This has been a challenging month for me with the new job, the new country, new food and friends, and a foreign language. While some of these things fell into place fairly quickly, others (like the job) have taken more time. This week, I finally have some neat break-throughs to share with you, over a beer (as in, I’m having one to take the heat off; you can join me if you like… )

It’s Hanoi Hannah hot here: 28 degrees, even at 8 PM. That type of temperature in the classroom is hard to describe, and more difficult to comprehend are the children who come to school in pants and long sleeved shirts. I don’t get it. We had a really hard time concentrating today.

Worse still, I’ve given them quite a complex set of goals this week. The Grade Fives are writing newspaper articles based on stories from the 1920’s (things like Henry Ford’s mass production success story, Buster Keaton’s silent films, Amelia Earhart’s aviation stories, as well as details on WW1 and the Mexican Revolution). The Grade Threes are learning about frogs and camouflage. They all have a lot of work to do in this heat.

This morning, not one of my four classes could concentrate. I’ve gotten better at being flexible at such moments, and while I’m still struggling with the whole games idea (Mexicans LOVE their games and I hardly know any worth sharing), I was fortunate enough to find one last night that might be useful. As it turned out, it was an astounding hit in every class. The game is called Basta.

Mexicans know this game well. Basta means STOP. I write five topics on the boards, which they are to copy into five columns on a sheet of paper at their desk. The topics are Name, Place, Food, Thing, and Animal. You just write ‘Name’ on the board and electricity suddenly fills the air. They really like this one. Once they’re ready, you announce a letter of the alphabet, and every head goes down in thought. They try to think of one thing for each column that begins with that letter. To make sure everyone understood, I started with the letter C, and gave them suggestions.

Name: Christine; Place: Canada; Food: Candies; Thing: Crayon; Animal: Crocodile

I had to impose some rules because otherwise it gets out of control fast. For one thing, they know this game in Spanish so I had to insist that everything be in English, unless they were identifying an obviously Mexican person or place or food. No duplication, so they couldn’t use the same word twice under multiple columns.

The best part of the game is that the first person done immediately begins a countdown, from ten, at the end of which everyone shouts Basta! and all pencils go down.

This game was fabulous for identifying a person’s English vocab and spelling, and for giving them confidence with the language skills because sometimes I didn’t recognize a word and they would have to describe it for me. And because they all know and love this game, they were immediately enthusiastic. It was the one thing everyone was keen to do in this heat. I have promised to start it again tomorrow IF they work hard the first half of the class, catching up on things we had to let slide today.

Another neat thing that happened was a success over the Subject-Verb Agreement topic in Grade Three. These students are pretty hard to motivate and they really don’t know much English, so they’re typically bored stiff ten minutes into the class. Today I started with Basta and they were much more eager to pay attention after recess. Still, when I started on the Subject-Verb material, they yawned and many of them couldn’t wrap their heads around it.

I jump
you jump
he jumps
they jump

I wrote on the board. Two people got it; the rest circled the wrong verbs in their books. argh Then, I tried again, with a different verb. Three got it. The others continued to circle things blindly. I left the class for a ten second timeout. What was I going to do here? It’s outrageously hard to explain, yet really simple in the grand scheme. Coming back, I noticed they were all watching my face carefully.

Calling on one of the ones that got it, I gave them a different verb and explained that ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘he’ are all one person, while ‘they’ is more than one. The ones who had not gotten it correct before were stumbling on the ‘they’ factor. Why wasn’t it ‘they jumps’ they wanted to know. Remember it’s two, I told them. Two people. Mark jumps and Fernanda jumps, but together, they jump. A couple more lights came on. It’s strictly memory work, but you have to know the rule first and why. I keep telling them that the most important question (for me, anyway) is always Why?

Calling out another name in class, I wrote a different verb on the board, with the list of pronouns. Having left the ‘jumps’ example on the board, I could see them all looking at it for cues. They began to get it, each in turn with their own verb. “I smile”, “You laugh” “He kicks” “They frown” For me (and I think for them), the best part was that, as the slower starters took their turns and responded correctly to my prompts, the entire class would erupt into applause. Mexicans are very encouraging of each other’s successes. It was a rewarding moment for all of us.

At the end of my day (6 PM) I had been teaching a Grade Five class and going over their newspaper articles, and giving them tips on how to write up the Five W’s for it. They all got it, but were really hot. We placed Basta for half an hour as a break, because they had all promised to try to write their articles tonight at home. They thanked me for the class and then went downstairs to a patio the school offers, to wait for their parents. Three of the students sat down at one of the tables AND BEGAN WRITING THEIR ARTICLES. Gee, I thought!

I strongly recommend that if you find yourself in a difficult situation this week and can’t motivate someone, try playing Basta with them. It’s magic.