It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Point (A Study in Serious College Life)

31 Aug

My students in the university are mostly polite, kind, hard-working, and fun to teach, despite the fact that I’m teaching them a required course that they most likely don’t want to take. While they often don’t do their homework, and aren’t necessarily learning lots of English, they are good students to work with. Except when it comes to playing games.

When it comes to competitions, they are suddenly different animals. I try to play games often because it’s usually a good way for students to engage and interact with the language. But at this university, my well-mannered, laid-back students suddenly turn into vicious pack animals, defending their teammates’ choices as if their lives depended on it, even when they know their teammate got it wrong.

In one recent game, the rules were that teammates could help the person up at the board, but only if they spelled the word in English, and spoke one at a time. I demonstrated the unacceptable behavior, just to be clear, shouting in Spanish as if I were several people talking hurriedly at once. “No point for that,” I said, wagging my finger like I do. But still they were only able to rein in their excitement and help in English a couple times. There were several rounds in which nobody got points. Mostly teams only got points if the person at the board was able to do it without help from their teammates, because they were incapable of following the rules about helping in English, one at a time.

One girl from my evening class, excellent at English but with a nasty little attitude when she wasn’t in a good mood, let out a banshee shriek every time her team didn’t win a point in the past-tense grammar game we were playing. Sometimes they get so riled up teachers from other classrooms come ask us to turn it down. I’ve had to raise my voice (which I dislike doing), and take away points, and even call the whole game off. I’ve had students storm out of class at the supposed injustice of it all. One of our English professors has turned all of his games into non-competitive versions of the activity because he says his classes this term are completely unable to handle the excitement in a civilized manner.

“English class is not a democracy!” I shouted at them one day, scolding their insistence that I give them points just for being close-to-correct, or because their teammates insisted that Team A wrote the answer first even though I saw Team B do it first. They declare wrongdoing at the drop of a hat, and question every whistle-blow by the referee (me).

I try not to take it personally, but it is a shame that they all talk at once when it’s about a game, and yet when I ask for questions or doubts while I’m teaching something new there is usually a great reign of silence. When I give them options about important things, trying to add in a little democracy, (“Do you all want more practice with possessive adjectives, or with question formation, or maybe jobs vocabulary?”) they tend to stare at me blankly, even when I’m asking them in Spanish, even when I give examples to make sure they know what I’m talking about.

Most of them are (tragically) shy, quiet, and reserved when it comes to their education, even though some of my quietest students pipe up suddenly in the intense moments of a game. Despite the fact that I applaud and otherwise reward students for asking questions in class, for making mistakes, for participating in general, it is a constant uphill battle. The other day we did a pre-quiz review and I asked several times in several different ways what else we needed to go over, if such-and-such made sense, etc. Yes, yes, they nodded, it’s all clear. But when I asked them at the end of class to write, anonymously, a sentence about what they learned today and a sentence about what they needed to study more, a ton of doubts and solid questions came out. Things came out that I could have helped them with in class before the quiz if they’d only spoken up. So I’m learning new tactics, reevaluating my methods. 

And I can’t help but wonder if they are not just products of their educational environment. I won’t even begin to tell you about the public education system in Oaxaca, and the dangers of a certain teachers’ union, and the shameful state of ignorance and complete lack of options. That is for a whole other blog post, one I will try to write soonish. But I will say that in general, university students around here are accustomed to a lack of choices, to being told what to do, and that’s that.

Every time I think about their lives in the university system here at this college, I am grateful that I attended college in the U.S. Sure, I had to take a few required courses (including one taught by a horribly boring biology professor, for example, and that tricky math class that took me half the semester to start to decode), but mostly I had choices. I had electives. I took some required courses within my major, and chose from a whole bunch of options for my other major-focused classes. I even got to do an independent study my senior year where I linked my two majors, writing a sociological paper in Spanish. I had lots of leeway about my schedule, only taking classes 3-4 days a week, freeing me up to work and play on the weekends. My total hours of class time never surpassed 16 per week, and were typically closer to 12 or 13. I usually didn’t choose any classes that started before 10:45 AM. It was heavenly compared to what these kids go through.

And they are all kids. There is no one who’s not in their teens or twenties. When I tell them I graduated from university with a woman in her sixties, they are so taken aback that their only comment is “really?” Then there is silence. Here college is an extension of high school, except more intense. They attend the same hours that I work: 8AM-1PM, then 4PM to 7Pm. They take seven courses a semester, each class lasting an hour a day, five days a week. There’s often not even really time for them to study, much less to have a job. Which is why people out of their twenties, once they have their own family to support, can’t really attend school. Even if they get a scholarship, which many people do, they still need someone to pay their other expenses- food and books and clothing and housing and all of that.

There is no on-campus housing, either. If students live in this town or close-by, they continue living with their parents. Or if they have another family member near-by, they stay with them. Our neighbors across the street, for example, now have a nephew living with them so he can go to school. If there are no family options then students have to rent a room- not an apartment, mind you, but a room in someone’s house. All the students come from Puerto Escondido or small towns in the region. Nobody comes down here from, say, Oaxaca City, just to study. The school is prestigious enough for the region, I think, but it’s not the kind of place someone would choose instead of a bigger university in a big city, given the option. It’s about like the small, regional university I chose to attend on that level.

I don’t think the students have many, if any, options about what classes they take within their major, either. And their classes are pretty much all related to their major, except for English. They have to choose their major before they even enter the university. There’s no “undeclared,” exploring-the-world, learning-about-different-subjects option.

I don’t know what happens if some 17 year old (as some students are when they finish high school and start college) studies, say, forestry in college and then realizes, a couple years in, that they hate it and don’t want to do anything related to forestry with their life. You’d have to have very patient and possibly wealthy parents to indulge you enough to let you start from scratch studying something else. But can you imagine having to know what you want to be when you grow up when you’re just 17 or 18? When I was 17 the only “lasting” goal in my head was to ride freight trains and backpack around other countries. But for these kids, the ones who have a chance to go to college at all in this very poor Mexican state, if they wait too long to decide they probably won’t have the chance at all- they’ll be expected to be earning money and probably raising their own family by then. Maybe in other Mexican states it’s different, but here in Oaxaca there’s no sort of “oh, you can go back to school when you’re ready, or when  you’re more mature” attitude or option. It really makes me see more reasons why the U.S. appears to be the great land of opportunity.

But because this is the norm around here, they typically don’t know enough to be outraged about it. They mostly feel lucky that they get to attend university, since so many people around here don’t even finish high school, and lots of women especially don’t finish middle school, for that matter. They have to expend so much energy attending their kajillion hours of weekly classes and trying to find time to study enough to not flunk out that I imagine they are too exhausted to protest.

It makes me wonder if games during English class are the only sort of fun they’re able to fit in most weekdays. I wonder if maybe it’s the only time they feel that they aren’t just doing what they have to be doing, following orders, continuing down their very clear, structured path. Although I wish they’d take more ownership over what they’re learning in class instead of speaking out over who buzzed in first in English jeopardy, I suppose it’s a start, that it’s at least a spark of interest and active participation. And meanwhile it’s my job to figure out how to work with their reservations, with their shyness, with their hesitation to speak up. I’m still the referee for games- I won’t be turning games into a democracy, much less the kind of chaotic anarchy the students would really delve into if I’d let them, but I’ll keep trying to find ways to sneak some autonomy and decision-making power into the rest of their English education. Whether they take me up on it or not will be up to them.

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