Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Frustrations of Late

I recently bought a cardigan. It makes me feel a bit like Mister Rogers. Charming, I know. When I'm finished with school for the day, I come home, change my shoes, throw on my navy-blue cardigan and I'm ready for a jaunty conversation with a postal worker, or perhaps a tour of a crayon factory.

But, this Tuesday, even while I was wearing my cardigan, was not much of a Mister Rogers sort of day.

As I usually do on Tuesdays, I went to the after-school center for kids from the Mondial neighborhood. It was snowed all day and was still snowing as I made my way, which made the 30-minute trek a little more onerous than usual. I mean, it wouldn't be so bothersome if the sidewalks were shoveled (where there are sidewalks) and if the blowing snow didn't attack my face from all angles. The cold air and stinging snow were in stark contrast to the week before, when it had been so warm and sunny that I rode my bike out to Mondial. I even managed a quick trip into the neighboring village of Herendesti, which is just beyond the center (taking the bike to Mondial saves so much time that I had some time to kill).

Last week I told the kids that I was going to give them a graded quiz the following Tuesday. I had decided to do so because something had to change; I had to try something different. We'd been working on the Alphabet for a couple months, and many of them still couldn't get past 'D.' We didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I needed to hold them accountable, and I thought waving grades over their head would do the trick.

So, I decided to start fresh, with a lesson titled, "How are You?" Basically, the idea was for them to practice asking and responding to the question 'how are you?' I gave them a few possible responses, including words like good, tired, hungry, upset. I tried to make it extremely clear to them by translating each term directly from Romanian. I even made sure they'd know how to prnounce the words by using a sort of Romlish pronounciation key. For example I wrote 'gud' in parentheses next to 'good' because their first instinct is to pronounce letters as they would in Romanian. As I said, they still haven't mastered the English alphabet. So, according to this model, tired would be 'taierd,' hungry would be 'hăngri' and upset would be 'ăpset.' It's funny, through teaching English to non-native speakers I've discovered just how crazy the English rules of pronounciation are. Or should I say it's the absence of rules that's crazy...

I told the kids to study the five words we had gone over so they'd be ready for the quiz. I thought I had prepared them well. I thought the quiz was going to be easy for them. But no. I gave them their test, and the majorty of them did horribly. Out of 12 kids, 8 got a grade of 5/10 or lower. What is more, many of the kids seemed happy to walk away with a grade of 3, 4 or 5. I admonished them, explaining that they'd actually not done well at all. I strongly urged them to be more diligent about studying. All I'd get in response would be timid sideways glances and half-hearted avowals.

While talking to Lore, one of the 4th graders, I discovered something that may explain why most of the kids haven't been studying. I pointed to some notes she had in her notebook and asked her, "why don't you study this at home?" She explained that the notebooks they use belong to the center and they can't take them home. Oh. I hadn't expected this to be the case.

Afterwards I approached Sister Cristina, the main nun in charge of running of the center. I explained to her my concerns about the kids being able to study at home. I'd done my best to make it easy for them to do so, but if they didn't have access to their notes outside of the center, what good would it be? If the kids wouldn't be able to take their notebooks home, I suggested that perhaps we could make little study sheets for them to take home. Sora gave me an unenthusiastic response, "even if we give them a sheet of paper to take home, what makes you think they'll use it to study? It's too easy to 'forget.'" Maybe her response was fairly realistic, but I couldn't help thinking, "well, we should at least try it."

When I first started going to the center, I wasn't really sure what I was getting myself into. However, I think I'm starting to realize what I'm up against. I asked Sora how the kids came to the center. She told me that she basically goes door to door, canvasing the neighborhood. By explaining why it'd be beneficial for parents to send their kids to the center, she hopes to spark some interest. I've seen the neighborhood, the living conditions are quite paltry. Sora told me she looks for the most 'desperate' cases. What happens at the center is one thing, but I can only imagine what home life is like for most of these kids. I don't suppose there's much continuity between the two spheres. In fact Sora told me that often parents will send their kids, but offer no further support or encouragement.

I suspect the reasons these kids lack academic motivation are complicated. First of all, they've probably been tossed aside by the system for as long as they've been alive. I know that many of them attend marginalized schools and their teachers aren't the most motivated. From what I understand, their English lessons essentially consist of the teacher writing words on the board that they copy into their notebooks. Not much more than that. If rote memorization is all they've ever known, I can see how my methods might seem strange. Originally I thought the kids would immediately latch onto my style of teaching, but that hasn't happened. I just wonder if what I'm trying to do confounds them, being unlike anything they're used to.

I've decided to try the same quiz again next week, just to see if there's any improvement. I believe, however, that a total reevaluation of my methods is in order. Obviously what I'm doing right now isn't quite working. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what I can do to engage them. This is probably the biggest challenge I've faced so far as a PCV.


Anonymous said...

It seems the kids are meeting with the expectations of their superiors. They don't seem to understand that you would expect any more then anyone else. It sounds like it would take a long time, just to have them want to please you for your efforts, and the rewards of learning something that could quite possibly motivate them to better themselves. Don't give up though, you never know who you might change.

thejoempoem said...

Good post, Mike.

Kind of exciting that you've found your deepest challenge at this point in your service. If you need feedback/want to bounce some ideas, you know I'm listening. I'm interested to see what happens.

Numai bine.

Anonymous said...

Mike, seems strange paper being an issue. My kids that I taught as a pcv in Moldova provided their own paper. Anyway, just buy a ream at the local magazin (about 50 m lei so, less than 5 USD I don't know the prices in Romanian LEi) and cut the pages in half to use for notes. I also found motivation was down with my 9th graders b/c they didn't intend to go to school past 9th grade and coruption made it such that "rich" children could buy grades. said...

Dude, this is sooooo sad. And yet your article is so amazing!

I was in high-school grade IX when Ce. was toppled. Grades weren't important to me either, but I was a pretty good student. In communism, it didn't really matter what grades you were getting, because there were exams every step of the way. You had to write an exam to get into high-school, an exam in grade XI, and another one to get your diploma. The names were sealed, so the profs correcting them wasn't supposed to know whose paper they were correcting. There was corruption, but I suspect it was on a much, much lower scale than today.

The point I'm trying to make is that I got this incredible disdain for grades in the Romanian school system and it was obvious how different things were in Toronto, where grades were far more important to students. I still didn't care and got good ones, but I watched in disbelief students crying in Toronto for getting bad grades. Very seldom had I seen that in Romania. Students (and people) just know that they will manage somehow, and usually do.

I don't know if that's of any help in explaining what you're seeing. The previous comment sounds far more helpful though, so buying some paper may help.

Then again, isn't motivating their pupils a great teacher's greatest challenge? :) said...

errata: the profs weren't
(also, in most courses, the final written exam was 50% of the final grade)