It has now been one month and one day into my journey into illiteracy where, if I leave the bubble of my home or work, I am in a world that I am unable to communicate with. It is exciting, it is challenging, it is frustrating and I knew exactly what I has getting myself into. It is the times when you order 6 dumplings and receive 60 that you can only hand your head in your hands in shame or laugh at the situation that you have gotten yourself into.
It is the Sophia Coppola classic that I draw the title of this post from and I firmly believe that you can love or hate the movie, but once you have experienced living in a completely foreign country you find a new respect for the film. When you walk down a street that has more people there at that time than your entire hometown you redefine the word insignificant to mean ‘you’. I had a conversation with a university student in a Chinese bookstore, where I was buying children’s flashcards of fruit and vegetables, and he said to me “I have never seen blue eyes, except for in the movies” which explains why people follow and watch like I am the pied piper playing a tune for them.
Now, if this is what I am experiencing as a teacher at an International school, then imagine what my students are going through. They may see it as an adventure like I do or maybe they find it to be an incredibly stressful transition, but it is my job as their teacher to attend to their mental well being before I even think about their academics.
Happy student = learner
Within my class room I have a variety of levels of English Speakers from some to a lot to fluent, but I also have a new student arriving next week who speaks fluent German and French, but not English.The EAL department at school ran a workshop during our in service days before the students arrived. This short one and a half hour workshop truly opened my eyes to the experience that many of my students like this new student could face every day.
The first activity was fun where they had taken a limerick and translated a handful of key words into a different language and in pairs we were to decode into English. We knew the format of a limerick and some of the words (it was Italian we found out later) were similar to English. We felt quite chuffed about what we had achieved and felt we had an insight into the life of student who was learning English as a second language.
The second activity had no introduction as the EAL teacher just switched language on us to Chinese and began to teach. Many of us looked at each other in dismay, as we knew that she was asking questions as the two or three in the group who spoke Chinese were responding. Slowly I was able to pick up enough words to realise that it was about identifying body parts “How many eyes do you have?” and a simple response of one or two was required. Next she used a flow chart to teach the characters for each of the body parts we had learned. My head was hurting and even though I had found some success in the lesson I wanted her to stop, but the point was clear – being a student in a class who does not speak the main language of the classroom is difficult, exhausting and scary. As teachers we must do all that we possibly can to make that language transferal as smooth as possible.
The key skills that I took away from the session were…
- Pace – not too fast.
- Clear voice
- Visuals – we teach early readers to use visuals to get clues for when reading new words and in this case there is no difference – Colour code, writing and images all go hand in hand.
- A smile
- Break the learning up with different tasks.
- Form a connection with the student.
- Try everything, not just the strategies that worked with a similar student the previous year.
- Ask for help of others when it seems that nothing else is working.
It is not an easy process, but slowly the classroom will change from the Charlie Brown “Wah, Wah, wahh” into something much more and hopefully with planning and care the child will find a love of learning and school.