Social Education 57(1) pps. 42-43
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies
The day I began teaching a two-week U.S. history and culture summer course to middle and high school students from Japan, a colleague asked whether I believed professors of education ought to be required to teach in elementary or secondary schools on a regular basis in order to retain their positions. Apparently, this is a requirement in some countries. I mumbled something about this seeming to be a good idea, grabbed my briefcase, and went to my first class with a confidence born of more than two decades of teaching grades 5-12. Several hours later, I decided it would be a good idea indeed to send all professors of education back to the classroom-immediately.
When I returned home that first day, I decided to write a daily reflective journal of my classroom experiences. I had never had to struggle quite so hard to instruct students, and I believed that writing a journal would help me evaluate and refine the course on a continuous basis. Teaching the Japanese students was both humbling and salutary-it reminded me that teaching is an intricate, delicate, and difficult task. As I reviewed the journal a month or so after the course ended, I realized that my two weeks in the classroom reinforced five basic pedagogical principles for this teacher-educator.
1. Assume absolutely nothing
Day 1: They can't speak any English at all! What to do? How difficult it is to look into vacant stares.... My interpreter is a 21-year-old college student and he is having a hard time doing simultaneous translation.... I am exhausted after twenty minutes attempting to communicate. I must change all my plans if they are to learn anything.
When I was approached to teach the course, I was told that the students had studied English in their schools. I made the mistake of assuming that they could, therefore, understand, read, and speak English, albeit at an elementary level. I discovered within the first five minutes of class that my students could not converse at all in English save for "good morning" and "good-bye." They could sound out English words, but had no idea of meaning or context. In addition, I quickly learned that my students had limited experience with either teacher- or student-generated discussions. I made erroneous assumptions that could have seriously hindered my students' learning.
How often do we make assumptions about a class, or a student, that are incorrect and hence detrimental to instructional effectiveness? It is best to assume nothing.
2. Be flexible
Day 2: Today went a little better due to some megamodifications.... I had each group select a state they wanted to learn more about. They immediately chose a group leader by playing "paper/scissors." I asked each group to select a name. One group (7th grade boys) named themselves "Diarrhea" amidst gales of laughter. I guess, to paraphrase Ms. Stein, "a 7th grader is a 7th grader is a 7th grader."
The students' lack of ability to communicate in English, coupled with their extreme discomfort with discussions, necessitated my rethinking and replanning the two-week curriculum. My initial plans included a variety of teaching strategies: cooperative learning, direct teaching, and large-group discussion. I eliminated all direct and large-group instruction and decided to work exclusively with hands-on projects with a bare minimum of writing and reporting. It was hard to let go of my original goals and to discard ten days' worth of plans. The ability to reflect daily upon strengths and weaknesses of a lesson within the context of the classroom and then appropriately adjust instruction is one characteristic of the expert teacher. It is far easier to forge ahead with a unit even if we are aware that what we had planned is not working well. If the students perform poorly on a test, we then blame them for not learning.
3. Learn from your students
Day 4: The groups worked today in the Instructional Media Center and began making large maps of their states. One member was selected to draw the state outline. All the children carry huge erasers with their school supplies. The map outliner worked meticulously, measuring the printed map and then transposing with a ruler onto the large blank paper. They seem to erase their work incessantly. The other group members watched and criticized. This is kibitzing, Japanese-style. My students from the United States usually were not nearly as concerned about precision.
My Japanese students taught me a great deal about tolerance, patience, and doing it over until it is right. They tolerated my mispronouncing their language and helped me attempt to pronounce words correctly. They patiently listened while I slowly explained what I wanted them to do or learn and then patiently listened to the interpreter. They took great pride in doing their assignments correctly. Invariably, they submitted a fine product.
Our students have much to teach us for each is unique and brings to the classroom a unique perspective on life and learning. We need to take the time to listen and learn from them. One of the wonderful aspects of teaching at any level is that our students enrich us as we work with them to advance knowledge.
4. If they do not understand, use an interpreter
Day 5: Where would I be without Jimmy? He is becoming more at ease in his role as translator and interpreter. Today, however, he was not feeling well and I know we all suffered because of it. His lack of enthusiasm directly affected the students. My enthusiasm did not transfer as the students had no idea what I was trying to convey.
I failed to communicate with my Japanese students countless times although I tried a multiplicity of ways to reach them. I wrote on the chalkboard; I used body language; I simplified my spoken English; I talked slowly. Yet, I still was not able to communicate verbally with most of the students the entire time. This failure was obvious because of the problems the learners and I had with each others' languages.
In our classrooms, failure to communicate with students is often far more subtle because we are speaking a common language or think we are speaking a common language. If a student fails to grasp a concept, it is helpful to have another student, or even another teacher, "interpret" the material through reteaching.
5. Proceed slowly and then slow down again
Day 6: Today for the students I had two computers that had a wonderful database of all the states. I demonstrated and the students appeared to understand what a fine way this was to search for the material they needed for their projects. When I had a student access the computer, I quickly learned I had demonstrated the program far too quickly and had forgotten they had no prior knowledge of the English keyboard. I repeated the demonstration three more times and the students then worked well with the database.
By the second week of instruction, I was certain I was speaking so slowly and enunciating so clearly that my students were getting the main idea of what I was saying. When a 7th grader stood up and said firmly, "Dr. Ann-sansei, please go slowly! English very difficult," I knew I had been mistaken.
As we rush to complete the prescribed curriculum, it might make some sense to reflect upon the process/product issue. Are we giving our students sufficient time to gain understanding of the material? Or have we sacrificed true comprehension in our desire to complete the course guide.
Day 10: The students worked on collages. Each group was told to cut out pictures (from magazines) that represented what they liked best about the United States. Most of the pictures were oriented toward food! They then pasted the pictures on a paper and added colored tissue paper strips to the collage. They also presented their reports on the states. I was profoundly moved because each group selected one student to present the material orally, in English. Jimmy told me the presenters had stayed up most of the night practicing.
The last day of class I asked the interpreter to tell me honestly how the students were feeling about my course. He replied, "Well, they don't think of it as a class. They think of it as fun." Although I am not absolutely sure that was intended as a compliment, I choose to believe it was. I am certain of one thing: I learned far more from them than they did from me.