Welcome to English Class
We are, or at least I am, in full lesson planning mode in the office right now. With English classes commencing at the start of April, we are establishing our goals for the semester and designing a curriculum to achieve those objectives. These goals are a mix of old and new, small and large, evolving each year to meet student needs, while always staying true to the core values of the program. In other words, while conversational fluency may be an overarching goal of our English programming, the roadmap to getting there is not carved in stone and necessarily changes each semester. The world of foreign language education is a constantly evolving one, subject to a tremendous amount of research, competing schools of thought, and cultural shifts, so we do our best to pinpoint the most effective methodology for our students.
Despite what it may seem, this does not mean that English class is a heavy affair. We design the curriculum with two main descriptors in mind: relevant and engaging. Relevance can be a challenging concept to plan for, particularly because none of our students are moving to an English speaking country anytime soon, so we do our best to plan as if they might. This semester, we’ll be starting with the classroom itself, learning vocabulary and grammar related to our interactions within that space, such as: Could you pass me that red marker over there? We want to build up from what’s around us and then invite the outside world in, transforming the classroom into a bus station or restaurant or city street. In recreating relevant situations, we will create an atmosphere in which English is an absolutely necessary tool and not just something to be learned in a textbook.
So what does a class actually look like? Classes generally begin with a warm up exercise designed to review the previous week’s material and get the kids moving. This often involves students running around to put vocabulary into categories, racing to write down as many words as possible, or competing in a pictionary style game. The warm up sets the energy level for the class and ensures that old vocabulary is constantly recycled, as repetition is an absolutely necessary component of language acquisition. Some weeks, we introduce a set of new, related vocabulary, while others are spent working with existing vocabulary in a new way. We do not want to overwhelm the students with new language, so we always whittle our lessons down to the essentials and gradually build upon that each week.
When presenting new material, we usually introduce it through pictures and a call and response sort of process. One teacher will hold out a picture to see if any students can identify the correct English word, asking questions or giving clues to jog their memory. When the word is established, ideally by a student, the teacher will elicit pronunciation from the group. I might hold out the picture and say, “This is a lobster. Lobster,” before raising my hands to indicate that the students should respond, “lobster”. If a student responds with a truly Bostonian “lobstah,” they then receive our undying praise for eternity. As a big, rowdy group, we will go through the pronunciation a few more times before moving onto the next word and repeating the process. The word itself is only written once the sounds of the word have been drilled, because English spelling is often quite misleading and strange for learners.
Upon going through the vocabulary set and labelling each picture on the board, we break up into smaller groups to tackle a variety of exercises. These are designed to incorporate the vocabulary into grammatical structures we’re working on and often entail: question and answer, drawing, matching, error correction, reading, acting etc. We use worksheets to work on certain aspects of the material, but do our best to make sure that spoken communication is incorporated as much as possible; some students might silently dig into an exercise, while others might boisterously play a game.
Each group is a mix of full-time staff, volunteers, and students, so there’s always a lot of personal attention and never a dull moment. Our student to teacher ratio is nearly one-to-one, so we’re able to provide individualized support to each student, tweaking the curriculum according to his or her needs. Most classrooms are lead by a single teacher, who may have one assistant, so this sort of tailored guidance is a foreign concept to our students. We rotate our students through three or more stations throughout the class, keeping the environment dynamic and allowing for a nuanced understanding of the material. If specific students are dialed in on one worksheet or concept, they can continue that progress for as long as they want, as student interest is the number one indicator of success.
The end of the class is usually reserved for some sort of game that incorporates all of the day’s material and every student. Since we do not test our students in a formal way or assign homework, these activities are a fun way to assess student learning. Last year, while working on adjectives to describe people, we played a giant game of “Guess Who?” in which we taped celebrity photos to each student’s head and had everybody ask each other questions until they figured out who they were. Am I old? No. Am I tall? Yes. Do I have long hair? No. Am I Cristiano Ronaldo? Yes. Their guesses were often way off the mark, despite having a list of the celebrity names, but their English was great. These games always change according to the material and are a great way to see what students have learned and make sure that class ends on a high note.
At some point during our allotted time, either before or after the class itself, we try to incorporate physical activity. We often end up playing large games of ninja or soccer, which, depending on the mood of the day, can become incredibly intense. It’s hard to say if the kids or the teachers take these more seriously, but one thing is certain, the tíos do not go down without a fight. This past semester in Cerro Montedonico, Tío Ethan, former hockey star, challenged four of our older students to a foot race. Suffice it to say, he won by a sizable margin and surprised all of our students, who approached the race as if the result were set in stone. To ensure that it wasn’t a fluke, they raced a second time, and, you know it, Ethan came out on top. It was a hilarious event for all of us and one that will be remembered for years to come.
While our time in the office is a necessary component of the job, we’re all itching to get out and see our kids more often during the week. We’ll get the proverbial ball rolling in two weeks and classes will then continue until winter break in mid-July. During this time, we’ll cover three or four distinct units and, if all goes according to plan, end the semester with a final project and movie viewing. We’ll be using some of these time slots to host environmental workshops as well, so we have a lot to look forward to and to share.