10 September 2008

First Reflections on Teaching

That I am teaching is slightly extreme. While I definitely consider what I do vis-á-vis museums to be highly educational, it is passive education -- objects, text, and context are an intermediary between me and the learner. This active teaching is something I'm learning how to do the way sometimes parents throw their kids into a swimming pool in order to teach them how to swim. At this point, I have a ton more empathy for teachers and I understand more why my mom was always so tired when she got home from work!

A lot of the system is quite foreign to me, and/or everything is highly mormal and I have been completely unaware of the behind-the-scenes aspects of education, specifically regarding the vast amouts of highly bureaucratic paperwork that are involved. For example, after every class it is necessary to write down in a book called the trieda kniha (classroom book) the objective for the lesson, plus note who is absent and initial it. This needs to be written in Slovak because it is a semi-legal document, and so I get help with it. This particular book stays in the classroom, as do all of the students throughout the day. Instead of having their own classroom like in America, every teacher has a desk in one room with all of the other teachers. I like this system, because it generally cuts down on hallway idiocy between class periods.

The really nice thing is that all of my classes are split, which means that I only have half of one class at a time, and there are two classes per grade -- A and B. So for example when I teach, I have only half of group A, which is only 11 or 12 kids. At the same time, the other group is also learning English, or depending on the grade, maybe German. Thank God I'm only teaching half a group at a time, because otherwise it would be beyond bedlam.

Because it was the first time that I was teaching them, I started every class by trying to explain to them how important it was for them to stop me if they didn't understand or if they needed me to repeat something. When they ask me if I speak Slovak, the official answer is no, but it has to be obvious that I understand it because if they give an answer in Slovak, often my answer is, "yes, but in English, please!" They're usually able to do it, and I can usually tell by the blank stares and frustration when they're not getting it. It's amazing how easy it is to tune out Slovak and only be thinking and speaking in English, and when I'm walking in the halls or something, usually there are greetings of "hello!" or "bye bye!" and I answer in English only.

I'm trying to encourage them to help each other, but this is a double-edged sword because it usually means that one or two of the students are translating everything for the rest of the class. I'd prefer for these students to begin to arrive at the point where they are thinking in English, but at the same time I kind of need them to do this so that I know they understand, and I definitely want them to help each other -- it goes without saying I'm trying really hard to positively reinforce as much as possible, especially with the students who I think may want to be a handful. I'm trying to explain to them that I'm not really teaching them, I'm there because I already speak English and they will learn from each other if only they would listen to each other. But this is 1. hard to explain in Enligh and even harder to understand, and 2. a somewhat radical concept and definitely not a way that they are used to learning. I haven't gotten to the language-is-a-creative-act point yet, but it's definitely on the horizon -- I know they aren't used to learning this way -- and we're still at the highly pragmatic language-is-a-tool-for-communication point.

The youngest students I have are in the 6th class, and they are mostly still quite cute, although I had one section that was rather difficult because it was painfully obvious they were trying to 'test' me. Usually this means that they ask me to go to the bathroom, which is a non-question because they have 45-minute periods with 10 or 15 minutes in between, which is of course more than enough time to go -- and as I reread this sentence, I hate how 'grownup' I sound. But it's the truth!

Almost every class had someone who is, shall we say, silent but deadly -- usually someone who sat in the last row and was either pretending to not pay attention or who seemed not into talking, but then who came through at the right moment with the right answer perfectly, to my suprise and to the suprise of some of their classmates. I'm happy when this sort of thing happens. ...it also turns out that with some of the kids, they are paying attention even when I don't think they are.

Since the groups are split in half, they're spread out all over the room, and I ask them to move forward from the back of the room if they're sitting towards the back. At times this elicits whines, but they are really very respectful. When I walk into the classroom and when I leave, they stand (which kind of amazes me). And so, when I ask them a question, they try to answer, because they won't say no to me because I'm the teacher (this definitely amazes me). The respect is there, and of course it has to be mutual, and it is.

This week, all we did was introductions. But I put them in pairs or trios and they introduced each other, very simply: This is my friend ______. S/he lives in ______. His/Her hobbies are ______. Then after that -- and trust me, communicating that they would introduce each other was really amazingly difficult -- I asked them individually about their brothers and sisters and asked if they are older than them or younger than them. This introduced older/younger and oldest/youngest without them even knowing it. For some of the older kids, this went very quickly and we moved on to other things, but for the 6th class, it took all 45 minutes of the period.

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