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Teaching English in školka

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I had forgotten how challenging teaching English as a foreign language could be until I found myself in my daughter’s preschool classroom staring into the expectant faces of six Czech předškoláci (kindergarteners). When my jubilant “hello!” was returned with silence and downturned eyes, I realized my goal of having a conversation with the children in English might need to be shifted to simply getting a response, even non-verbal. After my welcome song failed to engage the children in speech, I resorted to giving a few instructions in Czech, and the children’s relief (and mine) was audible.

I shifted tactics and asked the children to chant their greeting in unison. Chanting worked better, but I was dismayed by the trepidation I still saw in the children’s faces. I had looked forward to this lesson all week, scouring my children’s bookshelves and the internet for interesting songs, games and learning material, and I felt discouraged.

A few minutes later, I brought out animal masks for the children to wear, and the mood changed abruptly. Now I had six giggling students making strange animal sounds. They still weren’t paying much attention to me and they were mostly speaking in Czech, but I relished in the fact that they’d relaxed enough to have fun with the masks. We finished the lesson by reading a short story on animals, and I gave them a colored sheet of animals to take home to practice.

After I’d released the children to their parents and I’d gathered Anna from the classroom where she’d been waiting for me, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. When I’d initially offered to teach English at Anna’s Czech preschool, I had envisioned a classroom setting where Anna would also be able to participate. Now I was thankful that Anna hadn’t been in the class. I hadn’t anticipated having resistance at all from the students and I’d expected their English level to be stronger. Nonetheless, I was filled with a sense of purpose and challenge. I wanted to show these children that learning another language could be fun and might come in handy.

From talking to the school’s director and other parents, I learned my students spent the previous year in English class sitting at a table coloring pictures and learning vocabulary from a workbook. It is true that they can count from 1-10 and identify colors, but the concept of communicating with me or with each other is still foreign. Still, each week I persist with my rhymes, songs and games, since it seems a shame not to encourage them to communicate beyond the skills required to regurgitate vocabulary.

When I stop to reflect, I can identify with their reluctance to speak although I hadn’t counted on it. I remember waiting anxiously each time my high-school French teacher scanned the room for someone to call on. Even when I knew the answer, I was never confident that I could verbalise it correctly. Naively, I had thought the children’s previous year of English with a Czech teacher would have paved the way for easy conversation with me this year. If I’d been working with 2 or 3 year-olds, fear of failure or embarrassment probably wouldn’t be a factor in the children’s attitude toward me, but since these kids are already in the stage of wanting to fit in, I realize I’ll have to work harder to earn their trust before we can start learning English.

After a month of lessons, I know which students I can count on to participate willingly and which ones I’ll have to entice with games and movement activities. The majority of my class is comprised of boys, so movement activities nicely release their end-of-the-day energy, but it is more difficult to reign them in afterward to move on to another more focused activity. Although my students willing sing along to our English songs, they don’t respond with joy the way I’ve had toddler classes react. Perhaps not surprisingly, the activities that they enjoy the most are crafts-related, such as drawing a “happy” and a “sad” face on a popsicle stick puppet or gluing modes of transport cards in place on a worksheet. I don’t want to spend most of our time on non-verbal activities, but I also want to build their confidence and trust so that we can move on to more interactive activities, so we do a mixture of both.

Since I see the students on a daily basis at drop-off and pick-up for Anna, I always greet them with a cheery “hello.” I felt a major break-through one morning when two students waved and replied “hello.” It was the greeting, I’d hoped for on the first day, but it sounded even sweeter since I knew the effort required behind it. A few of the students still won’t look me in the eyes outside of class, but I hope their breakthrough will come soon too.

I’m pleased that our class is moving forward, even if I’d originally anticipated quicker progress and a more natural student-teacher rapport. I know that I’m learning as much as my students and I hope that, in time, I’ll refine my teaching skills to better suit the particular needs of these Czech kindergarteners. Speaking some Czech has proved invaluable, although I want to rely increasingly less on my Czech as the year progresses and the children grow more confident.

Last week, Anna’s teacher asked me if my class would be able to prepare a Christmas carol to sing at the upcoming holiday besídka (performance). I was nervous to promise that we’d sing in public, but I want the students to have a chance to show their classmates and their parents what they are learning, so I agreed. The performance should bring our first semester to a nice culmination and give positive feedback to bolster us forward in the spring semester. With the holiday season just around the corner, we’ve got a few weeks of hard work ahead of us, but I hope the rewards from the experience will be worth it.

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