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Summary of 11/04/05 Discussion
with Janet Rhi
"Stories about Teaching English in Rural Poland"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Elizabeth Catanese (Art History/Creative Writing), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English), Wil Franklin (Biology), Natsu Fukui, Paul Grobstein (Biology), Kathy Huynh, Shayna Israel (Economics/Sociology), Anna Jakubas, Jess Mausner (English, Education @ Haverford) Molly McTague (English, Education), Corey Shdaimah (Social Work, Political Science).

"World Teach," which started @ Harvard, places volunteer English teachers at locations around the world, including Costa Rico and China. Jossi Fritz-Maurer's summer work in Namibia, which we heard about in September, was sponsored by this program. Janet chose to go to Poland, an unusual location for World Teach because it is more developed than most countries served by the program. Her decision to go there was in many ways serendipidous, and she reported having "never been so scared in her life" as she was when she arrived, as the first Korean ever in this rural village ("I was quite an attraction, quite the entertainment"). No one spoke English but the children, and their proficiency was minimal. Janet was really lonely at first, and it took a lot of adjusting for her to live there, where people seemed both "connected to the international world, and stuck in an out-of-the-way place."

Janet described some of the lesson plans that she used for the five classes she taught (these included tongue twisters, jokes, and a comparative analysis of life in L.A. and New York). Based on the work sheets provided by World Teach, Janet expected that she would be teaching grammar and vocabulary, but she soon learned that the kids "knew every declension"; they didn't need her to teach grammar. They needed conversation: their spoken English was "awkward" and "very stilted." She was nervous and "didn't know what to do with the children," who nodded when they spoke to her, and treated her very formally, when she wanted to be something of "an older sister" to them. The students "knew all the parts of speech," but they couldn't do what they would need to do if they came to America: be able to spell their own names, or give directions in English. (Janet's cousins had similar experiences learning English in Korea: they became very proficient on paper, but had no experience with active learning or conversing.) Wanting her students to "loosen up," Janet "didn't open the workbook again," but instead "really emphasized conversation." In evaluations at the end of her stay, the students thanked her "for having us talk," so she didn't mind at all having "gone out of line."

And yet Janet's arrival seemed threatening to the English language instructor: Why did World Teach put her there with a set of expectations that didn't fit with what was needed? (The role of the organization is not well defined in many of countries it serves.) What made these kids come to class during summer vacation? All of them came as volunteers (though many had been urged to come by their parents) and most of them were girls. In the context of the Polish nation becoming developed, taking up membership in the EU, these children were were eager to speak English, and excited to meet a native speaker. This was occurring in light of a radical transformation of the Polish educational system. Until 2003, Russian and German had been the second languages taught in schools, but now there is agreement that everyone--even those who will not leave the villages-- "needs English to succeed."

There were differing ideas of success, however. A teacher (like Janet's host mother) who encouraged students to think that they could "do whatever they want to," caused controversy among parents, who felt their kids were being encouraged to do things they didn't have resources to support. "We don't have the money to send them to college in one of the capital cities." These observations led to a lively discussion of the cultural and social construction of progress through education. Poland is in "such a transitional phase," from developing to developed nation. Being the first American in the village was very uncomfortable. Students would constantly ask Janet what her life was like, what her ambitions were, and she "held back" in answering them, in an inherent acknowledgement of "how much more luxurious" her life was than theirs. She was asking herself many of the same questions Jossi was asking in Africa: "Am I empowering these students?"

Socio-economically, this is a poor village, composed of farmers and factory workers who thought it was worth it to educate their children in English. For some parents, Janet functioned as a "supplemental tutoring service"; they just wanted to help their kids "get through the school lessons," lessons which weren't very useful for "getting out of the village." But Janet found herself working with two populations, a mix of parents who "were and weren't interested in having their kids get out of the village." Students in the first group were very young, and taking Janet's classes to practice English for their school lessons. The older and more gifted groups were very interested in using English to succeed and progress. (Janet defined "gifted" as "willing to sit still, follow directions and try harder.") Parents--even her host mother, whose views were controversial in this village--told Janet, "You are very liberal, very free." Parents were thrown off when she had her students do something active, like stand up and stretch their arms. "You are so independent," people told her; "I can't believe your parents let you come all this way alone." They also found it very difficult to understand the concept of volunteering, of working without pay.

Discussion then turned to the different points, purposes and motives of education. Many of Janet's fellow volunteers had host families who thought that American education prepares students to be "too independent." Perhaps it's "too independent" only in a different cultural context? If all educational systems inculcate students for the culture in which they live, then American education, which is more active and interactive, might be understood not as "educationally more sophisticated and wiser," but simply as appropriately preoccupied with a stress on the kind of individual achievement we value in this country. In Poland, however, where there is a lot of emphasis on community and solidarity, the schools focus on teaching respect (Janet was often asked, "What about your mom and dad? Why are you here, instead of spending the summer taking care of your parents? Why aren't you being more respectful?") Mention was made of the sociological notion of schools as teaching the "status culture," and students who enter schools with a different experience having to suppress their culture to take on a new one. The "point of schools," then, is not to teach mobility, but to further reinforce the existing social structure.

And what Janet was teaching was not applicable to the culture in which she was teaching. She found herself struggling (as Jossi had) with questions about whether she was doing any good. "What did it do to these kids, for me to be there for eight weeks, then be gone?" Janet is happy that some of the children have stayed in contact in her, and wishes she could go back and work. She would like to help the children apply their education to "something more than making money," to learn to "want something other than power" at the age of thirteen. The students were "very driven on the path of progress"; they were invested in social mobility, defined in terms of socio-economic status. They didn't have very satisfactory answers to Janet's questions about what they did for fun. Without the resources to play sports, or instruments, or even to read, the students didn't know how to make good use of their free time. They were "so impressive academically, but not outside that." Janet wanted to encourage them to more creativity and innovation. When discussion turned to "ways of being expressive without money," of using found materials (for instance) to make instruments, it was observed how "socially disruptive" it would be, to encourage people to do that kind of thing. Mention was made of a current CSem in which the unconscious is being discussed: it's different in everyone. Encouraging creativity will make people less predictable to each other--and a stable long-term culture doesn't want that. To encourage children to "play" is to take a serious position in the on-going political debate between constructing a stable culture and a labile one. Does this mean becoming a new type of missionary?

We also discussed the problematics of Americans teaching English in a foreign country. Education validates structures that already exist. Does the culture need to be changed, in order to teach differently? It can be detrimental to do that; mention was made of a program called "Born into Brothels," which dismissed the mothers' livelihood as criminal, took kids out of their homes, and disrupted a whole structure in the name of helping children succeed. On the flip side, participants in this discussion have been impassioned about needing to get out of educational settings that were doing a good job of enculturation, because they "wanted something individual."

Unsettling ideas were floating through our heads.

We found ourselves wary about imposing on others--but is there any way to offer "exposure" without imposing? It's like walking on eggshells (for instance) to take kids out of the inner city and place them in suburban schools (as the ABC program does). The teacher should be able to distinguish between imposure and exposure in terms of her own intention: she should not be trying to get others to behave like her. But from the point of view of the student, if the activities the teacher is offering are incompatible with her home culture, that distinction goes away. Students who are exposed to different things may be changed by the exposure; if they start to distance themselves from their parents, then the well-meaning intention of the teacher becomes irrelevant. Teachers cannot control the outcomes of the work they do. If you are working with kids, and expose them to something that they make use of--to break out of their culture, when their parents are trying to hang on to them, then--whatever your intent--you are a significant causal agent. As teachers, we should think about this: the consequences of creating open classrooms and treating everyone individually can be quite disruptive.

We think that, if students come to Bryn Mawr, they are chosing a certain education, and should be ready for what they get. Does the same presumption hold when we go into a community to teach? What choices do our students have, to take in what we offer? Are we prepared to defend, on moral grounds, the kind of education we offer? (Janet had a sense of being torn.) Do we believe that, in the long run, people are better off the more they can think for themselves? If so, we can use teaching to maximize the possibility that everyone does that, and play a role in making that happen.

A story was told about the very different view towards change in Japan. On a radio show about how people spend their vacations, an admiring comparison was made by the Japanese who (like Americans) "have to spend their time productively," of the Polish, who are "such a cool culture," because they are able "not to be active." To teach people to "change things" is very American. That story formed an appropriate contrast to the earlier claim: it would be reprehensible to try to prevent anyone from preferring "to sit for six hours." A teacher should not want to have everyone be like her. Or like an American. But a teacher would be morally justified in helping others be who they want to be. The activity is not one of colonizing, or imposing, but "exposing" to difference can nonetheless be quite destabilizing, and do damage. We have some wariness about going to other places. Do we want to teach abroad, and cause that type of reaction? But we can't go anywhere to avoid this problem; it happens to those of us working in Norristown and Philadelphia. (It happens to those of us teaching and learning at Bryn Mawr!) Whatever we do, we will have an impact on other people, so we ought to know at a fairly deep level what our justficiation is. Doing so requires us "not to be neutral."

Many parents don't really think about these things: they don't consider their own moral positions, the justification for how they have an impact on their own children. The American public education system tries to detach parents from such involvement; teachers, who are generally hesitant to talk to parents, should work harder to "bring them into the picture." Schools have "cut out parents," but parents have also, by and large, defaulted child-rearing to the schools. In many parts of the world, what we do here--leave home to come and live at a college--is a "foreign idea."

We closed our discussion by agreeing that--in order to help both students and faculty feel that, over the long term, they are able to change what happens in their courses, and in the hopes of "getting over" the notion that what goes on in the classroom is private, and non-negotiable--we will now take on a series of particular Bryn Mawr classes as "case studies." The first will be Paul Grobstein's course in "Neurobiology and Behavior"; he will make materials available on the web beforehand, and invite past students of the course to join us. Until then, the discussion is warmly invited to continue on the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning."

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