Monday, March 28, 2011

How I taught my students to write, and learned from them much more

Calling it a day: With my students and the school banner, wrapping up the community service weekend in Guimaras Island.

I had always considered writing a natural gift. That it is actually transmitted by genes, or perhaps, it comes with the early awakening of one’s love for the written words. I am speaking of my experience. I was three years old when I first had my English spelling test. I think that it is such a great personal history to treasure, so I am keeping in custody my sister’s book where I had one of my tests scribbled. Oh, well, that’s enough about me and my writing already.

I had spent five years teaching different areas of English to foreign students. That also meant different personalities, abilities, and even language limitations. School paper editor, writing department leader, composition contest judge were just some of the things I did back then. Then I got bored doing the same things.

My greatest challenge in teaching English came quite unexpectedly. I even considered the situation ironic. Wondering why? With the country being dubbed as the world’s call center capital, and with the Filipinos considered the best English speakers after the natives, I have finally found my shocking moment: the college classroom. With an average of 20 students a class, I found myself out of my league when I started talking in the accent I had been confident with. They started to whisper that I sometimes got confused whether or not I am inside the cave or some place else. I have heard never-ending echoes, which, trying to be optimistic, I considered a sign of yearning to learn more. I just felt awkward being parroted by college kids. The age gap is not that big in the first place.

The first thing I have planned to talk about was the kinds of sentences in English. I often did that as a starter back in the language school. I couldn’t get as much answers as I expected. What on earth is happening? At least I had asked myself that moment. So many things followed that the first three days were like hell! I can feel my wrinkles forming. I got into conclusion that Filipinos learn the other way. That they got motivated with different praises. I grabbed that chance to make a difference.

Teaching the kinds of sentences feels like going back to grade school but it worked! After countless drills, I felt rewarded with the flow of correct answers during class discussions. The best way to teach this is to inject humor! For myself, I think that the more you use factual examples, the more they get energized to participate. I used students as the subjects of the sentences, and class members came to life!

Then came the much neglected paragraph writing. When I tasked my students to write a self introduction, I was even more surprised when they submitted a bunch of undeniably choppy thoughts. How can they even write correctly without the knowledge of what a topic sentence is? I had them select the most meaningful sentence in the self introduction, and after which, develop the chosen line by giving supporting details. With the rule in mind, I was able to drive into writing more on different styles; descriptions, cause and effect, similarities and differences, and a lot more. That’s another achievement for a shocked English teacher.

The essay’s turn has finally arrived. The word itself is scary to my students. I have to will them to take the subject with fun. I started explaining the parts like telling a kid what different bones we can find in a fish. After which, I have them list down thoughts in an outline, including the vocabulary related to the topic. Of course, I integrated important rules of giving and supporting or defending one’s opinion. My students were relieved to know that a thesis statement is just a scary term for the topic sentence in their paragraphs, though it is more general then the latter. All throughout the term, I can hear them discuss things like relevance of one’s thesis or its connection to the conclusion. Sounds rewarding, right? Of course, I don’t want to set aside the fact that four members of the class committed plagiarism to get merits. They failed on the prefinals.

Summing up with the term in Writing in the Discipline, I had them experienced the library research paper writing. For expansion of knowledge in getting sources, I encouraged them to do research about current events, and browsing through newspaper files at the city library. I was delighted, and somehow smiled hearing them utter to each other the consequences of what they called, “my favorite crime to punish: plagiarism.” To avoid cheating, I had them submit the research by parts; from outline to bibliography. 

I am not an advocate of learning purely by theory. I may say, I prefer the good combination of intuitive-sensing styles. That answers the question of why I refuse to have my students buy a textbook full self-explanatory or memorization-focused craps. We teachers need a bit of self sacrifices, one is to research for effective techniques. Instead of carrying books to school, I am notorious for demanding pens and paper at all times. I think writing classes are never meant to be spent for reading and retaining rules for the exam. Instead, it should be the opportunity to develop and explore one’s ability and overcoming limitations in composing thoughts in a language. How I love the modular type of giving lessons! I consider myself young, and I think that gave more room to be emphatic to my students.

Perhaps, my first term as a college English instructor has been tough, but I am on it and I want to continuously take the challenge of straightening the crooked language teaching in this part of the world. Language ability is what makes the Filipinos superb communicators and world class workers. With much examples of having great teachers in my English and TESOL classes, I believe that an English teacher should speak the language better than her students! Leadership by examples? Not really. I call it making one’s self an object of inspiration. Isn’t it ecstatic to hear students say they want to be fluent in the language the way you are? For me, it’s a driving force to perform better. Perhaps, it is also true that teachers can also learn from their students, only if they give their job their hearts. The young learns much faster when a teacher smiles, and offers a helping hand.

I wasn’t exactly a teacher by interest back then. It took years of language teaching for a communications graduate like me to embrace the beauty of seeing people learn. Thanks to my education and TESOL mentors and professors at West Visayas State University for making me realize that it is more satisfying to make my fellow young Filipinos learn the language that gives this country its place in the world. I have never regretted leaving the high-paying job at an international language school. At least, I have followed my social conscience to be a part of the molding system for the future of the nation.