Monday 12th February
Inevitably, the first week back in school after two weeks’ recovery time was a mixed experience, mostly of the spirit-grinding character. I would surely have benefited from doing more preparation during the break, although I did concoct a lot of ambitious but extremely vague notions of doing a lot of themed classes throughout the coming term. The fact that I hadn’t actually physically planned anything out turned out not to matter a great deal, as, presumably some time late Sunday night, the school's entire timetable had been completely rewritten.
The big change for me is that my literature classes had now been made optional - something I had begged for in relation to the 9th graders but would like to have saved as a last resort for the 10th and 11th. I spent most of last weeks classes holding ‘surveys’ of the students opinions about English and what to do about it. A great way out of getting around not having planned work for the week but also for stealing ideas from the students themselves (Not that the ideas would necessarily be any good, but then I could have the joy of telling the kids “Yes, this lesson sucks, but that’s YOUR FAULT because it was YOUR IDEA - Hah!”) Well, particularly to the background of timetable chaos, the results of the survey were pretty uniformly depressing. The greater part of the students requested “More interesting lessons” with only about two out of sixty students suggesting anything that might be of interest to themselves (“Talking about famous people, shopping, movies”). “More interesting” basically means more games and fun exercises, and more oportunities to chat to each other (in Mongolian). Well, I’m prepared to concede them a little more fun, in strictly measured doses of course, but on the whole, I reserve the right to be as boring and un-fun as I like. It is a teacher’s most sacred prerogative.
My 11th grade got quite involved in a discussion of what to study in Literature, with an agreement to read more short stories and look at something in the vein of Harry Potter and “The Da Vinci Code”, both of which these bone-idle kids have read from cover to cover. I had it in mind to maybe try and get copies of “The Hobbit” at least or “A Wizard of Earthsea” as a Rowling antidote, and half a notion to force extracts of “The Name of the Rose” and the “Illuminatus!” trilogy to de-Brown them. The 11th grade did pretty well last term, giving the extracts of “Hamlet” a sporting chance, suffering Dylan Thomas with dignity and generally hiding their disappointment that the course would not be all Monkey’s Paws. Everything looked quite promising: and then the class became optional, and 5 students out of the twenty turned up. No students from the 10th grade classes are choosing to take English. And the 9th grade class which I had begged to be made optional is still on the syllabus, sat there in the ungodly monday morning hours, with the students less willing than ever to have anything whatsoever to do with books.
Still, the five-student classes will hopefully turn out to be very worthwhile, although I do feel that i am losing the battle to force these kids to appreciate English literature. The students were very keen to read Sherlock Holmes and so I settled on “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” purely on the merit of it being one of the shortest stories. It turns out on reading it (and preparing a vocab sheet! Before the lesson! I am a teacher!) that it has lots of good use of English idioms and phrases that are still common currency (“at the end of my tether” “I was in the swim” and so on), but it isn’t the most exciting of Holmes’ adventures - and is indeed just a rewrite of the funnier “The Red-Headed League” which Conan Doyle seems to have forgotten having written. Well, I’ll see how they got on with it tomorrow. In the meantime I wrote them a very clever little essay about the character Sherlock Holmes and his wide influence on later fiction, which they are sure to find informative and inspiring. I even managed, in the best teaching tradition of disparaging everything the students admire, to work in a snidey reference to “The Da Vinci Code” (which, needless to say, and also in the best teaching tradition, I have never read). Once they’ve finished with that I’m intending to try some Jack London, particularly “To Light a Fire” and “A Piece of Steak”, both of which I recall as being short but gripping, and concerning the cold, wolves and boxing, all of which ought to be able to hold a Mongolian’s attention for half an hour at least.
For my other classes, I am belatedly dispensing once and for all with the text book I have been given. The course (Upstream Intermediate and Advanced) is extremely good, but the students, who are already studying the course with the Mongolian teachers do not want to study it with me too. Personally I think that if I could get their attention they could really benefit from letting me teach it, but as soon as the text book opens their minds close, and I am finally giving up. All remaining classes will be conversation or based on newspaper articles and lessons I steal off the Internet. I have also had the brilliant notion of getting the class to prepare Power Point (ie slideshow) presentations on subjects of their choice, with that whole class being their lesson - cleverly getting myself out of having to prepare that lesson, and again giving me recourse to being able to say “Yes, this lesson sucks, but that’s YOUR FAULT because it was YOUR IDEA - Hah!”
You may be wondering whatever happened to my threats to teach Mongolians bluegrass, which had caused a degree of consternation in some parts of the globe. Many historians consider that the rampages of Genghis Khan were only alleviated by the fact that the banjo had not yet been invented in the 13th century. As of yet, the world is safe. I have not been able to inspire a sudden interest in all things hillbilly amongst my young charges, but I am working on it. Last week was my first after-school music group, which a handful of students finally signed up for once another student helpfully rewrote my unsigned “Bluegrass Music Club” poster and replaced it with “Live Music Club”. I’ve now got 6 8th grade piano-playing girls, who want to form an EMO Rock Band. In my own time I am trying to meet up with some local musicians who a mutual friend is in touch with - hopefully after all the meatballs and vodka of next weekend’s White Moon celebration are over with we can manage to get together.
Finally, just to prove that I am complaining about my job from Outer Mongolia and not Basingstoke, here's a picture of the ger recently assembled outside my apartment block.