How do you teach an ESL class when you have no voice? It’s easy. 


Sort of


[The “bonus” scenes from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe continue with this one from my first semester.]



They put the smell of Vicks VapoRub in the Kleenex here.


I know this only too well for I have been living with a box of tissues by my side all weekend. My cold started Friday morning with a bad case of laryngitis and got progressively worse throughout the day.



In spite of my voice, I hold my Monday night teachers’ English club as schedulued.


I explain how sore my throat is, that I really need them to run it tonight. I’m using the exercises that use intentionally bad directions, where the appropriate response to many of them is, “I can’t remember everything,” or “I don’t understand.” I expect it will be an easy evening.


But when I stop talking, no one takes over. I ask Gulzhahan to read the exercises. She begins.


“Cover your face with your hands.” And all comply.


“After you open your mouth and close it, clap your hands four times; and then stand up and turn around twice before you fold your arms.” People are confused, I can see that, but no one says anything. Some just do movements to appear active. They all want to “do well.” No one laughs; this is serious stuff for them. I’m surprised so many of them actually try to do these silly exercises at all.


“Cover your mouth and then touch your nose.” Is that an audible sigh of relief? Everyone follows appropriately as they do with the next one, “Shake hands with the person next to you.” 


“Skip over to the window and count to fourteen, after you first stand up and say your telephone number, then your birthday, and then your address.” Again, there is much activity, but no conversation.


The instructions go on. Everyone is involved; they all do the ones with the simple directions easily and eagerly, but there’s random disorder at the confusing directions. Some just make up any activity at all.


“I don’t understand the directions,” I model for them, whispering hoarsely. “Would you please repeat them?”


“You’re not a good student,” I hear immediately. It’s Togzhan, who laughs as she says it.


What a great example. Here in Kazakhstan, good students don’t ask for help. Good students, it is said, don’t need help. Only “bad” students, weak ones, need help.


“Actually,” I rasp, between laughs myself, “anyone can ask for help. The thing is, if you need help, it’s the strong person who asks.”


Now that they knew what to do, the teachers are eager to try again. So, Gulzhahan continues to read the list and I sit back in some relief.


“Make a fist, and then open your hands wide.”


An easy enough direction. Yet many voices echo, “I don’t understand.” Now that this is understood as the “right” answer, this is what they say. There seems to be no thinking about whether they really do understand or not.


“Say these numbers after I finish saying them: 7, 3, 8, 11, 2, 6, 12, 9, 4.”


“I don’t understand.” They chorus and everyone is happy. This is one of the correctly confusing exercises.


And so it goes through the evening.


Gulzhahan wants to set up a teachers’ group at the college. Asking for help will be our first lesson.



October 1 FUN
This photo has nothing to do with the story; it doesn’t even have Gulzhahan or Togzhan in it. But it does have four of my college colleagues and their spouses (each of whom show up at one time or another in my memoir) and it shows how easily we all had fun. This was at Gulzhahan’s brother-in-law’s wedding. 



How about you?  How are you at asking for help? 




3 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I imagine this class must of been memorable. It’s interesting to see how both you and your students had to learn and understand different cultural ideas and ways of expression. I guess it depends on the situation if I’m comfortable asking for help or not–and what type of help I need.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril, You know as I reread this one, after it posted the other day, I was aware that this was definitely a “first year” story, even a “first few months” story. I’m coming at it from my own POV, my own belief system. I wish I had caught that before it posted, I’d have asked a different end question. “What is the cultural value that I’m expressing here, that these Kazakhstan teachers aren’t?” A great example of how easy it is to take the measure — not just easy, but we do it unconsciously — of an experience from within our own cultural mindset. What we think is “right” is only right because it’s the only way we know. So, we assume everyone else holds this same right, or “should.” And I fell for it, AGAIN. arggghhhh. 🙂

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