Teaching is Hard
My first official assignment with the Peace Corps is teaching teach English to the sixth and seventh graders in my village. I had been looking forward to making a difference in their lives, but I was the first one to learn something new. Teaching is hard! Teaching English to students who have never seen a television or heard a radio before is even harder. I guess I never realized until now just how difficult it truly is to teach. So I am going to start off by saying THANK YOU!! to all those teachers out there who are working their tails off every day to create a bright future for our children. This praise is well deserved. I just finished up my third week of teaching at my school, and the class for which I am responsible has a way to go before the end of the term. I believed I was ready. I had visited the class a few times last year to gauge its level of English. That gave me a starting point as I prepared for this year, so I thought I knew where the class stood before the first week. I was wrong. I showed up for my first week as their teacher, and it was a nightmare! My students did not understand what I wanted them to do.I felt as if I was talking to a wall. Not even the simplest instructions were getting through to them. I began to realize that teaching English to these children was going to be a little more difficult than I had thought….maybe even more than a little. I needed to create a plan to help my students learn.
I thought it might be a good idea to help my students learn hands-on activities. We started off the term playing a fun game I created which helped them work on English pronouns. I called it Snowball Fight. (Yes, I am in Namibia, and, no, the kids don’t know much about snow.) Basically, I had all the students write down their name, age, favorite color, and favorite animal on a strip of paper. This was something I knew they all could do. When they finished, I had them crumple up their paper into a ball and stand in two separate lines across the room from each other. The kids then got to throw their crumpled paper “snowball” at the other team a couple of times until the balls were all mixed up. Afterwards, when everyone had a ball, they had to introduce the person whose ball they had picked up to the rest of the class using pronouns. Then, I had the students separate themselves into groups based on animal and color, and we were able to use plural pronouns to talk about the groups they had created. Both the sixth and seventh graders loved this game and understood it. They were able to play a game and understand the concept I was trying to teach. I had discovered a way to help them learn. Games and activities seemed like a good way to teach English. The next few days did not have the same success.
During the next week, my students started reading different passages in their books. I used this as a time to asses their reading comprehension. We went over the passages together, and I asked my students simple questions about them. This is when I realized where my classes’ knowledge of English really stood. After reading passages for two days, I acknowledged that neither class understood what I was saying unless I used gestures or translated them into Rukwangali. Nothing was getting through to my students. They knew how to read the words in the passages, but they did not comprehend the meaning. Most of the questions I asked received an answer anywhere from repeating the question back to me to finding a random sentence in the passage and reading that. After each passage, I gave the class a chance to ask me any words they didn’t understand so that I could explain the meaning. No one raised a hand. I had to find out what was going on and why my classes were not asking me questions or telling me what they didn’t understand. I needed to figure out exactly what they understood and where I needed to begin helping them.
What I Realized
Namibia wants its citizens to learn English and to be an English-speaking country. The national curriculum guides mandate that formal English instruction begins in the fifth grade. In 2016 the mandate was lowered to 4th grade. This means that my sixth graders would have had one year of English studies by the time they began this school year. Being the “newbie” that I am, I figured my students would be well-versed in the structure of English, like parts of speech and writing sentences, so I was surprised to discover that their knowledge of the language wasn’t as far along as I thought. Then I remembered how long it took me to learn Spanish as a second language. After four years, I still wasn’t fluent nor did I totally comprehend how parts of speech were used when reading and writing the language. This would help to partly explain why my students don’t understand the structure of English yet. It’s hard for them to put sentences together to make sense. I am going to have to rethink how I approach instruction with my students so I can give them a better sense of the language, both written and spoken, and also develop their vocabulary.
I was also surprised at how difficult it has been to get my students to volunteer answers to any questions I ask. They seem more comfortable giving their teachers answers that are literal and often as one word. The students think there is one right answer to a question, so they often don’t volunteer because they don’t want to make a mistake. This is common for all students no matter where they live because they don’t want to be viewed as a failure. Kids solve the problem by choosing not to participate at all. I am working on this in my classes. I try to get the students to raise their hand and say something. I tell them that saying something is better than nothing because at least they are trying to use English. My acting and improvisational skills have been useful here. I can almost 99% of the time twist a child’s answer into something correct. This has helped a lot. I have seen greater improvement already in participation.
I have now decided on a new approach to teaching English. I am going to spend the first term covering all the parts of speech in-depth. I have assigned one part of speech each week and start from scratch with the students. This past week was nouns, the building blocks of sentences. We covered everything from proper nouns to compound nouns. We learned to change nouns from singular to plural. We even gotten into countable vs. uncountable nouns which is a hard concept for them to understand because these don’t exist in Rukwangali. Overall, I count my new approach as a success. It was a great week of lessons. My students really understood what was going on. I think they know a lot more about nouns and how they are used. I am also proud to say that participation has increased exponentially in the past week, and, hopefully, it will get better as the year goes on. I still have a few kids who try to avoid my gaze all during class, but I’m guessing every teacher anywhere has that challenge.
Any Ideas For Me?
If anyone reading this has fun activities they use in class to cover a part of speech, I would love to have them. Worksheets are hard to use because I don’t have access to a printer at school. I would really appreciate any ideas where students are actively involved in their learning. Moving around and interacting seems like a positive approach to get my students learning English. I will keep everyone posted on what is going on in my class and how the students are doing as the term goes on.