Saturday, October 26, 2013

The unteachables (Goodbye, Posterous!)

I`ve been meaning to write something about my most challenging student for a long time.  I met her about 10 years ago when she was a bank executive.  I went to her bank twice a week to teach her. She was an absolute beginner, and she had to learn English because of her job.
        We liked each other immediately. We were of the same age, both married, two children, same background, a lot of topics in common.....But, her process of learning English turned out  to be a long tiring frustrating journey. Consciously, she realized how important it was for her to learn English. Subconsciously, she hated it. All her obligations were more important than learning English. Instead of having two 90-minute meetings per week, very often it was reduced to  60 minutes. I was chatting to her  secretary for half an hour before her obligations let her have English. She did her homework usually at 2 am after everything else had been completed. And we didn`t have the problem with her lack of time for English only. She found it difficult to learn even the most basic things. She didn't have an ear for English. I kept encouraging her, I am always very supportive, especially with the slower students. I told her that the talent for learning languages could be connected with music. She was surprised, she said she could sing very well and had been the best student in her secondary school at Russian. It was my turn to be surprised. So what was wrong with English?
         After four months at beginner level, we moved on to elementary. After yet another four months I was desperate. I tried every possible method to bring her closer to English. Of course I never let her see my despair. She was blaming herself enough.  Going on to pre-intermediate level at that point would have been a terrible mistake and she had to move on because of her company. And we came up with this brilliant idea to detour to Business English elementary. Nobody else did it but that was her cup of tea! Still, don't expect too much. Her timing was still tight. By the end of this course I could say she was on elementary level. We repeated the detour with pre-intermediate level.
        So after 5 courses, and imaginary 350 classes of English (close to 300 in reality) she was a very weak pre-intermediate level. Still, after so many classes of English, frequent frustration and occasional enlightenment, she didn't give up.  She had a special black leather bag where she kept all her English notebooks and she always carried it with her. She believed she would sometimes use it when she had time. She took it to all her holidays! I told her she had to break the barriers she put up against English. 'You are like a boxer, with your fists up and you don`t let any English there .' She liked that very much, she agreed it was true.
         And then her bank went to a different language school but we stayed in touch. By that timed we became really good friends. We went out for lunch or a cup of coffee. She did another five or six courses of English. She  thought I was her lucky charm, so before her every exam we met to do a kind of revision. She said I made her more confident.
          There is still some bitter feeling of failure when I think about this. I still don't  understand why she didn't make a greater progress with me. I thought maybe she would be more successful with some other teachers. And during her next six courses she changed six of them, with even less success. She always regretted 'the good old times when only the two of us were in her office'
           I was thinking a lot about my friend. Is it possible that there are students that we can call `the unteachables`? I had a few similar experiences as I teach adults, but none was so drastic and so personal. Why is it that despite our great efforts some students make such a slow progress? Can we explain everything by `talent for languages` and the lack of it?

          About three years ago I came across Steven Krashen`s theory of language acquisition. And there in his Affective Filter Hypothesis I think I found a part of explanation My friend obviously had her affective filter up and only rarely we manged to lower it, despite the good will on both sides. Her motivation was somewhere there, but huge amount of anxiety and low self-esteem played their part. I am not sure this discovery could have helped me to teach her  more, I just wish I could have found a way to lower that affective filter.
(This was written in January this year and published on Posterous. Pity it is no longer with us)

Monday, February 4, 2013


          Hello dear friends, old and new!

         I have finally returned to my main blog to continue writing about this Digital Sea journey. The first thing I must say is that  everything is so different from last year, when everything was launched. At the beginning, and good way through the course, I was totally bewildered in an unfamiliar environment, struggling to understand the simplest instructions! As I said, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. This time I don't wonder around strange forests following ambiguous messages (NB all the messages last year  were extremely clear and informative, but when they were decoded by my ignorance a lot was lost in translation). The time has come  to change the film, and the title and picture  make it easy to guess  which film I've switched to.

        Yes, it is  the wonderful Wizard of Oz! Indeed there are a few similarities and a lot of magic here. Like Dorothy, I have my yellow brick road to follow, accompanied by so many dear people along the way. We  are travelling  together, supporting  and encouraging each other. This paved way is leading us, not to the Wizard, but to a different kind of magic, the magic of spaces and links. Like Dorothy, we have our good fairies, dear mods, who appear in the times of troubles to lead us back to the right way.

        And that`s exactly why BaW is different from any other place. Here we are in this beautiful big family, where everybody is doing their best to help you, guide you, not to let you give up. You are given enormous amounts of positive energy, Here sharing and caring are so genuine that it is impossible to be indifferent..Here you feel protected from dangerous sites and serious mistakes. Before, when I got a message about a potentially dangerous site, I immediately retreated to the safety of not doing anything. Now when I see a message about a risk to my computer asking me if I want to go on, I just think to myself: `Of course, I`ll go on where my Baw freinds go`. I feel safe to go into some side lanes, do what I need to do and return to the yellow brick road.    

        To be completely honest, I must say one more thing.. It's not that I don't like being confident, knowing  what one should now. But somehow I miss the mystery of  my first days here.I feel nostalgic about BaW12. I miss the late night talks with Catherine, our struggle to hit the right key. I miss direct tweets to Natasa at 3 am. asking her what URL  or embed code is or something of that type and I miss her immediate retweets. Naturally,  Baw12 will always be a very special for me, because that`s when a whole new world opened  before me. And that, in itself, is a miracle.
       Do you remember the song Dorothy sings in the film? I have just realized something: that place over the rainbow can so very easily be our BaW!