Posts tagged ‘teaching’


The staff of my school want to make a trip for the students and volunteers. When they brought this up to us two weeks ago we shrugged our shoulders and nodded. They decided to go to Kirirom, a waterfall in Kompot province 3+ hours away by bus from Phnom Penh. During the days that followed that meeting we came out of our stupor and realized that 3 hours one way and 3 hours back in one day was too much. We brought this up to the staff and at the next meeting discussed alternative trip ideas. A picnic on riverside. A boat cruise. Nothing that involved more than half an hour of travel time. And then a few days ago without the participation of the volunteers the staff arbitrarily decided to return to their original idea of going to Kirirom.

I don’t want to spend 6-7 hours on a bus. It’s too much for a day trip. Busses exhaust me, my skin always breaks out, and i need to force myself to sleep during the ride to prevent vomiting. Why put myself through this just to spend 4 hours at a waterfall? “Take one for the team” someone said. But i don’t want to! And yet, i don’t want to be rude. So this has been weighing me down.


January 23, 2009 at 11:32 am Leave a comment

just a rant

I am terminating my Khmer lessons. My teacher is just not sensitive enough to pronunciation to help me in the way I need. I confirmed my frustration by reading aloud an arbitrary phrase he taught me last week. He wanted to know the English meaning of what I was trying to say while I wanted to test my ability to be understood. In the end I needed to tell him the English to be understood. He feebly attempted to correct me, although he did not slow down his pace or make his sounds any clearer. I couldn’t tell an “n” sound from an “m” or an “ie” from an “on.” For a transient moment he had heard my mistakes but it lasted only long enough for him to repeat the words and thereby erase from his memory all awareness of my version of them. It was useless. After this I could repeat the sentence all I wanted and he’d tell me I was correct because he’d hear only himself. I should clarify though, he’s a volunteer not a trained teacher. I don’t feel vexed, I just prefer to do something else with my time.

Nothing successful came out of my attempts to help him and his friends find a sponsor for their dormitory. All the NGOs I emailed returned a generic response, something to the effect of that the message could not be delivered. I’ve never witnessed this kind of response before so I don’t know what to make of it. Were my emails received? At least one organization called to tell him that they could not sponsor them.

The sole Khmer and the handful of foreigners I’ve shared the story with are surprised that 32 young adults should have trouble paying $400 a month. I suppose that if the average monthly salary for menial part-time work here is $40, a rent of $12.50 is only about 1/3 which is easier to afford than the rent most New York City college students struggle to pay which amounts to half or more of their monthly salary. Upon further questioning, my teacher revealed that not all the students have financial difficulties, just some. Without essential information like this I can’t write an honest proposal. What I’ve written is questionable and unconvincing. Nor do I have any expertise about NGOs. In some emotional way I feel I’ve failed to help him, but my practical brain revolts at the idea of aiding him further. Tomorrow I’m going to give him a copy of the proposal I’ve written and the addresses of several NGOs in Phnom Penh he can deliver it to.

I’ve also decided against the typing lessons I wrote of earlier. There are many affordable computer schools already that teach typing in PP. Why should I do it? And if I did it, how? I anticipate that the students would have trouble following my diction and thereby the whole system of learning to type by typing particular letters with particular fingers would go astray.

The semester is half way through and there are only 5 weeks left. The school did an anonymous collection of student feedback and I got many positive reviews. The negative, of which there were 3, all came from the same class. They complained that I spend too much time on vocabulary and that I don’t do enough activities and games. This is the class where I have a blind student so I have avoided doing any activities which would exclude him. Perhaps I was too overbearing with my sympathies that I neglected the needs of the class. About the vocabulary, I disagree. I spend only half the lesson discussing new words and despite the drilling and sentence making the students still don’t understand some of the words by the end of the lesson. In general, I find teaching more exhausting than I did at the beginning. I started the semester by hardly planning my lessons, and now, with the pressure to play more games coming from one class (which I consequently generalize to be the desire of all my classes) and the additional task of making cassette tapes with vocabulary for my blind student, I need to plan for over an hour. This is a stressful task for a girl (haha) who is accustomed to indefinites and improvising!

January 12, 2009 at 10:09 pm 1 comment

new year’s eve

On Wednesday (New Year’s Eve) it started to pour at 7:30pm and did not stop until 1am the following year. This was strange because winter is dry season in Cambodia. Throughout the whole month of December I recall having rain only once before Wednesday and even during the wet season (summer-autumn), rare were the days when it poured for so many hours without respite.

Here we are at 8pm in the school waiting for the rain to relent so that we could spring home and prepare for the New Year… 


New Year’s Eve was a prime time for many weddings. Most Cambodians set up tents like these on the street, invite 200+ family, friends, and neighbors, and hire cooks who toil outside the tents using pots as large as bathtubs.



Cambodian youngsters usually live with their parents until they marry. Exceptions to this are young adults from the provinces who come to Phnom Penh to study. To marry, the groom-to-be has to make a monetary gift to the girl’s family. Many of the young moto-taxi drivers I meet complain about this expense and site it as the reason for their bachelorhood. Of course there are exceptions… couples who love each other so much that they marry despite the groom’s poverty and/or the family’s disapproval, but this is not the norm.

My blind student related the story of his wedding. He met his wife on the phone when his cousin used her cell to call him one day. He redialed her number and they began speaking daily. Her parents were not happy that she was being courted by a blind man and arranged a marriage for her with someone else. She became very depressed, even suicidal. The marriage was called off. My student (who is very clever and technically apt) started to pass on to her newspapers with articles he’d written for her parents to see that he was not incapable of earning his own bread. Eventually they agreed to the marriage and the two were married 3 weeks ago!

I met the New Year with Bertha, Eli and Brad in a café on riverside. It was a subtle affair. At midnight they kissed each other and us. I made a resolution a full 12 hours later, just after New York’s entrance in to the New Year, as I sat munching on a crepe with bananas and Nutella in a café near the Russian Market. I resolved to have more courage in 2009.



Here  is an article on the meaning of New Year’s from the LA TIMES Dec 31, 2008 by Pico Iyer

Reporting from Nara, Japan — New Year’s Day is the hardest holiday to make sense of precisely because it’s the easiest one to sleep through; as the most arbitrary of designations — New Year’s falls on different days in Nepal or Ethiopia or China or California — it asks us, even compels us, to find its meaning within ourselves. Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, Divali: They all follow a larger calendar and come with their own rites and duties. But what to do with a day that, in our Western culture at least, involves mostly snoozing through the bowl games and resolving to remember the resolutions that you know you’ll forget by next Tuesday?

My answer is as arbitrary as anyone else’s, but it is to see what “new” and “year’s” might really mean, by taking myself off to see the grandfather cultures of the world. In Japan, where I live — old enough to think carefully about new beginnings — chic girls in kimonos, with stylish stoles around their necks, stream through the orange torii gates of a Shinto shrine soon after a bronze bell tolls in the new year, swains in rock-star suits beside them, to observe the ceremonial first sunrise and to gather sacred fire and pure water from the holy place with which to cook an auspicious first meal. To many in the Westernized nation, though, one of the most popular shrines to visit on New Year’s Day is Tokyo Disneyland, where priestly duties may be performed by Mickey and Goofy.

Yet the most crucial rite of what is the most important day of the year in Japan — even if you begin it in Tomorrowland — is to go pay your respects to Grandma and root your newness in the old. Like most traditional cultures in the world, Japan knows that “new” is not always the same as “improved” and that “old” does not quite translate as “outdated.”

I am only a would-be Japanese, and more of a global being, so I don’t have any grandparents nearby or a local shrine to which I can claim full allegiance. Thus, last New Year’s found me visiting the global village’s elders in Jerusalem, where ancient passions sob and flare through the thin stone passageways, reminding us that constant turmoil is not the same as change. The beauty of the Old City there is that its spiritual fervor hasn’t diminished in 2,000 years or more; everyone has an acutely keen sense of what he or she believes in. The sorrow of the Old City is that its personal enmities do not seem to have abated much either; everyone knows just whom he or she doesn’t trust.

A new year is a time to reflect on change and to see what endures beyond the flash and grab of the moment. At the turn of the millennium, therefore, I emptied my savings account to take my mother to Easter Island, where the 21st century looked to be mostly a matter of tall stone statues and ancestral taboos. Four years earlier, I spent New Year’s Eve in Port-au-Prince, seeing the modern globe in miniature: All night long, the Creole elite danced the evening away in soigne French restaurants, stunning in that season’s Dior and backless dresses. When the light came up on the new year, nearly everyone else had to awaken to a country with few schools or roads or hospitals or hopes.

Wherever I am, whether Egypt or Ethiopia, I observe my own makeshift rites on New Year’s Day, as if superstition might be the first step toward sacrament. I wake up early and compile lists of the cultural highlights of the year just past. Then I begin writing out a swelling catalog of all the moments that moved and astonished me, annual proof that even the emptiest-seeming year is rich.

I take care, as my Japanese neighbors do, over my first thought, my first sentence, my first meal; the day itself is for me like the folded white paper that the Japanese collect from shrines outlining their future for the year to come. When, four years ago, New Year’s Day found me barreling down a narrow mountain road at 12,000 feet in southern Bolivia and then bouncing and banging around as my taxi rolled over and over — the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, a victim of New Year’s Eve — I had the distinct impression that the year that followed might not be entirely happy. (I survived with just a scar, though the driver and the only other passenger ended up in the hospital.)

But my most haunting New Year’s in recent times — walking through the Cambodian jungle at four in the morning, surrounded by Khmer Rouge ghosts and the towers of Angkor — taught me that the calendar’s arbitrary markings are really just asking you how much you define yourself by what’s shifting or what’s still.

This year, as it happens, I plan to mark the new year in California, wondering how much our fresh young president will draw on the ancestral wisdom of Kansas and Kenya to guide him — and us — into a new century. You don’t have to travel far, my Japanese neighbors remind me, to turn a new page in your life. The only important thing on New Year’s — I should have reminded my Bolivian taxi driver — is to wake up.

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of “The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.” His previous book, “Sun After Dark,” describes New Year’s Day around the globe.

January 3, 2009 at 4:36 pm 1 comment

teaching difficulties

I wanted to write about some of the difficulties i’ve encountered teaching. I’ve already mentioned that i teach 4 classes, 3 of them on my own and 1 with another teacher. This co-teaching set-up is an experiment to see if having two teachers in a classroom will help students learn better. After two weeks i can affirm that it doesn’t. On the contrary, it denies teachers flexibility and intimacy with their students. In a class where i am the only teacher, i can spontaneously decide to change the course of the lesson if it’s not working out. I don’t have to justify my choices to anyone. But as a co-teacher, i have to always think about including the other teacher in the lesson and when i want to steer the lesson in a different way than originally planned, it becomes a challenge in itself to communicate the new approach to the other teacher and to get his approval (just to be democratic). Although my co is a very placid man, i sense that he feels betrayed by me when i do this, and since i don’t want to offend him, i’ll allow a lesson to continue despite the obvious realization (for me) that the students are hardly learning. In these situations i become very tense. 
Also since i am sharing these students i don’t feel the same attachment to them (and therefore the same interest in their progress) as i do for my other groups of students. I’m certain there is a ton or more of data invoking the psychological and historal reasons for my lack of initiative when it comes to sharing. I’ve tried to persevere but it’s just not benefiting the students.
When i reserve myself to the role of audience in the classroom (rather than as another teacher) Elie is able to connect with the students. Without my interruption of his technique he is able to expand on his ideas. And so i believe that the students would be better off having one of us as their teacher. There are 13 students and the best way would be to divide the students and give me half, and Elie the other half. But i think all the rooms in the school are full during this time. Either way i feel like somewhat of a failure for being unable to work together with Elie for the benefit of the students.
The other difficulty i have is this: I have a blind student in one of my upper classes. He’s been absent for a week because he got married so it wasn’t a problem before. With these students i like to discuss the new vocabulary words first, defining them and composing sentences as a group. Then i pair them off and ask them to discuss the pictures in the book using the new vocabulary. What can my blind student do if he can see neither the pictures nor the words we have just learned? If i pair him off with another student i feel i put the other student at a disadvantage because he cannot practice the new words. If i leave the blind student alone and work with him myself, i put all the other students at a disadvantage by not going around the room to listen to their conversations and correcting them. Many of the games i want to play with these students require being able to see the words. I have no idea how to adjust these games in order to include this student. I can’t just read the phrases outloud. I tried an exercise yesterday where the students had to listen and it bombed. I believe they need a mix of listening and seeing words to learn… Fortunately there will be a meeting tomorrow with several teachers from past semesters and i will ask for their advice.
I had something more interesting to write about but by the time i wrote the above the computer i was using froze, restarted, and shut down again. I HATE these computers. The one i transfered too just popped up a message that says: Time before shutdown:  00:36:37
And this is the best internet cafe in Phnom Penh. I miss having a personal computer.

December 19, 2008 at 2:52 pm Leave a comment

Mr. Cambodia

A week ago i wrote about the unpleasant experience of going to the American embassy to have more pages sown into my passport.

I decided to try again on Monday, since i was going to be in proximity of the embassy during the necessary hours. So i came and was quickly ushered into the uncrowded waiting room. At window #7 a young Asian man with perfect English handed me a form to complete. Twenty minutes later i was called to window #9 where the same man returned my passport with the page attachments inside (The new pages are not filled with names of states like the old ones; instead each set of pages contains scenes of farmers, statues, eagles, infrastructure and more in a pink hue and with a quotation about the virtues and struggles of American society that correlate to the scenes. Despite the effect of propaganda, i like them a lot) The man gave me his business card.  It didn’t take long to realize that this was the same rude individual i’d spoken to the week before. He even confirmed it by recalling some of the words i said to him.

Later, he told me some interesting things about his work. One of his duties is to be there as soon as an American citizen dies, is arrested, or suffers an emergency.

“How many Americans are in jail in Phnom Penh?”
“About 10.”
“For what?” (And here, i expected the usual answer – smuggling drugs)
“Sex tourism with children!”

Throughout my month in Phnom Penh i have seen various attempts to prevent the sexual exploitation of minors. From the warnings on the back page of the free maps tourists get, to the documents my school required us to sign to confirm our awareness of the problem, to the swimming pool i went to this morning that had this on its door: “Sex tourists not welcome.”

“So how do they get caught?”
“There are organizations that spy on them…”
“But how can they prove that a man knew the age of the girl?”
“They talk to the parents of the girl and when they mention that they recieved money…”




Teaching is a pleasure for me. I’ve been having headaches daily since Thursday but as soon as i enter the classroom and take on the role of teacher my head stops aching and i feel rejuvinated and happy.

Today i played a game with one of my classes. I created a paragraph with some missing words. The students’ job was to fill in the blanks using a vocabulary list of words i provided (words we have been studying). After they finished, the students took turns reading the sentences until everyone had the correct words in the blanks. Then i collected the papers and placed them outside the classroom. I made three teams and gave each a marker. One student ran out of the room to look at the sheet and memorize a sentence which he than recited to the student with the marker, who than wrote the sentence on the team’s section of the board. As he did this another student ran out of the room to memorize the next sentence. Markers exchanged hands. There was a lot of running and enthuisiasm. They broke the rules by running out of the room to look at the papers indiscriminately. Some of the girls threw off their flip-flops and ran barefoot. There was giggling. One of the older male students, a little fat, awkward, and dressed in professional attire, held his hand to his mouth to cover the emerging giggle as he ran…

The point of this game is to teach students to listen and communicate. After they finished, i counted the mistakes each team had made and subtracted points. The teams were very enthuisiastic about finding the mistakes of the other teams. Nonetheless all 3 had almost the same score.

So much fun!

December 17, 2008 at 9:10 pm 3 comments

Teaching 2

My dad asked for a synopsys of what it is i do at the school and although it’s difficult to say just yet since i’ve only been teaching for 2 days (today, Wednsday, is a holiday – “Human Rights Day” – and a day off) i emailed him the following summary:

I work m-f, from 4pm to 8pm, teaching 4 classes. In one class i teach with someone else, in the other 3 i am alone. Each class has about 12 students, from 18-23 years of age. They know a little english already but the idea of the course is to improve their prononciation and way of speaking rather than focusing on grammer like most English schools in Cambodia do. I will teach based on a book we were given, incorporating a lot of group work so that they will have many opportunities to practice their English with one another, and i will also create games which will allow them to practice their listening skills. The course lasts 10 weeks.


And this post is a good opportunity to show off this photo of myself and some other volunteers taken from a fellow volunteer’s blog.


The older couple on the top right are Eli and Bertha. They are in their 70s, from Canada, and have been married for over 50 years. Next to them is Brad, he’s 23 and from New Zealand. To his left is Kim, she’s also in her 20s and from New Zealand. To my left is another Kim. She’s in her 30s, from Boston, and has been traveling and volunteering for nearly 5 years. On the bottom left is Laura (20s) from Austrialia, Manuel (24) from Austria, Leah (26) from Australia, Barbara (62) from Maine, and Cat (30) from Wales. Not in the photo are 3 other volunteers, Lee (50s) and Allena (20s) from Austrialia, and Lulu (23) from Zambia.

December 10, 2008 at 2:45 pm 1 comment

First day of teaching

Some of the other volunteers have been preparing their lessons since Wednsday last week. Not me. I started the night before at 9pm. I’m teaching 3 classes of intermediate level students by myself, and co-teaching one beginner’s level class. I think the co-teaching will be the hardest. I’ve never been fond of groups and group work. My other is Eli and he wants me to lead. I feel something like anxiety about this because our approaches are so different.

My other distress is that i teach all 4 class in a row! From 4pm through 8pm without a break. The only diversion i get is the trip up and down the stairs i take every hour to get to the next classroom. By my last class yesterday i was yawning and my throat was sore. You can hide a weak throat, but you can’t stop yawning. I felt embarressed.

However the teaching itself gives me a lot of pleasure. I like the control i have over what i do in the class, i like the opportunity to use my own faculties and intuition to evaluate the progress of the students and decide what to teach next and how.

The first classes started at 6:30 in the morning and by the time i woke up at 8 there was discussion in the living room of our house about the experience. It reminded me of little chicklets with their mother hen: each chick follows the hen, jumping over obstacles and ditches without hesitation, as if it were just the natural way of things, where neither courage nor fear had a place in the experience. Likewise, one by one the volunteers took on the role of teacher. No hesitation. Everyone proceeded to their classes at the assigned hour despite being near complete teaching virgins (save the 3 who have teaching experience). But unlike the chicks, we were conscious of the move we’d made and experienced a sense of relief which we articulated to one another with exclamations such as “It wasn’t so bad!”

December 9, 2008 at 2:23 pm 1 comment

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