Giorgi, Luka, Aleko and Vaso

Posted on April 16, 2012 by

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Upon reading an inquiry as to whether English use has increased around me, the faces of four young Georgians popped into my head: Giorgi, Luka, Aleko and Vaso (disclosure – the names of all four students have been changed). When I started teaching at the beginning of February, these four had two things in common – they used almost no English and were the students who had been somehow labeled as “lazy” by their co-teachers. They were either yelled at or ignored in class and rarely brought their books to class. They never smiled, never participated and never uttered a word of English. Today, when I see them in the halls, they give him a huge smile, wave and “hello” before running off in pursuit of their friends.

In my first 2nd grade class with Giorgi, he sat in the back, had no book or notebook on his desk and largely ignored the lesson. Now, he sits in the front, does his homework, and is always eager to participate. His in-class behavior is still spotty at times and his overall English level is still behind his peers, but he’s hardly the same student he was 2 months ago.

Luka, was ignored by my co-teacher and used to just stare into space during his 4th grade class. I called on him to read one day, a request that was met with immediate cries of “No” from the nearby students. I insisted, and, in front of the attentive class, he worked his way through the passage. A few days later, he shyly raised his hand to answer a question. Now, he smiles in class, does his homework, mutters the answers under his breath and always makes sure to say hi to me.

Aleko is a very enthusiastic, energetic and expressive first grader.  But neither his personality nor his learning style (which requires constant attention from a teacher) are conducive to learning in a class of 20 students. Fortunately, one of my first classes with him was on a snowy day when only three of his classmates showed up. As none of them knew the alphabet, we spent 45 minutes repeated reviewing every letter of the alphabet. After that class, I found out that he doesn’t even know all 33 letters of the Georgian alphabet. He has not quite perfected the alphabet (but neither have his classmates), but he spent all of class time this week enthusiastically shouting all of the letters, copying them into his notebook and only needing about fifteen minutes of individual attention.

Vaso sits, quietly, at the back of one of my 3rd grade classes. He’s so quiet that I didn’t notice him until I saw the hurt on his face while one of my co-teachers yelled. He had no book on his desk and spent most of the class staring into space. I quietly approached him, coaxed him into telling me that his book was at home, and quietly asked him to bring it to class. Now, he brings all of his materials to the lesson and correctly answered two questions in class the other day.

These four boys capture many of the small successes of the TLG program. But, from what I’ve observed, having a living, breathing foreigner in my school makes English cool. My presence alone has increased the number of “hellos” and “how are yous” that echo through the halls of my Kutaisi school. After all, I’m the first TLGer in the school and my students think I don’t speak Georgian. High school students with no English and a desire to communicate ask their friends for the proper English phrasing; or they scrap together their minimal English to convey their message. Younger students, who are less self-conscious than the high school students, are quick to spot me as I leave class or school and are always eager to talk. Giorgia, Luka, Aleko and Vaso have changed their in class behavior not because of the English language per say, but because of a few minutes of individual attention from a TLGer. Over time, if they continue to be involved in the lesson, their language abilities will also improve.

Teach and Learn with Georgia is a very ambitious undertaking and neither the program nor its volunteers are without their flaws. The lasting effect of the program is unknown, as is the scope of the impact of any one volunteer. But, with every small incident of success, every additional word of English exchanged, and each extended conversation between a TLG volunteer and the students, the imprint left by TLG becomes that much deeper and, ultimately, Georgia grows just a bit closer to turning English into its new second language.

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