English Teaching Program, American Cultural Center, Antananarivo, January–April 1995.
The English Teaching Program was located in the American Cultural Center, which is a program of the U.S. Information Service. Learners in ETP were men and women, teenaged to middle-aged, students and professionals, mostly middle class, with fluency levels ranging from beginner to advanced. Everyone paid fees for their classes, except for a group of Malagasy journalists who were subsidized by USIS. I taught three and sometimes four advanced-level classes per day, with no previous teaching experience. It might be the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.
The 7:30a Advanced class was unique—a dozen Malagasy journalists who worked for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations. I tried to use the local English-language newspaper for topical lesson ideas, but the students never showed much interest in the O.J. Simpson case. For their final project, we videotaped a fake newscast using scripts they wrote in English about the local scandals and issues of the day. I was surprised by the amount of parody, impersonation, and social criticism in their reporting—they usually expressed themselves in less confrontational (and less potentially embarrassing) ways.
Some brief setups for the video excerpt:
1) The two guys are reporting on a government building nicknamed “the Pagode” (as in pagoda), which was the Malagasy president’s personal playpen and an affront to the people, who are among the poorest in the world.
2) The other news report uses dramatizations to expose an outbreak of bad manners on city buses.
This fake newscast was shot and edited quick & dirty using two different Hi-8 cameras, and the footage went through multiple PAL/NTSC format conversions before finally making the quantum leap from VHS to Flash. Subtitles would help, but that would be defeating the purpose of the project. We played the newscast at a reception for administrators and diplomats, and it killed.
The 9:10a Advanced class was supposed to be difficult. Other teachers warned that these students were young and easily distracted, but their enthusiasm turned out to be exactly what I needed. Class time always flew by because they were usually animated and energetic, even at that hour of the morning. Their final project was a class outing, so they formed committees to arrange transportation, food, lodging, photos, etc. All the planning was done in English (at least when I was within earshot), and all the conversations during the outing were supposed to be in English as well. The students had very little money for the trip, so one of the older guys called in a favor with the manager of a hotel/lake resort located about two hours outside the capital, and we had an entire weekend to use the facilities while bunking in an empty building on the property. The weather was gray and chilly, but nobody complained. The group was as lively outdoors as they were inside the classroom—singing, rowing, hiking, or playing touch football, cards, tennis. Our meals were in the hotel banquet room, with multiple courses and live entertainment. At night we took over the hotel disco and danced to Boys II Men and Mily Clement, a Malagasy superstar. The next week, during oral English exams, one of the girls described the outing to her examiner and said it was the best time of her life.
The 4:30p Advanced class was like a hybrid of my two morning classes—a mix of middle-aged and younger students. By the time we finished at 6:00p, I was in the 10th hour of my workday, and the advantage for them was that the lesson plan was pretty well honed by then. This was a smart, opinionated group that excelled when the school started emphasizing critical-thinking skills in the run-up to final exams. Their debates during class were fun to referee, with several of the women being particularly and unusually (for their culture) forceful while making their points, especially if the topic was controversial.