In the private English school world parents rule. So when parents say there will be four classes each day during summer school, there will be four classes each day, and Josh and I will find ourselves quite overwhelmed.
But summer school is over now, we have had a vacation, and the new semester had begun. Many students have returned from last semester, many from summer school have joined my previous classes, and some new students have been added as well. But just because the new semester has started doesn’t mean the parents aren’t still in control. When parents say their child has a great command of the English language they are put into classes accordingly, despite the student’s actual abilities. When parents say their child’s friends are in a certain class that is where the student goes. When parents want their child to learn A, B, C and D that is what the student is taught.
Wait a moment: since when should parents have total control over what I teach in my classroom?
I understand not only the desire parents have to share their input, but also the value of it. No one knows these kids like their parents, but few if any of their parents have any kind of background in education, and as much as they may want me to I am not about to run my classroom like a Chinese public school room. That is why there have been a few changes instituted in my classroom this semester- whether parents like it or not.
Letter sounds: Letter sounds practice (and in some cases introduction) is now the first ten to fifteen minutes of each and every class. While most of my students are great at memorizing vocabulary, verb patterns and sentence structure, not a single one can spell. They may be able to tell me a picture is a cat, but if I ask them to write it without a word bank they can’t do it. In the public school system the students are taught letter names, but not sounds. In fact, some of my students did not know that each letter made a sound. Most of my students were unaware that each of the letters in a word work together to create the sound of the word. In Chinese there is no phonetic system of writing, so it is no surprise that the idea of letter sounds does not come naturally to my students. What I do not understand is why this skill that is so essential to writing and reading English is not a part of English lessons in public schools. The only snag in my plan? The students shouldn’t be learning “things as invaluable as the sounds of letters” to quote one parent.
Spelling practice: My older students have begun spelling practice as an activity after their other work has been completed. There are many words that my students must write often and are not completely phonetic. So, whenever my students have time during class they are working on practicing a list of commonly misspelled words. The students have multiple activities they use to practice their words like creating them with clay, writing them in rainbow colors, drawing a picture or writing the Chinese and then writing the English word next to it and a few others. The activities not completed are to be taken home and practiced. Each week we have a test, but not for any kind of grade. The student’s tests are returned and they are asked to continue to practice the words they missed. The problem with this activity? Parents want their kids to be able to write in English, but only want them to practice oral speaking in class.
Splitting up classes: Even though I am the teacher I have little say about which class a student is placed in. This means that in one class I have students with two semesters of English from our school, students who have only learned English in our summer school program, and brand new students who have no English at all. While I would prefer to split up the kids into different classes for each skill level, that option is just not available. So the solution is to differentiate. All of my students learn letter sounds; all of my students participate in review of the subjects they know. Students are split into groups based on their skill level. By having my assistant review with the students I am able to introduce new material to each group of students after they have finished reviewing. Since they do not all finish reviewing at the same time I am able to get each group started on an activity while the other groups are still working. It is tiring, labor intensive, and takes quite a bit of scheduling and planning, but it is also the only way to ensure that each student learns at their own level. The catch? Parents want their kids to be learning the same thing the rest of the class is learning, whether or not they have the background to do so.
In a perfect world students would be sorted into classes by skill level, my textbooks would have been developed by someone with a background in education and some common sense, and the parents and the school would trust my professional opinion. But as it is, I must work with what I’ve got and do my best for the kids in my care. And in my professional opinion, that means sometimes I have to throw out the desires of parents and ignore the warnings of the school staff to make sure these kids get the things they need.