The classroom is not quiet, the children are not focussed and we don't seem to be following a coherent curriculum, but English is certainly being learnt here.
Having been educated by the British private school system, I have certain ideas about the way lessons should be taught. Most of my school memories feature rows of paired desks facing a white board. 20 pairs of eyes watching a teacher delivering a class; notes are scribbled down, hands are raised, there is muted discussion and the occasional outbreak of laughter. People seem to be concentrating and attentive. It's all very civilised. It's just how school should be, right?
A very few school memories are not set in this formulaic classroom structure. Instead we are sitting in a horseshoe, or perhaps just crowded around a table. The teacher isn't standing but sitting among us. No hands are going up and we're calling out answers, talking over each other and arguing. There is a bit of shouting, lots of laughter. Some students are talking amongst themselves, going off on a tangent about something that's been mentioned. It may be related to the subject matter, it probably isn't though. We're not just learning from the teacher, we're learning from each other. It's all rather chaotic, and the lessons seem to chart their own course. These are the lessons that have stayed with me. The lessons that bring a smile to my face and remind me why school could be such an exciting and stimulating place. It is from these lessons that I feel I gained the most.
Now transport yourself 2000 miles to a very different school. State-funded in a country tormented by internal and external conflict. A country with very different social norms to the ones I grew up with. Lots of shouting, pushing, and unbridled irreverence... It's a little bit scary, but also exhilarating. This school, I'm told, is better disciplined than most, but my task, teaching English to the lower level students, is proving extremely challenging. There seems to be a strong correlation here between low English language level and difficult behaviour. The children I teach are aged between 11 and 14 and they, on the whole, don't want to learn English. They want to be outside playing football, inside playing on their phones, they certainly don't want to be learning with me, an 18-year-old volunteer with minimal teaching experience, and an even a smaller grasp of their native language. It is a difficult task, but one that I believe is important.
Let me say first that our lessons do not resemble lessons. The five or six kids in my class sit where they want, get up when they want and leave when they want. It's rare for them to remember their textbooks. Their attention span seem to be almost non-existent and if I'm not engaging them fully, then they'll be talking noisily (sadly not in English), roaming around the classroom (and possibly the school), or lying under the table pretending to be leopards, or worse, snipers.
At times it's very disheartening and I blame myself for being unable to control them. I want to enforce discipline, but in my capacity as a volunteer I lack the means. I'm 18 after all with minimal experience, would I even know how to? It is possible that my insistence to myself and everybody else, that I am making progress here, is just to comfort myself and validate my efforts, but really, I do believe that these kids are learning something.
Although the textbook has all but been abandoned, we are working through a very makeshift lesson plan. A focus on present progressive this week, future the next. We have very little written down to document our progress, but I sense it is happening. Take one child for example, who in my very first class said "I hate speaking English" and then refused to say another word to me for the rest of the lesson. Now, whether he professes to liking to or not, he will speak to me in English. His standard is low, and he often reverts to his native language, but he'll do it. Sometimes he is rude and obnoxious, but as long as it's in English, I'm happy. With the other students I try to just get them talking, feeding them vocabulary as they need it and correcting grammar as they go along. Sometimes our conversations veer into the surreal, and given my own linguistic deficiencies, there is much enactment of vocabulary. As I'm sure you can imagine, the classroom regularly descends into mayhem. But it is so rewarding to hear an 11-year-old use the word "inconsistent" correctly, having only been introduced to it twice before, a child who sometimes finds it difficult to form even the most basic sentences. Then it all seems worthwhile.
When I'm really at my wits' end, I need to remind myself of the second classroom scenario that I described at the beginning. The one with fewer rules and restraints, more freedom, more energy and more dynamism. Although my current situation and the one I described are clearly very different, I like to think that there are some core similarities. The classroom I teach in is certainly stimulating, exciting and pretty anarchic. Although the students are learning from me, they are learning just as much from each other. They correct one another, often aggressively, and argue, but the language balance is slowly changing. Sometimes I hear them speaking and using words that I'm sure I've never used around them. English is something that they are exposed to all the time and so their learning of it is happening constantly. If anything I like to think that my classes give the kids an opportunity (and incentive) to practise the language in an unthreatening environment - in a place where right and wrong take a back seat to effort and enthusiasm.
Our classroom is not conventional. A part of me wishes I could create the paired desk scenario here. Where we would fill exercise books with neat grammatical notes, follow lesson plans, and learn in a serious and controlled environment. But I need to be realistic and I know this isn't going to happen. But the question is, do I really want it to? Sometimes in the midst of all the noise and disorder I see real enjoyment on the faces of the kids. A fascination and delight in the fact they are speaking English and expressing themselves. It's a joy that I only experienced in the less conventional classes at school. These moments are fleeting, but they happen.
I'm not a qualified teacher and I don't know how these students would perform in a written exam, but they are learning. At times I'm not entirely sure how they're doing it, but I just know that they are.