Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments

Favorite Teaching Moments: The Culmination of Teaching

 I often tell people that my job as an ESL teacher is to help students find their voices. February 6 was one of those moments that I truly felt like I had succeeded in this mission.

I started writing poetry in middle school, and I started performing in high school. It was something that has been a major part of my life for years, and I was lucky because there were adults in my life that encouraged me to do this and tried to cultivate my passion for writing. So when I moved to Arkansas and made friends with another poet who started hosting a local open mic, of course I attended. Several years later, I am now in the position of the adults who were around me when I was in high school. I have a student who loves to sing, and has a beautiful voice (even the choir teacher says so). He often sings in my class. And if we have five spare moments, he’ll pull out his guitar. It’s kind of soothing, actually, to be in the classroom with him playing and singing, and one day I thought, wait a minute, I know where this student can sing!

So I invited him to open mic. I told him he would have to drive himself, but he could follow me there, and he was welcome to invite anyone else to come. It’s a free event, two towns over, which is not a lot when you live in a rural area. The students were talking about it all week leading up to the event–he was going to sing, his friends were going to come watch. He even convinced another student to do a duet with him. We made an arrangement to meet at the school 30 minutes before the open mic. I pulled up about 15 minutes early and they were already there–four students, excited faces waving to me through the window. And I got out and did the adult thing. I checked that they had a licensed driver and gave them my phone number, so if anything happened on the way over, they could reach me. And I warned them that it might be tricky to find parking. It didn’t even feel like the responsible thing. It just felt like the normal everyday, looking after your friends sorta thing. Basically, I was pretty much treating them the same way I would treat adults. And, when you think about it, that’s what high school students want, more than anything.

We arrived at the venue. I introduced them to my friend who was hosting. Open mic was small because it had been raining, and like the Assimov short story “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” folks around here disappear when it rains. I read some fiction. My friend read a poem. Another guy read several short humorous poems, which my students seem to enjoy quite a bit. Another man read from his blog. And then my students sang. The two of them together. And the small crowd liked them enough that they asked for an encore. And my student sang another song, even though he was worried he didn’t know it very well. Then we ate pretzels and chatted, and went home. But watching my kids up there on stage, I thought, I am watching them use their voices. And I guess they enjoyed it because they told me I should have them sing at my wedding. And honestly? I would enjoy that.

It was nice to spend time with my students outside of school–for us to see each other as more than just teacher and students. I hope we get to do this again. And I hope that they continue to see that their voices are worth sharing with the world.

Posted in Favorite Teaching Moments

Favorite Moments in Teaching: I’m Bilingual Too

Apologies for the misleading title, I am not exactly bilingual. But throughout my life I’ve had a decent amount of exposure to other languages. I grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, where I was exposed to Spanish and Navajo (among other Native American languages), and I took 5 semesters of Spanish in high school and college. In college, I had multiple friends who spoke different languages, from Portuguese to Hindi to Yiddish. Perhaps my favorite language exposure to talk about is Lithuanian. My family hails (three generations back) from the small Baltic nation, and in 2009, I decided to go visit. I found a school to do a study abroad program, and spent the weeks leading up to the trip trying to learn Lithuanian. I tried a couple of different programs, but by far the most successful was a podcast called Lithuanian Out Loud. Unfortunately, I didn’t maintain my practice on a regular basis, and I’ve forgotten much of what I learned. My running joke to people is that I know enough Lithuanian to say “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu lietuviškai,” or “I’m sorry, but I only understand a little bit of Lithuanian.”

I love Lithuania. And my deep connection to my cultural heritage is one way I bond with my students. I find that our immigrant and migrant students are often more interested in the world around them than their American peers. When I tell them I have relatives in Australia or a friend studying in China, they get excited and want to know more about it. So when I tell them about Lithuania, they ask questions. Where is it? What does it look like? How many people live there? For most of my students, this has definitely colored my personality.

But back to the fact that this title is misleading. I am not bilingual. I have limited conversational Spanish–about as good as my students’ English. And though I took Spanish in high school and college, most of my Spanish has developed out of a necessity to communicate with Spanish-speaking students who are new to the country and had little exposure to English at home. I recently joked to one of my students that I am good at talking about math in Spanish, but not much else. Except I was speaking in Spanish, so it probably sounded more like, “In Spanish… I know all the math words… but no others.” This is another part of my personality that my students have become familiar with. They know that I know some Spanish–enough that I can usually explain math–but for the most part, I will struggle to understand what they say. They sometimes try to use this to their advantage.

This is why, last year, when two of my students were having a conversation in Spanish at the beginning of class, one of them looked up at me and asked me a question in Spanish. He knew that I wouldn’t understand him, and he thought it would be funny to ask me a question that I couldn’t understand. So, without missing a beat, I smoothly responded, “Atsiprašau, bet aš labai mažai suprantu ispaniškai.” I am pretty sure my student gave me the face he was expecting to see from me.

“Miss Molly… what… what did you say? I don’t understand…”

This was, of course, met with raucous laughter from the other student in the conversation, who said, “that’s what you sound like to her!” And that was the end of the purposeful miscommunication.