When I volunteered with Makkala Jagriti, I thought the assignment I had been given would be safely within my comfort zone. After all I had to just teach communication skills to young children and I had had 6 years of experience teaching English in various settings. So for the first day I went in prepared in my usual way expecting it to be a breeze.
Well as you might imagine it was not. The children were all of different skill levels and ages. And although the first half hour went really well, with introductions and lots of jokes and smiles, a chill drifted in as soon as I got a board into the room and started writing on it. Or was it just my imagination? I got increasingly nervous and started imagining that I was surely boring my poor students completely. At the end of the next half an hour, I was at sea and hard pressed to retain my smile. I took my leave wondering if any of them would actually turn up for the next class.
Feeling totally panicky, I called up my mentor at Makkala Jagriti and she was so encouraging!! She told me that I’d done quite well and that the first time is usually quite an eye opener and that the important thing was to just stay there, just to be. She also told me that it was very natural in the first class to just understand the context and that all I had to do for the next class was to go well prepared and focus more on activities. After the talk, I suddenly saw my experience in a new light. What had gone wrong was just about me. After years of training in a more corporate style environment or teaching students aged 20 – 40 teaching had become a more ego-laden exercise for me. It was more of a performance and it mattered to me that my audience had to love the performance. I suddenly found the sense to have a good hearty laugh at myself for making this an ego issue. I do not know what the children learned in the first lesson, but I learnt the very important lesson of humility.
For the next lesson, I did my research. I searched online for activities and games that would interest the children and also help them learn. I made a rather long list of such activities so that I would not fall short.
Let me describe the class. There were 12 students in the class, the youngest child was an eight year old boy, and the oldest was 18. All of the children were from the community near the NGO and spoke fluent Kannada, although about half of them were Tamilians. Their proficiency with English varied, with some who could not read and write English at all, and others who could read comfortably. Two of the children were comfortable with expressing themselves in and understanding English. Five could do so with a bit of difficulty, and five could hardly use the language or at least seemed very shy or hesitant to use it.
The children were quite enthusiastic when given games or activities and responded negatively if they had moments when nothing was happening, for example, when I asked them to write something.
When I used activities and games in which the children could lose themselves and scaffold each other’s learning, a different picture emerged. I realized that simpler games were more effective in retaining the interest of the children.
I took the class for 2 hours during which we played 3 games.
We were seated in a circle. The first game was that one child had to say a four letter word, and the child next to him had to say another four letter word beginning with the last letter of the earlier word. So I began the word with the word, ‘KING’, the child next to me used the word ‘GIVE’ and so on.
I have used this game before and usually the students soon realize that the most difficult letter to make a four letter word out of is E. It is also the easiest to end a four letter word in. I wanted to see whether without any scaffolding the children here could latch on to the idea. Initially, the children were finding it difficult to think up words, perhaps also because of the added pressure of everyone looking at them.
Then I said plurals are also allowed and that if one child cannot think of a word the others can act the word out and help the child; this got all the children animated and involved in the game and I was happy because for every word we then got the Kannada and Tamil translations and then used the word in English sentences.
Soon, the children discovered that the letter E was the key to the game and they were taking time choosing words which ended in E although they could think of other easier words which did not, just to put the next child in a bother. We played the game till we had exhausted most common four letter words with E.
The second game was 20 questions. Initially, the children would ask questions with just one or two words with a little raised intonation at the end, the way Kannada speakers generally signify a question. My objective was to make them ask the questions in complete sentences. Initially, this was difficult because the children would usually guess actors’ or sportspersons’ names which would get the others animated and they would forget about asking questions in sentences. In fact they would rattle off a list of names without asking whether the person was dead or alive, which could have saved them 5 or 6 guesses.
Soon, I got them speaking in sentences by disrupting the game if they didn’t and then my task was to get their questions right. They would ask ‘It is Rajnikaaaant?’ with the last part drawn out in a sing song manner the way Kannada speakers do to signify a question. I told them they have to invert the verb and the subject to make it a question and ask ‘Is it Rajnikant?’
Now this was easier said than done, as soon as the game heated up they would forget to use sentences and drop back to single word questions, forget about using the right form of the sentence.
But then, I enlisted the two good English speakers to help me and soon, we were getting the correct form of the sentences. I was pleasantly surprised when this subject-verb inversion was correctly done even on questions we had not practiced, like ‘what work does he do?’ or ‘Is he dead or alive’ instead of ‘He is dead or alive?”
I was happy to see that not only were all the children speaking in English and using the correct forms often, but they were also developing the ‘good’ problem-solving skills one would need in a game like 20 questions and were needing fewer guesses to get to the right answer.
The third game we played involved understanding the roots and prefixes of words. I gave the children a list of 100 roots and prefixes and explained how roots and prefixes contribute to the meaning of the word.
We started with easy words such as re- tract. The children looked up re (back) and Tract (pull) in the list and tried to guess the word’s meaning.
Soon I was using more difficult words like insomnia, and the surprising thing was the children performed irrespective of their age and language levels. The first step was to identify the root and the prefix, the second was to locate them in the list and see their individual meanings, and the third was to connect them to guess a probable meaning of the word. The children seemed to perform equally well at all 3 levels although I only expected them to be equal at the second level, not at the first, and definitely not at the third.
When I tried using more difficult words like bibliophile and philanthropist, the performance still remained the same, with nothing much to differentiate the proficient users from the unskilled ones. Most students managed to break the word into its roots and prefixes find the meanings in the chart and combine the meanings to guess the meaning of the whole word.
What was the difference then, in this class when there was no board, and they were all actively involved, when I was no longer a teacher and was also one among them just playing an engrossing game with them.
Even in the four-letter game, the children’s acquisition of vocabulary was more successful I felt than my earlier approaches because the interaction was seen as meaningful by them, and they were being helped by not just me but also by their more proficient friends.
This brought to my mind the central role of meaningful social interaction and appropriate scaffolding in language acquisition. What I mean by appropriate scaffolding is not just me alone, because despite my own experience in English teaching, I was not able to help as well as when helped by the 2 proficient speakers among the students, because they knew Kannada too, which I discovered was quite important in connecting meanings. And the fact that they knew the right Kannada, and could use the correct examples, for example talking of a Marijuana-induced state to explain the alternate meaning of ‘high’!
In the next classes, our interaction got more meaningful. Some of the children even shared some of their personal issues with me which made me feel as if I were one of them. At the same time, attendance was not consistent, with new students and some of the old ones missing, which is a challenge.
I realized that although activity based learning is helpful in keeping the children interested, especially the younger ones, the learning outcome is lower because the children focus more on the fun aspects of the game and forget the learning exercise, and after all you have only two hours. Whereas more direct teaching was appreciated by the older students, some of whom had genuine problems. One had left her education because she could not cope with the English and wanted me to help her complete her BA. Another got great marks in every subject except English, in which she failed miserably. She told me how she had developed a phobia for the language and how it was a social handicap for her because it made her feel inferior in social settings and that the feeling could often be excruciating.
Once, I realized how much difference it does make, I slowly started losing myself in the equation. I was not so disheartened when some students didn’t turn up; after all they may have other pressing engagements and how did it matter. I realized that every little moment was important if I could just help them believe that it was just another language and they could acquire it with a bit of practice. As I take my break before my next stint with the children, all I can think of is ways in which I can use my 2 hours more effectively.
I wonder who learnt more actually in our classes so far, but I’m pretty sure it was me. I learnt that every interaction is an opportunity for learning. I realized the importance of staying there as you slowly understand the situation and realize that first impressions can be so misleading. Most importantly, I realized that these are very tough and smart children, not any different from me, and in many ways stronger and more resilient than me. I slowly dropped the ideas that I was ‘teaching’ them anything. We were learning from each other in our interactions. At the same time, I had something I could help them learn and that was like any other task, I have to prepare well and learn from practice and experience.
But above all this, I gained some dear friends, got a deeper insight into myself and the experience has enriched other aspects in my life, especially the ability to appreciate the things in life I had taken for granted and to regain a sense of wonder about ‘ordinary’ things. Thank you Makkala Jagriti for this beautiful experience, can’t wait to get back with the kids.