Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I am 16 going on 17...

Today I had the privilege of starting a new volunteer position teaching conversational English to a group of 16-18 year olds. We will meet every Wednesday after school from 3:30p - 4:30p. You can probably guess what's going to come next. I fell in love with my little group! We laughed. We cried! We joked about below average teachers!

Okay, I'll start at the beginning.  This school is located on an island: Ap Lei Chau. When I first heard about this opportunity I was told it was a rural school for poor students. Is it too much to say I actually pictured thatched roofs and dirt floors? I tried not to, but the image didn't really improve until I looked up the island on Google. What? Most densely populated island in the world until a few years ago. Huh. So much for rowing a little fishing boat across the vast harbor to a remote world untouched by indoor plumbing or electricity. Just the drama queen in me.  No - its a beautiful school with students in uniform (boys: white pants, white shirts, black ties; girls: light blue dresses with dark blue cardigans), average classrooms and Internet access.  I had my choice of 13-14 year olds (Form 4) or 16-17 year olds (Form 6). I chose Form 6 as I thought they would be much more interesting - right on the verge of graduation and college or finding work.

Like many Chinese kids these kids also have English names: Golden, Karen, Jenny, Rex, Silvia, Billy, and Charlie. So. Cute. Each and every one of them. I have two more coming next week.

Today was "Getting to Know You Day" (in my head). I was very excited to try out my newly mastered Cantonese phrases. If only you could hear me "lol."  So, I start off with "Oo hai Mrs. Hanna."  OMG. The blank looks, embarrassed looks,  uncomfortable looks. As I stated earlier, its all in the delivery. So, confidently and clearly I stated "Oo hai Mrs. Hanna."  That just made things worse. Not only was I not speaking Cantonese, I clearly was not speaking English. And, I could not judge how much they understood when I was speaking English. Oy. (Yiddish - the go to language.)  So I asked the group, "How do you say 'my name is' in Cantonese?" And what followed was indecipherable. Okay! Lesson Number One: Cantonese is best left to those who actually speak it.

We got past that moment and pulled our chairs into a circle. So, here's the thing - sometimes they know exactly what I'm saying and other times their vocabulary is so limited that they don't know what I want or don't know how to respond in English. Sometimes they are just being 16/17 year olds, who want to please the teacher, who have gotten into this group (there is a waiting list) and don't want to be expelled from the group, who want a chance to get into University. In this school system, you don't just go to college. You have to pass an exam - approximately 1/3 of all students pass and are accepted. That's it. That was your chance. You now have to go find a job.

The rest of the hour I used some worksheets to get to know them and give them a chance to get to know me. We started by going around the circle and having each student tell me their name and how old they are. Golden, Karen, Jenny then Rex. We get to Silvia (with an "i", not a "y" - she was very emphatic) and she says "I am 16 going on 17...." and I respond with "Sound of Music?" and she bursts into a huge grin and nods her head. She is a huge fan (and of course, so am I!) and suddenly I forget myself and start gushing about Sound of Music on FB and that its some big anniversary and SOM is playing in theaters across America and you can sing along - yeah. Its been awhile since I was in the classroom! So, I collect myself and we move onto Billy and Charlie - who are completely bewildered by what just happened with Silvia.

From there we started to fill out a schedule, talking about what time we wake up, what we eat for breakfast, what time we leave for school, how do we get to school....  the idea here is for me to listen to them answer questions and try to get them to answer in complete sentences. "What do you like to eat for breakfast?" "Bread."  "Please try to use a complete sentence, such as..'I like bread for breakfast.'"  "I like bread."  Okay! Good! They're scared and so am I. But I feel us warming up to each other.

Then two things happen. First, I want to tell them I have a daughter who is at University (as they phrase it here) and so I say she is yi saam (23). But that's not quite correct - I can tell from the looks on their faces. It is Silvia that is bold enough to correct the teacher; she says, "Yi sap saam." Other students giggle in embarrassment, and some actually suck in their breath and look from her to me and back to her. I smile and say - "Great! Okay - so, yi sap saam. Thank you!"

Second, the students are now talking about their first class. Golden has Economics. I ask him to tell me one thing he learned today. He struggles a bit for the English word but also his pronunciation is not good, so he and I are working together to figure out what he's saying. Then Billy speaks up and helps us - they are learning the Keynesian Model. Wow. Okay. And then Golden goes out on a limb and declares the Economics teacher is just "so so." This brings another round of gasps and giggles from the group. Its quite daring to speak lowly of a teacher in front of or to another teacher. So I say, "Well - teaching is not always easy and its true - some teachers are very good and others are not...we might say, they are average." And Silvia pipes in with "This teacher is below average." Now we have outright laughing and the students are more relaxed. Too bad we have just 2 minutes left of our hour together.

I end by telling them how excited I am and how much I look forward to coming next week. We put the desks back in order and as the students leave, Rex stops me and says, "We will do better. We will try harder." See what I mean? So. Cute.

View from the hallway outside of our classroom: