Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tuesday's Torch Story

What most of us are after, when we have a picture taken, is a good natural-looking picture that doesn't resemble us.
~ Peg Bracken

Last week’s class felt quite eventful. We had a story of success, a story of failure and an interesting cultural difference emerge.

The success story – two of my students completed the first mission of the ESL Challenge Course! Each went to the local post office and purchased a postcard stamp (29 cents), on her own, speaking only in English. I had each woman pose for a picture with her evidence (postcard, stamp and receipt) in front of a (plastic) “red curtain” backdrop. I used my portable photo printer to print their pictures on the spot and post them on the bulletin board. They seemed pretty happy and proud. I ceremoniously gave them Mission #2 packets. Two other students reported that they plan to complete Mission #1 this coming week. Yay! :)

It felt pretty happy and exciting – a nice counterpoint to the other major event – a student broke down in tears because she felt overwhelmed. (Interestingly, it was one of the ones who had completed the first mission.) All year long I’ve felt pressure from the Board of Directors to quit allowing and using Spanish in class and insisting that it all be in English. Up through March I was mixing the 2 languages liberally. This summer, I decided to try to switch to exclusively using English. It looks like it was too big of a jump – one of my better students became distraught by not understanding enough of what I was saying and began crying. We spent the last 15 minutes or so of class dealing with this. Other students commiserated and expressed similar feelings. We all tried to say encouraging things, etc.

I understand that learning a second language is a difficult task and some frustration is unavoidable. But I don’t believe that anyone is learning at her best when she is driven to tears. I’m going to scale it back a little bit – try to remember to speak more slowly, allow some Spanish, etc. I’m also going to look for activities to help everyone practice their listening skills…

When I got home that night, my husband (a college professor) asked how my class had gone. I said it had gone poorly because I had “made” one of my students cry. He said his day had been worse – he had made 4 students cry! At first I didn’t believe him, but it turns out that it was true. He is also the undergraduate advisor for his department and that particular day 4 students had been in his office crying because, after failing a pre-requisite course in the Spring semester, they had been dropped from their summer classes… So, I guess it could have been worse…

Anyways, we also had something happen that I thought was very surprising and funny. For their reading homework, I had them read some advice columns from the newspaper. With one of the letters, I did not include the columnist’s answer. Instead, I asked them to imagine how they would respond. Briefly, a woman wrote in complaining about her boyfriend. Apparently he asked her for her idea of a perfect romantic evening. She told him. A few weeks later he “surprised” her by doing everything on her list – down to the last detail, exactly as she had described. She was complaining about his lack of creativity.

I asked the first student for her advice and she said that this woman should leave this boyfriend because he was no good! What!?!?! It was my opinion that the woman was being unreasonable. I think that men are often straightforward creatures – when you tell them what you want, they take it at face value and try to give it to you. So, I took a quick poll. The 3 American women in the room (me & 2 volunteer aides) all said that it was the woman’s fault. All 5 of my Hispanic students said that it was the man’s fault. I concluded that Hispanic women must have higher expectations for their men than American women do… ;)

So, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, trying to ease this transition for my students… Wish me luck.


Claire S. said...

I'm really enjoying your posts about the ESL class. I'm taking French classes at work 2x per week for 90 minutes. We will have finished 5 years in Nov. IT'S HARD !!!

My class of only 4 were true beginners on day 1. We started just tossing out the few words we knew and the teacher started with that. He worked on adding vocabulary and verbs and had exercises where we learned some graammar.

All of the conversation was personal, about us. He didn't teach from a book, but rather on Monday, we learned how to ask each other about our weekend and how to talk about our weekend (learning past tense). On Wednesday, we did the same for the upcoming weekends (future tense). We talk about our work and our homes, pets, kids, spouses, newspaper articles. Basically, the type of conversations we have every day of our lives.

When we started, it was almost all English incorporating the few french words we knew. Now it's almost entirely French with the odd English word. It's slow and I'm sure painful for the teacher to listen to, but we have made progress. A very long way from bilingual but progress at any rate.

We've all felt so overwhelmed some days that he spends time building us back up to keep on trying. I feel sure I should be further along than I am, but he is very encouraging and that is a BIG DEAL !

You are doing great work with your class !!

**sorry, just realized how long this is :-)