…but what do you do when teaching the letters “A”, “B”, and “C” turns into a saga that is entering its fourth week? That’s the situation Ming, Veronika, and myself have encountered in our English class at Ana al-Masry. We spend about five hours each day teaching English to street children ranging from the age of two to sixteen with varying levels of success, but more often complete frustration.
The day is broken up into four periods. We start off with the Shebab who are twelve to sixteen. While they often enter the room with the rebellious angst of a normal teenager they also have learned the most and now know their ABCs, pronouns, and basic introductions. However, their attendance to class is spotty at best. Soccer training and work at the Hilton understandably takes priority and as a result these boys are at radically different levels. Only two days ago I found myself confronted with two boys I had never seen before who did not know any of their ABCs. Since there are only three of us teaching and anywhere from five to ten Shebab in the class at one time I often find myself having to choose who I want to teach that day. It’s not like I’m playing favorites. It’s just impossible to teach one boy his ABCs from scratch while simultaneously going over the verb “to be” or reading with another. The other day I made the decision to focus on the alphabet with one child knowing that the other boy I paid less attention to would probably lose interest and leave class, which he did.
Then we come to the kindergarteners, who may be the most adorable children on the planet, but make me die a little on the inside every time we ask one of them to write a capital “A”. If we’re lucky they’ll make an upside down and squished “U”. I recognize that the kindergarteners range from the ages two to seven, but we have been working on the letters A through C for three weeks. We’ve gone over big and small letters, but that’s about it. Yet, for some reason they still cannot differentiate between “A”, “B”, and “C”. We’ve tried just about everything: writing the letters, reading the letters, singing the letters, even chasing the letters. They just don’t seem to be able to get it down no matter what we try. Don’t get me wrong, after all this time many of them have these three letters down like the back of their hand, however a good portion seem to have absolutely no idea how to identify or make these three letters. We’ve discussed this in my group quite a bit and we have brought up the idea of learning disabilities and mental blocks caused by their past as definite obstacles to their ability to learn. I just don’t know what to do with this information. I don’t know how to teach these children the ABCs, let alone begin to think about moving beyond that to actual words.
I know that there is a lot of frustration in this post, but that’s because I recognize what these children need to learn—individual attention. They are absolutely brilliant. There’s no other way to put it. A couple of the older children can read English just as easily as I can read Arabic. We actually bumped a boy to the teenage group because we felt that he was being held back by the pace of the younger group. While this does seem to be improving his English, it has also added another boy to the Shebab who is at a completely different level than the rest of the group. This brings up another issue I briefly mentioned earlier, I fear that by going so slow, we are hurting those who actually know the alphabet. However, we can’t bump everyone else up a level.
Like I said, there is an answer to this problem, each child needs someone with them to just sit down and teach them English. Any time I work one-on-one with a child his or her ability to learn does amazing things. However, unless we’re able to turn eleven DukeEngagers into fifty, that is an unrealistic teaching method. This led me to a question that is constantly on the mind of anybody participating in DukeEngage: What am I doing here? I’m not a professional ESL teacher, especially of children with such difficult background. How are we supposed to go about this?
The answer to all these questions comes down to the mantra “something is better than nothing”. Now I don’t know if this is necessarily true, but I plan on using the rest of my summer experience to find out. We’ve already succeeded in teaching the younger children to enter a room in an orderly fashion, to clean up after themselves, and to say please and thank you. While manners and behavioral skills are not necessarily the focus of a typical English class maybe these life lessons will prove to be more important to a seven year old Egyptian boy than knowing how to correctly pronounce the letter “Q”. Only time will tell. In the meantime, here’s hoping that the kindergartners get to the letter “D” by the end of the week.