Tag Archives: Students

Language in Schools

I find myself with time to write, which either means I haven’t been doing enough physical activity or I have settled into some sort of routine. I suspect a bit of both, and likely the role of additional confounding variables. Time to write is also time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

As I try to learn German, which first became a project back in January, I have found that my other languages are disappearing. I can understand most of what I read in French (my phone is in French and it’s still easier for me to read food labels and assembly instructions in French rather than German when the option presents itself) but I can’t think in French at all. I can’t find words, construct ideas, form sentences. I can read or listen and understand, but I can’t communicate.

The situation with Hebrew is worse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten and kept it up through high school, but never had an intuitive grasp on the language. Unfortunately, we were taught Hebrew in English. (I’ve been learning German in German and that has made a huge difference.) Very recently, for example, I met an Israeli man on a tour of Munich. He tried speaking to me in Hebrew and again, I couldn’t respond. I knew what I wanted to say in German, but that was the best I could do. Instead, we spoke English.

It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

This has me thinking about how we use language in international schools, and I have made different observations here than in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In Malaysia, English was the lingua franca for my students, all of whom spoke some degree of English and learned Mandarin and Malay in school. With few exceptions, they spoke Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil at home, and/or previously attended schools that functioned in any of the four languages. English is the default for mixed groups in Malaysia, certainly by educated people, and so it was at school. No questions asked.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Singapore functions first and foremost in English. English is the language of schools, business, and government. There are special programs that operate in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but otherwise these are language and literature classes within English schools. Many Singaporeans, however, do not speak English at home. There is a generational difference in Singapore between Mandarin speakers and speakers of other Chinese languages, notably Hokkien, and everybody else. The majority of the population is of Chinese descent and one can get by in that community without using English. It also helps that anything provided by the government, including the public transportation system, is available in all four languages.

Since my students in Singapore came from around 75 countries, English was their common language, as well. Danau Tanu’s wonderful book on international schools addresses the ways in which students group themselves by facility with language, and this could not have been more obvious in the environment of my school. Without getting into the social politics here, there was a clear divide between those comfortable in English and those who were not. That Singapore itself lives in English meant that obviously school would, too, with obvious exceptions among specific groups.

It is different in a small town in Germany where life outside of school is only in German. With merely a handful of exceptions, my students are German and that is the language they speak among themselves. I’ve been told of only one teacher who insists upon the use of English during her literature classes. My students are kind enough to switch to English when they want me to understand their discussions, at which point I can provide feedback. It’s also a great way for me to get to know them. Otherwise, my eavesdropping is limited to the little German I can understand.

I have thought a lot about this: Do I require students to share, collaborate, and discuss amongst themselves in English so I can be part of this element of the learning process? Or do I provide an opportunity for them to clarify, explain, and understand in the language that is clearly more comfortable for many of them? (I should say here, all of them have excellent academic fluency in English, whether they believe it or not.)

By contrast, in Singapore there were always a group or two of students who did not speak English while working in small groups. And I never asked them to switch to English because I recognized how difficult, tiring, and intimidating it was to be in their position. One difference is that in Singapore, I was working with much larger classes and I couldn’t possibly be part of every small-group task. Here, the class sizes are such that I could be. So who would benefit from a shift in the social norms of the classroom?

It’s a confronting question because it means I need to think about my role as an educator. Who am I in a classroom, and what does it mean to support the young people that I work with? They know something significant that I cannot currently access, and that is not a place I have been in before. Making decisions in this environment requires different considerations, and I find myself taking both sides of the argument.

At the moment, my goal is to learn German. At this point, while I understand some of what my students say, I better understand body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and typical teenage behaviour. Importantly, though, learning German will give me entry to the culture that I am living in. I am lucky to have found a group of German friends through climbing and while all of them speak better English than I speak German, they are happy and patient when I try, and quick to point out simple errors. And so I do try, though I’m a lot quieter than I might otherwise be, and I get lost in loud places where people talk extremely quickly with grammatical constructions that don’t appear in textbooks. I’ve learned to ask for help, but someone usually translates into my ear before I need to. Body language. Facial expressions. Sometimes it’s just important to be there.

As for my students, I enjoy working with them regardless of language. I have a different appreciation for what it means to really live in another language than I did before moving here, and greater admiration for young people whose experiences put them at crossroads. After a lifetime of learning a language in school, it’s a joy to finally use it not because I want to, but because I need to.

Learn a language and you’ll avoid a war. – Arabic proverb

Before the First Day of School

I don’t know how other jobs work. When you start a new job, do you have time to ease in? Are there people around who can set aside their own tasks to walk you through things you don’t know? Are you joining a team with a defined role, or are you a new member of a group defining your own role?

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I just know that every time a new teaching job begins, it’s like starting from the first day all over again. “How are you doing?” people keep asking me. This will be my eleventh year teaching and the best I can say is, “I’m doing.” The sympathetic nods and kind smiles I receive in response indicate that my state of managed overwhelm is not unexpected.

Perhaps teaching is unique in the sense that you have a finite amount of time to prepare for everything, after which everything you do will have an impact on the life of a young person. I don’t mean to make myself sound more important than I am; after all, many, many things impact all of us every day and I possess no powers of divination with which to determine what is or is not ultimately relevant. Rather, it seems that the need to be good at your job has different stakes.

But again, I don’t know how other jobs work.

I do know that it always feels like this upon joining a new school. And to some degree, at the start of a new school year. In which other jobs does the entire staff use a week to prepare before beginning? It’s a bit like the performing arts, actually. Everything needs to be ready before day one and then, despite even years of rehearsal, so much seems to come down to improv – what do these particular young people need on this particular day? Making that series of decisions at the very moment they arise is both an art form and a science, one that is honed over time, and one that fades into the background when we prepare in the abstract.

Our students start on Wednesday and it feels a bit like I’m missing the forest for the trees. Much of what I’m preparing right now might be irrelevant once I meet them, yet I can’t meet them without having done this preparation. My agonizing about the loss of a piece of technology that has been at the centre of half my teaching career, while requiring me to rethink, reframe, and readjust, might very well have no impact on these students at all. I am spending my time trying to figure out new unit planners, new locations for resources, new policies, and new classroom arrangements, all of which are invisible when the students arrive but which lay the groundwork for the system to run.

And when the students arrive, I remember how it feels to educate, to learn, to inquire, to build community with young people. I remember that I’m not only competent at my job but good at it, and that every day with students brings me more joy than any school day without them.

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I don’t know if other people wake up in the middle of the night with visions of how to redo something they’ve already considered done. I don’t know the questions people in other jobs ask themselves.

In my 100 hours with these students this year, what kind of person do I want to help them become?

We need the prep work and time because we need a solid foundation. These are people we are shaping. Of course, we educators are just a small part of raising these young people; there are a plethora of other factors over which we have no control. But we have a wonderful opportunity to do some good and all young people deserve that.

Commencement: A Beginning

This year, I had the greatest honour I have ever had.

Our class of 2021 voted for me as their graduation speaker which, as one of my colleagues put it, is about as good as it gets for a teacher. Students were on campus for graduation and families attended from home via livestream.

These were my words to our students, and to students everywhere:

It is a true honour to speak to you today, and I thank you from all of my heart. The best way to describe my feelings upon hearing about this is the Yiddish word verklempt, which roughly means full of emotion and speechless. I felt this way because I was deeply touched and I had no idea what to say. Just because I think a lot of things doesn’t mean I know a lot things. But I have lived a lot and this has led me to some understandings. In the next few minutes, I will do my best to share them with you.

Over the past two years, I have watched this class grow in many ways, the most significant of which, the one that I think best defines this class, is how you have grown in your resilience. To be resilient means to bounce back, to respond to adversity, to rise up stronger and wiser than you were before. You did this, and continue to do this, in rather complicated circumstances while managing your studies, maintaining hobbies and activities, and making plans for the future. You rose to this challenge. And now, you are here. This is resilience.

The ability to be resilient, to see challenges as opportunities to grow, is something to carry with you always, regardless of what happens next week, next month, or five years from now. And as we all continue to learn, we cannot rely on well-laid plans, but plans are required if we hope to move forward. Resilience is the story of the class of 2021; what will be the story of your individual life?

A few years ago I discovered rock climbing, and it has become a significant part of my world. My favourite of the climbing gym’s motivational posters says: Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Only you have the power to live your life. All actions have consequences, and your decisions will set you on different roads that allow for different possibilities. I have learned that these decisions affirm who we are, and also lay the foundation for who we will become. And even though you might wish otherwise, you will never know where the other road might have taken you, and you will never know who you might have been had you taken it.

So this is a critical question: What kind of person do you want to be as you begin your next chapter? Educator John Holt wrote, “The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” Your character guides how you respond to your environment and those around you, and it is your character that exemplifies the values that are central to how you understand yourself and others. When we are confident and comfortable, surrounded by family and friends, we know who we are. Here, at Southeast Asian International School*, you know who you are. You know who is there for you, what is expected of you, and how to behave.

But things are about to change. Graduation marks the end of this chapter and the beginning of a new journey. You will have beautiful, remarkable, memorable moments. But there will also be times when you stumble. When you fail. When you are caught unawares, uncertain, or having made a terrible mistake. But you have proven yourself to be resilient, and this means that you will stand up and you will begin again. And if you are courageous enough, you will find yourself with choices.

Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Sometimes, the way forward is obvious and you clearly know what is the right thing to do. But sometimes, actually doing the right thing is very hard. This is when you need to ask yourself about the person you are becoming and what matters to you. You can decide how to act, who to be around, and how to build the community you want to live in. And you can change your mind when the road you are on is not right.

To send you on your journey, I would like to offer my deepest hope for you: That you find a path with a heart. This idea comes from The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, which is somewhere between anthropology and memoir. Don Juan explains that a path with a heart can go anywhere or nowhere – how it goes is what matters. As I understand it, when a path has a heart, it is right. It is the deep conviction that we experience without the need for words. This is the path that gives us joy, strength, and a sense of peace.

And finding this path takes work, perhaps trying multiple paths before reaching the right one. You will know that you are on your path when it speaks to who you are, how you understand the world and your place in it. Sometimes, you can keep going with what you have already begun. But sometimes, the scariest and most important thing to do is stop and start again. The choices that we make, and the character that reflects our values and guides our behaviour, allow us to walk a path with a heart. Doing this takes resilience, it takes courage, and it can take us to places we’ve never dared to imagine.

As poet Mary Ann Evans, better known by the pen name George Eliot, wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

Travel the path with a heart. The path is a journey. The journey is life.

Congratulations, Class of 2021. I can’t wait to see who you become.

The road to Devín Castle – Bratislava, Slovakia – January 2019

*Name changed to protect the innocent, as a friend and former colleague would say