I figured that a 3-hour teaching day with only 2 classes back-to-back from Monday to Friday would leave me with a chunk of free time to indulge in cultural exploits or go exploring. Instead, the pace has been quite consuming and, overall, some of the most intensive language teaching I’ve ever done. I find I’m reevaluating my assumptions about my own teaching (always a good sign!) and, in the process, learning new approaches to help students improve their knowledge of English.
For the students who studied with me over the many years before this present experience, English was almost a leisure time activity paid for by the students themselves, by their parents or employers to give them additional opportunities in life and be more competitive in the global economy. A lot of the high-school and university students I taught over the years couldn’t wait to be rid of the English language pre-requisite that was part of their chosen course of study. My Habibi Center students, on the other hand, are studying English in order to gain one skill that might ensure a more secure future once they’re settled with a permanent status. I recall the words of Dina Nayeri, herself a former refugee, to the Iranian father of two small children in the Katsika refugee camp:
“The most important thing is that the children are learning English.
Use your time here. You don’t know when it will end, and when it is over,
you won’t want to have wasted it.”
The four teenagers in my literacy class had no previous experience of schooling until they arrived at the Habibi Center and met me in early January. English isn’t something they’re dabbling in or resisting. These classes might be the only language they’ll ever be able to read and write. If anything, I want this first experience of a classroom to meet all their expectations of schooling.
This is also my first experience of teaching literacy. I work to a syllabus that’s been developed by a progression of language teachers. Students learn to pronounce letters, then words and then whole sentences. And, at the same time they learn to write them. It’s a thrill for me when I realize that a student is writing a word from memory. It’s best though when the proverbial light bulb switches on and a student is able to attach a written English word to their experience of the world. I watched H struggling with reading the name of his country and the look of sheer joy when he realized what he was saying.
I wish we had a course book. Maybe one needs to be written. (There’s my next project!) I think students associate learning with having a book. I brought in a few picture books one Friday a couple of weeks ago and had the literacy students go through the books and find words they knew. At the end of the lesson, one of the students asked if he could take his book home for the weekend. On Monday he returned the book and showed me another notebook where he had copied words he wanted to remember. I know how he feels as I get my head around the Greek language and need to know more and more words.
One afternoon, I opened a picture atlas to show the class Mexico as they hadn’t heard of it. There was so much excitement as the kids took turns finding their countries on other maps in the book. As a result, we’ve used all kinds of maps recently to learn prepositions of place while incorporating their interest in world geography.
In the classroom I tread carefully but I also make mistakes. I learned last week from two of my male Afghan students that they are always protectors of their mothers and sisters even from afar and that was why they couldn’t reveal the names of close female family members in a conversation we were having about names.
At first I was casting around a lot looking for “safe subjects” to talk about. In previous classrooms, I could ask teenage students about a favourite food, a new clothing trend or car, vacation spot (sea or mountains), latest movie watched or rock concert attended, a list of their most important possessions, how their bedroom was decorated. This time I find that even the discussion of hobbies or family members can be an unpleasant trigger. Neutral areas are subjects like the recent World Cup (good for learning names of countries and nationalities), music preferences (some day I’ll explain to L. that Michael Jackson might have been a good singer but he wasn’t a good person), free-time activities like gyms or sports centres with subsidized memberships, animals and Tik Tok videos. I use simplified news articles with my low-intermediate class and these open up safe areas for conversation but even there I have to be diligent as I don’t want to include news items that discuss war, human trafficking, abuse or other forms of violence. As a result we’ve learned about the importance of staying hydrated, a Canadian entrepreneur with a mobile barbershop , a young Australian woman who ran 150 marathons in as many days and a new smartphone app for measuring your height.
I feel very protective and motherly towards my learners. I can’t believe I’ve only got one more month left with these young people who are challenging me as much as I am challenging them.