enseñar

If I have to say the ABC’s one more time, I think I’m going to pay a visit to loca and never come back. I’ve finished my first week of teaching. I teach three classes a day (at 10, 3, and 6) and tutored Jaime and some of the other workers. So here it is: the teaching. I’m exhausted, of it and of talking, of hearing my own voice and saying the damn ABC’s. I am a teacher; I have students, students who come and call me ‘profe’ and ‘teacher’ and listen to me, for the most part, when I speak. It’s pretty cool that this English program and these classes are on me and me alone. I decide what to teach, I decide what we do, I decide when class ends. The ‘all on me’ part helps me through the day (and all my wildlife encounters) and I can focus on why I’m here—to teach English to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access. Most of the time, though, I feel like I’m the blind leading the blind. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to write an English language curriculum for absolute beginners, much less implement it. I don’t know if I’m being effective, if the kids like me, if they’re even learning anything, darn it.

I recall, now, how I actually learned the word enseñar: to teach. Dona Kim, my beloved eighth grade Spanish teacher, always said: you’d have to be insane (enSANEar) to teach! Hardy har har. 

Teaching English is, in a word, hard. It’s not hard like studying is hard. It taxes patience more than intelligence. Simplicity. Patience. I’m not so sure I’m good at it. I’m frustrated, with myself and with my students. I didn’t do a very good job of organizing my curriculum for the week, diving into hard things like grammar too soon, of which there is little interest. I’m trying to teach English the way I learned Spanish, which is systematically, methodically, via a textbook and in a very structured classroom setting. I should know by now that this is rarely the way education works here. Like everything else (public transportation, planning a trip, going out to dinner), getting from A to B is more complicated and time-consuming than it is in the states.  Why should the trip from A to B to C to D be any different?

I’m also teaching according to the way I understand language. I was never interested in learning isolated phrases that meant nothing except for their direct translation. Rather, I like to know why and how you put sentences together. For example, I taught them:

How are you? I am good.

With these phrases, I also felt the need to explain how to conjugate the verb ‘to be’:

I am, you are, he/she is, we are, they are.

I continued: how to form questions versus statements? The subject goes before the verb in a statement, after the verb in a question. In my mind, understanding why language functions the way it does helps me remember it and use it more effectively. I must remember that is not the case for many. Kids would rather scream the ABC’s than learn more complex language stuff—and I would rather do the opposite.

One of the biggest challenges I didn’t anticipate is that reading and writing are incredibly difficult for the kids, even in Spanish. Although I write words and phrases on the board, I noticed many students still didn’t spell them right in their notebooks. I got a glimpse of one student’s Spanish translations of the phrases I gave them, and even some of his Spanish was incorrectly spelled. The youngest group of kids didn’t quite know how to conjugate ‘ser’ correctly in Spanish. I learned such skill probably in my first week of Spanish class back in eighth grade. This harks back to my desire to explain the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of English, an explanation that becomes abstract (useless) when students cannot make parallels to their own language. Obviously, understanding your own language is a difficult task. Anyone who took fourth grade grammar knows this. Diagramming sentences, ick: I feel for the kids. But the point is—it’s hard to learn a second language if you didn’t take fourth grade grammar.

All this to say: learning (and teaching) English as a second language is difficult under the best of circumstances. It is made all the more difficult, all the more taxing, by the already low education level of many. The low education level is hardly surprising in such a poor region, but is, actually, surprising to see in practice. It’s easy to assume a certain level of literacy comes standard at a given age, but, as I am frustratingly learning, it does not.

After two one-on-one lessons with Jamie, we are still on the alphabet and numbers. I think he may have never learned how to read and write properly. I tried a simple exercise with him: see the number ‘26’ and write ‘twenty-six’. He couldn’t do it, even with the word twenty and the word six right in front of him. Even as I finally spelled the word out for him, he struggled.

Also, I don’t really know how to teach kids. I love my night class, at 6 p.m., because they are all twenty-years-old and up, and I get them a little more. They understand jokes. I don’t feel like I have to talk down to them and I certainly don’t have to discipline them, so we all get along pretty well. On a side note: twenty in Nicaragua is far older than twenty in the United States. A twenty year old Nicaraguan woman is usually married and on her second child. If not, she has a full time job and helps support her family. Ana works in the kitchen at Brio. She is twenty, married, and has a two-year-old kid. (I found this out yesterday, after a week of attempting to chat with her about fellow ‘young person’ topics. She was carrying around a little girl and I asked, stupidly, who it was. And then found out she’s been married for three years. Oops. Wedding rings are superfluous uses of money, so I’ve begun to notice, no one wears them. I guess the lesson there is never assume a twenty-year-old girl (woman?) not wearing a wedding ring isn’t married and doesn’t have a toddler.) Indeed, as young as fourteen is an acceptable age to get married here. This adds another twist in my attempt to relate to my students. I am older and better educated than most, but I’m still very much an adolescent in regards to working and raising a family (since I am, as I hope you’ve realized, neither married or with child.) 

Saturday and Sunday there are no classes, so I’m both relieved for time off and also not quite sure what to do with myself. Expect more blathering later. Until then, I’m going for a walk. I expect from strange looks from the locals, just as I got on my run, just as I do pretty much anytime I move. 

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