Sunday, 21 June 2009

Not one of my Success Stories

Imagine that you have been required by those above you in your job to go abroad for six months intensive training in a subject of absolutely no interest to you. Think horrors like writing an appreciation of every Mills and Boon novel or half a year's Bible study with Pastor Steven L Anderson - anything miles away from your natural leanings and talents. The financial inducements are considerable, but so is the effort required of you to do something you would never have chosen for yourself. What would you do?

I have four students in this position. The Algerian navy requires them to learn English to a prescribed level within a given period of time, and that’s that. My first group of six pilots on this scheme last year were some of the most dedicated students I have ever taught. They arrived with a lower intermediate level of English, worked their balls off and made the grade. Crucially, all six had been through higher education and knew how to study. My present group all left school, probably with great relief, at fifteen, and have not set foot in a classroom for eighteen years. They are divers; they enjoy risk and physical activity. The printed word is uncongenial to them. They read little in Arabic and write even less. Yet they have to pass an exam in English that has papers in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and get a good upper intermediate grade, noch. In the university they must feel pretty much as I would if I were required to train for their job – out of my element and completely incompetent.

I walk into the classroom on Wednesday mornings, say ‘good morning’ and smile. I roll up my sleeves, set out my books, board markers, CD player and board rubber, stretching out these minor preparations until five past ten if I can. There is no sense of anticipation today, not like with other groups where you can think, boy, have I got something really useful for you lot to get stuck into today! Nah. The blokes break off their conversation in Arabic, look at me resignedly and take their places.

OK, one hundred minutes to lunch time, let’s rock!

In language classes you can, indeed must, get the students talking to each other in pairs or small groups to maximise everybody’s talking time. Obviously if the language level of the students is very low, such activities will not last long because they haven’t got enough language to expand on the topic in question. In my other lessons, the main concern is to get everyone to conclude their conversations so that the next activity won’t fall off the end of the lesson. No danger of that here. After setting up, monitoring and feeding back on a task, I think, Christ, it must be lunchtime by now. I look at my mobile and see that it’s only ten forty five. These blokes are fairly hard working and good humoured but however hard I resist this impression, I feel effete and patronising and somehow, despite the importance to them of this bloody exam, irrelevant. It’s a strange and disconcerting feeling, one that blokes, especially straights, often arouse in me when they incline more to the physical than the verbal.

We cannot dumb any of this down. The level they must reach is pre-determined and the exam is external, so no compromise with the content or tinkering with the results is possible. We have negotiated extra hours and an extension to the course, but still their feet are just supposed to expand to fill the big boots we have to shove them into. We had five months, of which three are already gone, in which to provide language input, study skills and exam technique for four blokes who came to us knowing diddley-squat about any of these, and for whom they are as alien as diving is to me. I do not say the goal is completely unattainable, only that it probably is, and that we’d need another academic year to see some possibility of its realisation.

Luke Prodromou wrote a book in the nineties entitled ‘The Mixed Ability Class and the Myth of the Bad Language Learner’. It’s a very useful book for any teacher who has a class where students of differing levels of attainment and ability are chucked together. I can’t agree that poor language learners are simply mythical, though. Surely no experienced teacher really buys this? Doesn't the very title contradict itself, or is 'mixed ability' supposed to mean something like 'differently abled'? In maths as a kid I was not 'differently abled' from the others - I was complete crap. Why then should there not be poor language learners? Any idealist is welcome to do a swap with me every Wednesday for the next two months. Phil Beadle (look at his website, vomit-worthy main page, good articles) could do a Channel 4 documentary, turning the classroom into a multi-gym or teaching listening skills underwater. Then we will see what the IELTS scores are in August. It’s only a month away.


Mambam said...

I went to a crap school and i admit that i made things worse by showing little interest myself in most subjects. So as you can imagine most of the subjects you write about in this blog go way over my head, but this post seemed to ring some bells with me. It's good to know that even well educated people have shitty days at school.

vilges suola said...

Wednesday is the day I feel like ringing in sick - but I am paid by the hour, so I can't. If only this lot did not have to do this sodding exam way before they are ready - the pressure would be off and they could enjoy learning English a lot more.

Fionnchú said...

I agree, as a crap math non-learner who never "got" it. And, I admit that two years ago (after 23 years teaching) I forced myself into an Irish-language immersion fortnight wherein I found most of the instruction done the auditory way. Me defining "visual learner," I was as at sea as your Algerian sailors. I could not understand what was being spoken, and being a book learner now plunged into a class where students native to the island actually had exposure to it to draw back on from dim decades ago that I lacked, I ran out of parrot squawks and recovered memory steam. Irish diverging like English from the orthographical norm, this tempted me into shyness, mumbles, and panic. So, as a teacher and a student, I sympathize with all involved. Hang in there, my fellow lecturer and clock-timed indentured servant!

vilges suola said...

Thanks, I will. Got themm again today. Just to add a bit of spice, two new ones have joined the group. They are complete beginners,whereas the others have now been here for three months and have learner something,and have at least some passive understanding. I suspect today will be like pushing a heavy truck up hill.


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