Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Daily Schedule, 'Have You Got', & Why My Latin Sucks

A picture from the monastery in Martvili, the town just ten kilometers away from me where they had a celebration this past weekend in honor of the famous teacher of David the Builder, who was apparently, a pretty big deal back in the day.

Here come the sweeping judgments I promised just a week ago: it’s backwards, all the students are ignorant, and no one speaks English. Happy? Well I’m not, so here’s a little more introspective thinking.

Ati – Before I go on, no matter what I say or write about my experience of teaching at the Bandza School, it will be unique from other TLG volunteers’ own circumstances. We might share similar problems, but for the most part, everybody has a different situation. Some teach more hours, some have less reasonable co-teachers, some have more structure, etc. My situation is my situation, and does not represent the TLG experience or the education system in Georgia. It’s like the Jersey Shore; those highly entertaining deadbeats do not represent the people of the great state of New Jersey, just the riffraff that go down the shore in the summers.

This is Ian's Grandpa Giorgi, who resembles my own Grandpa in that he's always smiling and looks way past his due date

Otsi – Let me take you through a typical day of teaching in Bandza. I wake up at around 7:30 a.m., check my email and see how much the Pirates lost by in the previous night, take a shower, and eat with the boys at around 8:15 a.m. If I have a lesson in the first period (which starts at 9 a.m.), I leave right after breakfast as it takes me about twenty minutes to walk to school (a little over a kilometer). Sometimes I get a ride from Lasha if it’s raining or someone recognizes me as the new American English teacher in town and stops to give me a ride, but then on those really special occasions I hitch a ride in a horse and cart (true story; it was like going to the prom in your Dad’s antique Porsche, except the complete opposite). Each lesson is forty-five minutes, with ten minute breaks in between. There are seven periods in each day, but I’m not sure why because no one has class in that seventh period. So my day generally runs from 9 a.m. (but only on Monday and Thursday do I have a first period lesson) to 2:20 p.m. On any given day, I will have between three and five lessons that I sit in on, but I am only the head-teacher for eleven lessons a week. I bet you’re wondering what the hell a head-teacher is?

Ian's neighbor V, who is a perverted old man, which also means he is hilarious

Otsdaati – When we started school, I had agreed with Tamari (one of the two English teachers in Bandza, and my main means of communication) that I’d sit in on all the classes and after a full week of observation, we’d figure out what was the best way to use me. See, I’m like a new toy that the Ministry of Education handed to this school, but with zero instructions on how to be used. Which is fine by me, since that allows me to dictate the terms of my teaching. So I sat in on classes for a little over a week (and no, I didn’t just sit there; I brought in my computer to show them pictures of Pittsburgh and the fam damily [including a few pictures of my father asleep on the couch with the cat resting on his belly; everyone really liked those], while I also took control of the class a few times when I wanted to diagram a grammar point). And at the end I decided it’d be best if I took complete control of three of Tamari’s classes and one of Eka’s (the other English teacher). That means I plan and run the lesson, while the other teacher is there to translate if necessary (more like a safety net than anything). As for the other classes, I will still attend them and help when needed, but I won’t be counted on to run or plan the lessons.

My neighbor and I at the monastery; I was waiting for a marshrutka by the side of the road and he picked me up. Doesn't speak a word of English but treats me like his own son...

Ormotsi – So I’m teaching the year XI’s, X’s, V’s, and one of Eka’s classes to be determined. That may not seem like a lot (it’s only eleven lessons a week, which at forty-five minutes a lesson comes out to just over eight hours of actual teaching a week). But considering the time I put into planning the lessons along with sitting in on the other lessons (probably another twelve hours of class time), I’ll still have a relatively busy schedule. I also set up office hours where the students can come to me if they are having problems (a sort of defacto English Club; I have a feeling no one will come, so I’m planning on having Pepsi and cookies by the second week. I remember what it was once like to be a student—Free food? I’m there) while also presented an option to the other teachers that I’ll give them a lesson of English once a week (they all seem eager to learn the basics of English, and receptive towards the idea).

From a mural inside the monastery in Martvili; I have zero idea who these guys are, but they look important...

Ormotsdaati – So that’s the boring schedule stuff; now to the good shit. The first thing I want to bring up, which tends to be a popular subject here at GNJB, is my stupidity. In the midst of the first lesson I taught during my TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language; a certification course I took in Florence, Italy which qualifies you to teach English anywhere in the world), I misspelled apartment by putting an extra p in there for some reason. It was quite embarrassing, but hardly the last time I will misspell a word when teaching. Thanks to the computer, spell-check, and acronyms, my generation has been forged on the inability to spell, and I of course am no outlier.

The grounds of the monastery we visited on Saturday (not the one in Martvili, this one was farther up in the mountains near a town called Salkino [spelling?]); there was a suphra being held for all the big wigs and for some reason, us teachers were invited. The tables can be seen in the background and there were a few of them; probably seated about 200 people all in all

Samotsi – But the shortcomings in my grasp of the English language don’t only lend themselves to spelling; Pittsburgh, as proud as I am of my hometown, has caused me to come off as an ignorant simpleton quite frequently. I’m fond of using a double negative from time to time (a Pittsburgh staple) while also forgetting an article or extra preposition every now and then (I’m heading down the stadium; is there supposed to be a to somewhere in there?). So it didn’t surprise me when I assigned the fifth graders a home task that involved them using the phrase have you got? I blame the student who asked me the day before, “Have you got a sister?” I lapsed back into my old self like I was casually talking to some guy named Vito at Penn Mac on a busy Saturday morning, “Hey, you got any of ‘at prosciutto left?” Needless to say, I ain’t no English scholar.

Georgian Folk Singers at the suphra on Saturday. I need to get me one of them outfits...

Samotsdaati – Speaking of my TEFL course in Italy, it was one of the better academic experiences in my life. Pound for pound, that was the most knowledge I acquired in such a short period of time. The course melded a crash course in English grammar, lesson planning, teaching tactics, and the actual act of teaching (nothing equips you to accomplish things in life like actual experience). After those four weeks, I felt like I could teach anyone English anywhere in the world. And though I’m not about to retract that belief, coming here and teaching is definitely a bit of a reality check. But it’s good for me, knocks me down a peg or two because contrary to popular belief, I am not Socrates.

The kids of the Martvili district showing us some Georgian Folk Dancing, which is amazing... Sure beats the hell out of So You Think You Can Dance

Otkhmotsi – Let’s start with the alphabet. It’s easy to teach Italians because they have the same alphabet, but Georgians have a completely different Cyrillic alphabet of 33 different letters and sounds (similar to Italian, they pronounce every letter the same way and don’t have silent letters like us crazy English speakers), while the English alphabet has 26 letters and 35+ sounds. So that’s the first thing that all students must learn, but unfortunately, due to the ever-changing environment of the Georgian educational system, not every student knows the alphabet (there’s some students in my year VIII class who don’t know the alphabet, and even a few year X’s and XII’s). Part of the reason for TLG is that the government wants to make English the second language of Georgia, so the students that were learning Russian, German, or French before (the three most popular other foreign languages) are now thrust into an English classroom. But it’s not all on the system, because many of the students just don’t care, or think they can start taking an English class midway through high school. But it’s not like it is back in the States; students aren’t split into classes by ability, instead just ushered along with the rest of their year. But despite my vast intentions, I cannot single-handedly change the system. I have to do the best with what I have.

This gent was like that one guy at a String Cheese Incident concert who took one too many hits of acid... except this was a children's dance recital

Otkhmotsdaati – This brings up another thought I’ve had rumbling around my head for quite some time. Learning a language is a lot like learning math or the sciences. You need to build a solid foundation if you’re ever going to succeed at the higher levels. You can’t understand calculus if you don’t know multiplication just like you can’t understand the perfect tense if you first don’t understand how to conjugate to have. I often come to this realization when thinking about my English degree and how I didn’t come to literature or writing until much later in life. You don’t need to have read Shakespeare to enjoy Hemmingway. All you have to do is know how to string words together (also known as reading) and have an open mind. That’s why I became an English major when I just started to enjoy learning and being a student while in college; my previous laziness and apathy don’t really come back to bite me when it comes to literature. Yeah, it’d be nice to be a little more well-read, but I have the rest of my life to devour James, Tolstoy, and Faulkner.

David the Dancer taking a drink the Georgian way; doing a split, picking it up with your mouth, and then tipping it up all without the help of your hands.

Asi – But every time there’s a Jeopardy answer with a reference to Latin, I think, “Wait, why don’t I know this? I took seven years of Latin… Oh yeah, it’s because I didn’t give a shit so I don’t remember anything.” I didn’t exactly flourish in Italian while in college either, but I blame that on my professors more than anything (I know, lame, but they were really quite terrible). But in acquiring a language, it’s so important to build a solid foundation, or else you’ll have nothing to build on later (yeah, I used the foundation/building metaphor… what of it?). So I’m trying to keep that in mind when teaching the younger kids, because there’s nothing worse than seeing a year XI zoned out while looking out the window because five years earlier they didn’t understand how to conjugate to be.

This was the contraption they used to get water from the river at the monastery where the suphra was held. It flung a bucket down about fifty meters to the river, filled itself up, and then was wound back up to the top. Water tastes so much better when you have to fetch it with an ancient pulley system.


  1. Max, thanks for the blog :) just wanted to add one thing. Yes, it is important to teach kids how to conjugate verb to be, but sometimes it is even more important to develop their positive attitude towards the language, to intrigue them with language, to make them love the language, to help them play with it, because once you motivate them to learn more about the language they will do it themselves. Without you... Nino :)

  2. Yeah... what Nino said.

    Side note: Nino, you are not allowed to say anything intelligent or insightful on this blog. You've been warned.

  3. Ups.. did not know that :) ok thanks for warning :)

  4. Nino, of course I was kidding (sarcasm does not translate well through the written word). Intelligent thought is always welcome here, just don't expect any coming from me...

  5. Hi Max, thank you for the blog. I'd like to make one correction, if you don't mind :) Cyrillic is not the Georgian alphabet, it is use by Russians

  6. Corrections are always welcome. Since I do not have access to internet when I am typing up these posts, very rarely do I check my facts. I'm like the Fox News of Blogs...

  7. Hi, I really liked the post, I just wanted to add that the picture from the monastery probably depicts Jesus and his disciples. I do not know that for sure, but the one in front looks like Jesus and if you count the other guys, their number is 12, so yeah, I'm pretty sure I'm right :))

    P.S. I like your blog a lot, I'm mengrelian by the way and find your posts hilarious

  8. "From a mural inside the monastery in Martvili; I have zero idea who these guys are, but they look important..." ------> Just count 'em, dude. Apostles, who else?

    Another Nino.