Sunday, 7 June 2009

Crime And Punishment

When I was a child, I knew from its name that the most beautiful country in the world had to be Czechoslovakia. In fact, given its name, I secretly didn't even care if it wasn't beautiful. I was heartbroken when Czechoslovakia got divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- what a shame to break up that beautiful name! How sad that only one side got to keep the Z! -- but then the Soviet Union got broken up into so many wonderful new places, all with wonderfully exotic names.

Like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Lucky me: every term, we get a handful of students from former Soviet bloc republics, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and they have proven to be even more interesting than the names of their countries. First of all, though a handful of them are ethnically Russian, most of them look Asian. Some of them are astonishingly exotic. When I walked into one class for the first time, I saw a red-headed boy with skin far whiter than mine, scribbling away. When he looked up, I did a double take: his face was entirely Asian, but his eyes were a bright cornflower blue. The fact that most of these students are bilingual in their own language and Russian makes them all the more fascinating.

As a general rule, the Kazakhstani and Kyrgyzstani students have also had better English language skills than the average Turkish student. My first week here, I had to monitor a test. As I strolled around the classroom, I could see that the 'stan' students were tackling the writing component of their exam with gusto while almost all of the Turkish students were making heavy work of it. After the test, one of the Kazakh students approached the desk. "Can I ask you a question?" His pronunciation and intonation were a little stilted, but near native.


"Well, foolishly, I neglected to allocate enough time to filling in the last part of the writing section. I know that the examination is finished, but I was wondering if you might allow me --"

My chin had dropped at neglected and my eyes had popped at allocated. I held out a hand to stop him. "Forget it."

The boy's face fell, so I leaned closer. "Take it from me, if you can say that much, you've already passed." And he had: even with the missing reading questions, he'd scored 92%. Some of these students are so good they finish the placement exam in one quarter the allocated time, scoring close to 100%. And like the West African students, the tiny minority who screw up and fail end up being our high fliers.

But of course there are exceptions. Like Karim.

Karim looked so much like my Japanese students, it was uncanny. He even acted like them: he was bashful and hardly ever talked in class. Because he never talked, it was hard to know what his level was -- or what was on his mind. When he turned in his journal, though, I was astounded: all the words he never got out in class were there, penned in the beautiful, meticulous copperplate these students have all been taught. The first paragraph made me sit up straight:

Although I was exhausted from attending lessons all week, my rooms were not clean, so I spent some time in tidying and sweeping. I dislike such domestic chores because I am not used to performing them, but I realize that these things are necessary if one is to live alone.

I was so astonished by this entry, I caught Karim after the next class. "Did you really write this?" He shyly nodded and I shook my head: like my Japanese students, he was even humble!

His next week's entry was even better:

Unfortunately, I caught influenza and was forced to go to the doctor, who prescribed some medication for me as I had a high temperature.

This almost made me swoon: Karim was able to use relative clauses!

After taking the medication, I rested in my room. Truly, I missed my mother's wonderful care and attention. I reflected to myself that it was a real misfortune to have fallen ill in a foreign country where I must look after myself.

This did make me swoon. Long, flowing sentences that were a pleasure to read! More relative clauses and three-syllable words! Why in the world had this kid failed his preliminary examination?

When I talked to one of my colleagues about Karim, she shrugged. "He's a repeat student, you know. I had him in my class last term. He never turned in his homework and hardly ever came to class."

I was amazed: Karim was repeating the course with English this good? But in fact, he seemed to miss a lot of my classes too. When I called him on this, he smiled shyly and handed me his next journal entry:

On Saturday, my good friend Shukrat came to visit me from my country. He and I hoped to find some amusement, so we went out in the evening to pass the time together. We happened to find a place to drink and remained there for a long time. My friend and I talked until the early morning hours, remembering the happy times we spent together in our own country. The next day, we went to the beach and ate a picnic lunch we had prepared.

Well, no wonder Karim had gotten so brown. I smiled and shook my head at the phrase ...picnic we had prepared: Karim even knew how to use the past perfect correctly! I couldn't wait to see how high he would score in the midterm.

To my utter amazement, Karim failed to show up for the midterm. When I asked him what had happened, he gave me another shy smile and a shrug. "Overslept."

"How could you oversleep when you had a test?" I wailed. Frankly, I'd been counting on Karim to bump up the class average.

Karim squirmed and looked contrite. I couldn't help notice that he was even more tanned, as though he'd spent a whole week outdoors.

It wasn't until I gave the class their first pop quiz that I finally figured it out.

Karim squirmed in his seat and chewed his lower lip as he stared at his paper. He seemed to grow even darker as I observed him, as though he was blushing under his tan. I misunderstood his nervousness: Karim hadn't been on the castle field trip like the rest of the class and I assumed he was worried he wouldn't get credit. "Don't worry," I told him. "Write about some historical place you've been to in your own country and I won't mark you down."

When he turned in his paper, it was surprisingly short, and Karim couldn't quite look me in the eye. In the staffroom, my face fell as I read the following: It isin AlmatyCityCentral Museum a veryPerfect location in city Centre. It has all history about Kazakhstan I ashamed, but it is fat I don't know history of the Museum I liked Museum because after visit I feeling very good. I like Museum because I can know history of the Kazakhstan Museum the beautiful place I loved it.

The copperplate was shaky too.

I found Karim outside with a group of his Kazakh friends. "Whose diary is this?" I asked as Karim reached for it. One of the boys giggled.

"Seriously," I said, "which one of you guys is Doystoevsky? Because I know it's not Karim here."

One of the boys burst out laughing and elbowed Karim in the ribs. And now he did blush. I handed him the journal.

"The only reason you guys got away with this," I hissed, "wasn't because you were smart, but because I was stupid." I turned to address Karim's pals. "Next time, dumb it down a little and you might fool someone." Then I swung around and narrowed my eyes at Karim. "Or better yet, stay away from the beach and do your own damn homework for a change!"

Looks like Karim will be repeating the course in summer school. No more trips to the beach for my young Raskolnikov.


Bish Denham said...

Oh man! Doystoevsky indeed! And whose journal was it anyway?

Charles Gramlich said...

It's always a bit upsetting when students who have talents and abilities decide to try to slip by without putting in any work. Definitely an interesting character though.

angryparsnip said...

Your a Teacher and a Detective !
Do you have a secrecy identity, fight crime and wear a really cool outfit ?

Charlie said...

How disappointing, Mary.

It seems like these students put more energy in scams and ruses than if they did the work in the first place.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I blame Karim for turning in work that wasn't his, but I never did find out who wrote it. Whoever it was definitely already had the fundamentals of English.

Charles -- It doesn't make sense, does it? Why go to all that work to avoid doing the work that you have to do in the first place? (Says the woman who's procrastinating over rewriting pages 86 through 110 of her current WIP...)

AP -- Well, I have a semi-secret identity and I sort of fight crime, if you count plagiarism. But the really cool outfit? That's not me.

Charlie -- Oh, don't they just! In 20 years time, these kids will look back at themselves and wonder why they didn't just buckle down in the first place. Still, I go on dreaming that I will manage to turn just one...

Eryl Shields said...

Do you really hiss Mary, I can't quite imagine it? I do hope Karim has learnt his lesson, the fool!

Anne Spollen said...

I think it's human nature. I'm reorganizing a super messy closet when I have a few spare minutes. I know I should be writing. It's avoidance behavior. Why do we all do it?

No idea. We all know we'll get punished in some way, whether it's by the teacher or by not having any writing out there.

Robert the Skeptic said...

It makes me wonder; were you to throw a dart at a map of the USA and test the English composition skills of American school kids, I wonder how they would stack up against these non-native English speakers?

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I can absolutely hiss with the best of them now, though I'm not sure I could do this in Scotland. Comes from teaching kids who don't pay attention to voices in the normal frequency range!

AnneS -- You're cleaning out a messy closet? Sometimes I actually get on with my rewriting just to get out of cleaning closets!

This blog is my own personal avoidance strategy. But I have to say that when it comes to getting out of work, my students have me beat all hollow.

Robert -- Interesting idea. Karim's writing is probably about average for my students, but the kid who wrote his journal for him is definitely a high flier. I've got kids who can barely pen a subject-verb-object sentence, but it would be interesting to see how they compare with the American average. Maybe some teachers of American students will come along and tell us...

Carrie Harris said...

Awwww. Like you, I was rooting so hard for Karim too.

adrienne said...

Luckily most of the kids who pull these stunts aren't the ones who'd be clever enough to dumb it down...

Kim Ayres said...

Half the annoyance is they cheated; the other half is they were stupid enough to get caught :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carrie -- Yes, I wish it'd been Karim's work! With so many bonehead students in my class, it seemed only fair that I should have ONE kid who could write. But nooooo!

Adrienne -- So true. My inner teenager finds myself so disgusted with their clueless inability to cheat properly.

Kim -- You and I could have taught these kids a thing or too, right? I never plagiarized or copied anything -- too scared, not too good -- but I know with absolute certainty that if I'd given it a go, I'd have made a better fist of it than my students.

Robin said...

That rat! I was so proud of him in the beginning of the story! I feel really let down. I'm going to go sulk, now.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- That's exactly how I felt. Here I am teaching my tail off and he brings me a bogus journal -- and I FELL for it! Pffffft.