Cultural Connections

Musings about my experiences, art, and life in Mongolia and beyond.

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Location: Ulaanbaatar, Tuv aimag, Mongolia

Native Chicagoan currently teaching in Mongolia.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Teaching English

10/20/06 “Julie’s Love Letters” After I finished writing the last journal entry, I went grocery shopping and nearly changed the title of this blog. I found this box of cookies called “Julie’s Love Letters”. I laughed. It seemed “sweetly” ironic to me on a few different levels. The past few weeks, I have slowly been piecing together the educational system here. For one thing, school starts every year on September 1 (this year it was on a Friday!). I didn’t start teaching until September 18, which meant I had already lost two weeks of teaching. There’s been a bit of a communication problem and a lot of assuming going on. Based on the job interview, I was under the impression I would have a certain number of classes with specific books to use. I had also seen the curriculum outline. All seemed very organized and straightforward. The reality is that I share grades 1-3 with three other Mongolian teachers who are trained to teach English. Each grade has 50-60 students, so the three grades are divided into sections A and B, so you now have 6 different classes. Each section is divided in half so there are 12 different sections. I teach one-half while one of the other teachers, teaches the other half. So I am scheduled to have each section about twice a week. This means I have six classes per day, 12 sections per week and about 150 students total. The other three Mongolian teachers have two grades and about 50 students per week. I suppose this was arranged so that each child would be exposed to a Native Speaker. Ok, then there is the matter of teaching materials. I’m sure you teachers out there know that it does not work having two different teachers teaching the same kids from the same book. You would have to orchestrate it, or each would be stepping on the other’s toes. Moreover, the kids would get bored if everything were repeated. Well, I had been tossed into the classroom with little explanation and no resources except for the books the children already had. The other teachers kept saying to me how the parents were complaining that their children could not speak English. It was as though I was expected to wave a magic wand and magically all the children would speak English perfectly. I was frustrated. I was an artist and anthropologist! I had only taught and developed fun/informal programs for the museum. Yes, I had done some volunteer teaching, but I was not formally trained. So I did the best I could with what I had. One day, one of the Senior English teachers walked in and started criticizing me and my 1st grade students. That was the last straw, I walked out of the class and let her finish. Ironically, the Department Head had come looking for me. She had talked with the other teacher and then found me in the hall. She was finally beginning to understand my situation. She said the other teacher realized she was wrong in what she did and apologized. (Although, she still continues to interrupt my classes!) I have since had a few talks with the Department Head and she has slowly come to see the bigger picture. In addition, I am getting an understanding of the bigger picture here in Mongolia, including the National Standards. One side note to all of this: Traditionally children did not enter first grade until they were eight. That standard has now been changed this year to seven. Next year it may drop to six. I asked what the children do before they enter first grade. “Mongolia has a very good child daycare system”, I was told. “Do they learn anything?” I asked. “Well, no, but they are taught games and nursery rhymes.” “When are they taught the alphabet?” I asked. “They don’t learn the Mongolian alphabet until the first grade. So we cannot teach them the English alphabet until after we teach them the Mongolian alphabet.” “ That’s very confusing for them”, I said. Therefore, I explained how most American children start to learn their ABC’s in preschool, so that they all know their alphabet before the first grade. Then you can teach them words, phonics, etc. No wonder the kids can’t speak much English in first grade - their poor little heads must be having information overload! Apparently, our Dept. Head is new to her position and is trained as a history teacher and not as an English teacher. I tried to explain to her the difficulty of two teachers teaching the same children from the same book. “I should be playing a supporting role to what the other teachers are doing”, I told her. She realized she was not prepared for me and my role in the department. I was also confused about our inability to teach the 1st graders the alphabet. How could I teach them English without teaching them the letters?! And how could I explain things to them if I don’t speak Mongolian? It made more sense if I taught the 2nd and 3rd graders who already knew some English. Well last week, I was told…the day before, that we would be attending a seminar sponsored by Oxford University Press. (I’m also beginning to think the concepts of “timing” and “planning” are new to other parts of the world…Anyone care to comment?) A British Education Professor that the Moscow branch of Oxford Univ. Press brought in taught this seminar. She was wonderful! She reiterated everything I had been saying to the other teachers and Dept. Head. I suggested to the Dept. Head that we invite her to our school afterwards. She accepted. We had a group discussion and I applauded her for her ideas and presentation. I asked her about the concept of two teachers teaching from the same book as well as not teaching the alphabet. She agreed that two teachers should not be using the same book and that I should be playing a supporting role. I didn’t win on the teaching without the alphabet concept, but I think she was also surprised by the national standards as I was. I am now scouring other workbooks, the small school library, storybooks, and the internet to develop all of my own lessons from scratch. This weekend I’ll be developing some sort of tests for them. Evaluation is a whole other new game for me that has not been clearly explained. Oh well, I just go in and do what I can and hope that my students will grow up to be smart and fabulous. Maybe one of them will become President or at least reform the education system!


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