Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, March 28

Teaching English

Second grade is the time when one learns the concept of short and long vowels. I never learned this. I don’t remember circumstances- if I wasn’t there or if I never understood the lesson- but I do remember the embarrassment of not knowing this simple concept. Honestly, I still don’t quite get it. The point is that for the rest of my public school education I told myself I wanted to be a teacher. I wasn’t going to let another kid feel left out like I had.

Then one day I realized I didn’t like kids, and threw the whole teaching idea out the window.

And I later moved to Senegal. Here, my predecessor introduced me to one of his work partners, the headmaster at the local Catholic school. Pierre is a very motivated guy. He believes in shaking up the system, doing everything for the kids, and making the important things happen no matter the cost. He’s not only the headmaster but also a full time teacher.

So, when he asked if I could spend an hour a week with his class giving them an intro to English class, I accepted. He explained that the kids wouldn’t start learning English for another few years when they got to high school, but that he thinks it’s an important language and that the kids would be more excited to learn it from an “expert.”

I was scared. I’m no expert. And having given up the teaching idea long ago, my head is filled with business concepts and models- not grammar and vocabulary. The first day, I drew from my recent Peace Corps experience of learning new languages and started to nervously rattle out greetings and responses. Pierre stayed in the class with me that day helping to keep the kids under control and reminding me to help them with pronunciation.

After the first day I had a migraine. I tried to get a beer with Devin, my predecessor, but threw it up. I went to bed at 6p. The second time, I had a simple headache but it didn’t derange my night. The third time I started to worry more about the content of my lessons.

The thing is, the kids were really starting to show an interest. One week I showed up to school to find every class room completely empty except the one with my kids. The kids were sitting quietly at their desks, notebooks and pens out, and patiently waiting for me. When I asked what was going on I was told that they’d spent the whole week studying for a national exam equivalent to the stress level of the MEAP in Michigan or perhaps like the SATs for grade school kids. But when Pierre asked them if they wanted their usual Friday afternoon English class at the end of their long week, they insisted, even though every other kid in the country got the rest of the day off. I was blown away.

It was officially time for me to take an active role in teaching these kids. So I went to the Peace Corps resource library in Dakar and found some books on teaching English. I checked one out related to teaching with on a zero budget. I started a notebook with activities and lesson topics tailored to my beginner’s level class. I’m trying to organize a pen pal program with a school back in the states, which the kids are really excited about.

Not wanting, or having the authority, to give an exam I recently organized our first review session into a game of Pictionary. The winning team walked away with brand new pens (thanks to a care package from home). The kids loved it!

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to accomplish in the rest of this school year, or even next year, but I’m excited. I’m excited to find new and interesting ways to present my language (and yes, some culture too). I’m excited to motivate people in my town. I’m excited to have a side project to all my business plans. And I’m even a little excited that I don’t totally hate the kids. Ok, maybe just thankful, but still… it’s cool, right?

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