Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Adventures from the classroom 19 - The Christmas special

A very British Christmas in Mexico
Welcome to a 'well stuffed' seasonal edition of Tall Travels where I'll be guiding you, like a shining star, through the good tidings I bring to my students, as well as a few other amusing 'trimmings' from the world of English teaching.

Lovely Letters:

If you are a select friend or family member of Tall Travels, you may have already received a seasonal letter. I decided to send Christmas cards with a twist this year - I got my students to write them.

Bear in mind that most of my students have never written or received a letter in their lives, so the task took a lot of setting up! I had to explain what a Christmas letter was (the year in brief), and give them an example. I then put them into groups and assigned them a photo of one of my family / friends. I wrote information on the back of the photos to bring the recipient to life a little.

I also had to prompt them to talk specifically about Oaxaca and its traditions (because Nursing practices just aren't that interesting), and ask questions about the recipient's country. I was nice because I could show the students that I had friends and family all over the world.

Mexico, USA, Great Britain, Denmark, Australia, Norway, Hong Kong, Canada, Argentina and Morocco were all covered.

What the students wrote, was predictably drab, and they often copied phrases from my example letter. Their fascinating years were made up of sentences like:
"What a year 2014 was! We ate tacos and then studied nursing at the university".

However, I'm sure that those who receive the letters will enjoy the effort put in by the little darlings and the photos that were included. Some of them decided to put small gifts in too, but I removed most of them. I already had to pay for 30 international stamps, so I wasn't about to send a small tin of chocolates halfway around the world at a cost of about $100!

Incidentally, I ate the Ferrero Roches, and they were delicious. Thanks students.

With this task I'm also trying to show them the joy of receiving a physical letter rather than a Facebook 'like' or a  What'sApp alert. So     PLEASE   write a letter in response, it would help me greatly, and  would mean a lot to them too.


This semester I've tried to incorporate drilling into classes more. Drilling is very popular in Mexico, they love construction and noise so it's no wonder that the students don't mind it. The drilling I'm talking about is the repetition of words or phrases from the whiteboard. We use this to practice the flow or cadence of a sentence, silent sounds, the magic 'e', word stress and syllables etc. 

I think they like it so much because it requires very little cognitive function to 'parrot' the teacher. I'll often select 6-10 words from a reading and drill them before we read. However, they often slip straight back into their woeful Spanish phonetic pronunciation as soon as they start reading the passage aloud. 

Like anything though, they understand it a little more with continued repetition. I'm so used to their bad pronunciation, that it's very weird when they mimic my English accent successfully. We did the phrase not my cup of tea the other day, and it was strange to hear all of these little Mary Poppins voices springing up repeating the phrase.

They might not be perfect, but drilling in class sure beats being woken up at 5a.m. by pneumatic machinery outside in the street.

Too much information:
The student might not understand more than 50% of what I say, but it seems that I have earned their trust - especially with excuses for missing class. They sometimes like to confide in teacher and divulge a little too much information. Telling you they were sick is not enough, they attempt to describe the diarrhoea and show you their prescriptions.
What ever happened to doctor patient confidentiality? One student proudly told me about his testicle pains due to the colder weather. It turned out to a real ball ache because the school would only justify one of his absences.

He showed a bit of nous though by suggesting that he should take the exam and get a 0 only if he failed. Incredibly he passed, and as far as I know, his testicles are back to full health.

Other examples include when students tell you about relationship problems or family deaths. It's always a negotiation because the school is not particularly generous or efficient in giving them permission slips for their absences. It's a problem with the system and because measuring their attendance every day only treats them like children. If you can pass the exams without showing up, then good for you! I remember missing a whole day of lectures at university to stay at home and play a rented computer game. I still passed my course, but I never really mastered Pro Evolution Soccer 2006.

"Get the guitar"
Christmas fun:
After a rather Scrooge like cancellation to the university Christmas costume parade (which I was very much looking forward to), I wondered how the festive season would pan out for classes.

We recently finished an exam period, so it didn’t make much sense to start on a new topic that they would forget after nearly three weeks away. On Friday I placated their constant chants for a movie, with a trip to the computer room to watch “Merry Christmas Mr. Bean”.

Now Bean might be cheesy and a little dated, but the episodes are universally funny. Pretty much every culture and age group know, and are fans of Mr. Bean. Brilliantly, there’s almost no dialogue for the students to misunderstand too (although they tried very hard to misunderstand the questions I wrote). They were all watching on individual screens with headphones, and it was quite weird to hear them all cracking up at different times shouting “No manches, no lo hago cabrón!”

On Monday I played them a version of a well known Christmas carol, as sung by the Muppets. They weren’t as familiar with Jim Henderson’s creation as I thought they would be although they knew the characters more or less.

“Teacher, Mrs. Porky kissing the Kermit” – Well . . . Miss Piggy, but I’ll let it slide.

We then practiced and sang We Wish you a Merry Christmas, which went surprisingly well (even with their confusion about what the hell ‘figgy pudding’ is). I donned my Santa hat and even laid my guitar case down in front of me like a busker, although I didn’t receive any donations.

I certainly can’t complain that they don’t get into the spirit of doing cheesy classroom activities. All of them sang with gusto and really enjoyed it, so I guess that’s something to remember for the future.

Some of the other English teachers have been getting into the Christmas spirit too, wandering around campus with Santa hats and other regalia on. It’s important to humanise the teachers a little and do something silly because many of the other profs are up their own arse feel too self important to do so.

I did Christmas classroom games on Tuesday which was useful as I haven’t done too many this semester. The winners had to suffice with a heartfelt ‘congratulations’ as I’ve already spent hundred of pesos on sweets for the sugar crazed little buggers in the last few weeks. We’re also having a little party in class tomorrow, and they were crowded around organising like I’ve never seen them before. Maybe I’ll recoup some of that food and drink I’ve provided them with!

Finish class:

This section has nothing to do with the coffee guzzling, sauna loving nation, but a bugbear of mine that the students call out "Finish Class" when they want to go. They always think they are being super smart and cocky, even though they aren't even close to using the correct English to request a swift termination to my day's teachings.

My tactic has always been to add one minute to class whenever I hear someone utter the dreadful phrase. I like to trick them into saying it if they say


I say "Finish what?"

". . . pues class teacher"

"ooooohhhhh we will finish at 5:56 then!" I retort.

I normally send the students off by saying "See you tomorrow " at the end of class. This has prompted some of the wiser ones to start using that phrase instead of "Finish Class."

A popular question in class
Now they chirp up with "See you tomorrow teacher?"
"Yes", I say. "But class is NOT finished yet"

Sometimes, when we are only about halfway through class, and I'm writing something on the board I just hear a very meek "See you tomorrow?". It's actually pretty funny because it's so out of context. 

"Aye aye?" I think, "Where are you going then?"

As a finishing side note, I often try to give instructions in advance.
"When you finish . . . complete exercise 2"
I get to "When you finish . . ." and they all shout "NO!"

They just hear the word 'finish' and panic - We haven't finished yet!

I tell them, "No, WHEN, you finish . . . "

. . ."No finish teacher" 

then . . . 

"Finish class teacher?"

Finish post.

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