musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Teaching Time

During my extended stay in Nyaungshwe I dropped by Tat Ein village almost every day, usually riding my bike there from Nyaunghswe. The journey took only took about 20 minutes, but was a hilly ride that required furious pedaling up steep hills and carefully negotiating equally steep declines. If nothing else, it was great exercise and it helped me lose some of the beer belly that my sedate Bangkok lifestyle had given me in recent months.


I tried not to go by the village during the times that school was in session, sticking to late afternoons or lunchtime. The teachers have a hard enough time keeping order in the classroom without my appearances disrupting everything. If school wasn’t in session, I would visit the nearby monastery, or drop by for a chat with U San Di Mar, the visionary cave-dwelling monk who helped make so many of the projects in this village become reality. More about him in a later post.


When I realized that I was going to be in town longer than expected (due to the flooding situation in Bangkok), I asked U Tin Kyaw Soe, the school’s principal, if he would like me to teach some English language classes one day. He and the teachers were more than happy to turn me loose. Right now only two young women are working as teachers. They stay very busy, having to teach all five grades in the primary school until they can afford to hire another teacher — or three.


One morning, while still nursing a cold (caused by spending two very chilly late nights at the balloon festival in Taunggyi), my friend Htein Linn graciously transported me to the school by motorcycle, saving wear and tear on my body. I ended up teaching hour-long sessions in the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes, resurrecting some of the activities that I used a decade ago when I taught English in Thai classrooms. “Make it fun” was always the aim in the Thai schools, and it worked here too. I had to adjust some of the activities for the skills level in each class, but that wasn’t too difficult a challenge. I just tried to keep it simple and fun, but also making sure that the kids learned a few things too.


One of the activities that went over best was the “Guess the Animal” game. I had photocopied drawings of various animals and cut them into individual cards. With the help of one of the Burmese teachers, I gave them the rules of the game: one student would pick a card (or I would choose one I thought would be appropriate for them), look at the animal pictured, and then without saying the name of the animal they would have to “BE” that animal by physically acting like that animal, or making a sound similar to that animal. Needless to say, things got pretty crazy. I had students hopping around like frogs, crowing like roosters, growling like tigers, slithering like snakes, barking like dogs, and swinging like monkeys. Some kids were shy and barely made a sound, while others were quite animated — as usual, the novice monks in class were the wildest! After the one student would complete their animal act, I would ask the students: “Which animal was that?” After they shouted out the Burmese word for the animal, I would write the animal name in English. The kids had a blast, and I think they even learned some new words. Watch out for the crocodile!


Another game involved using clocks and telling time. Hot on the heels of that one, I used my watch for another activity. I handed my watch to the other teacher and explained that I would walk outside while the teacher gave my watch to one of the students. I would then walk back in the room, glance at my wrist, look puzzled, and ask: “Where is my watch?” At that point I would start going around the room and ask each student: “Do you have my watch?” They had been instructed to answer “yes” or “no,” depending of course on whether they had it or not. After my initial lost watch episode, I repeated the activity with each student, sending them out of the room and then back in again to ask the other students: “Do you have my watch?” It was simple and silly, and they loved it.


In the fourth grade class, Pyin Na Thiri, the little novice monk who took photos with my camera (including some of the shots I used for this post), performed his role with unusual gusto. Normally, he’s very quiet and reserved,  but for this activity he enthusiastically – and uncannily — imitated my own spiel by holding his hands out, palms up, looking around the room, and asking: “Where is my watch?” At that point he made a circuit around the room, eagerly asking each student the other question. Two weeks later, during Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar, I had a vision: I could just picture her visiting the school and having Pyin Na Thiri march up to confront her: “Do you have my watch?”


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