Thursday, August 29, 2013

Wouldn't Get Very Far in Life Not Being Able to Say the Word 'Is' - a New Teaching Experience

What an interesting experience I had this afternoon.

Late last week, one of my Thai teacher colleagues asked if I would consider teaching some after-school classes to a group of 7th graders whose parents want them to receive some extra training. I'd be paid for my time: 90 minutes (60 of which I'm already obligated to be on campus anyways) with a small group of students who are there somewhat voluntarily. Better yet, they're all from the smartest class I teach all week from my 8 different 7th grade classes. More often than not, teaching 7th graders is very challenging, but these kids had been much better behaved and receptive to learning.

Plus, a little extra money every week could come in handy. I said yes, and today was my first session with this 'bonus' class.

I had very little inkling what to expect. Sure, I know these kids, but I usually teach them the same dumb-downed dialog drills (this week: How much is the basketball? The basketball costs 800 Baht. Can you give me a better price? Okay, for you, 700 Baht) that I teach all the other 7th graders, for most of whom this is all they can handle. I was assured by my Thai colleague that all I had to do was show up and talk to them, so I really didn't plan anything.

Well, I planned one thing. I was going to teach them how to say the word 'is'. Sounds simple enough, but the 'z' phoneme at the end of 'is' is not part of their own language, and so it's really hard for them to pronounce. It's usually pronounced by the beginning student here as something closet to 'it' or sometimes 'ish'.

Wouldn't get very far in life not being able to say the word 'is'! - The Knights Who Say Ni

I figured as we were getting to know each other, we'd start with a conversation that included 'My name is ________.' That would be my launching point.

We used one of the school classrooms, and it was very nice to be able to sit in a small circle of just a dozen or so students and teach them on a more personal level. Not me up at the blackboard lecturing to all of them in the controlled chaos that is 40 twelve-year-old boys. I wasn't being Joko the teacher; I was Joko the tutor. I liked it.

Thing was though, after 15 minutes or so, I had finished teaching them the word 'is'. Pretty much all of them were saying is with the proper 'z' ending and not it, iss, ish or even id. Well, now what do I do?

It's funny how things just naturally progress sometimes, and I began to go over all the sounds an 's' can make. I used pen and paper instead of chalk and blackboard. I grouped words in the 'z' sound (is, his, wizard), the 'ss' sound (this, miss) and the 'sh' sound (fish, wish), What sentence could I come up with that we could practice that used all three of these sounds?


This is a fish!

And so I started sketching. Kids dig funny pictures.

A story started to come together...

On the next page, we introduced the “Miss”. The Wiz gave the fish his wish and made the Miss kiss the fish.

Looking forward to next week, but I have no idea what I'll do next. I can't just show up and talk to them, but without a textbook or curriculum, I have to essentially invent everything. I do think I'll stay focused on phonics however. I think that's not only very doable in this kind of smaller setting, but also is my strength as a native speaker. It's why they want me. I can speak English good!

At the end of the 90 minutes, the Thai teacher who was in the room with me (not one I'd met before), asked me if I could teach a second group of students on another afternoon. I think that is also doable.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Missing the Newbie Joko

Gone is the old me that would be able to make a fascinating day trip out of a search for shoe laces. Gone is the Joko whose every day in this new country was an adventure. Gone is the guy who tripped out over the fact that 'Tom Yum Soup' was an actual setting on his microwave. Gone is the newbie who could react with tremendous interest and excitement over every little nuance of my school, students and new life.

I miss that guy.

A corner has been turned, a boundary crossed. I haven't yet become jaded like most farang teachers become, and I hope I never do (the AF has a couple good role models in that regard: Frannie and Matthew come to mind). Still, I think I can say personally that I'm no longer a newbie. I still can't speak the language very well. I don't have a Thai girlfriend looking to become my wife. I've yet to invest in a bar. All those things said, after 4 months in the country, I can certainly say I've gotten used to the place.

Unfortunately, in some ways, that changes my 'eye' and 'voice' when it comes to seeing and writing about this place.

Soon, most of my training cohort will leave the country after their contracts are up and I won't even have experiences like the following to record and talk about.

Part One of the Ayutthaya Reunion video here:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Firsts and a Review of the Last Four Months in Thailand

About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog about a bunch of firsts that had happened to me during my stay here in Thailand. This week's firsts are more impressive as they're firsts for my life, not just ordinary things I've done for the first time in my adopted country.

First of the firsts was being asked to write a letter of recommendation. I have to admire the courage of the first student who asked me to write him a note to include in his university application(s). I knew there were coming; one of my coworkers is in his fourth year teaching at my school. He has known these high school seniors since they were freshmen. He's been getting requests for about a week now. I'm new, so I wasn't surprised I hadn't be asked, but I suspected they were coming.

See, this is a first for me because never in my life has anyone ever asked me to write them a letter of recommendation. Certainly, I've asked for half a dozen or so in my career, but never have I been on the receiving end of such a request.

The first request was kind of sad.

I walked into the staffroom midday to find a very fine piece of stationary with the words “A Eulogy for Somchan Kittiporn” written across the top (for readers unfamiliar with Thai names, I'll point out the pseudonym I made up for this blog would be something like 'John Smith' in English). Oh shit. Somchan died. Wait. Who is Somchan again?

I asked my co-workers where this eulogy request came from. Who put this on my desk? I don't know anyone in this country well enough to write their eulogy.

“It was insert Thai nickname here from M-6 (senior class).”

See, it's university application time. A personal letter from an American scholar like myself is big bonus points for any applicant.

The whole point of the eulogy was, well, someone trying too hard on a translation website. What conveys respect, admiration, good feelings and the best of someone more than his or her eulogy? If I could put my eulogy on my resume, I sure would. Unfortunately, somewhere in the translation, that one had to be dead to get a eulogy was lost.

For some of the guys I teach, I could write an earnest and enthusiastic letter of recommendation. For most though, I don't know them well enough after 3 months of teaching. Still, if I'm going to assign them homework, and they turn it in, why can't I do the same for them?

Class came yesterday and word got out that Teacher Joko had 'accepted' a request for a letter of recommendation. Early in the period, one of my better students brought their fine piece of expensive stationary up for me to write a letter of recommendation on and asked if I could, please, write...

That broke the dam. Next thing I know, 15 of the 20 students in my class had handed me fine pieces or parchment to write stellar recommendations on. Whoah! Hold on there!

Too late, if I said yes to one, I kinda have to say yes to them all.

I'm thinking I'll write something like “Mr Somchan Jr has been taught by one of the finest English teachers in all of Bangkok”...

* * *

My next 'first' came today in the district finals of the Thai national English impromptu speech competition. My school was chosen as the host, consequently we had no participants. I sat and judged speech givers from all over SE Bangkok.

I was assigned speakers from the 'lower division”, that is, what would be 7th to 9th graders in USA terms. Waht is an impromptu speech competition? The students came, were given a topic and had to make up a 5-minute speech on the spot with no preparation. Really not fair for the first or even second speakers, but the rest had that time to think about what they were going to say.

I wish I had recorded some of it. I watched 25 contestants today. The worst were painful to watch. Although it doesn't compare to what it feels like to be the one on stage, to be an audience listening to someone whose gotten stuck, whose just standing there on stage not saying anything, it hurts. So uncomfortable, it is hard to stand.

The winner of my group gave a speech that was so well spoken, so evocative that my eyes misted up a bit and I was ready to do whatever the speaker said I should.

She's got a future in politics if she chooses to go that way.

_+ +_ _

The video to go with this blog is something I made the other night when the power was out. Bangkok power is very good if compared to other big cities in the developing world. Is there is a big storm, more times than not, I'll get some power interruptions. They only last a second or two though. Often enough that I no longer bother setting the time on my microwave oven.

When the power goes off for a second, it takes 10 minutes for my internet to come back online. No biggie. If the power goes off for one minute, it takes 3 hours or so before I get internet back again. The other night, the power went out for 10 minutes, so I had all night to do things on my puter that didn't require internet connectivity.

So I made this... a random clip video of my first 4 months in Thailand. Worth watching. Music by Temple of the Dog.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

School Spirit: Homecoming Night in Bangkok

This last Friday was the 113th anniversary of my school's founding.  Since 1900, Patumkongka has been preeminent in a lot of ways amongst the high schools here.  There is no school called 'Bangkok High', but if there were, it might be my school.   

As you saw in a recent post, we are big on ceremonies here.  I skipped recording the morning, more formal, ceremony marking the school's birthday, instead I decided to share the evening's festivities where the students weren't invited.  Instead, this party was for the staff and alumni, mostly alumni.  They came back in droves.  Old and respected men and women, young thugs drinking and smoking on the street outside the school, a dozen or so ladyboys coming back to their high school dressed as women where they were once boys, alumni who are parents of boys attending the school they once did.  If you included the crowds out on the street in front of the school, there must have been 2000 people attending this event.  

Me, I enjoyed the free food.  

In the USA, we have a school tradition called 'homecoming', usually marked by a football game, maybe a parade.  That said, very few take it seriously.  Who goes back to or shows pride in their high school in America?  Very few.  It's a lot more common in Bangkok, particularly at a school with the heritage of Patumkongka.  

Here's the video:

I left the official gathering with my Chinese friend.  We went and had a nice conversation about society and politics.  On my home, I passes by the street my school is on. A large contingent of police had replaced the previous singing revelers from before...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Coping with Cheating

So far in my illustrious 11 week teaching career, I have had to deal with cheating in several different forms.  On the very first homework I ever assigned, one student turned something in that had that distinctive Google-translate read to it. I was 95% certain that the kid had just typed his essay up in Thai, fed it into the Google, and wrote down what it spewed out.  Before returning their papers, I lectured the entire class about this.  Told them I can tell when something was created by a robot.  They nodded their heads and I haven't received another paper with that Google translate odor since.

Then of course there was the kid who tried turning in something that he had copied verbatim from a website.  I wrote the URL on his page, privately gave him a stern talking-to in the hallway and told him to write it again.  Thing is, what he eventually gave me wasn't half bad.  Anyways, my fellow teachers told me I should have made him stand in front of the class and read what he had allegedly written, and then grill him with questions about its meaning.  I'm not that mean. 

There is the constant issue of how clumps of students who all sit near one another and aren't the brightest kids in class frequently just happen to get all the same questions wrong on their quizzes and tests.  Hmmm...  I can't help but laugh when I come across the common occurrence of a kid who has whited-out what WAS the right answer and replaced it with a wrong answer.... the same wrong answer all the kids in his clump-of-mediocrity also got wrong. 

Today, I am dealing with a new kind of cheating and I'm not quite certain of the best way to stymie it.  The assignment was to write a formal e-mail to an important person (I provided them names) inviting that distinguished figure to a fictitious conference we were going to have at our school.  The twist being that I would then correct their first drafts for errors, give them back, and they would then re-write them with my edits and turn in something that was perfect.  We'll see how part two goes, but due to the nature of the assignment, I am going over these things with an editor's zeal, turning what is objectively pretty poor English into something that they can keep as an example of something 'they' wrote that is without flaws.  As I've been going through them, as always, there were lots of mistakes they all made, but then I noticed something unusual.  Some of them were almost identical!  I found four papers (two sets of two) where one kid had quite obviously just copied what the other had done.  A sentence or two omitted, a word changed here and there, but 95% identical to one another. 

Who copied from whom? I can't tell. Is someone who allows his buddy to copy his work as culpable as the one doing the copying?

I know that the battle against 'copying' is one I can't expect to win.  I'm not being defeatist, just admitting to something I've been told and witnessed about the education culture here. 

Just today, one of my colleagues shared this link about a Bangkok university making their students wear anti-cheating helmets.

Anyways, my thinking is that in class tomorrow when I go over the common mistakes I found in most of the papers, I will discuss this copying issue.  Present it as that they are only cheating themselves of the opportunity to learn.  Cheating their parents of the extra money they spend to put their sons in my IEP class.... and if it happens again, I will tear up their papers and make both students start over.  Since this version is a 'rough draft', they've got a chance to rectify their error before I give them a grade.  I've warned all 4 students in writing on their rough drafts that the final version better not look like their buddy's.

If you were in my shoes, what would you do?  

Monday, August 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day from Thailand

Mother's Day?  Wasn't that in May?  Not here, my friends. We celebrate Mother's Day on August 12th, Her Majesty the Queen's Birthday.

So, I have the day off!

On Friday morning, my school had a big assembly where we honored Her Majesty as well as a whole lot of students' invited mothers.  It was kind of a touching ceremony.

Now, I know I haven't shared any videos or pictures from my school so far.  That's been on purpose as I wanted to establish myself there a bit before I started running around like a tourist with my camera going.  

All in all, things are going great.  I really enjoy being a teacher, and after 3 months of doing it, I'm getting the hang of it as well.  I feel comfortable.  I'm about 90% certain come October, I'll be asking for another contract for the second semester this year and then be here through March.

So, in today's video, you get to see my school!  

I wanted to show off this one framegrab that really highlights the typical teenager attention span.  Note that the ceremony is going on in front of these boys, straight ahead.  Not a single one of them is watching....

Sunday, August 11, 2013

How to Mount the Camera on the Motorcycle

I had this idea on how to mount my camera onto my motorcycle so I could capture some of my driving experience here in Bangkok.  My bike has this cheesy, yet handy, metal basket mounted on the front.  My idea was to cut a camera-lens sized hole in the front of it and use zip ties to hold the camera in place.  

I figured a nice pair of sturdy aviation sheers would be sufficient to cut the metal of the basket.  

Unfortunately, the classic WISS-style (made in my birth state of Wisconsin, I believe) cutters are not to be found here in Thailand. There are wire cutters, to be sure, but I wasn't sure they'd do the trick. When I thought about it, I really don't want to be buying a bunch of tools here in Thailand anyways.  Who knows how long I'll be here.  I certainly don't at this point. 

Instead, I just took my bike down to the little motorcycle repair shop half a block from my house, explained (again using lots of miming and gesturing) what I wanted to do to the basket.  The mechanic understood and he had a much better solution for how to cut through the metal basket than what I'd thought up.  He removed it entirely and used a hammer and a chisel on a wooden anvil to pound through the metal.  Took him 10 minutes and he charged me 30 Baht ($1). 

Now, I've got a stable platform to show the world the wild and exciting world of driving a motorcycle through Bangkok.  


Monday, August 5, 2013

The Emerald Buddha Temple

Nothing much to write about today, but I do have a fun video from Saturday to share.  I made two versions of it; here's a link to one with some traditional Southeast Asian music as it's background. 

The one you see below features The Pigeons... err... I mean, The Eagles.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Weekend Update

I realize it's been almost a week since I've updated the blog, so here is a quick note to let you know what's been going on.  

My computer has been sick. Had to be some serious virus or malware or something as it disabled my internal wifi adapter, shut down all virus scan software, made my favorite game unplayable and basically made the computer into a fancy typewriter.  Important for preparing lesson plans and school stuff, but useless for communication. 

It also left me a week to sit at home in the evening and come up with new things to do.  In the evenings, I do go out on a nightly search for food, but mostly, I'm at home on the computer. So, after this week, the tips of my fingers are nice and well calloused again after lots of ukulele playing, I've made a big dent in my library of unread paperbacks, I know 20 new words in Thai and I'm much more familiar with Asian news and politics as I watched a lot of the English news service from NHK are Arirang (out of Japan and Korea respectively).  Maybe I should spend less time on the computer regularly; those are all good things to have done. 

Ultimately, I gave up on trying to fix it myself and took it to the mall to get expert help.  I found a dealer of my brand and the tech there tried reinstalling the wireless card's drivers.  Through broken English and a little Thai, he got across the fact that it wasn't doing any good, and I needed to reinstall Windows.  Ugh.  Such a hassle.  I'd lose all the programs I've added to this computer and would spend days reinstalling them.  At least he didn't charge me anything to give me the bad news. 

So that is what I am doing this weekend.  

In other news, I have an ambitious goal of losing 20 pounds in the month of August.  I've already lost 15 since coming to Thailand without even trying, and if I just go on a little bit of a regimen, I'm sure I could lose more.  Here's the plan:  1. Stick to Thai portions.  See, when you order food here, they give you enough so that you're not hungry anymore, but you don't get that FULL feeling that we're used to after eating in the west.  Sometimes, I've found myself craving that full feeling and will get another portion or have a second course of something else.  Not doing that anymore.  2. Watch what I drink.  Pepsi, Fanta, CocaCola, beer, these are all very common beverages here and I like them too much.  Cutting out those useless calories.  3. Basketball three times a week.  This will be very easy.  I don't need to join a gym or go anywhere special.  I work at an all-boys high school, and there's pickup basketball everyday after school right out the backdoor of my office.  Not only is it okay that I join in, it is considered a good thing as I am engaging the students extracurricularly and showing a willingness to get involved.  I found out that the school actually does have a basketball team; something I had been told otherwise before. 

It's been funny seeing the regular basketball players' attitudes towards me
change this week as I've assumed this regimen.  At first, none of the kids wanted to guard me and were very hesitant about doing something as bold as fouling me. See, I'm a teacher.  Thai students are very respectful of their teachers.  Consequently, I could just drive to the basket in my slow, 240-pound, 40-something way and shoot unmolested.

 As a player, I prefer playing defense; blocking a shot is way more fun than making one.  Even as old and slow as I am, blocking a shot is as much about timing as it is jumping or how tall you are, so it's something I can still do.  Getting one's shot blocked is an embarrassing thing too.  Now that I've swatted half a dozen of their attempts, there's far less hesitancy to go up against Teacher Joko and guard me like I'm any other player.  I prefer it that way.

No video today as I've not recorded anything nor do I have software for editing at the moment.  Those will both change today. 



I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...