The Sly English Teacher

Now I’m happy to teach English in my community, but I was against it in the beginning. I am acutely aware that there are many more pressing things for youth in my community to learn than English, from reading Spanish well to using a condom correctly. And, even if I were the best teacher in the world (very doubtful) my students could not master English studying just 1 or 2 hours a week. Language just doesn’t work that way. But, English lessons are one of the things people in my community want; and I’m here to serve them.

So, then, the question arose: If I have to teach English and my students aren’t attacking it with the tenacity necessary to become fluent, how can I most effectively use our time together? Some volunteers turn to games. Games are a good solution, but I struggled with them.

My solution came when I realized that I was looking at teaching English all wrong. My English classes aren’t about English. (But, I like to think they will give those kids who choose to pursue more English study later an advantage.) My English classes are about mentoring and sharing my culture. Defense: We also discuss English grammar and vocabulary.

How do I start the cultural sharing? Music. In my English class, we usually listen to a song in English, talk about what it means, and pronounce the words. Listening to music is a good language-learning activity, but that’s not actually why I do it. I try to pick songs for a reason. Half the time I just pick a song because I know my students will like it, but the other songs I choose because they have an interesting cultural message. “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor was a successful choice—the youth even like the song. Most of my students are young women. It was neat to talk about how women don’t have to fall into the stereotypical role of “the perfect wife” when they marry.

“Hard to Love” by Lee Bruce was a silly chance to talk about how we should say “thank you” to people when they do things for us. Most women in Paraguay are expected to clean and deal with food while men (not all!) sit and watch. I’ve seen young men get up from the table, leave their plate as a disaster for some woman to pick up, and not even say “thanks” for the meal (rage almost not repressed). I also used “Hard to Love” to talk briefly about the differences between how Christianity is practiced in Paraguay and the US.

As I get to know my students better, they feel more comfortable asking questions about the States or about my life. Sometimes the questions make me laugh: Is it true that people in the States wear their clothes once and then throw them out? Bit-by-bit I think they are forming a more realistic notion of the States, and at least they are opening their eyes to the idea that not all people do things the same way.

In the end, English class isn’t just a time to talk verbs and articles. It’s also a chance for my students to talk about life. It’s an open space that encourages learning.