Wherein The Inmates Take Over The Asylum

7 October, 2009

Today was our interaction with ESL learners. It proved to be an interesting experience on a number of levels, nearly all of them comedic.

For the past two weeks, we’ve mostly been focusing on teaching younger learners, especially those with extremely limited levels of English proficiency. We spent a lot of time utilizing flashcards, developing games and other “warmers” for younger students that could readily be adapted to adult learners as well, and underwent two videotaped sessions where we “taught” a lesson to our trainees and critiqued ourselves later. So consequently, when the teacher/student assignments were posted at the end of yesterday afternoon, the general conception was that we should gear our lessons towards younger learners in pursuit of determining their language skills.

The first part of today can only be described as a flurry of activity as the 16 of us flitted about the office, downloading flashcards, writing dialogues, filling out our lesson plan forms, and trying to download everything we’d been taught into an hour-long session.  The approaches the individual trainers took towards the lesson planning was diverse- some opted for interactive games, some prepared flashcards, and others incorporated music and video into theirs as well. Since we weren’t doing any actual teaching today, but instead trying to figure out the student’s language needs, I decided I’d simply try to have a conversation. I prepared a bunch of questions regarding their background, typed them up for them to read back to me, and if they couldn’t, I prepared a bunch of flashcards for them to point at to indicate words their vocabulary may not yet have.

A word about flashcards: There exists a preponderance of flashcards of varying quality all over the Internet, encompassing nearly every subject you could possibly expect. Some you have to pay for, others are completely free. However, one thing they all have in common is that they appear to be designed for young kids. I spent an hour on an extremely slow internet connection (7.2 kb/s on average, baby) trying to find flashcards that depicted hobbies that didn’t have small children with enormously lopsided heads leering back at me as they built model rockets/played with dolls, etc.  All my efforts were in vain, and I ended up picking a set that didn’t quite so resemble the Hello Kitty catalog from 1989.

The only thing I knew about my trainee was that she was an adult and her name was Sara. I didn’t know what her language proficiency was, what her background was, or even how comfortable she would be talking to me. I ran through all the cultural stuff I knew: Don’t point with your finger, use a flat palm gesture instead. Don’t cross your legs with your foot pointing towards someone, it’s considered a grave insult. Don’t shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand first. I had images of unwittingly offending an intensely devout Muslim woman, and having her flee the classroom screaming as I blankly gaped at her.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a young, unveiled woman in Western clothes bounded up to me, extended a hand, and said , “Hi, I’m Sara!” in English slightly tinged with an Arabic accent.

I achieved my lesson objectives almost immediately, in terms that I was accurately able to assess how much training my student would need in speaking English. The answer was, of course, none. During our entire hour-long conversation, she only had trouble with two words.

My basic plan was to cut up a bunch of questions, put them in a coffee cup, and have her draw and read them so our dialogue didn’t feel so forced. Slight alarm bells started to go off when she mentioned that she was getting a Master’s in comparative literature- English literature. Or that her favorite author was Jane Austen. The apex moment finally came when she pulled the “Do you work? If so, what do you do?” card out of the cup.

She gazed at the card for a second, and nervously ground her feet into the tiled floor.

“Well, I, um…I teach English to Egyptians.”

At that point, the TEFL train went off the tracks. Over the next half-hour, I came to find out that Sara had been studying English since she was 6 years old (she came from a well-educated family), and that she had gone to a prestigious university in Alexandria that conducts their classes in English and French. She had also taken part in a trip to Washington, D.C. and did a brief, 5-day internship with a US Congressman (she didn’t mention who.) We ended up spending the rest of the lesson talking about Ph.D programs we were applying to, and international diplomacy.

Essentially, Sara is well on her way to having a great career as a ESL teacher herself, and is probably better qualified to assess MY English speaking skills than I am.

A few questions arise, namely- who told this girl she needed ANY instruction in English at all!?

The other student practice sessions varied. Some went quasi-disastrously, others went well. Set’s experiment with music and video worked out well, and I think she can’t be lauded enough for introducing Minus the Bear to Egypt. The erstwhile Britte (cleobritte.wordpress.com) made a lovely impression on her student and kind of got asked out on a lunch date.

Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing in Obama’s speech in Cairo and having my “student” write on that. Or, if she’s not comfortable with that, I’ll dig up a few poems and hope she hasn’t read them.

As an addendum, Shaimaa (our course administrator) made the entire program a delicious feast tonight! We had stuffed peppers, rice with a green sauce of indeterminate vegetable origin, and an incredible desert that can only be described as honey and sugar-glazed cornbread.

Set’s posting her blog right now. I’ll be back tomorrow with more.


One Response to “Wherein The Inmates Take Over The Asylum”

  1. laura nisbet said

    …sounds like everybody’s learning something!

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