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

Posts tagged ‘English teaching’

Monastery Language Lessons


While I was visiting Tat Ein village in Shan State last month, an u-zin (a senior monk, or teacher for the novice monks) at the monastery by the name of Nandawun That asked me to help him with his English lessons. He’s such a nice guy that I was only happy to oblige. I usually spent the better part of an hour each day helping him with his pronunciation or explaining various words and phrases to him.


I was very impressed with the number of vocabulary words that he has committed to memory in less than two months of study. He has been studying in nearby Nyaungshwe with a Burmese teacher and he seems to have digested a lot of material in this short period of time. But I was a bit taken back by some of the words that his teacher had given him; “shit”, “feces” and “excrement” being a few of the more graphic examples. Well, I guess monks need to know a wide gamut of words and phrases, even the crappy ones!  Some of the sentences in his lessons were either awkwardly phrased or didn’t make much sense at all, so I tried to smooth those out for him too.


Nandawun That has really embraced his English language studies and shows signs of being a quick learner. When not studying or keeping tabs on the sometimes mischievous young novice monks in residence at the monastery, he enjoys meditation and watching “Rambo” movies. I kid you not. He told me that he loves watching action films, especially those with car chases and blazing guns; Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and all that sort of crap. Contrast that with his Buddhism studies and meditation and it doesn’t quite add up. But hey, such is life, right?



Some of the novice monks at Tat Ein took turns taking photos of us during some of our language lessons. During one session, the novices got the idea of putting themselves in the frame too. I can just hear them giggling and discussing their plan: “Hey, let’s pose us in the background too!” … “Yeah, great idea, dude!” Okay, it’s doubtful that they used the word “dude” or any remotely similar Burmese or Shan words, but I do think they got a kick of out carrying out their silly photo shoot.



And these photos are just a small sample of what they took. Whenever I let the monks borrow my camera the results were always fun and sometimes pretty darn creative. I’ll make a separate post in the near future of photos that I took of the novice monks, along with ones that they took by themselves. These kids don’t lack for imagination!




Shan School Session


While I was in Shan State last month, I had time to teach one day at the primary school in Tat Ein village, just a few kilometers east of Nyaungshwe. I was actually prepared to teach more than a single day, but for some reason the school was closed for two days during the middle of the week when I arrived. But when the schedule gets juggled like that, the kids make up the lost day later. In this case they had classes on Saturday and Sunday that week.



Once again, the children were a joy to teach. Their smiles and enthusiasm always make each lesson a fun experience. But damn, does it get loud in that room! They have four classes going on at once — even though they only have two teachers this term to handle all the grades — and there are no walls between the classrooms, so with the other teachers yelling and the students shouting back responses (it’s the typical “rote method” of learning so often found in Asian classrooms) I sometimes found myself drowned out by the wall of competing noise.




I employed my usual arsenal of goofy activities and games, getting the kids out of their seats and giving them some sort of reason to speak English language words. One activity prompted them to say “the same” or “not the same” when looking at two photos or drawings, some of which were similar but not actually the same. For one class (I taught one group in the morning and a different bunch in the afternoon) I also trotted out my trusty old animal game, one which forces the students to “act out” a certain animal without speaking the name of the critter. I show them a drawing of the animal and then they have to “be” that animal and let the other students guess what they are. Always a riot!




I also brought some children’s books, a combination of Disney cartoon classics and Dr. Seuss stuff, to read to the students. They enjoyed these books in the past and they were a hit this time too. I even noticed some novice monks at the monastery looking through one of the books one afternoon during a separate visit. They can’t read everything in the books yet, but they love the silly illustrations! And hopefully, that will motivate them to read more.










Students Take the Shots!



While I was teaching the English class at the primary school in Tat Ein village, I handed my camera to a group of students and told them: “Okay, you can take some photos now.” And did they ever! I think they paid more attention to playing with the camera than they did paying attention to my lesson, but hey, that’s to be expected. Here are some of their more interesting — and funnier — photography efforts.










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English Classes in Mandalay

Back in Mandalay, on my favorite little dirt road, 90th Street, I keep discovering interesting little places each time I visit. Taking walks with Maw Hsi and the kids from the neighborhood has introduced me to fun little shops, home factories (everything from shoes to jade), monasteries, and even language schools. On this trip I found two places in the neighborhood that were offering free English classes in the afternoons and evenings. The teachers were university students or recent graduates, one of whom was Maw Hsi’s daughter. I was very impressed to see so many kids attending these classes, especially after they’ve already had a long day in their regular school. Clearly, they have a thirst for knowledge … or perhaps their mother has threatened them. You know how that goes!


At one little makeshift class — located outside someone’s home — I saw Yan Aung Myo, a boy I knew from previous field trips with the kids, grinning at me from the front row. I always knew he could spell well, and this was evidence that he’s worked hard at developing such skills. At a nearby monastery school the next day I ran into the shy Hein Htet Zaw and his fellow students, all of them furiously scribbling notes in their books. It struck me that there was a lot of writing and rote learning in these classes. Write a sentence, repeat after me, write the sentence again. Blah, blah, blah. Not an ideal learning environment, but better than nothing.


It was good to see these youngsters studying English, and diligently copying everything that was written on the board (even if there were spelling or grammatical errors!), but I yearned to get up there and try and few more interesting speaking activities with the class. But, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to say or do anything in such a situation, so I just nodded my head and smiled. I chatted with Maw Hsi later in the week and volunteered my services for the next time I return to Mandalay. He seemed excited at the idea, so I think we’ll work something out. I look forward to teaching these kids.


Teaching in a Shan State Village School

I enjoyed my one-day teaching gig last year at the Tat Ein village primary school so much that I volunteered to teach multiple times during my most recent visit. In between field trips and side trips, I squeezed three teaching days into this trip. Once again, the children were delightful and the other teachers very helpful. The school’s principal wasn’t around this time — he was visiting his family in Mandalay — so he couldn’t help me translate anything, further putting the burden on me to explain things in my fractured Burmese. But hey, it was good practice, and the kids seemed to understand everything I asked or told them to do.


I taught English in Thai public schools, and also at a private language institute, back in the late 1990s, so I’ve got some experience with teaching the language to foreign learners. The biggest challenge teaching in Thai schools was the class sizes; sometimes there were 40 or 50 students in a class. I found it very hard to teach effectively with that many kids in a class. But at the school in Shan State, the biggest obstacle was the decibel level. It got very, very loud. Grades one through five are packed into a single room, with only thin wooden partitions dividing the classes. It cuts down on the visual distractions, but not the noise. The Myanmar teachers urge the kids to shout their answers in unison, so whenever I was trying to teach something or conduct an activity, I had to work around the rumble on the other side of the room. Instead of shouting, I just waited for a break in the noise.


As I noted in a recent post, the book Go, Dog. Go! was very popular with the students. They also enjoyed the animal jigsaw puzzles that I brought with me. Take your pick: Elephant, Tiger, Lion, Giraffe, or Zebra (the latter two being totally unknown to these kids). Whenever I had time to kill, or wanted to perk up their interest level, the animal jigsaws were a perfect activity. Apparently, they had never had to put jigsaw puzzles together before, so they found the activity both fascinating and frustrating. They were relatively simple puzzles (expect for those darn zebras!), yet some of these kids took a long time to figure them out.


Another activity using animals also went over very well. I brought about two dozen graphic drawings of various animals, ones that I thought these village kids would recognize, and pasted them on 3 x 5 cards. I explained to the students that I would show a card to one of them, and then without speaking they would have to “be that animal” by making appropriate sounds or miming the actions of the animal. The novice monk that picked the frog picture, for example, ended up hopping around the room. The girl that got the cat picture had to make meow sounds. The boy that got the snake pic, had to either hiss or shimmy. Anyone that got the crocodile had to snap their jaws or use their arms to imitate the croc snout. In any case, they loved it. Even though they weren’t supposed to say the name of the animal, half of them blurted it out prematurely anyway. Typically, they would see the picture, giggle at what they would need to do, and then tell their friend in the next row which animal it was. I had to gently remind them not to blurt out the name before they went into action.  Of course they all knew the Burmese name for the animals, but other than dog and cat, they didn’t know many of the names in English. But that gave me the chance to actually teach them some new words, which was one of the objects of this silly activity.


The other teachers kept bringing me snacks and either coffee or tea — or sometimes both — almost every hour. The lunches were another treat: very tasty vegetarian dishes prepared the same cooks that made meals for the monks and teachers each day. Really, those meals were as good as anything I had at fancier restaurants back in Nyaungshwe. Such hospitality! The school doesn’t have any electricity, so needless to say, the rooms aren’t air-conditioned, nor are their ceiling fans. But that’s not such a big hardship in this part of Shan State. Due to the higher elevation, the temperatures are usually milder than the rest of Myanmar, so I wasn’t sweating like I would have been in Yangon or Mandalay.


By the end of the three days — teaching third, fourth, and fifth grade classes — I had exhausted most of the teaching materials I had brought. I was tired, but it was one of those good feelings of exhaustion, when you felt like you had really accomplished something. Talking to the head monk, U Sandi Mar, the final day I was in town, he told me that the children had found the lessons “interesting and enjoyable.” That was one of my goals, so such feedback pleased me. I really didn’t expect them to learn a lot in three days, but hopefully a few things sunk in and they’ll be happy to have me back again. I’m sure looking forward to returning.



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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