Friday, 14 November 2008

Teenager-proof Voice

I seem to spend a lot of my time nowadays yelling at teenagers.

In my classes, I have mainly boys and most of them are Turkish. Practically all of them are great loutish kids who seem determined to speak Turkish through the entire class period. Nothing delights me more than getting the odd student from a country where Turkish isn't spoken, but these students are thin on the ground. When I'm lucky enough to get one, I try to make sure that he -- it is almost always a he -- sits between two of my more talkative, boisterous kids who will then be forced to communicate with him in English. Anyone who thinks that boys don't talk as much as girls is welcome to sit in on one of my classes and find out The Truth.

I take roll in the midst of huge pandemonium. In vain, I call out for silence; I may get as much as thirty seconds of it, but then the natural restlessness my students all seem to suffer from takes over and they are back to talking, shoving, and calling back and forth. The fact that we have yet to have a spitball fight in class doesn't mean that it isn't going to happen.

"Mustafa!" I scream, knowing that I should be taking the roll in a calm, quiet voice. Mustafa, sharing what must be a hilariously funny joke with Hasan, ignores me. So does Hasan. After class, though, you can bet that they'll both be at my desk, keen as all get out to make sure that I've marked them down as present.

"Tee-cha, we are present?" they will ask anxiously, pointing at my roll book.

"I don't know, are you?" I am always tempted to rejoin; for the past hour, they've been talking up a storm and only reluctantly consenting to answer the odd question or opening their books to the right page, but sarcasm just sails over their heads. So I tap the register and show them that yes, I have marked them down as present. We have covered classroom language ad nauseam -- all the questions that students may find it necessary to ask me in class such as What does this word mean? and May we be excused? -- but I still get "Tee-cha, break time?" -- by far their favorite question -- and, more rarely, "Tee-cha, what means this word?"

Because they don't listen to me. In fact, I think I must have some sort of special teenager-proof voice that cannot penetrate the adolescent brain. Back in the States when I was doing my teaching practice, I had to project my voice over a room full of noisy adults. Traffic sounds of screeching brakes and honking horns outside wafted through the classroom windows, causing me to further strain my vocal cords. And frankly, classroom management has always been a trial for me, but I look back on that loud, noisy class of adult immigrants with nostalgia. I look back on every class I ever had in Japan with nostalgia too, because most of my students listened to me. Sure, sometimes I had to repeat myself and I almost always went home hoarse, but they listened. As far as Mustafa, Hasan and all their buddies are concerned, I might as well be a noisy diversion standing at the front of the classroom, unaccountably ruining all their socializing opportunities.

Today, though, we had a breakthrough and I'm truly amazed.

The day didn't start out well. Our water pump has some sort of malfunction and in the midst of my shower, just as I'd lathered up my hair, the pipes went dry and once again I had to rely on mineral water to rinse. Chilled mineral water, I might add. Then I found that the kitten my daughter brought home (despite the 'No Pets' stipulation in our lease) had dug up my pot of herb seedlings. My own kids require a lot of shouting themselves from time to time, and they are just as impervious to my voice as my students are.

"Want to meet me?" I asked my youngest. "Our classes finish at the same time."

"Hmm?" she responded dreamily, fiddling with her mobile.

I repeated myself.

"Sorry -- what did you say?"

Sucking my breath in, I repeated my question and the bit about when my classes finished.

"No thank you."

So at school, I anticipated the worst. My morning class is probably my most obtuse and obstreperous, and we'd already had a break in the schedule when we'd gone to see a movie -- Shall We Dance? -- in the student union. Worse still, they were expected to write about their favorite character in the movie, definitely a tall order for this lot. And sure enough, when I made this announcement, I might as well have been asking them to drink plutonium.

Then they started to write and a small miracle occurred: they really got into it.

"Tee-cha, what is main character name?"


"What is beautiful dancer lady name -- Jennifer Lopez?"

"Um, Paulina, I think."


And they were off, pencils scratching, brows furrowed, erasers passed back and forth. Dictionaries came out of bags and were thumbed through. Whatever Turkish was spoken was entirely to do with Shall We Dance? -- even I could tell.

"Tee-cha! What is name of John friend, big friend?"


"No! Chick is not big -- I mean BIG friend!"

"Sorry, I don't remember. You'll have to describe him instead."

And bless him, he did.

"Tee-cha! How do you say girl has --?" Mustafa held his hands shoulder-width apart and described a curvaceous body in the air, his eyes alight with bare-faced lust.

"A good figure," I murmured primly.

"Good figure? Please spell!"

"It starts with F. Go on -- use your dictionary."

And so help me, he did.

The same group of kids who never stop complaining about how much homework they have to do (a tiny pittance by even the laziest American's standards), were actually reluctant to put their notebooks away. No more "Tee-cha, break time?"

I left the class in starry-eyed euphoria. Maybe I'd cracked the code! Maybe I was finally getting through!

Then I saw the message from my youngest on my mobile: Mom, when do you finish work?


Kim Ayres said...

Savour the moment :)

Carrie Harris said...

Now that's a good day. :)

I know all kinds of dance movies if you want to show them more. I have a secret (okay, not-so-secret) weakness for dancing movies.

Christy said...

Shouting into the wind, eh? At least you know that a voluptuous woman can hold the boys' interest. It seems that boys will be boys all over the world.

Tabitha said...

Ah, I've missed your blog. :) I haven't had time for blog surfing these days, and I didn't know how much I enjoyed it until I couldn't do it anymore. Funny how that happens...

I've got the same kid-proof voice you've got. My kids don't notice when I speak either, and it drives me up a wall. I have to yell, then they get upset, and it spirals downward from there. I need to figure something out.

But I'm really glad to hear you've done it! Yay for you!! :)

Angela said...

Oh I can just hear them calling you Tee-cha, lol. Congrats to reaching them. I know that as time rolls on, those moments will come more and more often.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't envy you. GLad you had a good moment, there, though.

Anne Spollen said...


That usually works. :)

Eryl Shields said...

Now I understand your comment on my blog!

Reading this made me feel so lucky, all my students are really dedicated to their studies. In fact it can be difficult to get some of them to speak at all. And, of course, when they do speak I understand every word!

debra said...

Simple gifts....

Carrie said...

congrats on your breakthrough. In the classroom, I mean. :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Oh believe me, I did. They come along so rarely I have to take full advantage of them.

Carrie -- A lot of the boys wrote that they found the dance bits boring, but I saw them walking out of the student union -- their feet were fairly tapping and their legs were twitching. I love dance movies too!

Christy -- That is so true. Maybe I ought to start some kind of Jennifer Lopez fan club -- that might be a better motivation for them than all the other things I try to use as incentives.

Tabitha -- I feel exactly the same. In fact, I've missed YOUR blog too and I always learn from it. I just need to make the time to do my writing now -- it's become a lot harder now that I'm employed full time. Let's hope we both get more time -- and more kid-reaching voices too.

Angela -- How I hope I get more of these moments! It was great to connect with these kids, however briefly.

Charles -- We're in the same boat, aren't we? I'm betting your students are better behaved than mine, you lucky guy. Or maybe you just have a better classroom manner -- or a proper teaching voice.

Anne -- I've actually tried this a few times and you are right: it definitely works. The problem is, I quickly lose my resolve and start raising my voice again. I think I need a personality change or one of those assertiveness training classes.

Eryl -- Oh, for students who really want to learn! I've got about half a dozen of these kids, and most of the time they are drowned out by their louder, more aggressive classmates. I really envy you students who want to learn!

Debra -- Simple gifts are often the best, though, right? Just having a class full of eager students, busily scribbling away was one of nicest things that's happened to me all month.

Carrie -- Thank you. I could really use an agent breakthrough too. Come to think of it. I seem to have agent-proof voice too...

Carole said...

I'm not so surprised that the boys can't hear you, but rather that they liked a dancing movie. Now that is unusual. It seems like the movies that keep boys attention over here are the bang em up, shoot em up kind.

Robin said...

Oh, Mary, you make that classroom come alive! I can just see those Turkish boys chattering and calling out as you're trying to talk. How aggravating!

I would bring in posters of Jessica Simpson, Jessica Alba, hey! All pertinent Jessicas, and make every lesson about them. You can throw in sports heroes and Turkish politicians. And if they stop being so rude and obnoxious, maybe they could earn something cool at the end of the year.

Rotten adolescents!

Barbara Martin said...

Now that you have the boys' attention, you'll have to continue showing movies. Great post.

A Paperback Writer said...

Sometimes the weirdest stuff works.
Once I totally lost it and yelled at a kid who was a slug and did nothing, in spite of how bright he was. I broke every rule in the book, including calling him names instead of just correcting his behavior. I was certain I was in for trouble with parents and the principal.
Instead, the kid shaped up. He started working and earned Bs for the rest of the year!!! Shock!

My funniest mis-experience with teaching English as a second language came the year I decided to teach all my Spanish-speaking students "Jingle Bells" for Christmas because it is so repetitive. I brought in bells and a picture of a one-horse open sleigh and explained everything. Then we began.
I don't know why it didn't occur to me that Spanish speakers can't pronounce a J sound and that it comes out CH. I knew that. Yet, I forgot to take that into account.
So, we got "chingle bells." And it only took a few seconds before that slipped into the Spanish word for F---, which begins with Ch and sound a LOT like "chingle."
Effing bells, effing bells, effing all the way......
Oh my.
It's hysterically funny now, all those Latino kids singing obscene carols loud and clear. But it wasn't very funny at the time.
We've never tried singing Christmas Carols since.

Nora MacFarlane said...

One good teaching day can pull you through a string of not so good days. Hang on to the moment. I certainly hope it's the start of a trend!

Kappa no He said...

Movies are magic! And so sweet about daughter mailing you.

Katie Alender said...

You need to recruit your friends in other countries to send you their gossip magazines. Then your class can focus on translating what Jen said now that she's finally decided to speak out against Brangelina!


Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- You are right! What was really sweet was the fact that the biggest most manly-looking kids seemed to like the dance bits the most. And the ones who claimed they didn't were still shaking their hips when they walked out of the theater.

Robin -- We did another writing activity on mothers this morning, and that wasn't anywhere near as popular, so you are obviously onto something. I just have to get caught up on my American culture --I don't know who any of those Jessicas are. But sports heroes and Turkish politicans are definitely the right stuff for these guys. They're all big fans of Attaturk.

Barbara -- That was my first thought when I saw them happily scribbling away: more movies! In fact, I think they'd love it if every class was a movie. Sigh.

APW -- Love that Jingle Bells story! I've had a few experiences like that myself. And you are so right: sometimes what ought to work in the classroom goes over like a lead balloon whereas what should NOT work is amazingly effective. Teaching is more of an art than a science, and sometimes it's a bit like alchemy. I lost it with a couple of girls the other day and ever since, we've been real buddies. Go figure.

Nora -- Thank you for visiting my blog! I hope it's the start of a trend too, but I'm not holding my breath. I've been down this road before.

Kappa -- I was glad she mailed me, but I did wish she'd remembered what I told her, especially since I repeated it about three times.

Katie -- That sounds like a good idea. If only I knew who all those people were, I'd probably give it a go. Hey, come to think of it, maybe I can get my students to explain it to ME.

Charlie said...

I'm late to the comment party, as usual, so perhaps you can erase the "absent" checkmark next to my name.

Like many have said, your story came alive for me. Teenagers all over the world possess the same hormones, so it isn't surprising that they all act the same.

And you know, Indian boys love Bollywood movies, which always have formulaic singing and dancing in them. I would love to see your boys' reactions to Travolta and Saturday Night Fever!

ChrisEldin said...

LOVE "Tee Cha!" hahahah!

This is a great story. I've come to terms that my voice is simply white noise. I admire people who rise above that distinction...

A Paperback Writer said...

As for "tee-cha," I get that too, but I also get "Meesss! Meesss!" (Miss -- they find that sufficient instead of calling me a name. Oh well. It's polite. Plus, my last name is fairly hard for some people to say.)

Phil said...

Hi Mary - sounds like a trial - and I'm sure there'll be ups and downs - but you have to savour the ups. After twenty years of NOT having any classroom management problems, I'm having heaps with the group of kids I have at the moment. Sometimes it's just social chemistry. Doesn't make it any the easier to deal with though.

Seems you're settled in. Good to read you again. As ever - smooth and engaging.

All the best.


Ello said...

Aw lovely story! But poor Mary! You are suffering as they test your patience mightily. But I have faith in you. You will succeed!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I take attendance visually. I've sent more than my share of students to kangaroo court. Our classrooms are worlds apart, however, we probably share classroom management techniques.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- A couple of Bollywood movies might go down a treat with my lot, come to think of it, as long as I supplied a list of characters' names and a plot. And I'll bet they'd love Saturday Night Fever or Flashdance.

Chris -- My voice is absolutely white noise to 75% of these kids, and I feel so sorry for the remaining 25%, who really want to learn. If it weren't for them, I'd probably whisper more; I keep wanting to reach them, so I end up yelling.

APW -- Tee-cha is my new name. Given that they also call me 'hojam' from time to time, I don't mind tee-cha quite so much. I probably haven't been here long enough yet; 'hojam' sounds vaguely indecent.

Phil -- I'll bet you could give me some valuable pointers -- you've already cheered me right up by telling me that! I've never had quite so much trouble with a group. My only consolation is that a couple of the other seasoned teachers here find them a tough lot to control.

How are you doing and how is your writing going? I've missed you!

Ello -- Thank you for having faith in me! I'm usually able to conjure up a little myself, but sometimes it's a tall order.

JRT -- Boy, could I use your skill! I have a huge roll sheet and all the names are devilishly hard for me to pronounce. Turkish has a whole slew of symbols that we don't have in English -- ş ğ ö and ç threw me at first -- and although I know all the faces now, I cannot always connect them to names. But the kangaroo court -- I've availed myself of that a time or two!

Uma Krishnaswami said...

What a terrific post, Mary. You have such a great voice--I hope you're planning to write a teaching memoir because this is so funny!

Gaining Back My Life said...

With this much chaos in the classroom, I applaud you for sticking to your guns. What a well-deserved breakthrough!

Mary Witzl said...

Uma -- You are kind to say that, and thank you. In fact, I did write a memoir about teaching and learning Japanese, and several agents asked to read it. Sadly, the concensus was that although charming, my memoir is something that would only sell if I were already famous. I've fleetingly considered doing something outlandish just to get that necessary edge of fame, but there is a certain satisfaction in having other good writers read my work.

GBML -- Thank you for your vote of confidence, but the classroom chaos still prevails. We've just had midterms and I'm hoping that a few of them will be so worried that they'll be driven to desperate measures -- like paying attention in class and studying!