First Day with Students Quite Wonderful

(written May12)
The high school (7th to 12th grades) had orientation days yesterday and today, and actual classes will begin next week. All the 7th graders come to this event, and the 10th graders. Yesterday we had an assembly; I was introduced and said a few words in Thai. Then my counterpart teacher and I put the finishing touches on our lesson plan for the 7th graders’ welcome session. The idea here seems to be to give each teacher two hours with 1/3 of the students, then 2 hours with 1/3 of the students, then 2 hours with 1/3 of the students to do games, singing, and fun things. This is a good way to get acquainted and start off happy. So we needed two hours of educationally relevant and enjoyable things to do. The three groups of students, by the way, are not arranged in their classes. There are four classes of seventh graders sorted by abilities, so each group we worked with was a stretch larger than the classes we’ll actually teach when the 18th rolls around and the school year starts.

We had prepared a list of the students’ names in English letters, printed it twice, once in large type, and cut the large one into pieces so that each child could go home with the scrap that spelled his or her name. I wrote each name on the chalkboard (alternating left and right boards as Aj. N was at the other one) and Ajan N. worked with the students to sound it out, then the students recognized them, stood up and said, “My name is ____.” This was interesting. Evidence first and then interpretation: in some cases Ajan N. spent a lot of time on a name, including asking all the students whose name began with that initial sound to stand, and really worked with the students to get them to participate and the student in question did not respond through iterations of what are these sounds (in a syllable), what do you get when you put them together, over and over again. Interpretation: the culture of the classroom in the elementary school is that everyone carries everyone along, so no one individual is responsible for any given question or task. This also means that there’s no harm done if a student tunes out for a period of time, the rest of the class will push the lesson forward. In this case, no one but that one student could save us from endless repetition of the syllables of that name, and sometimes it took a while. I respect Ajan N. tremendously for all she does and in this case for cheerfully carrying on until the student resumed consciousness of the classroom and recognized the name. Ajan N. did express some dismay about the situation later, privately, but publicly she was all smiles and super supportive.

In addition to the segment on student names, we did an “I Have, Who Has” exercise with the alphabet. We passed out bits of plastic board to each student or pair of students that had paper glued on it that read things like “I have letter V. Who has letter B?” Students must listen to each other and respond at the appropriate time. This activity is a struggle the first time in the US or in Thailand, perhaps because students are conditioned to listen when the TEACHER is speaking and until they get familiar with this procedure it’s not obvious to them that this only works if you’re listening to the students who are speaking. It went better comparing the end to the beginning of the activity as the students warmed up to it and began to speak loudly enough for others to hear (or the teacher would make them repeat over and over and over until it was loud enough). All three groups eventually got in the swing of it and individual students were either satisfied by their performance or very pleased with their performance, which was fun to watch. For the last group Aj. N decided to use the wireless mike so each student’s voice would be amplified and that seemed to add to the fun. We’ll do that again, for sure. One of the variations on this game is to record the starting and ending times, and see that each time we work with the same deck of cards, even though everyone has a new card each time, the time it takes gets smaller and smaller. Students can celebrate their learning.

We also did flip puzzles matching numbers in digits and in words (e.g. ninety-nine with 99) with the reward for correct answers being that the whole thing when flipped over shows a picture put back together. Aj. N assigned the groups by having students count off 1,2,3, …8, 1.2.3. to 8 and so on, then all the 1s made a group. This should have produced groups in which at least one of the students present was able to cope with the task to some extent, but that was undermined by a group of boys (of lower ability) who settled into a group and drove out other students (to find places in groups that were relatively under-populated) and this method produced a group in which no one had a clue. Not a single member of the group could match any of the pieces without an Aj. (N or P) to read the words, read the words and translate into Thai, or remove mismatched pieces so they’d eventually get them in the right places. I stayed with that one group until they completed the puzzle, and then stayed to do it again as we were swapping with other groups so we could do it again but produce a different picture when it was finished. I was reminded that these are the students who can become alienated learners in the classroom. If you go home from school day after day without successes, it becomes a chore to go to school. Unhappy students begin to amuse themselves with socially destructive behaviors. The teachers are responsible to see to it that every student has a success every day at school. This is a challenge because we can’t set the whole agenda at their level: that is a disservice to the higher skill learners. So any given day in class has to reach and challenge students across this spectrum.

There was a small group activity, which eventually we’ll be doing in groups of 4 with an occasional 5 but which was for groups of 6 today: the old memory game turning cards and trying to make matches. In this case the matches were picture and word for food vocabulary. We used the easiest possible words, and everyone was fine when a picture came up, but the challenge was that some groups didn’t have a reader strong enough to identify the words. Okay, Ajans drifted around to help out.

Today with the middle ability students first, then the lower ability students, and finally the higher ability students, we practiced with the activities and became more efficient as the day progressed. With the last group we were able to use one lesson segment that didn’t fit in the other sessions. It was also the most challenging, and the higher ability students managed it but the other students might or might not have enjoyed it and might or might not have gotten any benefit from it (because of low success rate). In this activity every student received a scrap of paper with either a question or an answer and then got up and moved around the room to find the corresponding scrap. At that point the students were to sit together in the circle. The questions were embedded in the answers (e.g. What’s in the cup? It’s a cup of tea.) so that students could use those clues. Some students made pairs that didn’t actually work, but at the end we worked those out when we went around the circle with students reading their scraps aloud. To me, the best part of this was that often times the pair involved a boy and a girl. Thai boys and girls at this age do not voluntarily sit next to one another, and when a boy and a girl are sitting or standing next to one another (for example the class is in a circle) others tease. As an early career teacher I didn’t take much notice of this, but as time went on I became more and more alert to counsel the students individually or as a group that in this room anyone can work with anyone and there is to be no expression of rejection. If we take care of everyone in this way more learning occurs. Students who are busy defending themselves emotionally are not learning much—if anything. It’s also good practice for the adult life. We don’t have a lot of control over the people we work with, and the thing to do is to be polite. At any rate the students were stoic about it, and I really appreciated it. I speculate that they were bright enough to realize that if we’re going to be doing this kind of thing in the classroom everyone will eventually be in that situation.

So the students made a good impression on me all day. They weren’t all able to do all the tasks we set for them, but we need to know what’s possible and what’s impossible, and today helped a lot that way. Sure there was some horsing around at inappropriate times; this is pretty common across cultures. It’s probably a bit of testing the limits so students know what teacher disapproval and correction will look like. So I sometimes inserted myself between two students without saying anything, with one of those smiles that says I’m playing with you, but settle down. Students responded well. Students did enjoy the participatory nature of the session, and I think Aj. N and I both made good impressions on students. Over the course of the day a number of teachers stopped by to observe from the hallway and I think we made a good impression on them, as well.

Ajan N. is, as one of my daughters might say, hecka-funny, has GREAT timing, and is a very skilled teacher. I’m delighted, of course. Add to that this: in planning sessions she’s comfortable taking my suggestions and rejecting my suggestions which seems really healthy to me. I also generally accept her suggestions but occasionally push a bit, checking for an opportunity to do something differently. We’re actually co-teaching. Not every Thai teacher comprehends what’s intended by that term. Some Thai teachers who comprehend aren’t interested. Some Peace Corps Volunteers may have trouble with the concept, but lookie dat! we’re doing it. I’m not saying we’ll have smooth sailing through the whole two years, what would the odds of that be? But I am saying I’m not going to have to walk on eggs for months trying to establish a good working relationship, and I was prepared to do that if necessary.

It was hot and tiring, I was on my feet a great deal and then there were the number of times to sit on the floor and then hoist myself back up, so I’ll sleep like a rock tonight. During the school year the schedule does not include 6 hours of instruction in a single day. There will be some preparation and planning time each day. At the end of the day we rushed to get home, Ajan and her husband drove me both ways. Within about 10 minutes of the end of class there was a spectacular downpour, and the temperature dropped, maybe 5 degrees or more. I think we’re drifting gently into the rainy season. That made a good impression, too.

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1 Response to First Day with Students Quite Wonderful

  1. Kristen Norton says:

    Loved reading this post, Pat. Wow…I am actually a bit tired after reading it! Ha! You really worked hard, it sounds like, but I loved hearing about the great relationship you have started with your co-teacher–awesome! 🙂

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