My first round of classes is drawing to end. Exams begin next week. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was not a fan of our English teaching program in Guinea. It wasn’t sustainable. Why did villagers in the middle of nowhere need to learn English anyway? It seemed a waste of the Volunteer’s and the villager’s time. The Volunteer came, taught for two years, then left. What did they have to show for their efforts development-wise?
I agreed to teach English on Clove Island for two reasons. 1. I was teaching adults who would be able to use the English to further their studies and aid in their business ventures abroad. 2. Unlike during Peace Corps, my goal is not to do “development work”. My purpose is different. I am here for relationships. If development occurs, great! If not, and all I do is make friends, great!
For the past three months I have taught two classes: level one in O-town and level three in M-town. I really enjoy teaching. There are many frustrations and sometimes I just want to pull my hair out. How do you not understand my instructions! It’s sooo simple!! If I have to tell you one more time, that “i” is not pronounced like “eye” and not “e”, I’m going to flip out. I finish each class completely drained and exhausted. Despite the frustrations and tiredness, I also finish each class with a smile on my face because my students are freaking hilarious!
Here are just seven examples:
Whenever we play a game with teams I like to have students pick a team name. Just a couple lessons in, I asked my level one students to pick a team name. “Ok teacher, we are La Curse”.
“La Curse. Alright. What if I make it The Curse so there’s no French?”
“No teacher, La Curse!”
“La Curse. Got it.” I wrote it on the board.
“No teacher! LA CURSE!!” The entire team starts yelling, “LA CURSE! LA CURSE!”
At this point, I am completely confused. An older man steps forward and tries to explain.
“Teacher, it’s like this.” He makes a gesture like he’s shooting a basketball into a hoop. “L.A., “ he says.
“OHHHHH…..the Lakers. Guys, seriously. Pronounce with me now. La-kers.”
One of my best students calls me over during a writing exercise. “Teacher, do you have a rubber?” Excuse me?!?
“A what, now?”
“Do you mean an eraser?”
“Oh yes, teacher. An eraser.”
In level one, we’d just leaned physical attributes like tall, short, fat, thin, etc. To practice, I asked my students to play “Guess Who”. One student would stand in the front and describe another student in the classroom. Everyone else had to guess who they were describing.
One young man stood at the front. “This person is short, thin and has white skin.” I am the only person in room with white skin (or so I thought) so I shouted out. “It’s me!” The student looks at me derisively and says, “Teacher, I said thin.” Ouch.
I thought myself very clever. I was teaching the future conditional in my level three class using “if, then” statements. “If I have money, then I will buy a car”. To practice, I created a board game. Each square had the “if clause” and the student had to create the “then” clause. I broke them into groups of two or three, gave them a dye and an American coin as their game piece. Obviously, it was very simple. Roll the dye. Move your coin. Make up a sentence. I hadn’t realized that not a single one of my 14 students had ever in their lives played a board game. This was an entirely new concept.
Some of the games seemed to be going very slowly and I couldn’t understand why. Finally, one lady called me over. “How can we make it to the finish? There are only 6 dots on the dye.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
She started to get frustrated, “There are only 6 dots! How can we go to the finish? There are many squares.”
“Uh. Show me what you are doing.” She proceeded to roll, move her coin, answer the question and then move her coin back to start. After every move, she and her partner moved their coins back to start.
“Wh…?” I sputtered, “What is going on? Why are you going to start? Ok, ok. Stop. No, no. You must keep going! Don’t go back to start.”
I realized four out of six groups were doing the same thing!
What’s in my purse?
I was teaching my level one class common objects and how to ask where they are. For example, “Where are my keys?” “They are in your purse.” So I was asking students to guess what was in my purse. If they guessed correctly, I would pull the object out. During a pause, in an effort to help them along I said, “In my purse, I have a bottle of…”
Mind you, I live in an Islamic country where drinking is highly frowned upon. I do not drink.
So no. Just no.
Coke v. coke
Along those same lines, they were learning how to say what they like. In case you were unaware, Coca-Cola is literally in every corner of the globe. I could travel to the remotest village in Guinea and find a warm bottle hidden away in shack that passed as a store. Clove Island is no exception. In fact, we even have a Coke factory here. In francophone Africa, however, they refer to Coke as Coca. As an adopted Atlantan, and thus supporter of all things Coke, I was using the example, “I like Coke and pizza.”
One student raises his hand. “Teacher, how do you know the difference between Coke, the drink and coke, the drug?” This is in my level one, beginners English.
“Well, hopefully you know from context.” I said. “They are homonyms. But myself, I like the drink, not the drug. “
I am trying to work on pronunciation with my level three students. They know a lot of vocabulary but sometimes it is completely useless because I just don’t understand the words coming out of their mouths. In one lesson I handed out tongue-twisters. They practiced with a partner and then we went around the room and every student had to read the tongue twister. Some were more difficult than others. I chose one, in particular, because my students have trouble pronouncing sheet correctly. It comes out sounding vulgar. The tongue twister was, “I slit the sheet. The sheet I slit. And on the slitted sheet I sit.”
I wish I could have recorded it. It was so funny. They tried so hard to say sheet correctly, contorting their mouths into impossible shapes. I was literally crying by the end. Everyone in the class was laughing too. Amazing.
There you are. Cross-cultural teaching is a blast. Often I must laugh at myself. I make a complete fool of myself trying to get my students to lighten up and in the meantime, I feel free. I dance. I sing. I do accents. I do one-woman skits and dialogues. This allows for my students to laugh at me, their teacher, something unheard of in this society, where the teacher is right there next to God in knowledge and status. My antics make it very clear that I am not on that level. They laugh at me, they laugh at each other and they laugh at themselves. It’s fun and I love it.