In order to concentrate on (their) pronunciation skills without relying on rote call-and-response tactics, I decided to teach pronunciation through song: Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.”
By Rachel Weber
“When eating the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” This Vietnamese proverb reminds us to be grateful for the simple blessings we have and to not take for granted the people who have worked hard, so we can benefit. The quote implies an awareness of our own existence in relation to the world and demands a moral obligation to honor and respect our surroundings.
With this sense of gratitude and with a little more humility, I traveled to Quynh Thanh, Vietnam in July 2016 with the Vietnam Education Project (VNEP) to teach young English language learners.
Quynh Thanh is a small, rural village (xã in Vietnamese) on the North Central Coast of the country. The village is home for many underserved and impoverished families, who cannot afford to send their children to the expensive language schools typically found in the bigger cities.
Only about 5.2% of the population attends University, and about 60% of children 15 years and older will typically go to work for their parents in the agricultural business. The villagers have limited interaction with foreigners and foreign media.
The VNEP, a start-up organization that works to develop educational programs and cultural exchange opportunities for underprivileged youth, aimed to bridge the cultural and linguistic barriers in Quynh Thanh by instituting a summer English language camp.
I joined the program in its pilot year and was able to work with the director to create a curriculum and structure courses for students aged 10 to 17. The curriculum focused on three themes: In the Classroom, Self-identity, and The World Around Us.
As a public high school teacher for the past 13 years, I have had the privilege to engage with so many kinds of learners and wanted to apply my professional and academic expertise to a new and dynamic context. Since many of the students had limited interaction with native English speakers, I found that pronunciation was challenging for them.
In order to concentrate on their pronunciation skills without relying on rote call-and-response tactics, I decided to teach pronunciation through song. One of the most successful units that I taught to my 17-year-old students connected Michael Jackson’s, “Heal the World,” with the theme: The World Around Us. Along with having the students memorize and sing the song, I wanted to emphasize the song’s message: a person can change the horrors and atrocities that exist in society through acts of kindness and love.
The students learned the song through gap exercises and minimal-pair pronunciation practice. I also broke up the song into “chunks” of text which we rehearsed each day for 2 weeks.
To underscore the theme, I scaffolded critical thinking questions and asked students to brainstorm current problems that they find in their village. I modeled some examples of possible concerns based on current American issues in order to familiarize students with American culture.
The students came up with problems in Vietnam such as environmental concerns, poverty, and educational inequalities. They then had to develop possible ways to remedy the issues and explain their role in “making the world a better place.”
After the first two weeks of the summer camp, we celebrated with a picnic and asked the students to perform the song in front of the entire school. This was one of the most moving experiences that I have ever had as an educator. To witness the excitement, willingness, and overall joy that beamed from the students as they sang was overwhelming and humbling for me.
Ultimately, the communicative and interactive exchange with my Vietnamese students was invaluable to me as an educator and helped me to promote a sense of cultural understanding and empathy to both students and faculty when I returned to my classroom in the US.
I look forward to returning to Vietnam and seeing the impact that the program has had on the children of Quynh Thanh. I am forever changed by the experiences that I had there, and I am forever grateful for getting the opportunity to impact children’s lives in a meaningful way.
About the writer:
Rachel Weber has been teaching high school English for 13 years and currently teaches AP English Language and Composition at Sachem High School East in Farmingville, Long Island, NY.
She is also an adjunct professor at Adelphi University where she teaches English for Professional Purposes course. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College.