Friday, March 21, 2008

Tefl Tales: Write What You Know

An oft-repeated line but one that has merit. Beyond the dry minutiae of sentence analysis, writing exercises, and lessons about paragraph organization, at some point you have to cut students loose and provide them with the opportunity to write about interesting and appealing subjects.

Individuals obviously have their own personal hobbies, interests and ambitions that they will want to write about. But certain cultural aspects will crop up when you are reading the scribblings of a group of students. There has been a regular topic that has shown up time and again in the assignments and exams written by Thai students. It's one that similarly plays out before my eyes in the classroom.

After arriving in Thailand, it doesn't take long to realize that notions of personal safety are sorely lacking compared to many first world countries. Horrific road carnage is the most obvious example. Lack of awareness of oneself and others when moving around in public places is another characteristic that leads to potentially dangerous situations.

As a teacher you see a steady procession of the walking wounded. The sight of students with broken limbs, road rash and nasty scars can be a bit startling at first. Your incredulity amuses them. When you ask your students what scares them the most, their guaranteed response is "ghosts." That they don't answer with the more logical "Having my guts smeared across the road by a driver with his head up his ass," doesn't amuse you so much as it leaves you shaking your head.

The ranks of the classroom infirmary increase after the holidays, as the number of drunks on the roads rises and reckless students on motorcycles are hammered into the concrete sans helmets. Perhaps my stern lecture on safety leading up to each Songkran festival (the Thai/Buddhist New Year celebrations that take place in the second week of April) has some kind of effect though it is unlikely.

And so each subsequent school term begins and I hope this isn't the year that the ultimate tragedy strikes one of my students. Surprisingly and thankfully, this hasn't occurred yet. But it's obvious from what they write about that their lives have been shaped and altered by the recklessness and lack of safety that is the reality in third world and developing countries.

Gut-wrenching tales of killed and maimed relatives and friends, somehow made all the more moving by the grammar mistakes and butchered syntax, are a regular feature of the assignments that are handed in. Regardless of the topic, students find a way to make their stories relevant, an indication of how much they have been affected by these tragedies.

A few recent examples:

"It's a main reason for me to decide that I should be a doctor. It related about a painful memory of my family in the past. 5 years ago, my best friend--Bank and I were playing football the yard in front of my house. While we were sending the ball to each other, the ball was kicked out to the road and Bank ran to catch it. Unfortunately, the car came fast and ran into him. Then I hurried to go to him and shouted my parents for help. After that we sent him to the hospital immediately but it's too late to help him. He left us forever. We all are so sad. Since then I promise that I will be the doctor to help persons that I love and all humans."
"I got well supporting by my parent but it cause my mother almost dread. Since in the time that we walked across the road to have dinner and to prepare equipment for camping, my mother was hard crashed by motorcycle. Her head bumped whih the road on the other hand it was lucky that her head hadn't problem, that's all right."
Other tales related to genetic disorders and early death due to lifestyle are commonplace as well:
"I rather closed with my father very much because He always brought me travel on the other places that I'd never gone before and taught me in everything that I don't know. One day when I came back from school, I did homework downstairs of my home. My father was on upstairs of my home. He wrote a report to his commissioned officer. Suddenly he has heart attack and died later."
It's a fine line between pushing students to write about subjects they may not be comfortable with as opposed to simply allowing those who feel the need to do so the environment where it is accepted. Many, of course, have thankfully not undergone any trying ordeals and still enjoy that relatively unburdened existence of the young and carefree.

For those students who have known adversity and chosen to share very personal accounts that have had a profound influence on their lives, it seems to have a positive result. In the process, they have learned something about the language of expressing pain and perhaps the cathartic effect of sharing difficult memories. It's also a reminder for the teacher that every student has their own experiences, hardships, obstacles and dreams that have brought them to the place they are in life.


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