Sunday, October 25, 2015

More Teaching.. this time in 'Little India!'

It’s been three weeks since I last wrote, and in that time a lot has been unfolding in terms of my service sites here in Chicago.

After the first week or so, I found that I really enjoyed working with the English Language Learning students at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center and wanted to learn more about teaching ELL. So, I found another place only a few blocks away called the Indo-American Center, which also offers ELL classes. The IAC is located on Devon Avenue, right in the heart of Chicago’s biggest Indian/Pakistani/Arab neighborhood. The interesting thing about the Devon area is that it was formerly very Jewish, so there are dozens of synagogues nearby. On any given day, you might see an Arab woman dressed in a full burka passing a Hasidic Jew wearing a fringed shirt and earlocks. The diversity is one of the things I find most interesting and exciting about the place I am now living.

The Indo-American Center has a much different atmosphere than the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center. The classrooms are small but always cramped full of people, sometimes spilling out into the hall. On only my second visit to the IAC, the beginning level classroom was so full there weren’t enough chairs for everyone who wanted to learn. Renuka, one of the administrators, asked if I could take a small group of four or five and teach them the alphabet to make more room in the classroom.
Of course I said yes, but I was so nervous. I had no lesson planned at all and felt that I would be wasting the students’ time fumbling through a lesson with my measly teaching experience. As it turned out, my students were just as terrified to work with me as I was to work with them. Renuka practically had to drag them into the classroom where I would be teaching.

There were five students—all Pakistani women between the ages of 50 and 60 I would guess. I went through every alphabet letter one by one, writing it on the blackboard. The ladies took turns shouting out works they knew that started with each letter—Apple! And! Arm!—followed by Banana! Box! Boat! Because of my training in the Bengali language, I was able to translate one or two of the words into their language, Urdu, which is similar to Bengali. They thought this was a hoot and tried to help me learn new Urdu words.

My greatest failure came at the end of the lesson. Renuka had given me a few children’s alphabet books which she suggested I try with the students. So I let one of the ladies pick out her favorite letter, P, and the corresponding book, which was called Patsy Pig Goes to the Park or something like that. I started by asking them to describe the front cover of the book, which was illustrated with a picture of a pink pig standing next to a scarecrow in front of a red barn. The first student studied the picture and pointed to the barn. “Here is red house.” She pointed to the scarecrow. “This is man.” She pointed to the pig. “This is.. dog?”

That was my first clue that this wasn’t going to work out as well as I thought. “No that’s not a dog,” I explained. “That’s a pig. You know what a pig is?” They stared at me, nonplussed. All of them shook their heads. That’s when I remembered that Muslims don’t eat pigs, which means they don’t raise pigs, which means my students would have little to no experience with pigs, particularly the pink American kind.

I struggled for about five minutes to adequately explain what a pig is, until one of the ladies patted my arm very sweetly and said, “Don’t worry teacher. For us, it can be dog.”

Everything is always a work in progress.

More next week on my work with kids and some of the fun things I’ve been up to in Chicago!

Outside the Indo-American Center (note: I did not take this picture myself, I obtained it on google images)

Students at the IAC (note; I did not take this picture myself, I obtained it on google images)

A mannequin in the window of a sari shop, sporting both a salwaar and a witch's hat for Halloween

A mannequin dressed in a panjabi and vest with a Halloween mask. A fascinating blend of cultures

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Teaching and Being Taught

I can hardly believe it, but it’s already been a month since I moved to Chicago. So far I am settling in nicely. In my last entry I talked mostly about my new home at the monastery and in the city, but now that my service sites are falling into place, this week I am able to speak more about my service work.

My primary service site is the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center located about seven blocks away from St. Scholastica where I live. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I go to the Center with Sister Mary, the subprioress, to help out with her ELL class. (Note: ELL stands for English Language Learners, formerly called English as a Second Language or ESL. It’s essentially the same thing but ESL is a less accurate term because for some people, English is their third or fourth language.)

I really love the ELL class. We have five ladies that come in the morning, all from Michoacán, Mexico. The class dynamic is really great. Usually with adult ELL classes, it’s difficult to maintain attendance because people have other commitments at home—their kid gets sick and needs extra care,  a relative needs a ride to the airport, someone cancels at work at they have to pull an extra shift. But in our class, attendance is almost perfect every single day. I really admire the commitment these women have made to their education. It’s a testament to the importance of mastering the English language in their daily lives.

On our first day in class, one of the questions Sister Mary posed was “Why do you need to learn English?” The ladies’ answers were all the same: because of their kids. They want to be able to attend a parent teacher conference and know what the teacher is saying. They want to understand their children when they talk amongst themselves. A few of the ladies even explained that their children don’t really speak Spanish anymore because they use English so much in school and with their friends. For them, English is important to having a relationship with their kids at all.

These women amaze me every single day with their humor and bravery. When we have group discussions in class, everyone participates. When Sister Mary asks for a volunteer to write a difficult spelling word on the whiteboard, someone always volunteers. Not only that, but they also voluntarily talk without being asked a specific question. Sister Mary might be telling the class about a movie she saw that weekend, and one of the ladies will jump in, saying, “Oh I saw that movie too! It was really great, we took my son there for his birthday party and all his friends loved it.”  They make a lot of mistakes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. And that takes a lot of courage.

It occurs to me every day that the students in my ELL class are much better language learners than I am. Just this past summer I had the opportunity to spend two months in Bangladesh taking intensive Bengali languages classes. On a regular basis, I found myself paralyzed by fear and embarrassment, of saying something wrong and looking stupid. I know I could have increased my fluency faster if I had made an effort to speak up as boldly as the ladies in my ELL class.

Most of the time, my role in the ELL class is to ask follow-up questions to keep the discussion moving and occasionally explain things on the board if I feel like people aren’t understanding something. Also, as the resident “young person” I have become the technology guru of the ELL morning class. Every Monday I show a clip from a TV show that I find on Youtube and create a worksheet to go along with it. This helps the ladies with their English comprehension, which is one skill they really want to focus on. For the past few weeks I’ve been using five or ten minute clips from the classic TV show “I Love Lucy.” Lucille Ball’s style of physical comedy helps the ladies follow the storyline, and they usually find it pretty funny as well.

Of course, the class is a learning process for me as much as it is for the students. I make mistakes and try to learn from them in time for next week’s class. For example, last Monday I chose the episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy goes to school to become a flight attendant. Because the show is from the 1960’s, however, Lucy uses the word “airline hostess” instead of “flight attendant.” I, as a native speaker, treated the two terms interchangeably without noticing, while the use of two different terms for the same thing caused the ladies a lot of confusion.

As you can see, I am learning lots and enjoying lots. More to come next week.