It was 8 weeks ago that 27 four and five year-olds walked into the classroom and nervously eyeballed me, the foreigner, in their classroom. Our first learning intention was simple, they needed to learn how to correctly say ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’, it seemed like an easy task, but I was no kindergarten teacher, I was used to teaching teenagers literature and history. But through some miracle, and the use of excessive amounts of my energy running in and out of a door saying hello and goodbye, I had most of them laughing and learning. Thankfully, most students waved, and warmly said ‘Goodbye’ as they left the class. This was our first milestone, and since then I have observed many more as they progress along the learning English journey.
I am only the second international intern to teach English to the Core AM classes, last session ran as a pilot with the teacher, Jessica, and she reflected that this age group was a like a sponge, and that there was real progress to be made if students participated for the 9 weeks. In fact, research backs up her observations, as students are refining their understanding of their primary language they are able to apply that learning to picking up a second language with ease, in an ideal world, all preschoolers should start learning a second language as the long term benefits are overwhelmingly positive. The Spring session has had very promising participation with 80% of registered students in the Core program still attending daily classes.
In the second lesson the students decorated a large colorful name plate that was to be used in multiple lessons as follows: each of the name plates would be displayed randomly on tables in the classroom, students had to search and recognize their name in English and then put on their name tag. Once they had it on they would excitedly approach a volunteer who would then ask ‘What is your name?’ The volunteer would support the student to respond correctly. Now as you can imagine, the execution of this exercise for the first time created chaos. Female students had male name tags on and vice versa, some cried because they couldn’t find their name plate, and others refused to repeat the correct answer to the question. But we persevered, and repeated the name plate exercise in many lessons. Very soon chaos had turned into learning harmony. Children identify their name in English, put on their name tag, show the volunteer who asks them what their name is and then encourages them to ask other students ‘What is your name?’ This is just one example of the importance and benefits of perseverance with preschoolers. I am continuously impressed by the patience of the volunteers, but they appreciate the outcomes, they often smile and laugh at the children having small conversations in English when they have their name tags on.
One of the goals was that by the end of the session children would have a grasp of the alphabet. This meant being able to say the ABC, recognize and sound out each letter, and associate each letter with an object to establish a base vocabulary. TYO felt that this gave students who attended the Core program a foundation in English and a genuine head-start in their education. Just like each of PBS’s Sesame Street episodes, each lesson was brought to the students with a new letter of the alphabet. Yesterday was the letter R, and R was for Rabbit. In this lesson, as in all lessons, I say the letter, sound it out, and introduce the English word we will use. In order to reinforce the sound and letter form, we repeat many times, as we all know, practice helps one remember. We moved onto a fun game where the students took turns racing each other whilst jumping in sacks, they were hopping like rabbits, our noun for the day. To continue practicing they chanted “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit” as each student hopped along. Every lesson followed a similar structure. And every lesson ended with the class reading the alphabet and singing the ABC song. What sounded like general noise in the first few weeks has transformed into correct pronunciation of each letter in the ABC song, and with many students even reading the letters along the wall as they sing the song. Practice makes perfect!
One of the key contributors to progress has been the role of play in the classroom. Children who attend Core AM come from disadvantaged homes, there is potentially a lack of appropriate toys to play with and definitely and lack of space to play in. But play is one of primary ways that children learn. So in English, where appropriate, we have used play as a way to learn new vocabulary. It’s not surprising that the most frequently memorized vocabulary has come from activities that encourage play. For instance, rabbit and the aforementioned rabbit activity, duck and the duck hunting treasure hunt, hot and the Hot Lava game, ice and the Ice Statues game, the list goes on.
When analyzing progress in the Core Program, I believe the most important are not measured quantitatively, instead the most crucial progress has been watching withdrawn and troubled students blossom in the nurturing environment that is TYO. My English language class is one out of the six classes that each Core AM student attends in a morning; in each class every student is stimulated, entertained and supported. A child that chooses to continuously disengage with other students and trusted adults is of grave concern, but this is an opportune time in their life to intervene and make a positive impact. Young Mohammed was frequently withdrawn and disengaged, he would never repeat a letter-sound or new word we learnt, would not participate in any games, and would look at a coloring-in sheet and not lift his crayons, in fact, he would often stare vacantly at you as if you were not even there trying to talk to him. But no one gave up trying different ways to engage him. In week 5 I got the shock of my life when he repeated letter-sounds after me, I gave him the most enthusiastic and joyous feedback. In week 6 he was smiling in class, in week 7 completing his worksheets, in week 8 saying the alphabet with everyone else in the class. In week 9, he will be one of the hardest to say goodbye to. Of course, Mohammed is just one anecdote to illustrate the rapid changes I have been able witness in all of the children who have attended the Core Am program.
Having sat down to write this blog I realize the importance of reflection, it is not only the students that have learnt so much and progressed, I too have grown from this experience. The challenge of working with this age group will be something I will never forget, and I hope their time at TYO does give them a head-start in their education. As the late Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ And I would insert my final two P words here: ‘positively’ and for ‘Palestine’.
-TYO Inter, Celia