Matt Smith

First day on the job

A simple activity for your first day with a new class

If you’re new to the job, and haven’t figured this one out yet, you can start off classes with a new group in confident style every time – the first thing you can do is make a name card. A Korean teacher once showed me the simple way to get it together – you hand out a piece of A4 paper (if you want to make it fancy, upon which you will have printed a banner, with a few lines for writing on, across its breadth at the appropriate spot), you get them to fold it in half, and then to fold the outside edges into the centre, dividing it into quarters – you’ll find then that if you overlap the outside edges, and secure them together with a paper clip, you end up with an open-ended triangular prism they can write their name on, and sit upon the desk. Bearing in mind, obviously, that writing of the name should take place before the securing with the paperclip, because otherwise the process becomes a bit awkward. When they finish the class, students can just remove the paper clip, unfold their name card, and then put the piles of paper and clips they become into the file until next time.

You can adapt the activity, furthermore, to suit different types of classes – one example of how might be to, for instance, with young students go through some materials for decoration and the correct way to spell and write their names. And then, of course, to have a little exhibition where they show their classmates their subsequent artworks (‘I’m Tippawan’, they can proudly point and say). If the students are unfamiliar with each other, you could teach them to say ‘Hello, my name’s …….’, and then grab their name cards, mix them up, redistribute them, and tell them to stand up and with such introduction find the rightful owner – or, if they were adult students, you could perhaps approach things like this instead. You could go through a few key English sounds, and how to spell them – take the opportunity to point out, for example, that if they want people to say a ‘t’ sound in their name, they’re probably better off not spelling it with ‘th’, because unlike what the shoddy transliteration of English using their own orthographic system teaches Thai people they are in fact completely disparate sounds – indeed, you could take the opportunity to raise their metacognitive awareness by broaching the very interesting issues of how ineffective the orthographic systems of other languages often are in rendering the sounds of our own, the disastrous effect this has on the pronunciation of English in foreign countries, and whether or not such practice should actually be encouraged in the foreign language classroom. Once you’ve gone through what sounds certain combinations of letters in the English language most generally symbolise for their native-speaker readers, you could let them have a lash at using them to craft their name in English – then, you could get them to come out to the board, write their effort on it, and you can read it to everyone as you imagine someone who knew nothing of the Thai language back home would, and see if they are pleased with their result. If not, you could get everyone in on making adjustments – this is also your opportunity to help them out in life in the English speaking world by making sure they haven’t spelled their name ‘Piss-a-my’, ‘C**t-ja-na’, ‘Poo’ or any of the other embarrassing permutations that can inadvertently crop up. The point is, making a name card is an activity for everyone, there’s no such thing as too childish, or that it’s actually a very versatile and constructive activity to start out with every time – in addition to its value as a language exercise, far more importantly it’s going to endow you with one other chief advantage.

That advantage being, namely, that it is going to confer unto you the power of knowing someone’s name – folklore and mythology recognise, of course, that this is some power indeed, such that certain names in the past were often considered either secret and/or unmentionable. For young learners, in language teacher terms, this is going to strip the students of any anonymity behind the cover of which they might be tempted to misbehave (‘Please be quiet’ could be directed at anyone in the classroom, and in fact soon becomes part of the general hubbub in students’ minds that they themselves are creating – however, ‘Somchai, please be quiet’ has a very pointed effect because it is immediately commanding Somchai’s attention, and because everyone else is going to look at him as well…and, because the student’s figure that ‘wow, Ajarn is able to now name us as a troublemaker’, and thus perhaps strive to some extent to make sure that if ajarn knows them, it is better to be known on a favourable basis) – look, I couldn’t underestimate the value of having the students’ names clearly visible to you from the outset in classroom management terms, you cut out all the threat to the rhythm of a lesson that the difficulty of establishing which ‘you’ you are addressing poses (when soliciting students’ engagement through the asking of questions, or by naming people to read and so forth), and in my humble experience it’s the most fundamental step you can take in transforming your teaching environment from that horrible experience where you feel you’re just standing out the front and shouting and waving your arms to no-one in particular, no-one could care less…I would argue that it’s the first fundamental step in taking this dread scenario, so often confronted by the beginning teacher in another country with young learners, and turning it on its head.

Which points now to the advantage of knowing names from the outset for learners of all levels, or to the general advantage of it – it’s the first step towards creating a human relationship with your students, whereby you indicate you are keen to know them, that you have some interest in their individual and shared cultural identities, and that you don’t want to take the out-dated/standoffish/authoritarian stance in the classroom, you are prepared to deal with them on a close and personable basis. Obviously the merits of this approach are going to be denied by some, imagined esteem, convenient threat-based student incentive schemes, and other ‘minimised workload’ regimes suffer considerably when we opt to take this tack – so too, there’s no use embarking on this course if you are in no other way prepared to follow it through. However, if you do know anything of the contemporary theory of language teaching, and most importantly if you’ve made reasonable effort to learn other languages yourself (this often being, quite significantly, the divider between teachers who see themselves as ‘sovereigns’ in the classroom and teachers who see themselves as mere ‘facilitators’ of information osmosis, I should have added that all the evidence indicates that the authoritarian stance is also the monocultural stance), you’d probably agree with the value here of what I’m saying – the point is, if you do think that having a human relationship with your students, as I have described it, is important, and that indicating to your students that far from being your liability (in terms of raising them from their miserable state of ignorance to the ‘lofty heights’ at which you yourself reside), they are in fact your valued charges, whose progress in life is of sufficient concern to you that you are interested to track it and develop it on a personal basis…well, obviously, you’re probably going to be able to see for yourself that this name card business is a positive step to take on the road which you’ll be following.

One other thing I should perhaps mention at this point, too, being this – you’ll see I’ve been proceeding all along on the basis that you will encourage your students to write their real name, and not follow the practice whereby you give them an English name. ‘Now why on Earth’, you might wonder, ‘would he be recommending that?’, or bucking standard ‘Peacecorps practice’ – the foremost reason, or by far and away the most important reason, is that people are very tuned in to the sound of their own name. And, that when you give them a new one, they don’t equate it in their own minds very much with themselves, you can be saying ‘Paul, please be quiet’ until you’re blue in the face and the recently titled ‘Paul’ won’t care a fig because he doesn’t realise that it is him that you are talking to. Think also, of course, of how diminished your attempts at having human relations with the students become when you indicate their real name, and thus, it pushes to the mind of many no doubt, their culture, is possibly of little importance to you, you’re going to summarily label them something more convenient – the real advantages of knowing students’ names, as I’ve pushed them, only achieve their true effect when it is their real name with which we become familiar. You know also, while I’ve known some efficient teachers who do give their students an English name, I just can’t help having these concerns pressing on my mind – firstly, when I came to Thailand as a kid, and the older people said ‘Oh, your name is so hard to say, we’ll just give you a Thai name’, and then went through a few ‘humorous’ (to them) ones before landing on something suitable, I never felt so good – the people who had far more of a lasting impression on me were people who showed an interest in my real name, and who gave speaking it a real go. Also, I just can’t get the image out of my head of some bloody missionary, standing at the front of the classroom, sanctimoniously thinking to themselves that the first step for these ‘savages’ on the path to leaving behind their ‘debased native state’ and ‘primitive ways’ is to adopt a decent Christian name, one furthermore that won’t make them look a fool when they speak it (thus challenging their notions of intrinsic superiority, or of their ‘chosen-ness’ in the eyes of god)…well, do I need to continue. The thing is, as I’m reasonably confident I don’t need to convince beginning teachers of, this kind of practice was definitely centred in an age and ideology that has lingered on for way too long already – you’re hopefully keen to do better for yourselves, so might be receptive to the other option.

My final note, or my closing note here, being that actually I don’t get my university classes to make name cards, I’ve been writing for you with far smaller numbers in mind – although when I come to think of it I probably would, except that I have all the students’ names handy on the class roll next to me instead. After a few weeks of checking attendance, I know virtually everybody by name, this is definitely testimony to the effectiveness of this kind of mnemonic activity – until I can put names to faces, when I want to ask questions or pick volunteers I can just pick a name from the roll, this really helps me to remember who my students are as well. You can’t avoid it, in fact – there’s no effort required, it’s simply something you pick up.


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