SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Trials of too many pupils with too few books


As I draw near the fifth floor where my Secondary Three class is located, the excitement of the lunch-hour frenzy still vibrates in the air.
My presence is greeted with a typical roar: "Missy is coming!" It seems as if World War III has broken out.
My arrival prompts a stampede into the classroom. With buttons missing from cuffs, sleeves fly freely in the air. A portable stapler would come in handy for occasions like this.
My desk is covered with the remnants of the midday break. I ask if anyone can do the cleaning up. I expect to be greeted by a long silence but am pleasantly surprised when four boys come forward, armed with tissues and water bottles, to convert my desk back to the purpose of teaching. At last, lessons can begin.
"Good afternoon Missssssssss Chung."
The moment I finish saying, "turn your book to page so and so", I can hear echoes of my name all round the classroom. This is the usual prelude to an English lesson. These students are never shy to admit their forgetfulness and to offer the sincerest reasons for, yet again, not having their books.
This is the challenge: how am I going to teach a class of 40, when around a quarter of the pupils don't have the basic book for my lesson? Without books to focus on, these students are likely to prey on others for their entertainment.
Having 10 clownish students ready to perform, any teacher will be lucky if s/he can survive the ordeal without a nervous breakdown.
I try to come up with a more positive solution. The students get to share their books with their classmates, but in a meaningful way.
I divide them into groups of four and have their desks re-arranged accordingly. It takes us ages to arrive at the new classroom setting, but now, at least we all look happy.
As I begin introducing the topic of the day, how to be an effective reader, the noise level starts escalating. The students are still excited about the novel seating arrangement, though there are always a few of the quiet pupils who remain frozen in their seats and looking forlorn.
I find the new setting is definitely a more accommodating learning environment. The whole classroom atmosphere has changed. It is a lot more relaxed and free.
My students are very weak in English and many hate the language, so my first role is to stave off boredom and arouse their interest by being creative.
Some of the stale articles from the textbook are hopeless. I supplement my teaching materials with extracts from anything from the Magic School Bus series to Chicken Soup For The Soul.
The low-academic achievers can be motivated to learn and read English texts if the topics appeal to their world.
The group work really helps too. Teamwork changes the classroom power structure. A student no longer needs to face the threat of being the focus of attention when s/he fails to give a correct answer.
Children empower each other when they are placed in a group while the traditional classroom setting tends to isolate students and discourage conferencing with their peers. Noise is inevitable when students are engaged in discussion. But for many teachers such noise is seen as nothing more than a sign of poor classroom management. I wonder, though, whether we really learn better in silence.
Group work does work but one of the challenges for me is not the volume of noise but how we teachers entice the quiet ones out of their comfort zones and encourage them to make a noise too.
Tammy Chung Ling teaches in a government secondary school in Fanling