Over the last 16 weeks I’ve spent teaching in a non-profit community-based ESL program called SPEAK, Inc. located in the education buildings of Victory World Church in Norcross, GA. SPEAK is an acronym (I didn’t know this until two weeks ago; I’ve been teaching here for a year) that stands for Serving People with English and Acclimation Keys. The director is a church member and the wife of a pastor at the church. Not being a religious person, I was wary going into this position but quickly found out that there was nothing to be afraid of. Both the director and the night directors have degrees in Applied Linguistics and are very much interested in making the lives of immigrants in Atlanta better with English instruction among others. It’s very much a growing organization. The first class I taught for this organization was entirely volunteer and several teachers that were there before me taught on a volunteer basis for two years. They have just recently reached a point where they’ve had enough students to be able to pay their teachers $18/hour. Students that join these classes do so on a temporary basis, and pay for either a 7 week session or a 5 week session. Before now, they have only had the option to register for an 8 week session, and for the past two weeks, I have been teaching introductory students for 8 weeks (with no prior English classroom experience) and high intermediate students for the last 8 weeks.
The organization as a whole has also changed textbooks and resources over the year I’ve been there. I’ve gone from teaching with STAND OUT (a very skills-based curriculum) to teaching with Cambridge Interchange curriculum (a very academic curriculum.) Most students are church members not interested in matriculating at a University but improving their everyday, functional English either for a more fulfilling personal life or for a better job. Most were highly skilled professionals in their home country but because of English proficiency were forced into a life of manual labor or low-paying jobs (or both!) I was taking the Approaches course at the same time I was teaching these 16 weeks and I was able to apply much of what I was doing in the classroom to what I was learning from Dr. Lauren. She’s a FANTASTIC resource for new teachers! The most important phrase I took from her class was the idea that “Learning is becoming.” I don’t think anyone has ever really made me view learning like that before and it was a refreshing change. I know I will continue to collaborate with her as my career progresses as I am very interested in the process of academic writing and the idea that “writing is teaching” and how that relates to teaching ESL learners. I was also taking the technology and language course during this period but because we are such a new program we had no access in the classroom to any of the technologies we talked about in class. I don’t have a computer for every student (I bring my laptop to class to show videos and play listening clips.) I don’t have access to a corpus of language. That is far too academic for the students I was teaching this summer. I really liked that each class was 6-10 people large. I didn’t like that I never knew who would show up on any given day of class. (I am quickly learning that this is more of the norm in adult ESL programs of this nature.)
I also really struggled with my beginning class. All of these students were Spanish speakers and this allowed me to rely heavily on my own L2 knowledge. Most have been living in Gwinnett County for over a year (some 5-10 years) and I remember thinking that this really was an EFL class because it’s entirely possible to live in Lawrenceville, GA and never communicate in English except when you come to English class. It was the first group of beginning students and I didn’t know until 5 weeks into an 8 week class that 5 of the 10 students I started with had never had formal English classes before in their lives. Most of my students were learning English for the first time in their mid-40s! One of the things we talked about in Approaches class was the sheer difficulty of learning a second language after age 18. I struggled with Spanish at 15, 16, 17 and now as an adult I continue to struggle with acquiring Spanish vocabulary as a native English speaker. One of the other things I took away from Approaches is the importance of vocabulary acquisition in learning a second language at the beginning stages. I had a Spanish teacher this session also; he said that you can speak Spanish effectively and be intelligible and comprehensible without knowing grammar, but the more vocabulary you know the more you are able to talk about. This is an idea that shaped my teaching in my intro class. My focus turned from the textbook I was given to teach from to vocabulary 24/7. I love the Interchange book for grammar, but when it comes to intro learners it really is not a great fit, at least not for MY intro learners. I found myself creating much of my own materials and relying on the way I was taught. (This is the other main topic that I learned with Lauren is that teachers always default on the way they were taught when planning and prep fall short -- which it always does in community programs!) Much of my teaching was teaching strategies on how to acquire English vocabulary, and yes, I used the ones I used to acquire Spanish vocabulary in high school: Label your home. Index cards with L1 on the front and L2 on the back. Pictures labeled. Notebook paper folded in half with L1 and translation on the other side. I taught all of these and modeled how I did it to learn my L2. I gave vocabulary quizzes. After all, you can’t really communicate in your L2 without knowing the word for common objects, and at an intro level I think this was a good use of our time in the classroom. I just don’t know if it was the best use of our time. I know I am teaching in a post-method era and this is one of the hardest elements of teaching in this field. This class taught me patience, and the idea that it’s OK if we don’t make A LOT of progress but going slower is OK if it gives your learners a more positive association with learning English over 40.
The high-intermediate class different. This class started with 6 students and was quickly reduced to 3-4. The mobility of ESL students will never cease to amaze me! Never was this class the same group of students over a week. These students had work commitments and family obligations, so their motivation for coming to English class was a little lower than the beginners I taught. This class had Spanish speakers but also a married Brazilian couple so I couldn’t rely on my own L2 knowledge. Though it was a lot easier to keep English the primary language spoken in class out of necessity! I quickly learned the challenges associated with having a couple in a language class. (Don’t seat your married couple next to each other unless you want to inadvertently put yourself in the position of a marriage counselor on top of your teaching duties!) This was also a much younger class, so their motivations for learning were much different. I had a 22-year-old, a 33-year-old, and two 25-year-olds. Age is only a number, but it does affect the way I think about planning for an English class dramatically. My director told me when starting this class that I was going to have students that were very much interested in what I was interested in. (Her way of saying they’re my age.) I was nervous about them seeing me as more of a friend than a teacher. (We talked about the role we want to play as teachers, and I haven’t quite figured that out yet!) But this was a class that previously hadn’t been challenged in previous English classes. They told me that their last class at the same organization was too easy (or at least two students said this, and two students didn’t have the attendance record to be able to say this confidently.) So going into a book with high reading comprehension made me very nervous. What I learned was this particular book was challenging for them, but they enjoyed it. They always commented that the reading was challenging and the vocabulary was challenging, but they always learned multiple things every class period. I found myself teaching every element of language from reading to writing to vocabulary to a little bit of pronunciation (I hate teaching pronunciation for a variety of reasons that I could write a whole other reflection paper about.) But this class was also higher proficiency than any other class I taught in the past and very much professionals in Marketing, Finance, Human Resources, and others in their home country. Many were job searching and one even found a job in her field at the end of class, so talk about instant feedback on how the course went! Instant reward for both teacher and student! Take an English class, increase confidence! Get a job in Atlanta! I also felt compelled to not only do book work, but also incorporate pop culture elements into this class, and they were very well received. Instead of doing canned listening activities from the textbook (which were often too easy for most of these students) I found a TED talk or a podcast that went along with the theme of the unit. My students were very interested in the psychology of personality, so TED talks from Susan Cain and Sir Ken Robinson worked well. These students had access to email and were better readers than speakers so I found it worked well to email them the materials to preview before class (something that did not work with my beginning students) so that our discussions would be richer in class. We were able to focus more on CONTENT of English rather than form. We were able to discuss the differences between cultures when it came to recognizing personalities and then later mental health issues. We were able to discuss topics that MATTERED, rather than just the basic needs communication I did with my beginners. I love teaching both for many different reasons, but this is why I enjoy teaching advanced classes so much more. I got comments from students after class like the following, which always makes a teacher feel good: (in an email)
Good morning teacher.
I just want to inform you I had to come back to Mexico city ,it was an emergency and I want to apologize for it, I couldn't say goodbye but I hope in the future see you again you never know and if some day you want to go to Mexico my house is your house and you are welcome. Thank you very much for the support, the patience I enjoyed everything and leaned a lot of things, you are an excellent and original Teacher.
Have a good day....
First of all, the fact that this was composed by a non-native speaker speaks volumes for her confidence in written communication.
Secondly, I had never really received anything like this from any ESL student before, so it made me feel like despite my many teaching weaknesses (I talk too much, I don’t let them talk enough, I hate teaching grammar rules, which ESL students seem to LOVE) I did something RIGHT!
There are many more things I can talk about here, but I will continue teaching here throughout the remainder of the program (after a 7 week break for the start of the semester) and it will continue to help me grow as an ESL teacher and professional.