Chronicle of a Senior Project

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From the Winter 2010 Caller
Each year all the members of the senior class do a project of their choice out in the community, and part of their responsibility is reporting back to the school. Last year students worked in venues that included political and doctor’s offices, TV and radio stations, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and many more. Their writings about their experiences revealed how much they had learned—and how much they had taught others about themselves and about Catlin Gabel. Below is one student’s report on her project experience.

Participles & Pig's Feet: Shadowing an ESL Teacher
By Madeleine Morawski '09

If you had asked me three weeks ago what a noncount noun was or how American pronunciation differs from written English, I would have offered a blank look or shrugged shoulders at best. If you had asked me whether I ever considered becoming a teacher, I would have voiced a polite but very firm “no.” Though a lack of knowledge concerning English grammar and only minimal interest in teaching seem strange qualifications for three weeks shadowing an ESL teacher, I greatly enjoyed my senior project and learned more than I could have hoped about everything from stressed syllables to Korean idioms.

 I completed my project at the Portland English Language Academy (PELA), a small language school in downtown Portland. The school consists of a number of classrooms, a computer lab, a study room, and a student lounge. With a total enrollment of 65 students and a teaching staff of three full-time and three parttime teachers, the school offers a small community environment for English students from all over the world.
My mentor, Annae Gill, has taught at PELA for two years and previously taught English in Japan and ESL in Seattle. During my project I shadowed her while she taught classes on reading, vocabulary, pronunciation, writing, and grammar to groups of students with different levels of English proficiency.
Most of my time was spent observing class. While it may sound boring to sit and watch a class in a subject I am quite familiar with, I was surprised at how interesting I found each lesson. While English is my first language, there are many aspects, particularly of spoken English, that I take for granted. I kept a journal each day and recorded each activity from the lessons and followed along with the handouts and worksheets the students used.
I was able to participate in many classroom activities as well. The students frequently completed practice activities and conversation exercises in partners and small groups, allowing me to join in. From practicing dialogues about birthdays, to discussing the weather and playing language-learning games, I got to take part in many of the classroom exercises with the students. I was also able to offer them help and answer questions about everything from vocabulary to grammar to spelling.
The most important way I was able to help the students was by giving them a chance to practice their conversation skills with a native English speaker. Outside of class, the students do not always get enough opportunities to practice their skills in an informal setting with someone who will be patient and willing to help. In addition to time spent conversing with the students in class and during lunchtime, I led a weekly conversation group. I usually started with a topic such as where they were from and why they were studying English or what activities they had done over the weekend. After these initial conversation starters, the discussion usually flowed naturally based on topics the students were interested in. Besides giving them a chance to practice their English, the conversation groups were a great way to get to know the students and learn about their cultures. Our discussions ranged from the ISO system of standardization to Polish pronunciation to favorite television shows, giving each student a chance to speak up and often sparking rather lively debates.
One aspect I noticed that made me look forward to my project each day was the unique atmosphere of Annae’s classes. Because the students enroll of their own accord, unlike high school students completing a language requirement, all of the students I met were very motivated to learn English. Even those who did not come to class regularly were eager to ask me questions or learn new slang and idioms. Also, because the objective of each lesson was to improve the students’ English abilities, spontaneous and tangential discussions were encouraged, rather than avoided as in the high school classes I am familiar with. A simple practice sentence about car companies could turn into a discussion of the bailout plan, while another exercise led to a lesson on the slang words “homegirl” and “homie.” Compared to typical high school classes, the lessons are far more focused on what the students want or need to know, rather than a syllabus full of grammar topics and assigned readings. This type of environment allows for a great deal of interaction both among students and between students and teachers.
My favorite aspect of the classroom atmosphere, however, was the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences represented in one room. I met students from Switzerland, France, Russia, Poland, Turkey, Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, with ages ranging from 18 to almost 50. Everyone was studying for different reasons, some for university, some for their jobs, and others because they had recently settled permanently in the U.S. I met journalists, law students, doctors, and artists, each of whose experiences contributed to the unique classroom dynamic. Any normally boring topic can become interesting when you compare practices and viewpoints from so many different cultures. Sure, talking about birthdays can be boring, but did you know that people in Taiwan celebrate with seaweed soup and pigs’ feet?
Because I was able to spend so much class time as well as lunch and after-school time with the students, I got to know many of them quite well. They were all very welcoming and acted just as interested in me as I was in them. My favorite part of each school day was lunchtime because I got to speak with the students in an informal setting, hearing about everything from their weekend trips to their jobs and families. I loved watching students from such different cultures talk and share food. Everyone was eager to have their friends try their native dishes, and during my time at PELA I sampled everything from mole to borscht. Also, one of the bonuses for me was the chance I got to practice some of my own language skills. When not in class, many of the students speak to each other in their own languages, meaning I was able to test my Chinese comprehension and learn some Spanish slang. Though I enjoyed each class and learned quite a bit, it was the students that made my project so enjoyable.
I hoped this project would allow me to interact with people from other cultures and backgrounds, but it went far beyond that. I not only got to know a group of interesting and diverse people, I also learned an incredible amount about teaching English as a second language. I had never considered teaching to be something I would like to do in the future, but my time at PELA has caused me to reconsider. The dynamic classroom atmosphere and community created by such a diverse mix of students made for an environment that makes teaching seem fun and just as educational for the teachers as it is for the students.
Madeleine Morawski '09 attends the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.