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tutoring fun.

February 27, 2011

Hi friends! It’s been a while.

To be honest, I’ve been typing up odd sentences and random anecdotes for over a week now, but my days are on the long side lately, and by the time I get home, all I want to do is scrounge up something for dinner and collapse for the night. I start to go down the checklist of things that need to be done–emails waiting for a response, blog posts waiting to be finished, homework waiting to be done, lesson plans waiting to be completed–but I often can’t summon the energy to do more than the bare minimum before I pop in a DVD in and pull out some crocheting to work on. I know. I’m 100 years old.

So anyway, you’ll just have to trust me when I say there’s a lot of good, productive things going on in my life and a lot of mundane, uninteresting things at the same time. Actually, there’s probably quite a bit of overlap between the two. Nashkur’allah, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I love all of the kids I work with here, but sometimes I find myself completely exhausted by their lack of discipline. Some of the cutest little ones can also be the most bratty and out-of-control, and some of my most devoted teens are also the most disrespectful. And I know some of that is coming from the way they are disciplined at home and in school–more often than not, it’s a lot of yelling and very little follow-through. Kids aren’t dumb. They know how to take advantage of empty threats. In the classroom, they openly carry on while the teacher is talking, and the teacher stops every once in a while to scream and bang a desk until they quiet down for a few minutes. Then back to the full-on chatter. Exhausting just thinking about it! I walked past a school building with most of its windows open once, and all I could hear was a continuous dull roar.

I don’t struggle as much as I did in the beginning, when some of the kids who had been conditioned in such an environment started testing all my boundaries in my after-school English classes. My friend J observed me in action on Thursday and was surprised/amused at the stern, steely-voiced version of myself that emerged from the lighthearted normal me. Unless I’m strict, it’s a rapid descent into chaos. I don’t hesitate to throw them out of the classroom or snatch things out of their hands–snacks, stolen whiteboard markers, cell phones. I end class early when it becomes clear that no one is interested in behaving themselves anymore, and I never take it personally. We love each other, but when the class stops being beneficial for them (because they’d rather play than learn), it stops being important to me.

I also do a lot of personal tutoring, sometimes with a regular appointment and sometimes just by one-time request. At my old house, which was a little more centrally located for many of these kids, they would show up at my door at random hours with their homework in hand. It was cute, but I was actually glad to get away from that when I moved. Sometimes you just want some boundaries, you know? Now they really have to seek me out if they want my help, and I think that’s healthier than my being the neighborhood English vending machine.

But in addition to the discipline problems, a lot of the kids I help here have a less than healthy attitude towards their studies, particularly in English. They’re taught to memorize by rote, which doesn’t exactly work when you’re learning a language–they memorize answers to questions without ever understanding what any of it means. Seriously. They are “analyzing” these long reading passages by the 8th or 9th grade, but they can’t answer the question, “How’s the weather today?” And their desire to learn English is at odds with their desire to study as little as possible. So you can see why it’s frustrating to work with them sometimes. After about five minutes of vocab review, they get bored and hint that I should be more forthcoming with the correct answers. Um, no thanks.

Which brings me to my new favorite students of all time, who inject a little energy into my tutoring routine and are making it fun again. I haven’t been tutoring them long, but I’m spending a disproportionate amount of my free time with them, considering how many requests I get. These days I’m retaining my right to be picky about who I’ll agree to help and how often. There just aren’t enough hours in a day, and it’s not hard to figure out who will actually benefit from my time and who will not. But when a mutual friend with their mother told me their story and asked if I’d consider meeting them, I trusted her judgment enough to say yes.

Basically, these three very bright kids–two boys and a girl–recently transferred schools with some outside financial help, but that means they’re really struggling in their English classes, since they’re switching from the abysmal government school curriculum to the more challenging (but in my opinion, no better taught) one at their new school.* They were all feeling a bit overwhelmed and discouraged, I think, so that’s where I come in.

They are gems, these three. I’ve never encountered kids here that are so eager to learn, not to mention so patient and earnest and good-humored. The boys greet me by kissing me on the cheek like an “auntie” rather than a “miss,” and the girl is always grinning at me, her eyes dancing as she learns alongside her older brothers while waiting for her turn. In fact, they all do that, lingering in the room even when I’m ostensibly helping out one of the other siblings, shouting out answers to my questions and slipping me pieces of candy.

Their mother told me at our second session how happy she was that it was all working out. The kids were scared at first that I’d be strict, she told me, but after our first session they all argued over who would get to work with me first the next time. In the end they wrote their names on pieces of paper and picked them out randomly.

I’m serious. Do kids get more adorable and lovable than that? Also, is it any wonder that I don’t feel particularly rushed to leave their place, even after two grueling hours of tutoring? It doesn’t feel like work when I’m with them. Plus, they keep me entertained: today, when I asked “how are you” and got “I’m-good-thanks-and-you” in response, I said, “Fine.” The boy stared at me, confused. “What?” “Fine,” I repeated. “What?” “It means ‘good,‘” his mother translated impatiently. Finally, his face broke into understanding and he started grinning. “Ohhh! I thought you wanted a Fine!!” “Fine” is synonymous with “tissue” here, just like “Kleenex” might be at home. I laughed for about five minutes.

Or: when their mother asked how to say “tafaddli” in English, I explained there was no one phrase or word we used. Depending on the situation, we might say “Help yourself,” or “Go ahead,” or “Here you go,” or even–if you say it with the right intonation–just a cheerful, “Here!”

Well, about half an hour later, I was intently supervising the older boy’s work when I became vaguely aware of a voice behind me saying something that sounded like, “Hair. [Pause.] Hair.” Totally confused, I turned around to see the middle boy standing there with a tray of coffee, saying exactly what he thought his mother had coached him to say. “Hair.” When the rest of his family and I figured out what was happening, we laughed so hard he fled the room in embarrassment and had to be reassured that he didn’t do anything wrong. It was my fault for not explaining that properly at all. I think we’ll stick with “hair you go” in the future.

Hey, also, get this: one of the reasons I’m recommended as an English tutor these days is because I’m a native speaker who can also communicate in Arabic. Um Z, the mother of the family I’ve just described, told me today after I scribbled some definitions into a notebook that the best thing about me was that I could read/write/explain in Arabic. And actually I end up using a surprising amount of Arabic when I’m teaching and tutoring. I know some people would violently object to this, because language immersion is supposed to be the most effective way to teach a foreign language. But I think about it like this: if I were struggling in Spanish class and my parents got me a tutor, only this tutor refused to speak a word of English, even just to explain a concept I didn’t understand at all…I’m pretty sure I would have a panic attack. So I do what I can to make the whole process easier, and I sneak in a lot of Arabic practice along the way…win-win.

[*Fun fact: The neighborhood private schools aren’t free, but they aren’t out of the question for the local community either. Education is often a big priority for parents, who scrimp and save to figure out ways to get their kids out of the public schools. Having said that, I’m acquainted with plenty of kids in the government and UN school systems too, as well as some–Iraqi girls mainly–who aren’t in school at all.]

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 10:47 pm

    Dearest fellow prematurely old person who always has more wonderful work than time, you are the best. ❤

  2. Susie Han permalink
    February 28, 2011 12:23 am

    omg… i thought you died. … you werent updating on either blog so i got really nervous… i mean a part of me knew that you were just probably very busy… but nevertheless i was left disconcerted for days when i would check your blogs and there were no new posts.

    also… stop hiding on skype. i always get on around 3 seeing if youre there but youre never there! i give up on email. lets just do skype.. fb me when a good time for you is… not this week(i have a huge exam on thursday) but next week(spring break :D)

    love you!

  3. Susan permalink
    March 3, 2011 5:13 pm

    this made me smile…a lot 😀 thank you for sharing your stories with us.

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