Explaining Coral to Filipinos

I have been doing so much class observation. It is beneficial because there is so much about the educational system that confuses me still, despite having spent weeks here. Many times, my counterpart does not involve me with his lesson planning. (However, after observing several classes of his, I realize that he just reads from the book and does not actually plan any lesson.) Today, I didn’t feel like I could bear the monotony of it all, so I volunteered to do the lesson, despite no preparation.

My counterpart handed me the textbook, a listening lesson on coral reef destruction in the Philippines. I briefly glanced at the 5 paragraph editorial about dynamite fishing and environmental standards in the Philippines. The page was littered with big words. At once I knew I was in over my head. In this class, the lowest section I teach, I knew that the level of the reading was far higher than the student’s abilities.

As I prepared to begin the reading, I tried to identify some key vocabulary, some of the harder words within the editorial. I was standing in front of room of blank faces. They clearly could not understand a word I was saying. I didn’t even have chalk to write on the chalkboard with. Still, I encouraged the students to write down some of the words and phrases they could not understand, even if they could not spell or pronounce them correctly. I was hoping that my counterpart could help me translate these words into Ilocano to help the students. However, he had already left the classroom about five minutes ago. I was completely on my own.

I read the selection loudly and slowly, doing my best to pronounce all the words as clearly as possible. The selection detailed the problems of coral reef destruction. It discussed the immense number of coral reefs indigenous to the Philippines. Some of these reefs take millions of years to grow but they can de destroyed so quickly by dynamite fishing methods, over-fishing and destruction of the local ecosystem, and the harvesting of coral for jewelry-making. After the reading, I asked the students to identify the words they could not understand.

One girl slowly stood up, avoiding eye contact, covering her face with her handkerchief (the dreaded nose-bleed). Finally, after a bit of extreme encouragement, which consisted of me smiling the biggest smile I could muster and waving my arms around a bit, she said,

“Coral riff, Mahm.”

I was flabbergasted. The coral reefs in the Philippines are admired by people all over the world, yet Filipino students do no know what coral is! I froze in place, unsure of what to do next. (Really, I just wanted to quit right then and sheepishly sneak out the back door.) I had no translation available to me. I was desperate. I asked another student to explain what coral is. Blank stares.

Desperately, I looked around the room for help. I pointed to a green fern plant in the windowsill.

“This is like Coral,” I said. “But coral lives under the sea, beneath the ocean. Coral is very beautiful, napintas ti coral, and it takes a very long time to grow… How long will this plant take to grow? It starts as a seed,” I pinch my thumb and forefinger together as if holding a tiny seed.  “…and then it grows into a big plant.” I move my palms together and apart to identify the growing. At this point, I’m sure I’m just babbling.

How much time will it take…” I point to the plant, “for the plant to grow big like this?”

A student raises their hand. “Two months, Mahm.”

“Yes!” I’m ecstatic, thankful that they did understand a few words I said and that I wasn’t just standing in front of the class playing a strange game of charades.

I continue, “But Coral, a plant like this, that lives under the ocean…” I point to the plant, “can take millions of years to grow.” Once again, I do the charades of the seed growing into a plant, explaining that it does not take two months, but many, many years for coral to grow. The students are more engaged now. But I’m not sure if is just because I’m waving my arms around like a baboon or if they actually understand what I am saying.

“But then the fishermen come to fish in the ocean. Sometimes they use dynamite,” I make an explosive sound and force my palms open and up. “Do you know dynamite?” The students nod. I feel like I am trying to teach first graders and not high school students. But I have their attention and so I continue.

“The fisherman come and they blow up, they use the dynamite…” I once again explode my hands, “On the coral,” I point to the plant. “The coral is killed very fast and it is very sad. Do you think that it is sad?” The students nod. “…So please if you see the fisherman using the dynamite to kill the coral, you will tell them that it is wrong to kill the coral. Ok, maawatan?” The students smile and nod their heads.

I’m feeling incredibly anxious, almost as if I have failed my students, though I have to giggle at myself for my witty tirade of charades. (Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.) If I could have prepared a lesson, I could have tried to bring in pictures of coral, vocabulary translations, and visual aids. In the least, I could have brought chalk with me. I am apprehensive about how much the students really have learned today.

I’ve never felt gladder to hear the ringing of the bell to end the class. I expected the students to stand and repeat their formal goodbye, thank-you teacher spiel; however they all begin to pull pink and red roses out of their book bags. 40 students rushed to the front of the classroom, showering me with dozens of plastic roses, and hand-made cards.

It’s Valentine’s Day. I have forgotten. On the cards, my name is spelled about 5 different ways. I open one card made out of red construction paper. It is decorated with a cute picture of Garfield the cat and colorful cut-out hearts. The inside of the card reads, “Happy Valentines Day Mahm. Thank you for everything we love you.”

I am speechless.



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