The Tall Traveller

I am a (tall) British expat currently working in Mexico as an English teacher. Read on for amusing stories from the classroom and my travels

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Adventures from the classroom 15

Welcome to another edition of Adventures from the classroom. In this week's edition we'll talk about dream universities, pumkpin water and murder on campus.

School's not out for summer:

During the summer the university puts on a special week long course for the children of UNSIS staff. They get to do computer classes, work in the science lab, do yoga and a variety of other classes including English. This is a great idea for the lucky kids that get to attend although it is a shame that it is restricted to a select few kids and that we don't do classes every month or so.

Somehow myself and the Magic Man were nominated to teach a class of 11 year olds for a week. The class consisted of two very shy girls and a fairly rowdy group of chavos including the Vice Rector's boy who has an excellent level of English.

The Magic Man was of course well prepared with armfuls of stationary and a wide variety of magic tricks to teach the kids in his classes. The amount of English used was very minimal, but the kids loved every minute of it and chanted for him to return when it was my turn to teach.

I taught them vocabulary for musical instruments and brought in my guitar to play 'Imagine' by John Lennon. I got them to join in with the chorus (more or less) and I think they liked it over all. I had a little time left at the end of class so I put on some more music by the Beatles to let them listen, and then something interesting happened . . . two boys broke out into an impromptu dance off.

With 'Back in the USSR' blaring away in the background, the two little chaps in question were Kevin - a portly fellow with a fuzzy spherical little head and a Mexico shirt, and 'Justin' who was a leather jacket wearing, slick haired self-confessed 'Belieber'.

The two dancers managed some fairly incredible moves with Kevin favouring 'the Cossack' and Justin tossing away his jacket in a weird strip tease manoeuvre, then doing press-ups with his feet resting on the whiteboard. Kevin pulled off the upset win.

Teaching the kids was interesting, as the peaks and troughs of a lesson are far more exaggerated. Classroom management is more important than the content of the lesson, and you have to drastically lower your expectations of what they can take in.

Whereas older students get peeved that you don't speak to them in Spanish, the kids were just baffled at listening in English. They had no idea of how to understand spoken English even though they knew some words and phrases.

The next day I played a variety of games which got them VERY excited as they involved running around and winning prizes. I doled out some 'Crest of London' cheesy tourist stationary goodies to the winners and they reacted like they had won the lottery. £5 well spent!

All of the kids and the teachers involved received certificates for participating and it was nice that even though they acted up in class, they formed a real bond with us and wanted photos, handshakes and hugs. My favourite part of the ceremony, was when the certificate giving committee (Vice Rectors etc), gave themselves certificates for participating. It's all about turning up.

Subsistence learning:

Well, back to my normal classes next, and on a less positive note I have noticed a kind of cross-over in attitude from society to the classroom - an analogy that I'd like to make if you will.

I don't want to get into a cultural discourse here, I certainly don't think that being a City of London trader is a more valid lifestyle that someone who runs a side of the road car workshop that changes two tyres a day and scrapes by. I just want to highlight that there is still a largely subsistence culture in Oaxaca.

This ideology spills over into the classroom in that students believe that if they are physically present, they will pass, as the relevant knowledge will be placed into their heads. As we know, this isn't really how learning works.

An example of this is when the projects or homework that students give in that is way below their capability. They tend to think 'Well I did it so I get the mars right?' Clocking in is often seen as much more important than the quality of the work. I know they are busy little bees, but the majority actively try to do only just enough.

If I give example such as "I was running at 6pm last night", I'll ask them, "What were you doing at 6pm?"

We go around the class and get answers such as cooking, studying, or watching TV yet they lack the forethought or effort to think in advance what was I doing at 6pm. Even in Spanish! They just think, 'ooh I was just knocking about in the house'.

One girl replied that she was also running at 6pm.
Let's just say she didn't look like a runner.

They are so concerned with getting the 'right answer' so that you will move on, they just copy an example rather than access their own memory or thoughts.

"Where were you running?" I replied.
After three minutes of cajoling that 'where' means 'donde' she eventually replied "I don't know where I was running".

. . . so you weren't running were you. What were you doing?

3 minutes . . .


Most of them can't make a connection between their lives and their learning. It's like no other teacher has ever tried to relate the two in the classroom before. They are much happier dealing with infantile irrelevant examples like "the angry man drives a big red car". I liken this to subsistence learning because they reply with bare minimum answers, that are boring and uninteresting. They don't enjoy thinking.

I guess when you do get a funny answer from one of the more proactive smart students it makes it all the more rewarding. One student made the comparative sentence "Enrique Iglesias is more handsome than the teacher" the other day.  I quickly offered her my glasses as a repost.

It is actually quite common when students don't even try to understand. It shows a fatalistic 'I can't' mentality which demonstrates how low their self esteem is. They think they can't learn, can't improve their life or are just happy performing below their capability. I'll give you an example:

"Teacher what mean Caesar salad?" (pronounced Kaiser)

"Caesar" (pointing to the word and pronouncing it correctly)

"No, Kaiser"

"Caesar is a name, like Julio Cesar"


"A name. What is your name?"

*shrugs and looks in her dictionary

"What is your name?"


"No what is your name?"

" . . . Estefanía?"

"Yes! Your name is Estefanía. Caesar is a name too! It is a type of salad"

*sighs and asks here partner what Kaiser means in Spanish.

Brain teaser update:

I'm pleased to report that my students have improved in the Brain Teaser department.

They were correct on how many bones a human adult has (206), they got most of Mexico's main exports (Electronics, vehicles, machinery, oil), and on a trick question about how many 'h's there were in a sentence.

This one took me a little while to be sure.
They were less successful on flags (7/16)
The population of the UK (best guess was 5m), and when these three things were invented:

TV (they said 1950)
Aeroplanes (they said 1960)
and the Telephone (they said 1970)

They also missed out on the country which has the oldest university, Italy. Bologna university opened its doors for the first time in 1088!

I'll leave you with this one (answer at the bottom):

Take the year of Christopher Columbus's arrival to the Americas, a the number of 'tartinas' in packet, divide by the name of a film about Sparta and add today's date (it was the 25th).

Coke fiends:

Mexico is the world's leading consumer of Coca Cola. This is no surprise beause a) it's hot here and b) an individual serving is sold in a 600ml bottle. I thought I would do a lesson on Coca Cola again to try to link English learning with the students' every day lives.

First we listed a load of soft drinks and proceeded to mark them as unhealthy or healthy. One student responded with 'coffee' and has proceeded to use it as an example for everything since:

"I was drinking coffee"
"I like coffee"
"I don't play basketball, I drink coffee"

We always get a lot of fun out of coffee based jokes in class by me implying that 'Coffee Guy' comes to class absolutely wired, never sleeps and is hooked on Red Bull too.

The first answer for 'healthy' was lemonade, so we didn't get off to a great start about their in depth understanding of the content of popular beverages. They were also very confused at my listing of squash (i.e. cordial). "Agua de calabaza (pumpkin) teacher?!?!?" they chirped up with furrowed brows.

I finished with a debate about Coke. Now, remember that the students think in terms of correct or wrong answer - tick or cross. I gave them some help on whether Coke was a positive or negative on the country. It provides jobs, contributes huge taxes, and people love drinking the stuff. Yet Georgia's black gold is responsible for obesity and diabetes problems, and most of the money earned doesn't stay in Mexico.

When it came to voting they all just said "Coca bad teacher" like I was some overbearing parent testing their moral virtue. "But you all drink Coke! You like it" I protested.

"Coca bad".

Oh well, baby steps toward adult discussions I guess.

Murder at UNSIS:

Admittedly, I could have set this up better.

I wrote on the board that the Rector had been murdered last night and the police were looking for the killer. I put the students into two groups - detectives and suspects, in order to practise the past continuous tense. I could have brought in props, turned the classroom into a police station etc, but I thought they would understand the task fine.

I gave the suspects cards to indicate their alibi - e.g. "I was eating dinner in a restaurant with my girlfriend when the murder happened". I also helped the budding detectives write their interrogation questions, and I gave the best student in class the murder card and thought up a suitably poor quality alibi.

The task was going OK. The students were using the language and mingling with each other, talking in English. In English . . . hoorah!

I put them back into groups so the detectives could deliberate on who the murderer was. I think the students get a little too concerned with the mechanics of the exercise sometimes and were still spurting out questions and sentences in the past continuous rather that discussing who had the best and worst alibis.

I finally asked who the detectives thought the killer was. They thought it was 'Coffee Guy'.

"Will the murderer please stand up" I asked.

Coffee Guy takes to his feet.

(with my head in my hands) - "No Coffee Guy, you weren't the murderer were you!"

I got the best student (who was the murderer) to stand up much to the confusion of all of the detectives and tried to muster a weak round of applause.

With about 20 blank face staring up at me, I was so drained by the 1 hour exercise falling flat on its face at the last hurdle that I just told them all to leave five minutes early.

It's your University:

One of my personal goals this summer has been to broaden the students' minds with a bit of outside information - brain teasers, debate and world knowledge.

I've talked before about how our university lacks facilities for the students and makes them feel a lot more like school pupils. So I created a reading exercise about my university experience and how major universities are large international corporations with student representation and great facilities for the students.

This led in to getting them to think about changes to their university. I asked for three things they liked and three things they didn't like, hoping for a discussion about student choice, societies and the quality of teaching. Instead, they just listed physical things:

"Like me the clinica robotizada"
"I not like the Librarian. She very hungy (angry)"

I then got them to draw their ideal university in groups and write some sentences about it. Two of the four groups drew the university that they actually went to. No imagination or thought was required. 'We've read about Warwick University's £490m turnover, huge student body organisation and its 23,000 students from across the globe, but our ideal university is one with leaky buildings, an angry Librarian and no seats on campus', they thought.

The other two groups did manage a little creativity, although their drawings made them look a little bit like maximum security penitentiaries.

Well, I'm still dreaming of a better UNSIS anyway. That's all for this time.


Brain Teaser answer: 30 (1492 + 8 / 300 + 25).

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