Teaching in Vietnam: An Interview with Amy Jammeh, former ELF

aaeaaqaaaaaaaab_aaaajdkyodcwztlkltu5nzktndq5ny04ngvjlthmnwfknwjkogezywIn this interview, I speak with Amy Jammeh, who was selected to participate in a U.S. State Department program (English Language Fellow) in Vinh, Vietnam. She is currently an instructor and my colleague in the Center for English Language Learning (CELL) at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

She is one of my favorite teachers to work with – energetic, passionate, and incredibly fun (for proof, skip to the video at the end of the post).  We talked about Vietnamese students and class culture, her roles as an ELF (English Language Fellow), and of course some travel tips. I had a great time chatting with Amy and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

Kris: What did you do in Vietnam for ELF?

Amy: I was in Vinh, Vietnam, which is north-central, closer to Hanoi. I was an English Language Fellow and my primary responsibility was teaching at the university. I taught freshman and sophomore speaking courses. I also facilitated as a faculty advisor for the English conversation club, which was otherwise student-led.

Also, I was in charge of doing some teacher development activities. For example, making presentations (about action research and other resources). I also had funds to sponsor teachers to attend different conferences.

I also got to present at ThaiTESOL and VietTESOL, which was the first TESOL (conference) in Vietnam, and I helped other presenters with their presentations – editing and that kind of stuff.

Our major project was created by a senior fellow named Jill Kester. She had the idea of creating a multi-university, national action research project, which had different stages. I was heavily involved with that project. It was her and six other ELFs in Vietnam, three universities total: one in the south, one in the center, and one in the north.

Kris: I want to get back to the action research later, but let’s talk about when you were teaching. They were speaking classes?

Amy: It was conversation, but it was also heavily pronunciation… We did talk a little bit about academic presentations, but more so communicative situations. And cultural: one of my roles was to be a cultural ambassador, so we had Thanksgiving parties; we had Christmas parties. I taught them about St. Patrick’s day. We did Easter stuff; we dyed eggs and all that kind of stuff. So it was also cultural as well.

Kris: Could you talk about the students’ goals for language learning and how motivated they were?

Amy: They’re studying at a four year institution, so their goal is to graduate. In Vietnam, they’re aggressively trying to create standards. When students graduate, they should have – I want to say – if you’re not an English major, like a B1. And then if you’re an English major then like a C1. So a lot of emphasis is on passing those tests.

And this is not only with the current students that I taught, but also with some of the teachers that I interacted with or did presentations with were also working towards that. So they were also trying to prepare their students, but also get their teachers at that level. And you’d be surprised, especially when you’re not dealing with university-level teachers, like when you’re talking about high school, elementary… and the more rural you get, the less English they have.

Kris: And did you find that they were motivated to meet those goals? Or was it kind of a mixed bag?

Amy: I think it was a mixed bag. I think I was a different case. I was in a town that did not receive a lot of foreign visitors, so I was treated like, I don’t want to say a queen, but I was treated as something special. And so the students were really, really motivated to speak to speak to me, to have my class, because A: I’m a native English speaker, B: I’m foreign and interesting, and my personality is already just kind of “out there”, and third, I had a different type of teaching style.

You know, when I did some observing, (with) most of the teachers it’s “teacher talk, students listen. ” It’s still the traditional “teacher has all the knowledge and let me just disperse it to you,” whereas my class was, in my opinion,  more engaging. I asked them to do things they had never done before like get up and move around. And so I think they were very motivated in my class.

But as a whole, I think they were motivated, but yet kind of your normal student too. Just trying to get through.

Kris: You already touched on this a little bit, but what were some challenges with teaching Vietnamese students specifically. Either language-wise, culture-wise…

Amy: Well, I think the big cultural thing is wanting them to speak. And, not saying they weren’t motivated, but they weren’t used to asking questions or things that we value in American education – not saying all American students do that – but we value an open discussion and the ability to question things. That wasn’t so prominent (in Vietnam).

And also, I don’t know if this was just Vietnamese, because this could be applied to Americans as well, but the lack of critical thought and trying to get them to think deeper. I think it could be a little bit cultural too, because from what I’ve seen, everything’s in the book and there’s a right and a wrong answer, and that kind of stuff.

And the shyness… A lot of the students were shy. You just had the handful who were really eager to come up and introduce themselves. But I did get a lot of Facebook requests saying “I’ve seen you many times and I’d like to come and talk to you,” and I’m just like “Come talk to me! I won’t turn you away.”

In terms of the teachers, I felt that there was a big break between university and, I guess you would call it K-12. Because there’s a big initiative to get English in Vietnam, some universities have taken charge of helping the teachers’ level of English in primary schools. Vietnam itself is very hierarchical, so the university professors seemed to soak up all of the knowledge and the resources made available to them, whereas it was hard to get the local or K-12 teachers involved.

conferenceAmy at a conference about action research

Kris: Let’s talk about Action Research. Let’s try to keep it simple, because I know you’ve got a lot of things to say about it.

Amy: I sure do.

Kris: Give me a short definition and then tell me how teachers can start implementing it.

Amy: A great book to read, I highly recommend it,  is by Anne Burns and it’s called Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. When I went to Vietnam, I had no idea what action research was, so I found this book to be pretty straightforward. And it gives you models of teachers doing action research throughout the different stages.

So basically, there are four, or maybe five key components: plan, act, observe, reflect, and then ideally there is replanning. It’s a cyclical process.

A teacher would identify a problem in their classroom. I’m going to talk to you about my action research in Vietnam. So, early on – I arrived in September, so I think it was in October – I started in my classes and everything, and my mentor Jill Kester came to visit me. We were doing some kind of activity, I think it was based around Halloween, and I just wanted to get [the students] in groups and have kind of like a gap-fill activity, and they just… weren’t participating. I couldn’t get them to speak in English.

So that was number one. And that wasn’t just that one day, they just didn’t speak. It could have been because I was new, could have been culture, could have been a lot of things, but I identified a problem. And that’s the first thing in action research: the teacher identifies a problem. It could be a small problem or a big problem. If it’s your first time, I would recommend doing a small problem and then just working from there.

The second step is to plan how you’re going to fix this problem. So you would go to the literature. If you’re doing formal action research, you’re going to see what others have said and how others have done it. And it is rigorous. It’s not supposed to be like “oh I’m having a problem, let me just Google some activity.” You do research to see how and what needs to be changed.

And then you make a plan. Jill had said, “You should think about doing something with cooperative learning. Because that’s really what you’re trying to implement, but it’s not been successful.”

I did some research. She mentioned the name (Spencer) Kagan, so I looked him up. That’s an awesome dude too. He’s the master of cooperative research. “Think, Pair, Share” – that’s a Kagan idea. And he’s got a lot of other little structures and cool things. So I did the research and got some activities that I could start implementing and I planned it out.

And the next stage is acting. You go and do it in your class.

And while you’re acting, you’re observing too. You can get quantitative or qualitative research. So in my action research, I went a little ambitious, and I did three different types of Kagan strategies.

Then I kept a journal, so after an activity or after class I went and quickly wrote down what I observed. Or while they were doing it, I wrote little notes while observing. I also did some quantitative research. I studied a group when I told them to do an activity: I observed them for five minutes and ticked when I heard them speaking English and which person spoke English.

And then I had time to reflect. I thought the Kagan strategies worked a lot better. They helped me meet my goal of trying to get them to participate more. I think they had fun doing it. But it also gave me more questions that I wanted to ask. And ideally, if I had more time, I would have planned another cycle of AR.

So, in a nutshell, that’s action research.

Kris: So it’s just kind of formalizing the process…

Amy: Yeah, I mean, in my opinion, as teachers, we do action research every day. But we don’t do it in a formalized manner. And I think that formalizing allows us to think of the process. And after doing that cycle of action research, I got really motivated.

Now, you know, just like when teachers attend conferences, they get all psyched up and then real life hits them and they can’t do as much sometimes.

And I want to tell you a little bit about the project with Jill Kester.

She designed a project where we would share action research and we would ask Vietnamese teachers to do action research.

So it started with an initial colloquium. We invited the university teacher who we were there with, but we also invited local teachers. Jill talked about what action research is. We showed models: I presented my model and she had two other Vietnamese teachers that she had worked with the previous year present their action research.

At the very end of the workshop, we left them with an application to apply to “From Action to ASEAN.” The participants were university teachers who we trained and mentored. I think I had five or six teachers who I mentored. And they did an action research project for four to six weeks – we just wanted them to do something real small.

During that time, we also provided conference skills workshops. I got to travel to another university in the north and do one of those workshops, where the participants learn how to make a good PowerPoint presentation, how to write your bio – conference skills. We were preparing these teachers who have done their action research to be able to present what they learned.

And then finally, we had the showcase: the culminating colloquium, where we invited more teachers to come. And at that point, we had the teachers (who we had trained) present instead of us. So the idea was that it was cyclical: the people who we trained then became mentors themselves.

So I thought that was a really awesome project. Action research is cool, but I liked the idea that the process is cyclical and sustainable.

terrace-vietnamA rice paddy in Sa Pa, Vietnam

Kris: OK, last question –

Amy: – would I do it again? Heck yeah!

Kris: OK (laughs) Well what should people definitely do if they travel to Vietnam?

Amy: You gotta eat street food. Don’t be afraid. I was very afraid. Then I became a street-food-aholic. That’s all I ate. It was super cheap, like a dollar. I ate it for every lunch and every dinner. Eat the street food.

Travel as much as you can, because the north and the south are completely different.

Kris: What was your favorite thing you saw?

Amy: Oh shoot…

Kris: Or… give me your top three.

Amy: Go to Sa Pa. It’s on the border of China. You’ll see indigenous people and a lot of Hmong and different groups. It’s becoming touristy, but you can also see rice paddies and the mountains.

And then I would go to Nha Trang for the beach. But I heard if you go to Phu Quoc, the island, it’s better.

And all the temples. I mean, so many temples. And each one is quite different. You gotta go to the temples.

If you’re in Hanoi, I definitely recommend eating their Pho, because they’re known for their Pho, and going to the ethnography museum. Because in Vietnam, there’s fifty-four indigenous groups, and at that museum you get to see them all.

If you’d like to get in touch with Amy, you can contact her at jammeh.amy@gmail.com.

And if you’d just like to see how fantastic of a performer she is, just enjoy the video below:

Thanks for reading.

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All photos and video courtesy of Amy Jammeh.
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