Monday, 9 February 2009


During the last week of classes, I gave my class a treat. An American girl we know, the daughter of two of my oldest, dearest friends, would be coming to stay with us for a few days after a short trip around Turkey. I thought it might be fun for her to meet my students and give them a chance to use their English to talk to a genuine native speaker roughly their own age. The one thing my EFL students lack is motivation. Perhaps meeting a young person like Leah would make them see that English is, above all, a communicative tool, and not a hateful punishment devised to keep them from fun activities like football and drinking.

The day before Leah was due to arrive, I told my class a little about her and asked them to think of some good questions to ask her.

"How old are you!" bellowed Ahmet immediately.

"As I just said, she's a university student--" I began.

"Where you from!" Ahmet interrupted. Ahmet likes to be first. He feels the need to pre-empt others from answering the more obvious questions.

"Tee-cha say American girl from California," Fatma interjected, making a face at Ahmet.

"Tee-cha, what is she looks like?" asked Ahmet, getting right down to the nitty gritty and asking the one question clearly on every boy's mind.

"What does she look like?" I murmur rhetorically, hoping to reinforce the proper grammatical structure, but also irritated. "Why does it matter what she looks like?"

Ahmet leaned forward, his eyes glittering. "You know," he said, his voice husky with lust. "Nice girl?"

"Very nice," I said severely. "Her parents are my good friends."

"Pretty girl too?" demanded Mustafa, trading side-long looks with Ahmet.

Ignoring them, I turned back to the board. "Let's have some more questions. Come on: can't anyone think of anything besides how she looks?"

"What she studies?" asked Hakan, a shy boy in the third row.

"Yes," I said, "that's a great question." On the board I wrote What is your major?

"Teecha," roared Tufan from the back of the class. "How many boyfriend she has!"

I had hoped that we would come up with twenty good questions in half an hour, but in the end, it took us an entire class period. How many boyfriends do you have? did not make it onto the list.

When I saw Leah at the arrivals gate, I realized what a huge hit she was going to be. Not only had the little girl I knew grown into a bright and personable young woman, but she was also drop-dead gorgeous. When I took her into school the next day, I almost felt like throwing a veil over her first.

The minute Leah stepped inside the classroom, I gave up trying to coach my students on what to say. They only had eyes for Leah. And you could almost smell the testosterone in the air.

"Do you like Turkish people?" asked Ibrahim, one of the few boys in the room whose mouth wasn't hanging open.

Leah answered that she liked them very much. Every face in the room seemed to shine at this news.

"Where you are living now?" asked Kemal, amazing me. Kemal is shy and he tends to let the others speak for him.

"Paris. I'm studying there."

An oooh went up around the classroom and even the girls perked up at this. Özgül, who is lazy and spends most of her class time biting off her split ends, suddenly sat up straight and began to pay attention.

"There is a saying, Anything a man can do, a woman can do better. I wonder, what do you think of this saying?" asked Anthony, the show off. Anthony is my lone West African student. With his superior fluency and vastly greater vocabulary, he regularly wipes the floor with the others.

Envious eyes turned towards Anthony as Leah answered him. "Yes, I believe that." She smiled. "I'm a feminist."

Quickly, I wrote feminist on the board, followed by A person who believes that women and men should have equal rights, but no one paid it -- or me -- the least bit of mind.

"What is your ideal mate?" asked Emine, reading carefully from a piece of paper in her hand, and this time my mouth dropped open. Emine doesn't speak, period. She sits there looking like a sphinx and has a habit of shying away when I come close.

Leah considered this carefully. "Well, he'd have to be honest. I really value honesty."

Two dozen male faces suddenly seemed to radiate honesty.

"And he'd need to be kind, too, because I definitely value that in a man."

The two dozen honest expressions suddenly melted into tenderest compassion.

"And I'd want a man who was smart. Intelligent."

I had to hide my smile as tenderly kind suddenly morphed to shrewd and sharp -- something I don't see a lot of from my students.

Suffice it to say, Leah's visit was a huge hit. Students asked questions and tried to comprehend Leah's answers. Her pictures of Turkey fascinated and delighted them -- the things she had found compelling amazed and pleased them no end; the things that had bothered or irritated her bothered and irritated them too.

The lesson I attempted after she left fell flat on its face, but it didn't even matter. Motivation had been achieved.

A few days after Leah flew back to Paris, I came back to class and announced that Leah was happy to share her Facebook user name with everyone in the class. For the first and last time, I had the undivided attention of every single student.

My couldn't-be-bothered-to-learn students now know English words like feminism, empowerment, cultural anthropology, folklore, and honesty. And I couldn't get over how many of them wanted me to help them with compositions for a change. For the next week, I looked at a good two dozen 'compositions' that went roughly like this: Hello Leah. I am Ahmet, a Turkish boy. You came to my class. I am study engineering. I like football too much. Please write to me. But you've got to start somewhere.

And now I know how to motivate my students. Or, at the very least, my male students. Wish I knew Orlando Bloom...


Carolie said...

I knew exactly where this was going....and it didn't matter! I was grinning and giggling, imagining those young Lotharios, thrilled that your shy guy opened up, that your bored young woman was interested, fascinated by your West African student. You really drew me in, Mary -- I LOVE reading your stories!

Eryl Shields said...

This had me laughing out loud, thank goodness no one's home this morning! I guess Leah's visit shows that in order to learn you have to have a concrete reason to engage.

I wish I knew Orlando Bloom too!

Christy said...

Hilarious! Boys will be boys. I don't know how you kept from giggling out loud.

Patois said...

That is just so funny. I wish I knew Orlando Bloom, too.

Charlie said...

Your classroom stories are just great, Mary--it's almost like being there.

This line is precious:

"Two dozen male faces suddenly seemed to radiate honesty.

I hope Leah didn't bite off more than she can digest . . .

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Thank you. When I write these vignettes, I often feel frustrated that I can't show exactly what these kids are like -- they really are a scream and pretty much defy description. But the fact that you like what I write encourages me no end and makes me want to keep at it.

Eryl -- Yes, and it helps if the concrete reason is a tall, willowy blonde with a pretty face.

I'm pretty sure that Orlando Bloom could do a lot to inspire my young women students, though they'd have to fight me off first. Actually, he's too old for them now anyway -- he's an old man of 30-something.

Christy -- Believe me, I didn't. At first, I covered my mouth with my hands, but when I saw they weren't looking at me, I tittered away quite freely. They never even noticed.

Patois -- Maybe he'll google his name and come pay me a visit. If he did, he'd have the satisfaction of knowing that a dozen young Turkish ladies had improved their English just because of him.

Charlie -- Considering that some of these erstwhile honest lads would happily have cheated on their final exams given the tiniest chance, it was all the funnier.

I'm a little worried about Leah's Facebook overload too, but she's a clever and capable young woman and if anyone can handle it, she can.

Nandini said...

This is hilarious! Leah sounds like such a good sport. What did she think of the whole thing?

Tabitha said...

Hilarious post!! :) I love all the stories you share about your students. "Tee-cha" never fails to make me smile. :)

I know I haven't been vocal lately (been busy with the insane school system that is Chicago), but I just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed each and every post on your blog. And I'm so glad you're back to posting regularly. :)

Kelly said...

What a great classroom story!

Gaining Back My Life said...

So cute, and so apropos.

Mary Witzl said...

Nandini -- Leah thought my students were a fun and lively bunch, and quite nice. In fact, on this occasion, they actually came close to behaving themselves, so it's not surprising that she had a good opinion of them.

Tabitha -- Thank you for following my stories!

When I'm teaching, I need to write about it for my sanity. But I've had the past week off, at home, and I find that I need to write about THAT for my sanity too. I worry about my sanity sometimes; it's definitely a good thing that I have this blog.

Kelly -- Thank you. Whenever my students act up, it's always comforting to plot my next blog post.

GBML -- Thank you. My students would be horrified to hear themselves described as cute, but they really are.

Charles Gramlich said...

Isn't that the kind of questions the Playboy models answer? Lol.

Kanani said...

Great story!
I'm sure had they asked "How many boyfriends do you have, and do you want more?" she'd of found just the right answer!

Kim Ayres said...

You draw us in so wonderfully, Mary. these vignettes are so powerful because you get somuch across in such a short space. Wonderful use of language :)

Marcia said...

Oh, do keep writing these wonderful stories. They are such entertaining reading. And it's all about motivation, isn't it?

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- The boys definitely had playboy fantasies before meeting Leah. But when they actually saw her, their sheer lust became more like admiration. Weirdly enough, I think they actually appreciated her mind.

Kanani -- She would have! When I was her age, I would have gone to pieces, but I had the feeling she knew just how to handle my unruly bunch.

Kim -- That is such a nice compliment. Thank you! I always worry I overdo it on the words and overwhelm my readers.

Marcia -- Yes, everything about living has so much to do with motivation! I'm always looking for ways to motivate the kids I teach and the kids I raise -- and myself. Personally, I find that other writers do a lot to motivate me.

Anonymous said...

I don't comment nearly often enough, but I especially loved this story! So often your stories remind me of my own ESL experiences in Mauritania, and you always do such a good job of distilling a wild ESL classroom experience into a blog post. This one was perfect.
We used to occasionally have groups of university students come and do small group english conversation with our students, and we would tell them, "You will get marriage proposals. Do not go anywhere with these young men." etc. We always tried to only pair men with men and women with women, but the male students would do their level best to get into another group when we weren't looking. But, I also saw shy young women responding to American students, like you did.
You make me miss them, something I didn't envision ever happening.

Angela said...

Mary, what did I do before finding your blog? Your stories are always so rich with culture and yet you manage to make it familiar to us, and always there's some good tee-cha humor.

I swear, if I'm ever in Turkey, I have to check out your classes!

Thanks again for a great story!! Boy are the same, no matter what the culture, lol.

Kara said...

admit it, you want a facebook page now too.

really, you should join...they have a group where you can collectively hate Crocs(TM).

ok, that's really the only good thing about it.

Mary Witzl said...

PlanetNomad -- Having taught in Mauritania, you know just how wild and hairy an EFL experience can get -- it's hard to describe, isn't it? Believe me, in the thick of things I have to keep telling myself that even if I only give my kids a few good memories of English, that will be better than nothing. I'm not the world's most patient or efficient teacher and my students don't always leave the class happy and inspired, but we have our moments. I'd love to read about YOUR classroom experiences. I often think it would be fun to have an EFL 'cookbook' of different lessons from different teachers in classrooms all over the world.

Angela -- If you are ever in this area, you are absolutely welcome to come and see one of my classes! I'll bring my cattle prod, list of parents' phone numbers -- which I'll prominently display -- and maybe also a small bag of candies. That ought to ensure at least 30 minutes of halfway decent behavior. And thank you so much for your kind words -- and, for that matter, YOUR blog.

Kara -- I had to look up Crocs(TM). And don't hate me, but they look great -- really comfortable, like shoes I could stand up in for a whole day! How about a group that hates stiletto heels? That I could get into.

Bish Denham said...

What a wonderful story! I know only too well the ups and downs of motivating kids. Seeing faces light up and get excited has the scent of roses about it. I wish you continued success.

greenwriting said...

Mary, so fun! My students in Mauri, in Planet Nomad's old classroom, as so much the same.

BTW, how many students do you have in your classes? Do you teach the same students all day, or is it like an elective? How old are they? I am sure all that is in your blogs somewhere.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- It really is great to see motivated kids. I only wish I could see a little more of that excitement -- and that I didn't have to bring an attractive young person into the class in order to see it.

Greenwriting -- My youngest students are 17, but the average age is about 19. Our class sizes are fairly small -- up to about 25, though on one awful occasion, I had a double class of 50 and a first class headache. Last semester, we all had the same group for up to six hours a day. We teachers liked that even less than the kids did. What is your class size like in Mauritania?

Barbara Martin said...

Great story, Mary; it had me laughing out loud. I'm too old for the likes of Orlando Bloom: but if he appeared in his Legolas outfit he'd never be allowed to leave.

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- I'm glad you liked the story. I suspect he's too old for the likes of my students, but I'm sure he'd have a few fans anyway. And although I might be too old for him, he isn't too old for me, so perhaps he could be a shared interest.