Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Teaching English isn't that easy!

Anyone who has taught or is teaching English as a foreign language will know that it’s not as easy as it might seem.

“Teaching a bunch of 4 year olds to count to ten, what a doddle”.

Definitely not, 4 year old kids are the same all over the world, they get bored easily, they like to mess around, they need pretty much constant entertainment and stimulation. That’s where you as the teacher need to step up and constantly generate new and interesting ways to get your message across. It’s not just a case of standing in front of the class and making them repeat after you. Sure you can take that approach, but it won’t win you any friends and you’ll soon get bored too.

Here’s a few tips taken from my own experience, of interesting ways to present your teaching material:

- Teenagers, they like to make a point of being bored and not finding anything interesting. Anyone with teenage kids can relate to this! Embarrassment and shyness is also an issue, especially so in Thailand! A good way to bring them out of their shells is using things that you know all kids are interested in these days, anything technology related.

I based a lesson around mobile phones (they’ve all got one, in Thailand some kids have two phones!). Teach them the appropriate vocabulary around phones and making phone calls, tie that in with a particular tense you might be teaching as well. Get them to text each other in English (phones are available with other scripts, Thai included). Luckily in Thailand kids tend to communicate in English when texting and emailing anyway, this is a great thing that you can hijack. Also get half the kids to leave the room and make calls to each other.

Another popular class involved splitting the class into two and giving each group a digital camera and asking them to create their own real life comic strip. They had to think up their own short story and take 10 photos to illustrate it. I had to split this over two classes, the next week I brought in their photos. Then they had to create the comic strip and narrate the story in English. They got really involved and enjoyed this. I used this exercise as a break from the text book, which everyone gets bored of! It also gave them a chance to use their overall English skills and they didn’t feel so restricted.

Teenagers also love music, Thai teenagers love English and American boy-band type music. This exercise relies on you having an MP3 or IPod and speakers though! Download a typical Westlife track (substitute Westlife for any popular boy band!), get copies of the lyrics (widely available for free on the internet) and blank out certain words. Play the track back to the class and get them to fill in the blanks, this is a great listening exercise and certainly beats the cringeworthy cassettes that accompany text books. If you don’t mind playing the clown, sing the song yourself, kids always relate to a teacher that doesn’t mind making a fool of himself/herself.

- Pre-teens generally have the rebellious streak but without the inhibitions of teenagers so can be even more difficult to keep them focussed. Of course this is a generalisation, every child is different! I found that energetic games were great to burn off some of the excess energy! One really successful game involved splitting the class into pairs and sticking various print outs of text on the walls outside the class. One of the pair had to run outside, read some of the text, run back in and recite it to their partner who had to write it down. Then they had to swap and read from a different text. This was done as a race (25% of the marks), but also on the accuracy of what they had written (75%).

Some more grown up cutting and sticking may also work (you need to know your class to judge if this will work or not). For example I had one all girl class and had a lesson about Fashion vocabulary. After all the boring teaching stuff, I handed them a few fashion magazines, paper, scissors and glue to create a collage for the classroom wall. Of course this had to be annotated and based on a particular theme.

- The little ones, if they’re on your side your most enjoyable lessons will be with these. If they turn against you, it’s chaos before you know it! It’s crucial to have not only a lesson plan and a backup plan, but also another few backup plans and a stack of extra games and activities on hand for these lessons. The age group roughly from 4-6 have notoriously short attention spans and need constant stimulation. While the lesson will be based on a theme (ie: numbers, animals etc) you’ll need to chop and change activities and keep the proper “teaching” to a minimum. Again you’ll need to know your class and work will work or not.

Singing is usually popular, take a short song and teach the words line by line. This will involve you making a fool of yourself by singing it to them (not all teachers are comfortable with this). Then bring in the music and have a few goes and each line before attempting the whole song. If they’re getting into it you may find an hour has gone before you know it. As with any activity, if it’s falling flat on its face always be prepared to scrap it and move on.

Hangman – An old classic, but not to be overused! This game is a fun way to reinforce any new words learnt in a lesson.

Drawing on the whiteboard – if your kids aren’t too shy to step up in front of the class, give them a noun (preferably one just learnt, ie: apple) and ask them to draw it on the board. Or you do the drawing and ask them to shout out the word.

Ten pin bowling – In Thailand I was able to buy a very cheap, plastic bowling set. Set up a bowling game on the floor and ask someone to keep the scores. This is great fun and also reinforces numbers.

Say it faster – This is always a fun game that brings on a few giggling fits! Basically give the class a list of words or sentences (depending how advanced they are) and ask them to say a word/sentence in turn, starting by saying it slowly on the first round. Then you gradually speed up until it breaks down into fits of laughter!

These are only a few tips, if you’re an English language teacher looking for some extra tips or looking to get into the industry leave me a comment on my blog with your email address and I’ll get back to you.

Teaching can be incredibly rewarding but shouldn’t be taken lightly. As mentioned above don’t look for a teaching job just as a way to stay in a country, it will be unpleasant for all concerned. The job requires lots of planning, passion and energy and a commitment to your students.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

A Bangkok bus journey

Years ago I spent a year living in Bangkok as an English teacher (I will be writing a separate blog on this at some point in the near future, check back on my blog for updates). My journey to work involved catching two buses.

The Bangkok bus system is pretty bewildering for any newcomers, most of the buses still only display destinations and mostly in Thai. There are no timetables at the bus stops so catching a bus can be pot luck, you really need to know what bus to catch beforehand. Fares differ depending on whether you catch the small buses, standard non air conditioned buses, air conditioned buses, minivans, songthaews (pick up trucks with two benches in the back). The drivers and conductors don’t speak English, which is only a problem on the air conditioned buses where the fare changes depending on how far you’re travelling……you get the picture!

Once you’re on the bus the journeys can be “interesting” to say the least, depending on many variables:

- The driver, many fancy themselves as the next Michael Schumacher and think nothing of cutting across 4 lanes of traffic, or pushing their rickety old bus to its limits. Many of them are perfectly good drivers, so you never know!
- The type of bus you end up on. Each route usually has at least two different types of bus operating on it. You might end up on the standard non air conditioned bus, very uncomfortable on a really hot day, with the windows open you get a nice taste of exhaust fumes too! As they’re cheaper they also get very crowded and you can expect to stand for most of the journey, if you’re really unlucky you may be standing on the steps into the bus! Air conditioned buses on the other hand are a haven of cool! Because they’re that bit more expensive they generally don’t get too full.
- The time of day and traffic. Bangkok’s traffic is infamous and of course buses are subject to this as well. Being stuck on a bus with the windows open in the middle of rush hour is never much fun!
- Who you sit/stand next to. As with any country in the world, Bangkok’s buses have their fair share of oddballs!

Which leads me onto my story…

Once you know your way around the system, most bus journeys in Bangkok are as dull and uneventful as a bus journey anywhere else in the world. One morning I was just on my way into work as usual and hopped on the small, green, non air conditioned number 77 bus from home. At the next stop on hopped a group of young Chinese tourists, 2 men and a lady, hopelessly lost they came straight to me! The only problem was they didn’t speak a word of English, only French! I don’t speak a word of any Chinese language and very little French, just what I can remember from school! I managed to establish that they had lost their passports and were in search of the Chinese embassy. However it’s very difficult to describe directions to people in a language you don’t speak and in a city that they don’t know! So I agreed to take them straight there. Now, the Chinese embassy is along the new underground train route, however this was in the days before the underground was open. So we had to hop off the bus and onto the Skytrain to Asok station and then a taxi (since I didn’t know which bus to take!). I deposited them outside the embassy and then realised that, apart from taking another taxi I had no idea how to get to work! Although I knew generally where I was in relation to work, I didn’t really know how far I was or which bus to get. As I had an hour before my first lesson I thought, let’s just get on the first bus and see where it takes me. We approached the Lat Phrao junction and I knew where I was, “please turn right, please turn right”….the bus turned left. Off I got at the next stop, crossed the road and waited for a bus back, at this point I knew which bus to get. At this point I still had half an hour to make it to work, no problem I thought as I got on the next bus. Bus gets back to the Lad Phrao junction and whack…. straight into the back of a limo with blacked out windows. Out gets the burly driver (complete with black suite and shades) and proceeds to argue with the bus driver. After a few minutes somebody gets out the back of the limo to see what’s going on. It’s at this point that I spotted the Chinese flag on the limo, it was none other than the Chinese ambassador (as he shouted at the bus driver as if that would change anything!).

The driver made a quick phone call and minutes later a police car rolled up. They detained everyone on the bus to provide statements, including me even though most Thai police officers don’t speak English. All this on the day that I’d forgotten my mobile! They interviewed everyone else first and a good hour later got to me, decided they couldn’t be bothered and sent me on my way! Frustration was not the right word by this point!

I found a pay phone and called work to give my excuses and got a taxi!

Fortunately this isn’t an everyday experience on Bangkok’s buses, I was clearly having a bad day. But the Skytrain or Underground are preferable and more comfortable if they go where you want to be.