Tuesday, June 1, 2010

post-weekend teacher thoughts

I was pretty cranky on Sunday evening, resenting school for making me take Anna-visiting time to get lessons ready for Monday. I was also cranky on Monday, getting up early to waste valuable Anna-time teaching lessons I didn't want to teach.

And I didn't have to! Every class gets a test this week. We split up the classes anyway, I assume to make it a bit less likely that they'll cheat off each other, both with seat spacing and with a smaller group that one person can actually watch. Cheating isn't a big deal in Chile generally, with nothing like the vicious opprobrium we give it here. My school, INSUCO, is a highly academic school and treats it more seriously than most, but that means doing anything about it at all. My co-teacher Marcela told me that if she sees a student copying (judged by their looking at another student's paper) once during the test, she takes some points off, and the second time the student gets a zero for the test.

By comparison, at my high school and college, cheating usually involves failing the class, and a second offense probably gets you kicked out.

So I spent four classes yesterday, and one today, watching my kids take this test. And it's too hard for them! They're supposed to conjugate present-tense verbs they don't know the meanings of, use possessive adjectives they can't remember, answer questions about a passage they didn't understand. (They did practice that, seeking out keywords like "they live" and seeing "Barcelona" close enough in the sentence to figure out that the characters live near Barcelona. Is it useful? You decide.)

They didn't understand the instructions, either, which I find sort of puzzling since Marcela explained it to them in native Chilean Spanish. It may be that she doesn't check for understanding, so they're not being constantly assessed, and they're in the habit of just not listening to her, because it's not necessary. (They also don't have to talk in her class, another reason they can get by without being involved.) I took a few minutes with a whiteboard marker, and after a couple of classes, I found a way to get the instructions across, including re-activating some of what was on the test. It felt weird to be going over the test material right before the test, but as I ended up telling one class in response to their barrage of questions, "I know it's really hard, but we can't learn everything on the test in five minutes." If I gave it to them right then and they understood it well enough to retain it for the 45 minutes of the test, then...honestly? That'd be awesome.

It's a strange sense of helplessness. The kids and I get along well, and I care about them and their learning, but I'm not in charge of it. It wasn't my test, and it wasn't a test I would have given them, on material I wouldn't have taught them quite the way it's been taught. My teachers always used to say that if most of the class fails the test, clearly it's the teacher's fault, not the students'. Now I know what they mean.

I was trying to think of ways I could help them with the stuff they're learning outside my class, or reinforce it. How can I do present-tense conjugation in a communicative way, so they actually learn it? I'm not sure what I can do in an hour a week, at least right now. Maybe in a couple of weeks? But what's really possible, with their level of English and their level of focus?

I wonder how much what I'm teaching them actually contributes to their academic success, but here we're back to moderating my expectations of what I can actually accomplish here. It probably doesn't help me (or them) to think in terms of their success in a radically different foreign educational system: I'm here to teach basic communication in English.

I certainly have enough work to do already, but I wish I could wave my magic wand and help them learn more.

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