Last week was very exciting, as we got to attend the mid-autumn festival at the primary school! The mid-autumn festival is a very big deal in Vietnam, with all schools celebrating the holiday. At the event, one of my grade 4 students told the legend behind the mid-autumn festival, and a group of girls performed a dance. Each classroom created an edible display, and the best display for each grade received a prize. The students were all very excited about the whole shindig! A group of professional lion dancers came to entertain the kids, and it was a great cultural experience. The elementary school we are at hosts a lot of events throughout the year to build community, and to provide students will the opportunity to perform and share their talents with the rest of the school. This is very similar to what school was like growing up in Russia - we had assemblies with performances of student-prepared songs, dances, plays, competitions, games, and all sorts of fun pastimes, usually once a month. This is something I always wished Canadian schools did more of after I moved to Canada, and it was great to experience it again in Vietnam.
In the last few weeks we have actually started teaching English in classes. All of us have been put in partners and assigned to an English teacher who’s classes we will attend until the end of our time here. Adrian and I are teaching grade 4 classes, and the other two pairs of Canadian teachers are working with grades 3 and 5. The lessons we teach are very standardized. Every day we are given a page in the textbook we must cover, which lists 3-4 exercises we do with the students. These exercises are usually either repeat-after-me activities using a CD recording or a listen and answer using a CD recording. There are also fill-in-the-blank activities, and some simple discussions. Overall, I have been finding it very hard to feel like I am doing my job as a teacher, because I do not know if the students understand the material or if they are just repeating from the book without understanding what they are saying. The classes have around 45 kids in them, which also makes it impossible to evaluate the understanding of each student. The periods are 35 minutes, and this does not allow time to engage each student, or to give one-on-one help or attention to those who may require it. It seems that there is a vast spectrum of ability in our grade 4 classes, from students who can’t say more than their name in English, to those who can work their way through simple conversations, and the ability levels are not differentiated for in any way. It is hard not to feel disheartened, seeing as I cannot practice most of the strategies and approaches to education we have learned about in our university classes. I understand that there are cultural differences in approaches to education, but even Jade, our main teacher contact, is very honest about the shortcomings of the education system here. She says that the government ministers responsible for education do not do very much in terms of improving the system, and do not have the necessary credentials to elicit change. Jade remarks that as a result, the system is very inefficient and has become outdated on the global scene, but the teachers have very little wiggle room in the curriculum to make their own improvements.
Luckily, we get to go to Jade’s English Club on Thursdays and Fridays, which does not have a set curriculum, and is a lot of fun! Jade teaches the students fun rhymes and clapping games, and this is what we use to start the class off as warm-up. We play games and sing songs with actions. Usually each lesson has a specific conversational topic, such as hobbies, family, animals, greetings, asking for and giving directions, dream jobs, or dates and birthdays. She teaches the students the words and phrases, gives an example of a conversation between two people, and has students role play the conversations with each other and with us. She also provides students with lists of simple questions to ask one another about personal things like hobbies, plans for the weekend, favourite singers, and other fun topics of discussion! During club, students have a lot of opportunities to speak English to one another, and to us. We also go around the entire classroom, making sure to talk to each student once or twice, so that we know everyone has a handle on the content. The students are very eager to talk to us, and get excited to learn new games and songs. Jade also tells them riddles and shares funny stories from her life, which makes her not only a teacher, but a friend to the students. In my first few weeks teaching in Vietnam I have met several enthusiastic teachers, but as Jade says, the way the curriculum is structured does not allow teachers to fully show or utilize their talents, which is why she prefers teaching club. Next week we are going to Jade’s home to visit the English classes she hosts there!