On orthography, nationalism and language-learning

[note: The first few paragraphs of this post goes over some phonetics of Korean.  It may not be interesting to many, but my real point for the post comes after.  So keep reading! It gets better.]

Recently, Korea claimed the gold medal at the 2nd Alphabet Olympics.  (more here and here).  Indeed, congratulations are due to the Koreans, who have developed a very scientifically nuanced orthography that is both easy to learn and intricately complex.  In science, we call a simple solution to a complex question, elegance.  Certainly a word to describe Hangeul.

Place of articulation for [k] or [g]

Just to give an idea to those who have no idea why Hangeul (the Korean writing system) is so special—From a linguistic-perspective, simply the shape of many of the characters is beautiful and informative.  The character for the roman [k] or [g] is ‘ㄱ’ .  The shape of the character itself informs the reader where the place of articulation is for the sound.  (i.e. the back of the tongue raises to the roof of the mouth at the velum.  [t] and [d] are formed as ‘ㄷ’ in Hangeul, suggesting that the place of articulation is at the front of the mouth (the tip of the tongue seals just behind the teeth at the alveolar ridge).  Beautiful and simple or in a word, elegant.

Now, certainly, not all of the visual designs of the characters in Hangeul are based in phonetic principles.  The velar nasal (the sound of ‘ng’ part of -ing) ‘ㅇ’ doesn’t seem to make much sense aesthetically (and that is ok, none of the roman alphabet has a visual correlation with the phonetics of the language, it’s all arbitrary abstractions).  But take into account another interesting feature of Korean, voicing.  By ‘voicing’ we mean the vibrating in your vocal cords (more accurately the slapping together of the vocal flaps).  As I noted above both [d] and [t] map to ‘ㄷ’, and [g] and [k] map to ‘ㄱ’.  The main difference of [d,g] and [t,k] is what phoneticians call ‘voicing’.

In Korean, voicing does not mark a difference like it does in English.  For Korean, we would say that [k] and [g] are in complementary distribution or, if there were a Korean word ‘gap’ and ‘cap’ they would be pronounced the same way (or they would differentiate with a different sound, such as [ㄲ] which sounds like a [g] to English ears, but actually is a “tensed” version of [g], involving a co-articulation of glottis.)

Korean does use both the [k] and [g] sounds, but it depends on where the ‘ㄱ’ appears in a word.  If it occurs at the beginning like in ‘ 기‘ (cough), it will be pronounced with a [k] similar to the second [k] in the word, ‘cake’.  (note, not the first [k].  Syllable-initial [k] in English is actually aspirated, meaning you add an extra puff of air.  Try it out, say ‘cake’ and take notice of the difference.)  If the velar is between two vowels, ‘감‘, it will be pronounced as a [g].  And, to finalize, if it occurs word-finally, like ‘죤‘ (Jeongok, the name of my town), it will be ‘unreleased’.  Meaning, you will put your tongue in the appropriate place to make the sound, but you don’t ‘release’ it, you don’t let the air blow out.  (This often happens in English when speakers are speaking normally and casually.)

The idea here is, Korean does not need two different letters for ‘ㄱ’ because it doesn’t add information, very elegant.  (The same thing is true of aspiration in English, we don’t need two different letters for [p] in the word ‘pip’ even though the first ‘p’ is pronounced with extra aspiration.  Extra Credit: Korean does differentiate based on aspiration, [k] and [kʰ] in Korean are differentiated by the Hangeul characters ‘ㄱ’ and ‘ㅋ’.  Much to the chagrin of English-speakers learning Korean, even though we have both sounds in our language as well).

–Now, I want to speak to everyone who thinks their language is “the best”.  Yes.. I am talking to you “official English” supporters and yes, I’m talking to basically the entire Korean peninsula (I assume North Korea is as proud of their language as the south is).  You need to keep your nationalism out of my linguistics.  Not just because your extreme delusion doesn’t do you any real good, and not just because your fantasies of a monolingual world go against thousands of years of linguistic evolution.  No, the real reason is this:  when you have concluded that “my language is best” or “my writing system is best” you are only making subjective declarations that don’t give you much empathy or continued understanding.

I just want everyone to maybe think a little broader about why Hangeul is so amazing, and why English orthography might be amazing as well.   (I know the latter idea is almost unthinkable).  But, truly, there are reasons the English writing system is the way it is, and why it may be a better idea to leave it be.  We have discussed some of the elegant features of Hangeul; naturally, Koreans are hoping to help other language communities develop writing systems for their languages using Hangeul.  A noble idea, to be sure and even a great idea, practically! For the reasons listed above, Hangeul would make a great orthography for an oral language to adopt, so why don’t they?

Let me give you one example.   One language, Cia-cia, had been contacted by the Sejong Institute, to help build schools and develop an orthography using Hangeul.  Plans were made, and the initial steps were taken.  Unfortunately, the plan was a failure.  Why?  Well, money for one, culture differences that I’m not really sure about for two and third, the most important part, the National government has passed a law saying any new orthographies for the tribal languages of Indonesia have to use the Roman script!

On the face of it, this seems like linguistic imperialism AGAIN. (and I would agree in part).  Why such a controlling law?  Well, even though all the language communities in Indonesia want to maintain some semblance of diversity and independence, the thinking goes that if they use a similar script, you streamline the process.  Learning the different languages and, importantly, the dialects doesn’t require learning a new writing system and they will share a writing system with the major lingua franca of the area, English.

One benefit of the Roman script that Hangeul doesn’t enjoy? World-wide usage.  Thousands of languages use one script, with changes here and there to pick out and highlight the differences and nuances of the individual languages.  I wonder, and I invite any Koreans to express their opinion specifically on this topic, how Koreans would feel when a new language community adopts Hangeul for their writing system, but then decide to change Hangeul in some fashion.  Adding a diacritic of some sort, or getting rid of the null-initial syllable place holder, ‘ㅇ’.  As someone who has worked with others to develop writing systems for oral language communities, one thing we keep in mind as designers is: does this language community want to identify with the major-language in the area? Or do they want to distinguish themselves from them?  For the most part, they want to distinguish themselves.   I wonder how Koreans would feel about their writing system being changed, perhaps for no reason other than that the language community wants to distinguish themselves from Korea.

Ok, now, I’m going to get specific about English orthography and not the Roman script in general.  I grant that learning the English writing system is not a pleasant experience for many people. (learning spoken English, on the other hand, is no more difficult than any other language.  And if you can pick up on a few interesting features, like vowel reduction, you can guess the pronunciation of most words pretty easily!).  Why so few letters seem to map onto so many different sounds is hard for people to understand.  And I sympathize.  It is difficult, and there were some real mistakes made in the past when the Orthography was being established.  But let me give you one reason we may want to think twice about re-inventing the writing system.

They used to say “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.  And even though the sun may set on the empire these days, it’s linguistic heritage certainly still doesn’t see the night.  English is used as either a first or second language in every corner of the world, for better or worse.  Let’s leave second-language English aside.  Just first language English speakers range all around the world.  You have what is often called the “inner-circle” English nations, like the United Kingdom (which is itself made up of many native languages like Irish, Celtic, Welsh and others, who have adopted and changed English), The United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and so on.  But there are many other nations who speak English as a native language or bilingually.  Often the English of these areas is considered sub-standard and given pejorative titles.  These nations often implement stringent education reforms to teach “proper” English and rid themselves of their local English dialect.  And while I praise the efforts to educate their population to engage the broader world in the language of English, it pains my linguistic heart to hear people denigrating what is often a first or bilingual language for many of the speakers.  Singapore English is one such example, pejoratively known as “singlish”, African-American English is another, what used to be known pejoratively as “ebonics”.

With So many different dialects, cultures and peoples speaking English, many of whom have just as much of a cultural right to the language as those of us in the United States, United Kingdom or any other inner circle dialect; we are bound to happen upon English speakers who we just won’t understand as Americans, or English.  This was impressed upon me in my Introductory Linguistics course.  My professor played several audio clips of English speakers and we were to first, understand what was said, and two guess where they were from.  There were some obvious ones, like the London or RP accent, Australian.  Some were not so obvious, like the welch accent or Jamaican English.  But there was one in particular that was paradigm-shifting for me.  It was the Shetland Island English Dialect.  It was completely incomprehensible to me, mostly because it has strong influences from Scots and other languages in the area.

To draw this back to orthography, one of the most wonderful aspects of written English is that even though we have all these different dialects of Spoken English, we all share, for the most part, a written English that is mostly unchanged.  Sure, idioms seep through and sometimes cultural ideas don’t translate completely.  Still, even this blog-post will be intelligible to any English-speaker who has learned the English writing system, regardless of dialect.  It is simply a wonderful thing.

Now, let’s say we want to change English orthography.  Where do we start?  Whose dialect do we choose to set up as the standard dialect?  Do we just let every dialect choose to reinterpret the orthography as best fits the phonology, phonetics and phonotactics of their dialect?  Well, ok.  But let’s just be clear about what we are giving up when do this.  The broad, sweeping world-wide understanding that comes from the hard-won ability to read English that gives you access to information and data from hundreds, maybe thousands of publications from all over the world.

Perhaps I am too extreme in my analysis.  Certainly there could be small changes (of which I haven’t looked into well enough to comment), that would be beneficial.  Orthographic house-keeping sounds reasonable to me (Hangeul does it, you’ll never see the character for [z] – ‘ㅿ’ anymore, because it doesn’t exist in the language, except in some trace functions of the Jeju dialect).  So while it may feel good to your national pride to give yourself a gold star every now and again, let’s not let it blind us to the beauty of diversity around us.  We all lose out and empathy certainly isn’t created when we do so.  And if that isn’t enough for you, then think about this: you sound like an ignorant, arrogant, nationalistic asshole when you do it.

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The Courage to Teach – Part 1: The Teacher Metaphor

I’ve been linking to Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach in almost every post, so I thought I would start my first serial post on some of the subjects and ideas found within that book.  I won’t be looking at the book chronologically, or even comprehensively.  Instead, I am just going to pick out what I like, talk about it and leave the rest; because I’m lazy.

In chapter 6, Palmer leaves the teacher-student relationship (in part) and moves to the relationship created by academic institutions.  How teachers work together (or, as I find common don’t work together) is a problem that Palmer feels needs as much correction as the teacher’s personal identity or the student-teacher relationship.  Academic institutions create an interesting paradox in which learning, which necessitates community and conversation, is combined with competition.  The result, as Palmer puts it, is:

“The mix is obviously a recipe for confusion.  The conventional norm of “making nice” with each other, folded into the professional norm of competition, creates an ethos in which it feels dangerous to speak or to listen.  Then we proceed to multiply that confusion, and the sense of danger that goes with it, by interleaving a third set of norms implicit in conventional and academic culture alike: we were put on earth to advise, fix, and save each other, and whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself, we should seize it!”

What happens is something we are all familiar with.  When we feel unsafe in a conversation, we don’t  engage if we don’t have to.  We become quiet, defensive and view the other speakers as the enemy.  Opportunity for authentic learning and building community are hard-pressed to emerge in situations like this.  Teacher’s deal with this problem not only in the classroom, but in the professional development of their trade.  As Palmer notes, Education is the most privatized of the public sector careers.  By that, we don’t mean economically.  Our teaching tradition has led us to put one teacher with multiple students.  Teachers rarely observe each other teach and so the opportunity for authentic learning and teaching in education is hampered.  Palmer draws the comparison to lawyers and doctors, who constantly present their skills in public view of their colleagues.  A lawyer with mediocre skills will be made well aware of it by a superior colleague in the courtroom.

This specific problem is actually softened in my setting.  As a co-teacher, my superior is almost always in the classroom with me, much to my annoyance at times!  My co-teacher and I are different in many ways, not the least of which is our teaching styles, and when you are trying to teach a single classroom with two different teachers, conflict can emerge.  But I have found these conflicts to be helpful in many ways.  In preparing for an “open” class (i.e. parents or district officials come watch our class), my co-teacher and I really came to terms with how each of us envision the classroom to flow and we were able to come to some sort of agreement, even though there is still some conflict to be resolved.  In general, it is a difficult, but productive tool to have a colleague constantly evaluate you.

The problems arise when we don’t take into account the how’s and why’s of our differences.  I am a new teacher, from Utah, schooled mostly in linguistics (not education) and taught more student-centered, content-based instruction.  My co-teacher is an education-major, he was educated here in Korea and is quite a bit older than I am.  This might seem like enough information to tell that there will be some conflicts, and maybe even what those conflicts might be.  But I think it goes even further, or deeper, into who we are as individuals.  And how, at even the subconscious level, we view ourselves as teachers.  Insight into these aspects of our teacher-identity might be worth discovering.

Palmer agrees.  And borrowing from experiments done in psychology to produce insight from the subconscious, he developed a way to get teachers to evaluate themselves on a deeper and perhaps sillier level.

The idea is to answer a specific question with the first thing that comes to mind.  I can see the eye-rolling going on in audience.  This kind of experiment is often ridiculed (and maybe for good reason) by the population at large, but I’ve found this particular activity to be a fount of insight.  The question asked is, “When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like _________.”  The first time I did this was in my Second Language Methodology class.  The teacher asked us all to do it, and then report the next day with the answer, and whatever insight you think you got from it.  When I did the activity myself, I came up with this:

“When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like a cold winter’s night.”

My first instinct was to keep thinking of something more interesting, or even relevant to the question. (what does a “winter’s night” have to do with good teaching?)  How would I get any insight from that?  I kept trying to think of other things, but eventually just gave up.  No other insights came  and when I presented in class the next day, I said, “I am like a cold winter’s night.  And I have no idea what that means or what I am suppose to learn from it.”  My teacher said, “that’s ok.”

For a long time, I just put this idea away.  It bothered me that I would say something so gushingly romantic or silly as an answer.  It is typically me, and something I fight against, that I would want to romanticize this activity.  But, as Palmer notes,

“The point of the exercise is to allow one’s unconscious to surface a metaphor, no matter how silly or strange, that contains an insight that the rational mind would never allow.  Not all groups have enough access to their imagination or are sufficiently at home with themselves to take this kind of risk.  But when people are willing to feel a bit foolish among colleagues, the payoff in self-understanding can be considerable.”

Eventually, I opened myself up to examine what this means.  As it would happen, I was outside on a cold winter’s night and I noticed some very interesting things that I felt paralleled myself as a person and teacher.  And even more recently, I have reconsidered the metaphor again and I wrote out more formally my response to the question: When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like ___.

–When I am at my best as a teacher, I am like a cold winter’s night.  The distractions of summer: like birds, bugs, other animals, cars or even people are either absent or greatly decreased.  In the silence, the sounds of nature are clearer, more discernible   The snow that falls from the trees is easily discernible   On a cold winter’s night, silence rules.  Along with the stillness, the quiet beauty of trees covered delicately, completely and intricately with snow and ice reveals details of the tree that can be lost with summer leaves.  Each blade of grass can be elegantly magnified in the frost.

As a teacher I am at my best when I don’t allow small distractions into my community of learning.  These distractions that cause me to loose focus on the moment of teaching.  It could be students not participating, being obnoxious or something from my life outside the classroom.  In my cold winter’s night, I focus the distractions of my students, silencing them, so that we can all appreciate the beauty of the trees, snow and ice.

I am at my worst as a teacher when I loose sight of those observing the night with me.  When I silence them in the name of the silent night.  I interpret the co-observers as distractions of the thing itself.  Because my cold winter’s night is serene and silent, I can loose sight of the fun or loud or exciting aspects of a winter’s night. At worst, I view them as disruptive and wrong.—

How I translate this metaphor into practical teaching can have a big impact into how I understand my own successes and failures.  Particularly, it can help me understand my relationship with my co-teacher, who I am fairly certain does not teach as if he were a cold winter’s night!  In fact, he may teach as if he is an amusement park (though I won’t speculate too much or speak for him).

It also gives me insight into the struggles I will face within the community of educators, specifically my current role as a Native English Teacher.  One of the ‘roles’ I am suppose to fulfill is “make English fun!”  That’s a vague statement to say the least, but I think I know how most people interpret it.  I should be silly, I should have fun with the students, I should make them laugh, make them feel good about learning English.  And while I agree with those things, and I hope I can inspire confidence in my students abilities to speak English; I think we can all recognize the difficulties inherent in somebody who envisions their own teaching as a “cold winter’s night” to fulfill those roles.

But knowing thyself, that’s a big part of the battle already won.

Two lessons and fears of a teacher

There are moments in teaching when you experience  for the first time a problem that is so well known that it seems more like a myth or something that has been so relentlessly discussed that for it to exist at all anymore seems… weird.  But nonetheless, like many teachers, I have days in which a class of 30 students goes terribly and a class of 15 (or in today’s case, a class of 3) goes excellently.  In short, large class sizes suck.

It feels kind of good, after a hard lesson, to lay the blame on something so far out of my control.  There truly is nothing I can do about my class size.  It will be what it will be.  Like the devil, it gives me something to fight against that I cannot ever control.  And, also like the devil, I think it’s largely imaginary.  When I give in to this kind of “devilish” thinking, there is a little twinge of dissatisfaction with it.  And what the problem is, is that class size isn’t a problem, it is a variable.  And when we make it “the problem”, often we are just naming and shaming a variable, when in reality the heart of the matter lies in my fears as a teacher.

I had given in to the fears that my students don’t respect me; that they don’t want to learn.  That my students think I’m a bad teacher.  I have yet to really delve into the problem for real.  But, we’ll open it up for a larger discussion.  I am going to present two different lessons that I taught, back to back.  They are not comparable, but can be viewed contrastively for insight.

Background: Students are 14-15 years old.  They attend English class for 40 minutes every other day.  Previous lessons have introduced language useful in warning about dangerous events.  Such as, “be careful”, “watch/look out” and “pay attention”.  I don’t overtly teach grammar (by design), but if they pay real close attention, they’ll figure it out on their own.  I have been having a little trouble with student comprehension and understanding me.  So my lessons have been based in communicating the ideas non-verbally and then introducing the language.  Up to this point, the students have used the phrases in prompted and recited activities and are now trying to move into simulated situations and free discussion.

Warm-up

I posted four pictures of action films that the students are most likely to have seen.  Most of them came from Korean cinema and also one from music artist, Psy called Gangnam Style, I’m sure you’ve heard of it.  The warm-up is done in pairs where the students try to come up with as many words as possible to describe the pictures of dangerous events.  The instructions were done as non-verbally as possible, using gesture for “think”, “write” and a brief explanation via demonstration of what an adjective is.  For good measure, and perhaps to show just how early my fear set in, I offered up a reward to the pair that came up with the most words.

The students were uninterested.  We can safely leave it at that—but we won’t.  The few who either want me to like them or like me genuinely, or genuinely like English, or learning or whatever got to work pretty quick. (maybe 4 students).  Most sat talking (in their defense, quietly). And a few pretended to be asleep, or so bored that they couldn’t keep their heads up ANYMORE.  As I walked by, students would begin working and as I left they would stop.  At some point, a few groups said they didn’t understand what was going on, which fairly thoroughly gouged my weak confidence out like a spear through the stomach.  I demonstrated some more throughout the classroom to smaller groups.. and they seemed to “understand”.

At the end of the warm-up, I had them tell me some words they had come up with, we wrote them on the board and then we moved on.

Presentation

The point of this lesson is to get to a point where the students could discuss in some fashion, dangerous activities they have either participated in or have seen occur.  The warm-up is designed to get them thinking of the words they will need later on to talk about these events.  The presentation is designed to work up their communicative ability with the target language in a role-play type of environment.

I explained via demonstration, pictures and powerpoint; that each of the students were going to pretend to be directors and would think of things they would say to the actors (from the pictures) to keep them safe.  i.e. “be careful of the fire! Look out for debris in the wind!”  Bascially, use the phrases that have been taught (‘be careful, look/watch out, pay attention) and add a prepositional phrase (at the barest of levels).  The students actually did seem to understand the instructions here, but maybe not all the way, I really can’t know for sure in hindsight.  I switched up their partners and put them in groups of 3-4.

Again, a few did the activity for a moment.  Most didn’t want to say anything to their peers, or at least I suspect that is one of the problems.  The students feel embarrassed to speak with other students.  Others were belligerently open with their disregard for the lesson.  Doing their own thang, if you will.  I would walk around and try to get something going.  It could be it was too unstructured for them.  I don’t know.  They may have been legitimately bored (i.e. the activity was far below their level).

Before things got too out of control, I moved to the next portion.

Simulation

The students would act as themselves, but in scripted scenarios.   A group of four would be given a list of things that are potentially dangerous and they would attempt to warn the others in their group of it.  This was done taboo style, where you can’t say the word.  I gave the list of words (cut up individually and upside down) to each group and after explaining and demonstrating (twice), I set them off.  Now, what happened next has happened before when I do this kind of activity, and I still don’t know where the miscommunication lies, or what I am missing.  But, The second I let them start, one or more in each group begin sifting through the words I had given them.  Like they were going to just choose and it didn’t matter if anyone saw. (perhaps it didn’t matter.  They may have not cared that much).

This was the activity that just did it for my day.  The girls, who generally don’t talk to begin with, ignored the game.  If I came by they avoided eye contact and sat very still.  I’m guessing they may have not understood what was going on.  I tried to explain, gesture, demonstrate it. It never took.  The boys ignored the activity for the most part until I walked by.  Then they would immediately pick up a piece and say something that missed the point of the game (suggesting they didn’t get it to begin with, or that they didn’t care to understand it, or… something else).

This started with about 15 minutes left in class, so I washed my hands of the lesson at this point.  We were not going to get to the discussion point and I saw no way of corralling them in anyway.  I circled around a few times, participating in a few groups, trying to motivate others.  In the end, the bell rang and the students left.

Conclusion

At this point, my feelings are either this activity was too simple, not engaging enough and/or not relevant enough to get the students into it.  That, or it was well beyond the students ability to understand at this point.  It may be that they need much more time in the comprehension stages, more miming, more basic practice.  These students are “behind and unmotivated” (as I was told before I even got to the school, a wonderful generalization).

The Small Class Lesson

For the next two hours after that class, I was going to be coaching three girls for the district English competition.  The week before, they had each won a school contest (judged by yours truly) based on grade level.  I was going to whip them into shape.  The district competition is split into a few different parts.  First, there is a monologue of sorts; second, a picture description and third, impromptu conversation.  For the most part, the winners had won because they did the best at their monologues.  But, I was impressed with a couple of their descriptive abilities.  They spoke for much longer than I expected they would.

The four of us were going to hone in those descriptive talents.  Though, to begin, I had them practice some tongue twisters, focusing on the dreaded English [l]/[r].  The short story is that Korean does have the lateral segments [l] and [ɾ] (the sound in ‘latter’ and ‘ladder’ where the tongue quickly flips up and touches the roof of the mouth), but they are not like English [l] and [r].  First of all, The Korean [l] only occurs at the end of a syllable; or, in English, where [ɫ] usually occurs. (the [l] that you make with the back of the throat.  Notice the difference in l’s when you say ‘local’).  Well, [ɫ] doesn’t really exist in Korean and so it comes out funny.  Now, this is not truly an issue that needs a fix.  Most dialects of English have some sort of variation in the lateral segments.  Even within the United States there are dialects that vary in their use of [r], or have lost it altogether.

*some* of the dialects just in the U.S.

After warming up with some tongue twisters (gotta get that mouth nice and loose), we began working on description.  I would show pictures on the board and they would write down, or think of as many things to describe as possible.  After the first picture, we went over it in detail.  I tried to communicate some helpful ways of getting the most descriptive bang for your buck.  The point of the descriptive section is to say as much as you can, for as long as you can, without stopping to think too much.  If you pause for too long, they will send you off the stage.  Keep your ‘ah’s and um’s’ to a minimum as well.  Since they don’t have a lot of time to think about what they are going to say, we talked strategy.  We start with the objects in the picture, which one jumps out the most in the picture? Start there.  What can you say? Can you say a lot about it?  Are there a lot of things to describe that object?  Is it doing multiple things?  The idea here is to find a focal point.  Something that you have a lot to say about.After that first item, go as far as you can until you can say nothing else, about anything else.  Chances are, they won’t have enough time to get all the way through their list anyway.  Another problem they will have, is that they don’t get a lot of time to look at and prepare for the picture.  So we did multiple rounds of describing pictures for 1 minute.  After that, we moved to 30 seconds.  Describing as much as they could.

(Update! My 9th grader got 3rd place and my 8th grader finished in 2nd!  This was definitely due to the ‘descriptive’ and ‘question/answer’ segments of the competition (the other students spent much more time on their monologue).  Congratulations to them (and to me!)

Lessons Compared

In both lessons, I don’t think the students thought it was very fun.  They may have even been bored.  But when there are just four people, it’s much harder to feel comfortable ignoring the task at hand.  The girls did the work I asked them to do.  We had a few laughs and they left my classroom two hours later a little mentally exhausted.

To contrast, I feel that the disinterest most students show is just as plausibly rooted in their own frustrations of trying and feeling like they’ve failed to ‘learn’ English.  They may not see “progress” and interpret that to mean they just don’t get it.  They can’t get it and they won’t get it.  They probably feel like it’s bad enough they have to be in the classroom, why feel like anymore of a failure.  Just give me something I can be tested on and get me to the next grade.  I know that’s how I felt about Spanish in high school.

When you stand in front of 40 students, many of who don’t have great experiences with school, the likelihood that your lesson will be exposed for the fraud it is (or that you believe it to be), is greatly increased.  This fear within myself as a teacher lies just below the surface of the front I show my students.  The fear that I actually don’t know what I am doing and that I have no right to teach.  This kind of rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in the method traditional teaching employs.  That, as a teacher, I am suppose to fill the students minds like a sponge.  Instead of engaging the students, like maybe a more advanced student, in the mystery of the subject.

Contrast that with a lesson with three students who are known to be studious, hard-workers and obviously like English enough to volunteer to participate in a competition.  Walking away from that lesson, I feel like I could teach anyone English.  That I could inspire the most American-hating, English-is-an-Imperialistic-language-believing that language (via English) is one of the most interesting subjects in the world.

We could chalk it up to that.  Different students and sizes.  But that’s too easy and frankly, washes my hands of my primary teaching responsibility.  The question becomes:  How do I address the fears within myself and the fears of the students themselves, so as to create a community of truth that turns the view of all of us towards the mystery of English in a way that informs, uplifts and inspires all of us.