I recently wrote about a rough month I had. I said, “I hope…that the next month will bring more joy.”
It came in the form of a 25 cent exercise book, literally 50 pages folded in half and stapled by hand. It is about the size of a readers digest, and the recycled paper is unforgiving to pens. They bleed right through the page, making for difficult note taking.
The cover of this Chinese-made book reads ‘fresh fruits are those that are healthful’ and features a basket of inedible plastic fruit. Yeah, that’s her English notebook.
The carriers name is Mekdes. She is in the tenth grade, and is one of the regulars of my voluntary English class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some days, 70 kids show up and cram into my tiny classroom. On hot afternoons, perhaps 10 will show up.
My classroom changes depending on the day. There are never enough chairs so kids stand or sit on tables. I’m still working on getting the chalk not to screech. My classroom has a lot of natural light. It is more of a shed, with broken windows and dust everywhere. Some days I have to teach outside.
But Mekdes is always there, quietly taking notes.
It’s interesting because my first impression of her was that she was trouble. She was forced to come to my first lesson by one of her teachers, I thought as a punishment. I later learned it was because of her potential.
She has a mischievous look about her. A look that screams, I’m going to make this class annoying for you Mr. Foreigner. She giggled with her friends and seemed rather unimpressed by my first lesson.
Slowly I realized my first impression was entirely wrong. She is very polite, and very smart.
In my first few lesson plans, I’ve tried to reach the kids on a personal level. I tell them I am here to help. They can find me and ask me any questions they have about English. However, I say, I am only here for one more year. Therefore, I can give them hope and the tools to become better students. I tell them I will teach them to be better communicators, understand grammar, and to speak with confidence. This is dependent on their effort.
We also try and have lots of fun. The kids are not use to interactive learning. Allowing them to relax and enjoy my lessons has been difficult. They have been programmed to be rigid.
And therein lies the Ethiopian difficulty with learning English. Most students have a good understanding of grammar and language rules. They recite definitions verbatim but have missed out on the practical sense of learning. They might be able to give the definition of a verb, but they couldn’t pick one out of a sentence.
I start each lesson with the same tools I’ve used to learn Amharic. I tell them how everyday I try and learn three words and one verb. I then conjugate that verb for each pronoun in different tenses.
I go. You Go. He Goes. We Go. They Go
I am going. You are going, Etc. etc.
Then we practice some sentences out loud — Pronunciation is another key problem with students here. I challenge them to use the words we learned earlier in the sentences.
I say that if they do this kind of thing on their own, every day, they will become terrific speakers in English. Even when I’m gone they can try this work at their homes. It falls on deaf, bored, hot, tired ears, preoccupied with thoughts of high school crushes, thoughts of lunch an hour delayed by the goofy American teacher.
Besides, they want to get to the good part: the games, the films, the dramas.
Often times, during my lessons, the children stare at me blankly. They are overwhelmed. I have to plead with them to write down this material, to try and take something home to study. Very few take great notes. So before long, we play a game. I have a small arsenal of activities that get the kids moving, talking, learning. At the end of class, I’ll show a clip from a movie and ask them questions about it. What would you do in that situation. At 1:30 they are free to run to their soccer games, gossip circles, and any other extracurricular that they are in the process of taking for granted.
I’m happy though. It feels wonderful to feel useful again. I’m doing a lot more work in Bonga, but teaching has a special place in my heart. I love being able to see progress, to inspire the kids. Then again, the progress has been slow. Am I helping these kids? Do they understand the difference between the past perfect and the past perfect progressive? Are they becoming better students?
Mekdes comes up to me after class. She has waited for everyone to leave
“Can you correct this?” she asks timidly, showing me the exercise book. Page after page after page is full.
Every day she has been trying to learn new words. Impudent, nevertheless, brain-child.
Brain-child makes me laugh.
She writes the definition: a person who is the first at being smart.
Every day she learns a verb and practices conjugating it. Her notebook is filled with verbs in every tense, from the past perfect progressive to the present.
I am planning. I had been planning.
My jaw drops. She’s been doing it everyday since my first lesson.
I’m so happy to know that if I leave Ethiopia tomorrow, I may have helped one girl. Perhaps she does well on her 12th grade tests and can go to a good university. By studying hard, she is giving herself that opportunity.
We walk outside together, and I correct some of her very few mistakes. She writes them down correctly. She tells me she really likes class. She is now free for the day, and we depart in different directions. Before she gets too far I call back to her,
“Hey Mekdes. You are my brain child.”
She smiles and catches up with her friends.