Learners as People First

As language teachers, our first job is to teach English. Or is it? Does being a good teacher sometimes mean putting aside a focus on English learning? Kevin Stein is joined by first time bloggers Naoko Amano and Aline Dyna as they share stories of seeing their students with needs beyond just developing language skills in the classroom.
Kevin SteinPutting People First by Kevin Stein
Aline DynaThe Power of Books: Empowering underprivileged students by Aline Dyna
Naoko Amano
A Perfect Boy by Naoko Amano

Putting People First

By Kevin SteinKevin Stein

About 10 years ago, I was working at an international centre in rural Japan. My time was almost evenly split between teaching classes of very young learners and classes of adults. But I did have one small class of junior high school students. One exceptional class of 2 students, a 13-year-old boy named Tacchan, and a 14-year-old girl named Misa. Every week they came and chatted in English and were willing to try almost anything I threw at them. Take Peanuts cartoons, swap out low frequency words for more common words, and then stage them as mini-plays? They did it. Role-play meeting each other in the back of a bus when you are in your seventies? They slumped over and tried to take on the body language as well as voice of their older self.

About halfway through the year, a new student joined the class. He was a bit shy. His name was Kenji. He was tall. His hair was long and the bangs hung over his forehead, so it was hard to make eye contact with him. And he was much quieter than the other students. Misa and Tacchan didn’t stop doing what they had been doing, but something changed in the class. The temperature dropped a degree or two. At least, that’s how I felt to me. I remember we did an activity where one student free talked for 2 minutes about what they were good at and then the other two students had to make a suggestion for that person’s perfect future job. When Kenji’s free talk turn rolled around, he said that he didn’t think he was very good at anything. And the activity ended just like that.

A few weeks later, Misa and Tacchan, were exchanging CDs. They both loved music. Misa was a pianist and Tacchan a drummer and they often hung out in the classroom and listened to music after the lesson ended. On this day, Kenji was interested in the CDs and he stayed as well. I was cleaning up my papers when I heard Kenji say that he played the jazz saxophone. I kind of got it into my head that what Kenji needed was a chance to really shine, that if he had a bit more confidence, he would be willing to talk more. So during the next lesson I suggested that maybe, to get to know each other a bit more, we could have a bit of a jam session in class. Misa and Tacchan were excited and Kenji agreed to bring his sax as well. At the beginning of the next lesson, Kenji took out his sax and immediately began to play, ‘Take the A Train.’ I’m not an expert on saxophone, or Jazz, but I felt there was something so smooth about Kenji’s playing. The notes filled up the small classroom with a liquid warmth. Five minutes of Kenji playing solo, and then Misa joined in, and finally Tacchan. They made music for most of the lesson.

I remember the first iTDi webinar I ever attended. Penny Ur was talking about classroom management and I remember her saying something along the lines of, regardless of method, regardless of teaching philosophy, the most effective teachers all have one thing in common. Highly effective teachers keep their students on task. I believe this to be true in the way that addition is true. Adding up hour after hour of focused learning leads to greater language acquisition. But I also know that sometimes my students can’t step into the place where they can “be on task.” Sometimes I need to take a minute out of class to talk about a student’s family, in their first language. Sometimes I listen happily as a student shifts out of English into their L1 so that they can fill me in on each and every detail of their favourite manga. Part of me thinks that if I were a better teacher, I would be able to preserve that sense of excitement and alway, each and every time, bring the conversation back to using English. No matter how much I see the value in creating a space where students can feel comfortable and happy, there is this lingering doubt, this sense of guilt. If I was truly good at my job, wouldn’t I be able to make the students happy and comfortable as they used English?

I’m still in touch with Misa, Tacchan, and Kenji. They are all in their third year of university. They are all still studying English. In fact, Kenji just came back from a year abroad at UCLA. I would like to say that their jam session had something to do with their love of English. And maybe it did. But the truth is, even after the jam sessions, Kenji didn’t talk very much during lessons. And maybe that 40 minutes of music making could have been more effectively spent on language learning than music making.

Probably I will never have an answer to this question, this problem of finding a balance between meeting my students’ non-english-learning needs and being an English teacher. But reading the beautiful posts by Naoko and Aline, helps put me a little more at ease. Because I believe that in order to see my students as people first, I have to see teaching English—as important as it might be—as something that does not always have to come first.

Aline DynaThe Power of Books: Empowering underprivileged students by Aline Dyna
Naoko Amano
A Perfect Boy by Naoko Amano

The power of books: Empowering Underprivileged Students

by Aline DynaAline Dyna

Ever since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by books. It did not matter what stories they brought, I knew they’d bring something else: knowledge. As a teacher, I have become more aware of this power that books have, and I have always tried to make more people aware of it, especially my students. We share books in class, visit libraries and have talks about our favorite stories. Even as a kid, I loved to share my books and borrow some from my friends. Exchanging was exciting and fun, but I couldn’t think of not having one of my books back. You see, I was very fond of them, and loved to emphasise the possessive: my books. Somehow it was important to me to say that those books belonged to me, as if I owed the knowledge and stories they carried. I felt more intelligent, more powerful.

As the years passed by, I realised that this feeling is not peculiar to me, but shared by many of my friends and peers. We are often caught in conversations about our latest acquisitions, with sparkling eyes and huge smiles on our faces. But it has always puzzled me why some people do not share this feeling. Well, at least I thought so.

I work in two very different contexts: I teach in a binational (American/Brazilian) center, where most students have a very comfortable life, and in a public school in the outskirts of Brasília, where students are underprivileged young-adults and adults. While in the former I often see students carrying books around, reading at the break, and going to the library, in the latter I rarely witness similar scenes. Intrigued by this lack of interest in books, I wondered if it had to do with a lack of interest in school itself – which happens for so many other reasons.

“Do you like reading,” I asked one of my most motivated students one day.

“A lot”, he said.

“So how come I never see you carrying any books at school?”

He replied, “That’s because I don’t have any. And I have read pretty much everything our shabby little library has to offer”.

It hit me hard. My students do not lack interest in books or in school. They simply do not have any books to read! And right there I decided I needed to take action.

It was the beginning of the second semester and we were planning actions for the term. One of our biggest challenges has always been to raise funds for the prom. Government funding is scarce, so we have to plan events to raise money for school activities. I tried to figure out how we could put those two things together – a fundraising event for the prom and a way of getting the students some books. I came up with the idea: what if we collected as many books as we could from donations and sold them to the students?

When I presented my idea, many of my colleagues were doubtful, saying that we could not sell things to get donations, and besides which, it would be simpler just to give the books to students. But I argued that ownership was the key here. We wouldn’t be simply doing charity, we would be giving our students the chance to choose and buy whichever book they wanted that we had to offer. We would charge a very small fee of R$2.00 (less than a dollar), because our main goal was not to make a lot money out of it, but to spark a sense of community and belonging. The students could practice their citizenship as well as feeling more tied to the bigger community project of helping to fund the prom. They would realise that they need to be the actors of change and take the lead to have what they want and deserve, which was to finish school with a ceremony and recognition of their efforts by their whole community. And on top of that, they would read.

I couldn’t hide my excitement when the project was approved, and we language teachers (Portuguese and English) started our quest for books. We were blessed and found substantial help from those well-off students from the binational center. When I mentioned that I was collecting books for a project, the head librarian of the center told me she could share with me some of the donations they had collected early that year. They had developed a project of their own, to help remodel the public library of a small city nearby, and they had collected an impressive 11,000 books!! Of course they didn’t have room for all of them, so many other institutions were given boxes and boxes of books. We got about 500 volumes to be sold in our event.

And then the day came. We had other cultural activities happening at the same time as we sold books, so students could choose to dance, sing, and recite poetry. Can you guess which activity was the most popular? Yes!! Books!! Students would gather around the counter where we displayed the books, avid for knowledge and a good read. I saw people lending money to others who have very little but wanted to have a book. I saw friends offering books with inscriptions to their loved ones. And what led me to tears was to see them, right after having bought their books, sitting around in the hall, classrooms, on the floor, reading. There. Immediately. It was a very special day in my life and in their lives, too. Some students came to me and said that was the first time they had ever bought a book. Books were usually just too expensive. Some of the students even said that they didn’t feel they belonged in a bookstore or a library, because they were poor. In the end, almost 500 books were sold and a lot more hearts and minds had been lit up. We have held the event twice since then, and are already planning more.

A Perfect Boy

Naoko Amanoby Naoko Amano

I teach a class on Tuesdays from 5:15-6:30 pm. There are 6 students in the class. Five of them are first grade students (4 boys and 1 girl) and the other student is a kindergarten girl. The first grade girl has been studying English since she was 2 and has already passed a pretty difficult standardised English test. She has a dedicated mother who observes each and every class. Sometimes the mother even takes pictures of what we are doing in class. My policy is to welcome parents observing class anytime, still I was surprised that this particular mother asked me if she could observe each and every class.

All the first grade students went to the same kindergarten. They are very energetic and used to come into the classroom and chase each other around in a game of tag. I would tell them “It’s time to start! Let’s make a circle,” but only the one kindergarten girl would ever come over. The other students just kept talking and running. Finally, they would wander over to me and say hello. Even when the lesson did start, one of the boys, lets call him K-Kun, kept talking in Japanese and moving around when he was supposed to be sitting down and concentrating. In fact, the only time he ever did sit still was for ‘prize time’ at the end of the class. The other students often imitated what he was doing and soon the lessons just fell apart. The other students would answer K-Kun’s nonsense questions and laugh whenever he talked. At first, I tried to figure out what was wrong with my lesson plans. Did I need to include more interesting activities? Did I need to make things more fun? I tried new games, roll-plays, fun songs, collecting stamps to get prizes. I made the activities short and moved directly from one activity to another with no wait time. I even tried arts and craft day and games only lessons. But it made things worse. The students enjoyed the games, but they didn’t try and use English at all, I could barely finish half of a normal lesson plan. I felt terrible for the kindergarten girl. And the poor higher-level first grade girl, what we were learning was far too easy for her.

I decided to talk about K-kun to his mother. Just as I had finally made up my mind to call her, she sent me an email. She wrote that she had heard about her sons attitude from the first grade girls’s mother who always observed our class but, more than her son’s attitude, she was upset that I would sometimes scold her son. According to her email, she did not believe K-Kun could possibly be misbehaving so badly in class. She thought I was being overly harsh. I called her, we talked, and I suggested she come and watch a class or two. She took me up on my offer and came the next week.

Even with his mother watching, K-Kun was 100% K-Kun. He talked to the other students when he should have been listening, he wandered around the room, and even talked to himself. After class, his mother told me that she didn’t know what to do. She said, “At school he’s a very good boy. His homeroom teacher tells me he is a leader. But at home, he doesn’t listen to me at all. I’m always having to scold him.” She looked down and almost whispered, “Actually, it’s driving me crazy. At school he is a very good boy. I don’t know why he acts like this at home and in English class.”

That’s when I realised K-Kun IS a good boy. He is trying his hardest all day at school. He is under so much pressure. When he gets home, he is exhausted. He just wants to relax, he just wants to talk and spend time with his mom. He just wants to be himself. So I gently suggested that she try not to scold her son, instead of telling him what to do next, take some time and listen to him. Don’t tell him how to behave in English class. Don’t make English class another chore he has to do. Just bring him to class and say, “Enjoy your lesson.” I’m sure K-Kun’s mom thought I was giving her advice, but really, while I was talking to K-kun’s mom, I was figuring things out for myself, I was thinking about what I had to do to be the kind of teacher K-Kun needed.

Since that day, I don’t start class by calling the students over and launching into an activity. Instead, I walk over to them and ask about their days. I share the stories of my day, too. Eventually we are all sitting down, naturally, in a circle and chatting. When I first started doing ‘circle time’ at the beginning of the class, it was 10% Japanese. As the students talked, they, and especially K-Kun, calmed down and would focus on the lesson. Recently, they have started to use the English we learned in class as they tell me the stories of their days.

I’ve been teaching English for 7 years now. Over that time I’ve gradually learned different ways to teach. I’ve also become better at listening to what parents want. The more techniques I collected and the more expectations I tried to meet, the less I could see the reason why I became an English teacher in the first place. I am an English teacher because I believed, and I still believe, that communicating in English is fun. Not only fun. It’s the kind of fun that helps students learn about themselves and their world. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, I had gotten a little lost, and instead of helping students find their own world, I had tried to drag them into my own task-oriented world. It took one very ‘good boy’ named K-Kun to remind me that wanting to learn English often must start with a student believing that their teacher is interested in them as a person, that their teacher is truly interested in listening to whatever it is they need to say.