Last semester I taught my first adult class ESL at GCC. My students’ English was quite good. After a few classes, I was passionate about my teaching assignment and bonded to this group of adults from around the world. There were students in the class from Peru, Viet Nam, Columbia, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Mexico.
Working with adults who are educated professionals in their home countries, but who are working on mastering a second, third or in the case of one gentleman, a fourth language was a privilege. I know through family stories the sacrifices that individuals make when they decide to risk it all, for a better and safer life for themselves and their children. However, I had never heard those types of personal stories from “strangers.” The world immediately became a smaller place. I never missed a class, and I looked forward to the motivation they gave me at each class meeting. If I dared arrive late, they expressed their unhappiness, “Teacher, why you are late?” Being inflexible was not something I modeled, but they valued every minute of their classroom time and wanted to start class on time –every time!
When any one of them told a story about their home country, their family or shared their emotions at the trauma of leaving beloved family members behind, their classmates were silent and respectful. Their silence was indicative of their compassion. Afterward they often quietly went up to their peer and offered comfort. Most of my students began learning English in their home countries and most had taken several lower level classes at GCC. Their fluency, significant vocabulary, and commitment to learning all the rules and exceptions exceeded my expectations. They were very knowledgeable of grammar, but they lacked confidence and experience speaking.
As a result, I revised my teaching format to be more small-group based and to mandate class participation with the goal of increasing the opportunities to practice speaking. I gave an assignment that involved making a short presentation. Students were asked to prepare a presentation of between three and five minutes in length. At first, it was clear that they were nervous and for the first time, they lacked overt confidence. However, once the first two presentations had been completed it became slightly competitive, with students striving to add a new approach to their own session. Students quickly assumed several helping roles. A couple who sat near the front were the technology assistants, one took charge of the lights and at the end of class at least one person would ask, “Who will share next class?”
Several times the class unanimously requested to hear a presentation again. I never protested the request, without fail the second time was a stronger presentation. If their peers felt that the presenter needed additional practice or that they wanted to hear the information again that meant they found value in the experience. At times the request was accompanied by an explanation such as, “You spoke too fast, can you do it again slower?” Not one person declined to repeat their presentation. They looked upon the request as an opportunity to practice their English and accepted the invitation as an honor.
Jovan asked what would happen if the presentation exceeded five minutes. I jokingly replied that I would have to gong them. “What means to gong?” one of his classmates asked. I started explaining about an old TV show called “The Gong Show.” Jovan immediately reenacted a hand gesture hat Chuck Berris, the host of this late 70s TV show, made on every episode while he danced away on the sidelines of the stage. I laughed and asked him how he knew about the Gong Show. He informed me about his online English teacher, “YouTube.” I would never have been able to reenact that physical gesture. However, as soon as Jovan mimicked it, I instantly recognized it.
Jovan smiled gleefully with a special twinkle in his eye, he knew that he had impressed me with his knowledge of an iconic American form of entertainment, the game show. For the rest of that class session he would look at me periodically and make the dancing hand motions and he would laugh. Jovan is a very perceptive student with an amazing sense of humor. Never underestimate the value of a good laugh!