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On Teaching English

By Prodenbough

I’m standing in front of a 9e class with my principal, who is introducing me. “This is your new teacher. He came all the way from America to teach you, so respect him! He will be teaching you chemistry…” dramatic pause “and also we will be adding English to your schedule.” At this last comment, the class erupts into cheers and applause. Kids here are ecstatic to learn English.

And that is a good thing. Peace Corps volunteers love to feel like they have a role that is both valued and appreciated in their community. I’ve discovered that I like teaching English because the kids like learning English. With chemistry, it’s harder. At times it can seem ridiculous that kids are learning about the difference between esters and ethers in a community such as Yembering that quite frankly has bigger issues at hand. I just have to remind myself (and occasionally my students) that everyone, in their educational career, learns facts that he or she will never need to recall again. It’s impossible for education to be entirely and exclusively vocational. Instead, what schools should seek to do is to help students establish a basic, academic educational background (that includes chemistry). Within the vehicle of academic discourse, students learn to problem-solve and think critically. And with those skills honed, they are more likely to be able to solve the more relevant problems that they will face in their personal communities and their lives. At least that’s what I tell myself to convince myself that I’m not a total waste of space here.

But English! The 9e students are thrilled to get a head start on the language, which they normally wouldn’t start studying until 10e, where the more-experienced Guinean English teacher gives English lessons. I know their excitement is bound to fizzle out when they discover that learning English is actually difficult. But for now the kids can’t get enough of it. What is the allure? I’ve tried asking the students that very question. Mostly I get non-answers (see below). So I have to do a bit of guesswork. I suspect that kids here are excited to learn English because they know that it can be a ticket out of here. If they learn English, they can travel, and see amazing things. And everyone wants to travel and see amazing things. Maybe, just maybe, if they are lucky enough, they can move to an English-speaking country and work there and have a slightly better chance at a better life. At least that’s the dream. And if I can help them get just a little closer to that dream, I’m happy to do so.

My first activity in each of my classes was to ask students why it was important to study chemistry or English. Here are some of the reponses I got.

12sm: Why is it important to study chemistry?

-… to know how to make things

-… it is a very rich subject that is indispensable. Many things are made with chemistry, such as bombs and alcohol.

-… chemistry teachers us natural phenomena that are important in human life.

9e: Why is it important to study chemistry?

-… to know what I don’t know about chemistry

-… chemistry is very important in daily life, like making medicine.

-… chemists make different metallic objects

-… it’s interesting

-… to know electricity and corrosion

-… if you study chemistry a lot you can become an intelligent chemist (that one is my favorite chemistry response…)

9e: Why is it important to study English?

-… to understand English (this was by far the most common response…)

-… it’s an international language in the world

-… English is a beautiful language

-… English dominates the world

-… English is the most spoken language in the world

-… it is the richest language

-… to understand the English words on computers

-… to better communicate with people

-… English is the most interesting language in the entire world. We study English so that we can travel and work in Anglophone countries. I am very happy this morning. (and that’s my favorite response)

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