Counting down

Tibet World entranceThere are only 14 days to go before I fly from Dharamsala to Delhi to Sydney. I have settled into a routine here – going to work at Lha in the mornings where I help write responses to emails from volunteers from all over the world, taking a lunch break and then heading for Tibet World to teach students for two hours.

As I promised myself, I have been trying to help the students with their writing and they have responded well.  They are keen to hear what I think about their latest pieces of writing and are getting used to incorporating feedback into new drafts.  I gave a presentation about writing to the volunteer teachers at Tibet World.  The volunteers teach a range of languages apart from English so I tried to accommodate this and to make it relevant for all proficiency levels. There was a good discussion at the end, so hopefully that was a good sign.

The members of the English class seem much more relaxed now and even the most reserved students are finally smiling and contributing in class.  This has resulted in a much better atmosphere where they are participating and helping each other much more.  I am looking forward to our last two weeks and hope we get a few more good lessons in.

The picture of the class was taken while they were absorbed in writing.  We had studied a model and they were silently writing their own narratives.  They are all deep thinkers, and despite the limitations of their English, they all produce work that reflects their schemas.

monks writing - advanced class

In addition to covering the grammar items listed in the program, we have been working on areas they still find confusing, like question word orders.  I think next week is a good chance to continue to help with common errors, so we will try using Learning From Common Mistakes (Cambridge) .

So I am turning my mind to going home and tying up all the loose ends here before leaving. The University of Canberra has accepted my application to continue my studies and am looking forward to university life next semester. My TESOL studies have played a crucial role in the quality of my teaching and I definitely want to keep improving.

I am also looking forward to meeting up with other TESOL graduates who have started teaching so we can share our experiences. Who knows, maybe I can encourage other students to spend some time volunteering in Asia like I have.  There is so much waiting out there and I can guarantee that it’s a richly rewarding experience.


Teaching Tibetans

In the fascinating town of McLeod Ganj, India, my fifth week will soon be over. The Dalai Lama has been teaching this week so English classes were cancelled for three days.  Unfortunately, as soon as I started teaching I managed to catch a cold and coughed my way through most classes, so the break has been most welcome. Combining three hours a day coordinating volunteers with two hours teaching has been fairly demanding but I am better now and life is settling down again.

Tibetan monks - Sunday activities

Tibetan monks – Sunday is laundry day at the waterfall.

I am slowly getting to know my students. They are nearly all Tibetans although for the last three weeks we were joined by a lovely young Japanese woman who was visiting the area. About half the class are monks from different parts of India and even from Bhutan.  They have come here to study and I think it must be hard for them living in freezing guesthouses with few belongings and very little money.

They are here because they have a strong will to learn and the class is delightful to teach. It is great to have an advanced class and the challenge of guiding them though some of the complexities of English is enjoyable. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are more comfortable when I use more traditional approaches to grammar teaching, but despite that, they they are experiencing a variety of approaches. I still think back to the expression “an eclectic range of approaches” from lectures at the University of Canberra and that’s the way I have been teaching all year.

Over the next few weeks, I want to see them writing more. This skill seems to be a bit neglected by some teachers here. Maybe it is regarded as too hard or unimportant, but I disagree.  English is widely used here and being unable to write in English has the potential at times to leave many Tibetan refugees in a relatively powerless position. It is also the language mostly used in countries that they (remember that we are talking about refugees) often want to emigrate to, such as the UK, Canada, Australia and the USA.

On a side note, the issue of official and national languages of India is a volatile political minefield, but for now, English and Hindi are the (main) official languages of India.  Even though the Constitution states that English is to be phased out in favour of Hindi, Hindi is not universally popular, while English is widely used and sometimes is referred to as the national language. 

McLeod Ganj is a good place to live for a while.  Sometimes it is heart rending to think about the difficult position of the refugees here, always waiting and hoping for world support and a chance to return to their country.  Their spirit is amazing though and their Buddhist traditions help keep them strong.  This is a place no visitor could forget.

Talking with students in Laos

Luang Prabang in Laos is a beautiful world heritage town and I went there for eight days before journeying to India where I am now, but that’s another story.  In Luang Prabang, I was pleased to meet quite a few enthusiastic English students at Big Brother Mouse , an organisation that publishes and distributes books to promote reading in villages. Big Brother Mouse also runs free drop-in English speaking sessions and that’s where I ended up on most days. The sessions are attended by high school and university students as well as monks and working people.

What they have in common is bravery and motivation, and it was marvellous to practice English with them.  They actually wrote down word meanings and asked questions.  This was a contrast to my last experience in the high school in rural Thailand where no-one ever asked a question and it was rare to find a student who connected with English outside their regular lessons.  The people I talked with in Laos ranged from fluent university English Major students to a high school girl, Lee, who came along for the first time and was painfully shy, but she was there!

The benefits of practicing with foreigners were plain and their knowledge of the world was pretty impressive at times too.

The experience reinforced my reflections in Thailand that teaching English isn’t a finite process involving stuffing a set of knowledge into students’ heads, although I encountered some people there who believed that this is the case. It is more likely a long term process reliant on autonomous learning that can be helped by good teachers and suitable materials.

The picture is from the Big Brother Mouse website.  english practice

A teacher’s thoughts

Although a lot has been happening here, just lately I haven’t been posting to this blog. I have, however, been working hard at school, all the while reading and reflecting on the incredible experiences I am having as a teacher in Thailand. This article from the Guardian, directed primarily at teachers returning from holidays, appeals to me because of the author’s humility and dedication.

High school students are not always easy to teach, even in Thailand (despite its reputation for respectful subservience).  While the behaviour of the senior students is usually no less than angelic, unfortunately at other times a couple of my classes have resembled a minor battlefield.  The article helps to keep it all in perspective.

Secret Teacher: we all have our dark days, but don’t forget you’re making a difference | Teacher Network | Guardian Professional.

Changing lanes – two very different English camps

Currently lessons at Thungmaprao High School have been suspended while the students play sports and undertake other activities for a couple of weeks. So this week I taught at two contrasting three day English camps. Both were for government school students, but the first was at a five star resort and the other was in a primary school located in a very small Muslim village.

The camp at the resort was for the most proficient English students from a large high school in Takuapa. The other camp was the first one ever at the little primary school and you can see from the tears in the farewell picture (top left) that it was something very special for the children. The younger children were fascinated and were often found watching at the door and, at the end, some of the mothers were there too.

Both camps were wonderful experiences for me and I have picked up a few new tricks from some of the other teachers.  The pictures show that the students enjoyed themselves too.

I have just found out that I am required at Thungmaprau on Monday morning to attend an event and give a speech.  As long as no-one puts a microphone in front of me and asks me to sing “If you’re happy and you know it” again, I should be fine. Anything but that, please!

And I am back to regular classes on Wednesday.

I hope you enjoy the pictures.

Next Stop Thailand

Thanks to WordPress blogger Cornish Kylie, I found out about a great school in Thailand in a small village called Kapong in the province of Phang Nga on Thailand’s west coast. It is where I am going next and I am thrilled about this opportunity to work on my teaching skills in a wonderful environment.

After reading Kylie’s post, I read everything else I could find about the school and contacted them to ask if it was too late to apply for next term which starts in mid-May. After several emails, an application form and two Skype interviews, I have been accepted and am arriving there on 8 May, instead of going to Chiangmai as previously planned.

Yaowawit school is part of a project founded by a German philanthropist following the 2004 tsunami. The Youtube video above tells you a little more about it.

The school is home for over 110 children from socially and financially underprivileged families. They have good quality accommodation for visitors too, which helps support the school and provides opportunities for vocational training. So if anyone wants to come visit that would be great.

Here is the post that made me investigate further and apply.

Meanwhile I will be staying in Bali until the last day of my Thai visa re-entry period.

Balandas and Bravery

Balanda  meaning N, People or person of European Descent. Balanda also refers collectively to the English speaking Dominant culture of Australia and all other ‘Western’ nations. Its origin comes the Macassan term ‘Belanda’ which is derived from ‘Hollander’ to describe the Dutch and is still used in Bahasa Indonesian today.

In Indonesia I am a Balanda.  When I heard the word I was surprised because I had encountered it before when reading about the Yolgnu people in Arnhem Land in Far Northern Australia in an amazing book by Richard Trudgen called Why Warriors Lie Down and Die. 

It has only clicked with me recently that the ‘Far North’ of Australia is actually the ‘Close South’ for Malaysia and Indonesia.

I haven’t seen another Balanda since I left the confines of the hotel in Jakarta. This has made me feel a heightened awareness of my Australian-ness, especially in the classroom.

Most native English speakers probably don’t notice the cultural nature of our language but language and culture are inextricably related. I have conducted a few very productive lessons with the English teachers that were explicitly about Australian and Indonesian customs, but mostly culture is integral to the language in every lesson and is more implicitly presented. For example, in most classes, amongst other activities, we have been working through Living in Australia, which is a very recent publication from NSW AMES.  The chapter is called ‘Now You’re Talking’ and the conversation examples are plausible and natural, and seem to be informed by discourse analysis. The examples of informal conversation are laden with Australian culture.

I have wondered at times about whether Australian English is suitable for these students.  For example should it be Global English, American English or some kind of combination of ‘Englishes’?  I have talked to teachers here and there appears to be agreement that, as our two countries are close neighbours, having an Australian teaching here is a good idea.

On bravery

I am pleased to report that the longer I teach here, the more relaxed the classes are becoming.  Sadly there are some people (teachers included) who find speaking in English in my classes too intimidating and so they rarely, if ever, attend. It takes a certain amount of bravery for Indonesian students and teachers to come to my English speaking classes even though I understand the challenges they face.  For those who are regular attenders, the benefits are showing. There is better communication, more smiles and laughter, and a discernible improvement in confidence levels. I feel better too, of course, as I observe the students understanding me more often when I am speaking and as I notice an increasing level of spontaneous use of English in class.

As I see the English Major students twice a week we have covered a lot of ground. They have examined and practiced the main elements of the informal conversations in the chapter and have now begun putting it all together in role plays.  It is demanding but they are clever, motivated students and so far the results are pleasing.  I am looking forward to seeing their progress over the next few weeks.