Thursday, October 5, 2017

stealing cabs and driving to mailboxes: the first two weeks of teaching

“What exactly are you doing for your Fulbright?”

That’s a question I’ve gotten a lot since I accepted the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) position in April. I’ve mostly fended it off, because I didn’t really have a good idea myself of what this was going to look like. But now, having just wrapped up my second week of classes, I feel like I can answer that question.

I’m the ETA at a Fachoberschule for health and social services. The German school system is pretty complicated, and rather different than the American school system, so I’m not going to try to explain the system as a whole. I’m teaching 12th and 13th grade, and my students range from 17-23 years old. They are being prepped to go into health and social services, though many won’t go that route. Some will go to university, some won’t. Many have no idea what they want to do with their lives. (Who can blame them?)

As the ETA, I’m helping out the English faculty as the native speaker in the classrooms. I’m teaching 10 different classes – once a week for each class – and I help run the English Club. (I also have Fridays off, which is glorious.) In some classes, the teachers have given me free rein to teach however and whatever I want. In others, I’m given specific themes to deal with. The 12th grade is in a module on social problems right now, so I’ve been assigned, among other things, lessons on immigration, gun law, murder rates in Chicago, and the death penalty.

It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, considering that I have no training as a teacher and am no expert on most of the subjects I’m supposed to expound upon. But the challenge is exciting. I’ve always loved learning, and in my last two years of college I began to get an inkling that I might also really love teaching. So far, I do. My mentor teachers are extremely welcoming and supportive, which helps a lot, but what really makes me enjoy it so much and keeps me on my toes is the students.

The students are fascinating. It would be difficult to imagine a more diverse group. Only about half are of German heritage. The others, while mostly born and/or raised in Munich, come from a wide variety of backgrounds. I have students whose parents are from Italy, Turkey, Slovakia, Ukraine, Chechnya, Croatia, Poland, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Eretria, Togo, Kosovo, Serbia, Denmark, and Greece. (I’m probably forgetting something.) There are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and non-religious kids. One of my students has Serbian parents, was born in Munich, lived in Mississippi for years, and moved back to Munich three years ago. Her Southern drawl was extremely disconcerting the first time I heard it.

Most of them speak excellent English, since they’ve been taking English since 3rd grade, so rather than teaching the nuts and bolts of the language I get to help them think about diverse topics and facilitate group discussions. Sometimes they’re reluctant to talk, but if I can get them started then the discussions are fascinating, since they have such a wide range of backgrounds and opinions. Here’s a representative handful of quotes, culled from discussions on immigration, DACA, and what it means to be American:

 “America should take more refugees from Syria because they’re responsible for the situation in Syria.” ( exactly are we responsible for that one?)

“Trump’s wall is a good idea.”

“Anyone who wants to live in America should be able to do so, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.”

“If America doesn’t want illegal immigrants, they should fix Mexico’s problems.”

“Trump is right to look out for Americans first.”

“Governments should look out for everyone, not just their own citizens.”

“Feeling American is what makes you American, regardless of what the government says.”

Thus declare my students.

The stereotypes are amusing, too. There’s the usual: fast food, everything supersized, football, cowboy boots, guns, BBQ, patriotism (so many stereotypes seem to come from Texas). The most random conception of Americans?

“Americans are lazy: they drive to their mailboxes instead of walking down the driveway.”

“Americans steal other people’s cabs.”

At my confused prodding, the student explained that when someone in America hails a cab someone else usually hops in first, riding merrily off while the luckless first comer has to try again.

What do you know? I'm learning things about Americans I never knew...

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