Wednesday, 16 February 2011

If You Decorate It, They Will Come...

Meet Almiro.

Almiro, one of my first year Basic students, has just made a captivating discovery: Disney princesses.

And Almiro isn’t the only one discovering new friends, oh no. There’s also these guys…

…who’ve just become acquainted with the likes of Charlie Brown, Garfield and Hagar the Horrible. And I have made an equally astounding discovery in the process.

Many moons and two volunteers ago, PCV Aarron (whom I’ve never met) created Project Speak Up. I knew nothing about the project, except that there were a bunch of random English books, flash cards and wall décor cluttering up the back closet in my house, and that apparently the project used to have its very own room at the school. I wasn't really sure what it was all about, but I started badgering the director to get a similar space ever since.

This semester, my begging paid off.

I really had no idea what to expect the first day I announced that The English Lab would be open. Would anyone come? Would they use the materials? Would they appreciate all the work I put into decorating the walls? In short, would this project work?

At 17 o'clock sharp I had my answer, as a mass of 20 students walked in. Happily surprised, I dived into the first activity - Simon Says.

That was quickly followed by a body parts game, complete with several rounds of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and a couple of board races with brief explanation in Portuguese intermingled.

And the students kept coming.

Around an hour later, I sheepishly had to admit to the students that I had exhausted my planned activities for the evening (not to mention myself) - but, if they were so interested, I did have a few cheesy children's books, some flashcards and other individual activities they could do silently, and I'd help them as needed. Oh, and I had brought along some comic strips from an old newspaper my parents sent in a care package last year, if you want to take a look.

And to my shock and awe, they stayed. They sat quietly, staring at note cards, quizzing their friends, sounding out words, tearing through the dictionary, and I frantically ran from person to person trying to clear up grammatical doubts or clarify word usage. The comic were the biggest hit - even with two people reading a section, I ran out almost immediately.

Are these my students?!, I pondered. They’re quietly studying English on their own, asking questions, helping their colleagues. I teach a class of around 40 eighth grade students - where are the sleeping kids? The ones texting on their phones? The ones who write the first random words to pop into their heads when called to the chalkboard? What’s going on?! Why are they so interested?!

The second night, the same thing happened again. Just after 17 o'clock, I ran out of desk space, even though they were sitting three and four to a bench, and some students simply stood.

The third night was no different. When the dinner bell failed to sound at the customary 19 o'clock, I had to kick everyone out so I could go home to eat. I was confounded.

As much as I would like to credit it to my exemplary teaching skills and winning personality, I know neither of those actually exist, so I was forced to search elsewhere for my answer.

I didn't have to search very hard.

Comics? Books? Flashcards? Games? They don't have overhead projectors or even white board. They don't have any sort of visual aids. They don't have textbooks, for goodness sake, and they certainly don't have books for leisure. They have the notebooks and pens they bring with them to class, and whatever they write down and happen to remember. And from grade one, they are taught that school equate to lecture. Pictures with words? Colored pictures? Entertaining educational material? Princesses and mermaids and foreign lands?! WHOA!

Even more exciting, with the materials Professor Aarron left I was able to do something I’d previously only dreamed of – decorate. Since teachers move from class to class instead of the students, the classrooms all remain, sadly, unadorned – gray, lifeless, depressing boxes with desks and chalkboard and, if you’re lucky, windows.

But not the English Lab.

Calendars, color charts, maps, word reminders, noun labels, an alphabet banner – everything was there, just waiting for the perfect classroom to adorn.

After a week, I'm now forced to conclude that, just maybe, despite everything that suggests the contrary since I've arrived, many of these kids actually want to learn. And in this room, where they can work on their own, have a teacher right there to help them individually and so many resources at their disposal that they can actually figure things out on their own and colleagues just as interested as they are, they work at it. The problem isn't the kids - it's, among other things, the rather backward educational system, with the drastic disparity between showing up to class to make a decent grade and actually learning the material.

And the ones who don't care - coincidentally, the same ones who disrupt class for the others - don't come. And I'm perfectly okay with that.

I still have plenty of ideas to improve learning and keep the students engaged – many involving individual listening practices with tape recorders and books – but for now, the students seem content to stick with what they have.

Just remember, you're never too cool, or too old, to learn from Disney princesses.


  1. This is a fantastic story! Great job, congratulations and have fun, Val!

  2. This is awesome, way to go Val!

  3. Thanks guys! Really, I'm having just as much fun as the kids. Just don't tell them. :)

  4. Good job Val! I bet you are an amazing teacher!

  5. You're never too cool for Disney Princesses! lols!

    I watched the Prince and the Frog last week, for the first time. Guilty as charged.

  6. Val - I'm completely inspired by your most recent story. Are there other printed materials that might be of interest to send to you? If so, drop me an email with specifics. I bet FNI folks would gladly donate some easy reading materials!

  7. Amen to Kristen. What about adult reading. Still got all those New Yorkers . . .