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“Global English: Teaching English in Asia” – Approaches to a complex enterprise

Winter term 2016/17
In the winter semester 2016/17, it was Team IV‘s turn to be prepared for “Teaching English in Laos” by a varied teaching and workshop programme with Prof. Martin, like the other three teams before. Like them, we met in our free time, on Wednesday evenings in our case, and we were taken through all the steps, levels, and aspects of the project so as to enable us to pick up directly from the work of the previous teams  and then to also prepare new components for the project ourselves.

Theory:

… and practice:

… in action: “The Grand Old Duke of York” is a nursery favourite, whose lyrics proverbially stand for futile actions. Our use of it in the classroom would turn this into the opposite:

Summer term 2017
When we returned from Laos in April, our team joined Prof Martin’s new “Global English: Teaching English in Asia” seminar to share our experiences with the participants of this class. The participants were there for different reasons, and therefore attendance also varied during the semester, from ca. 10 to 30 students, depending on the topic of the respective sessions. At the beginning of the semester, almost the entire Team IV was present to give the class an insight into the Laos project and their work over the last two months, as one “best-practice” example of “Teaching English in Asia”.

The participants of the course listened intently and showed their great interest by asking many questions. Some of the participants had already applied for the next project phase in the academic year 2017/18 (Teams V and VI) even before this class started, others wanted to share their own experiences of teaching English in Asia, and some younger students were considering the “Teaching English in Laos” profile  that the University of Education has on offer for advanced students in the new 2015 degrees, and wanted to hear more about the matter.

 

Later in the semester, Team IV also conducted a practical workshop on “What and how to teach English in Asia/Laos” for the students of the course. The subject sounds easier than it is. In groups of two, Laura and Tanja, Alyssa and Jessica, and Rebecca and Veronika presented a micro-teaching of the workshops they had conducted in the spring, and commented on the intercultural, linguistic, organizational, and other challenges they had faced whilst conducting the workshops. In small groups, the students moved from one table to the next where they got an insight into the workshops “How to produce material for science classes”, “Pronunciation”, and “Storytelling: Pre-, while- and post-activities”.

 

Venetia micro-taught her workshop “Teaching vocabulary” in another session, where the participants had the possibility to practice and contribute, as well as come up with further ideas for possible future workshops in Laos. (We urged the members of Team V to start preparing them soon, i.e., while still in Germany, where resources are plenty and the Internet is fast.) In the same session, Jana, a volunteer of Team II, gave a presentation on “Games and activities for the Lao classroom”. While they were in Laos, Jana, Jule, and Isabella had conducted a workshop on games, and for her studies and an academic paper, Jana was researching the topic further. She shared her old and new findings with the course.

One session of the course drew the participants’ attention to the Western course books that are used for teaching General English in Asia, and another case in point were the English course books written by the Lao Research Institute of Educational Sciences (RIES) for the Lao classrooms. The course book is mandatory for all English teachers in the country. Laura shared her experiences with the Lao English course book for the first grade in secondary school. Together with her tandem-teachers in Laos, she had worked on improving and enriching the Lao English course book with additional exercises and materials, e.g. in the unit on colours (which in the book is introduced with black and white illustrations), or where “Activities” focus on listening and repeating after the teacher.

However, not only working with the Lao course book posed a challenge, but also teaching the Lao teachers with a Western English course book. Rebecca shared some of the intercultural barriers she experienced while teaching the Lao science teachers with the Western English course book “Straightforward Beginners”. The intercultural barriers were sometimes quite obvious (topics like holidays or beaches, for instance), but even more subtle concepts like determining the gender attached to a certain English name – and this when Lao does not even differentiate between the grammatical male and female third person. The two short presentations by Laura and Rebecca provided an insight into the obstacles that we face when trying to teach English in Laos. We need to radically question our normal routines, in other words, and we also need to learn more about the structure and rules of the Lao language.

Our joint experiences in teaching, observing, engaging with Lao people, and conducting business with our Lao partners in education have been collected and ordered in our internal project documentation, for which we use the university’s Content Management System (CMS). It now lays the foundation for our future research projects. In one of the following sessions, Prof. Martin therefore introduced and delineated possible areas and topics of research in the context of this project. Most of them are intercultural and linguistic, as the two phenomena operate like two sides of a coin. At the end of the session, we had established almost a dozen little or medium-sized research projects that we will engage in over the next academic year. We will report about our work-in-progress in a separate blog post later.

Alongside the more regular course work, Prof. Martin also organized a few special highlights: Two lectures by guest speakers and four workshops on communicative and language-activating methodology. The guest speakers were Mr Johannes Zeck of the Angels for Children Foundation, who talked about “How to live and work in Laos”, and Ms Beate Pinisch, a former UN project coordinator, who lived and worked in Laos for two decades and now shared her experiences on “How to work with your Lao partner”. Her lecture gave a fascinating and deep insight into the Lao context and culture, and we all, course participants as well as the future and the former volunteers, could profit from Ms Pinisch’s experience and broaden our understanding of Laos and its people, perhaps even a particular Buddhist way of thinking and dealing with Westerners.

To enrich the course and hone the students’ methodological skills, two “Singlish” workshops, one with the focus on primary school and one with the focus on secondary school, were offered, as well as a “Storytelling” workshop by the professional storyteller Richard Martin. Additionally, a “Square Dance Caller” seminar and weekend workshop at the beginning of the semester had also been open to participants of this class. Some of us managed to take part and did not regret it – two reports on those workshops will follow here soon!

To round off the course with first-hand intercultural Asian encounters, the participants joined the weekends the Lao teachers spent in Karlsruhe on their way to Hilderstone College in England and on their way back to Laos. As one participant said afterwards: “After hearing so many exciting things about what is different and challenging in Asian or Lao culture, it was great to be able to bridge the gap by this first chance of bonding.”

 

This new course at the University of Education gave the participants a chance to negotiate the numerous and hitherto unknown aspects of teaching English in an Asian country, in this case Laos. At the same time, it also prepared the future volunteers for their teaching project and gave them the opportunity to learn from the experiences of former teams and a few experts, i.e. Beate Pinisch (external) and Prof. Martin & Johannes Zeck (internal).

Next
Another pleasant side-effect made itself felt: The different groups and teams got involved in cross-group discussions more and more as the weeks went by, fuelled by our own and Prof. Martin’s new ideas and initiatives, especially in the newly-opened field of research. We were working “across borders” not only regarding Asia and the Laos project, but also within our own university structures. By mid-summer some of us had decided to combine their course work with an academic paper on linguistics, culture, history, or didactics, some had settled for a specific research project for their final exam in English, and some were more decided than ever to stay in close contact with the group and the project after finishing the semester or even their degree. One doctoral dissertation is already on the way.

For starters, Veronika has joined the next team and just arrived back in Laos with them earlier this week, I myself will return after my finals this autumn, just a few days before Prof. Martin arrives.

 

Text by R. Dengler & I. Martin

Photos by I. Martin and R. Dengler

 

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