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Encounters in English Language Learning

Today's blog post is written by Amanda, a member of the 2019-2020 Yahel Social Change Fellowship. Hannah is living for 9 months in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.

We have code reds, they have bomb shelters. We have promethium boards, they have projectors. We have extremely strict class rules, they have “Israeli”rules. In the first few weeks of my volunteering in Ramat Eliyahu, my eyes have been opened to the vast differences in an American classroom versus an Israeli classroom, especially in teaching English.

Working in a middle school will have many similarities everywhere; moody, hormonal pre-teens who would rather be anywhere else than in school. Not to mention in Israel, they have the off chance occurrence of a rocket coming into their neighborhood. They have a lot going on in their brains and bodies, and the pressure to learn English lurks without reward.

In public secular schools, kids are separated by levels of math and science, so if their English is great and they are not so good at math, they are completely bored in their English class. But more often, the kids who are scientists and mathematicians get placed in advanced levels of English and suffer. This process begins in elementary school and continues all the way up to high school.They sink or swim and many hardly learn English at all. In fact, the vast majority of the kids (and adults) that I have met who know English have learned from movies and TV, not from school.

It is difficult to jump into a classroom where I don’t know the rules, the culture, or the language and I don’t want to disrupt any learning or lessons that already take place. But the truth is, every single student is at a different level. I have never seen a classroom where some students can speak fluently in another language, and others cannot even read.

I don’t blame them. Last week, our Yahel cohort had a speaker talk about teaching English. She asked to do a few exercises to explore the complexity of the English language, such as “write 3 sets of words that sound the same and look different” or “write 3 sets of words that look different and sound the same” and, “write all the different ways you can pronounce ‘ea’.” She explained that the English language comes from so many root languages that there are many patterns, but it is difficult to explain or for new learners to make sense of.

As “social change” fellows, our main job is not to teach English. I am not a trained English teacher, or a teacher at all for that matter. I cannot bring a fancy promethium board or tiny laptops into the classroom, I cannot bring some revolutionary teaching method, and I cannot change anyone’s behavior or attitude towards school right away. Despite all of this, I can show up every day and help in any tiny way I can find. Every day, I jump over another cultural hurdle dividing my life from theirs and I help just a tiny bit to give some perspective.

Based on all of these things I have observed, my main goal right now is just to bring joy into school. The other day I was working with a group of three seventh graders outside learning new English vocabulary. The subject was, “aiming high.” I told them to forget about doing the stuff in the work book and I just asked them each a question using their new words. One of the words was ‘hate’ so I asked them, “what do you hate?” Everyone answered very confidently, “I hate school” and/or “I hate English.” I did not take this personally, I too hated school at this time of my life. But after they told me this, I didn’t want to be another authority figure who comes in just to make them do the same, unfulfilling work their teachers have them do every day. I want to give each kid I work with a little joy, a little way for them to feel like they are not suffering and anxiously awaiting the end of the school day. Achieving these minuscule victories is the best way I, a foreigner and an English speaker, can eventually make some change.

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