I spent the last 5 Thursday evenings teaching English to refugees in a church south of Nashville. I had some grand plans for what I was going to teach them. Relevant. Authentic. Survival language. The stuff you need to get by and get ahead in America.
All that and more in the space of 10 hours.
As it turns out, the students conspired against me and the class became something quite different.
My refugees were all from Burma. Or rather, they were Karen, an ethnic group that the Burmese Government simultaneously doesn’t recognize and spends much of its time trying to exterminate.
The Karen face some stark life choices; stay and fight in Burma, stay and hide in Burma, or flee across the border to Thailand where they end up in camps, often for many years, raising families – indeed, some of the refugees have never been to Burma – until around 5 years ago where they were able to begin applying for refugee status and start new lives in countries such as the UK, Australia and the United States.
But getting here is only half the trick.
Not speaking English in America is a massive obstacle to employment, education, services and getting the best of life here. To be honest, moving here is hard enough even when you speak the language. When you don’t? That’s a whole new level of seemingly impossible. In their shoes, I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to leave the house.
So I had grand plans. After reading Mac McClelland’s excellent ”For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question’ (you can read an extract on Mother Jones), getting as close as the printed page will let me to the horrors the Karen have endured, I wanted to leave them able to tell their stories, or just explain themselves enough to the American suspicious that they were here on a free ride, that they were up to no good.
Pre-testing showed half of the students were at the high beginner or intermediate stages, and the other half were unable to write the alphabet. So the top half of the students were told to come back the next week and the other half were going to have to find a different class.
The next week, all the students showed up. And there are choices you make at this point; you can tell the literacy students to go away, you can ignore them and hope they get the hint, or you can adapt your lesson plan to include a wide range of abilities.
I chose the last option, perhaps because I like saying “Yes” and because I like a challenge.
I looked for a way to make sure all the students could learn something, even if it wasn’t a way to tell their story, not even close. I put the ESL coursebooks to one side and created every lesson from scratch, adding images to every presentation, every practice, every production activity.
And did I get to hear their story? No, not even close. You don’t get to put those kind pictures on a whiteboard. Besides, reading a book about their history didn’t make me an expert on their lives, and what happened in Burma was their story, not mine.
So our lessons were based around their American lives instead, in the here and now, on the same ESL standards like daily routines and food but with an emphasis on visuals and listen & repeat along with the obligatory grammar structure charts that meant they could all learn something.
And teaching in a church? That was fine. I’d been warned about the state of the classroom. It wasn’t immaculate, but it was fine. There is sometimes an American embarrassment surrounding anything that wasn’t built last week, that hasn’t come shrink-wrapped. For me, as long as the room isn’t moving or on fire, I can handle it.
(The class room was, at any other time, the church’s music room. A drum kit and electric guitars and speakers tidied in one corner, calling out for interference, yet not once did I consider doing a lesson on music.)
The fact that I had to hunt down extra chairs and tables before each lesson? Really didn’t matter, I was already sweating from navigating the hour-long drive that one week blossomed into a tw0-hour grind through downtown Nashville’s pre-Labor Day rush.
The fact that I had to bring my own whiteboard and balance it precariously on a music stand (as in “falling down with a crash at least once per lesson”)? Actually, that was kind of a drag.
But we had a classroom, and students turned up and seemed to pay attention, and they didn’t mind when I had them play Bingo or tell the time using the fakest of yellow foam clocks, so in all, I felt spoilt.
It can feel more than a little…bonkers to be teaching refugees how to talk about the weather.
And it can feel beyond reproach to be juggling tennis balls in front of them in an attempt to elicit the difference between “can” and “can’t”.
And ten hours is nothing, a flash. But they did learn. And they had come from their day jobs or home responsibilities and still had more than enough energy to be sweet and funny and split their time laughing at themselves, each other, or me.
I believe both the UK and the USA have a moral obligation to welcome refugees, and to enrich their cultures in the process. I’m looking forward to improving my teaching skills and my understanding of the Karen, along with other groups of refugees in America.