July 25, 2007

Do they really understand me?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12: 34 pm by MK

Last night at dinner my friends posed the question, “If someone speaks zero English, how do you begin to teach them and how do you really know they are understanding what you are teaching?” E.B. put it best by saying, “If right now I was forced to move to Thailand without knowing anyone, how would I begin to learn Thai? How would I have any idea what someone, even a teacher, was saying?”

I’ve been reflecting on these questions and wondering how much my students are really learning and understanding. Are they simply responding with sounds to questions like, “How are you?” and “What day is today?” Do they really understand what they are learning to imitate? But if they don’t imitate at some point how do they learn? Is the imitation of sounds a first step to learning a new language? These are all fascinating questions as I think about my reading list and research for next semester.


July 23, 2007

And then there were ten

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 3: 03 pm by MK

When I showed up to teach A. & K. and their family Friday night, only the children and K. were home. However, shortly into the lesson A. came home. And then W. & B., the two Burmese men that live downstairs, showed up. Then five more guys trickled in; I hadn’t met them before but word must be out that there are free English lessons being offered. At one point I shifted my chair to enlarge the circle, looked around at the ten faces surrounding me and mildly panicked. Somehow lesson plan ideas for a family of five didn’t seem so transferable to a larger group. But in the end they were. . .

One that worked particularly well: I went around the circle and had each person say three descriptive things about the person sitting next to them. Some of the newcomers were more advanced and had an easier time. For the less advanced, there was a lot of prompting and Burmese translating, but it seemed to work well. Great practice of colors, and articles of clothing.

A. & K.’s case manager stopped by during the lesson. The church across the street has offered her free classroom space to teach English classes. She asked me if I wanted to teach some, and I said sure! If folks are going to be piling into the small apartment, it would be great to have space to work in and a blackboard to use. She also mentioned another English teacher that may be interested in helping–double plus as far as I’m concerned. It would be great to be able to work with someone that has experience I can learn from.

Oh, and E. stood me up. But she promises to meet me Wednesday night, so we’ll see.

July 19, 2007

And tonight, a new student

Posted in Uncategorized at 3: 36 pm by MK

Tonight I tutor E., a Russian woman who immigrated to the U.S six years ago. Her language abilities are more advanced; she is a student at Hudson Valley Community College working on her bachelor’s degree. We are focusing on her writing–she has the ability to express herself, but syntax is often inverted and tenses (esp. the past tense) give her problems. There is also that pesky problem of subject verb agreement, which is really quite annoying for second language learners.

Anyway, I had a brainstorm to ask E. what it was like for her when she first came to the States. How much English did she know? What was most important for her to learn first? What was something she wished she had learned first but didn’t learn until later? Maybe this will give me better insight as to where my lesson plans should head for A. & K. and their family.

It’s going to be quite interesting to work with students with such a wide range of abilities, but hopefully it will allow me to better understand the full spectrum of ESL students.

Back to the point . . .

Posted in Uncategorized at 3: 13 pm by MK

As I begin to move forward in creating lesson plans, there are some things I’m wondering/slightly concerned about.

1. I’m not sure if A. & K. are literate in their first language.  Last time during the lesson A. kept asking his son to write things down in Burmese for him, he wasn’t writing anything down himself.  And the same was true for K.  The two young Burmese men that live downstairs, W. & P., were writing everything down.  I don’t know how to confirm this, or if it is even relevant, but I find it interesting.  If it is true, I wonder how it will impact their ability to learn a new language.

2. There are obvious cultural differences in terms of female and male roles.  (Well maybe not so different from some or a lot of American families, but definitely different from my life/expectations.) The one-year-old obviously needs attention; he’s only one and a very active child.  When our lesson began last time, A. kept telling K. (from what I could deduce) to leave the room and take care of the baby so he wouldn’t disrupt the lessons.  I kept trying to communicate that the baby was fine, and K. should stay in the room so she could learn too.  This didn’t happen and I don’t know if I wasn’t understood or if this just wasn’t an option.

So what do I do about this?  Is it my place to challenge their patriarchal family structure? But do I remain silent and accept the fact that K. won’t be in on the lessons?  I was thinking of maybe eventually setting up some time to work with K. separately, but if childcare is essentially her duty the child will always be in the picture.

I think I’ll just have to feel things out as I keep teaching…I didn’t realize that defining my role would become an issue.

July 18, 2007

Final Session for Myanmar’s Constitutional Convention

Posted in Myanmar at 12: 36 pm by MK

New York Times article today on Myanmar. . . interesting as I learn more of the history here.

Myanmar’s Generals Drawing Up Constitution

Sidetracked . . .

Posted in Exotic Animals at 10: 49 am by MK

I know I’m getting completely sidetracked here, but these are in his house!!

Burmese Snakes

July 17, 2007

Burmese snakes?

Posted in English as a second language, Second language learning at 7: 56 pm by MK

I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up if I wanted to.

Neighbors Scotty & Franky (and Scotty’s wife Priscella and five children) who live across the street from A. & K. have decided to befriend the family. I came up to the apartment today and outside Scotty had lawnchairs set up and a charcoal grill going with burgers and sausages. It was a whirlwind of kids, meat, and Juicy Juice. Scotty assured me that he’ll keep a close watch on the family. Why? Well, because he’s a good guy, his language is close to theirs with its vowel sounds (he speaks Spanish), and he raises Burmese snakes (says it will give him good insight into the culture). Plus gerbils, hamsters, bunnies….says it’s a regular zoo across the street. He offered to take me over; I politely declined. Okay, all joking aside I’m not sure what Scotty’s all about, but for now I’m going to put aside my impulse to doubt and hope that someone will really be looking out for their welfare. But oh Scotty, how do we explain the concept of halal?

When we finally made it upstairs the lesson went really well. Everyone is really eager to learn, and we had fun with the flashcards I had made. However, I completely underestimated the time I would need–we flew through the flashcards. So, I moved on to a vocabulary lesson of things around the apartment. When we got to silverware, the word “fork” left everyone laughing. Yes, with their accent it sounded like something that is definitely not fork. Of course that would be the one English word they know!

I left them later in the hands of Scotty, saying, “Hello, my name is K. How are you today?” Please let Scotty be a good guy.

18 years in a refugee camp

Posted in Uncategorized at 7: 55 pm by MK

A (the dad) spent the last 18 years of his life in a refugee camp. At age 15 he left Myanmar and moved to a Thailand refugee camp. Last week, at age 33, he moved to the U.S. I’m not sure which camp he was at or what the conditions were like, but regardless, I can’t imagine growing up in a refugee camp.

I left last night with a million questions for their USCRI case manager.

1. I couldn’t find a phone jack to plug their phone into. Who is their local phone service provider? How is this paid for?

2. When will they be issued social security numbers?

3. When will they be issued food stamps? How many per month will they be issued? (I want to help them plan their budget and shop for groceries.)

4. Which doctor are they able to visit? (Through a translator, I’ve learned the baby needs allergy medicine.)

5. When will they receive discretionary funds? (K, the mom, wishes to buy a calling card so she can call her brother in Thailand.)

I feel so inept right now in helping this family. Hopefully some answers from their case manager will provide clarification.

I’m headed over tonight with a notebook for each family member. I feel like I need something tangible to show them that English lessons are now beginning. (Oh, ages were wrong in my previous post–the baby is 1, little girl 10, and boy 11.) I’ve also made some flash cards to begin working with: Hello, my name is _____. How are you? I am fine, thank you.

Of course this all depends on what they’ll need from me today…

July 14, 2007

Maybe it’s not that safe . . .

Posted in Uncategorized at 1: 32 pm by MK

I thought the neighborhood was safe…and it is, for the most part. I attempted to stop by their apartment last night but it didn’t quite work out. Maybe I just have my parents voices ingrained in the back of my mind: listen to your gut, don’t take any chances. I meant to go right after work, but ended up not getting there until around 8 p.m. When I did a situation on the street made me really uncomfortable, and so I chose to leave. Driving away I felt mad at myself, mad at the situation, worried about my new friends, and really disappointed.

However, I did go back today on my lunch hour. The street is fine during the day, which made me feel better. I just need to plan my visits for during the day or early evening and I’ll be fine. Great for me, right? Talk about feeling guilty. My new friends who live there can’t get in their car and drive away when they feel uncomfortable. How do you balance this?

The dad let me in today and when we got upstairs to the apartment everyone was sound asleep. I’m sure jet lag and sheer exhaustion from the experience is taking its toll. Dad speaks absolutely no English. But that didn’t stop me from trying to explain, “Today is Friday. Then there is Saturday. Then Sunday. I’ll be back on Monday.” He smiled and shook his head, but I don’t think he knows I’m coming Monday. I left a note with him; hopefully his USCRI case worker will translate it for him. Otherwise, he’ll have a surprise on Monday when I show up.

The Gameplan (or at least some initial ideas):

This isn’t about teaching the alphabet and nouns and verbs. This is about teaching survival. First purchase for them will be a wall calendar so they can learn the days of the week and the months. Then hopefully I can set up a weekly schedule for my visits, so the surprises don’t have to keep happening. Then I’m literally going to start with things in their apartment, i.e. their telephone. Do they know how to call 911? Do they know what 911 is? Like I said, it’s about survival at the moment.

Okay, so you all know (if it’s not abundantly clear) I am a novice at this. If anyone has suggestions and/or ideas I would absolutely love to hear them! The intent of this blog is not just for me to ramble on, but to talk about English tutoring in an environment where I can hopefully get some good feedback. I welcome everyone’s ideas.

July 12, 2007

A late night

Posted in Uncategorized at 2: 51 pm by MK

So presumably a first blog post would start at the beginning. I promise to get to all the good explanatory background info. eventually, but for now I’m jumping in with both feet.

Last night at 11:30 p.m. I went to the airport and welcomed six new Burmese refugees to the U.S. from a refugee camp. I went as their new mentor/English tutor. Two staff members of the local USCRI office were there as well, along with a translator. Our translator (also a Burmese refugee) had only arrived in the States last week. With ID numbers on sticky tags pressed to their shirts and IOM bags in hand, we said hello to a family of five (mom, dad, children ages 2, 5, and 10), and a young man, unrelated. I attempted to say “Welcome” in Burmese.

After their luggage was collected, I drove our translator along with the dad and baby home to their new apartment. Our translator spoke very little English and the dad didn’t speak any. The car ride was quiet interrupted by my attempts to communicate. I was also silently praying we wouldn’t get pulled over; the baby was without a car seat.

We moved them into a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood. Waiting at the apartment was another USCRI staffer, who was fluent in Burmese. She explained who I was to the family of five, and that I would be coming to the apartment to begin English lessons. They smiled and gave thanks. I said good night and left trying to put myself in their shoes at that moment. It seemed impossible.

I’m heading back over tonight to begin tutoring.  Right now, I have no idea where I’ll begin.