Monday, April 30, 2012

In which I learn that I have much to learn but have firm hope that the end will be better than the beginning

So, it's kind of a long story which I may or may not get around to telling at some future point in time, but I've sort of slipped in to a job as an ESL instructor at an Adult Medical Daycare facility about a twenty minute drive from my home, and I must say that Geriatric ESL is a little bit different.

For instance, the first day I was trying to get a feel for what level people were on. "How is your listening?" I asked. "How is your speaking?"

"My ears, not so good; her eyes, they not so good either. Her, [pointing to a third person] cannot walk so well. We are all old, you know; falling apart," said one student with a gentle laugh.

And what textbook to use? I tried starting at the beginning of the one my students brought me-- the one the old ESL teacher had gone through with them before-- and they said that they would learn plenty by going through it again; but they complained today that going through the alphabet (which was part of lesson one) was baby work, and they can already write, and why don't we have conversation? Fair enough. Looking back, I can see it wasn't the greatest idea to focus on the most basic part of the most basic lesson when they had already proven that they could communicate and write at a beginner level.

So after class, I decided to look a little further for a textbook, and I went down to the local community college's English Intensive Program office and begged to look at some of the books they have on hand, in hopes of finding something that will fit our needs a little better. I was deeply disappointed to find that one of the books never even got to covering the past tense, and the other one got to it on lesson 12 of 15. We seriously need the past tense in our class, and NOW. Doesn't anyone make a textbook focused on the needs of language learners over the age of twenty?

Another problem is that my tried-and-true methods are turning out to be not so tried-and-true any more. It's like having gotten used to how one kid goes to sleep and then trying to put a different kid down and then realizing that nothing that you are doing is working and you have to come up with a totally different system for the second kid.

For instance: I used to have my classes write on the board, as sort of a collaborative project, all the time. We would, for instance, fill out otherwise-boring verb-form charts. I would usually write the empty chart on the board, then have two students writing at a time, with two different pieces of chalk. When they were done, each student would pass the chalk on to another student of their choice, with the rule that everyone got to have a turn. It became very exciting because you weren't sure when your turn would come, and we would check it together afterwards, and mistakes weren't something you felt terrible about-- we just corrected them then and there-- but it was quite exciting to feel like you had done good work together as a class.

So, I've tried this with my elderly ESL students twice now, and I have to say that it has yet to be even mildly successful. For one thing, though they are gung ho as learners, they are (as mentioned) physically not very fast, either as walkers or as writers. If two different people have writing sticks (in this case, white board markers) at the same time, then one will be hasting very slowly to the board while the other will be inching her way through the required letters. It... just... isn't... that... exciting.

Now that I think about this, this problem may well be related to a larger problem. I think that I used to rely to a larger extent than I had recognized on having a physical energy in the class which both created and came from an emotional and intellectual energy, all of which which made things feel fun and exciting, and which helped students stay focused on the task at hand (and, once I got the hang of it, I made sure there always was a task at hand) and interested in what would come next. For young and easily distractable learners, this often work well. For elderly, already focused (albeit sometimes blearily) learners, it just makes me hard to follow as a teacher. Sigh.

So, the lesson today did not go well, for a variety of reasons. I was all proud of myself for being prepared with an alphabet lesson, which kind of went over like a lead balloon, and then I was all upset for the rest of the time because of that (fretting, in case you hadn't heard, is NOT a great way to deal with a problem, but I didn't let that stop me), and I hadn't prepared much at all for the last part of the lesson, so there you have it. I had started out the morning by giving myself a mere ten minutes to finish my lesson planning instead of an hour, like I'd thought I would on Saturday, and then MS Word was not behaving, and then just as it was about halfway through printing my wrongly-formatted-but-too-late-to-fix-them sheets, my foot hit the power bar on the floor and turned the entire setup off. This was approximately two minutes before my absolutely-must-leave-NOW time to go teach the lesson. And because of the ancientness of my computer, yes, it takes about three minutes to boot up. So I didn't use the printouts after all; I just wrote on the board and had the students to so as well, with the minimal success previously described.

As I drove back from the "senior center" (what my students call it), I was muttering to myself. I just felt terrible. I felt like I had disrespected my students, and that is one of the things I hate most in the world to think I have done. Just not being prepared of itself is disrespectful, even if I couldn't have known that the alphabet lesson wasn't going to be the best choice. But then, literally, right after I muttered, "I'm stupid," I looked up and saw some graffiti on a tower, and (to quote Dave Barry, "I am not making this up") it said "You are NOT" and that is all I saw before the car was past. So I stopped muttering. And I thought about the fact that when you are cooking, you have to accept that a certain amount of failure is just going to go with the territory, and you will learn to cook a lot faster if you don't beat yourself up about messes, but just clean them up and try again. Which was what my very first post on Elijah Kitchen was about, but I am too tired right now to go find it and link to it.

So I will try again. I will pay more careful attention to my students. I will not get mad at them for making mistakes, because that is stupid as a teaching technique and I don't know why I was doing it today but yes I have quit criticizing myself about it, at least for now, as I have to go to bed. I did have a lovely evening: I went over to my friends' house and the dog and the little boys piled up on me on the couch during scripture study, and then I sang the boys to sleep, and then the dog wanted petting as long as I was willing to give it, which was as long as I as there. And my friends (father and mother of said boys) always laugh in all the right places at the ridiculous things I tell them about (which is what made me think I should blog said things, so hooray!), and I think to myself: perhaps I am not such a terrible person for being imperfect, after all. I will try again tomorrow! And the end shall be better than the beginning. Or, if it won't, at least I won't go down in flames from my own flaming arrows. Right? Right.