Wednesday, January 9, 2013

MELS English School

           A friend of mine who works at the  United Nations office here in Bissau told me that despite creole being the local language, Portuguese being the working language, and French being the West African business/finance language, everything that’s important that happens at her job happens in English. At the local level, the perspective I’ve gotten about English, as described to me by an English student, is that anyone who speaks English has no problems in the world.  English is kind of a big deal here, and the desire to learn it is even bigger.
One of the classrooms at MELS school
            Waldir is a good friend of mine and he is an English teacher at MELS English and French school.  He and some colleagues got together and started this school several years ago. They began renting a room in an abandoned house turned school building. After some time their school became so popular that they began renting the entire building. At one point they were teaching 300+ students!
            Unfortunately, they are leasing from someone who wants to leach off of their success. Every time he notices that they are expanding, he ups the rent. At one point they were paying 60,000 fc a month, per room. That is 120 US dollars per month per room! That might not sound like a lot, but for local currency its a big chunk of change. Despite the situation, they are dedicated to teaching English, not just as a way to communicate but also as a tool to empower those who are learning it.
Going over telling time with first English class
            Yesterday Waldir called and invited me to go check out the school. The school has four rooms filled with desks and a chalkboard. That’s all.  I asked what they were planning to do with the space, if anything. They would like to expand, get windows and doors, and new chalkboards.  Unfortunately, given their situation with the landlord all the extra money goes to paying rent. They are currently looking for new spaces to hold their school.
            I had a strong feeling I should mentally prepare something in the event I should get sucked into teaching. I should have followed my gut, because as soon as I walked through the door Waldir handed the class over to me.  The first class was easy. They are still learning vocabulary, so I got away with going over body parts and having them test each other while engaging in dialogue.
            The second class was not so easy. They could speak pretty well and had really high expectations of what I was going to teach them. It made me realize that even though English is my native language I couldn’t off hand teach all the grammatical elements of the language.  No wonder people who go abroad to teach English have to take a class on how to teach English before they go.
            I asked the class if there was anything in particular they wanted to practice or learn. They responded with their frustrations that I should already know because I speak English. Their eagerness to learn was both inspiring and intimidating.  I went off of my own experiences in learning a new language and the fact that sometimes all you need is a chance to talk and struggle wit the language. Since I didn’t know them, I had them present themselves to the class while answering a couple specific questions. They all went up and we helped correct their English as we went.  
            Fortunately it was a success and pretty funny to hear their similarities( like going to the club) and differences ( like reason’s for studying English).
            Since then, I have been going once/twice a week to teach the afternoon classes. Teaching is no joke! Every experience I have had teaching or facilitating is always a reminder of how much work it is! But is also such a rewarding experience, especially if those in the class are eager to learn.   

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