What do you think of when you imagine the United States? Maybe you think of New York. Maybe San Francisco. Picture these cities. The image in your head is probably of crowded streets, bustling shops full of people black, white, Asian….
This was not the United States of the 1960s, 1950s, 1940s….all the way back to the beginning. Try to imagine instead a New York that is divided: a white half and a black half. Imagine this written on restaurant doors, bathroom doors, school house doors: BLACKS OUT, WHITES ONLY. Imagine a street where blacks and whites don’t walk together.
A student in the back of the classroom covered her mouth as she choked back her tears. I stood at the board, holding a worksheet I had made to teach about Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. I had to stop, take a deep breath and hold back my own tears. I asked her if she was ok, not sure whether I was.
How do you teach something as complex and multi-dimensional as the Civil Rights Movement to a class of low-level, non-native English speakers? I had been toying with this dilemma all week, trying different variations of my lecture/activity with my different classes. In the past my students would quickly doze off or start chatting with their classmates if I spoke for more than five minutes straight. Textbook activities have always been torture for both parties in the classroom: I’m not sure how to teach them and students just regurgitate sentences while their brains fall asleep. Teaching this activity was a huge risk: the vocabulary was high-level, the material emotionally stirring, and the students were required to sit and listen rather than move around the classroom. I really wanted to teach this topic though, if even for only one fifty minute class period. All of the Japanese teachers with whom I work were skeptical, some even a little unenthusiastic. I sold the topic as a good listening activity for the students who take a lot of oral dictation tests.
Indeed, the vocabulary was a struggle. “Please repeat, se-gre-ga-tion. Good. Okay, dis-crim-in-ation.” The students were captivated…and tongue-twisted. Not all of them, of course, but there was a level of interest and curiosity in the classroom that I had yet to experience after almost six full months teaching. Students found it challenging—they told me after class—but they enjoyed the lesson, they participated, they asked questions, one student almost cried.
I was moved and encouraged. I was also frustrated that there are so few opportunities to actually teach these students, rather than simply have them repeat after me, their live English tape recorder.
During the next month (students are preparing for their final exams and my classes will not be held) and during the student’s summer vacation, I will be thinking about these lessons and searching for the loopholes that allow me to teach topics that get students to raise their hands, choke up, ask questions…and of course, use English! I am not sure that this is the norm, expectation, or goal for a typical Japanese classroom (I know it’s not). But, they were the ones who sought an American English teacher!