Tuesday, October 24, 2006

We are clever

Last week, in my very low-level class at a very low-level women's university (which is not a bad class, just a discouraged and not-very-motivated one), the students were trying to do a little grammar exercise in the textbook. I noticed in my perambulations around the room that they were all having trouble with the same questions, and decided this was a whole-class teaching thing, not an individual thing, and tried to come up with something helpful.

My students could not figure out the correct answer when they were asked to choose between there and they in sentences like these:

How many beds are there in the hotel room?
They/There are two beds.

Where are the pictures?
They/There are on the wall.

It probably didn't help that the sentences were boring.

When I tried to explain that they is a pronoun referring to the pictures, in the same way that the picture would be it, they didn't understand that, either. It turned out that they were fuzzy on pronouns altogether. At first they didn't want to admit this. But eventually Kumiko, a student who has openly declared war on English, told me defiantly (in Japanese) that it was impossible. She didn't understand it, she declared, and her attitude said that she didn't expect to so I may as well give up now. After announcing this she put her head down on her textbook and promptly fell asleep.

This broke the ice, and several other students mumbled that they didn't get it either, and looked embarrassed.

"I know we studied this in junior high," one said to another. "But I don't remember. Hazukashii, ne. Maybe the teacher is angry, but I really don't understand."

I told them I was not angry.

If they studied this in junior high and didn't get it, then why didn't their high school English teachers notice that they had not understood even the rudiments of the English language? What were they taught at high school? How could they have understood anything in English classes if they didn't know pronouns?

But it's worse than not knowing. They have moved into negative knowledge, if that's possible. I am using the same (very low level) textbook for this class that I'm using for my big class of mostly Chinese students, who have had far less English education than these students have. The Chinese students are getting it, but the Japanese students aren't. It appears that their previous education in English has made English harder for them rather than easier. How is that possible?

It's not fair. I think they should ask for their money back.

I decided it was time for them to get at least an idea of how pronouns work. I drew two stick figures on the board.

There are two pictures, I wrote underneath. The two pictures are very bad pictures. They are very bad pictures. Badaunt draws bad pictures. She draws bad pictures.

The students stared. Everything I'd written was true, and that made it easier to understand.

This picture is Kumiko, I wrote on the board, with an arrow pointing to one of the pictures. Kumiko is sleeping. She is sleeping.

The board ended up covered in badly drawn stick figures and example sentences showing pronoun substitutions with little arrows joining the nouns and pronouns. I was eventually rewarded with glimmers of comprehension from all over the classroom as students started telling me which pronouns to use.

I congratulated myself. I had kept their attention during a grammar explanation! They HATE grammar. My success had nothing to do with the fact that I used the students (and myself) as subjects for my drawings. Of course not. Don't be silly. Kumiko often sleeps on her textbook. She sometimes dribbles. Her textbook is wet. It is wet, is a fabulously effective pronoun explanation. It caused Kumiko to suddenly wake up (and dive for her friend's dictionary). See? It worked. You can't understand grammar explanations when you're asleep. Also, mockery and insults are far more interesting than The pictures are on the wall.

I mocked everybody, including myself. Especially myself, actually. By the time I finished I was feeling well and truly mocked. I had been mocked by an expert. Me.

But in the end it was worth it. I was able to write on the board:

You understand pronouns. You are clever.

I got the students to substitute the pronouns so it would be true for them, and after a false start ("THEY - "), they yelled:


Then I wrote,

Am I a good teacher?

I told them to answer, changing the pronoun.

"YES, YOU ARE!" shouted half the class. (The other half shouted "YES, SHE IS! and I pretended not to notice.)

I set them back to work on the textbook, but after that little burst of pronoun concentration they were tired. They'd had enough of this learning business for one day, and reverted to type. Several fell asleep (and probably dribbled) and the rest spent the remainder of the class time chatting amongst themselves (in Japanese, of course).

But they like me, so they pretended to do the work if I happened to look at them or wander past. They don't like to hurt my feelings by ignoring me when I'm standing right next to them. About two metres seems to be the critical distance, so that an English bubble follows me around the classroom. Outside that it's Japanese only.

The bubble phenomenon is not limited to this class, either. I have often noticed it, and in fact last week I pointed it out to a class at a different university. I was feeling too tired to care, but knew I should do something.

"Hey!" I shouted suddenly, startling them into silence. "Has anybody else noticed the English bubble in this room today? It's really strange." I peered around as if I could see it. "It goes from about here to ... here," I said, gesturing. "And it follows me, like magic! Outside the bubble is all Japanese, and inside is all English!"

There was a long pause as they performed their mental translations, then they started giggling. I asked them if it would help if I gained weight. "Would the English bubble get fatter too?" I asked, curiously, and they thought that was hilarious. They also looked a bit embarrassed, and after that were MUCH better about staying in English when they were supposed to. But they are a generally better class anyway. They were just having an off day.

For this week I have prepared another pronoun worksheet, to reinforce what my problem class did last week, but I am not expecting too much. I have never known that particular class to revise or study outside class time. When I assign homework there are only two students I can rely on to do it properly. The others do it before class starts, if at all (I see them doing it when I come in) while chatting to their friends in Japanese. 'Studying' one language while speaking another doesn't seem very effective, judging by the results of this multitasking.

These students are non-English majors. Most of them will never take an English class after this year - they don't have to - and they can't see any reason to learn it anyway. I may win one or two battles with this lot, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that I'm losing the war.

It's just as well I get long vacations.


Mic said...

You're good teacher with sense of duty in your mind.

English is very commonly used. It is useful. Now in China every people knows the importance to learn this language.

If the student has no interesting on what he's learning, whatever the teacher do, he's just not listening!~

Anonymous said...

Well the grammar + tranlation they've done doesn't work, especially if there's no translation for a vocab item or grammatical class.

Personal pronouns in Japanese: You (pl) = everyone, not a personal pronoun. I (sing m.) = servent! You (sing) = junior inferior usually female; or the person I'm sleeping with. Etc.

Wouldn't teach pers. pronouns in a Japanese context myself - they can acquire them via use, much more effective really...

Wiccachicky said...

Fantastic post. Don't feel too down about "losing the war" - I think that's a subject all teachers must deal with. You're always going to have a handful that really like your class and want to learn, but most are just biding their time through required credits to graduate.

kenju said...

I really admire your willingness to find a way to make them understand it all. You are worth a million to them, even if they don't know it!

BobCiz said...

You have such a wonderfully creative way of reaching your students. How can they not learn?