I've mentioned before that I teach an ESL class. I really enjoy doing it. My students are great. They are eager to learn, they are patient, and they are so grateful. Often, though, when they come to class they are nervous, they are discouraged, and they are afraid to ask questions because they are afraid of not being able to clearly express themselves. The more they come to class, though, the braver they get. Slowly, they become more comfortable trying to speak in English in front of native English speakers. Very slowly.
There are a lot of people out there who would say they should have learned English already, especially since they are living in the U.S. But my students are from varied backgrounds. Many of them (my class is mostly women) came to this country when their husband was transferred here through the company he works for, or when one of them took a new job. They are far away from everything familiar to them and they didn't have time to properly study English before the move took place. They came here and they feel alone. They are nervous about trying to get to know people in this new place because it is hard enough to make friends when you move to a new city, imagine how it feels to move to a new country and have trouble communicating with people, much less just getting to know them. But they don't give up. They keep trying.
Many might ask just what is so hard and scary about it all. To those who would pose such a question, I can assure you, learning English is plenty difficult. We don't follow our own grammar rules most of the time, we speak in slang more often than not, words are hardly spelled like they sound, we have a plethora of idiomatic expressions that, when taken literally, don't make ANY sense, and when you add text speak into the mix (and while I don't teach it - frankly, because I hate it and wish it would stop - you have to consider their struggles with it, because my students aren't computer illiterate and do send emails and use facebook like the rest of us) it is BEYOND complicated.
I often think about all of this when I prepare the weekly lessons. My lessons usually have several parts. I usually begin with either new vocabulary, or a new set of grammar rules. I then usually include the real definition of commonly used idiomatic expressions. After that we will either have conversation practice (and if time allows I usually make them change conversation partners more than once, and try to get them to speak to a student who does not share their native language so that they MUST practice in English and can't slip into their native tongue, which they can do without even really realizing it sometimes), or writing practice. Then the class ends with a short Bible lesson, that also serves as reading practice (I only get an hour and a half, once a week, I have to make every minute count for all it's worth, so I do). During last week's lesson, after our writing exercise, one of my students asked me if I could help her with her spelling. She speaks English very well, but is quiet and reserved because she gets so nervous sometimes, and most of what she had learned before coming to my class, she learned by listening. So, she knows the words to use, but has trouble with written communications because she never learned how to spell the words correctly. So, this week, I set out to do a lesson on spelling.
It seemed simple enough at first. I could teach them the old school rules that most of us learned in elementary school. I intended to start with the ever popular "I before E except after C" which works when you use words like "receive" and "piece", but the exceptions seem endless. That little mnemonic device actually has three parts.
"I" Before "E" Except After "C"
Unless It Sounds Like "A"
As in "Sleigh", "Freight", And "Weigh".
Or If The "C" Sounds Like "Ch" or "Sh"
Like in "Ancient" And "Sufficient".
The full rule explains away some exceptions to the simplified rule, but not others, like: Caffeine, Protein, Science, Weird, Seize, etc. After trying to figure out how to explain the rule and the exceptions I was almost ready to throw my hands in the air and give up. I didn't want to make their heads spin, or confuse them so much they got discouraged and gave up trying. I have to thank God for the small miracle that any of us native English speakers ever learned how to read or properly spell anything. It's enough to make you crazy.
So I put that lesson on the back burner for now, so I can have some more time to figure out how to make it clear. Don't worry, I found an appropriate lesson for this week. Of course, I also found a new respect for early elementary school teachers everywhere. God Bless All of You. It is hard enough to teach this stuff to adults, teaching it to a large room of small children with no end to their energy and with short attention spans, and all with endless patience and a constant smile on your face ought to get you nominated for sainthood.
And to all the middle and high school English teachers who have to remind their students things like there is "a rat" in separate, or it is significant that you can "Sign If I Can't", and any other number of endless mnemonics that you use or create to help your students remember things, when they have reached that age when they think they know everything and basically tune you out every chance they get, your next in line on the sainthood list.
And just for the record I don't mean to say that math, science, or history teachers don't also deserve a lot of respect for what they do. But just for the sake of making my point, when 2 and 2 equals 5 sometimes, or when Newton's laws start changing regularly, or when The Revolutionary War changes dates, get back to me and we'll talk about the saint thing.