Blogs of Fulbrighter’s Patrick & Daniel
Friday, July 2, 2010
In the second EC class, I again achieved my learning goals; however, an issue cropped up that is a caution for future efforts to teach English at Saaraketha. The language levels of the students in the class is a little too broad. One student, Kasun, can read the novel I am reading and is simply bored with the level of the class. Kasun came to me after class and said that he really wants to improve his English but he needs a more challenging class. The students in a single class need to really be within a band of the same level or some of them aren’t learning. This is obviously a consideration in forming classes in the future. I am going to design an independent study course for Kasun, which I will post on the blog later on, but most of the teachers I am working with do not have the time or resources to work independently with individual students. I am also going to give some extra instruction to the two lowest level students but, again, that is not realistic in a normal situation.
In the lesson today, I gave them a few sentence models and a list of descriptive adjectives (colors, taste, textures, shapes). Then I sent them out on the Farm in groups and told them to pick objects and write paragraphs describing those objects. I also had them draw a picture of the object and write the Sinhala word. When the students came back, I made every student stand in front of the class and present one of their pictures. One girl resisted but I pushed her so even she presented with help. Their English is basic but they were all able to use the sentences and vocabulary to do the assignment, and they all did give little public talks. This encourages me that I can get them ready to make videos about things on the Farm in 6 more weeks of classes. It also encourages me that project based learning is more exciting than more traditional grammar intensive focus.
I don’t know how the students felt about the presentations, but they seem willing to take risks, are focused in class through 2 days, and so I am confident that I can use the project to give them some vocabulary and grammar structures that will encourage them to communicate.
The conference table in the Learning Center is really a problem. I am forced to sit at the head of the table on the side that has no opening for my legs, which is very uncomfortable, because otherwise I am too far from the students. As a result, I had to move the whiteboard to this side of the room which blocks the main light source coming from the reception area. It also puts the back of the board to the reception area which will be unsightly. At some point after I leave, someone really should take off the long base support and just add some legs.
I visited Saman’s school, grades 1-13 in a much more rural area of Wilgamuwa. This school, unlike the first school I visited, offers English to students beginning in Grade 1 (the other school only offered English beginning in Grade 6). Unfortunately, teachers with no English training are the instructors for students below Grade 6.
I observed a Grade 4 class that had 70 students in one classroom because one of the teachers was out sick. When I walked in, the students were eager to communicate with me, understood me when I spoke, and jumped to answer my questions. If I asked them what their favourite hobby is, every student wanted to tell me the answer. And they all answered in sentences. After I talked with them for 30 minutes, Saman read them a story book which had about 10 new vocabulary words for them. Despite the fact that it was so noisy from outside noise that I could not imagine how anyone could hear Saman, and though Saman was speaking exclusively in English, the children seemed to have total comprehension of what he was saying. He asked them questions about the pictures on each page, the students made predictions, then Saman taught them words and asked the students to read the story to him. (Each page had one sentence written in large print.) The students seemed to read the story with no difficulty, though they may have heard the story before. I was pleased to see students leaning over to see the pictures and actively speaking and participating. And these students do not have a teacher with ELL training. This suggests that the students in the region are eager to learn English and can be given a proper foundation even without the best conditions. However, few schools seem to have a program to teach English in Grades 1-5 so this situation is unusual.
When we later went to talk to Grade 12 students , who had not had instruction in English until they started Grade 6, and whose instruction was primarily grammar and rule based as opposed to communication based like the Grade 4 students I saw, the Grade 12 students were hesitant to speak to me, would not answer my questions and did not have any questions to ask me. I gave them a speech for a few minutes, one girl asked me several questions, and that was it.
Saman feels that these students did not have a proper foundation in English and so are too shy to use their language. He also told me about how poor the students are, how many miss school for a month around harvest time twice each year, and that the parents are unsupportive of the school’s education efforts and unable to help or encourage their children. Obviously, there are exceptions and some students do well despite these obstacles. Still, though the instruction I saw was again excellent, the social and out-of-school barriers are overwhelming and will stymie efforts of the district to improve the standard of living.
Saman is also the IT teacher at the school, which he does with no budget or training but because there is no one else to do the job. He showed me the computer lab, 13 computers, and some students do get instruction in programming in addition to word processing. However, the school does not have resources to upkeep the lab and Saman often comes to school 90 minutes early to try to do maintenance. There is an air conditioner in the lab but the school cannot afford to run it.
Also, it seemed to me like there were a lot of students who were unsupervised during the day. Older students were in rooms alone studying in groups, groups of younger students seemed to be wandering around the school campus, and at least one room had a class of students sitting at desks without a teacher in the room. Again, it appears like there is a teacher shortage that is affecting the long-term academic prospects of the students.
All things considered, I was impressed with the job that the teachers I met were doing, with Saman’s teaching, and with the enthusiasm of the students I met.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
I spent a good part of today searching through Colombo to find places selling phones so that I could get a sense of what kinds of smartphones are available, what their costs were, and what kinds of data/phone plans were in place.
Now, there’s absolutely a chance that I was getting a different price from what a native Sri Lankan would have been quoted, and I can factor for that. In general, I was simply looking to see what hardware was available and how different the costs would be. The shocking thing was the lack of available devices and the utter consistency with which they were priced. I was repeatedly quoted the same (or very close) price for the same hardware from store to store. Perhaps I didn’t find the stores that would truly offer the deals, but I wasn’t sticking to any one location, so I figured I got a pretty good sample of what’s available – which, at the end of the day, I can safely say isn’t much in terms of devices that will allow internet access.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Today I started the first session with the ECs. I think everyone was a little nervous about how it would go — me, them, Dilum, Harshani. I decided to try to lower their affective filter by doing some easy introduction activities, then give them a placement test, do some communication games to see what they’d do, then end with a mini-grammar lesson.
My goals for the day were: relax them and get them willing to engage with me; get them engaged and willing to work; figure out their English language level. I met all of these goals today.
The English level of the class is pretty low, and at least 2 students are almost total beginners. But they were very engaged and active, willing to do whatever I asked, unafraid to make mistakes, and got over their natural inclination to be overly respectful to me. I made a little blunder in teaching the grammar lesson in that I asked them to do an activity which was too hard for them, but still I feel like I introduced the material and will go back and reteach next time.
After the class ended, Dilum and Harshani spoke with some of the ECs and the general feeling was that they were surprised at how the class went, thought it would be more tedious than it was, and they were looking forward to seeing what happens next. I told them about the project plans and nobody seemed too worried about it yet.
Having Harshani there was essential because I need to rely on Sinhala some for directions. But I am confident that I can get this group to a place where they can do the project I have planned — making videos about important things happening on the Farm so that if English speaking visitors come the ECs are prepared to interact with them. Dilum and Harshani and I talked for a while after the class and we all think this project will make the English learning important and immediate for them, which will hopefully allow me to teach them vocabulary and grammar at the same time. If the project is successful, we can build on the learning they made after that.
The caution is that their English level is low, and their confidence in speaking English is almost zero. They all seem to have some vocabulary — even the lowest 2 students — but they are virtually unable to construct a sentence. So there is a considerable amount of work to be done here. I am planning to have Elizabeth take over this class almost immediately when she arrives. I also am thinking that 2 times per week is not frequent enough to make any meaningful progress with their English. My suggestion is to add 2 one hour sessions at least while 2 teachers are here, and maybe get some English language cartoons and have them watch those to get practice listening at other times.
Next class is Thursday. I’m not completely sure where to go from here, so more later this week.
I start every class with a shareout on how their day went, to acknowledge that they are full time, trained teachers who already worked 8 hours. At first, this shareout took 10 minutes and everyone was brief, but they are comfortable enough with me and each other that we have a pretty animated group discussion every day. Today we went on for 40 minutes until I shut it down. Teachers are sharing successes and also bringing issues they want to work through and they are becoming more of a collaborative community. I consider this to be an excellent trend for such a short time.
Also, almost everyone is trying out the activities I have worked on in their schools. They are sincerely trying to get students speaking and listening using all kinds of tricks — games, pair work, call and response. Most encouraging is that their efforts are not perfect but the students are requesting more activities involving communication and they seem to be more engaged in their learning. The students don’t seem to mind that the activities are messier than they are used to, and the teachers seem less worried about experimenting, making mistakes, and then doing better the next time. I am explicitly working on problem solving with them.
We also began planning a project-based unit, and they are nervous and skeptical about the scope of this project. It really is way too far our of their zones of development right now, but I’m going to continue through and then slow it down again and see what I can do with this. I am trying to do a project in the other class i’m teaching and they are interested in following my efforts there.
Most of my goals are being achieved to this point, so the main challenge for me is to keep moving forward without moving too fast.
On Monday, I visited the school of two of my teachers. The most immediately apparent thing is the competence of the teachers I am working with. The school is more chaotic than what I am used to in the U.S. Students seem to have free periods and are wandering around during class time. The classrooms do not have walls and it is so noisy that it seems difficult to hear the teacher at all. The students in all of the rooms seemed to be respectful and on task, but there also seems to be a lot of sitting around everywhere you look.
It’s obvious the challenges my teachers face. The diversity of skill level in one room makes it virtually impossible to educate every student. In one room, there were students speaking English at grade level and other students who could barely write their names in their L1. Still, the English knowledge of the better students was more than I expected.
Further, it seemed to me like both of my teachers have 4 preps each day. Each teachers 2 sections of 9-12th grade. Because they do not have time to collaborate, it would make sense to me to reduce their preps to only 2, which would give them more time to think and prepare and also improve their teaching because they would be repeating lessons every day. This may be because of the transient nature of the teachers in this region.
I was also curious why, in a region which only has 16 trained English teachers for 47 schools, they would choose to put 2 trained teachers in the same school.
The students were shy to talk to me and I had trouble getting conversations going. But they were also extremely interested in me and have been asking for me to return since I visited. One 9th grade class was listening to a story and answering questions, but it did not seem to me like all of the students were engaged. Another 12th grade class was learning about adjectives but the lesson moved pretty slowly. The classes are only 40 minutes long where I am used to 100 minute periods so it seemed like there was not enough time to get much accomplished.
I enjoyed this visit and learned a lot about the local context. I am convinced now that project based learning is possible and am optimistic that given the proper surrounding circumstances, these students can learn English in school. However, I am not certain how to overcome the substantial institutional barriers that exist.
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- ▼ 2010 (24)
- ▼ July (4)
- ► June (20)
- EC class day 1
- teacher training, week 3
- visit to a local schoolI
- my schedule for next week
- Teachers Taking Risks
- From the River
- Panaramic Views
- Status Update on Daniel’s Tasks
- Working with the 7 teacher trainees, Days 1 and 2
- J.H.S. jayamaha, Asst. Director of Eng. Education
- Thursday, June 17th
- Two LOOOONG days of planning…
- Belated Greetings
- Second Day
- Urban Development Authority
- Initial Thoughts