ESL: Part of my job this summer is to assist in teaching ESL some weekday mornings at the church next to one of the apartment complexes where we settle refugees. I am also supposed to be teaching night classes this month but the organization of that has not been made clear to me yet. That is kind of the ways things roll around here. I love teaching ESL though, it is the highlight of my week, that and other than direct interaction with clients. If I could get paid to hang out with refugees all day I would do it. Social workers don’t actually do this, they are stuck dealing with paper work and government offices and so many families that they do not have time to sit down with one and drink chai tea and leave smelling like curry. That is the job of interns and volunteers I guess. Maybe I’ll just do a lot of volunteer work once I get a “real” job, something to pay the bills and something to feed the soul.
Anyways, ESL is the most challenging, rewarding, confusing, funny, and fun two hours three times a week. Some of the students went to college, some went up to grammar or high school in the camps,and then some have never sat in a class room and are illiterate in their own language, which makes teaching them English even more complicated. So it is about 30-40 people on a full day with three to four teachers. The range of English levels though are so varied that we had to separate into an “advanced” grammar class and the basic class. But even in the lower level class some of the students have been here for years and some just a few weeks. It is difficult to know what they understand. And lesson plans are so hard to come up with all the levels. The teachers always amaze me. And it is difficult not to treat the students like children. I only have experience instructing children, spending three years as a day camp counselor/semi-coordinater in Mansfield. When the class gets loud I want to hush them and when they all begin speaking in their own language I want to let them know they cannot learn like that, but they are not required to be there and they are all adults. Many of them so much older than me I feel silly teaching them. On Friday’s we do stuff with employment and we were teaching them how to shake hands and keep eye contact. It was only women teaching the lower level that day and although the men never expressed it, I felt like we were breaking cultural boundaries by going around and making each of them shake my hand and look me in the eyes. But then I also felt like we were empowering them. Honestly, I just got lucky to be born into a country that speaks English, so I teach people three times my age how to say simple phrases and use the bus system. Its weird. They are gracious about it. I would never know if I made them uncomfortable. They would never say it but as teachers we kind of wonder what they think about us and our silly teaching methods.
My favorite is when we end of having to act out charades to explain words. Example, we did a homonyms day…. which was on the difficult side for a lot of them. I have learned that worksheets are not effective with most of them because they cannot read or comprehend like an elementary school child could.They just don’t have the vocabulary. This makes worksheets so difficult. Anyways I tried to act out the difference between “bawl” and “ball”, they thought it was hilarious. I fell out of my chair today to try to explain “fall.” We also do action words, like exercise, clap, brush teeth, etc. in which they have to act out what we say. Those are always fun to watch. All of the students are so into it, except those who are completely lost and there are a few of those. With those students we have to use other students who somewhat understand to help translate. And the letter F is difficult for the majority group( Nepalese speakers). Fifteen is “pipteen”, fifty if “pifty” and five is “pive.” It is incredibly endearing to hear, but at the same time it is hard to correct.
A big problem is that none of the teachers speak the native language of the students. This makes teaching and learning hard because nothing can really be translated unless another more advanced student does it, which only sometimes happens. I cannot imagine being in their place though. When I was an exchange student and thrown into a French public high school, people knew that my french wasn’t great and understood. I had also been trained to read,write, and speak french for three years and it took 3 months of immersion for me to really converse. Most of the ESL students didn’t go to school and didn’t study English if they did. Most that is, a few of the younger ones have studied English and sit in on the “advanced” class, learning how to write correct verb tenses.( I don’t teach this. I hate grammar. I cannot imagine trying to learn English grammar). When I see the frustration on the faces of some of the students and I can somewhat relate. I know how frustrating it is to not understand, to be completely lost. But… I always knew as an exchange students I was going home eventually and for them this is their new home. And they all try so hard to learn it but it just takes a lot of time.
The students also keep me laughing. Sometimes I am trying to explain some term or phrase and a student will just look at me and shake their head in complete confusion and laugh at me because we both just can’t figure out how to express what we are saying. When they come in the class it is always the same “gooood morning! good morning!” they say it very loud and accented and then wait for me to being the pencil box, because they want the best sharpened pencils to use. They must be sharp, even a little dull and they are no good and they want me to sharpen them. It cracks me up. Some don’t have notebooks though and then we use w/e resources we have which is usually the back of some old worksheet that was lying around. They get confused and try to do the worksheet sometimes when I give it to them and I have to explain that they should just use the back to write on. A few also say ” nice to meet you!” every time I see them. I am not sure if they do not remember me or if they think that is the equivalent of hello.
The older Bhutanese men are very proud and sweet. I love that many wear their traditional hats to class. They look kind of like Kwanza hats. The older men and women also wear red dots or streaks on their faces. Today, while at the health department with a family , they explained all of the markings to me. A line of red for women in their hair-line is married, a red dot is fashion or hindu, and a line down the middle of their forehead is a symbol of a higher caste. Taking families to the doctor appts can be a long job, today took three hours at the health department, but it gave me a chance to talk with the family. I found out this family was Christian and we talked about the church in Nepal and when they became Christians. I asked about castes after he explained the markings and he told me that as Christians they had done away with that life. Really interesting. This family was lucky to be educated and the men speak fairly good english, which is how we talked so in depth. He asked me also what it means to wear a ring on the ring finger. They always say ” Excuse me mam…” and are incredibly polite before every question. I explained the symbolism but it was kind of difficult because I wear a ring on my ring finger but I’m not married haha. They wear a lot of jewelry, both the boys are girls. I also found out that they pierce the little boys ears (both) because it is fashion a few weeks ago. I seriously cannot tell little Nepalese kids apart.
There is a lot to write about since I haven’t blogged in a while… but I think I’ll end on an interesting experience at the apartment complex. Me and Kate were passing out paperwork and passed by some construction workers. After we left one apartment one American (non refugee) man came up and asked what “forms” we had. I got pretty apprehensive at this point because I saw them watching us when we drove up. We just told him we were with the agency and he said his friend is a refugee and wanted to ask us something. So he went and got his friend, another construction worker who with broken english started to ask us about going to school. He said he was a refugee from Iraq ( and given his english level I could believe it) and he was a barber and wants to be a barber here but has to go to school and he doesn’t know how to do it or how to pay for it. We asked what agency brought him here and he said the Embassy and something with a V, which is either the Virginia state agency that provides core services (basic, less than ccc) to refugees or it is the SIV, special immigration visa program which brought Iraqis who helped US troops here and gave them the paperwork to work but , according to my sources, left them without very much support. This man had sad eyes, beautiful but sad. He looked maybe 30. I just wonder what he had seen before coming here. I always wonder that with the refugees and what it feels like to experience that, like my students from Darfur/Sudan, and then come here and struggle as well. We ended up giving the Iraqi man the agency # and honestly idk if they can do much for him. I hope so though.