Teaching, Round Two: Part II

Today, one line in my VRF stands out to me: “Discipline is a minor issue this year.” If I could rewrite that sentence, it would read: “Discipline is a minor issue this year, except in Turma B.” Turma B has deteriorated throughout the first semester, a fallout I attribute largely to the lack of respect demonstrated by the chefe of the class. Each class has a chefe, a leader of the Turma who serves as a representative between the school and the students in the class. Edmundo is the chefe of Turma B. Like the repeating students in Turma A, Edmundo is intelligent, but he slacked off last year and ended up in the eighth grade again. Unlike the students in Turma B, Edmundo continues to slack off. He instigates problems with other students in the class. He continually disrespects his peers. He is a hangover from my first year. As a result, the classroom culture in Turma B stands out as undisciplined, as unruly, as disrespectful. During their one-week break between trimesters, my students in Turma B had a homework assignment: to define respect in five sentences. Those who did not complete the assignment cannot enter my classroom until they do so. I have 127 students just in Turma B; I will not let the disrespectful do further damage to the education of those who come to class to participate and learn. Unfortunately, I simply do not possess the resources to leave no child behind.

Turma A and Turma B form a spectrum of classroom behavior within which fall Turmas C, D, and E. Then there is Turma F. The school assigned me to teach Turma F on the week of trimester exams. During the previous twelve weeks, they only had two weeks of class with a teacher who was quickly transferred out. This year we seem to be in a constant shuffle of teachers moving in and teachers moving out. As a result, I had the opportunity to write grades for 128 students whose only evaluation was the provincial exam, which I threw out in all of my classes because fifty percent of the test asked eighth grade students with limited literacy levels to identify nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and prepositions in a foreign language. I did my best, but ultimately I turned in a grade book full of holes. The other teachers will assign grades to the students based on their participation and marks in the other disciplines.

My VRF also highlights my newfound confidence in the classroom. Two months later, I maintain the assertion that I understand the dynamics of the classroom and feel comfortable entering the room to teach a lesson. I have, however, come to reflect heavily upon the content of the lessons that I teach. My teaching style has developed in response to the unique (not so unique if you’re African) challenges of the Mozambican classroom: too many students with too few contact hours and even fewer actual materials. I have a chalkboard. My students have pens and notebooks. A select few have actual English textbooks. I cannot feasibly print materials for all 750 of my students. I cannot feasibly ask them to pay to print materials. I cannot feasibly ask them to use the internet to supplement their education. I cannot feasibly use “immersion” teaching techniques (i.e. only speak English in the classroom) because even the Portuguese doesn’t always make it through our three hours a week, nor can I feasibly advise them to ask family members for assistance. Very little seems to be feasible.

The consequence is a teaching style that looks suspiciously like the Duolingo application for learning languages. Images and words from outside the classroom serve to present new material, while practice during the first trimester relied heavily upon translation. Almost any TEFL certified teacher will advise you not to do much translation in the classroom – better to explain through gestures and images. Translation, however, provides students with immediate positive feedback – they recognize their success in understanding English, which reinforces their desire to learn. Someone with little positive feedback quickly desists from any task. Providing students with motivation is important, and I found translation to be a useful tool in that regard. The result, however, can lead students to make simple mistakes, like saying “You is my teacher” rather than “You are my teacher.” As my students’ knowledge base increases, I hope to decrease the amount of explanatory Portuguese in the classroom. Until then, I hop back and forth in the front of the classroom like the Duo bird, flapping my wings at new terms and squawking about study habits.

Outside, the sky is empty in the month after the rainy season. No clouds and not yet any of the dust or ash that comes in the dry months. For the past two weeks, the horizon stretched in all directions, clear atmosphere framing the green mountains that crop up in all directions around the Lichinga Plateau. The southern hemisphere rotates away from the sun. Nights grow colder and longer. Afternoon classes finish with the sunset now and the cold breath of evening settles on our skin as we leave the school. In southern Mozambique, millions of people have no access to water after the drought this year. The international aid community is pulling support from Mozambique after the government blatantly lied about over a billion dollars of public debt. Guerrilla fighting between the government (Frelimo) and the opposition party (Renamo) sends refugees fleeing to Malawi and shuts down sections of road throughout the country.

A brightly glowing planet recently invaded the night sky. It surfaces on the lip of the eastern slope of the valley below my house like a campfire, arcing higher and higher with the passing black hours. At the end of three pages of reflection on teaching techniques, I question the immediate importance of English in Mozambique. If anything, perhaps I contribute to a sense of normalcy in the routine. Maybe I offer an example of a different way of being to my students. Maybe I’m just a body pointing to characters on a board. A light rain fell this afternoon. The planet peaks out in the gap of sky between the earth and the clouds as the sun’s glow fades. Jack Johnson’s lyrics come to mind at moments like these: “And there were so many fewer questions when stars were still just the holes to heaven.”

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