Mixing today

NEEDS ANALYSIS AND INTERACTION.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
Needs analysis at the beginning of a new school year, or any time you get a new class, certainly helps. To use a stark example: when I got a ninth-grader who could not read, I worked out an individual set of exercises for him, plus took measures to shield him from bullying. ALL our pupils are unique personalities, each with their own interests and aspirations, or lack thereof. It means that we have ONE national curriculum which is supposed to accommodate and include EVERY student, regardless of their abilities. I believe there is no such thing as an average pupil, or an average teacher. We have to make do with what we get.

Mixing today acquires a few new meanings.
• Traditionally, I would know what to expect when I distribute a task to be performed in pairs or small groups, let alone the following formula: “Walk around the room asking who has got the same views, and/or the same answers or questions”. It so happens that in my national rather rigorous system, EL is the only subject that offers children an opportunity to move around and mix. While primary school learners may be at first unsure and then delighted at a chance to use the opportunity, older children may be baffled, and teenagers may flat out refuse to do it. If one pupil in a class seems to be an outcast, pairing them off with a peer may be quite a challenge. There are no recipes for solving this problem. I would usually try to spot such a situation, and arrange the groups so that the said child is to work with me. The advantage of doing that is, usually all my students want to perform a task with me, so they may offer grudgingly that they pair off with their classmate, and that I take on each of them in turn as a dialogue partner.
• Untraditionally, we may have newcomers whose family are recent immigrants to the country, and whose native language is not the same as ours. Children pick up easily and quite fast. The younger they are, the easier it is for them to learn the new country’s language, and to accept English as the “real” foreign language. The parents may speak no Russian, so we teachers have to somehow communicate with adults who speak Azerbaijani, Chinese or some other tongue. I have had several orphaned children in my classes; some of them lived with parents or guardians, while others came from children’s homes or state asylums. Naturally their upbringing and their behaviour differ greatly from that of the pupils who live in the now rare environment, a household with two parents, one mother and one father. We need to integrate them all quickly, to help them assimilate and feel part of the educational process. Unfortunately, our aims may not coincide with what they experience at home.
• We do not teach in a nice clean safe vacuum. Children bring in all the problems and concerns to share with a trusted adult. “Mama says those newcomers will take away our home!” What do I say to an eight-year-old? I believe this current hot topic should be discussed at a PTA meeting. I would listen to what “Mama” says, tell her about her child’s worries, and maybe advise her to be more careful about what is said in front of them. Through many years of teaching and dealing with parents, I have learned that they do not always think like we do, or agree with us. In an ideal world, teachers and parents would work together for the children’s good. But we do not live in an ideal world. In our classroom, we can only try to do our best, and tread carefully whenever we find out that the family’s beliefs and attitudes are not the same as ours, or the ones that are considered to be the norm in our country.
• What works in the classroom? A foreign language gives the children a degree of separation from the themes they study, an added objectivity. Whenever they clamour for their own choices of partners and topics, I allow them to choose. After they successfully build up a dialogue, enact a scene or make a presentation, I introduce an element of challenge. “You are always good together, Mike and Pete. Do you think you could make such a brilliant presentation with Steve, Maria or Anna?” Teenagers understand that in the future, they will have to work not only with friendly people in a congenial atmosphere, but also deal with strangers in varied environments. With a little nudge, they perceive a classroom activity as training for their upcoming professions and occupations. Younger children’s reactions are more naked, and require careful handling. They just blurt out to a classmate, “You are a fool! – You are a bully!” It is a remnant of the sand-pit mentality which they have not completely outgrown.
• We are teachers, educators; we are also responsible trusted adults. At times, we become a parent figure for a pupil. It sounds overwhelming, especially when I share it with my younger colleagues at a teacher training course. Well, nobody ever told me that life is easy.

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