I like my students, I really do. But they sometimes frustrate me no end. Sometimes I can’t figure out if they’re lazy or lacking in confidence or totally clueless as to what’s going on in class, or a combination of all those things.
For the most part, no matter their age or school grade, my students can be considered beginning English speakers. Their English language comprehension is very basic and so is their language production. Because of this, the curriculum for this programme is very slow and we spend weeks, and sometimes months, going over the same things. They learn and re-learn the same grammar and vocabulary over and over in a myriad of ways, so much so that I’m always trying to find new ways to teach the same material.
I do worksheets with them to practice the mechanics of whatever we’re studying. I do listening comprehension so they get a feel of how the language we’re studying is used in everyday speech. I do reading comprehension with them so they see how it should look in written form. And we do activity upon activity to help solidify it all – in my junior high classes, we’ve played Snakes & Ladders and had sentence auctions, and in my lower grade classes, we’ve played bingo, parts of speech matching games, and gone over and over a million flashcards.
They do fairly well when we do these types of classes and I always leave end them feeling energised because I think my students learned something and had fun while doing it.
But when it comes time for them to independently produce language, my illusions come crashing down around me in a disastrous blaze. If I ask them speak or write their own words…disaster. They fail to produce anything at all, or what they produce is so garbled that I wonder what I’m wasting my time for.
A couple of weeks ago I reached some kind of limit. I had back-to-back classes with my teenaged students. We had been going over and over the same grammar module for 5 weeks and I felt that it was time for them to produce something on their own. I wrote 3 short stories of 5 sentences each, 1 of which was true and 2 of which were untrue but believable. I read the stories to them and for the most part, they understood them. Then I had them guess which was true and gave any group that guessed right 1 point. They had no basis on which to guess correctly – I did it that way to get them engaged and because it would help in the second part of the exercise. It was all good up to that point.
The I told them that in their groups of 4 or 5, I wanted them to write 2 short stories of 5 sentences each – 1 true and 1 untrue but believable. Once they were done, they would read their stories to the class and the other groups would guess which was true; right guesses would get a point. This was to motivate them to write a story that was believable; they like to write things like fish running on the moon and houses in the clouds so awarding points was meant to motivate them to make their stories so believable that it would be difficult for opposing teams to guess which story was true. I put them in groups for this exercise because I know that trying to get them to write anything on their own is next to impossible. I refused to even accept that piece of work.
They spent 40 minutes writing nothing. Even my brightest students barely produced an intelligible sentence. I encouraged them to write it in Indonesian and then translate it, if they felt more comfortable doing it that way. Not even that. Two groups even tried to pass off 1 of my stories as their own, only with a change of names.
In both classes, by the time we got to the halfway mark, I felt my confusion and frustration levels rising. They understood what to do, I knew that for sure, because not only had I given them the instructions in English, I had also told them what to do in Indonesian. But here we still were, and most of them hadn’t even produced 1 sentence with 15 minutes left in the class. I tried to think what I was doing wrong. Was there something I should be doing that I wasn’t? Were my expectations too high? Had I not taught them well enough? Where had I failed?
In both classes, I came to the realisation that this wasn’t all on me. So I asked my students why they were at English class, why they were coming twice each week. Everybody fell silent and looked at me with that deer-in-the-headlights look that students everywhere in the world seem to have perfected – they sensed that something was wrong with Miss Kristine. Nobody answered me so I answered for them, “You’re here to learn to speak English, ya?” Everybody silently nodded. So I slowly gave them my little speech, ensuring that I enunciated every word.
“I can’t learn English for you. I only have you for 1 hour 2 times each week and if you don’t study on your own, I cannot help you. Do you know what helps you to speak English well? Reading English. And do you know what helps you improve your reading? Writing English. We have a library full of books here. Come and read and help yourself to speak English well. I’m very disappointed in all of you today.”
At the end of class, I sent them all home with barely a smile and definitely no, “Good job today, guys!” as I would normally have done.
So now I sit here contemplating where I am failing my students. Why are they unable to produce language? What am I not doing or what should I be doing better to help them?
Because if my efforts aren’t helping them then what am I doing here?