Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Tale of Two Evenings at the Opera House, Saigon

The Opera House is a striking building in District 1, Saigon.  I have walked past it many times and admired the French colonial architecture, but I hadn't been inside this 800-seater theatre until a couple of weeks ago.  Now, I have been to see two events there!

The first visit was to see a production of Oliver Twist by TNT Theatre Britain.  It was a stark and quite dark adaptation that had some of the children in the audience crying from curtain up!  Perhaps, their parents expected something similar to Lionel Bart's musical Oliver!  If that's the case, they were probably disappointed, but I, for one, was captivated from start to finish. 

One of the things I miss most about living in the UK, even after ten years away, is access to live theatre in English, so I am likely to be appreciative of any production, regardless of the quality!!  However, I genuinely thought that this was a good adaptation.  It was an ensemble piece with all the parts being performed by a cast of just five - three women and two men.  Having been brought up with the tradition of pantomime, it didn't strike me as strange that a bearded man was playing the role of Mrs Corney, the workhouse manager!  I only had to consider the appropriacy when I saw the reaction of the young Vietnamese girl sitting next to me!

The story was enhanced by the use of original music sung a capella and focussed on the darker side of the original Dickens' text.  The violence perpetrated by Sykes against Nancy was quite graphic, as was the hanging of Fagin at the end.  I felt that the harsh reality of life in Victorian London was evoked perfectly in this excellent dramatisation.

In complete contrast to Oliver Twist, last weekend we returned to the Opera House to see Black Voices, a British a capella singing group who are in Vietnam as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  The five ladies who make up the group entertained us in fine style for almost two hours.  By the end, they had all been adversely affected by the air conditioning in the building, so I'm not sure how their voices would have held up for their subsequent performances in Hanoi!  For us, though, they were on top form!! 

The first half focussed on African music, paying homage to the ethnic roots of the group members.  Each piece was introduced with a story to set the scene as to its origins.  It was really interesting and what the ladies did with their voices was amazing!!

After the interval, the programme was more eclectic with a Motown medley, some reggae, an old English folk song ('The Water is Wide', which sounded very different to how it sounded when we used to sing it at school!) and even an arrangement of the disco classic, 'Uptown Top Ranking' which brought back memories for those of us of a certain age!!

All in all, a thoroughly entertaining evening!  I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for upcoming events at the Opera House.

Participation Precedes Learning

This was the title of the third presentation at the recent Cambridge Day I attended.  The speaker was Tim Murphey and what follows is a summary of his workshop.

Just as in his morning session, Tim began by telling us the first half of a 'split story'.  I was really taken with this technique as a way to engage students and intend to write a separate blog post about it.

Tim also advocates the use of speed dictation with the aim of teaching a set phrase which is the answer to a question prompt.  This can then be used at regular intervals throughout the class.  For example, when the teacher has his back to the class whilst writing something on the board, he can ask the question thereby giving the students something to do and say in what would otherwise be an unproductive few minutes.  In this session, Tim gave us the phrase, 'super, happy, optimistic, joyful and prodigious'.  He said it at normal speed a couple of times and we had to write down what we heard.  We then had to work collaboratively with our group to ensure that we had all written the phrase correctly (see my previous post about the benefits of collaboration).  The phrase was the answer to the question, 'How are you?', which Tim asked roughly every five or ten minutes throughout his presentation.  We all had to remember to say, 'I'm super, happy, optimistic, joyful and prodigious'.  He made it easier for us by putting a tune ('Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' from Mary Poppins) and a rhythm to the words.

So these two techniques, the split story and the learned phrase, are both perfect examples of ways to get students engaged, to get them participating fully in the classroom.  Research in the US has shown that students retain:
  • 10% of what they read
  • 26% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they see and hear
  • 70% of what they say
  • 90% of what they say and do
Therefore, who learns the most in the classroom?  Probably the teacher!!

Students need to do things for themselves: just hearing about something or seeing something won't make it stick.  Students have to:

WANT TO          ____    KNOW HOW TO      ___   HAVE THE CHANCE TO
(motivation)                                                               (opportunity)

Tell me and I'll forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I'll understand
Have me teach another and I'll know

Old Chinese proverb adapted by Tim Murphey

Total Physical Response (TPR)

As a way to engage students and to help them to retain what they are learning, we should encourage TPR within our classrooms.  This can be done in a number of ways:
  • Use music and rhythm - get students clapping or tapping their feet as they speak.
  • Use shadowing - get students to shadow (repeat back or summarise) what they hear when speaking to someone or when listening to a recording or watching a video clip. Shadowing can be complete, partial or interactive.
  • Use proto conversations - for example, get students to say mundane words (numbers, months of the year, etc.) in sequence, but change the style in which they say them - go from happy to sad to angry, etc.
  • Use intonational contours - song like language.
  • Walk and talk - get students moving around as they are speaking.
  • Use reformulation - have a maximum of ten minutes teacher talk time and then get students to reformulate what they have heard by peer teaching, completing questionnaires, correcting and comparing answers, mimicking their teacher, etc.
  • Play with the language - for example, watch this video of talking babies and get students to write a dialogue for the children.

Tim's message was certainly a powerful one expressed in a memorable and convincing way.  My colleagues and I have certainly implemented some of his techniques in the classroom, something I will write about in another blog post.


Tim Murphey's site where you will find recordings of his affirmation songs for speed dictations.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Schneider's Finest Bakery - a Little Piece of Europe in Binh Duong!

I have previously written about the pluses and minuses of living in Binh Duong New City, Vietnam.  One of the main drawbacks is that we have no local shops, so we can't just pop out to get something we've forgotten.  Trips to the nearest supermarket involve booking a taxi and planning menus ahead to ensure that we buy everything we need.  With careful organisation, it isn't too much of an inconvenience, but, when we first moved in last October, the consensus amongst us was that the lack of ready access to fresh bread was a real problem!! 

Fortunately, it wasn't many weeks later when a German colleague found out about Schneider's Finest German Bakery and a European bread basket became available to us!!  Schneider's have several retail outlets in Saigon, but, luckily for us, they also have a manufacturing unit near Thu Dau Mot, our local town.  Our colleague, Kristina, negotiated with the bakery and soon we had a full colour catalogue of products and a price list.  What a choice!!  Loaves and rolls of all shapes and sizes, delicious pastries, tempting cakes and cookies. 

A typical weekly delivery
We put the catalogue and list on the shared drive at work and canvassed opinion amongst our colleagues.  The reaction was favourable from everyone!  So, another colleague set to work on a spreadsheet which would make ordering easier and we devised a system whereby people place their weekly order at their leisure, give me their money on a Tuesday when Kristina sends the spreadsheet to Schneider's, who process our order and deliver to our apartments at 11am on a Wednesday.  What a success!  We have now been ordering every week for over six months.  We enjoy fresh bread and cakes and have found that all of the products freeze successfully, so we never have to buy bread from anywhere else!  It's a simple thing, but you can't imagine how it's transformed life for us in the New City.  Oh, how we look forward to Wednesdays!!

Schneider's products have been well received since the beginning.  We have had no cause for complaint ...... until last week when, unfortunately, we had badly mixed banana bread which tasted really bitter because of the raw soda and an undercooked loaf which had raw dough in the middle.  Not a bad record, but we did mention our disappointment when we placed our next order.  What followed was customer service at it's best!!  We received an apologetic e-mail by return.  Later, Kristina, had several phone calls from Herr Langer, the company's manager.  He was keen to understand what had gone wrong so that he could ensure it wouldn't happen again.  We were more than satisfied!  But Herr Langer had not finished!  On Thursday evening, as we were having dinner, he arranged to have a cake delivered to our apartment by way of an edible apology!!  If you can't see from the photo, the icing apology reads:

Our 'apology' cake!!
Dear Mrs Kristina Klug and Friends,
We are sorry that our baked products lacked integrity and quality!  The Schneider's Team is appreciative of all our loyal customers and listens to their advice and complaints!

Exemplary customer service!!  And absolutely delicious banana cake, too, which we all enjoyed at lunchtime on Friday!!  Needless to say, we will continue to use Schneider's and to recommend the company and its products to everyone we meet!!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A Hot and Sunny Weekend in Mui Ne

A few weeks ago, we had a very wet and windy weekend in Mui Ne which you can read about here.  While we were there, we booked ourselves a luxury weekend for the end of April and crossed our fingers that the weather would be kind to us!!

So it was that we checked into a hotel near Saigon's railway station on the Thursday night, ready for our early morning train to Phan Thiet the next day. We had just put our bags down in our room when the heavens opened and for the next two hours we sat and listened to a real humdinger of a storm, wondering if we could expect more of the same over the weekend and regretting our decision to splash out on a high-end resort!!  However, as it turned out, that was the only rain we would see during the five days we were away.  The rest of the time was hot and sunny - perfect weather to enjoy the relaxing activities we'd planned!!

The train journey to Phan Thiet was slow - five and a half hours instead of the scheduled four - mainly due to the fact that it is single track for most of the way so we had to keep waiting in sidings for oncoming trains to pass.  Once in Phan Thiet, it's a 300,000 VND taxi fare to Mui Ne, so, on balance I think we would recommend getting there by tourist bus rather than by train.  Many operators ply the route, picking you up in the Pham Ngu Lau area of Saigon and taking you right to the door of your hotel. 

We chose to stay at a new resort, Villa Aria, and from check-in to check-out we really enjoyed our stay!  Our garden room was extremely comfortable with quality furnishings both inside and outside on our terrace.  The bathroom was luxurious and we were supplied with quality natural toiletries to use.  The resort grounds were landscaped beautifully with meticulous attention to detail.  A nice touch was a large terracotta pot filled with water outside each room containing a coconut ladle so that you could wash your feet rather than trail sand indoors!  The infinity pool was lovely and we made full use of it during our stay.  The restaurant was open to the beach with nicely decked areas where guests could sit and enjoy the seaview.  Breakfast was extremely good.  We were disappointed by the lunch that we had on the second day.  Maybe we were unlucky, but we decided not to eat at the resort again, other than for breakfast.  This wasn't a problem as there is such a wide choice of eating places in close proximity to the resort.

We spent our days in and around the pool and beach, reading and listening to music.  The purpose of the weekend was to relax and unwind so that is exactly what we did!  We did venture out a couple of times.  We went on an excursion to nearby Mount Takou which you can read about here.  We also went to see the fishing village in Phan Thiet.  We were there at the wrong time of day to see the buying and selling activity, but we did see the brightly coloured fleet in the harbour and the squid laid out on racks to dry in the sun.  On our way to and from the fishing village, we drove through acres and acres of dragon fruit farms.  The area around Mui Ne produces most of Vietnam's dragon fruit and this is the time of year when most of it is harvested.  I hadn't given a thought to how it grew before and was fascinated to see it.  The farmers begin by sinking one metre high concrete posts into the ground.  Two small dragon fruit plants are planted at the base of each post and trained to grow up and around it.  The plant looks like a cactus and the striking-looking fruits appear at the end of the leaves of the succulent.

We ate some very good food during our time in Mui Ne.  We had very cheap local food one night and very expensive Western food another, but the culinary highlight had to be the pizza we had at Good Morning Vietnam Pizzeria!!  We had eaten here during our previous stay in Mui Ne and were not disappointed by our second visit!  The pizzas were the best we have eaten outside of Italy with delicious thin crusts cooked in an authentic wood-burning pizza oven.  The accompanying insalata mista was pretty good, too!!

For a chilled-out weekend we loved Mui Ne and will definitely be back!!

See more of our photos here.

Mount Takou - home to the largest reclining Buddha in south-east Asia?

Gardens at the base of Mount Takou
Although our recent weekend in Mui Ne was a chance to relax, we felt that we should see something of what the area had to offer whilst we were there.  So, after dinner on our first evening, we visited several of the local travel agents to find out what was available.  When we eventually found someone who spoke English and had written itineraries in English (most of the local tour operators were catering for the majority Russian-speaking tourists!), we negotiated the hire of a Jeep and driver to take us to Mount Takou ('Ta Cu' in Vietnamese), an hour's drive away.  The blurb in the travel agent's office told us that the site was the home of the largest reclining Buddha in south-east Asia, but in our 'Rough Guide to Vietnam' it merited hardly a mention so we weren't overly optimistic about what we would see!

The endless cable car!
So, at 7.30 on the Sunday morning, after a cracking breakfast, we were picked up from our hotel and driven in an open Jeep to the base of Mount Takou.  Our driver had very little English, but was able to make us understand that he would pick us up again in two and a half hours.  We couldn't see anything from where we were standing and wondered why we needed so long!  However, we didn't have much choice but to trust him and so we said goodbye!

We bought our round-trip tickets for 90,000 VND each (less than $5) and walked to the massive entrance gate where two uniformed officials checked them for us!!  A small tram was waiting to take us the short distance through the landscaped gardens to the cable car station, but we still had to climb quite a few steps before we actually reached it.  Despite the early hour, the temperature was already well into the thirties and the effort required to make the climb meant that we were sweating by the time we got into the cable car!  Once in the cable car, we began to ascend.  We couldn't see our destination - it was obviously going to be a long ride!!  As we went higher, the views of the surrounding countryside got more and more spectacular.  The mountain was covered in dense forest, but as we got above the treeline, we could see smaller hills and peaks laid out below us.

The restored pagoda
Eventually, we reached the high point of the cable car ride, but we didn't stop there.  Instead, we descended again to the station, where we disembarked.  I had expected to see a large reclining Buddha somewhere, but I should have known better!!  It is never that easy!!  Whenever you visit any of these religious sites you know that some serious effort is required before you get the prize!!  From where we got off the cable car, we could see a large, elaborate gateway in the distance.  As we got closer to it, we could see a massive flight of steps beyond!  Having made the effort to get to the top of these steps, it became clear that we were still nowhere near the Buddha!  We were, in fact, in an old pagoda which is currently being restored and we had several hundred more steps to climb before reaching the summit!  We passed several statues and shrines along the way where we could stop to take pictures and catch our breath.

Worth all the effort!
Finally, we were on the final leg - climbing some very awkward, uneven steps through some dense forest.  We kept catching glimpses of the brilliant blue sky through the tree canopy.  Suddenly, the azure blue was replaced by dazzling white as we saw parts of the Buddha for the first time!  As we emerged from the forest, the splendour of the statue was revealed in its full glory.  It was truly magnificent and well worth the effort it took to get there!!  At 50 metres in length and 11 metres in height, it is indeed the largest reclining Buddha in Vietnam.  It is certainly larger than the stunning golden reclining statue in Bangkok, too.  So, unless someone has evidence to the contrary, I have to accept the information from the local tour operators in Mui Ne and declare the Ta Cu reclining Buddha the biggest in south-east Asia!  Come on, Rough Guides, let's give it a bit more of a write-up in the next edition!!

50m long and 11m high!!
See more of our photos here.

Adjusting the Control: Management of the Teaching and Learning Process

This was the title of the second presentation of the recent Cambridge Day I attended. The speaker was Stuart Vinnie and what follows is a summary of his workshop.

'Teachers open the door. You go through it by yourself.'
Chinese proverb.

This was the focus of the session: teachers as facilitators, encouraging learning through motivating both their students and themselves. A learner-centred classroom doesn't mean that learners are running the show, but rather considers the interaction between the learners, their interests and their needs, and the teacher. It allows learners to contribute, share and take an active role in the learning process. Likewise, a teacher-centred classroom doesn't necessarily mean that the teacher always leads; a teacher needs to behave in different ways throughout the lesson in order to successfully engage their learners. The key is in finding the middle ground.

Here are some of the roles that teachers adopt:
The teacher….
prepares and reflects on the lesson before teaching, anticipates problems and selects, designs and adapts materials.
organises the learning space, makes sure everything in the classroom is running smoothly and sets up rules and routines (i.e. things which are done regularly) for behaviour and interaction.
goes around the class during individual, pair and group work activities, checking learning and providing support as necessary.
provides opportunities for learning, helps learners to access resources and develop learner autonomy.
works out the cause of learners’ difficulties.
can be used by the learners for help and advice about language.
evaluates the language level and attitudes of the learners by using different means of informal and formal assessment.
tries to create a good relationship with and between learners.
thinks about the class after it has ended.
finds out why something worked or didn’t work.
uses PLNs through, for example, Twitter and Facebook to share ideas with other teachers throughout the world.

The key to managing both the teaching and the learning process is in understanding these roles and recognising when and how they should be used in different parts of a lesson. It is important to analyse and reflect on activities we use in class in order to improve them for future use. A pro-forma like this is very useful:

Skills used?
Language focus?
Teacher’s role?
Learner’s role?

Let's take a question and answer activity as an example. Give students a picture of a famous person or cartoon character (David Beckham, Harry Potter, Minnie Mouse, etc.) and tell them to imagine that they are a journalist going to meet this person for the first time. They have to think of ten pertinent and interesting questions to ask. A second student is given the same picture and they have to imagine that they are the famous person. A role-play follows between the journalist and the celebrity.

If we analyse this activity:

Skills used?
  • Listening
  • Speaking
Language focus?
  • Question formation
  • Tenses
Teacher’s role?
  • Supervisor
  • Motivator
  • Facilitator
Learner’s role?
  • Thinker
  • Imaginer
  • Pretender
  • Yes
  • Change roles
  • Use different pictures

We also need to think about the interaction patterns of each activity and consider whether traditional patterns can be changed to put the onus more on the learner than the teacher. We need to encourage student collaboration and student autonomy as much as possible.

Some activity ideas:

1.   Pyramid discussion - start with students talking about a topic in pairs. Then the pairs join with another pair to discuss the same question in a group of four. Then these groups join with another group to share their ideas.
2.   Dictation exercise - students work in small groups. The teacher dictates a sentence. The students write the sentence on a piece of paper and then pass their paper to the person on their left. The students look at the sentence written on their paper and circle any errors. The teacher reads the second sentence. The student writes this sentence down and then passes on the paper again. Every time a student gets a new piece of paper, he or she looks at the sentences already written on it and circles the errors before writing the new sentence. At the end of the activity, the collaborative error correction is consolidated so that all students know the correct sentences.
3.   Homework choice - allow students to choose their own homework. For example, they could pick four exercises from two pages of a workbook, or seven questions from an exercise of ten.

'Students can't be taught - they can only be helped to learn ...... our role is to help and encourage students to develop their skills, but without relinquishing our more traditional role as a source of information, advice and knowledge. Together our role is to make sure everyone benefits from the lesson and supports one another.'
Leo Jones, 'The Student-Centred Classroom' (CUP 2007)

'....everyone has a unique perspective on the world and their place within it. Each of us will approach language learning tasks in a different way as a result of this. Thus, the teacher must seek ways of enabling their learners to take control of their learning. By empowering them in this way, we can help learners to become truly autonomous.'
Marion Williams & Robert Burden, 'Psychology for Language Teachers' (CUP 1997)