
We started the lesson off slightly differently than usual on account of there only being two students with me writing and cutting 38 words; some plural and some singular. I did this at 6:30am while my other student printed the end of module tests for grade 8. The monk and his classmate will take the same test in a couple of weeks to test their proficiency in the subject. The two pupils categorized the words into singular and plural to begin. I sat and wondered how this was all supposed to work; monks are at the highest echelon of society and the other trainee is rather nervous at the best of times. I worried that there would be some kind of tension. I have no desire to treat the monk differently than I would any other student of mine. I generally like my students; I like those who try hard and those who are engaged with what I’m trying to teach. I like to be fair and not have favourites as I am a firm believer that all pupils have the capacity to learn, be engaged and study hard if they are targeted in the correct way by the teacher. I find the monk to be quite diligent; by the end of the 90 minutes he was trying to create his own sentences with words aside from the target language. I do wonder if he will do his homework. I don’t really know his schedule, but he seems to spend a lot of time visiting other places to do good work, so I suspect that he might not have the time to write a paragraph about his village.
To my great relief the teacher trainee is finally starting to remember his “s.” It gets tiresome to keep reminding a pupil and I know that it is detrimental for their self-confidence, but sometimes a teacher just gotta do what a teacher’s gotta do, y’know? The “F” becomes a “P” I have noticed among Myanmar students. My one trainee had a novel way of dealing with this; making his students hold a piece of paper to their mouths in order to exhale. However, despite not treating my monk student differently than I would any other student, I did think that it might be a bit familiar to stick a piece of paper in the face of these two students. I guess that my trainee has grade 8 13-year-old students while I’m being faced with a shy 22-year-old graduate and a 30-something head monk; slightly different circumstances one might say.
Over dinner I learnt a most interesting revelation; the monk taught the volunteer teachers my lesson. All be it slightly modified. But progress is progress. I taught from 9:15 am to 11 am. The monk then returned to his monk house (as a slight aside; in Arakanese language a monastery is literally ‘monk house’!) and found, typed, printed and cut up lists of 20 plural and singular nouns for the volunteer teachers to use. He had had a model of teaching from me, then planned his own attempt at it and executed it. To my eternal disappointment I did not get to see the lesson, but only got a first hand description from one of the teachers who attended the class with some translation from my trainee. I asked many questions and departed from the dinner table in great excitement to get my notebook to jot down the answers. At one point I even found myself asking: “Did we get an answer on that yet?” after the student had had what I considered sufficient time to think. I was perhaps a touch on the forceful side, but I couldn’t quite contain myself! My host even asked if I had finished my still half-full, abandoned bowl of rice left perched on the edge of the table, fork sticking one way, spoon at a quite opposite angle.
My great hope is that if the head monk likes the lessons and learns and feels that this teaching style is effective that he will consent to more of the REC lessons being taught in that manner and that he will support the teachers to teach in this way. And then our trainees can instruct the teachers in this methodology and eventually we have ourselves an active school filled with teachers who plan, think and instruct and students who learn, think and use the language. Or any other subject for that matter. The principles of engaging the students by having a strong hook and allowing them to be active participants in the process of imparting and gaining information is not exclusive to ESL although that is obviously what NEH is focused on now.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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