Thursday, May 21, 2009

marching bands, the power of coloring and other observations from my first week

So before I start, I just have to set the scene a little. I’m sitting here, on my bed in my apartment at around 4pm. I just had a delicious bowl of Milo cereal (a Nestle brand cereal they sell here which is pretty much Cocoa Puffs). I stopped eating that sugary type cereal at home a couple of years ago (except for the occasional slip when Reeses Puffs or Lucky Charms are calling my name a little too loudly), yet it’s easy when you’re abroad to let the dietary rules slide a bit. My theory is that since everything else is measured differently here (you know, that whole metric system that everyone in the world uses besides the U.S. and which makes it incredibly difficult for Americans to know what the temperature is, or the distance from one thing to another, or even one’s own weight the second you step abroad), well I’ll just assume calories and sugar are measured differently here too. They just don’t count the same. But I digress. I’m sitting on my bed with the AC on full blast (the sun was actually out today and it’s absolutely baking, although I have no idea the exact temperature because again, I’m American, measurements lose all meaning when I leave my country). And while I don’t have any music playing, there is a full soundtrack, because every single afternoon around this time, my little apartment is filled with the sounds of a marching band. If I go onto my little back porch I directly face a large building which I just learned is another school (pretty much across the street from my school). And this school apparently has a world class marching band. Which is lucky because if they sucked I would have to listen to them sucking on a daily basis. But they’re awesome, amazing, incredible even. And their choice in music is even better. Two days ago as I was hanging laundry out to dry, I was serenaded with Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” followed by “Let’s Do the Twist.” As I sit here right they’re warming up and I’ve heard traces of, unbelievably enough, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” And this band must have been practicing all summer, because despite the fact that it’s the first week of school and that none of these kids could be older than 15 or 16, they sound impeccable. I cannot tell your how surreal or quite frankly, lovely it is, to be here in Thailand and to hear every day, from the comfort of my bed, these American classics interpreted in big, booming, beautiful fashion. One thing I’ve definitely learned so far is that Thai students don’t do anything half ass, and this secondary school band is the perfect example of that. They’d be at home on any college football field in the United States, seriously, like straight out of that movie “Drumline.”

But the point of this blog is not to detail my neighboring marching band, but to talk about the last three days of teaching, i.e. the three days following that hectic, overwhelming, dreaded First Day. So first things first, it got better. Not to sound arrogant, but I got better. I had to. As I mentioned before the first day forced me to throw my theoretical lesson plan out the window and come up with a lesson plan that would actually work in the reality of a Thai primary school. I had second graders the second day, and I will tell you that my first class that day was a dream. They were adorable, well behaved and enthusiastic. I think what really helped was the addition of several new components to my lesson. They told us a lot during orientation that Thai students are insanely competitive. Make anything into a game and they’ll be into it. So I divided the classes up into three teams, and played this flashcard game, where I hold up a flashcard and see if they can name what the picture is in English. Whoever answers correctly gets a point for their team. I bought a ton of simple picture flashcards before I left, and boy did these come in handy. One they’re a great time filler. To get through the whole pack takes about fifteen minutes. And two it was an awesome way for me to find out what the students’ vocab level was, which even in my “worst” classes was always surprisingly high. Way more advanced than my French language level at their age. I’ve used them in every class since my first day, and the kids really respond. Even in my best class there’s usually a couple of kids ignoring me and talking to each other, but for the most part they get really into it, almost too into it in fact. If I show a card everyone knows, there’s just this insanely loud chorus of “TEACHER!” and kids literally bursting out of their seats to get my attention. And pretty much every time a team gets a point all of the kids loudly cheer and high five each other. So pretty adorable.

My last two second grade classes on my second day were a little more challenging, but with every class I felt like I was getting more and more used to the rhythm of a class, and a little better at keeping calm even in the midst of chaos. My best classes, coincidentally were also the ones were the Thai teachers came in and out of the room. Like I said before, Thai kids behave beautifully for their Thai teachers. But the advice I got a lot and which is really important is that the noise and the restlessness are in no way a reflection of me or their enthusiasm for the subject. Because at the end of every class I was always surrounded by a group of kids who wanted hugs or handshakes (I even got several “gifts” like a random candy and a Winnie the Pooh post-it), sometimes even by kids who had been the “bad” ones during class. I think the truth is that the kids are very tightly scheduled during the day, they don’t get recess, and so they seize their “English Conversation” class (a class they’re not graded in by the way) as a time to just have fun. And I can’t really blame them. The oldest I’ve taught are only ten after all.

Which brings me to day 3. Fourth grade. I was supposed to teach four classes, but only ended up teaching one (which was not the class I was supposed to be teaching that hour by the way). I was also warned that it’s not too uncommon to go to a class and be told that the class has something else to do that day (ie a trip to the library, or play rehearsal or an assembly). There’s this thing called “Thai Time” which I think bleeds into a lot of life here. Basically it means that punctuality and rigidity aren’t really all that valued. If something is late or disrupted or changed Thai people don’t get worked up about it. Getting angry or upset is a no-no in Thai society, so really a rule of life here is to go with the flow. So go with the flow I did. And when I accidentally taught the wrong class (it’s so confusing knowing which room is which, all the numbers are in Thai!) the teacher (my coordinator actually) didn’t seem to care at all. She just told me no big deal and that I’d teach the right class next week. In American schools I have a feeling that might not go over as well. Just a hunch. The class I did teach was a little interesting. Fourth grade is old enough to sort of be over the novelty of learning English. And there was already that noticeable group of “cool” kids who sat at the back and outright ignored me. You know the ones, mostly boys, shirts casually untucked, looks of boredom on their faces. I haven’t really experienced that in any of the other grades but I think 4th grade is about when the first traces of that start. Which makes me really happy I’m not teaching secondary school.

Which brings me to today, first grade. I was kind of dreading first grade. I just assumed their English level would be so low it would be really hard for me to communicate with them and that as six/seven year olds they’d be a little hard to control. But one important thing happened before I started today. I slept. I slept through the night. Which is normally not an issue for me. But since literally the day I got to Bangkok I’ve been sick. It started as a throat thing. I got an antibiotic. When the throat thing started getting better the day I took the first antibiotic, I assumed it was just a cold and that I didn’t need to continue the antibiotics until the end. Stupid, stupid move. Because apparently the throat thing was not just a cold. A few days later it came back with a vengeance and was now not only a throat thing but a chest thing. I lost my voice last weekend. And Sunday night the coughing got bad. So bad I woke up constantly, coughing so hard I ended up gagging. You know the kind of cough. The one that makes you sore. The one where you’re bent over and sweaty by the end of a particularly nasty coughing fit, gasping for air. It was not pleasant. And so yesterday evening my coordinator took me to the hospital (Thai people go to the hospital to see doctors, even if it’s for something like a sore throat). My doctor confirmed what I suspected. I had a throat infection which didn’t clear up because I needed antibiotics and so without the antibiotics it started creeping its way into my chest, thus producing the terrible, sleep depriving cough. So now you know my full medical history. The point is I got drugs, lots of them. An antibiotic, two different pill form cough tablets, and one little bottle of liquid cough syrup. All of these prescription, all of them paid for without insurance, all of them amounting to a grand total of about fifteen US dollars. Sigh.

So I medicated up last night and actually slept through the entire night. It was glorious. I woke up and felt so much better than I had in days. I didn’t realize how exhausted and run down I’d been all week until I actually got a full night’s sleep and remembered what not being exhausted felt like. And the energy level made teaching a lot easier. That and the fact that my first graders are probably the cutest things on the planet. I don’t remember being that tiny in first grade! But they’re tiny, just babies practically. And they are so well behaved (well except for my last class of the day but oh well, can’t win ‘em all). But my first two classes were angels. They were so enthusiastic and actually knew a lot of English vocab and just so tiny and cute (I can’t get over it!). One girl in my second class was seriously miniature. The smallest one in the grade by far. But she was smart as a whip and knew every answer. She was better at the flashcard vocab than some of the fourth graders. Their ability to string together sentences is a little weaker. It took me a while but I finally realized that the random ones coming up to me and speaking in Thai were asking to go the bathroom. Luckily I figured it out and didn’t end up with a class full of Thai children with nearly exploding bladders. And they bow after they ask permission! So freaking cute.

But the best part of today was learning the power of coloring. Now American children love coloring too. I remember this from when I was little. I’ve seen it with my babysitting. But Thai children, like I’ve mentioned before, are very exact. They use rulers for everything. They’re all little perfectionists and slight control freaks. It sort of makes me wonder why Thailand hasn’t taken over the world by now.

I figured I needed something a little simpler for first graders so I got copies made of a worksheet with a black and white American flag that can be colored in. I hung up an actual flag and then asked them to color. And in my first two classes (that third one was tricky) there was immediate silence. Every one of these kids hurriedly and very seriously set to work, coloring in the most perfect, exact American flags you have ever seen. Ten minutes went by and half the class has only finished one red line. The other half was meticulously coloring in blue around the stars. Not a single color outside of the lines, I can tell you that. And then to see their little faces light up when I told them they were doing it right. Well maybe it’s a little early to be biased, but I officially love my first graders. This might all change when I teach my grade 1, section 4 class tomorrow which all of the Thai teachers have warned me about and call the “monkey class,” but for now I’m just happy to have had a good day. It wasn’t perfect. Like I’ve alluded to my third class was kind of wild. But having energy made an enormous difference.

So right now, with the marching band playing in the background, a good day behind me, and another hopefully restful night’s sleep ahead, I can say that I’m feeling good. This first week teaching was really hard, possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. There were times when I wanted to run screaming, when I couldn’t imagine dealing with these insane children for 5 months. But the times when I felt okay, when I really thought I could be good at this and actually teach these kids some English, well those just seem to matter a lot more.
So those are my first four days. I probably won’t post again until at least Sunday because I’m going to Ko Samet this weekend!!! It’s an island about three hours from here and it’s supposed to be beautiful. A bunch of us from CIEE are going and I cannot wait to finally set foot on a Thai beach. So bye for now. Lots of love from Thailand :)

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