Friday, October 24, 2008

School Deez

Before coming here I had only the vaguest of notions about what schools in Vietnam would be like. Vietnam is in Asia, right? Back in the states the Asian kids were always the smart ones, or at least the booksmart ones, the ones who took five AP classes and violin lessons, and worked at their parents' restaurant and still had time to play lots of weird video games that won't come out in the U.S. for another four years. If this is what Asian-Americans are like, imagine what their overseas cousins—whose parents are presumably even more conservative, more strict, more ancestor-worshiping—must be like. I had visions of an educational Easy Street, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for teachers, a place where the students are diligent, independent, and respectful, a classroom full of self-motivated problem-solvers and critical thinkers; where everyone is always quiet and in their seats when class begins (somehow I imagined the old football coach’s “if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late…” thing would have some major currency here), give the teacher their undivided attention during lectures and then will jump out of their seats to answer a question before their fellow students can.

Maybe I'm thinking of Japan.

The students in here, on the other hand, like to talk in class, or at least they do until I ask them a question. Then they are all of a sudden at a loss for words. Except for the kid in the back bent over behind his desk where he thinks I can't see him talking on his cellphone. Oh yeah, and the other pair of kids back there who talk the whole period because apparently the other four periods of the day they have class together, not to mention the time in between class and after school isn't enough bro time, and they're clearly engaged in the most important conversation of their lives. They probably would stop talking, so as not to call attention to themselves, but they don't even realize that I asked a question because they were too engrossed in gossiping, or making fun of me, or whatever it is they're doing.

I've never been so tempted so often to tell a large group of people to shut up.

Really, though, the worst thing about it is--well, there's a couple worst things about it. For one, most of the in class chit-chat is conducted in hushed Vietnamese, making it almost always impossible for me to discern whether they are legitimately discussing the material, helping each other define words--something which is distracting, but probably doing more good than harm--or just shooting the shit. My lectures tend to involve lots of unfamiliar words, the learning of which is no doubt especially difficult for people whose native vocabulary is entirely monosyllabic. So I feel like I shouldn't stop them from engaging in discussion of the material, given that they can probably explain to each other the meaning of a word better than I can to them. The problem is, I can't tell the difference between this and good old talking in class, so I just assume the worst 90% of the time, for lack of a better way to deal with it. The other thing that sucks about it is that even the good kids, the ones who come to class on time, sit up front, and know all the answers, even they talk when they should be listening. Occasionally then, they find themselves on the receiving end of my weary "ssshh"s when it's 20 minutes to go in class and I'm hoarse from trying to talk over a constant, hushed storm of unrounded short vowels and rising-tone triphthongs (are you reading this, Ryan B?).

Maybe I need to get on the cultural relativism tip and just accept that this is something that's not going to change and not get too bent out of shape about it. This is a weird place, after all, etiquette-wise; the expulsion of all types of bodily fluids on the street seems to be quite acceptable and slurping your noodles is a sign of great appreciation.

Either that, or I just need to learn Vietnamese.

Right, like that'll happen.


Ryan Villarreal said...

How old are your students? Luckily, most of mine are all in the 8-11 year range, so I can at least pretend to know what I'm doing in class. They definitely don't fit the studious and respectful stereotype (or maybe it's just because I don't look like a foreigner to them), but they're still pretty good and a lot of fun work with. I also have the luxury of a Chinese-speaking teaching assistant, so any dissension in the classroom can be quickly rooted out, unless she's against me, too.

kelly-inkagoshima said...

Steve! Yeah, man, I can't imagine (or I can, and prefer not to) teaching classes alone. I rely so much on having a native Japanese speaker with me at all times...who is the "real" teacher. My kids are a handful, but it's a horse of a different color. They don't talk in class, and they especially don't talk to ME. Getting answers out of them is often like pulling teeth. Japanese kids are pretty trained to listen to the teacher, memorize from the teacher and not engage in any sort of dialogue with the teacher. Really effing frustrating. Uh, critical thinking anyone?

Ok, so here is my trick. I had all of them make name cards - a piece of paper folded in half hotdog style, their name of the front. I got a little stamp, and every time they raise their hand and volunteer and answer, they get a stamp. At the end of the term (or you could do it every few weeks, depending on how much baiting they need) I count the stamps and whoever has the most (and 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places) gets a prize. This seems to work extremely well. Kids love when you bribe them. Especially if you can get your hands on some American candy.

Hey, but make no assumptions about Japanese kids. My schools are non-academic, meaning I have the average kids who won't go to university and all they do is sleep in my classes. Blatantly sleeping right in front of me is way more insulting that talking in least if you are talking I know you are alive. When I try to wake them up they either continue sleeping, or don't seem at all bothered that I am angry that they were asleep. Oh boy.

Oh! Also, I started printing pictures of my friends off Flickr and to open class I make the kids say one sentence about the picture. They love it because they get to see young Americans...

Sorry, hope this was at all useful/helpful

Alex said...

Ah yes... that beautiful moment when we stop and finally acknowledge that disturbing little itch we've been feeling. The little tingle that we didn't want to notice but we knew was always there. The thought from the depths of our soul that says, "Wait a minute... I really don't like teaching."

Well, you knew there had to be a catch, didn't you?

I think the best way to deal with it would be in much the same way that every high school Spanish teacher deals with it: create an alternate world in your head where your students are just as interested in all the crazy things you have to say as you are. That way, you can have fun talking about whatever interests you most, and they can continue with whatever it is they are doing.

I imagine a chart similar to the one drawn by Doc Brown in Back to the Future II. The straight line is where your students love you and your talks, and you're happily married to Jennifer. There is also the off-shoot, parallel reality, of course. Don't ever let yourself see the alternate reality, where Biff has taken over Hill Valley and your students run wild.

I hope this helps; I know I had fun.

Erik said...

stephen, between sonia, erik, mike and myself we have decided that you are a lacist and we are ashamed to know you, please don't come back. ever. oh and get rid of that photo of us in kindergarten, and that girl's bike, too...

we are only looking out for your best interests.

xoxo, pablo