Striking a Balance

Across the education field, a major shift in focus is taking place: while the teacher was once viewed as the sole purveyor of all knowledge, with learners sitting passively as empty vessels, we now consider students’ active participation in classroom activities to be of central importance to the learning process. As such, teachers are now increasingly viewed as facilitators of educational experiences, by which which students inquire, experiment, and, ultimately, discover new ideas for themselves. This innovative, “student-centered” instruction draws upon the existing interests and competencies of the student body in order to determine curriculum content, with instructors tailoring activities according to the likes and dislikes of their particular students.

In the American university system, the notion of selecting a course of study based on one’s particular interests and aptitudes is taken for granted. Indeed, through a system that is unlike that of most other countries, freshman at American colleges enroll without having to declare a course of study, thereby allowing them to explore their interests before embarking on the path of their choosing. Thus, as a recent graduate of the U.S. tertiary education system myself, I was surprised to learn that the interests and career aspirations of my college-aged students in the STEP! II EFL Program did not always so neatly match up. In fact, many of them had initially intended to pursue a different field of study and were forced to change course due to unforeseen circumstances.

Mahfouza, now a local intern with TYO’s  After-School Academic Support for Kids (AASK) program, was one such student. In Nablus, Mahfouza explained, nearly every aspiring college student encounters some unwanted change to their planned course of study due to unsatisfactory test scores, lack of funds, or familial obligations. In her case, though she dreamed of one day becoming an engineer, Mahfouza’s tawjihi exam scores fell just below the qualifying score for engineering, so she enrolled as an economics major. “I was so disappointed and angry,” she remembered, “it took me nearly a full semester to recover.”

After that first semester, however, Mahfouza’s outlook began to change. She recalled with excitement the classes she took— each full of new and interesting information to acquire— as well as the many friends that she met through her program. She harbors no regrets about setting aside her engineering dreams; on the contrary, the experience inspired her to seek out further opportunities for learning and personal growth, and it was this inclination that initially brought her to try her hand at working with youth at TYO.

Students play an English matching game during class to help them learn English letters.

Students play an English matching game during class to help them learn English letters.

In the classroom, Mahfouza strikes a delicate balance between appealing to the interests of her young students while still introducing them to educational material. Mahfouza explained this balancing act, saying, “kids have big imaginations and I can’t put that in a small box. But there are also rules to follow and we need to teach them something new every day. I try to use games to get them to trust me, and to learn. That way, when I say, ‘we are going to do math!’ They know it will be fun.”

This summer’s EFL Fellows have employed similar tactics, embedding vocabulary practice inside of engaging races, puzzles, and creative projects. Fellow Darren Spirk uses these games not only to build students’ English ability but also to develop a sense of rapport in the classroom. In so doing, he explains, “it’s it’s become a very comfortable and humorous classroom atmosphere where they feel free to make mistakes and laugh.” Thanks to this heightened sense of confidence Darren’s beginner-level students are now able to deliver lengthy, improvised speeches on a variety of topics, a task which, a few short weeks ago, would have seemed out of their reach.

Two EFL students listen as their classmate reads a poem written and delivered in English.

Two EFL students listen as their classmate reads a poem written and delivered in English.

In my own EFL classroom, one of the most powerful moments of the session occurred during a spoken word poetry reading, during which my elementary students shared poems written in the form of a letter to a person that changed their life. Though the assignment initially garnered a combination of groans and wide-eyed looks of fear, with the help of EFL Fellow Kyra Zimmerman and International Internship Coordinator Lindsey Nave, who graciously offered to share stories of inspiring figures in their own lives, the students eventually warmed up to this creative writing task.

The final results surpassed my expectations: the poems were heartfelt and replete with creative imagery. Thus, through gradual, gentle encouragement, the students were able to surpass their linguistic and personal boundaries to complete high-caliber work.

While the task of balancing student motivation against rigorous curriculum might seem daunting, across TYO’s education programs, examples of innovative teaching can be found which simultaneously engage students’ existing interests, while motivating them to try novel experiences.

The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.

-Amy, Summer 2016 EFL Fellow