Journal: Not in the Text!

We’re in a unit on travel with a unit test coming up on Thursday.  Today we were working within the framework of four new vocabulary words: exciting, interesting, relaxing, and unusual.

The students gave lots of examples to show their understanding of these words.  For relaxing, they talked about sleep, sitting, massages, and spas.  For exciting, they talked about roller coasters and action movies.  For interesting, they talked about visiting museums and the White House. 

For unusual, they had trouble thinking of examples.  This makes total sense – it’s much easier to think of things that are usual than things that aren’t.  Finally, one student said, completely non-judgmentally: “sometimes, a man dresses like a woman.” 

“Transgender” is a fantastic teaching point for so many reasons.  You can break the word apart to show “trans” + “gender” to construct the meaning.  You can bring in such fantastic movies as “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Fu.”  You can get into freedom, tolerance, and discrimination in the USA.

The thing is, these are all tangents within our travel unit.  I made sure they had the word “transgender” for the concept the student brought up, and then I felt we should get back to our travel context.

Come to think of it though, transgender is a tangent within all of our units.  I will basically never teach “transgender” (or “blossom,” or “poop,” or “Xbox,” or “accuracy vs. fluency“) without knowing that I’m straying far away from the bounds of the textbook’s scope and sequence.

I understand that texts must have a limited scope and a logical sequence in order to be usable.  I’ve said several times in this blog alone that I think our text does a lot of things really well.  And I’m lucky to not be tied to teaching the text and only the text. 

But isn’t it interesting how these shiny books with their grammar charts, canned dialogs and amusing illustrations are teaching me when I’m “straying” and when I’m teaching “real” material?  The material seems so natural when you’re flipping through the book, but everything they put in (and everything they leave out) is a value judgment.  I find the subtle power of their voice to tell me and my students what’s normal, what’s acceptable, and what’s worthy of talking about to be a little frightening.

And for all that power, are textbooks really more valid than the experiences and questions the students bring to the table?

Journal: Surprise

This morning was a bit of a surprise to me.

Please note that since I’m about to write about particular students, I’m going to be vague on some details and change a few other details to be sure their privacy is maintained.

A few minutes after class started, one of my students came in with her teenage daughter and asked if her daughter could stay.  The answer was unfortunately no, but I thought really hard and fast about how we could possibly accommodate them so that the mother could stay.  All my thinking was for naught; one of the other students came up with the solution.  It just so happened that another lady in the class’s adult daughter was still nearby.  She called her, and the two daughters were able to go elsewhere together.  My student was able to stay in class.  Phew!

A few minutes later, one of my other students came in.  I asked him how he was, and he said “No good.”  His English is quite limited, even in my level 1 class, and he is the only speaker of his language in our class.  Through hand motions, single vocab words, and some Google Translate, I came to understand that he was having some sort of a work problem and was very upset about it.  I’m not using “upset” as a euphemism for hostile or anything like that.  He seemed to feel a combination of surprised, sad, and helpless.

It was obvious to everybody that he was having some problems.  There was an instance during class where I had to leave the room to ask questions on his behalf.  Luckily, the class was doing their routine work on dates, so I asked them to carry on without me.  There were a couple of additional instances where the lesson had to pause so the upset student and I could have a one-to-one conversation.

At one point, I explained to the class very briefly that this student was upset because of a combination of a work problem and no English.  The students started brainstorming about how we could find a translator in the building.  That possibility hadn’t even occurred to me – all of my thinking had been so rushed and so divided between him and the lesson!  Unfortunately, there were no translators to be found with the available time, and he left class early, looking exhausted.

I guess those two situations highlight the challenges and the easy parts of teaching adults.  I would say the biggest challenge is that they have adult problems, worries, and responsibilities.  They tend to have rough work schedules, children, and concerns about money.  That said, they’re fantastic to work with because they’re adults with fully-formed critical thinking and empathy skills.  They tend to be interested, want to help, and be able to help.  They’re new to English, but not at all new to life.

As for me?  I’m still working on the ability to coach one student using pantomime and Google Translate while teaching English to the other seven.