One of the most rewarding things about the end of the term is the abundance of evidence that I have made a difference in my school. Any time I spend in the hallways corresponds with a chorus of greetings and pleasantries, often from the shyest students in class. One of my co-teacher’s classes is almost unrecognizable when compared to the chaos that I witnessed when I first stepped into her room. I’ve spent a week refusing requests from a few of my fourth graders to take them to London with me this summer, amused by the creative arguments they can make. And my afternoons are now spent helping 25 fourth, fifth and sixth graders write stories for an English show they will perform in June. The best example of all of this change is a boy named Dato.
Dato (his name has been changed) used to be one of the unruly students in his third grade class. He’d sit at the back with his troublesome desk mate and the two of them would spend the entire 45 minutes discreetly (or some days indiscreetly) playing games. And Dato knew approximately two words of English: “hello” and “goodbye.” I don’t remember when or how it started but whenever he saw me in March and April, he would sprint in front of me and, with the widest and toothiest smile I’ve seen on a kid, raise his hand and shout “hello!” I’d respond with my own “hello,” and immediately, his smile would widen a little bit, his hand would rise again, and he’d shout “goodbye!” I’d respond in kind and then the whole process would begin again. We’d exchange “hellos” and “goodbyes” for minutes at a time but his enthusiasm for the conversation was so contagious that it immediately made me laugh. Any attempt on my part to extend the conversation with a “how are you?” instead reverted it back to the beginning. “Hello!” “Goodbye!” Even the other Georgian teachers who’ve observed our ritual laugh at the exchange. He’s now expanded his vocabulary so that our conversation also includes a few high fives and rounds of “how are you?” “I am fine.” But the biggest change has occurred in class. He no longer sits with his trouble-making friend but now sits by himself- a move he made on his own. He always has his notebook open and books on his desk. He’s one of the first to start writing sentences, volunteers to read and has started to answer questions, correctly, in class. When he sees me circling the room to check the student’s work, he answers my question before I can ask it. He is usually standing and leaning over the desk, so that most of his weight falls on the desktop. With his wide eyes and a big smile, he always points to his notebook, showing his work, and chants “good, good!” I chuckle, glance at his work, agree, and move on to another student.
I’ve found that students like Dato are one of the best antidotes to the occasional frustration of teaching in Georgia. Between the formerly shy students whose desire to talk to the foreigner eventually trumps their reticence to do just that and the once ignored students who respond to a TLG volunteer’s attention by bringing their books to class and forcing themselves to engage in the lesson, there are countless stories of individual students who are living and breathing proof that a TLG volunteer has made a difference. But, for me, one of the clearest changes I’ve witnessed are my co-teacher’s classes.
When I first arrived, classes with my co-teacher Salome (her name has also been changed) were chaotic. A small fraction of the students tried to participate and the rest looked like they were at recess. Most of the students wandered around the classroom, yelling to each other, playing games, and, occasionally, hitting each other. Almost no teaching or learning occurred. Within two weeks, she started to show progress and her excellent first grade class on a Thursday morning was the subject of my first post for this blog. As the term has unfolded, she has continued to progress – showing more confidence in her teaching and commanding more respect from the students. Now, her classes are relatively quiet, especially compared to the first few weeks. Only a handful of the students leave their desks during class and even then it’s often so they can fully express their enthusiasm for an answer. Most of the students participate without being told to and all of them are engaged at some point during the lesson. We’ve established a writing-based lesson plan that allows her to use the same class structure with every class, regardless of whether I am also present. And, more importantly, as her classes have become calmer and better behaved, the amount of learning has also increased. Her classes are far from perfect and but they’re so drastically improved from what I watched at the beginning of March.
Her transformation is most obvious in one of our first grade classes. In the middle of February, before I ever stepped into this first grade classroom, my co-teacher asked me how to teach the alphabet. We had about five minutes before class started and I quickly explained some ideas to her. She explained that the students didn’t know the alphabet and so I arrived in class expecting to spend 45 minutes teaching the ABCs. Instead, my co-teacher asked the students to open their books to lesson one. She began peppering the students with questions about Mr. Jolly’s Toy Shop and started asking them to read the dialogues, despite the fact that they did not know the alphabet. As the brightest student stumbled her way through the opening dialogue, the rest of the students started quietly playing together. They closed their books and stopped listening. Not wanting the class to descend into complete class, I started a listen and repeat exercise for the last twenty minutes or so.
After class, I told my co-teacher that before we started lesson one, we needed to teach them the alphabet. She expressed her concern that they were too young to learn but I insisted, telling her that without teaching the alphabet, everything else would be almost impossible to teach. She finally consented and we started going over the letters.
We spent a couple of weeks reviewing how to read, write and pronounce all twenty-six letters. We wrote on the board, used flash cards and had the students repeat and write every letter. Writing enabled us to make sure that all of the students were engaged and behaved. When they mastered the letters, we moved onto writing, reading and spelling the words in the pictures on page 18: “apple,” “bag,” “cat,” etc. When they mastered those, we moved onto writing, reading, and spelling the numbers and colors. And, at the end of April, we finally began lesson 1 again.
But this time, the class didn’t descend into chaos. Instead, all of the students worked through the dialogue, and listened quietly when their classmates read. They mastered the vocabulary words relatively quickly and were always excited to show off their knowledge of colors. Their final class of the term was easily one of the best I’ve seen. All of the students were behaved, quiet and participating. They rapidly fired off the answers to the exercises so quickly that we exhausted our lesson plan in only twenty minutes. When they proved their mastery of the “hello, what is your name?” dialogue, we added a round of “how are you?” “I am fine” and wrote the entire dialogue on the board. As I listened to them read their new dialogue off the board, I couldn’t help but smile, amazed at how much progress both my co-teacher and the students had made since my arrival.