Jan 17, 2012

Behind Bars - English for inmates, Part 3

Lesson 3
Again a good lesson – everyone left in high spirits. The students turned up in dribs and drabs – they all need to be let out from their cells in the different sections of the prison, so time-keeping is out of their hands. As I soon found out last year, when the guards are busy, the students arrive late and sometimes they can be very late.
Once half a dozen had turned up I got things going by inviting the students to tell me what they could recall from the last lesson – virtually everything as it turned out - which set a positive note. This ‘prelude’ allows a few insights. Apart from seeing how much of last lesson's content made an impression, I also get to see some of the class dynamics: I can better see who is more outgoing or likely to be more dominant in the group and who is a little bit more hesitant and I get a few little hints as to the relationships between the group members. It's still very early days and we all need to get to know each other -- not the details of each other's private lives, but as individuals in the context of this classroom.
In the meantime one or two more students had turned up and the lesson could begin. My major aim here is to try to establish that we have a cooperative working group that can happily accommodate individuals: and that working within a common format towards a common goal does not require uniformity of knowledge or performance. Anyway, these are still early days as I said, and laying the basis for the sense of complicity and mutual trust is largely down to lots of small examples and episodes, perhaps meaningless in themselves but which together create the right kind of environment and ‘ethic’.
Starting each lesson with revision conforms to most students common sense and intuition – it assures things don’t get ‘lost’ and gives students the chance to see that they can rely on their memory and that they can get things right – enough new ‘difficult’ things will come up later on, so this helps balance things out: why jump in at the deep end?
There is another practical advantage too: it makes it easier for late-comers to join the lesson without missing out too much. In this particular lesson there were several late-comers, all of them new students and all of them arriving at five-minute intervals. In a ‘normal’ classroom on a ‘normal’ language course, this sort of thing is usually really annoying: it could have been annoying here, but we all knew that no one was late because they decided to stop for a coffee on the way or had been on the phone. In fact, each of them apologised and explained that they hadn't even known the course had started - or even that they had been allowed on it - until they were summoned from their cells. As it turns out we have a dozen students in the class and quite an interesting group and they promise to be. This is certainly the only possible place where any of us could ever have met: we are or no one's home turf here. This is neutral territory for everyone, and we all start out from scratch as people. We will be perceived as we are in this room and during these encounters.

P.S. We have gained four students but we had two missing today. The man who appeared rather intense in the first lesson was not here for the second lesson either -- I actually bumped into him as I was making my way to the classroom, he gave me a very warm smile and told me that he had a visitor and would not be able to come to the lesson. Maybe his visiting hours coincide with class -- I don't know. At the end of the lesson I asked his fellow Romanians on the assumption they might know something. “Who cares” they said: “he speaks too much anyway”. The other man who missed had come across in the previous two lessons as the quietest in the group and I was aware he didn't really feel at ease. Maybe he'll be back next lesson but unaccounted absences always worry you. When you're teaching a group in any context it's always a balancing act -- you need to create an accommodating space where everyone feels involved and everyone feels a benefit from the teaching, yet you can only stretch so far to accommodate specific needs or specific personality issues.

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