Reconciling Foreign Language Teaching & Popular Education
It was already autumn, but the day was as hot as if we were still in summer. I had my first meeting with the group of teachers who was going to be teaching this semester at some Trade Schools in Mar del Plata. These Trade Schools are a bit special, though. They are not found in actual school buildings, but in places that have been lent in order to accommodate our students. In my case, I was going to be working at a cultural centre. Some other “schools” were at neighbourhood associations or trade unions.
English teachers were often seen as “outsiders” here. They didn’t really belong. Teaching English, “an imperialist language”, was perhaps seen as being too posh. In this teachers’ meeting, where we would discuss in depth our plans for the year and how we were going to intertwine our subjects with the trade our students are learning, the most common thing to hear was “well, we’ll see how we manage” when it came to English. I was told several times that it was hard to connect English to what our students -working class people who are finishing their secondary education- do, but I like to think I have proved them wrong.
On my first encounter with my second year students, they were a little bit cautious. They forewarned me: “we didn’t learn anything last year with the other teacher”. I laughed it off and said that they were going to learn a lot with me. At that same moment, I started making them speak. Something simple, just saying “hello” and their names. I made them ask their partners’ names and say theirs. The whole hour went on just doing that. I copied the phrases on the board, then I got a piece of colour chalk and wrote under each word its pronunciation (or at least an approximation through Spanish phonology); next to it, I provided the translation. They were elated.
It was no surprise to me when they told me they had never spoken in English with their previous teacher. Sadly, when the time is short and the curriculum is too demanding, many of my colleagues resort to gap-filling exercises and an overload of grammar. I find that counter-productive. Our students are only trained in mechanically filling in blanks. If they cannot make meaningful links between what they are learning and their lives, they will forget all they have learnt as soon as the semester is over.
That is why I don’t use fill-in-the-gap exercises in my classes. I want to make them think. I want to make them put meaning through, even if their vocabulary and grammar is a bit limited. We work with phrases and variations. We analyse the elements of the sentences, what meaning and function they have. We see which parts we can change to generate new sentences. We really make use of the concept of grammar as “chains and slots”.
I design all my classes so that I make all my students speak and create their own “chains” with the content that we learn for each “slot”. They love that, and I love it too. We have fun trying to create new meanings, practising pronunciation and learning vocabulary that is connected to their trade. My class has become a safe space where we can learn and laugh together. Some of them are really motivated and have great results in class, they come to me and say that they want to learn more, that they love our classes and that English is fun. Learning this new language and being able to really use it has empowered them, and I find that really rewarding.