TEFL Success Stories – Part 45

Vicky – USA
Wednesday Evening – ESOL class at a local library in Burlington, Vermont, USA.
Today I arrived in the old annexe room to find a nice new whiteboard in place of the shoddy old thing that was all scratched to pieces and the size of a postage stamp. It was almost too large to fit into the corner where the old one precariously perched on its ailing metal legs. I am both delighted and horrified. Whilst doing my CELTA qualification, my ‘whiteboard management’ was always on my list of action points. I could never seem to stick to my plan, and the carefully considered use of different coloured markers was beyond me. My whiteboard, plain and simple was messy. So when I began teaching at the library I was filled with unusual joy to see their paltry version of a whiteboard and had breathed a sigh of relief that my weakness would not be exposed. Now the large, snowy white, smooth as silk whiteboard blinds me with its newness. Filled slightly with dread, I ponder what to do, what to do?
I had planned to do a lesson on what was needed if my students were stranded on a desert island. You know the type of thing, what luxuries you would like, what essentials you would need. Lots of group work to come to a consensus. I decided to draw a desert island tableau on my virgin board. Now let me explain that drawing is up there with my whiteboard management, pretty bad. I cannot draw, have never been able to draw. So I set about practicing some palm trees, and seagulls, some blue sea and a sun on some scrap paper. After 10 minutes I realised that I could do my nice new whiteboard justice and I drew a rather fetching rendition of the bog standard desert island scene.
When my students arrived, I excitedly drew their attention to the new acquisition and then started to elicit the names of the items I had drawn. Palm trees, sea, seagulls and sun were all correctly identified. I was delighted, not with their vocabulary knowledge, which I knew was pretty advanced, but with my drawings being recognized and identified for what they were. Maybe this was the start of a beautiful relationship with my new whiteboard, and next week I could begin to do some neat and tidy, colour coordinated written work as well.
So what luxuries did the students wish to take with them to this perfectly realised desert island? There was a huge push for liquor of any kind, though Baileys Irish Cream and Heineken beer seemed to be the most popular. Ice cream was another favourite. And one young man felt that without marijuana and Playboy, he simply would not be able to survive. After much hilarity and teasing, this led to our oldest student, a Russian lady who is the strict but nurturing grandmother of the group, saying the most perfectly pronounced English word that I have ever heard her say. And the word? Playboy. I don’t know how useful this word will be to her here in the USA, but I couldn’t help but praise her flawless pronunciation.
A couple of months ago I heard on the ESOL grapevine that the Refugee Programme was looking for a tutor for their one and only Somali Bantu interpreter. In the last 6 months, a small but steady stream of Somali Bantu families have been ‘resettled’ in our small Vermont town. Their interpreter, a refugee herself, was a busy woman, spending her days with newly arrived families, helping them navigate the maze of settling into a new country. She had pretty good English I was told, but needed some help with her English reading and writing skills. Today we had our first session together.
We meet at her apartment and sit on her bed on top of her pink flowered duvet. There are lots of women and children in the apartment, beds and toys everywhere, but here in Fatuma’s room there is a sense of calm; a little oasis away from all the life going on outside her room. One of the benefits of being a volunteer ESL teacher/ tutor is that I get to choose the projects and students I work with and am often given an insight into their whole culture and life outside of the traditional classroom. As the smells of African food permeate the air I am conscious that this is one of those insights you wouldn’t get in the classroom.
One of the drawbacks of being that same volunteer is that I have few resources and often rely on materials that are old and often dubiously appropriate for the students I work with. The books that Fatuma and I had been given were printed in the 1980s and were geared to adult American learners who have a basic awareness of American culture. They are not geared to ESOL learners and I was unsure how they were going to work. Fatuma had taken my advice (given when we had been introduced and given our materials), and had read one of the pieces in the book, entitled ‘ It don’t hurt much Ma’am’. She had some questions about the vocabulary.
“What does this word mean?” She points to the word ‘caliber’ on the vocabulary list. We practice the word’s pronunciation and while I try to work out just how I am going to explain the measure of a person, I ask Fatuma to find the word in a sentence for me, to put it in its context. I start to read the sentence she is pointing at, “the bullet caliber…..”, I don’t need to read anymore to realise we are talking about a different caliber altogether.
I scan the article and see it is about the unrealistic portrayal of bullet injuries in Wild West movies. I glance at some of the other words on the vocabulary list – “Wild Bill Hickok”, “Jesse James”. I do my best to describe the diameter of a bullet, and as I do so, I squirm inwardly at the complete inappropriateness of this piece of writing. Fatuma asks about “vessels”, “abdomen” and “victim”, the latter word I am particularly loathe to describe. Fatuma suggests a sentence, “There are victims in my village” and her face betrays nothing but eagerness to have captured the meaning correctly. Fatuma has spent the last 14 years of her life in a refugee camp in Kenya. The irony of her describing the word victim is almost unbearable; her concept of the word is surely more hideously rich than mine will ever be.
We continue with the article as Fatuma has prepared for it and has a good grasp of its meaning; her comprehension skills are excellent and her writing is neat and tidy. She is also very apologetic when she announces that she will have to leave early due to attending Ramadan prayers at the Mosque. As we both don our coats before going outside into the cold October night we chat about movies. When I explain to her that the movies we’ve been reading about depict a time in American history that was over a hundred years ago she looks surprised and a little relieved. We say our farewells and as I drive home I try to imagine what has been going through Fatuma’s head as we’ve been studying. Perhaps she had pictured Wild Bill Hickok riding through the streets of Vermont on his horse alongside all the buses and cars. Next week there will be no cowboys and bullet wounds. I will make sure that I am armed with some linguistically challenging work rather than culturally confusing pieces about cowboy mythology.
On Mondays, I go to a local community centre where ESOL classes are taught by the local Adult Education Organisation. I teach a supplementary beginners class after the ‘proper’ class; the teacher sends students to me who are struggling, or just need all the help they can get with their English. Some weeks there are 2 students, some weeks there are 10. This morning my beginner class is made up of seven Somali Bantus and a married couple from Peru. The seven recently arrived Bantu refugees are carefully and colourfully wrapped up against the bitter cold of a Vermont November. All except one. Ismail is the youngest of the group, at 22 he looks 17 and is dressed as if for a warm spring day. All through the class, my eyes are drawn to his shirt which is a Hawaiian short sleeved number, with a footballers head duplicated all over it in place of the more traditional lotus flowers or toucans. While my students practice the structures
“Hello, my name is……”
”My address is…….”,
I try to work out which footballer it is.
They are a cheery bunch this morning. While the Peruvian couple work slowly and meticulously, the Bantus spend a lot of the lesson laughing at each other as they study; the stronger ones also offer plenty of help to the weaker students. One man in particular has appointed himself their official translator. His English is better than the others, he’s been in America much longer and often asks me questions and then relays the answers back to the others. There is an uproar of laughter halfway through class when Hadija falls off her chair. After making sure she is not hurt, I seize the opportunity for a bit of impromptu vocabulary teaching.
“She falls”, I say. There is a rumble of repetition amongst the giggles. The football shirt wearer says,
”In Somali, kuffee. Falls.”
I am delighted to repeat my first Somali word and am greeted with more laughter until I get the pronunciation more or less correct. We establish that it sounds a little like coffee and mentally, I know this is how I’ll remember it.
More hilarity ensues when there is confusion over the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. One of the question structures in the course book asks if they are married or single. Everyone is the room is married, but when Ismail says he has a husband, the class laughs heartily until we establish that he has a wife. In between giggles, everyone else very carefully replies with the correct answer. I think they are all making fun of Ismail in Somali while I ask them the questions, but it seems very good natured.
I announce that we have finished class for today but when I turn around from erasing the blackboard, I see the students still sitting there. I have to do a little mime of closing books, and I point to the door as I say various words signalling the end of class. As the students file out I ask Ismail who the footballer is on his shirt.
“Beckham!! You know?” Once again the universal language of football is spoken.
”Yes, I know Beckham. He’s very good yes?” As Ismail nods and grins and files out of the room I wonder who the footballer really is, as there is no way on earth that the face is that of Beckham. I can’t ever remember him having normal brown hair!
In the evening library class, which is a free, drop in class for any level of student (yes, very challenging), I’ve been seeing more and more European and South American au-pairs in the class in recent months. They offer horrific stories of spoilt American children and sometimes arrive late to class after last-minute babysitting schedule changes or long negotiations with their host families over use of the car to get to class. They all have good English and the class for them is as much a social opportunity as it is a chance to refine and practice their English skills. They bring a lot of welcome energy to the class but this can sometimes get a little out of hand and it reminds me of why I don’t want to teach teenagers! One student in particular, a Czech student (let’s call her Kristina), is a veritable firecracker in the class. She is lots of fun, is always happy to answer questions and has excellent English. But much as I hate ‘shushing’ students ( I feel too much like an out of control secondary school teacher), I have on occasion been forced to ‘shush’ Kristina as her gregarious personality tends to set off a noisy Mexican wave of chatter through her fellow au-pairs.
Sometimes, I wonder what on earth my oldest student thinks of this lightheartedness. Yelena is a retired school principal from Russia. The babooshka of the group, she is a strong yet caring presence who brings sweet treats to class and although she speaks fairly good English, really struggles with the understanding of spoken English. I imagine her to have been a strict, yet fair teacher and can’t imagine her tolerating the amount of ‘communicative activity’ that I turn a blind eye to. She has sometimes issued stern looks that seem to blow straight off the Siberian planes towards Kristina and I try to avoid this by reigning in Kristina with gentle chides and humour.
In the last class, I had a new Peruvian student (let’s call her Isabel) who was a beginner and insisted on speaking to me in Spanish, seemingly ignoring the fact that I didn’t understand what she was saying to me. As she was sitting next to the Czech au-pair, I decided to pair them together for much of the class, which was about giving and receiving directions. As I monitored the rest of the class, I kept a careful eye on this pair to see how they were doing. They were working well together, Kristina was encouraging Isabel to speak in English and I heard some really nice instructions coming from Kristina. She even managed to get Isabel to write down some sentences and read them back to her. Kristina demonstrated patience and kept encouraging Isabel to speak English. What’s more, the class was working hard at their set tasks, without being disturbed by Kristina’s chattering. For a few minutes, a serene calm fell over the class, the only sound being the rustling of street maps as local landmarks were found and directions checked. For those few moments, I felt a warm glow of teacherly satisfaction with the class.
As the class ended and Isabel offered me her “gracias” I pondered Kristina’s future. Maybe more beginner students would find themselves with a helpful Czech mate in future classes and Yelena will not have cause to issue her icy Siberian stare again.
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