Tag Archives: language

The Sexy Woodsman

(Note: I am traveling for the next few days, but please stay tuned for pictures of Paris!)

Teaching classic children’s stories to my students has been a lot of fun, but there are some challenges.  Some of the vocabulary is kind of story specific.  I mean, a non-native English speaker can survive without knowing the word “porridge,” although it’s awfully important to Goldilocks when she gobbles down Baby Bear’s breakfast.

Recently I’ve been reading Little Red Riding Hood to my primary students, or “Piroska” in Hungarian.  I now appreciate what a mouthful Little Red Riding Hood is to say.

First, I showed them a picture of a hood.

Then, I showed a cloak (which some of my boys know from a computer game) because the word is used in the story.

We kind of skipped over the riding part.  I mean, she did not ride a horse to grandma’s house.  If she had, maybe she wouldn’t have stopped to talk to the wolf, and the wolf wouldn’t have eaten her and grandma.

This is how the lesson went:

Me: Say “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Students: “H-ooooooooooo-d.”  (They draw out all their double-o’s like in “moo” or “boo.”)

Me: (pointing to Red’s picture) “Who is she?”

Students: “Piroska!”

Me: Good.  (*mentally banging my head against a wall*) But in English, she’s Little Red Riding Hood.

Student: But what is her name?

Me: Little Red Riding Hood IS her name.

(Maybe I should have just said that it’s Sarah.)

We then spent a few minutes pronouncing hood, woods, book, and look.

After I read the story, the students had to write a few sentences using their vocabulary words.

One fourth grade boy’s sentence: The woodsman is sexy.

Not what I expected from a nine-year-old, but at least it was grammatically correct.

The fifth graders decided today that Little Red Riding Hood would invite Justin Bieber to her birthday party.  They would do karate and eat wolf meat and wolf cake.  She would get a wolf fur cloak as a present.  Evidently Red carries a grudge.

And, of course, they would listen to LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It.”  (If you don’t know this song, be thankful.)



Filed under Hungary, Language, Teaching

Back to Burger Land

While I am traveling this week, here are some excerpts from life in an ESL classroom:

Fifth grade student entering class: “Are we going to draw Justin Bieber getting . . .” (She paused to mime someone being grabbed) “by aliens?” (Apparently, word had passed from sixth grade to fifth grade about this activity.)

“No, we’re watching The Three Little Pigs.”

She paused to translate this in her head, then gasped, “A három kismalac!” and skipped off to spread the word that we would be watching a video.

Even my 5th and 6th graders love this story.  They have to fill in the missing words in the dialogue.  It is a challenge for them, and they are determined to get the right answer.

Unfortunately, I now have three different versions memorized and fall asleep chanting to myself, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

. . .

Fourth grade student describing her alien planet:

“There is Ms. Rebman, a goat, a volcano, and Buzz Aldrin sticking the flag [in the ground].”

She seems to really love goats, so I guess it’s a compliment that I was selected to be on the planet as well.

On another student’s planet, Buzz Aldrin’s grandma was a cannibal.  All I can say is: !?!?!!?!?????

. . .

A conversation Jesse had with a student:

“Sorry for asking, but why are you here?  I mean, why come to Hungary?”

“To teach you.”

“Are you coming back next year?”


“Oh, so you’re going back to Burger Land?”


“Burger Land.  Isn’t that where you’re from?”

“I’m from Ohio.”

“So where is Burger Land?”

“What?  There is no Burger Land.”

This student is about eighteen years old, and he was not being sarcastic.  He truly believed that Jesse came from Burger Land, USA.  I would fear that this indicates something is horribly awry with Hungary’s education system if it produces kids who think Burger Land is an actual place, but Jesse tells me that the other students in the class were looking at him like he was crazy.

How the student got this idea is a mystery.

I suspect it has something to do with the omnipresence of McDonald’s across the globe.

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Filed under Hungary, Language, Teaching

The Lion Who Escaped from the Zoo

Every day, I come home and share with Jesse the charming things my students said. For example . . .

Fourth grade boy: “My house has a bedroom, a living room, a chicken . . . I mean kitchen . . .”

Kindergarten girl while tugging on my sleeve: “Ma HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” (Ma is “today” in Hungarian.  She was communicating that “Today is my birthday.”)

Kindergarten boy on entering the classroom: “Biscuits!”

How awesome is it that a student loves a word so much and is so excited about learning English that he just starts spewing vocabulary as soon as he comes into the classroom?

The kindergartners also love to chant “One, two, cha, cha, CHA!”  I should get video footage of them doing the cha cha slide.

Unfortunately, my students frequently say some not-so-charming things.  At the end of the day, I play these over and over in my head, and try to think how I can better respond to such situations in the future.

For example, one kindergarten boy always tells another boy that his picture is “csunya,” or ugly.  The boy he insults is honestly a little crayon challenged, but he’s doing the best he can.  With our limited common vocabulary, all I can do is say, “That’s not nice!  The picture is nagyon szép (very beautiful)!”

I am most troubled by the comments my high school students make.  I know that teenagers are genetically programmed to say and do inappropriate things, and that my role as teacher is to provide consequences when this happens.  I have to create a safe learning environment.  Some days this is really hard.

For example, last week a student was reading a story aloud and said, “The lion killed all the gypsies and became a national hero.”

My introvert instincts kicked in.  I was shocked and horrified, but I couldn’t immediately respond.  I needed time to think.  I needed peace and quiet, not a room full of squirmy adolescents.  I wish I had a remote control so that I could push a button and pause my students.  That hasn’t been invented yet, so we moved on with the lesson.

I left the classroom feeling horrible and frustrated with myself for not addressing the comment.

Later that day, when my tenth graders made fun of the homeless, gypsies, drug users, victims of sexual assault, as well as another student, I stopped class and addressed their choice of subjects.  This was a story about a lion that escaped from the zoo, for goodness sake.

I gave them a lecture about choosing different topics for humor.  I pointed out that homeless people died in the recent cold spell, gypsies are poor and have hard lives, and drug users suffer and die because of their addictions, etc.  None of those are things to laugh about.  I wish we’d had time for a dialogue instead of a lecture.  At least I communicated that they’d crossed a line.  Some of them rolled their eyes, of course, but hopefully next time they will choose their words more carefully.

(If I were a doctor, I would research why the onset of puberty causes teenage eyeballs to come loose.  I’m surprised they don’t fall out and roll all over the classroom floor.)

Teaching is a roller coaster.  I left that lesson feeling very low.  I am just here to teach English conversation, but showing compassion to other’s is an important life skill.  It’s also very hard to teach.  Some would say impossible.

I draw inspiration from one of my own teachers, a sociology-anthropology professor I had in college.  She exuded passion, calm, and kindness.  She challenged us to reflect on our beliefs and our worldview.  We not only examined our ideas, but we adjusted them.  I would like to help my students do the same.

Yesterday, my lesson with the tenth graders went well.  I passed out coloring pages (including scenes from Cinderella, Spider Man, Ninja Turtles, and Sponge Bob Square Pants).  Partner A had to describe the picture to Partner B, who drew the picture.

Not only does this group have a surplus of hyperactive boys, but in the past few months three of them started dating girls who are also in the class.  This is mildly nauseating to witness, and causes them to get distracted during the lesson.

Luckily, “Zsolt’s” girlfriend was absent yesterday.  Zsolt is about six foot tall and spends a lot of time weight lifting.  He also spends a lot of time putting gel in his hair every morning so that it stands up at the perfect angle.  He is a good English speaker but is rarely engaged in my lesson.

This is what I overheard as he worked with “Patrik”:

“There is a pig in the lower middle part of the paper.”  He beckoned me over.  “What is this?  I don’t know how to say this in English.”

“Fence,” I told him.

“There is a fence around the house. . .”

Meanwhile, Patrik laboriously sketched the pig, the fence, and the wolf in the lower right corner of the page.  They worked intently for fifteen minutes, barely glancing at their buddies behind them (who were off task) except to ask them how to say something in English.

At the end of the lesson, I asked the students when they might encounter terms such as “lower right” and “upper middle” in real life.  They thought for a second, and then said:

  • At the dentist’s office when the dentist is telling his assistant which tooth to remove
  • At an art gallery
  • In a math lesson
  • When talking about a map

One week ended on a low, and the next week ended on a high.

After a good lesson, I feel as great as if I just ran five miles.  On days when I get that feeling, I know that I am in the right profession.


Filed under Language, Teaching

The Sounds of the Classroom

New Picture Cards

When I was struggling during my first year of teaching, a coworker advised me that at some point I would “hit my stride.”  I wouldn’t anxiously anticipate whether the lesson would be a disaster or not.  I would know what to expect.

Knock on wood, I think I have hit my stride.

After 1.5 years in the classroom, I am painfully aware that I am still a beginner teacher.  Had I landed a job in an affluent school district teaching middle school math and social studies three years ago, I might be more confident right now.  However, I would not have challenged myself, and I would have missed out on some important, if painful, life lessons.

Instead, I taught remedial reading for a year in a high-poverty urban high school.  I took a year off from teaching to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA.  Now, midway through the school year in Hungary, I know roughly what to expect from each of my 24 different groups of students.  For instance, one group of ninth graders will inevitably take twice as much time to complete an assignment as the other.

Nevertheless, students are filled with surprises.  Some things they say make me smile, others make me cringe, and others blow me away with their intelligence and creativity.

For example:

A sixth grade student during a superheroes lesson: “I want x-ray vision so I can look through girls shirts.” (They grow up far too young.)

During the same lesson: “Orbán Viktor lies, steals, and gets the country into debt.” (Orbán Viktor is the Hungarian Prime Minister.  I had no idea that a lesson about superheroes could turn political, especially with sixth grade.)

An earnest twelfth grade student: “Ms. Rebman, where do I write my magic number?” (They were playing the elementary school classic MASH to predict a classmate’s future.)

An eleventh grade boy: “Ms. Rebman, you can’t marry Brad Pitt!  You’re already married!” (Subtext: He wishes I were single.  About half of my eleventh grade boys have a crush on me, which both amuses me and makes me feel uncomfortable.)


A second grade girl telling me what items she is selling in her store: “Bikini, lip gloss, Lady Gaga and Rihanna t-shirt, and shoes.” (Again, they grow up too young.)

A fourth grade boy: “Ms. Rebman, in Sims II, a robber took everything from my house.  He stole the TV and the bed.” (I helped him with the words robber and stole.) “Then the police killed the robber!”

Another fourth grader: “Ms. Rebman, can I have my own piece of paper?”

Me: “Atti, It is important to work with Bence. I’m excited to see the menu that you two make.”

Atti: “I want pizza cream.  Bence doesn’t want pizza cream.  I will make my own menu.”

Me: “Bence, why don’t you let Atti serve pizza cream for lunch.  Atti, Bence gets to decide what you serve for dinner.”

The boys looked at each other, nodded, and worked together happily for the rest of the period.  I have no idea what the hell pizza cream is.

An adorable first grader: “Anyám azt mondja, hogy nem tudod a magyar!” At least, I think that’s what he said.  The translation is: “My mom says that you don’t know Hungarian!”  I love that he said this to me in Hungarian.  The youngest students really struggle with the fact that I don’t know their language.  They assume that if they can speak it, then everyone else can, too.

Kindergartners at the end of class: “Szia, Mickey!  Szia, angol néni!” (Good bye, Mickey!  Good bye, English aunt!”

Sometimes I am surprised at the things I say.

Me, modeling how to play MASH: “Maybe I’ll marry Justin Bieber, have 50 kids, and live on Pluto.”

Me, walking into a lesson with class 13: “Zoli, put on your pants!”

Me, also with class 13: “Daniel, you have to wash the crayon off your desk before you may leave the classroom.”

Me to class 10: “Boys!  Stop drawing on each other’s faces with crayon and finish your flag!”

My classroom is often filled with laughter.  Occasionally it devolves into shouting and chaos.  Sometimes a hush falls over the room, and the only sound is the scratching of colored pencils as first graders color their farms, or the tap-tap-tap of pens as high school students cross off MASH boxes to predict their classmates’ futures.

My own farm artwork

Teaching is a dynamic, challenging, and exhausting profession.  At the end of the week, I just want to curl up on the couch with a  cup of tea and a book.  Which is exactly what I will do this weekend because snow is falling and the temperature is hovering around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

I feel like I’m back in Kalamazoo.

But I am looking forward to going to school on Monday and wondering what surprising things the students will say or do next week.

*I changed all students names*



Filed under Hungary, Language, Teaching

At Home in Debrecen

Last week was the first week of the second semester, marking the halfway point of our stay in Hungary.  Yesterday, I started looking at tickets home.  I was a bit alarmed by the prices.

Although I am not ready to pick up and go home tomorrow, I am feeling the tug of the U.S.A.  But I know that teaching in Hungary is a once in a lifetime experience, and if I don’t focus on the present, then I will miss out on moments of joy and opportunities to connect with others.

So here’s a summary of January so far:

1.  I learned that if you give crayons to teenagers, some students will revert to kindergarten mode.  They will draw on their desks and on each other’s faces.

2.  I led my ninth graders in singing the Star Spangled Banner–after they listened to Beyonce’s version.  Please note: my voice is not as good as Beyonce’s.  My students were kind, though.  They had persuaded me to sing a Hungarian Christmas carol back in December, so they knew what they were in for.

3.  My fourth graders spent about ten minutes one class period talking to each other about how much they love lektor class and how much they love me.  They also loved their previous American teachers.  I appreciated the ego boost nonetheless.

4.  There has been a lot of hokey-pokey-ing.  My students were unfamiliar with the song.  It is a great way to review body parts, and a little exercise at the beginning of class does wonders for calming them down.

5.  After reading “The Ant and the Grasshopper” to my students several dozen times, I now have it memorized.  I realized that I am not comfortable with Aesop’s moral that if you don’t work, then you shouldn’t eat.  It doesn’t exactly capture the complexities of obtaining employment in the twenty-first century.

6.  Jesse and I had dinner with my coworker’s family.  In Hungarian homes, pálinka (fruit brandy that is often 100 proof or more) is an appetizer.  After the pálinka, a bottle of wine was quickly opened.  Let’s just say that our glasses were refilled throughout the night.  The food was delicious, and the company was great.

7.  I spent a quiet hour at the refugee camp working with just two kids: “Vera,” a fourteen-year-old girl from Kosovo, and “Ahmed,” a ten-year-old boy from Afghanistan.  I taught them some animal words and gave them a cut-and-paste worksheet.  All three of us colored happily for about twenty minutes.

Vera told me about her dreams of going to America one day.  She was concerned that I might be homesick, which was touching and humbling considering that she has been living in a refugee camp for six years.

Ahmed is a very serious boy.  He smiled when I made animal noises, but didn’t join in.  He learned words rapidly, and it was clear that he is extremely intelligent.  I can picture him becoming an engineer or doctor–if he gets the opportunity to do so.

The future for these children is very uncertain, but if I remind myself to live in the present, then I appreciate that right now they are safe.  They have food, shelter, and clothing.  Considering the state of Ahmed’s homeland, this is not something to be taken for granted.

8.  After a light snowfall, I took a walk in the woods and enjoyed watching the mallards on the half-frozen pond. I was captivated by the patterns and reflections on the water.  The temperature doesn’t stay below freezing long here, so if an inch of snow falls one day, it usually melts the next.

2012 is off to a good start.


Filed under Hungary, Language, Teaching, Volunteering