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

Classroom Quandry

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When I was in Shan State earlier this month I did a single day of English teaching at the primary school in Tat Ein village. This time around, however, the classroom setup was very different and as a result the lesson was much more difficult for me to teach.

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Normally when I teach at this school, the class sizes are small, ranging from 6 to 15 students, and I only have to concern myself with teaching one group at a time. The school recently completed the semester (actually, the end of their school year) and final exams, so regular classes were finished by the time I arrived. But they’ve been holding “special” classes for the kids to give them something to do during their break, and just before I showed up, Ma Pu Su and our mutual friend Pascal (from France) also spent a couple of days at the school, teaching English and even giving art lessons. For my class, they combined all the students from the school, including ones that go to the middle school and high school in nearby Nyaungshwe. As a result, I had over 50 kids in class, ranging from first graders to high school students, and a few novice monks from the adjacent monastery. As you would expect, the English skills of this bunch ran from nearly non-existent to pretty impressive.

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As soon as I saw the classroom setup — with partitions gone and desks moved into new positions — the problem become apparent; how was I going to teach this bunch? I had prepared various lessons and activities, but I quickly realized that most of it was going to be useless in a class this big, especially one that had students with such a wide gap in language skills. If I dumbed the lessons down for the beginners, the experienced students were going to be bored, and if I taught them something with any degree of complexity, the younger students would be totally bewildered by it all. And even if I had an activity appropriate for te whole bunch, how was I going to keep them all involved? A definite quandary.

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I ended up doing some tried and tested language activities that combined English vocabulary with silly games. In one activity, I blindfolded students (one at a time!) and instructed them to walk in various directions around the classroom in a quest to find a hidden object. Of course I had to familiarize them with the various English phrases first (walk right, left, go straight, turn around, stop!), but even with that short lesson, some of the kids couldn’t get their directions straight and walked into walls or bumped  into their classmates. All of which only added to the fun and giggle factor.

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I also brought along some small jigsaw puzzles and a few Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears books. I ended up not using them in a lesson but during the midday two-hour lunch break I dug them out of my backpack and let some of the kids have fun with them. Those jigsaws are always a hit, but I was pleasantly surprised at how engrossed they were in the books too. It was a challenging day in the classroom, but a very enjoyable one. These kids are all really sweet, very polite, and a joy to teach.

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