Today I feel like I had a bit of a breakthrough with my students. After months of searching for that sweet spot between useless entertainment and stupefying boredom, I found the atmosphere I wanted in the classroom. And what was the topic you might ask? “Why does English suck?”
Although I know that may seem completely counterintuitive, I’ve realized recently that that is precisely why so many kids try NOT to pay attention in my class. Even when I’m talking to them about Soccer or American Club Dances or Fashion there are still some who stay frozen the entire class, with icicles of boredom hanging from the tips of their nose. So this week I decided, let me talk about what they least expect me to; hence the title.
So I started the lesson with a funny video from The Pink Panther with Steve Martin where he is trying to pronounce the sentence, “I would like to buy a hamburger.” With his fake French accent, he absolutely butchers the sentence countless times and the students all laugh in unison. Then I go on to explain that their mouths are not used to making the sounds that English words require. In addition, their grammar is completely the opposite of ours. When we say, “Did you eat your meal?” they say, “Meal eat did?” They don’t even use words like “your,” “my,” and “our” most of the time. This means that every time they speak they have to unwind what they are trying to say and string a new sentence together. Then I tell them that I have the very same troubles when I am trying to speak Korean. I have to unwind my sentences, my mouth does not cooperate with my brain, and I’m often too shy to say anything. And as my CoTeacher No Ra translates what I’m saying, I begin to see something completely new to me. I see heads nodding.
Now these aren’t the usual heads that nod. They are not the ones who sit in the front, blurt out whatever English they know and volunteer for every game. No. These are the heads with permanently combed hair and reek of cigarettes. These are the heads of young men who were forced to learn English their entire lives without ever once wanting to. And as they nod, I feel as if this is the first time they are realizing why.
We begin a game I call Pronunciation Game in which teams send up one student at a time to compete to say the word I put on the board most correctly. After about ten seconds of instruction, I tell them each to go one by one, and the winner scores a point for their team. As I am explaining one of the words I notice that the boys in the back of the room are leaning forward and blurting out the words over and over and laughing. I cannot help but laugh with them. At the end of class I walk up to one of those students, we look each other in the eyes, smile, and nod together. In that moment we understood each other perfectly.
THE TAKEAWAY: These students have been forced to learn this language since they were 12 years old. At my school in particular, some of the worst students in the city (as my fellow teachers tell me), maybe 15% of them actually try to learn English. But, they are still lower than most average elementary school students. All it took for me to get through to them was to show them that they were not alone in their struggle, and that there was a reason why it was so difficult. I asked them to be my teachers, and told them that I would be theirs. I guess, sometimes, all we need is someone to relate to.