October 28, 2004

The importance of learning English

This is the third installment in a series of articles about a summer spent in the Peruvian village of Cochas Grande.

As I entered the classroom, the children stood up abruptly amid a cacophony of metal chairs scraping the concrete floor. Thirty pairs of eyes watched me, riveted, as I made my way to the front of the room. It wasn't every day that a tall, redheaded American showed up in Cochas. I stood there enjoying a few of my fifteen minutes of fame as their teacher introduced me in Spanish: "Students, this is Daniel, who has come from the United States to teach an English class until September."

"Buenos días, Daniel," they said in more or less unison.

"Buenos días," I responded. I looked around, taking in the details of the place where I would spend the next three months teaching. The school had no English textbooks, and only a few students had Spanish-English dictionaries. There were no computers, TVs, radios, or CD players. Thirty students were expecting me to teach them "English," and I had a chalkboard.

Back in the United States, I had thought it sounded pretty romantic to tell people that I would be teaching English in a rural village in Peru during the summer. Descriptions of my pending trip would frequently elicit responses of, "Wow, that's really cool." But I could not possibly have understood the magnitude of the task I had chosen to undertake before entering that classroom. My work would be neither "romantic" nor "cool."

The 150 or so students in the Colegio del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús had all had some instruction in English, from a Peruvian teacher who spoke the language only slightly. On my first day of class, the teacher handed me a sheet of what the students had been studying with her, and told me that I could teach what I pleased.

While I had never taught English before, I did at least have a plan. English is a difficult language because of its many irregularities. But not all of the language is irregular, and it was my idea to focus on the easier aspects—subject and verb agreement, simple sentence constructions, and a working vocabulary. I thought that if I could teach the easy parts, I would at least succeed in providing the students with enough basic English so that they could begin to put things together and to express themselves in English.

My first task was to find out just how much English the students knew. Some of them had just learned the alphabet, while others were studying the future tense, having supposedly mastered more basic structures. After a few weeks of probing with diagnostic exercises and tests, the results were perfectly clear: nearly no one, regardless of grade level, could consistently translate Spanish subject pronouns into English, or conjugate the basic verb "to be." I decided that before anything more complex could be accomplished, a review of the basics was necessary. In the weeks that followed, I placed my focus almost exclusively on learning English subject pronouns, basic verb conjugations, articles, and numbers. The plan was, as a former teacher of mine was fond of saying, "theoretically beautiful," with the one flaw that the students weren't learning.

I had not realized just how stacked the odds were against me. The rules I was teaching were not difficult, and the children were certainly not dumb. But I was operating under a very culture-centric assumption; namely that the students cared about learning English. Why should they care about learning English? No one they knew spoke English, nor did they need it in their daily lives, except for my class. These students were the progeny of farmers, bricklayers, and artisans, and the vast majority had never considered anything but continuing in the family tradition. When they returned home, they went to assist their families in earning the money to purchase life's necessities, not to study the verb "to be."

In class, they liked to look out the window a lot, as other students practiced a march, a dance, or played a soccer game outdoors. And of course there was the age factor: Notes were passed continually, and boys laughed and motioned at the girls, who, in turn, giggled and whispered amongst themselves. I was competing for their attention, and while I hammered away at my grammatical points, it was obvious who was losing.

I realized this one day, all of a sudden, when I lost my patience with a class. I could not, despite all my efforts, maintain their attention—and I gave up. It is a fairly embarrassing thing to stand in front of a group of students at the end of one's wits. But they, at least, saved me much of the embarrassment—continuing to laugh and converse, oblivious to my frustration. While I fumed, I could not help but notice how I had become part of the background. And that was when it hit me: "You're teaching at them, and you're not getting anywhere. You've got to teach to them, make it about them."

This latter approach, though not always useful for teaching verb tenses and conjugations, worked pretty well for building vocabulary. In each class, I asked for a volunteer to come up to the front of the room, and then asked the other students to describe him or her while I translated into English. The student being described would then choose another classmate to share the same fate. This generally kept things "nice." The teacher was, of course, fair game as well.

During my last week of classes, I had my students begin a poem with the phrase "I am," and describe themselves as they wished. Ultimately it was difficult to get them to write creatively, and most of the "poems" consisted of simple sentences such as "I am pretty/ I am intelligent/ I am indigenous." But I did at least have one success. After class one day, a group of girls surrounded me with smiles and blushes, and, amid much interior dialogue, presented me with a letter. It was a love poem from a boy in one of my more advanced classes, written entirely in English. The girl to whom it was addressed wanted me to translate. I politely refused. "Look in your notebook," I told her. "The answers are all there."

I walked home with a big grin on my face that day. I had been unable to impose my lessons over the students' interests, but after all, I had unwittingly provided them with a tool to pursue those interests.