Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mid-Year Evaluation

Disclaimer: my blog is not representative of the US Department of State, Fulbright, or anybody else but me.

February already, more than halfway through the nine months. Time to take stock. Some clips from my project proposal:

"My goal is to encourage conversational English not only by memorizing phrases, but by understanding culture."

"...to get students to perpetuate their own learning through a genuine interest."

"...make idiomatic English phrases a presence in my classroom."

"...bring music into the classroom."

"Outside the classroom, my main focus will be absorbing Indonesian language and culture."

My progress, as could be expected, has been mixed. My primary goal, the motivating idea behind my project proposal, has proven elusive. Other smaller, easier goals are definitely being met.
That primary goal - teaching English through understanding culture, and getting students to motivate their own learning through a genuine interest - is difficult. Among the many surprises here is the feast-or-famine quality of the classrooms and the students themselves. Students and entire classrooms are wholly engaged or disengaged. My English class is not exactly the centerpoint of these students' lives. I'm only seeing the classes once per week, and they only meet for English twice a week. Systemic limitations - schedules overloaded with too many subjects, language classes not meeting often enough, students staying in the same classroom all day while teachers move from room to room, etc. - frustrate serious learning, especially language study.
Initiating student motivation and self-interest in the subject is not a simple matter, either. I have tried some of what I thought might work in my proposal - "bring[ing] American culture into the classroom in such variety that every student will find something interesting or funny to connect with" - but there are only so many things you can bring into the classroom when you're bound by time and the misguided national curriculum. I'm well-liked by students, but it's hard to translate that into an interest in English.
Even though English is clearly a way to get ahead here, high school almost feels too late. The students that are already good at English get it and have long since motivated their own learning; nearly everyone polished that I talk to cites music or movies for their language success. The students that are mediocre or bad at English, it seems, have long since decided that it will not play an important role in their life path. That sentiment is extremely difficult to overcome, or, in the case of those whose English is woefully bad, to even argue with.
I have made idiomatic phrases a real presence in my classroom. I've probably presented too many; I'm not sure if they even stick. Rarely students show a special interest in these - generally only one student, and with only one idiom. I have one student, for example, who fell in love with "monday morning quarterback" because of his fascination with American football. But "don't look the gift horse in the mouth" and "the barking dog never bites" haven't exactly entered his working English vocabulary.
I've found that bringing music into the English classroom proper needs to be carefully done to have any usefulness. At best it seems such an exercise might inspire a student to start paying more attention to words and meanings in the ubiquitous English songs. Songs often have too much nuance, too much figurative writing, to be in reach of students for in-class study.
The a cappella group I started is getting a serious education in the Western vocal music tradition. These ten or so students, at least, are learning through experience what goes into group singing. But it's unclear how linked these skills are to English learning. It's certainly a link to American culture, but I'm not sure it has any direct impact on their language ability whatsoever.
As for my outside-the-classroom goal, it's hard not to succeed. The culture of course is everywhere, as long as you don't bottle yourself up in your room. I learn so much about culture when I travel - language, too. I haven't book-studied the language like I thought I might, but it is coming nonetheless and I use it every day.

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