Climbing Volcanoes and Teaching Classes

Last week was pretty quiet. I thought it would be busy because it was the week before classes started and my counterpart teachers were going to be at school. I went to school to spend more time with them, but it turned out that they had a workshop for most of the week, so I read, spent time with my family and worked on my community classes. Classes have been going well lately. My attendance peaked at 31 students two weeks ago, but now I usually have between 21 and 25 students each Tuesday and Thursday evening. Last week’s lessons were about prepositions of place (next to, in front of, behind, between, across from). I did a lesson that I came up with during my training, and I thought I’d share it with you to give you an idea of what I do in class. I’m proud of this lesson because it is very active, doesn’t require me speaking much Spanish, and gets great results. At the same time, even though it was my second time doing the lesson and I improved on it from the previous time, I made mistakes and continue to learn from them. Here’s how it went:

I like to begin all my classes the same way. I had a review exercise written on the board, so that when they come in they have something to work on while others are still arriving. When everyone had arrived, I welcomed them, we said the day and date, reviewed the objective for the day, and talked about the exercise that were on the board. I did a verbal warmup after this, and then began presenting the new information for the day. The objective for this class was ‘describe where the Simpsons are.’ To teach them the prepositions, I pulled out my poorly drawn Simpsons characters with names below their stick-figure bodies. I wrote the five prepositions of place on the board, but did not tell them what their translations were in Spanish. Instead, I began giving examples of ‘in front of’ and ‘next to’ by holding up the pictures and saying, “Bart is in front of Lisa. Marge is next to Homer.” By going through one by one, demonstrating the prepositions of place, and having students repeat them, I started getting them familiar with the meaning rather than trying to have them memorize the translation. Next, I simply held two or three characters up and had individuals in the class tell me how they were arranged. If I held Bart and Marge up, the students would have to say, in a complete sentence, “Bart is behind Marge.” After some more of this practice, I passed the character sheets to various students and gave them the sentence for them to arrange the characters. Most of these steps require no Spanish to be spoken, which is one of my goals when teaching. The next part of the class was playing a game where everyone is put in a four-person team and assigned one of the Simpsons characters. I write a sentence with several instructions, like ‘Bart is in front of Lisa, Lisa is next to Homer, Homer is in front of Marge.’ Each team must arrange themselves according to the

A gecko just fell on my head! No joke, I heard a small sound, maybe just wind outside, but then I felt something plop onto my head. I freaked out a little bit, made a violent swipe and a loud grunt, imagining a spider or wasp in my hair, and saw a tiny gecko fall onto my lap. She seemed unharmed, scampering across my legs and holding on to the armrest of my plastic chair. I reached for her, but she fell off onto the floor and scampered away. Based on the trajectory, she must have been climbing upside-down on the ceiling and lost her grip. What are the chances that it falls right on my head? Makes me suspect some sort of lizard conspiracy. Seeing as I’ve already interrupted the flow of my post, I may as well take the opportunity to say that after writing about geckos previously in this blog, I witnessed my first ever gecko battle, which took place on the wall in front of my desk. I grabbed my camera and recorded a minute of the action, which you can now view on YouTube. I’ll post the link at the bottom of the post. Whew. Now, back to my class.

So the teams arrange themselves according to the sentence, and the first team to correctly arrange all their members and raise all of their hands wins a paper donut(which I had drawn beforehand). The team with the most donuts at the end of nine or ten rounds, wins stickers. This part is really fun, but is fairly complicated to explain in English to non-speakers. I helped them understand by asking four students come up to the front to demonstrate how the team works together, how to raise all of their hands when they’re done, and how to arrange themselves according to the sentences. I still ended up using too much Spanish during the instructions section, but I’m improving a bit every class. In time I hope to be more consistent in my ability to write clear and concise directions, have the sequence of instructions prepared, use helpful examples, and do a two-part comprehension check where I ask if they have any questions and then have individual students explain to me what the instructions are. That will help me make sure that even the students in the back are understanding what we will do.

The game was a big hit. In fact, the biggest problem I had was keeping things under control. There was a lot of yelling and accusing of favoritism and cheating, though when I was ready to start the next round, they were silent in anticipation. I definitely failed to keep order when I had finished the last round and went to check who had the most donuts. Somehow there were ten donuts floating around, but we had only had eight rounds. I should have taken more care to make sure the donuts were secure and kept track on paper of which teams had won which rounds. In the ensuing din, I chose to try to wait out the yelling rather than use my own energy to quiet them down. I certainly am glad that I didn’t try to match their volume or get frustrated, but I could have been much more effective in signaling that they needed to calm down and quiet down. Eventually we quieted down, but I had lost about 10 minutes of class time. Overall it was a pretty successful class in terms of what the students learned, the engagement and energy levels, and participation, but I learned a lot about how to signal to my students, how to structure the game to smooth out transition time, how to manage the energy and competition, and I continue to work on increasing my English as I teach and give instructions.

These community classes take up a lot of my time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This particular class took about an hour and a half to plan and write out in detail, then another hour and fifteen minutes to prepare the materials and set up the classroom. The class lasts about an hour and fifteen minutes, and I’d say it’s about average to spend twice as much time preparing as I spend teaching. If I have to invent the class from scratch, like I did when I was teaching some pronunciation this week, it takes far longer. Tuesday of this week I spent almost five hours preparing for the class. That was a bit excessive, but as I get more experience things will speed up a bit. I can already tell that the routines that I’m working to develop are helping smooth out the day-to-day operation of the class.

AAAAGGHHHHHH! Okay, this is getting ridiculous! My door just swung shut behind me from the wind and as I reached back to open it, I see a medium-sized gecko climbing up it. I have always had a desire to catch one of these guys, so I start trying to grab for it. It moves to the top of the door and I can see its little beady eyes looking around. As I stand with the door perpendicular to my body and raise my hands on each side of the door to trap it on top, I see it bolt. I kid you not, it scampers to the edge of the door closest to my head and leaps ONTO MY FACE! It lands on my nose and left eye and immediately runs up my forehead, over the top of my head and I barely feel it leap off the back of my head to the floor. I’m in shock and laugh out loud as my senses return to me. I did NOT see that coming. I turn around and see it run under my shelves. I don’t know what it is about this week that has the geckos going nuts in my room! Maybe just mentioning them last week has somehow made them bolder, or maybe it’s the fact that I’m paying more attention to them and trying to catch them now. Whatever the case, during the writing of this one post, I had two geckos climbing on my head, something that has never happened before in my life. Weird.

Another occurrence of note was my trek up the volcano on my side of the island on Sunday. It’s an extinct volcano with a little pond in the basin on top. I went up with a group of students from my English class, and about 8 of us left from in front of my house at 8 AM with bread, chips, soda and water. After about an hour and a half we made it to the halfway point; about 650 meters of the total of 1400 meters. After the halfway point things got pretty muddy and eventually we hit the cloud line and were engulfed in mist. I was thankful to be going up with locals, and they were some of the most fun people to hike with. They laughed, played music from their cell phones, teased each other and shared food and water the whole time. Most of them were between 14 and 18, though we had one ten-year-old who was the most energetic of all of us. I’ll post some pictures and maybe some video of the climb to give you a sense of what it looked like, but when we got up nearer to the top the landscape changed dramatically. We saw no wildlife to speak of, but the trees were absolutely amazing, with roots hanging down like ropes securing a circus tent. There was green moss and ferns everywhere and vines criss-crossed the whole forest to give everything this interconnected and complex look of a single organism. The mist made everything look magical and surreal.

A misty tree on the way up the volcano

We made it to the edge of the crater after more than three hours and began our 20 minute descent down to the edge of the pond. Right about this time, we had an amazing stroke of luck; the wind picked up and the sun came out to clear away the mist! By the time we made it down, we had a perfectly clear view of the whole lake and the edges of the basin that we were in. We spent almost two hours lounging, eating lunch, and even swimming in the murky water. I got in, mostly just to be able to say that I swam in a volcano lake, but didn’t enjoy it much. The water was really cold and the lake never got more than three to five feet deep. I say three to five feet deep because the bottom is made of mud and algae that one’s legs sink into. It’s a soft and deeply disquieting sensation that I avoided by floating and swimming the whole time I was in. We started our hike back out at 1:10 and were descending for what seemed like a lifetime. It only took about 3 hours to get down, but we were so exhausted that we were giggling and slipping down the muddy paths, too tired to steady our shaking knees or take anything seriously except the conviction that a hammock or bed was waiting for each and every one of us at the bottom. It was a great adventure, and my legs are still sore three days later. Anyone interested or able to visit me during the next two years can count on me as an enthusiastic guide up!


Here’s the link to my gecko video and here’s a link to my photo album with some more of the volcano pictures. Also, I tagged on an afterword to my last book review of ‘The China Study,’ adding some doubts that have since entered my mind about the book’s arguments.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Boddy on February 18, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    You always manage to make me smile, even when I’m worrying over you! (See my latest email to you.) You know I make hard-copies of each post; what you may not know is how often I take a copy to work and share it with friend Donna and others (particularly that picture of the lobster-spider-insect-guy). I watched the gecko video and particularly enjoyed this post that kept us immediately with you, as geckos dropped from above! You are such a great writer!
    Love, mom


  2. Posted by Debra Lawsing on February 21, 2011 at 5:55 am

    Andrew, I had to laugh when you talked about how much time it took you to plan for your class, welcome to the world of teaching. It does get easier and faster and it sounds like you’re very good at reflecting on what went well and what you needed to change. That will help you a lot. I’m envious of the volcano climbing – I’d love to do it. I’ll send you some gecko repellent next time I see it in the store. Deb


  3. the geckos on my wall were fighting last night!! there were 3 of them in on it! haha nuts!!

    ps that english lesson sounds way better than the one i did for that topic…i shall use yours as a review tonight! thanks!!


  4. Posted by Robert on March 10, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Regarding regaining a class’s attention, my dad mentioned to me recently that when my brother and I were kids, he realized that shouting wasn’t worth the effort, and turned to overly dramatic (operatic) singing what he wanted to shout. Might be a way to make yourself heard without tiring your voice. And it might shock your students into paying attention. Or they might laugh at you.


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