Yesterday I did a somersault in my class. It’s all part of the show here — you should stop by. There are 13 performances a week.
I hadn’t planned on the acrobatics when I started class, but I preach to my charges all the time to “know your audience”; in the middle of my act yesterday I realized that I just needed to do a somersault to make a point. Bam! I even stuck the landing. I’m a little bit of a everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sort of teacher, so it’s fortuitous that there are two sinks in the back of my classroom.
Stay with me here for a moment: The majority of my students are non-native English speakers, and about 40% of them have been speaking English for less than four years. The biggest chunk of them are from Korea, but I also have students from Japan, Jamaica, Russia, India, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Malaysia, Australia, and a few from the U.S. The range of English proficiency is quite vast. I have one student who moved here from Seoul three months ago. Including class yesterday, she’s had 30 days of English instruction in her life.
I am surprised everyday by the things that my students know and what they don’t. Yesterday we were reading a short story that takes place on the day JFK was assassinated — only four students had heard of JFK before, and one thought he was a one of the steel industrialists. I expected this — most American culture references are total curve balls and I’ve tuned in enough to expect that I need to explain all references to American culture to them. What got me was when the narrator in the story — a girl in the 9th grade — describes how nervous she is about talking to a boy she likes. She tells us that her stomach “was doing somersaults.” I interrupted the reading to ask the class if this was a simile or a metaphor. Someone quickly assessed there was no like or as, so it wasn’t a simile. Nice, I said, and as I glanced around at the puzzled looks it occurred to me that a few kids couldn’t place the image. So I asked if anyone knew what a somersault is.
“Oh, c’mon, someone has to know what a somersault is,” I carped.
And, really, there’s only one way to get idea of a somersault across, right? The feeling moved me and I tossed my paper, pen, and other teacherly accoutrements over my shoulder, and went for it.
The gasps I heard were followed by a smattering of applause (it’s a rough crowd — I have no doubt that 10 of the 18 students there had no idea what I was talking about before I went tumbling across the floor in front of them). I was happy I made it through unscathed. That slate floor is really flipping hard.
Working here is a tough, but glorious, assignment. My skills as a teacher are pushed daily. I am constantly re-evaluating my expectations, trying to sort out how to meet the native English speakers in a place that challenges them while also finding a place where the kids who are new to the language can catch on. There are other challenges too — this population of students is so transient that it’s common for students to have been in 3-4 schools over 6 years in different countries on different continents. Not all international schools are the same, so what they have learned varies and there are often very big gaps that surprise me. I have a class of 11 senior boys who have lived all over Asia and Europe and gone to different schools. None of them had heard of the literary term “voice” before I brought it up yesterday. I threatened to get the 10th grade teacher from across the hall to come in and give them a talking-to (she teaches the bejezus out of voice) and they pointed out that none of them had her because they weren’t at the school in 10th grade. Then there’s an American girl in another class (she has not lived in the U.S. since infancy) who was last in Africa at a school that didn’t even offer English lit classes. She’s a senior and has kept up with American-style English reading lists on her own for the past 5 years. Everyone has a story here. I stopped counting the students who are tri-lingual because there are so many that it’s not a phenomenon any more. And I only have 78 students this year.
My school’s enrollment has doubled in four years, so we are implementing new strategies for a much bigger population on the fly. I like the challenge of developing systems to serve the kids we have in front of us. I like the challenge for its own sake, but I also like doing it for these particular students — they’re great young people. Tomorrow is the end of the third week of school, and I already know that most of my students are tougher than I was at this age, especially the non-native English speakers. I can’t imagine moving to a new school freshman year in a language that I only have a tenuous grasp of and attempting to perform on an academic level. Their needs force me to find new ways to do old things. Their strengths and weaknesses and questions make class go in all directions at once, so there’s never a moment when I can take for granted what I’m doing. It brings me right into the present and forces me to stay there. I’m certain my expectations and act in class make them focus on a minute-by-minute basis, and it probably makes their heads spin.
The least I can do is a spontaneous somersault