Saturday, December 03, 2005

Seriously funny

Wikkachicky said, in comments:

Your classes always sound so fun! Mine are probably incredibly boring in comparison. I'm glad you're on the other side of the globe so my students can't compare me to you!

Wikkachicky forgets (or kindly omits to mention) that she is teaching an academic subject in an academic institution. I am teaching (to use the word loosely) a language, which is NOT an academic subject, in institutions that can only be called 'academic' if you don't look too closely at what happens in the classrooms. Teaching languages is different from teaching academic subjects. Fun is a serious business in my classes. It serves a purpose. I cannot imagine why anybody who really wanted to learn from Wikkachicky's classes would be grateful for the opportunity to shout DIARRHEA! and have hysterical laughing fits. What purpose would it serve? For her to keep her students interested she does not need to be silly. She can engage her students, and be entertaining and challenging on an academic level, which might not make good writing material for a blog but I'm sure her students appreciate more than they would classes like mine.

My students probably wonder what purpose all this idiocy serves in my classes, too, but at least they are still coming to class and even look forward to them (or so some of them tell me). This means that the 'fun' is serving its subversive purpose, which is to demonstrate to them that English is NOT a boring, baffling code that they have failed to decipher in all their previous experiences with 'language learning,' but a living, meaningful language which can be used for all sorts of things, including fun, and being rude, and teasing the teacher (or the students), and expressing naughty thoughts.

It occurred to me as I was writing that last blog entry that my funniest stories inevitably come from my lowest level classes. My better classes aren't as funny. When I thought about it, I realized why. I HAVE to make my low level classes entertaining, or else there is no way the students will learn anything. One of the biggest problems I have in these classes is that the students do not pay attention. They are not interested, because their previous experiences with English have all been boring or incomprehensible. I have to get their attention somehow.

To illustrate: Students sit quietly when I come into the classroom, but the moment I open my mouth and English comes out they'll turn to the person beside them and start chatting in Japanese. THIS HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. They do not even attempt to understand. It does not matter if all I said was "Good morning." I spoke English. They believe they cannot understand English, so I become irrelevant to them and they stop paying attention. It is as if by speaking English I have given them permission to do something else, because why would I expect them to understand? If I ask them to be quiet, they apologize and then the moment I start speaking they start chatting again, only more quietly, so as not to annoy me.

So the first thing I have to do is attract their attention - but WITHOUT using Japanese, because if they realize that I can understand Japanese they have no reason at all to use English with me. I want them to want to communicate with me, and I want English to be the only way for them to do this. They have no motivation to learn English. I am trying to provide them with motivation to try to use a language they have had only negative experiences with.

Hence the funny lessons, and hence my frequent frustration. It is hard to teach students who do not want to learn and who think you are going to torture them with something that (in their experience) is impossible.

When I said that the only word that particular class had learned was diarrhea, I wasn't joking. They have 'learned' a lot of words, and have quite an extensive English vocabulary from their many years of English language classes, but this knowledge is all in translation. When they read or hear something in English, even the most basic language, they translate into Japanese. When I ask them what they did yesterday, they stare at me and mumble, "What did you do yesterday... nani o suru... shita... anata... kinoo... kinoo nani o shimashita ka... ah naruhodo!" and then they construct an answer in Japanese, and then translate it into English, and get it wrong. You can imagine how long that takes, and how frustrating it is for the person they are 'communicating' with. But this is how they have been taught to learn a language. You translate. It is the only method they have ever encountered before my classes. This is why, if I say something funny, however simple, quite frequently the laugh will come long after I have given up. Someone finally gets the translation right and passes it around the room, and five minutes after I said something the class will be giggling and I won't know why. When I ask, they'll say, "Teacher said... teacher said..." and they don't know how to say what I said, because they've forgotten. They didn't 'understand' the English until it was translated, and now they only know the translation.

This is not really knowing vocabulary, or language, and this is why I can say that the only word the students in that class have successfully learned is the word diarrhea. They do not translate diarrhea. They KNOW it. When the student shouted DIARRHEA on Wednesday and the class cracked up, there was no time lag. She shouted it immediately, without having to translate from Japanese to English. The class collapsed into laughter instantly, without having to translate from English to Japanese. They can do this with diarrhea. They cannot do it with, for example, What are you doing? If I say, "What are you doing?" they say, "What ... are... you... doing... Nani o ... anata... shiteimasu... ah, naruhodo!" Then they construct an answer in Japanese, and translate it into English. Badly.

But they know diarrhea. They don't translate that.

I want them to know some other, more useful words. I feel I have failed them, because after a year ALL they know is diarrhea. They use it extensively, and always in the right context. If one of them wants to be excused to go to the toilet, she tells me she has diarrhea. If a student is absent, the others tell me she has diarrhea. They can make jokes with diarrhea. They use diarrhea a lot because it is funny, and because it's the only word they really know.

But I'm forgetting - they also know What's the matter? because they used it so often in the accident and illness games they played. They use that, too. If I frown, or look solemn, they ask me,

"Sensei! What's the matter?"

And sometimes they ask it for no reason at all. They like using the English they know. I should have taught them more. My classes may be fun, but I am not really that good a teacher.

(If I want a cheap, instant laugh, when they ask me what the matter is I tell them I have diarrhea.)


Wiccachicky said...

Awwwwww!! You are a good teacher! That’s why I keep reading your blog. I think all educators face a lack of motivation from students these days. I’m in a position now that two young women are going to fail one of my classes because I somehow failed to impress upon them the importance of their group project. If I were a good teacher, I would think my students would average better than a D on quizzes (and that’s even with a review sheet that literally lists every single thing that’s on the test). In this profession, I think the constant is that you are always second guessing yourself – wondering if there was something you could have done differently, and still feeling exhausted at the end of each and every day because you don’t feel like you’re getting through. But I have to believe that some of them get it. Some of them get it.

Wiccachicky said...

P.S. - as evidence of my above claims, most language teachers would be content that they were translating. Most of my Japanese teachers were content for me to translate. It wasn't until I had one that really demanded I think Japanese first that I actually started to improve.

Cheryl said...

Hard to tell whether you are berating yourself jokingly to build up teachers with, well, less bizarre students, but that had better be it!
You are great.
I wish I'd had a few teachers who knew how to laugh, how to click with their students, especially in seniors.