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When is school a prison?

I was walking around in my classroom today and I was attracted to a recently written graffiti which on the wall .That graffiti is a multiple choice question in which the writer asked his/her mates the following question:

“What is this place? choose the correct answer: – Prison         -Hospital.”

The writer or another student seems to have chosen the first choice “prison”.

This writing has pushed me to think about what is that that makes our students see school as either a prison or a hospital.I asked some of my classes about why school is a prison for them and they answered in different ways.Some of them think that schools don’t offer what students really need in their life.Some of them have expressed their opinion in written form saying that they study English,maths,geography and all the other core subjects;while,there is no space for other extra-curricular activities.Some students have said that the absence of subjects that appeal to students’ interests really demotivates them and makes school a boring place.The word “boring” was repeated in the answers of many of them.

Other students have said that school is “prison” for them because of the behaviours that come from some of their mates.

So many other writings on the walls of our school reflect the degree of hate that students -not all students of course- have towards school.Among the other writings that you see on the walls of our school are “rubbish”,”Shit!” and the like!

What is important in all that is not the words as such;but, how we can make students love school.The “reflections” that students write on the walls of classrooms while the teacher is busy with an activity or writing on the board show that students have other interests that are not catered for by the lesson that is taking place at the time of their writing.

Schools have to move from top-down systems where everything is decided from the top to a system where students have more freedom of choice.Schools should move into the era where students and teachers have more power on the materials they use,the activities they deal with and how they teach.

You might say that teachers are free to do all that!It’s not the case in our situation.The syllabus comes in the form of ministry circulars,the text-book is agreed upon and authorised by the ministry.The exams and the tests (number,methods,duration….) is all decided by the teacher.The amount of time that is located to a huge text-book  -the syllabus- doesn’t match the huge content that has to be covered,which makes it impossible for a teacher to think of other things except when and how to finish a program in which students will be tested on the national and regional levels.All these constraints are a so heavy load on the teacher’s /the student’s back.

It’s high time for our educational authorities and school headmasters to see extra-curricular activities as a “paradise” for the school and the student.A huge amount of materials (grammar,reading,functions…) dealt with in a text-book doesn’t necessarily mean that those students have learned a lot.It means neither that the teacher has worked a lot or even better.Little is so enough and great when students see it as great.Too much materials leaves no room for the teacher’s and the student’s creativity and that’s exactly the job of old-times ‘ prisons.So,no wonder if students see school as prison.

Look,we shouldn’t forget  that in many parts of the globe,including my country,our children have got more freedom outside school these days than they have in schools.It’s so sarcastic and funny that we keep teaching about human rights,values and freedom of choice ;while, school is the place where that is to be expected less,at least in the present time.

High school students are around 18-20 years old.They are mature and old enough to make decisions and have their own choices.Teachers are there to cater for the students’ needs,and they should be given that ethical right with no reservation.Teachers are the only ones who know what,when and how to teach.They also know that there times where teaching grammar or any other language skill wouldn’t work.So,give them the freedom to skip grammar and do something else that will certainly be of great benifit for the student.I am not advocating an anti-syllabus or anti-textbook view.A road map is always necessary for the goals to be achieved.My view is the road map should be the teacher’s business.The road map can be altered or simply ignored when that is necessary.With the present status-quo of education,teachers and students are obliged to follow a map that might lead to no where.

School should match the kind of life that students are living outside, either at home or outside home; if it is really to be called “school”.

Another graffiti in our school saying "Live the prison"!

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The learner is a person!

It’s so frequesnt to hear in the educational theories and spheres ” taking the learner as a whole person”.But,we rarely take this into serious consideration given the number of students we have to deal with,and given the amount of syllabus we have to cover before a standardised test arrives.

Humanistic theories advocate and recommend taking  the learner as a “human being” with all his/her qualities,sufferings and life situations and conditions   while we are teaching him/her in our classes.

As I have already mentioned, so many stressful conditions surround teachers that they completely ignore that the learner comes into school bringing with him/her every thing that he/she faces and lives outside school.

Today,I have lived a case which really “urges” us to take the learner as a whole person before taking any decision or before even starting your “warm up”.I have been teaching a student for the last 5 months and he would more often produce meaningless sounds in class while I am expalining or dealing with my lesson.This “human” would usually laugh in cases where no one else ,but him,laughs in his class.He would utter sounds that I used to consider as  strange enough to be those of a “human being”.I asked many of his other teachers, and they all said that he behaves exactly the same way in other subjects,which dismissed the fact that he had a problem with English as a subject or with me as an English teacher.It was really one of the mysteries I have lived during the last ten years of my teaching.

Taking learners as human being is a fact that must be taken seriously if we really want our teaching/schools to build full humans and citizens.I have learned that this poor adolescent is living miserable social conditions.I have found out ,today, that his father is a well-known delinquent and drankard in his   neighbourhood.So,all the “misbehaviour” of that student is no more than a reflection of the state of instability that he’s been living.Today,I have actually spoken with this poor kid in private and I have learned things that I should have understood from the beginning of the year.This student ahs even said that his father divorced his mother long ago,and that he’s living with his grand-parents,while his mother is married to another man far away from where he’s now.

These facts have given me an insight into the reason(s) behind this child’s behaviour.I wouldn’t try to expalin it more psychologically-a job I am not well-equiped to deal with.I would say no more than THIS STUDENT NEEDS OUR ATTENTION;I am now aware that what he was doping in his different classes is merely for the sake of getting some of the attention and recognition that he misses else where-his family.It’s unfortuante ,however,that many of his teachers are not aware of the situation he’s living,which still opens the door for more criticism and “irrelevant” behaviuor management solutions from his teachers.

I am now aware that this student and similar others misbehave with a view to getting some of the respect they have lost outside school.It’s so sad,though,that they continue to get disrespect both from us and from their peers,simply because we have FAILED to understand their life.We are really obliged to provide our learners with the self-esteem that is lost for them because of one reason or another,and to do that there must be other parts-administration staff-which must know every thing about every student’s life and provide us-teachers-with this type of information so that we act towards our kids appropriately.

It’s really so sad that the people who hold information of this type on our students continue to consider it as “secret” ,and “it might deprive the student of his self-esteem” in front of the teachers and peers.It’s high time that our schools had centers that ” really listen to the student,”and know every thing about his/her life.These are valuable information that would have saved me and the poor child a lot of trouble and misunderstanding!

I am now aware that no student can learn-or try to learn-while he/she misses other valuable parts of his/her life.Self-esteem,recognition and self-respect are essential before learning.

To sum up, we,as teachers,have to be tolerant and very slow while responding or interpretting our students’  (mis)behaviour.We should know that many things happen in our students’ lives outside  and inside school ,and they all affect the way these students behave ,react and learn in our classes.I now aknwoledge that there are  other things that are more important than the lesson plan and the use of a multi-media channel!

I am now aware that so many of the ways I tried to react to that particular student’ misbehaviour were inappropraite and totally missing the point.Because I have talked to him today and because he feels that I am no longer a grammar and language teacher,I am sure he will modify his behaviour.He simply knows that I am caring for him,and that’s what he needs.

The death of an EFL teacher- part2

In my part one of the things that really kill an EFL teacher,I talked about certain issues that are related to technology integration and the ICT illiteracy among some head-teachers.I then concluded that to prepare our schools and students for the future,we have to allow more money to stream into professional development both for teachers and school principals as well;otherwise,we will be bypassed by the new generation of internet children who are already better than their head-teachers in this domain.

In this part,I will be dealing with the so many other things that hinder the teaching of English as a foreign language in our schools,and maybe in so many other parts of the world.In the coming paragraphs I will be dealing with things that strip the language teacher and learners of their freedom to take control of their classroom processes.

Most of the modern teaching theories and approaches such as the competency-based language teaching,the standards approach and the dogme ELT stress teaching towards a competency or excellency level.These theories adhere mostly to the view that teaching should be driven by learning and not the opposite.In other words,the proponents of these approaches see that our teaching has to focus on what the student has attained in his/her learning process.Teaching can only move into another skill or competency level if the previous goal(s) of the previous level is/are attained.

Many of the official documents and directives that are adopted in our school system urges using the competency-based approach to achieve the standrads that are outlined by the educational authorities.There is no problem with setting certain standrads that might lead our schools to common and clear goals.

The biggest puzzle lies in the contradiction between setting standards and goals that every student “must” achieve before the end of a certain level,and fixing the number of curriculum units that have to be covered,maybe before that student attains those goals.It’s a big irony to adhere to a competency-based approach that aims to “produce” competent learners,and,at the same time, forcing those learners and their powerless teachers to finish an overloaded syllabus.

As there is always a hidden syllabus behind the texts and the lines every student faces,there are also hidden policies and ideologies that do what they don’t say.The teaching of EFL in our country is producing  no more than short-term parrots  — short-term they are because what they can regurgitate lasts no more than a few days.This is the automatic result of forcing the teacher and the student to deal with certain isolated and mechanical linguistic items by the end of a specified period of time.We are by consequence of these time guidelines coerced to turn our classroom into an Olympics stadium where every learner is struggling with his/her prefered sport to reach a gold medal;and yet,in our stadium almost  none of them gets to that end because the distance they have to run is much longer than the time set for it.

Other factors that make us teaching in a vacuum ,and which are related to the aforementioned ones are the focus on exams and testing.We have instilled in our kids an “exam and grade”only culture.They  no longer consider their existence in school as a preparation for the present and the future as well.The exams-focused syllabus has made them exam-oriented machines.This has made them and their parents as well unaware of the other valuable things that are among the school’s mission including the instillation of values, critical thinking,independent and life-long learning and every thing else that builds a strong and resourceful citizen.Testing at the end of every unit,at the end of every linguistic chunk,at the end of every term and at the end of every year has created  generations  who  learn-if there is any learning- only for the test.

Our students now no longer recognize that language is part of their life.They fail to see that communication and dialog is at the heart of human existence solely because they are tested on discrete parts of language.I suppose that language teaching has to be taken as part of the student’s life in all its processes :from teaching to testing to practicing.To achieve this, teaching language has to be done in a “conversational” manner where learners choose what they will talk about and study.This learner-initiated conversation should be the corner stone of any teaching/lesson as it shows clearly the level the students have attained in their own learning.Today,we teach following what others have supposed our kids know,which is a kind of false prophesy.I suppose that the availability of technology should make us,teachers and learners,free from commercial text-books that pre-suppose what our learners know and what they should know in a fallaciuos way.The dogme ELT is so far the only approach that touches such a point.Freeing teachers of heavy materials deosn’t make their responsibility easier.Yet,it’s only then that we assume complete burden of the student we make!

Social networking sites and web2.0 tools should be available for every student and evey teacher within the walls of the language classroom,not somewhere else in school.Only in this  way can the teacher at the spot decide about where his/her students are and where he/she should take them.I suppose that the primary purpose of teaching is exactly this;it’s to know where our kids are and how they are there and where we should lead them later.In schools,however,that’s not the case.It’s clearly obvious now that teaching is driving testing and not vice versa.We are even supposed to do a certain number of tests/quizes before the end of a certain time,and this makes it clear that the primary purpose of assessment in various schools is no more than to assign a grade to a student.

All this has produced no more than dead teachers and dying students.All this has produced no more than train-like teachers and students;they know only one direction.It’s going through the exam.Our EFL has to stop producing machines.We have to take the humans as they are made first.We have to make them creative and able to think.Our students should be  critical thinkers enabled with the highest order skills that are necessary for a globally competing citizen.

Unfortunately,our schools so far have produced no more than people who accept every thing they are given.Focus on exams,constraining us to a certain time and a number of units that have to be covered during the year leaves no place for creativity in schools.There has to be times where everyone,students and teachers, think and ask questions.There must be circumstances in which I wouldn’t be obliged to stop my student from discussing a personal problem in class while this is why language is created in the first place.Our students must feel that the language class is different from other classes.If the mission of EFL teaching is to teach “the passive”,”conditionals”…and the rules,that’s no longer language.It’s some other subject.Speaking;voicing our inner selves,conversing,and talking with each other is the prime mission of any language,and EFL teaching has to make that clear within the schools. Our students have different talents,skills and dreams.They have the right to be provided with the “time” and materials that allow them to be themselves.We don’t have to teach English 24 hours a day seven days a week to produce fluent learners.Less than that will be needed if that learner is taken as a human being not as a machine.And for a learner to be taken as a human ,language should be seen as a means for conversing ,and not as a set of grammatical rules that must be mastered and tested.

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