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Posted on April 2, 2012 by

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I want to tell you all about a student in one of my classes. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

When I met Keti she had no apparent English ability whatsoever. I’ve struggled with a lot of my classes this year, casting about here and there for ways to garner enough attention from a group of ten-year-olds to conduct a single activity, and fighting off the encroaching signs of burnout – fatigue, apathy, hopelessness.

Despite her apparent lack of English ability, Keti has usually been a bright spot in my day. She is energetic and always happy to see me, but unlike the boys she isn’t constantly trying to test my limits or bring me to her level. She just happily chatters at me in Georgian – mostly before and after class, when such behavior is actually appropriate – and tries to get me to say Georgian words. I respond by trying to get her to say English words. It’s like a game we play, and I am being soundly beaten by someone a third my age.

Once I saw Keti outside of school. She was coming out of an apartment building. I asked her if she lived there (then repeated it in Georgian in response to her blank stare) and she responded that, no, she was just visiting one of her tutors. She apparently has at least four. If her family has that kind of money I’m sure they’ll find her an English tutor whenever they decide that she needs one.

I haven’t been great about giving students need-based attention, because I’ve been much more focused on aiming for universal participation. Actually, I’ve been more focused on “classroom management” in most cases, but when I do get things under control I always make sure that everyone participates or hands in work, mostly through the use of lists. Sometimes the confusion that I create by calling on people based on who has and hasn’t participated yet overwhelms the class and the lesson is ruined, but more often we are all actually pleasantly surprised by how good most of the kids actually are at English.

Except Keti.

The other day we were doing a written assignment in class – for those familiar with English World 3, we were doing the end review of “Save Henry” in which the students have to briefly recount the events surrounding Pear Tree Farm’s storm and subsequent salvation. All of the students were writing quietly in their English notebooks.

Except Keti.

Keti was doing her math homework. Having looked through the math books for the fifth grade, I can actually spot them from across the room, which is what I did. When I saw Keti industriously doing math homework, something in my brain just clicked. Maybe it was because I was a math student when I was a kid – I grew up on Square 1 and honestly loved math, and for years all I wanted to be when I grew up was a mathematician. I can relate to a kid who just wants to do math, and is bored by other stuff, stuff that makes less sense and is less neat and less orderly than math. Maybe it was because I figured that Keti was a bright, enthusiastic, exuberant, energetic kid and I for some reason associate those traits with intelligence and seeing that she wasn’t completely disengaged from every school subject gave me some concrete evidence.

For whatever reason, though, I decided that Keti was going to practice her English that day.

I called her over to me. I used simple Georgian commands. Come here. Bring your chair. Sit down. I pointed at the first question. “What does this say?” I asked. She looked at me questioningly. Back to Georgian: Read.

And to my surprise, she read. It was slow but steady. She knew most of the words – you can always tell in English because the student pronounces the word the way it sounds, not the way it looks on paper – and I helped her with the ones she did not know. Together we translated the questions. Then I pointed at the text where the answers were. Mostly she just read the full sentences, which suggests that maybe she didn’t quite know why I was pointing at that particular line. But I made sure she understood the Georgian translation of every question and every picture.

So I discovered that Keti actually does know English. She has zero confidence right now, and she’s slow and out of practice, but she can read and translate most of what her classmates can read and translate.

The next lesson, Keti brought me her English notebook. In it, she had written, at home, her class writing assignment. About half of what she wrote showed genuine understanding of the questions and answers, and about half was just sentences copied directly out of the book – but the sentences were copied next to the questions they were supposed to answer. She either understood something or has a good enough memory to match questions with the sentences I had her read. Either way, a good sign. She was paying attention. She may have learned something. It was probably my proudest moment this year.

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I have been struggling all year to find my role in class. I know we’re supposed to coteach and conduct speaking and listening exercises, but of course there’s downtime from that, and coteaching rarely runs so smoothly that both partners have an active and coequal role at all times. I correct a lot of writing assignments, read a lot of poems, and sit idle and exasperated a lot while the students riot for one reason or another.

I think, for me, targeting particular students or small groups of students for increased individual attention might be the way to go. I’ve tended to think that the students who can most use practice with native speakers are the most advanced students, who have the most chance of using their English in their professional or academic careers. But there’s a flip-side to that: the students who can most use our fresh cultural perspective – the idea that every student can succeed – are the students that would be left behind by the Georgian education system. The lower levels are critical for language learners because if they fall behind in grade five they are likely to just never catch up. We could be the difference between a student who makes it to grade 12 with no English and a student who excels in English. And, because we have a coteacher with us, we have the luxury of pulling aside one or two specifically targeted students and giving them extra help during the lesson. Two teachers means the class can run at two levels – a strategy that is desperately needed in some Georgian classrooms.

As for my use of Georgian in employing this strategy – well, last year I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d use Georgian to teach a student English. It goes against every idea about why we’re here in the first place and every theory of classroom methodology that I brought with me to Georgia. I was all for English immersion. But I guess that part of growing as a teacher is learning to adapt different methodologies. It’s growing a teaching toolkit. I’ve seen coteachers use Georgian to accomplish in thirty seconds what might have taken me an entire class. And while the struggle is helpful and the practice communicating in English is valuable, sometimes that struggle can be frustrating and discouraging. For kids like Keti that struggle is enough for her to decide to just do her math homework – because if she’s not going to learn English, at least she can do something productive. I certainly won’t use Georgian all the time, but I have come to believe that sprinkling it in in certain situations might actually be worth it.

Teaching English in Georgia is a challenge. Little lessons like this are what allow me to face the challenge fresh every day. A month ago I was so exhausted that I would never have thought I’d start looking forward to a school day again, but now I’m actually looking forward to applying this strategy to some of my problem students in my other classes.

Today in class Keti and I passed notes during the lesson. She would write down a phrase in Georgian and I would translate it back for her into English. At first she had no idea what I was doing, but I think she caught on by the end. It was like a game we were playing, except this time I didn’t feel like I was losing.

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