Friday was my first day of teaching English in the High School. I was given three periods and each class had about 50-60 students. I was really nervous and with good cause. My Amharic is worse than their English. They have been learning English since the 3rd grade and most of their classes are taught strictly in English. They can understand me well, but are not great at speaking or reading the language. Due to the language barrier, I have to be creative and persistent in order to have any success.
In the High School I teach conversational English, which can be both easier and more difficult than teaching basic English and grammar. In this environment I have to explain the nuances of the English language. And in case you didn’t know, English sucks. It is filled with rules that are broken more than they are followed. The words ‘feature presentation’ uses ‘T’ three times with three different sounds. More often than not, my answer to a question is “I don’t know. That’s just the way it is.”
Teaching English as a foreign language is similar to the Peace Corps as a whole. There are breakthroughs, but mostly it is a massive challenge, filled with feelings of hopelessness and doubt. The breakthroughs keep you going. I spent a long time planning my first lesson, and to do this I referred to my own experiences.
I have a love/hate relationship with past teachers. If my parents had a nickel for everytime I’ve said, “they are the worst teacher I’ve ever had” They would probably have at least, like 65 cents. Similarly, I’ve often applauded others as the best teacher ever. I am a man of extremes.
Everyone has that one teacher though. The one who inspired them to do something or to care about something. The one who made learning more than copying notes and memorizing terms only to be forgotten 2 weeks later. Looking back, I was blessed with not one, but several of these teachers.
Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Cadby in High School. Mr. Wheeler taught in an unorthodox style that forced me to learn psychology. He used videos, games, and stories to help students understand the subject material. To call Ms. Cadby’s style unorthodox is an understatement of extreme proportions. She didn’t teach me a subject so much as she taught me about life. If only I had been mature enough at the time to soak it in.
There were Professors Davis and Jones in college. Their styles were exactly opposite. Davis used Youtube videos and games to prompt learning, whereas Jones was old school. Jones harnessed my interest in politics. What they both had was a genuine interest in their students and their subject. This passion was a tangible energy that one could feel in the classroom.
But no professor can compare to Scott Stevens. He was the one. To Scott Stevens, education is a playground. He taught one of the hardest classes in the College of Business at JMU. He taught Managerial Science, the twisted step-child of statistics and business management. We learned things like queuing theory, and how you can use Microsoft Excel to tie your shoes. Most students dread this class, but I looked forward to it. He made learning a game. But what I remember most of him was this:
He was quite possibly the smartest man I’ve ever met.
He worked for NASA and knows everything there is to know. And yet, his greatest joy was teaching. Passion is the greatest quality in a teacher. He mixed this passion with creativity and learning a difficult subject was no longer tedious. I truly can’t find the words to explain how gifted of a teacher he was. Simply put, he made a difficult subject easy, a boring subject interesting, and a 22 year old volunteer in Africa a better teacher. Passion and creativity.
So with the positive and negative lessons of teachers past, I set about devising my first lesson plan. I arranged a series of activities intended to force the kids to engage their minds. I based my lesson on the verb ‘to go.’ This is in response to the daily barrage of kids asking me “where are you go?.” We needed to change that.
I showed them a clip of the movie Forrest Gump — Not the ideal place to turn to when teaching grammar. However there is a 3 minute clip when the verb ‘to go’ is used in 4 different contexts. It was the scene where Forrest starts running across the country. This scene also features scenes from across America. I told my class that this was what America looks like. One kid raised his hand and said, “this can’t be America. America is just one big city.”
Afterwards, I broke down the script from the scene, showing the proper uses of the verb. I highlighted one section where he used the present continuous form. I explained to the kids “where are you go-ING” refers to a continuous and present action.
I used a variation of the 4 corners game. In four corners of the room I placed 4 different signs: Go, Goes, Going, and Went. I would write a sentence on the board such as:
“yesterday, I ______ to the store” and have the kids go the corner with the right answer.
At the end of class I apologized to the kids. I told them how sorry I was that the world had decided English was the universal language. A language this complex shouldn’t be the standard. However it is. So I told them that learning the language was their greatest opportunity. I told them if they wanted to leave Bonga, if they wanted to become a doctor or a professor or a professional soccer player, they would have to learn English. I told them that this great challenge was also their greatest opportunity. I said I was there to help.
After class, I met with the English Head and a few of the students to get some feedback. One of the students said, “it was the best lesson we ever has.”
We’ll work on that.
So thank you to the teachers out there who helped me realize that teaching can’t be done from a textbook, and a special thanks to the truly special one who taught me that with some passion and creativity, education is a playground.
And today, for the first time, I heard the greatest sound. The sweet sound of ‘ing’