Sunday, October 16, 2005

Clap hands

In my difficult class (also my favourite class) on Fridays, there is one guy who towards the end of last semester decided that ALL RIGHT, IF I INSIST, he will speak English - but only in a funny voice.

I thought about this, when I heard him being silly in English, and decided to not to discourage him. I remember being very impressed by something one of my own teachers once told me: that when you start to learn a foreign language you sound like an idiot or a child. It is inevitable. And as teachers, it is important to remember that our students are not idiots or children (except when they are), and to treat them respectfully and give them a place to feel safe experimenting with the new language, and where they can sound like idiots or children without feeling threatened or stupid.

I've noticed that my lower level classes act more idiotically than my higher level classes, and I suspect that is because they are very aware that when they speak English they sound childish or idiotic, and that therefore by being silly intentionally they are making themselves feel a little more in control of the situation. I can understand this. When I speak Japanese I frequently feel stupid, and clown around to cover my embarrassment.

Anyway, when this guy started speaking English in a silly voice (a VERY silly voice), I told myself it didn't matter as long as he was speaking English. And his English was improving. His silly-voiced English was getting better. When he had used his normal voice his way of coping was to be silent and cool, but now that he was clowning around he was doing pretty well. (I just hope that it doesn't become automatic, and he remembers to use a normal voice if he's ever in a situation where he has to use English outside the classroom, because his silly voice is PRETTY DAMNED FUNNY and he does funny faces to go with it.)

On Friday, he decided to try a new trick with his wonderful silly voice talent, discovered, I suspect, in my classroom. He decided to imitate a mosquito.

He did a MARVELLOUS mosquito imitation. I was writing an explanation on the board at the time, and the class was uncharacteristically silent and focused when this loud whining started. It was amazing. It sounded like a helicopter-sized mosquito was circling the room.

Bugger! I thought. Damn that boy! Just when I got them all paying attention he has to ruin it by distracting them!.

I could tell nobody was paying attention to me any more, and I didn't blame them. Mosquitos are distracting at the best of times, and this was a BIG one. I still had my back to the class, but my image of this mosquito was distracting me, too. It was HUGE. I kept writing, slowly, and pondered what to do. My first impulse was to turn around and glare and tell him to stop that nonsense, but I knew he would do a funny face and say, "Oh, sorry!" in a funny voice and that would be just as distracting, so I kept writing. But I had to do SOMETHING. This mosquito was driving me nuts.

Finally I stopped writing. I didn't turn around, though. I took a deep breath and yelled at the board, instead, as loudly as I could:


There was a shocked silence. The mosquito stopped whining, and the entire class mentally translated the sentence. The silence dragged on.

Then the mosquito started up again, but after a couple of circles of whining around the room there was a sharp, loud hand-clap, and it stopped abruptly. Then it made a sort of pathetic dying whine, and stopped entirely.

The class erupted in laughter, and I'd lost them altogether.

It was hilarious, but didn't really solve my problem. I had to work hard to get their attention again. Also, I had to stop laughing before I could turn around and face the class.

Later I was telling a colleague about this.

"It was hilarious," I said, having imitated the whining mosquito, the subsequent hand-clap, and distracted several other patrons of the restaurant we were in. "I really enjoyed that. Shouting made me feel better, and didn't hurt anybody's feelings. It was PERFECT - except it wasn't really good teaching. I mean, where was the English?"

"There was English," she said. "You shouted in English."

I thought about it. It was true! I shouted in English, and somebody responded appropriately, and everybody understood it and laughed their heads off! It was a successful lesson!

What a good teacher I am!

I love having supportive colleagues. They can make a lesson feel successful because one sentence (of several hundred, probably) that I spoke in the classroom was understood.


melinama said...

Great story.

Cheryl said...

Kids, eh?

fallensnow said...

That boy is so hilarious! But what would you have done if the silence had continued to dragged on?

kenju said...

A great story and you ARE a good teacher. It is so good that they responded to your English command. It was done with humor and I am sure that everyone in that room will remember that lesson forever.

Robert said...

They're undoubtedly blogging about it in Japanese right now!

Carrie said...

What a great story! And you are a great teacher! I am so glad you recognize that people learning a foreign language sound childish and idiotic. My biggest problem while learning Swedish was that I knew I sounded childish and the Swedish teachers (esp. the aid) treated us all like little children. I found it extremely degrading and would often rage against them. I never did feel like ME over there b/c of the language barrier.

Ms Vile File said...

I've tried learning new languages and felt like a damn fool. Probably for good reason. I am completely monolingual, and have no talent for foreign accentation at all.

I guess putting on a silly voice makes people laugh with instead of at you (as you imagine they are?)