Monday, November 4, 2013

What I've Learned in the ESL Classroom

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival please get in touch with me in the comments, and I'll let you know how you can start participating! You can read other blogger's posts from the carnival here!

I taught English to 1st through 6th graders in the country of Georgia, in a small town school that was often without electricity but did have a computer lab.  From there I went to the Dominican Republic, where I taught pre-schooler - 2nd grade in a one room, tin-roofed school house in a Haitian batey, where the heat gave you a headache by around noon. I also taught adults in the evening. Let me tell you, a lot was learned during this year. Now, I could go on about how inspired I was by my students, and I often was, and this could get really touchy-feely really fast - but I want this space to be an honest one, to tell it to ya straight. ESL can be hard, cultural differences are hard, and teaching was often one of the most difficult things I ever did. So with no softening, here are some lessons I learned in the ESL classroom.

1. how to break up fights

In Georgia, play fighting was normal and smiled upon, but it could get out of hand really fast. I had co-teachers that weren't supposed to leave me alone with the kids, but inevitably something would come up and it would be up to me to stop the escalating play shoving. In the DR, my little ones would fight over crayons. Distraction is key and also, being able to lift at least 50 pounds. Make sure you always have enough supplies for everyone and it makes things easier if they are all the same (like little bags of crayons for each kid with the same colors in them).

2. cultural push-back - sometimes you can't assimilate

In the Dominican Republic, parents would come by our open-door school house and if they saw children being rowdy they would tell me to hit the kids. No. I know that in that Haitian immigrant community it was normal and expected for parents and relatives to hit their children and often for teachers to do the same. I wasn't going to start a campaign for different disciplinary methods, but I certainly wasn't going to join in. Aside from my own ethical issues with teachers hitting kids, it would have been very, very inappropriate for a visiting, foreign teacher to do so. This was one cultural rule I was not going to follow. I stood my ground and parents looked at me askance, but there was no way I would lay a hand on a child in a violent manner. (Except once when I thought one of them was choking on a crayon...but he was ok!). While this was an extreme circumstance, I learned that cultural immersion doesn't always mean "just going with the flow", sometimes you have to make a stand for what is right for you and your work in the community.

But do learn the vocabulary that teachers use to tell their students to sit, stand, be quiet, etc. I didn't speak Georgian when I came to Georgia, or Haitian Creole when I went to live in an immigrant community. But I certainly learned command words fast!

Still I tried not to yell commands often, and instead of shouting and hitting, I used...

3. the power of smiley faces and stickers

My Georgian kids would do anything for the little smiley face I would draw on their papers if they did well. The better the work, the better the smiley face. I would also write little English phrases (great job! Good work!) that they would compare. Stickers also worked wonders to have the little ones behave - taking a sticker away from a 1st grader that won't sit down when you ask is a powerful deterrent.

4. energy, energy, energy

I think the only time my Haitian pre-schoolers were really engaged was when I was running around the concrete floor, over-heated classroom singing about baby sharks. It was exhausting. We played a lot of running games in our tiny space and a lot of "find the red card!" which I would hide around the room. I taught half the day (and worked in a shop the rest of the day, then taught in the evenings) and still needed a lunchtime siesta.

They expected a slightly more sedate classroom in Georgia, but those kids had just as much energy. So with my Georgian 1st graders I did "wiggle breaks" where we would all stand by our desks and wiggle. "Head, shoulders, knees and toes" and the "wheels on the bus" were also favorites. The more energy I could bring to the table, the better class went. And while this was most apparent with kids, it stood true for adult classes too!

5. be sassy

This is especially true for adult classes. My very first time teaching adults I stood up in front of 20 young Haitian men, a few who were probably there just to get a glimpse of  "la gringa flaca", and was shaking inside. But outside, I was firm. I demanded respect. I kicked one young man out of class for listening to his ipod, telling him that if his music was more important than what I was saying, he could go. When the young guys kept asking for ways to pick up women in English I told them I would not help them get a girlfriend and to stop shouting at gringas. After they understood that I wasn't the little skinny white girl who could be pushed around, we had a great time! I set the standard for behavior, and the class picked up on it - if you got teased for being late, you stopped being late. If everyone called you out for talking over me, you stopped talking over me. My adult class was my favorite ESL experience and I truly enjoyed my students.

6. you will make mistakes. It will be ok.

Oh man, the mistakes that were made! I would come home berating myself for not planning better, not realizing that activity wouldn't work, for forgetting some materials, etc etc. Mistakes will happen. Be flexible, be gentle with yourself. Teaching ESL is scary and you are human. Do what is best for you and best for your class and go home at the end of the day, have a good cry if you need it, and try again tomorrow.

7. dance

I love dancing. Guess what? So do most kids, especially when they are still young enough to not be self-conscious. Dance breaks got me through a lot of pre-school classes. Turn on some English songs and dance with your students. You'll feel better, they'll feel better.

9. be super flexible

I don't mean yoga. I would plan for class every day, and every day it would end up being different. Either my kids hadn't grasped the last lesson, or my adults felt it was more pressing to learn clothing related words than weather related words. Listen to them. You are there for them. I always held my plans loosely, and was ok giving up half the lesson for review. If they don't get the basics well, what is the point of me being there anyway? This lesson has carried over well into my current non-ESL life - make your plans, but don't hold them tightly.

So break up fights, navigate culture with a firm stance, bring energy, bring stickers, bring dancing, forgive yourself and keep it loose.

No comments:

Post a Comment