Figuring Out ESL

ESL class began this past week, and though I had volunteered in this program my freshman year, the class felt markedly different this time around. It is not that the work itself has changed much or that I felt my ability to teach English has decreased, but instead I feel added pressure from being the one who essentially controls the class. I know that none of these students necessarily expect me to reinvent the whole curriculum and bring them towards English proficiency right away, but I know I will still struggle to find the right balance in the class as to how I can help them the most. At the end of the class, one of the students pretty much told me that I should stick to the status quo, that all she really wanted was to go through the packets from the Side by Side books as they usually do. Yet I can’t help but feel that there are a few things about the class nagging me in the back of my head.

I count this less as an unfulfilled requirement as a teacher and more as a knock against my validity in the eyes of my students, but I know absolutely no Spanish. Well, that is unless we’re counting the three phrases I learned from a child on the Painted Turtle Farm—“Yo soy el maestro,” “Vamos a estudiar Inglés,” and (the absolutely essential one) “Dame tu dinero.” I could see disappointment in students faces when I told them that I knew no Spanish, and I completely understand why. And while I also understand that my inability to speak Spanish will probably help them learn English better in the long run, it still gives the class the slightest impression that I am imposing my language and culture on them while disregarding theirs in return. One of my greatest challenges in this class, then, is to remove any such connotation from the class without making such a big deal out of it that we lose sight of the class’s main objective.

I think that first and foremost, I need to continue feeling comfortable with the uncomfortable nature of being monolingual in a bilingual setting. All of these students have experienced or still do experience the discomfort of having Americans talk in English around them without knowing the language. It is an alienating feeling, but in my case I am trying not to get too caught up in pitying myself over it or trying to assume that I now know their struggle. Instead I should just get comfortable in that place of ignorance while also seeking out ways to show that I do not mean to disregard their language and culture. Part of me wants to offer a give-and-take dynamic to the class, wherein the students can teach me a little Spanish each week while I teach them English. I could potentially use this a motivating tool—a way to push them if I remember the Spanish they taught me and they don’t remember the English I taught them. But I think this should only be implemented if it seems natural and if the students actually find it useful.

And that is how I feel about the overall structure of the class as well. Ideally, I would like to talk to students and figure out what areas of the English language they find themselves struggling with or holding them back in real-life scenarios, as I think that would be more useful than going through the packets. But if the students still decide that they want the class to go as usual, clearly I’m the last person who should be speaking for them.

Darren Spirk ’16