Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


by AJ

"Why not take the time to find people in the community who have the same interests as our students and get the students working with them? Every time we get a student an internship we are adding a new teacher to our staff. When I visit our students on site at their internships, I am blown away by how committed the mentors and their coworkers are to what we are trying to do. They are so excited to talk to our kids, to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm."

--Dennis Littky

I dont know why I never thought of this. What Littky describes is EXACTLY what I did as a social worker. I linked my clients with mentors, internships, counselors, support groups, and other experts in the community. While I did my share of counseling, the bulk of the work was done by community members and the clients themselves.

When I entered teaching, I swallowed the traditional educational approach: teacher stands in front of class, students listen and take notes.... and occasionally do "groupwork" assigned by the teacher. Its taken me several years to re-discover the power inherent in my old social work approach.

Unfortunately, Ive got quite a task ahead of me. My social work clients (most of them) did not have decades of authoritarian social work conditioning behind them. So they were generally open to the community approach.

But students are another story (especially Asian students, who have endured the most rigid school systems in the world). They have 20+ years of conditioning to overcome: conditioning that ingrained the following messages:

* School is boring
* The teacher is the BIG expert & leader. Good students obey and don't take initiative.
* Rote learning, drills, grades, and textbooks are "real & serious". Real-world activities are "soft & not serious".
* Mistakes are bad.
* Risks are very bad.
* Learning is a chore.
* The teacher is responsible for learning... his/her job is to "push" knowledge into the student.

These are deeply held beliefs for many students.... beliefs with a strong emotional component.

I realized this as I discussed our upcoming visit to the retirement home. While my students have no problem doing "groupwork" in class... the idea of leading an activity outside of school... for "real people" not attached to the school... clearly made them nervous.

I naively expected smiles and enthusiasm. Instead, their faces were pinched and they were silent.

It was worse when I discussed the newsletter... the idea that they would act as reporters and could research and write about anything they wanted to. I imagined they'd get excited and say things like, "Cool, Im gonna write about hip-hop". Ha!

That wasnt quite the reaction. They glared at me! The word "write" immediately triggered feelings of dread and humiliation.... memories of red ink marks, criticism from teachers, grammar lectures, hours spent creating outlines, etc....

In retrospect, these challenges are hardly surprising. It takes some effort and time to change a classroom culture. It takes positive experiences. It takes successes. I thought about pleading with them then realized the futility... they dont need more talk, they simply need to get in the thick of things and discover that not only can they do it... they can have fun at the same time.

I now imagine a progression of real world challenges... starting with the relative ease and safety of field trips and guest speakers, then moving into the more scary (at first) realm of internships, mentors, and community service projects.