Herding Cats

26 January, 2010

Egyptian children are vibrant, full of life, and mischievous. While this makes interacting with them very fun, it can make teaching them a nightmare. Critical thinking and independent thought aren’t taught at any level, so when I asked them a question that required either, I was met with blank stares as they waited for me to give them the answer. Every day, I would come into class and try to teach something, and be met with, “Mister, we don’t want to learn this. We want to play a game.” or “Mister; we want to go to the library.” The first time this happened, I gave my teaching assistant an incredulous look. She shrugged helplessly. After that, it was simply a matter of me saying, “Nope, not gonna do that. Open your books up.” Then, it was the student’s turn to stare at me incredulously. Something told me that the word “no” was not commonly uttered there.

Discipline? I’d liken it to playing “whack-a-mole” at an amusement park. (No, I did not hit the kids.) I would get one student to go back to their seat and open their book, only to find out that three more were up, running around, or bellowing about professional wrestling (apparently still popular in Egypt). In the meantime, the three or four kids who actually had an interest in learning would be sitting at their desks quietly. Amazingly enough, these quiet, attentive kids were the ones who did well on the quizzes I gave.

I mentioned earlier that grade inflation and social promotion are at epic levels in the private school system. This was evident, as about 6 of my students were truly competent in English, 6 were decent, 4 were struggling and 2… well, not so good. This meant that I have often had to stop class on numerous occasions to re-explain what we were doing in order to prevent kids from being all but jumping out of their chairs and running around the classroom.

The grade inflation reared its ugly head in other ways. Heavy pressure was placed on giving a quiz every week, so when I assigned my first quiz, I gave it as a take-home. I hadn’t been there long and didn’t think my students would do well on an in-class quiz. So, when I received the quiz from the 10 students who actually decided to do it, I was only a little surprised to see that several of them had left entire questions blank. Then, when I passed back the graded quizzes, two girls were immediately crestfallen to see they’d only received a 28/30 (namely, because they straight-up plagiarized an answer out of the book.)

“Mister, our mothers will not be happy with this quiz!” they protested.

“What? That’s an A!” I said.

“They are not happy unless we receive perfect marks! Can we do a project for extra credit?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so. This is only one quiz, and besides, I put extra credit questions on the quiz…”

So you can imagine my surprise when next class, these two girls each showed up with a large poster in handwriting that clearly wasn’t either of theirs, depicting the grammar points from the preceding lesson.

As far as our “whatever you need, you’ll get” clause went, we were somewhat dismayed when we were each issued a single white-board marker to use. I tried asking for two so I could do team games or color-code my grammar lessons, and was told I couldn’t get another one until I turned in the existing one. We took to bringing in our own.

For the first few classes, I liked to begin each game with a game, or something to warm up the students and get them jazzed about learning. This ended after a simple board race nearly turned into a fist-fight. Simon Says proved to be popular, so after a few semi-decent classes, I decided to reward my students with 10 minutes of the game.

Big mistake.

I had to immediately intervene when one girl called out “Simon Says climb up on top of your desk and jump on one leg!” Then, in order to minimize the risk of serious injury, I decided I would play Simon. Kids kept screaming out commands they wanted, and one kid ran up and suggested one. A few rounds later, I called out that command, and the same kid who requested it got out. Cue temper tantrum.

Of course, not all of the students were out of control, ill-motivated, or immature. Just the ones who took up 99% of my time.

Essay writing was Kafka-esque. After spending considerable time on drilling the basic parts of an essay into their heads, I gave them a class period to write an essay on a topic of their choice. I called on students to read their essays, and when one student began to talk about “the girls love the boys but the boys don’t love the devils” I realized this was a big mistake. Stifling laughter, I confiscated the essay and discovered that this student had drawn pictures in place of words he didn’t know- a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of reasons why I should have checked the essays before letting the kids read them. This essay is now hanging up on my wall.

And if you think all of this is bad, Set will be here shortly to elaborate on what HER class was like.

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