Thanks to Kevin for another great installment in our Teacher Ideas series. (Submissions welcome!) Read his account of the expressiveness that results from choice in the classroom.
Reflections on Learning English in New York at LaGuardia, by Kevin Lathrop
It’s a good idea to be specific when assigning students tasks. Clear instructions give confidence, which promotes risk-taking, all-important in learning a language.
However, freedom matters too. Students who make choices learn more, remember more, and their skill increases accordingly. In level 3 last term I gave an assignment that involved two alternatives. Members of the class could prepare either to present an experience that showed the difference between New York and their hometown or between LaGuardia Community College and schools attended in the past. The purpose was to know more about how students see our school, with an eye to improving it. (There was also the option of talking instead about a friend, for those who preferred not to discuss their own lives).
Students responded generously.
Chih-ting saw a mouse. It was in her house at night. She lived on the second floor. The mouse was a small, grey one. The creature was just passing by when she discovered it, in the evening, while she was cooking a dinner of noodle soup. After the sighting, Chih-ting worried that the mouse would come to her floor again, so she used tape to seal the doorway. She decided to clean and move the food out of her room. A problem was that she didn’t know where to put it. In general, Chih-ting explained, she is not afraid of mice but really doesn't want to live with one.
In Taipei, where she resided before coming to New York, it’s rare to find a mouse in a house. Students asked what New York and Chih-ting’s hometown have in common. It turns out that both are a habitat for cockroaches. Those in Taipei are bigger and dark, and sometimes they can fly. Chih-ting’s feeling about the two cities depends on the season. Annoying insects and rodents alike appear less often when it’s cold.
Nut came to New York from Thailand, arriving alone on August 1st, 2012. He needed to transfer in Hong Kong and didn’t know where the gate was. He asked the airport staff and was told, “You need to go over there,” only to discover that “over there” was not his gate. He proceeded to walk around the airport aimlessly. Further inquiries revealed that there was no gate set up for his connecting flight because it departed twelve hours later. Nut’s mother, who had reserved the ticket, was not aware of that circumstance. Nut had no food, and restaurants were closed- he had come to the airport after business hours. There was no place to sleep. The trouble he had understanding people at the Hong Kong airport and making himself understood brought to Nut's attention the weaknesses of the language education he had received at home. He had studied English in Thailand yet couldn’t use the language for communication, as necessary to find his bearings overseas. For the last nine months Nut has been working hard to improve his English and says he feels much more confident.
It was April, 2010 in the Court Square Train Station. Elvire had just started classes at the English Language Center. She was going home after school. When she swiped her Metro card, she discovered there was no “value” on it. She decided to add some with cash she had on hand but didn’t know how to and couldn’t speak English well enough to ask. She spent a lot of time at the machine. She had no idea what to do and felt embarrassed by her ignorance of such a basic operation. Elvire saw many people, but she was unable to request assistance. Her money was in her left hand and her card in her right, she noted, using pantomime. Students laughed and so did Elvire. In retrospect, she finds the incident funny, but at the time it was anything but.
After about forty-five minutes, Elvire saw a young woman who looked nice and approached her. She could not explain that she wanted to put money on her card, and said, simply, “Help me.” The stranger showed kindness and patience (“She was very nice”) and managed to demonstrate the correct procedure for refilling her Metro Card. That encounter gave Elvire the courage to continue learning English. She feels good living in New York, where some people help others in need.
Paola’s story is about the difference between two schools she has attended in New York, the Kaplan School, where she enrolled right after arriving in the city in May 2012 and stayed for six months, and LaGuardia’s English Language Center, where she has been for four months. The first difference Paola observed was the methodology. At Kaplan, just one teacher instructs students every day; there are not separate classes for different skills, as in LaGuardia. Another distinction Paola pointed out is that Kaplan School occupies a smaller, less comfortable space than LaGuardia; the former is located in Manhattan and the latter in Queens. Kaplan is more expensive than LaGuardia. In Kaplan classes, new students arrive constantly and as a result sense of community is less apt to develop. Kaplan is a business with the purpose of making a profit, while LaGuardia puts knowledge first. Paola feels she has learned more English at the English Language Center in four months than she learned in six at Kaplan.
A consensus formed among students that language learning involves aspects of life far from the classroom and that the importance of emotions- whether as obstacle or catalyst for change- can’t be overestimated.