Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Do You Do Every Day?

That's a simple question, but it isn't always so for my students. One of the toughest things for them to get their heads around is simple present, like, "I go to school every day," or, "She likes her job." That little s in the third person singular is what really gets them. A lot of newcomers figure, "Well, they only use it a little bit, so really who will notice if we just forget about it altogether?"

Unfortunately for them, that would be me. I notice my beginners don't get it right, and I notice that at every level afterward ELLs tend not to get it right either. So I make it my mission in life to shove it down their throats no matter what. Yes that is me crying, feigning a heart attack, and playing the tragic violin solo every time some kid utters, "He like to go to the beach." And don't get me started on simple present vs. present progressive. But I digress.

Yesterday, I gave a pretty simple activity and asked the kids to write. Write about what you do every day. It was a straightforward activity I stole from a book. The model was written from the point of view of a college student, which was kind of cool. They learned what a dormitory is and about a different kind of student cafeteria. But there were problems. One of the sentences said something like, "Every day I shave and brush my teeth." I was surprised how many girls wrote that they shaved every day. I had to use a lot of gestures to make the point that it's best to know what words mean before using them.

The thing that surprised me most, though, was what the kids wrote when they weren't copying the model. There was a lot of talk about morning activity, taking a shower, eating breakfast, and whatever. Then there were a number of responses like this:

I go to school from 7:30 until 3:15.

I mean, what does that even mean? It sounds like the kid just sits rotting away in some dark corner until the bell rings. One girl wrote a sentence like that, and then explained that after school she takes a bus and a train to Manhattan where she works every day. This explains why she looks so tired all the time. She also wrote that she eats breakfast, lunch and dinner at work,  I wasted a few minutes urging her to eat breakfast in the morning. She politely nodded but I'm certain she won't change anything.

I questioned several kids who wrote those sentences. Don't you ever do anything when you're in school? To them, it was a strange question. Why are you asking me this? Is it a trick? Are you gonna call my mother again like you did when you caught me playing music from my phone in the trailer bathroom?

But I really wanted to know. Is school just a big inconvenient block cut out of your time so you can't play Call of Duty for a few hours? Is it just a bunch of time set aside for no good reason? Is it torture? I mean, some teachers are so extreme that they won't let you speak your native language in English class. How unfair is that?

Once, when I was teaching a college class, a girl asked, "Why are we doing this?" And another student, a gynecologist from Macedonia, stood up and said, "Because it's a class. You have to do something!" I have no recollection of what we were doing, but I loved his answer. In fact, I like to believe we do things in my class.

But I might be mistaken. I could be a small part of a vague sentence in a paragraph about someone's typical day. And perhaps that kid can't differentiate me from the science teacher, the social studies teacher, the health teacher, or even the PE teacher who makes her put on a uniform and play basketball.

And that shouldn't be frustrating only to me. At the very least, it should be frustrating to the PE teacher too.
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