Knowing that I sometimes travel to Southeast Asia, Prof. Martin told me about the “Teaching English in Laos” project. An invitation to attend an international storytelling festival in Vietnam in February made it possible for me to add on a short visit to Laos.
Both Prof. Martin and I recognised that it was not realistic to expect a concrete outcome from this, particularly as my itinerary meant I could only visit when the first team from Karlsruhe had left and before the second arrived. However, we saw it as an opportunity for me to gain a first-hand impression of the situation and to assess what I a visiting storyteller and teacher-trainer might be able to offer.
As in schools where I have worked in India and Vietnam, the first impression was naturally of the excitement caused by the appearance of any visitor, especially in the primary classrooms. The storytelling session was scheduled in the activity hour and had been intended for just a couple of the older classes. That intention did not last long, and I rapidly found more and more excited children pouring in through the open doors and filling up every available space. Well, it is not the first time a storyteller has been overtaken by such events, and at least the listeners had an entertaining time. But the packed room encouraged the circus-like atmosphere and was a limiting factor in terms of any pedagogical input.
Similarly my session in the secondary school went in a very different direction to the original intention. Also scheduled in the activity hour, this had been meant as a short session with the teachers, but at the last minute I was asked whether some of the “better students who wanted to” could also attend. In retrospect it was a mistake to agree, but since it was my first time in the school I did not want to say no. The result was a split group of about 10 students (who, I suspect, had been told they wanted to attend) and perhaps 10 teachers. Each faction appeared to be inhibited by the other. So rather than it being a chance for the teachers to engage in some new methods and talk about the extent they saw these as possible, I ended up telling a few stories to a rather unresponsive audience. Given the general Lao tendency towards reticence, I think I should have recognised that danger beforehand. But such is what a learning experience is all about!
So what did I learn from this so any such opportunities for visitors in the future provide more than just ephemeral entertainment? Probably conclusions others involved in the project have already drawn:
- Given the language and methodological level, a visit needs to be longer. (This has not been my assessment after similarly short visits to a variety of Indian schools.) I’d think a minimum would be a week. This period of time would potentially allow secondary students’ work to move into the written area, as well.
- Rather than broad, blanket coverage, working with a pre-identified, targeted group would probably be more successful. This applies to classes (for what someone like me has to offer, I’d suggest a secondary class), and also teachers who have really expressed interest in doing something new and/or developing their language skills in new ways.
There is more on my methodological approach here:
English teacher as storyteller: storytelling as an everyday classroom activity
Text by R. Martin
Photos by J. Zeck