Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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What’s the Spookiest Fear of All?

Today is Halloween, which means that I’ve been back in the US for just over a year. You wouldn’t know it from this blog, since I’m still mostly writing about my experiences overseas; I can hardly believe it myself! But the dates don’t lie: a year ago today, I was just beginning to deal with the unexpected difficulties of reverse culture shock, and two years ago today, I was teaching Mongolian students and teachers alike about Halloween.

By far the most popular activity of the day was an adaptation of a game I know as “The Winds Are Changing,” which I played with my teacher class. The players stand in a circle, with one in the center, and you mark the spaces in some way – with a playing card, or a pen, or something similar. When I played this at camp, we used it as a get-to-know-you game, and the person in the center had to say their name and something about themselves; on this day, I asked the person in the center to tell the rest of the class something they were scared of. Whether the information being shared is a fear, a fun fact, or an ice cream preference, all other players to whom the fact also applies must leave their spots and find another (one that isn’t adjacent to their own). Because there is one fewer space than there are people and the person in the center is trying to find one of them, there will be a great deal of hustle and bustle as everyone tries not to be left in the center.

Before we began, I provided them with a number of options to choose from: things I thought might be common fears, like heights, public speaking, spiders, snakes, dogs, and cats. I had expected that my students would get a lot of practice saying, “I’m scared of spiders,” and “I’m afraid of cats,” but not much else; up to this point, they’d shown little to no interest in acquiring vocabulary beyond what I provided.

Today was different. I had been asking them questions about themselves all along, but this must have struck a chord, because it wasn’t long before they were asking the more knowledgeable students for more fears to add to the list on the board. By the end of class, they’d appended a number of phrases I never would have thought to give them. Highlights included:

  • Yaks – apparently they’re mean
  • Thieves and pickpockets
  • Police
  • Rivers
  • Ghosts and evil spirits
  • Bad drivers – a legitimate fear in a country with such rudimentary roads and driving instruction!
  • The dark

Midway through the class, we got an unexpected and unorthodox addition. My roommate, finding herself in the hot seat without a prepared statement, shouted, “I’m scared of Bayasmaa!” The room erupted in laughter, and everyone but Bayasmaa – the school’s physical education teacher, to whom I had assigned the dragon icon in my phone contacts list – scurried to change places.

The best, though, came at the very end of the class period. One of the teachers clearly had something in mind, and when none of the others could translate it for her, she pulled out a dictionary and went hunting. At this point, only I was in the dark as to what she was trying to express, but I knew it had to be good from how anxiously all the other teachers were waiting.

Finally, she grinned in triumph, set the dictionary down, and returned to her space in the center of the circle.

“I’m scared of mother-in-law!” she crowed, and the room erupted in chaos as everyone, even the unmarried teachers, abandoned their spaces and caromed off each other in search of new ones.

Some fears, I guess, are universal.

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Once and Always Camp Staff

As the readers who’ve never met me IRL may or may not know, I worked at a Boy Scout Camp in northern Wisconsin for three summers before my adventure in Mongolia. [1] My summers there were a big selling point in my Fulbright application process: I had worked extensively with horses (animals central to Mongolia’s culture); I had experience roughing it and making creative and resourceful use of limited supplies (as I would likely need to do in a non-first-world nation); I knew how to handle unruly teenaged boys unwilling to learn the material I was supposed to be teaching them. But even as I explained the experience and its many contributions to my skill set to my interviewers, I had no idea of the extent to which my years of scout camp would color my experiences in Mongolia.

Some background first: The staff at MaKaJaWan are not sleepaway camp counselors in the typical sense. We don’t sleep in cabins with randomized groups of kids; they come to camp as a troop, with at least two adults leaders to supervise them, and sleep on cots in platform tents. Instead, the staff focus on providing good program. We teach merit badge classes, run afternoon/evening activities, and keep the kids entertained in the dining hall, where we eat and talk with them and lead them in songs.

Yes, you read that right: Songs. It is indeed possible to get teenaged boys to do something as uncool as singing together. Every meal at camp ends with a staff-led song, most of which are ridiculous and all of which have accompanying hand gestures or full-body movements. After-breakfast songs tend to be especially movement-centric: “Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic” has hand motions, “Big Tub of Glue” involves clinging to a partner for balance, “Button Factory” and “The Penguin Song” result in full-body flailing while hopping, nodding, and sticking out your tongue, and “My Bonnie” and “The Grand Old Duke of York” involve copious amounts of high-speed sitting and standing.

I could go on about the lunch and dinner repertoire, but I think you get the point: I have an awful lot of these up my sleeve. And while I somehow managed to work at camp for three summers without once leading a song, I think I more than made up for that in Mongolia. Once I learned of the cultural importance Mongolians attach to singing, this stuff became my bread and butter.

As anyone who’s ever taught knows, songs are great warm-up and review activities, especially when they tie into the subject of your lesson. Teaching parts of the body? “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are classics, the former working especially well if you include nontraditional body parts like elbows, ankles, and so forth. Directions are a perfect time for “The Grand Old York” with MaKaJaWan’s typical side of TPR: stand for the word “up,” sit for “down,” half-squat for “halfway up.”

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up, you’re neither up nor down.

For more basic classes, asked my students to identify the “b” sounds in “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” For every word starting with the letter “b,” I asked them to stand if they were sitting or stand if they were standing. As you can see, the song results in a lot of movement:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me

I was also fond of “The Bear Song” when teaching the past tense. This one’s much longer, so I usually printed out the lyrics with some of the words blanked out, sang it a few times and asked the students to fill in the blanks, and then asked them to identify the verbs in past tense. Not the most creative lesson plan, I’m afraid, but the kids liked the story and it surprise ending, as well as the repeat-after-me format, so I suppose that something. [2] If anyone has suggestions as to a more engaging way to teach this song, I’m all ears!

The other day
I saw a bear
A great big bear
Oh, way out there
The other day I saw a bear,
A great big bear oh way out there

He looked at me
I looked at him
He sized up me
I sized up him
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him

He said to me
Why don’t you run
I see you don’t
Have any gun
He said to me, why don’t you run
I see you don’t have any gun

And so I ran
Away from there
But right behind
Me was that bear
And so I ran away from there
But right behind me was that bear

Ahead of me
I saw a tree
A great, big tree
Oh, glory be!
Ahead of me I saw a tree,
A great big tree, oh, glory be

The lowest branch
Was ten feet up
I’d have to jump
And trust my luck
The lowest branch was ten feet up
I’d have to jump and trust my luck

And so I jumped
Into the air
But I missed that branch
Oh, way up there
And so I jumped into the air
But I missed that branch oh way up there

Now don’t you fret
And don’t you frown
‘Cause I caught that branch
On the way back down
Now don’t you fret and down’t you frown,
‘Cause I caught that branch on the way back down

That’s all there is
There is no more
Unless I meet
That bear once more
That’s all there is, there is no more
Unless I meet that bear once more

And, of course, my favorite song to teach never had anything to do with the curriculum at hand, but the kids enjoyed it because it was just fun to do.

Little cabin in the woods
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at his door
Help me, help me, help!” he cried,
Before the hunter shoots me dead
“Little rabbit, come inside;
Safely you’ll abide.”

The bolded words all have accompanying hand motions, which the kids know quite well by the time you’ve finished singing: The song is sung not once through, but nine times. The first time you sing the entire thing; the second, you skip the word “cabin,” doing only the hand motion; the third, you sing neither “cabin” nor “window,” and so on, until every bolded word has been replaced by silent gestures. Because competitions always went over well, I often added the rule that everyone had to stand at the beginning, and anyone who sang out of turn would have to sit down. This was, of course, all but impossible to enforce, but as it made the kids  pay closer attention, I considered its purpose served.

In the end, I don’t know how much my students actually learned from these songs. In teaching them, I learned the Mongolian words for “bear,” “hunter,” “rabbit,” “ocean,” “up,” and “down,” so I hope they learned at least that much in English. But I do know that my students were always happier and more engaged when working on songs than the exercises printed in their books, and so I consider that a success. It helped me to combat my own homesickness as well, and I get a kick out of the idea that there are kids in Mongolia who might still remember a few American camp songs.

Fellow English teachers, I’m curious: What are your favorite songs to teach, and how do you work them into your lessons? Non-teachers, what songs are central to your memories of childhood?

[1] IRL friends all know this because I won an entire drawer full of shirts and hoodies bearing the words “MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation,” and wearing any of them invariably causes people either to tell me about their experiences at the camp, or to try and fail miserably at pronouncing the name.

 [2] I do wish I’d been able to team-teach this song with a teacher who spoke better English, so that we could demonstrate, little-kid-copycat fashion, what “repeat after me” meant. Without a collaborator, this was often unexpectedly difficult to explain!


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And to think I call myself an English major

… well, actually, I don’t. I call myself a linguistics major. But I’m a linguistics major who attempted to double-major in literature until I realize that it would mean taking four lit classes in a single semester during my senior year, at which point I said, “I’d like sleep and sanity, please and thank you,” and minored in rhetoric instead. But I still consider myself an English major. I write like one, as anyone who’s seen my Academic Writing will attest. I text in fully punctuated, grammatically correct sentences. I giggle at terrible grammar jokes. I dither about whether to footnote/endnote inside or outside the punctuation at the end of my sentences. I believe firmly in the importance of the Oxford Comma (an opinion upon which I think Hitler and JFK would, for the sake of their dignity, agree).

And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been The Girl Who Corrects Everyone’s Grammar. I’ve been doing it for so long that I can’t actually think of any specific instances in which I’ve corrected people, though I’m sure my friends and family will be happy to provide them once this is posted. I tell my friends it’s part of my charm, and they agree – whereupon they cheerfully and deliberately bombard me with misuses of there/their/they’re, it’s/its, and your/you’re. Or they refer to things as “addicting” in order to make me twitch.* But I digress.

Living in a non-English speaking country does things to your English. When addressing nonnative speakers, you slow down, over-enunciate, and simplify. First to go, of course, are the complex rhetorical structures you’ve spent your academic life perfecting. You condense your modal verbs, abandon all words longer than three syllables, discard objects and articles with wild abandon. You affix tag questions to your queries, having realized once the phrase is halfway uttered that your listener won’t catch the upward inflection that marks it as a question.** You try to keep your speech as unmangled as possible, for the sake of your higher-level learners, but sometimes the oversimplification in the name of understanding is often necessary.

And then, somehow, it starts leaking into your everyday English. Latinate words elude you, and you find yourself Googling the finer points of grammar as complex constructions grow unfamiliar.  And then one day, the dam gives way altogether, and you answer a request to turn up the stove with a beauty like, “That’s the most hotter it gets.”***

I suppose it was inevitable, then, that I might find my more advanced students asking me to correct their grammar more often.

I should note, I suppose, that most of my classes are not grammatically-focused. I figure that if these students want lessons on exactly how to structure their sentences, they can get it from Mongolian teachers who will actually be able to explain them in ways the students will understand – with my limited Mongolian, I can do this only for the students with the most advanced English. Instead, my focus is typically on getting them to speak. I try to make them use their English aloud, in contexts outside of the grammatical exercises that many seem to think are the only ways in which they can practice and learn.

Especially with my elementary-level learners, my desire to observe the niceties of grammar has long since been superseded by the desire for meaningful communication. I’ve seen a lot of students who spend most of their time in silence, too terrified of making a mistake to open their mouths, and that kind of environment is the last thing I want to foster. If my students want to talk, I tend to let them. Obviously, in the classes in which I actually teach grammar, I’m picky about whatever structure we’ve been focusing on that day. But if they don’t obstruct my understanding, I tend to let a lot of errors go.

I used Ryan Woodward’s Thought of You  in my high school speaking class last month. This beautiful short film made the rounds on Facebook when it first came out on Vimeo a few years ago, but I’m embedding it here anyway. You don’t need to watch it to understand my point, but you should anyway, because it’s just that gorgeous.

After we had watched, I asked my students to tell me about the video. They hit the basics pretty quickly: It’s a love story. There is a man and a woman. They are dancing. They are drawings. The man leaves and the woman cries. Without any prompting from me, they also identified crucial shift at the video’s climax: the woman is white at the beginning and black at the end; the man is the opposite. “Why do you think that is?” I asked them, and the room fell silent, as it does almost every time I ask them, “why?”

And then I heard the voice of the smallest girl, the one who never speaks up unless I specifically call on her and false starts three or four times whenever she tries to answer the question.

“Maybe… she is at beginning not love him, and he is love her. Next, she is fell, and he is not love her.”

It took her a long time to stumble to stumble through this grammatical nightmare of an utterance, but I was impressed with her nonetheless. Grammatically correct or not, the meaning was clear, and she had done an excellent job of explaining her interpretation within the narrow confines of her limited vocabulary.

Moreover, it was a tricky question to start with. The Mongolian education system, from what I’ve seen, puts a great deal of emphasis on listening to the teacher talk, and little to none on critical thinking. Even fairly high-level students, when asked a why question as simple as, “Why do you like basketball?” will often answer with a shrug of the shoulders or, “It’s interesting,” if they answer at all. Literary interpretation is not on the menu in their own tongue, much less a second language. So I certainly wasn’t about to interrupt my student in the midst of her answer, no matter how far it wandered from the tradition constraints of grammar. That she felt compelled to offer an interpretation was victory enough.

Obviously, this is a complicated topic that I’ve only touched upon, and that I’d like to address at length another time and with appropriate references to SLA theory. But at the moment, I’d like to hear from the other TEFL-ers among my readers. To what extent do you focus on grammar in your lessons? When do you start to switch your focus from “get them to talk” to “mold their English into something that adheres to standard grammatical rules”? And just how do you get those terrified beginners to talk?

 

* No, that’s not hyperbole. I really do twitch. And while addicting is a word, it’s not an adjective. Addictive, people. So much more elegant, in addition to being the right part of speech.

** And because it’s the structure most likely to be recognized as a question by speakers of a language that uses sentence-final question particles.

*** Uttered by a friend who shall here remain unnamed. He’s only been here a few months longer than I, so I’m sure it won’t be long before  I start to unleash my own grammatical monstrosities. My house grows glassier by the day.


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Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.

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Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.

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Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.