Note: I’m in Temuco this week with limited internet access, but I’m going to let WordPress auto-update my blog with a few posts I’ve been meaning to publish. If something gets screwed up, I’ll fix it when I’m back in Santiago.
Over the last couple of weeks, I spent five mornings observing in Liceo Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, a public high school in the Centro neighborhood of Santiago. My first morning, I was placed in a 4º medio (12th grade) Language class (meaning a Spanish class), with a very experienced teacher who knew all her students from the year before. She led class in a very participatory and discussion-based manner, which I was pleasantly surprised by; I’d heard from a few college students that most of the teaching here is done in a more lecture-based style. The class was one on Literature and Identity, and the discussion — which revolved around how to define literature, how to define identity, and why it was useful to study both of them in combination — got very philosophical at points. When I spoke to the teacher afterwards, she told me that most of the class had been heavily involved in the protest movement the year before (this school had been taken over for seven months), and so had some really interesting viewpoints and perspectives that she wanted them to share. Overall, I was super impressed with the quality of teaching and the level of critical thinking I saw in the class.
The other four days, I sat in on English classes, observing one English teacher in particular. Those classes were also interesting to watch, but a bit more difficult. The teacher was obviously trying really hard to get her classes up to speed — many of them had missed a lot of school thanks to the protests last year — but you can’t really catch a class up who never had the proper information to start with. She had them do a lot of speaking exercises as well as some writing exercises, but most of the kids lacked a lot of basic vocabulary (numbers, the verb ‘to be,’ adjectives describing emotions) that I would have expected in students who had taken previous English classes. English is obligatory starting in 5th grade, here, but the teacher I was observing said that when she asks her 1º medio classes about their previous experience, many of them say they didn’t have any English classes in their earlier education — the teacher and the administration would do the paperwork as if they had the correct number of hours of English a week, but that time would actually be spent working on material that would be on standardized tests, for example.
So students are coming into this high school without a strong background in English… and while the education they’re getting in high school is certainly well-intended, I don’t think I would call it good. They have 4 hours a week of English, which is the same amount of time I had in my Spanish classes in middle and high school, but the methodology and materials are vastly different. More importantly, the objective seems to be vastly different: according to both the teacher I observed and the principal of the school, the goal of English classes in the public school system is not actually to create speakers of English. Instead, the goal is to create students who can understand what the read and listen to in English. Production is not the main focus; a much stronger emphasis is placed on comprehension than production.
That, to me, is just freaking weird. Yes, it’s difficult to teach kids to speak a language, especially if they don’t have a lot of exposure to it outside of class, especially if you don’t have that much class time to use to teach it to them. But the implication I picked up, especially from my conversation with the principal, is that to get their students speaking some English by the time they left 4º medio would just be impossible… and so the curriculum kind of doesn’t bother with that, and just focuses on comprehension. I’m sorry, what?! What kind of defeatist mentality is that?
To her credit, the teacher I was observing did focus a lot on speaking exercises and conversations, especially in the 2º medio class I saw her teach. She had them asking each other questions (and then answering each other’s questions), coming up with dialogues, and giving examples of certain things out loud; for example, when they talked about question words, the class had to come up with examples of questions you would ask using the word “what.” (The first suggestion was “What’s up?”, which quickly turned into half the class going “Wazzuuuuuuuuup?!” à la that one Budweiser commercial. Obviously these kids have some exposure to American pop culture.) But they weren’t working from a textbook — she told me later that she thinks that the 2º medio textbook is too complicated for her students, so she doesn’t use activities directly out of it — or any other written resource, and the teacher’s English, while good enough to hold a casual conversation, was maybe not quite accurate enough to be teaching classes. I didn’t say anything or correct her unless she asked me a direct question, because I didn’t want to undermine her in front of her whole class, but there were more than a few errors in the sentences she wrote on the board for them to copy down. I don’t mean to call her out or blame her for anything, because it’s got to be seriously difficult to teach a foreign language that you learned in a classroom as well — it’s why I don’t think I’ll ever become a Spanish teacher, because I’m terrified of teaching something that’s just wrong. But I think the students would have been better served if they’d had another resource, like a textbook, to reinforce the things she was trying to teach them.
In the 1º medio class I observed, the teacher still focused on communication and sharing with the class, but the expectations for the students were very different. These kids were the equivalent of U.S. 9th graders, but they were working extensively on numbers, letters, and spelling basic words. At no point did any of them actually have to put a full sentence together in English. This class did have a textbook to work with, which was 100% in English, so the teacher translated the instructions for the students who didn’t understand them. She then had them do an activity where they had to come up with five characteristics of being a teenager… but she let them give answers in Spanish, not in English. That in particular seemed weird to me — if you’re going to do content-based activities, you’ve got to do them in the language you’re trying to teach, or they become really freaking pointless. Explaining the finer points of English grammar using Spanish I understand, or going over complicated instructions for a particular activity, but to instruct your students not to use English in an exercise designed to get them using English in contexts relevant to their lives? I feel like that defeats the whole purpose. Even if they couldn’t manage full sentences, at least making them come up with the relevant English vocabulary (a few of them had dictionaries) would be a step in the right direction. I felt like the bar was set pretty low in all the classes I saw, but especially in this one. I’m not super familiar with the literature on teacher expectation effects, but I can kind of guess intuitively that if you barely even expect your students to try to use the language you’re supposed to be teaching them, you’re not going to get very far.
All in all it was a very interesting experience, if a little bit disheartening. I’m going to be writing a paper on my observation experience, especially relating to my thoughts about the English classes, so in the process of writing that I might dig up more information that I’ll share here about the curriculum and methodology. Right now, though, my main thought is that to actually teach Chilean high school students something that’s worth their time and effort, something is really going to have to change.