Monday, September 14, 2009

Pronunciation, You Devil

One of my favorite things about New York is simple, but essential: it’s a pedestrian-friendly city. People walk everywhere. If you own a car, it just becomes a nuisance. Street cleaners become your arch nemesis. You end up cursing the damn city, the damn car and the damn stupid fact that you even own.

Can Tho is, among various other things, the complete OPPOSITE of New York in this sense. Nobody walks. Motorbike taxi drivers have become my best friends. But when I do feel like stretching my legs, it’s at my own peril. Something is always blocking my way – whether it’s a person (who’s not moving) or severely damaged sidewalks that are still awaiting reconstruction – I can never just go. The sidewalks are more like obstacle courses. And unlike New York – where everyone is either looking down at their feet or staring straight past you – the opposite applies here: everyone is looking at me. Everyone.

That being said, I didn’t walk to school today. I motorbike’d it. I won’t be doing this every day, but financially speaking, it’s only fifty cents each way – not too much of a burden on my budget. I also wanted to be there before my students got to the room: every time a teacher walks into a classroom here, they all stand up, and don’t sit down until you do. Embarassing! I figured being there beforehand might catch them off-guard…and it did. Although this time, instead of standing up, they all bowed their heads upon entry. Looks like I’m getting treated like an empress either way.

Today was my first day of class with the freshmen. I had about fifty or so in my class and although this seems unmanageable, it’s not – they never speak! They’re quiet to the point where it’s almost unbearable. So, conventional teaching methods, out the window – time to open up the door to creativity, and beyond!

I wrote three simple words on the board at the beginning of class. In capital letters it read: ENGLISH IS CRAZY! The students got a kick out of this. And it’s so true. Mastering the English language is an incredibly difficult task to accomplish. The rules always change. Nothing is ever constant. And that can be severely frustrating for a student whose future job rests on their ability to listen, speak, read and write in English.

When the majority of the students were in their seats, I passed around a yellow sheet of paper. There were two columns – one titled “Vietnamese name” and the other “English name.” I explained to them that I wanted their birth names as well as what they would like to be called in class. I do this to make it easier for myself – pronouncing their Vietnamese name is just super embarrassing, on my behalf– and it’s also fun for them. When the last student returned the list to my desk, I had to laugh. There were typical names like David, Jerry, Christina and Sam. My top four favorites, though, were definitely Pea, Mighty, Sky and Navy.

The first exercise I had them do was stolen from Christine – thanks, girl! I divided the class in half and had one group stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the back wall, and the others stand the same way in front of the chalkboard, facing the group opposite them (setting them up like this was a task all in itself!) But when everyone was in place, I gave them simple directions: pick a partner across the room, and ask them questions.

They all looked at me as if I were crazy. Nobody said anything. I finally screamed “TALK!”, and they started to shout questions at one another, in English:

“Do you like school?”

“You have brother or sisters?”

“You have dog?”

Thirty seconds in, a sweet-looking Vietnamese boy with thick-framed glasses and a white button-up said to me, “Teacha Kelly, when we all talking at once, we can’t hear each otha!”

I looked at him, smiled, and simply said, “That’s the point!”

I let this go on for five minutes or so. They all kept smiling and looking back at me, not really sure what their crazy American teacher was forcing them to do. When they were all back in their seats, I enlightened them:

“This exercise was to teach you how to speak like an American –LOUD!” They all laughed at this.

The next activity I had them do made them nervous at first. I passed out ripped-up pieces of paper and asked them to write out a secret about themselves that nobody knew. More blank stares. More shy smiles. No pens moving.

“It doesn’t have to be a HUGE secret,” I said, “just as long as it’s different.” Some more uncomfortable shifting in their seats but a few more pens at work. Nice.

When they were done, I asked one of the girls in front if I could borrow her slightly empty pencil case for the exercise. She was more than happy to oblige. I went around and collected all the neatly folded (instead of the anticipated crumply pieces) of paper, and explained the rules:

“I will go around the room and ask a student to pick out a secret from the pencil case, and read it out loud to the class. When he or she is done reading, they have three guesses. If they don’t guess the correct person on the third try, the person who wrote the secret has to stand up and say ‘It’s me!’”

THAT was the part that freaked them out. Several students shouted “Oh, no!” and dozens more were nervously giggling. The first girl I went up to looked like I had asked her to place her hand in a woodchopper when she reached inside. When she read it aloud, it sounded like this:

“I rearry ate on-in.” What?!

I asked her to read it again, and she gave me the same response. Finally I took the piece of paper from her and read it myself.

“Ohhh”, I said, now realizing what she meant, “I really hate onions!”

The class laughed at this. I did too. Not exactly what I would have expected someone to write as a personal secret. But, I thought to myself, would I really want to share my deepest and darkest with a bunch of strangers? Probably not.

There were other exercises and other copied charts during today’s lesson – which runs three hours, by the way – but if I continue, this blog post will go on for days. I’ve already learned one very valuable thing from teaching, though – you get back as much energy as you put forth. I don’t have any prior experience teaching English to university students, but I do know what keeps the classroom alive: laughter. The best teachers that I had in high school or college were ones with a sense of humor, and if I can continue to keep my students’ interest level in learning English at a high, then I think I'll leave Can Tho with the satisfying feeling of a job well done.


  1. Wow Kelly, I am really impressed! Standing in front of college age students, with no teaching experience for three hours, trying to master English is no small feat! I am really proud of you and you should be of yourself. That is really hard to do. I know there are novice teachers in my own school who could not do that! And hey, for a $1 a day, I also would let someone drive me to and from school! Keep up the good work Teacher Kelly!

  2. Thanks, mom! I'm surprised at how comfortable I actually feel up there. The students are always smiling at me so I never have any reason to feel nervous. I will try to post some pictures of my travels up on a website, and I'll send the address of the website your way. Hopefully it doesn't take forever to get them up there! Love and miss you <3