Written on 10/28/11
I was very upset after being brought to a Georgian hagwon today. I was asked to come and chat with the students, which I had no problem with. But I think what happened was that I was nearly recruited to volunteer at this apparently for-profit school.
I was brought in to talk to the teachers of the school, there was a Russian teacher who also spoke good English, two English teachers and a Spanish teacher who I could only communicate with in Spanish. They were all very nice, but kept asking me, what days can you come to our school and help? Please come on Sundays when we have our kindergarten class! Sorry, I am only here for a month and a half more and I would like to keep my weekends to see your beautiful country. Well, what about another day? What day? What day? I don’t know, I could come by on Tuesdays sometimes, maybe. Oh good, oh good, we need you so much here! Please come watch this class now, they are very advanced, today we are studying a passage from On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Please let us know what you think of our wonderful students.
I’d never heard of this book before but the title sounded intimidating, and my interest piqued to see what kind of students would be reading such material. It turned out it was a test prep class with five seniors practicing for their college entrance exam and one 9th grader who’s English is too advanced to study in any other class at the school.
The students had indeed read part of one chapter of this book, On Human Bondage, which turns out is a novel that was written in 1915, a book which is probably a similar reading level with Jane Eyre. Certainly, it would be considered high school level reading in America. Now, the teacher asked the students to recite from memory this half a chapter of the book. The first to go was the 9th grader. I was very impressed with this boy because, while he didn’t memorize this whole passage word for world, he replaced words he didn’t know with synonyms and words that made sense in context, keeping the story coherent. The teacher seemed a little upset with him that he didn’t have it memorized word for word, but didn’t get upset until she asked him to remember obscure words from the text from the Georgian definition and he missed a few words. She asked him “How can you understand the story if you don’t study the vocabulary?” to which he responded in excellent English “Teacher, I understand the context and I can figure out the meanings of the words that way. I don’t need to take this exam for 3 more years.” The teacher nodded and moved on to the remaining 5 students. Each of them recited the text from memory and told the definitions of the words. But, it was clear that they did not understand the text by the mistakes they made from their recitations. After 45 minutes of listening to kids regurgitate text they didn’t understand, the teacher turned to me (and I was getting angrier and angrier by the minute sitting there, doing nothing, watching these kids regurgitate meaningless words while their parents were paying for them to learn something) and asked me “What do you think? Do you have any suggestions?” To which I replied, “These students memorize the text very well, but I wonder if they actually understand the meaning. May I ask them some comprehension questions?” The teacher looked a bit taken aback, but of course couldn’t say no. When I started to ask them questions from the story, they looked a bit stunned, deer in headlight effect (a look I’m getting used to in my own school). The only student who could answer my questions was the 9th grade boy. After class, I tried to explain the difference between reading and memorizing to the teacher. That these students were working so hard to memorize the text that they weren’t thinking about the actual meaning of the text. This 9th grade boy (who admittedly is at a very high level because he had been in an exchange program in England) actually read and understood the story, had formed opinions on the text and actually understood the character’s actions where the other students had just memorized the text without thinking about the actual meaning of the text.
The class after that got no better. After I asked my comprehension questions, the teacher moved on to another reading from an English reading book where she read a text aloud, translated it for them, then wrote no less than 35 new vocabulary words on the blackboard for them to copy and study. Then, without having the students read the text for themselves, or discussing the topic of environmental problems, she closed the book and then moved on to a text, written in Georgian which they needed to translate into English. This on it’s own, I don’t feel is a terrible exercise, translation is a good brain exercise, but this is the way most public schools are run. Here is English text, translate it to Georgian. Here is Georgian text, translate it to English. The students are never actually asked to form a sentence on their own, not in writing or spoken word. Kids here can’t even speak OR write a coherent sentence and even the hagwon propagates this nonsence.
I tried to be understanding. It is a test prep course after all. I asked the teacher, what do they need to do for the test? She pulled out a sample test. There was no text memorization section. There was no Georgian to English translation section. There was reading comprehension and an essay section. Neither topic had been addressed in class. There was no reading comprehension, only text memorization and there was absolutely no writing, unless you consider copying vocabulary words from the blackboard writing.
I left there in a very bad mood. First, after seeing such a poorly run class and then, add insult to injury, I was asked to volunteer my time teaching at a place like this while they make money off of me. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do in a situation like this. Do I ask for money? The amount I could be paid for one or two days a week would really be negligible, at least outside of Georgia, considering I make $250 a month at my full time job. How much could I make? $10 a day? Not really worth fighting over and frankly I feel bad charging for my services since I’m supposed to be here as a “volunteer” even if that isn’t completely true since I make the same salary as a typical teacher here. I don’t know what it was really that made me so angry, if it was the waste of money on the part of these kid’s parents who probably don’t have a lot of money to spare anyway, or if it was the fact that they expect me to volunteer my time while they make money, or if it was just the fact that I wasted an entire afternoon of my life in such an infuriating situation. Now I have to figure out how to stay away from this place in the future since my co-teacher, I think, will beg me to come every day.