Last spring I wrote about a period of malaise I was going through, which, as it turns out, had a lot to do with the fact that I was getting burned out at work. And a little bored. While there was some variety in my early years of teaching, things settled pretty quickly into my having the same two preps (AP Lit and sophomore English) for the next 17 years. And I was teaching sophomores for three periods a day, which meant summoning the energy to act like the passage that was brand new to my students wasn’t something I’d already read and discussed so many times that the thought of doing it yet again made me want to weep. That’s a lot of acting. All this to say that I realized it was time to make a change, which led to my requesting two sections of Beginning ELD (also known as ESL) this year, keeping my two sections of AP Lit, and going down to just one section of sophomore English.
Most of the people I encountered thought this was a slightly insane decision. More than one person said, “I’m sorry” when I told them about taking on that class, and when I’d clarify that I had requested it, their eyebrows would go up and they’d say, “Really?” Because the sad truth is that ELD has sometimes been a dumping ground at some schools—the class assigned to some of the most underperforming teachers because their negative impact will be less visible. It isn’t the type of class teachers tend to request. When my principal announced at a meeting last spring that someone needed to take on these classes, I could see the other teachers in my department slanting looks at each other that clearly said, “Not me!”
I had what I thought were some pretty good reasons to say “Me!” For one thing, the paper load and essay grading from my other preps was killing me (especially after a day of Broadway performances). With ELD, I would have a smaller number of students and much shorter papers to grade. The last several years, I’ve had over 190 students in the course of my day. This year I have 147. I also thought it would be good for me to try something new, to challenge myself and get out of my rut. And while it’s been incredibly stressful preparing and teaching an entirely new curriculum and feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing at all after years of knowing exactly what I’m doing, it’s already helped me grow in some areas I needed to be stretched. I also liked the idea of helping students learn English because my father had to learn English, as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and it feels right to invest in helping other immigrants get a leg up as well.
Still, I had some doubts, one of the biggest ones being whether it would be hard for me to teach such simple and basic things for two hours every day. I have the second year students, so they know some English, but their comprehension and skills are still at a very basic level. Would I just be exchanging one form of boredom for another? So far, that has not been the case. Each day presents some type of challenge, mostly behavioral as I am dealing with students who are extremely familiar with each other and who were accustomed to acting pretty much however they wanted to last year. A lot of my time and energy goes into trying to teach them that yes, they need to listen when I’m giving instructions, and no, they shouldn’t be yelling across the room or throwing baby carrots at each other. But most days also present some type of unexpected delight.
One of the routines I’ve established with my students is that we all read silently for about 10 minutes each day. I have a classroom library of simpler texts for them, but a lot of the students struggle with this activity. At the end of the ten minutes, I have them write one or two words on the board that they came across in their reading and didn’t understand. They love this. Part of it is just that they love to get out of their seats and write on the white board with my many colored markers. But they also seem to genuinely love learning these new words. And I love it too. I love these lists of words on the board, words like shimmer, tugged, deny, encourage, portion, hopped, scary, and wisdom. I say the words aloud and they all chorus them back to me. Then I do my best to explain the meaning of each word. Sometimes this involves me physically acting things out (and can I say that few things are more humbling than demonstrating a bunny hop across the room in front of your laughing students?). But often this involves telling a kind of story or scenario. “You know when you’re at a lake or the ocean and the sun is shining on the water and it makes a kind of wave of light [with accompanying hand motion] on the water? That’s ‘shimmer.’ Or when a girl’s hair is very smooth and shiny and the light hits it–you could say ‘her hair shimmers.’ And ‘wisdom’ is like intelligence, but it goes deeper. It’s knowing how to live a good life and understand the world. It often takes a long time to get this.” You can see in their faces when they understand. Their eyes widen slightly and their mouths relax into an O. Often one of them will shout out the Spanish equivalent when he or she gets it before the others. I usually ask them to tell me the word again and repeat it after them, and every time the students clap, delighted that I have learned one of their words and pronounced it properly.
And here we are as a class enjoying language, celebrating words. It struck me the other day that the last time I engaged in this kind of collective word-savoring was at breakfast with a table of poets, some of us aspiring, some long-established. It was during a week-long conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and somehow we got on the topic of what our favorite words were. Some of us shared words we loved because of their meaning, but a lot of us shared words we loved just for the sound of them and the way they felt on our tongues, like two of my favorites: kumquat and sasquatch. In other words, it was a language-nerd love-fest, and I was in heaven.
I never expected to get glimpses of that in my ELD class, and yet now that I think about it, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have expected it. This class is about language and the sounds of words and the meanings of words and the logic (or lack thereof) behind those sounds and meanings. In other words, the perfect class for a poet/writer to teach. The kind of class where a boy will ask you why a flashlight isn’t called a “handlight.”