“Mr. Andrew, I put my investigation on my Technology wiki” – this was an email from a girl who is a member of a cohort I began with 15 months ago. This class of adolescents had been imported from the local school system. A few of them had some rudimentary English, but most spoke none. I was, ostensibly, their English teacher, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
I speak enough of their mother tongue to have established that they had spent 6 years learning to be “invisible” – if they were not noticed by anyone, they would not be challenged. So, answering questions, let alone asking them was “out of the question”. Also, the boys, in particular, had been conditioned into making fun of anyone who stood out, and, actually thinking about anything seemed completely alien.
So, we began with some essential agreements about participation and conduct. The problems here were that few actually understood, conceptually, the implications of their agreements, and they were not used to anyone following up. Boundaries were set and agreements adhered to.
The main task was to be able to challenge them to think, but in an environment in which they could risk an answer without a classmate calling them the equivalent of “stupid”. In line with local practices, it was generally known that one girl had achieved the lowest mark in the Grade 6 exam in her feeder primary school. (The fact that she had passed didn’t seem to be an issue.)
Group work, with plenty of re-grouping allowed me to get around to each student and form a relationship with them. Classes became enjoyable, and we realised that we might actually be learning something. We got out of the classroom a bit, into the local area. We learned the difference between opinions and fact. We learned that providing information from the internet is not the same as answers to questions in our own words. We learned to work with each other.
The English is slowly improving, but the real improvement is in the ability of my students to communicate their understanding, respect each other and enjoy learning.