I was up late last night prepping for today’s lesson. I thought up games and wild and crazy activities for the kids to do. I remembered how blank their faces were during the lesson that day and how they kept looking out the window. I came to the awful realization that freshly mown grass was way more interesting than I was.
I told myself, “Hey, they’re kids. Kids need excitement to stay interested and engaged.” So I planned Simon Says. The Hokey Pokey. Charades. Things that kept them moving kept them speaking. Little kid games.
But when I walked into class this morning, the room was empty. I waited a few moments, spreading out my materials, mentally going over what we were going to do that day. Then the precocious eleven year old showed up, all smiles. But the first thing out of her mouth was that two of my students were on vacation in another town, and that the oldest girl was sick.
Just when my brain started revising the lesson to accommodate having only one student, the door opened and two more girls walked in. One was taller than I am, with short bottle-burgundy hair and cropped jeans and a smile bigger than Texas. Her friend had her honey-brown hair pulled up in a wispy ponytail and wide eyes that examined me cautiously. She was a slight girl wearing a ruffley feminine blouse and bright orange sandals. They took the desk right in front of mine, and looked up at me expectantly.
So I handed them registration forms to fill out—name, address, phone number, the usual litany of questions. I watched them fill out the forms, conferring with each other in rippling Croatian dotted with giggles. They were older students—I found out later they were 16 and 15—and I realized that nothing I had planned could possibly keep them entertained. I knew that most of my contemporaries at age sixteen would roll their eyes at any teacher’s attempt to get them to do the Hokey Pokey.
“But,” I told myself, “at least you have three students instead of just one.”
I had no choice. I continued with my lesson as planned, and watched to see how they would react.
They did everything I told them without a single eye-roll or even a puzzled expression. Granted, they didn’t exactly throw themselves into it, but they did everything without questioning. In fact, they seemed to like it. Especially the Hokey Pokey.
We covered weather words, body part words, and occupation words. I had them write down everything they knew in each category. We talked about the words. I added a few to their list. They took notes without my prompting them. They wanted to remember the new and unfamiliar words (“ankle” and “wrist” were completely new concepts for them). It became clear after thirty minutes of teaching that my two new students were way beyond the level I was teaching. If I kept them in Level Two, I would be holding them back.
It got to the point where I almost completely abandoned the lesson plan and just say down at a student desk and talked to the three girls. I asked them about Croatian culture. I asked each of them why they wanted to take English. I just got them to talk. Their English was broken, but very understandable. And even though the age gap between my new students and my precocious eleven year old was so wide, they got along fabulously.
Part of the curriculum involves reading portions of Scripture while students follow along. They have a place in their workbooks to write down any words that aren’t familiar. As a result, I got to explain the concepts of “baptism” and “heaven,” and share my beliefs about both. They listened to me closely, and I saw a flicker of curiosity ignite in each of their eyes.
After that I started giving them busy work. Write something, fill in this, list these. While they worked diligently, racking their brains for vocabulary, I stared at my lesson plan, not reading the words. I started praying silently: “God, what do I do with these girls? I would love to keep them in my class to build a relationship with them. But Lord, they belong in a higher level. They need to learn more than what I’ve been trained to teach them. But they also need You. I feel like You’ve given me an open door with these girls, but they don’t belong in this class. What will happen tomorrow, when the younger students come back and class will move at a much slower pace? What do I do?”
The youngest had to leave for a piano test and hour before class let out. After reviewing proper nouns and the use of capitalization with the two teens, I sat in front of them and looked them both in the eyes.
“I’ll be up front with you,” I told them. “You two are ready to go to the advanced class. Your English is brilliant, and I don’t want to hold you back. You seem to already know most of what I’ll be teaching you in the next two weeks. So it’s up to you to decide: you can stay if you really want to, or you can go to the next level. It’s up to you.”
They looked at me and nodded. I could tell they were both seriously considering it.
“We’ll keep going over the material I had planned for today,” I told them. “Just let me know at any time what you want to do, and we’ll go from there.”
They nodded again. I grabbed vocab flash cards and started going through them with the girls, who had an answer for everything.
I had heard stories from the other teachers of students deserving of much higher English instruction who chose to stay in lower levels. But our rule of thumb is to let the students decide for themselves what they want to do and what they think they are capable of.
Fifteen minutes before the end of the hour, I gave them journals like I had given my students the day before. They oohed and ahhed over the covers while I explained that the purpose of the journals was not for me to correct what they wrote or try to fix their spelling and grammar, but for them to write and for me to respond. It’s my way of getting to know them. I wouldn’t share what they wrote in the journals with anyone.
As I wrote the journal question on the board, I heard a few seconds of murmured Croatian behind my back. Then in English, “We have something to say.”
Thinking they had a question about one of the words in the journal question, I had them wait until I was done. I heard giggles.
I turned around. “You had a question?”
“No,” said one. She and her friend giggled again. “We’re staying.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said. “We want to learn to speak better before we go to other class…and we can help with the little kids.”
I looked at them, and my heart soared. “Alright,” I said. I smiled the biggest smile I’m sure I’ve smiled in days. “I’m glad.” They grinned back.
So now I have two more students in addition to my four. Now we are six. And I can only guess how much fun this is going to be.
Thank You, God.