Learning From Teaching

I taught my first full class today. EVER. I’ve TA-ed, I’ve subbed, I’ve taught for part of a class period – but TODAY was the first day I’ve ever walked into a classroom with a prepared lesson plan in hand and heard students greet me as “Ms. Teacher.” 🙂

My room - bed, mosquito net, closet, Gelato 🙂

The following 3.5 hours were terrifying, exhausting, nerve-wracking, panic-attack-inducing, etcetc. but oh-SO-amazing and gratifying. I LOVE TEACHING.

The night before, I stayed up late not knowing for certain whether I was actually supposed to teach class on Monday. The information I have been given about my job and responsibilities as a teacher at the Learning Centre has been sparse and vague. I have only observed one class and, while I did learn a lot from that experience, I still know so little about my students – their levels in English writing, reading, listening speaking; their learning styles, etc. Because of that, designing a lesson plan was difficult, to put it mildly.

During my observation last Friday, I looked on as the students read an article about hypothetical hanging gardens in ancient Babylonia.

Yeah, my thoughts, exactly. Even I – someone who understood the article – got bored reading it. I can’t imagine how the students felt about a subject that was completely foreign and irrelevant to them. So for my lesson plan, I selected an article from cnn.com entitled, “Why Women are the Economic Backbone of Rwanda.” You can access it here:http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/07/22/rwanda.women.business/index.html#fbid=FgXJ2StDf3B

Essentially, I’m thinking that I’ll structure my class like the French language

On the walk to the Learning Centre

classes I took in high school (shout out to Madame Bowman!) but teach with the educational philosophy I developed at Northwestern. There are a couple difficulties though – the two biggest:

1) I have never learned English. I am teaching concepts and vocabulary (grammar, tenses, etc) that I have never learned. Hence, “Learning from Teaching.”

2) I have no reference language with which to teach. When I learned French, I had comparable structures and grammar in English with which to compare the French language. Here, the students are fluent in speaking Kinyarwanda, and some in speaking French, but they have little education in reading and writing in either language. More on this later.

Every class at the Learning Centre begins with a student-led prayer. Most Rwandans are Christian, and since the Learning Centre uses the facilities provided by Solace Ministries, prayer is central to the educational community here.

Entrance to the Learning Centre at Solace Ministries

After the prayer, I had the students pair up, discuss their weekends and then introduce their partners and tell me about their partner’s weekend. Most of my students talked about going to FESTPAD (the Pan-African music festival that Rwanda is hosting for 2010), eating, and going to church and praying to God (which I often heard as “playing to God” because l’s are often pronounced as r’shere).

Then, the notecards. I had all 19 of my students fill out notecards with the following information (I’ve included some of the sample responses):

Name: [Many of my students have standard English names – for instance, I have 3 “Patrick”s – but there are some names that I have yet to learn how to pronounce, such as Umunyurwa Estha or Ruziandamo Saratole]

Age: [Most of my students are 20-25. My oldest student is 30, and the youngest is 14]

Favorite song/artist: [Responses ranged from “Jesus Loves Me,” to Akon, Beyonce, Shakira, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Usher, Enrique Iglesias, and artists I didn’t know, such as Gitoko and R. Dube]

Two of my students! 🙂

Favorite movie/actor: [Jackie Chan, Mission Impossible, Prison Break, Behind Enemy Lines, Lion Heart, and ones I haven’t heard of – Gakuba, Marina, Kanyabya]

Strengths (reading/writing/speaking/listening): [answers varied but most put “reading” and “listening”]

Weaknesses (same as above): [again, a variety of answers, but most put “writing” and “speaking”]

Time you are willing to spend on homework: [varied from 1-3 hours]

What you hope to learn: [answers ranged from “business,” to

Do you have notebooks and pens?: [most students do not have notebooks … I’m not sure how I will be able to teach writing unless I obtain these for them]

After the note cards, we went over the reading – I divided the reading into segments to read aloud first, and then student volunteers re-read paragraphs to strengthen pronunciation. Then, I had the students go over the reading in pairs to find unfamiliar words and terms to go over. Returning to my earlier note on not having a reference language, this came to present quite a challenge when trying to explain vocab. One particularly illuminating instance was trying to explain the word “decent” (used in the context of the reading as “to earn a decent living”). I first attempted to use and explain synonyms such as ‘suitable,’ ‘acceptable,’ ‘sufficient’ – to no avail. Then I tried to approach ‘decent’ from something more tangible, if also tangential.

Me: If I am ‘decent,’ I wear a suit. Nice clothes. If I am ‘indecent,’ I wear a short skirt [gesture mini-skirt line] and a low neck [gesture plunging neck-line].

Students: [blank looks]

Me: [looks at school director, Moses, for help]

Moses: Indecent is like prostitutes. Prostitutes are indecent. They are not decent.

Students: [sudden lightbulb] Ahhhh…

…Good thing Moses was there because I would never have thought of using “prostitutes” to explain “decent”…

After going over the vocab, I wrote a couple questions about the reading on the board and divided the class in groups of threes to answer the questions. The class really excelled at this exercise and demonstrated their ability to extract information from the reading, especially given that they did not know many of the key words in the reading.

I concluded the class with a game of Hangman, in which I wrote the following letter to them:

Dear Students,

You are all wonderful. I look forward to teaching and learning from you.

Sincerely, Lydia

Concluding thoughts:

I know that there are many challenges ahead, but I am so excited to have this opportunity to teach! My students not only vary in age and fluency in English, but also in socioeconomic status – some have jobs and are very well-dressed, but most are orphans, unemployed, and walk over 2 hours to get to class. My challenge will be to design a curriculum suited to the learning styles and capacities of individual students, that also accommodates for those who do not have the time or the resources to do work outside of class. Although it will certainly not be easy, I am ready to teach and to learn – I know that just by giving a little, I will receive so much more from my students and from the experience as a whole. I CAN’T WAIT 🙂