Taking it to the (Learner's) House
I’ve had a lot of ah-ha moments in the near-year that I’ve been at BRL. The most recent occurred to me as I was planning for a lesson. Like so many other planning sessions, I asked myself, “What do they need? What would be helpful?” I realized that in the month’s I’d been asking this and subsequently planning lessons, I didn’t really KNOW the learners as well as I could.
I’ve read about and heard from other teachers, the benefits of visiting learners in their home environments – that it can build stronger relationships, improve learner achievement, and help teachers to better understand their students. And so then began my quest to visit as many learners’ homes as possible, before the end of my AmeriCorps service.
So a little background about the learners- they are from Afghanistan, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and Nepal. They speak Dari, Pashto, Nepali, Arabic, Swahili, Kirundi (and more) and their English proficiencies vary from beginner to intermediate. They vary widely in culture, educational background, and life experience but in the classroom, we join the common bond of English learning and Its such a privilege to be a part of.
So what did I learn, observe, and take away from the house visits? That's hard to summarize but I'll do my best.
I should start with the bus and just mention that I have never taken public transportation in Roanoke. I didn't know which buses went where, the schedule, or how much it cost to ride. I depended completely on the learners to get to their homes. This was my first observation- that there was a shift in our roles and I was now the learner. They showed me where to put my money and where to sit. They showed me their stops and directed me through their neighborhoods, and pointed out which learners lived where. The bus ride and walk were opportunities to tell me about their neighbors, where they shopped, and their routines.
When I arrived to their homes, I found that all the learners were incredibly welcoming and gracious (it also appeared custom to take off my shoes in many of the homes). They offered bread, fruit and tea, and some even cooked complete meals. A few of my visits occurred during Ramadan, a time of fasting for many of the learners. The learners still insisted that I eat, despite their own hunger. Some learners offered gifts like scarves and dresses, also despite having many belongings – at least it appeared this way. One of the learners pulled up you-tube videos of Swahili lessons and taught me basic phrases. This was really fun and another opportunity to switch shoes.
I also got to know the learners' families. I met their children, their mothers, and siblings. Side note -I'm always fascinated to hear the differences in spoken English between adults and children, as children acquire new languages so quickly. This was mostly true of the learners' children as well. I learned who spoke English in the home and many shared stories with me about their experiences growing up in camps and adjustments they've had to make since moving to the US. They told me about the families they left behind and how they maintain those relationships over the phone and internet. Some said they try to speak with their families every night but with the time difference, it has been difficult. They shared their family pictures with me and one learner showed me a collection of her drawings.
After leaving each of the homes, I did a lot of reflection. I reflected on my own feelings and assumptions and then questioned those assumptions. If I’m being honest, I also experienced several moments of discomfort. I was uncomfortable riding the bus and felt very aware at times, of others staring. I was also overwhelmed by some of the large families and new faces, and languages I didn't know. I bring this up for obvious reasons. These are critical feelings for empathy and that definitely transferred over into my own experience.
I also realized that despite my proactive efforts to never generalize, I had been doing just that with some of my expectations. I had created visuals in my mind of what the homes might look like, what possessions the learners would have, and assumed similar conversations among learners of shared nationalities. My assumptions were mostly based on my interactions in the classroom and in part, my assumptions were correct. However, I was still wrong to assume. Just as varied are the homes, values, interests, tastes, and financial situations of Americans - so too are those of my learners. Some homes were decorated with great care to color coordination and theme - others were bare. Some homes were comfortable in size with stocked refrigerators. Others, space was tight and resources were limited.
I also thought deeper about the impact the visits had on my relationship and the potential impact they had for my lessons. I realized immediately, a stronger bond with the learners. They spoke with a new familiarity in their voices and depending on their abilities, shared with me, details about their families and experiences. They also smiled brighter at the start of class the following days.
Last, I reflected on how I could use these visits to improve my lessons. I realized that when talking about things like family, the home, and coming to the US, I now had frames of reference. I could make my lessons more meaningful because I had a way to personally connect the content or language. Something as simple as describing a relationship could be improved by using names of family members; a lesson on prepositions improved by using the actual layout of their rooms, and so on. Most significant though, was just the impact of rapport, which I believe reinforced a safe space for their own learning. They already trusted me, but now they know me a little more. At least, that is my hope.
So as I wrapped up and reflected on the visits, I discovered just how valuable they really are- both in effective language instruction and in building strong relationships with the learners. In so many ways, they really go hand in hand. I also realized just how much I genuinely loved getting to know the learners on their terms. I feel safe in saying they gained from the experience as well -they came to calling Wednesday "student's houses" day, asking each week who I would next visit.
So my advice to other teachers or anyone working with ESOL learners? Do the visits. Find the time. Step out of your comfort zones, lose your expectations, and have fun discovering things you never knew about your students. You just never know what surprises await!