Lessons from the Old School

As I’ve been catching up with blog posts, I realized I haven’t updated you on school lately. Everything’s been going well, although attendance is way down at school due to the cold. This week the temperatures dropped quite a bit (from high twenties to low teens), and they predict next week will be even colder! But for now, we still have school even though only 50% of the kids are coming. It makes for easier lessons, I must admit!

One of my Christmas presents was an Amazon gift card, which I used to order some new teaching books full of fun exercises and games for language learning, and also full of suggestions about how to make lessons from nothing (meaning from no resources). As I’ve mentioned before, the only resource we have is a chalkboard and I get so sick of using it! I’ve added some of these new games and activities to my lessons, and they’ve been a big hit. The standard Ukrainian English lesson involves reading a text from their books (if they’re one of the fortunate grades that actually has books), and then translating it with the teachers’ help. They don’t retain anything from this type of activity, and when I ask them reading comprehension questions, they struggle. The students can often pinpoint the sentence where the answer is, but respond by reading the whole thing instead of just giving the answer. For example, we might read a text about a family doing household chores. I would ask, “Who does the ironing and the hoovering?” (And yes, they use “hoovering” instead of “vacuuming”) and a student would give an answer by reading a sentence like this: “Father takes out the garbage, my brother does the washing up, and Mother does the ironing and hoovering.” And technically, they found the answer, but they can never seem to just give the answer to the question.

So whenever I’m given free rein in lesson planning, I avoid reading and translating altogether. They get enough of that with their Ukrainian teachers, so I stick to planning lessons with speaking, listening, and interactive activities that require them to think. This week my friend and fellow teacher Katya asked me to teach a lesson on International Cuisine to her 10th form class, and she gave me enough notice that I could make a really fun lesson. It started out with a powerpoint presentation on my laptop, where I introduced countries and the main dish they’re known for (like Ukraine and Borsch, Mexico and Tacos, the US and PB & J sandwiches, etc.). But the 10th form is one of my biggest classes, so putting this lesson into practice was a bit of a challenge as twenty students squeezed in tightly around my desk just so they could all see the screen.

Now in an American classroom, technology is so standard in lesons that nobody bats an eye at a powerpoint presentation. But for some of my kids here, this is the first time they’ve seen one, and it still has the power to hold them in thrall for a half hour (and that’s saying something!). They’re also very curious about all things international, especially food, so they had a thousand questions, like “What does chicken curry taste like?” and “Why do the English people call french fries ‘chips’?” (we were talking about fish and chips being a staple in the U.K.).

After introducing these different international cuisines, we did an activity where they learned new vocabulary by reading new words in context in English sentences. I wanted them to write the new words down and learn them at home, but seeing as everyone was standing crowded around my desk, it was impossible for them to all see the screen well enough to copy down the sentences. The next activity was fun, but was also a challenge: the slide had a diagram with each dish listed, and the students’ task was to categorize the dishes by what it contained (meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables, bread/pasta/starch). They did a great job, and I was impressed by how well they answered, but this activity would’ve worked so much better if we could’ve projected it on the board. That way, the whole class could have participated (only those who stood close enough to the screen could see well enough to answer) and after filling in the chart we could have analyzed the results. The lesson still worked, but the way I imagined it was so much better than the way it worked out.

I’m so looking forward to finishing my grant and getting our new resource and technology center established at school. Once its ready, teachers will be able to reserve the room for their lessons, and a computer, projector, white board, and speakers will be at their disposal for making creative lessons. In fact, I want to teach this lesson on International Cuisine again in the fall, but this time it’ll be projected on a white board which all students will be able to see from their desks, so they can copy it down and actually learn something from the lesson instead of just being awed by what cool things a computer can do. I have such high hopes for this Resource and Technology Center; I can’t wait to see how much it improves our lessons! (And if you’re still thinking of donating, now’s the time! Don’t wait another day, go do it now. Either click the “donate” tab at the top of the screen and following the directions, or just follow this link to the Peace Corps website!)

In other teaching news, I’ve increased the number of students I tutor to five a week, and its been keeping me busy. I’m helping two of my students prepare for the Regional Olympiad competition in English, and we’ve been doing lots of speaking and writing. These students are in the 10th and 11th grades, but neither of them have the faintest idea of how to write a basic essay, so I’ve had to start from scratch teaching them what a thesis is, how to structure paragraphs, and how to write a good introduction and conclusion. They’re both very bright students, but its hard to start from the beginning knowing how soon they have to compete in the Olympiad. (They both won at the local Olympiad in the fall, so this is the next level of competition for them.)

I would love to teach my older classes at school how to write essays, but the classes have such huge learning gaps that its impossible. Some of my tenth form students can’t answer questions in full sentences, or even translate the question I asked them in the first place. Its so hard to create lessons that are appropriate for the whole class when the smart students are so far ahead of the lazy students. It makes for interesting lessons, to say the least. But the best part about tutoring is I can teach at the pace of the pupil—if its my best student, Nastia, I don’t speak any Ukrainian for the whole lesson and I assign her gobs of homework for each time we meet. And the best part is that she rises to it and excels at it, and I’ve seen her English grow by leaps and bounds. I have really high hopes for her at the Regional Olympiad. Another student, Leana, is incredibly shy but also very smart. We’ve been focusing on essay writing, and some of the things she’s written have been really incredible. She’s not challenged at all at school, but she has huge potential. Lately I find myself more inspired by the students I tutor outside of school than the classes I teach at school!

So my evenings lately have been full of my students, and I honestly find it enjoyable. Sometimes the evenings are long if I have no lessons to plan or no Skype dates to occupy me, so spending a few hours tutoring makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something here. I’ve had tons of students ask me about tutoring, but I think 5 is enough. I tutor 3 nights a week, and the other nights I reserve for hanging out with my Ukrainian friends, meeting my Ukrainian tutor, or to just doing whatever I want (which has lately been doing hours of Internet research looking into grad school and potential jobs, haha!).

My services as a tutor have been sought out even more since word got around that my lessons are free. Peace Corps has a rule about volunteers not taking any money from our communities, so all my tutoring sessions are free, whereas any lessons outside of school with the other English teachers cost money. At first I was worried about cutting into my fellow teachers’ business, but they’ve been very gracious about it. My counterpart, Natalia, even sent one of her best students my way to practice speaking with me once a week to help her student improve her accent. So thankfully I tutor for free outside of school with the teachers’ blessing, although the kids (and their parents) still have a hard time with the concept of free English lessons with a native speaker. So instead of money, they bring me things every week, which is sweet and hilarious. I have the oddest assortment of gifts and food items (even though I tell them every time not to bring me stuff), such as a fairy statue, tea, candles, boxes of chocolate assortments (I currently have three in the kitchen), and even Italian coffee (which I gladly accepted). I’ve been tutoring one student almost 10 months now, and she’s finally got to the point where she can come to tutoring without feeling the impulse to bring me something. Oh the little successes 🙂

That’s all for now, consider yourself up to date on my life as a teacher here. Next weekend I’ll be serving as a judge in the Regional Olympiad (and trying to avoid being placed in an awkward position where I’d have to judge my own students), but for now I’m just trying to raise money for my grant! Hopefully this blog post (or the ones before it) have inspired you to donate…. : )

Hope all is well where you are : )  

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Old School

  1. Tammela says:

    Will you send me your international cuisine powerpoint? It looks awesome!

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