Thursday, February 03, 2022

Having a Voice

Teaching beginners English is really frustrating sometimes. Most of my colleagues don't want to do it. I'm generally assigned to teach them because no one else even asks for that level. It has its rewards, the prime being rapid observable progress (and no, not on those stupid tests they make us give).

But there are those frustrations. Most teachers never see them.

While I see colleagues complain of unruly students who do or say this or that, I have wholly different issues. The biggest one, for me at least, is the preponderance of students who will not speak in a voice loud enough for anyone to actually hear what they are saying. 

So what do you do about this? You can scream at the kids, or threaten them of course. The problem is that this only makes them even more frightened. You really don't want to send these kids out into the world mumbling incoherently about who knows what. At least I don't. 

Sometimes I just ask them, "When you studied English in your country, did the teacher tell you to face the floor and speak in a whisper so no one could possibly understand you? Did the teacher say that way no one would hear your mistakes? If any teacher told you that, it was incorrect. Language is useless if it doesn't reach other people."

I've had mixed success with this. By "mixed "I mean very, very little. Now a few times I've heard these kids speaking in their native languages, so I know they have real, viable voices. But pulling English out of their throats is quite a trick. By confronting them with the fact I know they have voices, I've sometimes been able to get them to use said voices to speak English. Still, that seems not to last forever. I find myself not precisely begging, but seriously imploring to get these kids to use their real voices.

When we talk about having a voice, it's got a lot of implications. Can your voice be distinguished from others in a way that makes it uniquely effective? Is your voice standing for one important cause or other? Does your voice inspire people to stand up and join you? (Teacher voice, for me at least, is another thing altogether. I'd argue that really good teachers, despite the nonsensical ratings to which we're subject, have their own voices that can't really be emulated or taught. I'd compare great teachers to great writers, but not in the sense that they remotely get credit.) 

I'm on the very basic end of that spectrum. I just want the students to, you know, talk so they can be understood by me and others. It's a constant battle. 

I have one student this year with a big loud mouth, and I'm very fond of him. Others of my colleagues have issues with him. Truth be told, he's failing two of my classes. His attendance is not so great. Sometimes he comes in the morning and not the afternoon. Sometimes he comes in the afternoon but not the morning. Today he didn't come at all. 

Still, he's got a lot of joy, albeit not always at appropriate times. He often interrupts my class, but he smiles, which I now see only in his eyes, and I can't stay mad at him. Of course, I'm not always the best with him. For example, the third time I caught him charging his phone in an outlet, after having warned him twice, I had a dean confiscate his phone. I'm not getting my first letter in file because he forgot to charge his phone. (For my first letter in file, I want to commit a real atrocity. Otherwise, it's hardly worth it.)

In my student's defense, he has great class participation. He always volunteers to write on the board, even if it's examples from homework he didn't actually do. If only I could find a way to make him harness that energy to, you know, pass the frigging class. 

But that's part of my eternal struggle, right along with making chronically silent ELLs speak English.

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