Hi, My Name is Joe...
Fifty-eight, sixty, sixty-two, sixty-four. My fingers dance through the air as I count in pairs the number of students in my 8:00 am Senior 1 (roughly equivalent to 7th grade) class. Long gone are the first few days of the term when the classroom appeared half-empty with a mere forty-something students luxuriously spaced out, two to a bench. Now three, sometimes four, students sit elbow to elbow on each bench jostling each other for space straining a bench seat already in need of repair. Every eye follows me as I make my way to the front of the classroom laden with my notebook, pens, chalk, and various other teaching materials including a beach ball globe tucked under one arm. Today will be a solo day of teaching as my *co-teacher has business to attend to in another district. My “good morning” salute is returned by a halfhearted “good morning, teacher”. Pivoting on one foot after depositing everything on the floor next to the blackboard, I march up to the first row of desks and pull a silly face while bunching my fists on my hips in a jokingly frustrated gesture. “GOOD MORNING!” I practically shout hoping to invoke a response on the same decibel level. “GOOD MORNING, TEACHER!” Many students are smiling now as they anticipate the next 80- minutes of my teaching antics. “Let’s stand up”. Roughly sixty students acquiesce and there are a few moments of shuffling as notebooks and pens are stowed and general chatter picks up. As with every class, I have to coax a few of the “too-cool-for-school” students or the “I-walked-90-minutes-to-get-here-and-I-don’t-want-to-stand-up-anymore” students to their feet so that we have a 100% participation. “Teacher, hi, my name is Joe” a brave student offers this suggestion for an opening energizer before we begin the lesson in earnest. More smiles and a few laughs as I inquire “should we do ‘Joe’?” Universal agreement. Joe, it is.
Before beginning my service, I had a conversation with one of my aunts who is an educator in Los Angeles. I vaguely remember discussing the challenges of teaching but I definitely didn’t fully grasp the weight of that reality. So, now, nine months into my teaching career, I am happy to report that teaching... is really hard. Really, really hard. And the more invested you are as a teacher, the harder it gets. And the more aware I become of just how much I have to learn, the more aware I am of the challenge of the task before me. There are a whole combination of factors that make teaching so challenging and they tend to manifest themselves with each and every lesson. Timing, the size of the class, the attention span of my students, the language barrier, and old habits all crop up on a moment by moment basis which makes teaching such a dynamic, difficult, and ultimately rewarding experience as I simultaneously strive to find a rhythm with my each class and push them (and myself) out of our comfort zones. Even without immediate evidence of short or long term gains, getting through each lesson feels like a cause for celebration. Come on, I’ll give you a behind the scenes tour of a pretty typical class experience.
The lesson for the day: how verb endings change in the simple present tense for the personal pronouns he, she, and it. I have two class periods (80 minutes) to help 64 students grasp the lesson enough to implement it going forward from today.
Who can read the objective for today? Three hands shoot up while at least five other students begin a unique wave/snap hand signal that anyone familiar with teaching grade school in Africa would recognise. Another couple are waving earnestly and shouting “me, teacher, me, please”. Since one of our tenuously established class rules is to raise hands quietly, I scan the room before selecting a student quietly raising their hand who stands up and reads the objective in a tone of voice so low as to be undetectable by human ears. Cue the antics. Thank you Iradukunda but can you read it again loudly so everyone can hear. On the word “loudly” I raise my own voice and spread my hands gesturing across the classroom. “To write complete sentences in the simple present tense”. The student obliges by raising her voice to the level of a low whisper. It’s already five minutes into an 80 minute lesson period so I’ll leave this battle for another day. Moving over to the chalkboard, I draw three lines dividing a chalkboard into sections and label them “review”, “lesson” and “practice”. Standing to the far left of the board next to the “review” section I pose the first question: who can tell me a verb that you know. Any verb. Silence. I wait, undeterred by the lack of response because I know they know the information and eventually someone will speak up.
Ugh, dang it.
Okay, fine. Time for a little prompt. "For example, the verb ‘to play’". Suddenly a dozen hands punch the air.
Aha, I knew they knew.
“To pray… to eat…to write…today” Wait, today? I pause writing their answers on the board to inquire of the class “is ‘today’ a verb?” Whenever possible, I like for other students to offer answers as it gives them a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and keeps them involved in the lesson.
The review part of the lesson involves conjugating typical verbs in the simple present tense so I call on students to practice conjugating the verb “to play, to play, he/she/it plays, etc.” After recording their responses on the board, I circle the verbs they have mentioned which are relevant to the day’s lesson. 12 minutes have elapsed. Time to get cracking. Picking up the first teaching aid for the lesson, I unravel a poster paper and spend a few awkward seconds pulling pieces of tape to attach it to the chalkboard. At this point a student gets up and walks boldly toward the classroom door left open to allow fresh air to circulate. A chorus of laughter fills the room as I rush to block the door and instruct the rogue student to return to their seat and ask permission if they want to leave the classroom. Another classroom rule we are working to implement. Okay, where were we? Oh yes, going over verb ending changes.
“When there is a verb that ends in a consonant + the letter ‘y', we change the ‘y’ to ‘ies’ only for the pronouns he, she, and it.” Several students have begun writing in their notebooks. Sighing, I fold my hands together and ask everyone to put their notebooks away. A common struggle is that students are great at copying notes from the board but comprehension is low because they haven’t understood how to apply or use the information that they’ve written down. It takes several seconds for everyone to begrudgingly comply. I repeat the first part of the poster and in doing so realize a potential knowledge gap. Time to backpedal. “Who can give me an example of a consonant?”
Quickly writing the full alphabet on the blackboard, I offer a different question, “who can give me an example of a vowel?” Hands, snapping, waving, shouting. “Please raise your hands quietly” this reminder will be issued at least another ten times throughout this lesson period so there’s no point in allow any frustration to seep in. “Yes, Shema?” Shema kicks off the vowel identification and soon we’ve circled all of them with a piece of colored chalk. Moving my hand in a circular motion around the alphabet I remind them that all the other letters not circled are consonants. 17 minutes gone and although we’re only on the first part of the lesson, the detour is worth it if it has aided in student comprehension. The poster features three verb examples which we review and then I ask for more examples from the class. I’m genuinely thrilled as students offer verbs such as “carry, try, and cry”. We pick up momentum moving through the rest of the verb ending changes: add ‘es’ to verbs ending in ‘ch', ‘sh’, ‘x’ and o.
Now comes the moment most students have been anxiously waiting for, I turn toward the class and indicate that they can take out their notebooks and copy what is on the chart. They will have 5 minutes. I begin walking around the class to observe and come across more than a few students who, instead of copying the main focus, the material on the poster, are instead starting with the verbs we wrote during our review. Students are accustomed to copying everything a teacher writes on the board and it involves a lot of additional coaxing and explaining to get them to copy only what I want them to. I sprint back to the board and erase everything from the review section. 30 minutes down and several students are behind because they haven’t started copying the poster. Do I move forward anyway knowing they are missing critical information or give them extra time and risk losing the attention of the rest of the class as they finish writing. This time, I go with option a. Even as my hands unstick the tape from the board, I hear the protestation of the class “teacher, no”; “teacher, not finish”, “teacher, one minute”, “teacher, yes”. ‘Yes’ from those quick writers who are eager to move on. If you are not finished, you can copy from a friend after class. A few students are pacified by this compromise but there are still a couple that still seem annoyed…understandably. I glance at my watch. 40 minutes are gone.
Swiftly drawing two large boxes on the chalkboard, I add one word to each: ‘carry' for the box on the left and ‘carries' for the one on the right. “I need eight students” I say, palms raised to show eight fingers.
I repeat my request and gesture to various students, again holding up eight fingers then pointing to the front of the classroom. Some shifting in seats and looking round at one another but still no movement. Undeterred, I move forward and touch the shoulders of a few students counting “1, 2, 3, come to the front”. Teacher, ndarwaye protests student number 3. “You are not sick” I respond unsympathetically. Laughter ripples through the classroom as the students realize I’m no longer taken in by their most often used excuse to avoid participating. Reluctantly, the not-sick student stirs from his seat and shuffles slowly to the front of the class standing almost shoulder to shoulder with the other two. Their backs are pressed to the foremost desk looking nervous. Gathering another five students, I coax them into standing in a line, single file, facing the blackboard. “I will give you a card (I hold up little index cards with personal pronouns on them) “and you will tape the card to the word on the blackboard that is correct”. Model everything whispers the voice of my burgeoning inner teacher. Hoisting the card into the air so it is visible by the whole class I dramatically show taping the personal pronoun “she” to the word “carries” on the blackboard. Handing one personal pronoun card to each of the eight students, I tap each of them gently, prompting them to walk toward the board. Each one approaches tentatively and tapes their personal pronoun to the chalkboard. We review the answers as a class and some adjustment takes place as I have to move some of the cards to their correct place. Repeat after me.
I carry. I CARRY.
You carry. YOU CARRY.
She carries. SHE CARRIES.
He carries. HE CARRIES.
It carries. IT CARRIES.
We carry. WE CARRY.
You carry. YOU CARRY.
They carry. THEY CARRY.
Now that everyone has seen how the activity works, there is more eager volunteering for the next several verbs that we use to practice the new info. It’s easy to get carried away but the clock is ticking and there are still two activities to complete in the remaining 30 minutes. For the last set of standing students, I prompt the class for an idea of how we can give them a praise. Praises are short cheers to reward students for a job well done. One of our class favorites is ‘baby tigers’. With the first two fingers of each hand extended, you tap them twice and make a small mewing sound like that of a small cat. With both hands out, you then clap louder and make a roaring sound. Finally you clap twice again and extend hands up with fingers curled in a claw shape and roar at the top of your voice. It’s always fun to see how students who balk from participating in other aspects of the lesson enthusiastically clap and roar with abandon.
The next activity is a group exercise which are notoriously challenging to organize. I quickly scan the class thinking of the best way to assemble groups. Ideally, I would randomize the groups so that different skill levels are more evenly distributed but that takes too much time. I walk over to the blackboard and write “group work” under the “practice” heading. Ultimately, I decided on the most time-efficient option. With 25 minutes left in the class period, I tell students to turn around and face the one another so that two benches have a group of 6-8 students facing one another. It takes another 2 minutes to get everyone organized and I pass out one sheet of printer paper per group. I suddenly remember that I forgot to explain the exercise before making the groups. This is a mistake because now that have the class have their backs to the blackboard and are facing their classmates, getting everyone to pay attention to the instructions will be a challenge.
After giving the instructions — each group will write one complete sentence for each personal pronoun with a given verb in the present simple tense — I write the list of groups on the chalkboard and their verb.
Group 1: Carry
Group 2: Fix
Group 3: Finish…
Hands hit the air instantly.
- Teacher, name?
- Yes, write your names at the top of your paper.
- Teacher, sentence?
- Yes, write one sentence for each pronoun.
- Teacher, angahe?
- Try to use English.
- Teacher, no English.
- Yes. You can try.
- Teacher. Sentence. How many?
- Write one sentence with the same verb for each pronoun.
After fielding a dozen questions, my inner teacher voices chastises me for not modeling this activity. Twenty minutes left in the lesson period. I sprint to the board and choose a verb at random, quickly writing three sentences: I wash my clothes, you wash your shoes, she washes her face. Pointing to the board, I repeat the instructions and I’m gratified to see several heads nodding and turning to begin writing. Now, I just have to walk around the room and monitor the ten groups making small corrections to try and steer wayward groups back on track. Occasionally, a student has to be woken from their attempted nap and prompted to their group. Typically, the group members self-select the fastest writer among them but even so, every group finishes the activity at different speeds. Equipped with a colored marker, I zig-zag across the classroom correcting and grading their exercises. 5 minutes left in the class period. I quickly recall being told that for every group activity, students should be allowed to share their work. I call one member of each group to the front of the class to read their list of sentences. We give praises to each reader and the last one takes their seat just as the signal rings from outside for the break. I realize that our last activity of the day will have to get pushed to the next class period but I’m still pleased with what we managed to cover today.
Teacher, marks! One student reminds me that I need to give them their points for adhering to our classroom rules. We dramatically go through each of the seven rules and tabulate their score. Six points for today! Collecting my teaching paraphernalia, I step outside the classroom door to a chorus of “teacher, bye…teacher, see you tomorrow”.
See you tomorow!
*Co-teacher: Peace Corps Rwanda in collaboration with the Rwandan Board of Education recently instituted a method of teaching where volunteers teach alongside a Rwandan teacher in the same classroom.
*Post title: The title of this post comes from a song that many volunteers use as a way of energizing our students at the beginning of the lesson. It is tremendously popular among students.