Teaching the kiddies
Do they learn anything at all?
The other day I was wondering if Thai children who study English actually pick up anything from the lessons they attend. It must have been one of those days where you wonder if what you do has any impact at all on learners or if it’s just water down the drain. I guess all teachers go through that phase at one time or another. I started having doubts because I’d been teaching this bunch of very young learners (half a dozen five and six year olds) for almost a year and I couldn’t see a lot of improvement in their English capabilities.
Luckily, along came a boy who had dropped out of that very class about a year before, just before I took over from another teacher. He made my day. Apparently, his mum had decided that he should learn English at a young age after all, so he rejoined the group he’d left earlier. He hardly recognised his former classmates as most of them were new faces to him. After his mum had dropped him off in the classroom and set off to commence her weekly shopping spree, he showed all of us what he was made of: he started crying.
The other children didn’t join in but just looked puzzled. They looked at him and then me as if asking “What the hell is he crying for? It’s just an English lesson, not an appointment at the dentist’s.” I just smiled and let the new kid settle down. After a while he understood that crying wasn’t going to get him out of his ordeal and he quietly took his seat between two other boys while I went on with the lesson. So far, my experience has taught me that it’s better not to make too big a deal out of a situation like this, but just to let things run their natural course.
Anyway, why did this kid make my day? Well, when I started involving him in the lesson, it turned out he didn’t know anything. And whatever he had ever learned before, he seemed to have forgotten most of it or buried it somewhere very deep in his grey matter. He didn’t understand basic classroom commands, he didn’t know most common words, he didn’t know diddly-squat. Then it dawned on me that the other students knew all the answers to my questions. They obeyed or carried out classroom commands without me having to repeat them and they knew most of the words the new kid on the block hadn’t the foggiest about. My doubts about them not learning anything had definitely been ill-founded. It turned out I had doubted them and myself when I shouldn’t have. I just didn’t have anything to compare them with and I had taken their skills – limited but valuable indeed – for granted. It hadn’t been a waste of time and money after all.
Some children never cease to amaze me. I’m thinking in particular of another class of young children, aged six and seven, that I taught. It’s simply incredible how noisy some of them could be. There were a few boys in that group that were so loud you could probably hear them two classrooms further down the hall. Until I came along. When I took over that class from a teacher who’d quit, about half of them (mainly the boys) just acted like a bunch of unsupervised brats with no respects whatsoever for their peers or the teacher present. My predecessor had apparently relied on the non-intervention approach and had let the children do whatever they wanted to do, even if that involved causing chaos and doing anything but learning English.
Now I’m fairly tolerant myself and I don’t to want to act as the teacher-policeman, but such a live and let live approach just isn’t my cup of tea. I presume that if kids are in my classroom, they must be there for a reason. The reason why they are there is to learn English, willingly or unwillingly. I realise that quite a few of them are probably there because their parents drag them by the hair to the weekend language school and make them study English. I know they’d rather be out in the park playing with their friends. So some of them think that’s just what the classroom is: a park where they can do whatever they want because the farang teacher can’t touch them. Well, not with this teacher.
Although weekend courses have to be fun for everyone involved, meaning both children and teacher, I think that fun and learning should be balanced. If the parents pay good money to get their kids on a course, the least a teacher should do is make sure that they learn some English. This can be done using fun and games, but not exclusively. At the end of the day, learners have to put in a minimal effort if they want to achieve anything at all. By the way, the children shouldn’t just learn English, but also some sense of responsibility and the awareness that they can’t get away with everything.
In general, the boys tend to be the troublemakers, while the girls are usually better-behaved. This might explain the difference in English skills. In my experience, girls often do better than boys when it comes to learning English. I know this is a generalisation, but if there were statistics, I think they would show that I am right. Of course I agree that there exist lazy and noisy girls whose English is very poor, just as there are plenty of boys who are bright and well-behaved.
When it comes to singing, girls are usually a lot more willing to sing and a lot of them actually like it, whereas boys are often shy and reluctant. As for being cheeky or naughty, I guess girls almost equal boys. The other day, two six year old girls insisted on massaging my arm in the classrooms. I let them do it for just a few moments in order to keep them happy, but guess what, after a few minutes one of them asked me for 100 baht. I could see on her face that she was joking, but it goes to show how cheeky even the very young learners can be. Later in the lesson, a number of them ganged up on me and tried to steal my wallet out of my back pocket. I can assure you that even a small group of young children can be a handful to keep at bay, especially when there are a couple of overweight boys among them.
One of the normal-sized boys in that class was very bright. Bright but naughty. For example, he would draw a nicely curved W on the board and ask what it was. Before I could even open my mouth he’d proudly announce loudly to everyone present it was a bum. He then went on to draw a picture of a girl, complete with a pair of convincing assets. When he was done, two of the cheekier girls informed that the girl had “big milk”. Now what the hell do you say to that? I know I could easily have shrugged it off, but I decided to correct them so that they wouldn’t keep saying it for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is very difficult to correct mistakes children or even adults have grown used to, so I decided to tell them it wasn’t big milk, but it were big… well, uh, I was stuck for a moment. Breasts just didn’t seem the right word. Moreover, a word with two consonant clusters would have been mission impossible for them to pronounce anyway. I don’t know what the politically correct word is with children, but in the end I settled for boobs. Probably better than bazookas, beer glasses, berthas, cantaloupes, Dolly Partons, dumplings, fried eggs, grapefruits, headlights, hooters, melons, tits or twin peaks. If I’d had to do it again, I might go for the fairly neutral, perfectly-sized and easy to pronounce coconuts.
That’s it. I hope I didn’t offend any airbags or mosquito bites with my column this month. Remember, suggestions remain welcome.