Monday, September 14, 2009

Reading Skills

Well, the good news is, I don't think that my classes are going to get all that much bigger. I'm sure that students will still be trickling in, but I think the ballpark number is going to be much closer to 50 than 80 or 100. They are still noisy and disruptive, but 45 noisy and disruptive students is still a hell of a lot better than 75 noisy and disruptive students. And that's just the morning classes – the afternoon ones are still very small, between 10-20 kids.

I'm already coming to realize a couple of things that I think will help me. First off, a part of the student behavior issue stems from the fact that the students' reading and writing skills are, overall, very low. So, when I write instructions on the blackboard (which I've been doing a lot because I'm afraid they won't understand my accent), they just simply are not able to read and interpret them. I can spend all the time in the world breaking things down into small, easy steps, but if the students can't read and understand the directions I'm giving them, it's all moot. Furthermore, trying to explain my writing as I go is impossible; most of them do not possess literacy skills at a level that allows them to read, write, and listen all at the same time.

It is pretty distressing to realize the extent to which these kids are lacking in very basic skills (and when I say “kids,” I'm pretty sure some of them are older than I am . . . the range of ages appears to span from 13 to 30 or so). How am I supposed to teach anything about anything if the students have trouble with critical reading? And how can I teach factorization or algebra or any other math when students can't add, subtract, and multiply? (Side note: I'm pretty sure that a lot of kids don't understand what numbers mean on anything but the most basic of levels, which kind of blows my mind. We were practicing multiplication today, and with a problem like 25 x 7, students were pretty much randomly choosing which digit to carry over – the 3 or the 5 – after calculating the product of 5 x 7).

Having said all of this, these are bright kids. And having realized that the writing itself is an issue, I'm making more of an effort to write concisely and explain things out loud. Having a very structured system – students come in, copy limited notes off of the board, and then listen as I explain – is going to help as well. Of course, there are still issues – some students' skills are much better than others, and I have trouble with the idea of keeping them back with this very, very basic approach. In addition, it's maddeningly difficult to keep students on task. I have to patrol up and down the aisles (which in the more crowded classrooms is impossible) just to make sure they are actually copying what they are supposed to be copying, and not simply talking or staring at the wall or the white lady.

Plus, of course, there's the issue that these are still (mostly) teenagers, and there are a lot of them, and I am different. Remember that high school teacher who smelled funny, or dressed funny, or had the pit stains? Remember how hard it was to actually learn anything with the distraction of their weirdness? Well, I'm that teacher now, only instead of smelling funny, I'm white and talk in a squeaky American voice (as many of them so hilariously imitate behind my back – or directly to my face).

Anyway. As much trouble as they are, I see a lot of positive tendencies that give me hope. A couple of times, someone has asked a really thoughtful question – something that clearly came out of their head as they process information, not just an exam question that they copied out of a book. In addition, most students generally seem to be retaining information pretty well from day to day, and are able to think about and apply information when they are asked to (though I don't think they have frequently been asked to in the past).

Before I go, my “what the fuck?” moment of the day: As I was walking home from work, I ran into a woman who lives on my compound. I was standing there talking with her when a UN truck drove by, containing a few members of the Indian police force (there is a base in town). The truck pulled right up next to us and stopped, literally about 5 feet away. Without saying a word, the driver rolled down the window, stuck his camera phone out, and took my picture.

I can just see him back at home. "My Trip To Africa: Here's a picture of the jars of gasoline by the side of the road, and here is the store where they sell teeth, and here is the market, and there is a white person, and here is a dead monkey . . . "

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