Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 18 2011

I love my kids but…

…I feel so overwhelmed about how to teach them. Sorry, backing up. I have kids! They rock. They’re already well-behaved, they’re helpful, they have fun with things, and they seem programmed to like me and want to please me (which is always nice). I’ve got one troublemaker and a couple who can be swayed to troublesomeness, but for the most part they’re angels. They’re fun, and they have personality, and when they giggle I melt.

Except. I am so overwhelmed about how to teach them. Because here’s the thing: not a single one of them thinks and processes things in the same way I do. I am fundamentally a language person. I was an early reader, I’ve always loved books, I think wordplay and puns are fun, I love words in many different languages. I play Scrabble and Bananagrams, and I’m good at them (all bragging aside). I think about things in words.

My kids don’t. All of them are English Language Learners, which wouldn’t be a problem except that many of my kids have no first language. What does it mean to have no first language? It means your family speaks out loud so little, or with so few words, that you never reached full fluency in any language. Some of this is cultural, but most of it is a cycle of poor language development dating back to boarding schools, when kids were pulled from their families, beaten or worse if they spoke their own language, and never really taught a different language to speak. Result: poor language skills, lowered ability to talk to your kids and develop their language, and so on…

But here’s the thing.¬†When you have fluency in a language that isn’t English, you can transfer those skills, that knowledge of grammar, that intuitive feeling of what “sounds right,” to learning English without a lot of difficulty. When you don’t have language fluency, you can’t tell when things “sound wrong.” You can’t understand language spoken quickly. You might need 3 or 4 repetitions to understand something. Maybe you can’t understand spoken language very well at all. It’s not that you’re not smart, or that you’re not trying, it’s just that there are SO MANY words you don’t know that you can’t understand what is happening. Think about that foreign language class where your teacher was talking and talking and you only understood 1/3 of the words, and how confused that made you. Now delete your ability to look for cognates or relate that language to your own. Excuse my French (no pun intended) but how the hell are you supposed to figure things out then?

Not all my kids are that behind, but most of them have an incredibly limited vocabulary. For example, one of my students didn’t know what older and younger meant. None had never heard the word admire before. Only one of my 16 students knew what an adjective was. And some of my kids really are that behind–kids who will be looking right at you, reading the example you put on the board, hearing you tell them to write down exactly what you have on the board (i.e. Science on the front of our science notebooks), and when you say go will ask you what they’re supposed to write. That’s when they’re paying full attention. When you aren’t super proficient in a language, you don’t get that osmosis effect where you’ll pick up the gist of things even when you’re not totally listening. My kids are either fully engaged, fully with it, paying 100% attention, or they’re screwed. This is hard to do for 8 hours.

I’m hoping some of this is me talking too fast (I’m slowing waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down now), or having a different accent (New England/Midwest with a tinge of the South…OK, I talk weird). Or maybe it’s beginning-of-school-year nervousness about asking for clarification. Dear god, am I hoping. Because although we have our fantastic little moments and breakthroughs (which I will tell you about tomorrow), right now I get the feeling that half the time my kids don’t understand me at all.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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