My butt is starting to hurt. We are not even halfway through and I am already getting fidgety. The small room's dull beige walls are covered in layers of scratch marks and doodles, giving it a somewhat prison-cell-like feel. Covered windows and cold fluorescent lighting add to the effect.
Most of the space in the room is occupied by wood desks arranged such that they look like church pews: two columns of wide but shallow tables and benches, with an aisle down the center. Generations of students have redecorated the desks' previously dark-colored surfaces with White-Out drawings and tags. Their lessons were obviously riveting. Now, the teacher is standing authoritatively at the front of the room. As she read a dialogue from the textbook, the students automatically repeat her words. "Grandma, look! Now the flat is tidy..."
In contrast to the dull appearance of the classroom, the nine elementary school students are dressed in bright colors. Characters such as Barbie and Spiderman adorn their shirts and backpacks. Amazingly, all of the kids carry big smiles and they giggle as they glance back at the two tall foreigners who are sitting in the back of their classroom. It is amazing that they are smiling, not only because this lesson is somewhat boring, but because they were in school all day before coming to this class. It is almost 6:30 pm on a Friday evening and we are just starting the second hour of this lesson. I fidget some more, even though I have been sitting in class for far less time today than all of the students. I notice that others are also trying in vein to find a more comfortable sitting position. In some contexts, "hardwood" is considered a positive quality, but not with regards to these benches.
This is the famous học thêm system (extra classes, which Linh Dao is researching this summer). We are in an extra English class, and it is probably an expensive one, judging from the small class size. The other foreigner and I have been invited by our CouchSurfing host, Mike, to come sit in on the lesson, and it is already giving me plenty to think about for my project(s).
Behind me, the door slides open and a little girl dressed in electric blue walks in late. After asking her why she is late in Vietnamese, the teacher explains to us foreigners that this girl likes to play outside. The teacher shakes her head and gives us an 'oh, kids' facial expression. Why would kids want to play outside in the summer? So shortsighted.
As the lesson goes on, Mike and I pass notes in the back of the classroom. "Have you ever taught?" He asks me. "Tutored, but never taught a big class." "You should do it, don't judge other people if you haven't taught. You should try." "Alright." And, after he exchanges a few words in Vietnamese with the teacher, I find myself at the front of the room.
So, up to this point I have been sitting in the back of the room pointing out problems with this class. Now, Mike is egging me on from the back row and I have a room full of kids looking up at me (craning their necks because Mike insisted that I stand instead of sit on their level at the front). An opportunity to put my critiques into action -- supposedly. The first critique I can do something about is the teacher's stiff stance at the front of the room. The others, I am not so sure about.
I glance down at the teacher's book in my hands. Irrelevant material (absurd scenarios plus unusable vocabulary) is critique number two, but I had little warning of this and did not prepare any other activity, so I will have to use the regular book. I scan through it, hoping to find a story that is more related to these kids' lives than "Grandma, now the flat is tidy," but to no avail. The teacher wants me to teach the kids a song from the CD that accompanies the textbook and correct their pronunciation. "There were ten in the bed and the little one said two more, two more. Two more! Eleven, twelve. There were twelve in the bed..." Repeat up to twenty. And this is about some girl's ridiculously large pile of teddy bears -- what kinds of lessons is this book trying to instill? Well, the least I can do is try to make the class a bit more enjoyable.
I manage to make everyone laugh and they seem a bit more engaged as this tall white guy jumps around the small room asking everyone, including the teacher, to read one line of the lyrics. But what is the value of this kind of exercise? Eight out of ten kids are clearly more advanced than this, and two clearly need more help with the numbers and, seemingly, English in general. The teacher wants me to correct the kids who are saying it wrong, but the two who are having trouble need individual help, they do not need me to call on them and publicly embarrass them. The other eight have got it more or less right -- maybe they say "th" more like "t", but they are less than ten years old and I would rather encourage them to learn more with some kind of interesting activity than spend time making them pronounce words exactly as I do. I know from my two weeks of Vietnamese lessons that practicing pronunciation is tiring and not particularly interesting (pronunciation is, however, much more important in Vietnamese because, as I found out with a taxi ride to the middle of nowhere, if you don't say it exactly right, you are saying something else).
For a minute I try to pause and help the two kids who are having a harder time and the others start chatting and bouncing around. Mike tells me I need to control them and get them all to be quiet. But, once again, they are less than ten years old. They have been in school for at least nine hours today, so it is no wonder that they want to run around. I would like to let them, but this time I give in to what Mike and the teacher are saying and we return to learning the song. Soon after, the clock hits 7:30 and it is time for the students to go.
So, how did I did do in terms of putting my critiques into action? I succeeded with one out of many. Trying to have a little more fun with teaching and moving around the room are easily done in one lesson. For the next time (and I think there will be a next time), I can try to address the irrelevant material issue by preparing a better activity that engages the students more and is more relevant to their lives. But, can all of the other things be solved as easily?
The main critiques I wanted to highlight with the beginning of this story are the cell-like environment of the classroom, including the hard benches (and just the fact that we have to sit the whole time); the fact that the kids have been in school for hours before even coming to that class and get relatively little time to run around, play and be active; and the fact that in spite of all this, these kids are still smiling and energetic, even though the system seems to want to beat that out of them. The whole experience reminded me why I complained about school every year between fourth grade and freshman year of college. Schools often feel like a prisons -- kids are made to sit down, face forward, listen to what they are told, repeat after the teacher, and copy the teacher's exact sentences into their notebooks.
As one author I've been reading lately writes:
"Why do we have schools? Instead of answering this question by listing all the good things that schools provide, which anyone can do, I will turn the question around: What is bad about having schools?...Competition...Stress...Right answers...Stifling of curiosity...Subjects chosen for you...Classrooms...Confined children...Government use of education for repression...Discovery not valued...Boredom ignored" ("Why do we still have schools?" by Roger Schank -- read this fascinating piece of his about "Story-Centered Curricula" and you can find more of his stuff here)
So... What is the purpose of education again? Have we got it all wrong? (Or maybe it's all right, depending on your point of view.)
This is what motivates me to dive into efforts like the Brown Conversation and the Creative Kid Project, and why I think Camp Rising Sun is such a phenomenal program. That room of kids had so much energy and so much potential. But instead of tapping into that and encouraging them to do what they would love to do, we tell them to be quiet, face forward, and repeat meaningless phrases so that one day they'll be able to better interact with rich foreigners. Maybe that's a bit too cynical, because English does seem to be a "valuable" skill -- but then policy makers and commentators (around the world) seem to be surprised when graduates from their country's schools aren't "creative" or "innovative" or motivated enough. Is that simple ignorance, willful blindness, or malicious intentionality?