Last time, that English classroom really did feel like a prison cell (and I felt like the jailer). This time, it is a bit better. A couple from San Francisco (who are staying with Mike, the Couch Sufing guy) and I are teaching -- and we have the whole lesson to ourselves.
The goals for this lesson: use a different room, get the kids moving (once again, they have already been sitting for hours), be sure that they are engaged, and make the material as relevant as possible for them. And, if possible, create some space to work with the couple of struggling kids 1-on-1.
The plan: start with a game of musical chairs for introductions (if you lose the round, you introduce yourself). In the first half of class, teach a little section involving food vocabulary and do an activity in which each student has a shopping list of foods they have to buy from us, the three teachers (or the fruit vendor, the vegetable vendor, and the dry goods store). In the second half of class, get everyone to draw a family tree and identify each member as "mother," "father," "aunt," etc. Finally, wrap up with another game of musical chairs to review all of the vocabulary we learned (if you lose the round, you have to use one of the new words in a sentence).
The results: most importantly, when class was over at 7:30pm, some of the kids donned exaggerated sad faces and told their teachers they wanted to stay until 9:00. Musical chairs was a great success, though of course the boys got rowdy. The shopping activity turned into a competition about who could check off all of their items first (by saying "I want ____," to which we would respond "Sorry, I don't have ____," etc.), and the kids loved it. In the beginning, they also went crazy as we asked them to identify pictures of foods on an iPad. Ultimately, we did not get to do the family tree exercise because the teacher wanted us to do a small lesson from the regular book. Using the book was more tolerable this time because as one of my co-teachers read, I could either do silly impressions of what was being said, or work 1-on-1 with the two struggling students. At the very end, I got to do what I really wanted to do with the kids and just talk to them, ask them questions, and respond to all of the questions they could think of in English.
My conclusions: two things were obvious.
First, commong planning time for teachers is essential. For this 2-hour lesson, the three of us spent a full 2 hours preparing, and we were still a bit shaky. We debriefed for 20 mintues afterwards and easily identified various ways we could improve for next time. Normal teachers are generally better trained than us amateurs, but giving extra time for collaborative lesson planning and feedback or troubleshooting sessions has to be one of the best ways to improve instructional quality.
Second, smaller classes definitely cannot hurt. We had three teachers and ten students, a better ratio than you'll find in almost any public or private school. Even then, it was tough to keep all of the students engaged at once and ensure that each of them was learning something new but at their own level. It seems that the difficulty of teaching varies proportionately with the square of the number of students. Even a sub-par teacher could probably make a decent tutor, but it would take an absolute master to manage a group of thirty -- or sixty, if you're in Vietnam.
So, what kind of systemic reforms would these comments lend themselves to? Well, having more small-group instruction would be better (then you would not even need as much planning time), but that would be costly. If one assumes that kids need to be listening to a teacher 100% of day, or 100% of the time that they are in school. What if you could fulfill the babysitting role of teachers in another way and divide their days up into smaller chunks of time spent with smaller groups of students? Of course, this would not solve all of the problems, but I learned my lesson about trying to "solve all of the problems" before coming to college.
...Now for the food update: