My Fulbright project has several components to it, and one of them involves teaching autobiographical poetry writing to students here. The plan is for students in Vietnam and my school (and any other interested schools) to learn about each other through poetry.
So far, I have focused on teaching a series of eight lessons to one class each in grades seven, nine, ten and eleven, as well as one university level class. The students in these classes have varying levels of English and are working hard to write about themselves. Once these lessons are complete, I will work on building a website for sharing poetry and publishing an online curriculum guide for teachers.
Just as one experiences culture shock when traveling to a new place, there is also an adjustment to be made when working in a new environment. Learning to teach classes that are twice as large as what I am used to (usually in a smaller space) has been a challenge. It didn’t take long to realize that the students who were interacting the most in class had the best English, while the many quiet students were struggling. I have had to adjust lessons and provide additional support for students who need it, but it is impossible to reach 45 students in a 45-minute period.
I have also discovered some of the quiet students have excellent English but are afraid to speak. Some of their feelings have come through in their writing.
Vietnamese students are under enormous pressure and will often have other work out while I am teaching. There also seems to be a culture in Vietnam of carrying on conversations while the teacher is talking. It is not meant to be rude, but seems to be a natural thing to do in almost every class I have been in. Two student teachers here from Indonesia have noticed the same thing. Scheduling is another cultural difference. Schedule changes happen frequently and often with little notice.
Some challenges cross cultures and would be very familiar to just about any teacher – like the class where half the students lose the previous week’s poem, the students who say they understand but really don’t, the ones who finish a minute after I give the directions, and the times when the wi-fi goes down just when I need it. And then there’s that student who tried out some English vocabulary in his poem that is definitely not appropriate for school. (I can spot a seventh grader anywhere in the world!)
All of these challenges are really very small and easy to adjust to. And there are differences that are definitely more positive. For example, in nearly two months, only one student has asked to leave the room during a lesson, and only once has the class been interrupted by a visitor. And it never gets old when the class stands and greets me at the beginning of the lesson and applauds at the end. (Maybe they’re just glad class is over, but I choose to think otherwise.)
This week, I have recruited several university students to assist in my middle school and high school classes. They are helping to get more students involved in the classes, translating when necessary, and are a great example for the students. I also appreciate the warm welcome from the teachers and administrators at Nguyễn Tất Thành School. The teachers are under a lot of pressure to get their students to pass the English exams, so I am grateful for the access they have given me to their classes.
Many students have been producing excellent drafts of their poems and are becoming more and more eager to share their work. Stay tuned for information on where you can read and comment on their poems. (Update: You can go to the poetry website here.)