Thinking Outside the Book

Posted on April 23, 2012 by

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A couple months ago, I was lucky enough to hit the oh-so-important milestone for the Tbilisi volunteer – I was offered a second job.

Tbilisi is expensive, and the array of western options not available in the rest of Georgia – Thai food, cappuccinos, and cocktails with ice – will ensure that you blow through your monthly  500 lari stipend pretty darn quickly.  Add in the myriad of awesome travel opportunities that you would be truly foolish to ignore, and it soon becomes very apparent that a supplement is in order.  Lucky for us, Tbilisi has no shortage of opportunities for native English speakers, and TLG is always very good about making local volunteers aware of them.  Visions of panang curry and Davit Gareja dancing in my head, I sent my resume in response to several promising options, and eventually got called for an interview.  After that, it was only a few hours later when  I found out I’d been selected as one of two English teachers at Georgia’s Ministry of Justice.

At the MOJ, I’d be teaching one Upper Intermediate class, complete with provided textbook and workbook.  But I would also be teaching one AP Advanced class, to be designed for students who were already proficient conversationally in English.  For this class, there would be no textbook.  Instead, I had to come up with a syllabus (in less than a week!) in which I was tasked to fill three months’ worth of twice a week, hour-long sessions with lessons that were engaging, informative, and fun.

I’m not going to lie.  The first class was a little awkward.  Even after I wrote the syllabus, I wasn’t sure how to go about teaching with no formal materials.  The class and I introduced ourselves and I explained the structure of the class – which basically was that every session would circulate around a particular topic, or theme.  I tried to guage reactions and enthusiasm levels, with mixed results.  Then, to fill time, I had them talk about one of the safest Georgian topics around – their families.

Now, just over two months later, it’s hard for me to believe that I ever looked at these men and women as awkward strangers.

I probably shouldn’t be naming favorites, but the fact is that my AP Advanced class has unequivocally become the class I look forward to the most.  There have been a couple of very pleasant surprises in my students, such as the initially shy, quiet guy who has, with only a little encouragement, has turned out to have an excellent sense of humor and a truly sharp wit that always brings a little spice to our in-class conversations.

With the creativity that only comes from needing to fill ~25 classes (including homework assignments), the topics of discussion range from a brief review of business English, to art appreciation, to the environment, to “The Cask of Amontillado.”  I include vocabulary and grammar review here and there as necessary, but probably 85% of the class is pure communication.  Much to my relief and delight, the students showed surprisingly awesome enthusiasm for most of the topics.  When I asked them to name three pieces of technology they would bring to a desert island (that magically had electricity), I got such wonderful answers as “a beer machine” and “an RV.”  Almost every student elected to bring an iPad.

One of my favorite classes happened only recently.  The theme was “The Beauty of Language.”  I asked each student to translate a short Georgian piece – either a poem or part of a story – into English.  Although I should be used to my students surpassing my expectations by now, I was once again pleasantly surprised at how each of them embraced this assignment, some coming to class with much longer pieces than I had asked for, and all with painstakingly careful translations.  I got to hear pieces by Vazha-Pshavela, Nodar Dumbadze, and Nikloz Lortkifanidze, among others.  We discussed things that they felt were lost in the translation from their native language into English, things that simply had no direct interpretation.  We talked about the importance of cultural metaphors, and simply, why they decided to single out this particular work.  At the end of the class, I played them a recording of one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite authors, “Instructions” by Neil Gaiman.  And as Neil’s super-mellow, super-British voice filled the room with his amazing poem, I looked around at my students and saw that they were getting it.  Afterward, I asked them which parts were their favorites, and they named many of my own favorite passages.

Last week, one of my students invited me out for a post-class beer.  Never one to pass up a chance for cultural sharing and international relations, I accepted.  And after a couple Kazbegis, he told me “When I see my classmates in the hallway now, we talk in English.  It is maybe not a long conversation, but still.  We talk.”  He paused.  “Also, people show up.  This means it is a good class.”

I can’t even tell you how incredibly happy that information made me.  And the thing is – I could tell that this wasn’t just something he was saying to try and make me happy.  I believed him, because I had seen the evidence of my students’ emerging confidence and – more importantly – enjoyment in speaking the English language.  There is nothing more rewarding than realizing you have managed to build a true rapport with those whom you are teaching, and that this rapport is helping them to move forward to new heights.

I feel as if maybe I am actually getting to experience the level of communication and understanding that ESL teachers strive to achieve with those they teach.  Of course, I am kind of 90% cheating here, coming in at the very tail end of my students’ no doubt extensive English language education.  In some ways I feel like I am getting to reap the benefits of all their other teachers’ hard work before me.  But I do also feel that I’ve helped these students along at least a little bit at the end.  I hope that, through speaking with me and with each other, they realize that actually, they can say what they want to the way they want to say it – that they can get the point and the spirit of their thoughts across.

With these students, I am seeing a true evolution.  That crucial time in learning a language when you can finally push grammar rules and punctuation laws to the background where they belong – when you can close the textbook and focus on the most important part of language, the ability to communicate and to connect.

I can only hope that, by being simply the coolest, funniest, and best teacher I know how to be, that I give them all back half as much as they have ended up giving me.

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