The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.

Reference

Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).

 

When the last bell rings

When the last bell rings

 

I prepared my lessons to teach you

What you have to know

I think I’ve said what the books says I must

But I hope I’ve told you more

I’ve told you stories which may connect

And some quite random I must admit

But all these stories, I know they will,

Stick more than what the pages reveal

I took the lessons for granted

Knowing that I will see you all again

And then suddenly, but surely,

There was just one lesson left

The lesson had to end

Just as I got to know you better

Just as I had more things to say

Just as I had more tears to shed

I hope I’ve made a difference in your lives

I hope you’ll  become a better version of yourself

As I become a better me

Because of who you are

Understanding your

Personality

Passions

Pain

Have made a difference in my life.

My students, my passion

My students, my passion

I sit there listening to them, some of them shy, some of them daring, but all of them reaching into their heart to tell the class about what they care about.

Each time I teach this course, I always find out something I would never have if I didn’t have the trial presentations. The trials are supposed to help them prepare for the final graded presentation, but they are more than that. The three-minute presentation about ‘whatever they like’ is really a window to their soul – what they are, what they stand for.

My students, when they first find out they have to do the trial presentation, groan, shudder, fake a heart attack and the like. But when they go through the prep, stand in front of the class and receive feedback on how they have done, I dare say it’s better than any textbook, video or self-help book.

Some of them can’t wait to share with their friends their favorite sport, hobby, singer; some of them want to but are fearful and nervous. There have a few who don’t bother but thankfully they are too few to count.

Whether they are springing onto stage, or carefully pondering every move, or trying not to shake too much, I relish each student’s presentation, both content and style. For that brief moment, I find out more about their personality, what makes them tick, what fills their thoughts, what is their passion.

When I see their eyes light up, some time for the first time in my class, I’m content to know that they had the opportunity to connect with others, to share a part of themselves. When I see them shy away from their friends’ gaze, I know I have to encourage them to take that risk.

When I hear about their stories, why the love something, their aspirations, I’m reminded of the time I was their age – 17 years old – full of ideals and energy, exploring each passion one by one.

I am, of course, no longer 17, and regrettably in some way, do not have the passions I once had at 17. But I seem to re-live my passions through my students, vicariously, yes, but I think slowly I’m beginning to realize I could rekindle that passion, re-imagine it and make it real for me this moment. At least I have one passion I am sure of – my students.

 

Generation iY – the best is yet to be

Generation iY - the best is yet to be

I had the privilege of being in the audience of Dr Tim Elmore’s presentation on Generation iY when he visited my school yesterday. Tim’s work (with Growing Leaders) is about  instilling values in youth who will be leaders of future generations.

I was informed, moved and challenged to view the Generation iY with different lenses and help them develop values to be leaders, not in the sense of being heads of organizations, but having a leadership perspective, i.e. being personally accountable and having a significant influence on others.

According to Tim, Generation iY are those born in the 90s, a group he categorizes as confident, social, tech savvy, family oriented and influential. With a life paradigm ,”life is a cafeteria”, their life is a buffet and the sum of their life is picking and choosing what they like. This generation is markedly different from my generation (Gen X) and even the earlier Gen Yers who were born in the 80s.

While this group sounds like they have everything going for them, Tim also pointed out that Generation iY are generally self-absorbed, display low empathy and ambiguous about the future at best. Of the seven reasons that Tim listed for this unique Gen iY personality, I strongly identified with two of them: parenting style and media & technology.

Media & Technology – Made for Them

My students are Gen iY and as a whole, their life seems to be always in the here and now. They are particularly emotional (or emo as they call it), taking admonishments badly and making the trivial the highlight of their day. You could call it adolescence, you could call it one generation lamenting about the next, but as Tim pointed out, the Gen iY is the first generation that doesn’t need to ask adults to get information. In fact, with the Internet so firmly entrenched in our daily lives, it has become a part of their living environment, especially since they were born into a world that already had it.

These kids are “always on”, wired up, and they learn lessons from what they consider the wonderful world of the internet. A student of mine said that she learns about life through Tumblr, though inspirational quotations blogged by people she doesn’t know. These catchy observations of life seem to shape her emotional response, never mind that those emotions will surface at some other point in time. By then, there will be another blog post or twitter update to fix that problem. Please tell me I’m not the only one disturbed that the values and attitudes of this Gen iY (or whatever name you want to give them) are guided and molded by anonymous strangers, distant acquaintances and friends whom have been influenced by the anonymous themselves!

Parents, where are you?

I think parents have a part to play in this unreal world of character building. Or to be precise, the absent parent is at least partly responsible for this state of affairs. At least in Singapore, the idea of a stay-home parent or grandparent is becoming rarer and so the kid has no human being, let alone a parent, to connect with at home. Or maybe parents are too tired after a day’s or work to connect with their child who may not be in the mood for connecting with his parents. I personally know of friends with teenage kids who struggle with not being there for their kids, or when they are, their kids aren’t. In fact, I think I’m connecting more with my friends’ teenage kids on Facebook then they are with their own kids at home! But let’s make it clear, I’m not their mum and I can’t parent them. (Anyway, I have my own post Gen iYers to parent!)

Be Intentional & Purposeful

I don’t think we can  confiscate media & technology and ground kids on a permanent basis. You’ll be screaming for your iPhone if it happened to you. So whether you’re a parent or a teacher, we need to focus on the what we can deal with – the young lives of Gen iY – and do so  intentionally and purposefully.

It’s not a 3 minute answer and it’s not something you can buy online. It’s about making use of the teachable moments, modeling positive behaviors and responses and making every effort to have a real (not cyber) dialogue with them. I like what Tim said about being responsive and demanding. We need to be sensitive to their needs but we also need to exercise our judgment and have high expectations of them so that they can grow into  “the best versions  of themselves.”

It’s a challenge I’m taking up. Shall we do this together?

 

Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

I could go on and on about how teenagers nowadays don’t know basic courtesy: how they let out expletives within earshot in a crowded lift, how they talk when the teacher is talking as if she didn’t exist; basically how they walk the road like they own it. But I really shouldn’t because one, there’s no end to that list, and two, I will start to moralize about who’s to blame.

So let me talk about what I can do as a teacher, standing in front of a class of youngsters who can’t get enough of their phones, talk when you’re talking, and seem to do something else even when you’ve set them a different task?

Enough with your phone already!

What do I do when they can’t keep still for 10 minutes without reaching for their iPhone? I tried ignoring it as long as I thought they were more or less paying attention to the lesson but the more I let it happen, the more I was convinced that their mind was on some mindless gossip on twitter. So I made it clear at the beginning of the lesson: put away your phones or I will put them away for you. I’ve confiscated a couple before by placing them at the teacher’s desk but returned it to the student after the lesson. I think they weren’t too cheesed off since I didn’t spot any black faces. I had been generally tolerant of their behavior before and maybe they were just used to me already.

Would this work in your class?

However, I wouldn’t necessarily try it in a large class, like a lecture hall of 80 plus students. First, I would have to spend more time confiscating phones than teaching. Second, I they will hate my guts. Third, one and two make a really bad class.

I think the best defense against a tech distracted crowd is to win them over with your superior tech display, e.g. great eye-catching photos during presentation, a couple of well-timed videos, and having interactive activities like getting individuals and groups to come to the front to do something. And don’t forget the M&Ms to encourage participation!

Chatting like there’s no tomorrow

Most of my students tend to talk a lot more when I’m not the one asking them to do the talking. For example, when they’ve just come in to the classroom and they’re settling down, when they’ve finished an activity and the others are still working on theirs, or when I disappear from the classroom to get something.

I have nothing against students talking in class – except when I’m talking and that usually means I’m trying to say something I think it’s important to them.

Usually they do it because they are engrossed in an ongoing discussion, and can’t snap out of it until they get both physical and verbal cues, i.e. the teacher standing in front of them and saying, “Are we ready for class?”

What if they don’t get the cues? What if they get it one moment and forget the next? Well, I keep on reminding them until my cues are reduced to a glance, a stare or a glare. I don’t aim for total silence and I don’t want them to end up fearful of not keeping quiet. But I think through consistent reinforcement of the expected behavior in class, they will get the message.

One of these kids is doing his own thing

Texting on the phone and being a chatterbox are actually less disturbing behaviors than not following specific instructions in the larger scheme of things. I’ve had students who seem to insist on doing something contrary to what I’ve set the class to do. Thankfully this doesn’t occur often but when it does, it could mean the student is suffering from a behavioral disorder like Asperger’s Syndrome. It could also mean that the student cannot bring himself to complete the task because he finds no meaning in it.

While I have not experienced the former, I have come across students who exhibit the second type of behavior. Usually, they find the work un-challenging or they already know the topic. So far from being rude, they just can’t bring themselves to do something which doesn’t help them learn anything new. What I do to help this student is to give him a more challenging task or point out aspects of the activity that he can still benefit from. To date, I’ve not had a resistant student.

Not rude, well, not all the time

So in my encounters with less desirable classroom behavior, I conclude that the students don’t mean to be rude or challenging; they are just behaving in a way that’s most natural to them. I think it’s our job as teachers to remind them what’s appropriate and what’s not in class – and be consistent in setting our boundaries and ground rules. The last thing we want to do is to ignore them and let them continue with behavior that will not help them learn any better, or anything at all!

P/S I teach in an Asian context where students are largely respectful of authority figures.