Jan 10, 2012

Behind bars - English for inmates part 2

Lesson 2
Things went very well today - more ice must have got broken than I thought on the first day. The wariness seems to have evaporated and everyone seemed more at ease about being (at least partly) themselves. A huge help came from the improved physical teaching environment. Of course, ‘comfortable’ is a relative concept, but this time I was able to get the best room available. It's an oblong room, which means I can have the whole class sitting in a kind of shallow horseshoe, rather than sit in rows behind each other - they can all see and hear each other too, so it’s pretty open and even. The room has solid walls, so there’s not much noise disturbance and it’s fairly bright – it’s on an outside corner so there are windows on two walls – admittedly about 12 ft above floor level and only about 18 inches high with bars, but it’s enough to make a difference. We also have three maps on the walls, which add a bit of colour and variety, and there’s a black-board too - and it’s warm.
And there’s us – no aids or equipment to get in the way and not even any books (official application for the use and distribution of student books has been made but not yet authorised). Never mind – we’re going to get things off to a pretty practical and direct start and I don’t rely on books anyway for the first couple of lessons; but with just one lesson a week and a break for Christmas holidays (for me, not for them) it would certainly be good for the students to have something to read through (in last year’s course I was pleased to see most books tatty and dog-eared after a month or so).
We all know that this can’t possibly be the ‘ideal’ English course, but if we all take it seriously enough and everyone is patient enough when their own needs are not at the centre of that minute’s attention, we can all come out of this with real benefits. In the meantime – it’s down to business! SpeakYourMind is designed to be able to work in 'worst-case scenarios', including these very ‘essential’ circumstances: it’s speaking-based, structured (so the students get a clear sense of moving forward, which in turn can maintain motivation) and active – there needs to be focus and vibrancy in the classroom, especially at this level. There’s going to be plenty of revision and recycling in class – these students will have no access to any English between lessons, unless those who share a cell feel like revising together, but at near beginner level that does not offer up a wide scope of intriguing prospects.
Consensus and trust lies at the base of any kind of shared project if things are to last the distance: students need to trust a teacher’s intentions and ability and understand and approve of how the course will work for them. Students come into the classroom with all sorts of ideas and experiences and it’s important to hear these – the things they think are most important, the things they found difficult and the things they liked and didn’t like about previous language courses. This is not in-depth discussion or analysis, it’s a way of establishing the ‘centre’ of things – learning English which is a single ‘neutral’ centre, rather than multiple ‘personal’ centres, which would be hardly appropriate in a situation such as this where learners are naturally reluctant to reveal too much of their histories and selves. The lesson can become a safe space for equals – everyone can participate fully without any pressure to enter into private worlds.

We have to start off from the beginning – those who already know a bit claim to be happy to go back and revise through – but keeping the right pace will be key to holding an acceptable balance, within each lesson and over the duration of the course. Starting off with words for the things we see around us (not that many in this classroom) gets vocab-learning under way: of course, it’s important to explain what you’re aiming at, and that you aren’t starting with ‘wall’, ‘door’, ‘light’ and so on because they are supposed to be the most interesting possible things to learn – they are just handy because they are there (I have pictures of some things that aren’t) – you can see them and touch them, or point to them you know what colour they are, where they are, if they’re big or small, open or closed; and this will be the basis of basic sentences. We can work on sounds – we encounter virtually all phonemes very soon – and stress (one-syllable words first (clock, bin, pen) and longer words later (pencil, window, table, calendar, radiator). It’s useful to raise awareness of this from the outset, and it’s something that the non-beginners often find useful as pronunciation was often neglected at school.
Even here at this very basic level, lots of things are happening – it’s not the accuracy-at-all-cost drilling of structures that this kind of lesson-activity has traditionally been associated with – there are different dimensions and different areas of emphasis. The whole thing can actually become surprisingly engaging and even playful once you sense how to balance out achievement and challenge and can nudge things forwards little by little. Anyway – everyone seemed to enjoy it, time passed quickly and there was a general feeling that they had begun to learn things and it been worthwhile. Of course – this was not ‘real world’ communication as is often understood in teaching, but it was a ‘real’ classroom we were in, and the learning activity we were engaged in was certainly ‘real’ enough too.

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