Silver Lining

Every cloud has a silver lining.

In light of yesterday’s events, I decided to use the bombing as a teaching point for today’s lesson plan about writing.

What happened yesterday?” I asked the students. I wrote on the board the 5 W’s (and 1 H): Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? The students seemed hesitant to answer at first, but once they grasped what I was asking, the answers started coming.

  • Who: President Paul Kagame. 25 wounded. 7 critically injured (2 children). 1 confirmed death.
  • What: a bombing
  • When: 7:00 PM last night. August 11, 2010.
  • Where: Rubangura’s House. Kigali, Rwanda
  • Why: (don’t know)
  • How: someone threw a grenade

We discussed the difference between FACT and OPINION. I was surprised by how difficult this concept was to teach. I repeatedly emphasized that FACT is something known to be true that is not debatable. OPINION, on the other hand, is a belief or personal view that is not certain and may not be shared by everybody. (Does that sound clear to you? Maybe there is a better way to explain it…)

The Carrot, the Egg, and the Coffee bean - "Adversity Creates Opportunity"

Eric is right-handed,” I said, “Eric writes with his right hand. Fact or opinion?”

What I thought was a simple concept turned out to be much more difficult to grasp than I had anticipated. I spent a lot longer on this than I had planned, but I decided to save compound sentences for tomorrow because I really wanted to emphasize the importance of distinguishing between fact and opinion. The class got into a good discussion of writing and language. We covered such terms as “exaggeration,” “to manipulate,” “bias,” “corrupt.” I had the opportunity to bring in my most beloved Orwell quote, “If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” We talked about the power of language and the importance of not only being able to identify biases in writing, but also to examine our own writing for biases. We specifically discussed journalism and the Rwandan newspaper New Times which is blatantly and unashamedly biased.

In related news, I’ve completely revamped my curriculum once again. After the incident last week when my student shared with me his struggles and “problem” of not being able to pay for a college education*, I reexamined the lesson plans I had prepared – lesson plans on grammar, vocabulary, writing, listening, speaking, and reading – I went over them proudly, looked at them wistfully, and then tossed them.

If my goal for the next month is to do as much as I can to improve my students’ futures, I need to be focusing on the grammar, vocabulary, etc. that will get them jobs. That means that I need to teach them the vocabulary that will allow them to master interviews and read newspapers. It means that I need to teach them how to sculpt a business letter and a job application. It means that I need to teach them what questions to anticipate and how to respond in situations that require them to present themselves in the best light. I need to use my students’ needs and desires to sculpt my curriculum, not what I personally believe to be necessary to a comprehensive knowledge of the English language.

The Farmer and the Mule

To start off this new chapter of learning, I began by giving the students a fable to read. Initially, I thought I’d use an inspiring rags-to-riches story (like Orprah’s, for instance), but after sifting through the stories of various celebrities, I thought it might be more tangible and universal to use a fable. I chose two: “The Farmer and the Mule,” and “The Carrot, the Egg, and the Coffee Bean” by Mary Sullivan (you can google both). Both stories have the same three morals:


  1. There is a solution to every problem.
  2. Never give up.
  3. Adversity creates opportunity.

The readings were not easy, by any means, but once the students grasped the vocabulary and the morals, we were able to have a very good discussion. I wanted to use these fables to first inspire and encourage my students to aim high, to not be discouraged, and to always look for the silver lining. They face hardships that I cannot ever possibly comprehend, but I hope to do as much as I can in the next month to help them use their “adversity to create opportunity.”

For next Monday, I’ve asked my students to bring in job applications from the newspapers, from the radio, and wherever else they can find them. Hopefully, this will be a good starting point to framing the curriculum for the next four weeks.

* Tangent: on the test that I administered last Friday, I had my students form conditional statements. This student wrote the following statements:

  • If I find a job, I will resolve my problem.
  • If I had money, I would build a big house.
  • If I had worked hard, I would have received a lot of money.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would start a business.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would help my family.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would continue my studies.

The statements were clearly reminiscent of the discussion that I had with him last week, but it also struck me how different they were from conditional statements that an American student might have written…

And, regarding yesterday’s incident, it almost seems as if nothing has happened. When I first asked my students “What happened yesterday?” they all gave me blank looks. At first, I wondered whether they had not yet heard about the bombing, but it turns out they all had and just didn’t think it was a big deal.

It’s happened before,” said one student, shrugging his shoulders.

I’ve been here for four weeks now and, for the most part, I feel as if I’ve acclimated. But it’s events like these that make me realize how much this world differs from the world from which I came.