Friday, August 29, 2008

"Here is a funny classroom story" by OI Volunteer Hannah Hart

I will never get the song, “My Heart Will Go On” out of my head. Here’s why:
Last Friday I watched Titanic with my brother. Embarrassing, I know, but it is the one English film that everyone in the world knows and loves. It was a bonding moment. Anyway, I was listening to the ultra-famous ballad during the credits and noticed how Celine Dion warbled a lot of vocabulary that I had recently covered with my older classes: Between, Near, Far, Across etc. I decided to use the song as a tool for reviewing important vocabulary. I downloaded the song and printed out copies of the lyrics for all the students. At the beginning of my 8th grade class, I told the students to surround the computer and listen for the words that they knew. At first they looked at me with bewildered expressions, like, what the hell is this all about, woman? I passed out the pages with lyrics and started writing some of the familiar vocabulary on the board. After the song finished, I demonstrated some of the vocabulary that they learned last week, and some light bulbs started to come on as to the point of the exercise. Then, I told them to circle all of the words that they knew, and I walked around while they timidly started circling the big words that they knew. When the students looked stuck, I would point to a line, saying “Look, you know the words I, you, go, on” and they really started to see how much of the song they could piece together and understand. It became a bit of a competition, with students comparing how many words they knew, and counting their circles. Once everyone finished, I played the song again, and this time they could follow along. Some of the girls started singing. Finally, I asked them what film the song was from, and three girls shouted out, “Titanic!” I asked them what the song was about, and one of the girls sheepishly answered: “It is a love song.” Yes, it is about love, in capital letters! I really wanted to show them how many words they knew, and how they could figure out the general meaning of a song even without knowing what every word means. I want to call their attention to how much they know, instead of how much they don’t know. I want my classes to be as positive as possible. The exercise was successful, and I plan on doing it with the rest of the older classes this week. Wish me luck!

Here is a funny classroom story. Sara, the new volunteer teacher and I decided to split the huge ninth/eleventh grade class into two sections. We made circles of chairs on each side of the big classroom and watched the students divide themselves; predictably, the boys commandeered one side of the classroom while the girls took refuge on the other side. Sara took the boys, while I took the girls, and we began our simultaneous lessons on adjectives. We started out by writing simple sentences on the board like: A dog is ________, a baby is _________ and had them list as many adjectives as they could think of to describe those nouns. After a necessary but boring digression, explaining what an adjective is versus a noun or a verb, I had them describe my book bag and the classroom, introducing new and more abstract adjectives along the way. After that I paired them up and had the students describe each other, which brought forth much giggling. Although the exercise is embarrassing in nature, the girls became more and more aware that the boys were craning their necks, interested in what they were doing. After they finished the activity, I focused the girls’ wandering eyes back on the lesson, by asking them to describe me. At first, they were very complimentary, saying that I was beautiful and nice and sweet and kind and smart, and I jokingly basked in their praise. But when I called on a quiet but thoughtful girl, she looked at me a bit sheepishly and said: “Well, you are very white” and then dissolved in nervous giggling at her daring. Her friend then nudged her and said: “No no, she is black.” The class collapsed into hysterics as I started writing their sentences on the board, and one girl said gravely: “My teacher is very ugly,” and another chimed in “You are fat and mean!” While writing my bleak description on the board, Sara came up to me, looking amused. She gestured to the other side of the classroom and said: “Hannah, the boys would like to describe the girls.” I looked at the boys’ sheepish grins and directed my attention back to my class, saying: “Well girls, the boys would like to describe you, what do you think?” Without missing a beat, one of the eldest girls jumped up and put her hands on her hips, saying: “They are very bad boys!” The girls fell over each other, laughing, amid the boys indignant protests that they were not bad, they were good!” As it turns out, the girls did not allow themselves to be described, but coolly ignored the boys for the remainder of the class. It was priceless.

Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I have attempted to accomplish a lot. After a month of teaching grade 1-9, I decided to focus on the upper grades, namely 7-10. I divided the 7th grade into two sections: one section with about 20 students who were at the same level, and one with 12 students who were either quite advanced and could be learning more, or were behind and needed extra attention. I left the 8th grade intact, because the class had about 25 students who were all basically at the same level. The 9th grade class was a challenge, because the entire 9th grade was composed of about 40 students total, and some did not understand me when I asked them how old they were, while others could prattle in the past tense. I made one large beginning class, one smaller intermediate class, and two small advanced classes composed of about 5 students, plus the 10th grade girls. My colleague, Eric and I succeeded in revising the schedule for the upper grades and having each class meet twice a week, instead of once a week. It sounds like a lot was accomplished, but only on paper. In reality, the majority of the students did not respond well to the scheduling changes, even though we asked them when they were able to come to class and reminded them of their new classes numerous times. It became clear that, although the students could attend class more than once a week, the majority of them were not willing. Of course, some students embraced the chance to learn, and benefited from it. But it was frustrating to work so hard to make the spoken English classes more productive for the students, and have the majority of them not take advantage of the opportunity. I have to admit that I am disappointed.
Maybe part of it is my fault. Maybe I should have been firmer with the students, and asked them to leave when they missed too many consecutive classes, or showed up at a class which was not their level. Perhaps I should have taken attendance. I guess I felt that it wasn’t my place; that I was a volunteer and it wasn’t my job to discipline students. I found it very difficult to tell students to be quiet in a class where they are supposed to be speaking. I also knew that the students were in school all day, and I really wanted my classes to be fun. Although the students really liked me and sometimes appreciated me, I lost some of their respect for being so relaxed and carefree. If I decide to teach in the future, I need to find a balance between making my classes dynamic and stimulating, while also making the students appreciate what I am trying to teach them and take me seriously as their instructor. I know what doesn’t work, but I am not sure what does work. Some of my students really cared, and showed it. I nearly cried when one my 8th graders gave me a laminated homemade card, and two 9th grade girls gave Sara and I Disney ornaments, and asked us if we could go to the beach for the last 20 minutes of class. Those are the things I need to remember. Overall, I don’t think I failed.