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.   

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