HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tales from the Classroom

It's been quite a while since I've written anything about teaching...probably because I didn't work at all in the month between returning from the U.S. and going on my northern Vietnam trip. However, I've been making up for lost time by teaching almost 40 hours, at multiple schools, in the past week - roughly double the usual ESL work week Unsurprisingly, this explosion of time in the classroom has produced quite a few stories. Time to share a few of them.

The Letter W
I've now had my first experience teaching at Vietnamese public schools, thanks to a couple of substitution gigs. I'm going to devote a whole post to that adventure in the near future, but here is one particularly humorous anecdote. 

At a primary school out past the airport I taught 1st and 2nd graders for a few days. With students that age, I usually start the class by going over the alphabet. I will write ABC on the board, and then see if they can call out the rest so I can write the letters down. For some reason, these kids had a deep obsession with W. We would get to G, and I would say "OK, what's next?!" "W!!!!!!" "Umm, not yet..."

Then we came to M. "And the next letter is??" "W!!!!!!!!" "What? No." This happened a couple more times, and when we FINALLY had V on the board, I shouted "NOW WHAT'S NEXT!?", to the uproarious response of "W!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" while children did cartwheels over desks and formed a moshpit in the middle of the room. One time some kid even shouted out "W!" when all that was on the board was ABC.

Either I'm twisted or this class is odd
Two reports from a class of pre-teens that I started teaching a few days ago. We were playing a game called '2 Truths and a Lie', where each person writes three sentences about themselves; two that are true, and one that isn't, and we have to guess what their lie is. I usually give examples like "I've eaten bugs", "I've crashed a motorbike", and "I've been to France." (That's the false one.) Oftentimes, the students mimic what I put, making for something boring like "I've eaten rice", "I've drank water", "I've been to London". Gee, that's a tough one...

The other night, though, I may have stumbled across a sociopath. His three sentences were:
"I've bitten my best friend."
"I've hacked into NASA's computers."
"I want to kill either my best friend or the person sitting next to me."
The first one was the lie, prompting the boy sitting next to him to immediately move his desk over three feet.

Later, we played 'Stop the Bus', in which I give categories - animals, food and drink, places, etc. - and then write two letters on the board. The teams then have to come up with something in each category beginning with the given letters. A team of 12-year old girls finished first one round, and as I was checking their answers I noticed "peanus" under the Food or Drink column. I frowned. "Uh, girls, do you really mean this?" "Yes, we do." "Peanus? Do you know what that means?" "Yep." "Ok...."

So I wrote 'penis' on the board, thinking that they had just misspelled the proper name for male genitalia. I mean, people do eat bull penises in some parts of the world. I expected a shocked reaction from the class, but no one made a peep. What the hell? An American classroom would've exploded in hysterical laughter if their teacher wrote penis on the board. The next day, I recounted this story a Vietnamese teacher, and she said "Ohhhh, peanuts. They always misspell it." "Wow," I thought, "that does make sense. I am really immature!" Then, to my horror, I realized that a class of 25 kids now thinks 'peanuts' is spelled 'penis'. Could make for some interesting encounters later in life...

My Name is Happy!
I also substituted at an international school, teaching three classes of 3-year old. Yes, 3-year olds. This will also get its own post, so I'll just share a couple quick stories. I've taught kindergartners before, but toddlers are a totally different beast. They know almost no English, and forget what they just learned in about five seconds. Hence, most classes have consisted of us re-learning what we learned the day before. And the day before that. And the day before...

Anyways, we start every class by going around the room asking "How are you?" and "What's your name?" I'll ask the student sitting next to me, then they ask the person next to them, and so on, until it gets back to me. They often get the questions mixed up, leading to kids saying "My name is Happy!", or "I'm 3." Others simply stare into space in a trance that they cannot be roused out of, no matter how many times they are asked a question.

I also saw far more naked children than necessary in my time there. There is a pool at the school right by the classrooms I taught in, and the Vietnamese teachers simply change the kids right next to the water. I had to get used to walking past buck-naked kids on my way to class. The other day, while in class, a boy went into the bathroom. A few minutes later, he came out sans pants, his penis freely displayed. I saw this and proclaimed "Whoa! What happened to your pants?" He then handed his pants - covered in pee - to one of the TA's. Oh. THAT'S what happened. Fortunately, these kids come prepared, and an extra change of shorts was produced from his backpack; his willie quickly concealed again.

More from the wacky, wild world of ESL teaching to come soon.


  1. I really enjoy reading about your teaching stories since I'm finishing up my bachelors in middle childhood education in the U.S. It's really fascinating to hear about education in Vietnam. I was just there this past summer visiting family and was amazed how much the students were eager to learn English and the amount of schooling they endure. Good luck with the students and I'm looking forward to hearing more about your adventures.

  2. I'm amazed by their eagerness as well. Many of my students attend Vietnamese school all day, and then go to English class at night, or extremely early on the weekend, all without complaint. I've told them that American kids would revolt if they had to do that much schooling. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I wonder if your kids, or the teachers before you, were huge fans of George W. Bush. I mean who wouldn't go crazy for a foreign politician.

  4. Ha! That would be interesting...hadn't even thought of that possibility.