Tuesday, October 9, 2018

This Teacher, These Students, What Hasn't Worked

Last week I said I would write about how principled eclecticism plays out in my classrooms. The more I thought about what to write, the more I realized that there is SO MUCH a reader has to first understand about my very special group of students. I think it's too much to try to talk about both of my classes since they are so different from one another. So for now I'll just talk about the morning class of seniors, not the literacy class.

Much of the reasoning behind what I do is based upon my discoveries of what did not work with my groups when I tried it. I suppose that while I'm at it, we should also look at the experience, perspective and biases I bring to the table. My beliefs about language learning and their way of approaching language learning both come heavily to bear on what my classroom practice ends up looking like on a given week.

First let's talk about me. When I was in high school, I discovered a facility for language learning. After raking in top prizes and awards in German, I decided to see if I had the same ability to master Spanish. Yes, I won blue ribbons in poetry declamation and extemporaneous reading in both languages at an annual state-wide foreign languages festival in the same year. I became a ravenous student of languages--studying French at university during the day and classical Latin, Demotic Greek, Italian for Business and Travel as continuing education courses at night. Portuguese I studied on my own using Berlitz records. Yes, vinyl LPs!

In each case, I did my best to find a friend who was a native speaker and then offered this person something in exchange for just hanging out with me speaking his/her mother tongue. In some cases I traveled to a country where I could practice. At the age of 21, I went to Japan where I lived for a year with a Spaniard. I insisted we have a completely traditional Japanese household without chairs or forks. In keeping with "when in Rome, do as the Romans," I offered my subway seat to any male I saw standing. I was all in, as they say. I wanted the experience of full immersion. Because Xavier was a graduate fellow at the University of Hokkaido, I qualified for free Japanese classes every week day. I was a student of the same sort of classes I teach today. The Japanese we learned was intended to help us learn to navigate life on campus. We learned to say things like, "Where is the cafeteria?" and "Go past the engineering building and turn right. It's just past the library." The text book was excellent. It came with a set of cassette tapes that I listened to over and over at night in the small apartment we rented on the low-income side of town.

In case you haven't guessed yet, my approach to language learning is obsessive. I want to listen to target language (TL) radio, watch TL television, and learn the lyrics to TL songs. If I run into compatriots in public, I refuse to speak our common mother tongue. That's me. I wonder what biases spring from this perspective and how those inform my approach!

And what about my students?

The LINC Seniors' class was mandated by the government to be one of the specialty niche classes warranting a lower student-teacher ratio--about ten students maximum per class instead of the 20-25 found in mainstream classes. In that way it's not unlike my afternoon literacy class.
Getting library cards
For the past four years, the class has been comprised of at least half immigrants from China with the rest being refugees from Iraq. The Iraqis tend to be risk takers with solid listening skills and good strategic competence; their weak area is often the mechanics of writing. The Chinese students arrive with set-in-stone study habits (such as a compulsive need to copy into their notebooks EVERY SINGLE WORD I write on the board and EVERY SINGLE IMAGE that I doodle next to any word). I suspect their English is the product of forty years of grammar-translation method. They can write well punctuated sentences with lovely spelling, though I note more than a little L1 interference--such as dropping of the copula or subject pronoun, or a sentence like, "The goes-everyday-to-Tim-Horton's man is my friend." They know their metalanguage inside and out and sometimes challenge me as they peer into their electronic translators. I'll say, "Yes, beyond can be a preposition, but in this sentence it's an adverb. Do you want me to explain why?"

Through a series of needs assessments, I have learned which settlement themes and topics they want us to explore. I've also discovered that the Chinese students do not want me to spend any class time on writing. "We don't need to know how to write a composition anymore," they tell me. "We don't need to write resumes," they add. It's why they've migrated here from another school where they were integrated with younger students.

What DO they need me for? The Chinese students want me to help them improve their listening skills and pronunciation. And the Iraqis? They seem content to build their vocabulary and gain the knowledge imparted during a typical semester of settlement English: how to use a bank machine, what is considered polite and rude in this culture, that sort of thing. The entire class enjoys daily opportunities for oral practice. Neither the Asian nor the Middle Eastern seniors want me to spend much time on explicit grammar lessons. About once or twice in a semester we do a sort of on-demand week of grammar. Last term it was a four-week course on the English article system woven in among topical lessons. This semester it was causative verbs and passive causative after one Dictogloss team had written on their chart paper, "M's uncle took his prostate out."

So my big challenge is helping the Chinese students improve their listening skills. Now before I tell you next week what I am doing in class these days, let me tell you what hasn't worked. My attempt at a "Listening Boot Camp" pretty much failed in every way. You can read about that using the following links:

The Listening Skills Dilemma
Listening Boot Camp - Week One
Listening Boot Camp - Week Two

Okay, well that's enough from me for one week! Next week I hope to share not which practices and approaches I've abandoned, but which techniques I'm now employing and how that's going.

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