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Learning language like a local

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Back in the day, teaching refugees and migrants in England, (when Covid and Brexit might have sounded like breakfast foods) I realized that the antidote I had to the challenges that the world presented was a friendly space where everyone felt welcome, secure and uninhibited. I know that sounds like the local. 😊

Who would not want a safe environment for learning language, offering support, fun and trust? Of course, the issue is not whether we all believe that, (don’t worry, some think the desk facing as little as possible, with silence as the guardian, and ‘getting on with it’ is the best approach to learning) but how do we create the sense of protected ambition to foster learning.

We need to show our students that we have trust in them, in their attributes. We need to get to know our students and the things that keep each individual engaged. Think for a moment why as adults we can be so brilliantly strategic at a social gathering in order to engage and persuade our relatives (go on, admit it) and at times so absent in this when we teach.

In some classes where there has been little-to-no breakthrough with a student, I have contacted parents to ask about interests, favourite things - anything from slight preferences to full-on addictions. 😊 What switches your child on? What spins her wheels? What gets him out of bed? What makes the pupils dilate? (Okay, you get the picture).

And armed with the answer, I’ve found myself changing entire online phonics lessons to center around Thomas & Friends characters or writing songs on the fly. I have taught a classroom grammar lesson to two students under a table with cushions and a blanket stretched overhead and out to the wall. Sometimes a little unorthodox personalization goes a long way. Also, in this case - remarkably comfortable, and oh so like the negotiated imagination of childhood.

I spotted a very able student one Tuesday morning this year with a worksheet on his lap showing the answers to a mock test he was sitting in the classroom. He knew the content of the worksheet well, so I was surprised to see him, of all people, checking the worksheet on the sly. I know this boy to be hard-working, lively, inquisitive and honest. My plan of action was to say nothing, but speak with him during recess to hear his version of events and the reasons behind them. I would then have likely arranged time, his own time, for him to re-sit the test. Before this could play out, a student sat next to him saw the paper and put her hand up. A fellow invigilator was on rapid response to hear her ratting him out and a disciplinary teacher was called in.

I heard the beginnings of the hairdryer treatment he was given in Cantonese. For the rest of that week he looked dejected and it took until the Friday before I could get to speak with him properly. It turned out he’d heard nothing but negative words from his parents and teachers the whole week and he’d only cheated because he was scared of making an error. An able student who contributes hugely to lessons and who is somewhat sailing through his classes felt pushed to cheat on a mock test out of fear of repercussions over any potential mistake. Boy, what a burden! We have to be mindful of how adverse childhood experiences can affect confidence, ability, progress, stress levels, health. They “can affect a child’s brain-building process.” (1)

As teachers we need to remember that our culture of learning can be the culture of life, and teachers who exemplify a warm and human approach to learning in the class are exemplifying that as an approach to life, just like down at the local. 😊

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