If I were a boy…

AN UPDATE: I now have FORTY students.

Can you imagine?

The first day, there were 19. The second day, there were 30. And now … there are FORTY.

I thought just having nineteen students would be challenging since they are all at different levels in their English, but forty??? Definitely not what I expected – but that’s getting to be the norm and I am excited and ready for the challenge.

I just got out of teaching and I am sitting at Novotel, feet propped up on the table, eating a scone and trying to process the events of today’s lesson. After administering the first grammar test last Friday and collecting the first writing assignment, I now have a better idea of where my students stand and the areas in their English comprehension that need the most improvement. I am still trying to figure out a general curricular framework for the following month and identify the goals that I hope for my students to achieve. However, for now, I’m just taking baby steps and addressing the biggest problem areas first. Grammar is definitely a huge priority, but as a native English speaker, I know that I can provide the most significant support in terms of listening and speaking.

Grading papers at Gisenyi Beach

So far, we’ve covered regular verbs and most of my students are comfortable with filling out verb charts for past, present, future simple, progressive, simple perfect, and perfect progressive. Could YOU do that? 🙂 But when it comes to constructing sentences with these tenses, that’s where they run into a bit of difficulty. It’s one thing to memorize a chart; it’s another to understand and be able to use it. In addition, I’ve found that one of the greatest challenges isn’t teaching new concepts as much as correcting old ones.

Many of my students would frequently say “After to finish my studies” or “After to get a job.” When writing letters, most of the students began their letters with some variation of “How are you? Me I am fine” or “For me I am okay.” I didn’t understand for the longest time why they all consistently used the same incorrect grammar until I started to talk to the teachers and more Rwandans, and realized that these phrases were widely used by the population as a whole.

So, my question then is this: Is a phrase grammatically incorrect if it is an accepted part of the Rwandan English vernacular, even if it defies the rules of standard English?

In other words, if this is how the population communicates and, within this vernacular or dialect, it is accepted as correct … should I label it as “wrong” and correct it?

I’m not sure if I have an answer to that question yet (please feel free to give your input by posting a comment!) but I’ve found that I have started adopting some of the ungrammatical structures of Rwandese English in my own language. More frequently now than before, I catch myself dropping articles or inconsistently conjugating verbs in order to be understood.

Is my goal to teach them Standard English, or is it to teach them to master the form of English that will best qualify them to get a job?

This is a question I need to answer soon as I begin to decide what to prioritize in the curriculum.


Back to today’s lesson. I am still basking in the warm fuzzy glow of knowing that my class learned and ENJOYED learning today. Two days ago, I attempted to teach them how to form conditional statements and completely failed. Well … maybe not completely failed, but it was an exceedingly humbling experience to realize that I could not explain WHY “If + PAST PERFECT → WOULD HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE” or the difference between “If I was” versus “If I were.” I knew what sounded right, but I was not familiar enough with the rules to teach my students. So, on Monday, I apologized to them and told them that I would have to prepare a better lesson for Wednesday. After literally hours of studying the grammatical rules and writing and re-writing lesson plans that would make the most sense, I was finally ready. I came into class today prepared and ready to tackle all their questions. It is so gratifying when you present a difficult concept and students rise to the challenge!

If I Were a Boy by Beyonce

The best part was that I had the PERFECT song to go with the lesson: Beyonce’s “If I were a boy.” For the opening discussion question, my students had to answer: “If you were a boy/girl, how would your life be different?” Most of the responses adhered to the attributes of Rwandan culture that I’ve observed. For instance, a typical male response:“If I were a girl, I would wait for a husband and I would not think about how I would have to build a house” versus one of the female responses: “If I were a boy, I would eat more food because boys play sports more than girls.”

However, I got a particularly interesting response from Paul, who said, “If I were a girl, I would be rich because people would pay me money.”


Umm… I don’t think I understand, Paul,” I said, “Ah … er … are you a prostitute?”

Yes, we went back to the “indecent” prostitutes. It took about five minutes before I finally figured out what he was trying to say.

The correct sentence: “If I were a girl, I would be rich because I would be pretty and a rich man would marry me and give me money.”


Anyway, the students have really enjoyed the incorporation of music into the curriculum – they LOVE Beyonce! – and as a music aficionado myself, it makes me so happy when I watch them eagerly following the lyrics and singing the tunes outside of class. It is hilarious when they try to mimic Beyonce’s high octave in “If I were a boy.” What better way to learn English than to listen to the songs you love and finally understand what the songs are saying! I am so grateful for all the support from my friends back home (shout out to Eric H. for “Young Forever” and Philbert L for “If I were a boy”!) in terms of finding clean, coherent musical selections that also have well-developed plots. If you think of any other songs I could use, I would greatly appreciate any suggestions!

That’s all I have for you now. IJORO RWIZA.