Teaching Politically (In)correct

A new school year is about to start and soon my students and I will be facing nine months of hard work to prepare for their diploma. Nothing new, so far, if we omit that my students come from different countries, speak different languages, have different education, belong to different societies and their ages range from 18 to 55. Yes, my students are different.

Some years ago I was asked to run special evening courses to help adults to get a diploma. The entire course of studies would last 3 years instead of 5 and the number of classes per subject would be sensibly reduced in order to give those people the possibility both to work and attend lessons.

When I first entered the class a kaleidoscope of eyes was looking at me, shining with hope. I felt incredibly little and young, but I took a deep breath and our lesson started. I met Aliou, Mamadou, Artjon, Liza, Francesco, Alimami, Mathias, Arben, Mohammed, the majority of them had already dealt with English in their countries, but Francesco and others were sorry they had no other choice than French when they were young. “Don’t worry!” -I said- “You’re here to learn and we can help each other”.

Using Italian (my language) was out of question because it would have created more confusion obliging the majority of my students to use three languages at the same time (their native language to understand Italian and Italian to learn English). This melting-pot was perfect to use English to teach English. I was sure this would need a long time and a lot of patience, but my students and I were very motivated.

I knew I had three years, but few lessons all in all, to make those people face the final examination to obtain a legal diploma. The real problem was to make a sensible choice. What kind of English? I had no time to waste, so I decided to forget about theory and grammar because it would have taken ages to explain grammar rules to people who had attended school (and what kind?) more than 15 years before. I decided to go practice. I decided to start from using.

I wanted my students to meet each other and work on differences and what they had in common. So, we started talking about their origins, their families, their jobs (if they had a job), traditions, and our multicoloured world was discovered to be closer than we had thought. English was so democratic to be the universal second language, putting everybody on the same level.

The second problem I had to face was books. I considered several options but I could not find anything really useful and practical. And my students had no money to spend. So, I decided to collect all the English books I had, old editions, free samples for teachers, second-hand books, anything which could be lent and used both at school and at home as a reference book.

Using several books in class was something similar to the bring your own device technique. It might seem quite complicated at the beginning, but it revealed to be very useful in terms of vocabulary and variety of situations where certain structures are used. Clearly, relying on a different book was very demanding to my students, who were forced to take an active part in the lesson. However, can anybody learn a language without taking an active part in it?

I could also take advantage of my students’ languages to help them. So, sometimes I asked how actions or ideas could be described in Albanian, Romanian, Portuguese, French and Italian. Some ideas were similar, others did not even exist in their mother tongue. In being different, they were all happy to season our lessons with their special spice.

However, Francesco did not seem very pleased to take part in this sharing. I tried to use his dialect first to start the conversation, but the fact that his language was very close to French (and French culture) and Mohammed was a French speaker made the situation worse. He refused to have something in common with an immigrant. He simply did not want to be part of this group. He felt different. He did not want English to make him like the other ones. He felt somehow superior and not dominating the language, like the rest of the group, made him feel on their same level. I remember hearing him claiming to himself “Siamo in Italia” (We are in Italy, here).

I pretended not to have heard, I kept calm and carried on.

Two years ago it was their final year. They asked me to find some other books to study, Maths, History, Literature, Law, … so I asked some of my colleagues if they could give me some books to create a small library. When I went to school loaded with books, my students reacted as bees on honey.

We spent one year reading and discussing about green energy and renewable sources of energy, topics which were not only the core of their course of studies, but also practically used in different realities. Instead of correcting mistakes I preferred to listen to their opinions and how they supported and negotiated ideas. They felt free, knowing no-one was a perfect speaker. Practice would make mistakes disappear little by little.

We worked hard. I saw them falling asleep in class. They all had families and hard jobs. Aliou lived with other immigrants, worked 40 km away in the fields and cycled his old bike every night in the snow to come to school. I still remember his nice French accent asking me for the prononciation. Alimami was particularly brilliant and he eventually confessed he had already started University in Africa but he decided to come to Italy for a better future. While he was telling me this, he was having some bread and a yogurt for dinner. Artjon was particularly shy, he never told us why he was there, but he was really interested in literature and politics. His broken Italian was studded with sophisticated words and so was his English becoming. It was evident he read something more interesting than school books. Francesco did not have the possibility to study when he was young because he had to help his family in the fields. He was an honest man, keen on working hard and he wanted me to make him work hard… and so I did. I realised I could not force him in a conversation he could not understand, he preferred to do his homework because this was, in his opinion, the proper way to work.

The days of their final exams arrived soon. It was difficult to meet their frightened look while I was playing the role of the evil examiner. I was overwhelmed with thousands of questions, doubts and a terrible sense of responsibility.

Oral examination. All the candidates arrived on time, deeply moved, excited and worried in their formal dresses. I had the duty to go out of the room and tell them to come in. It was Mario’s turn: his son, who had taken the same exam the day before, came to support his daddy. Meanwhile, in another room, Aliou and Arben were helping Francesco revising Maths and a silent smile appeared on my face.

Two months ago I met Alimami, who was delivering brochures door to door. He hid round a corner to greet me, he did not want people to see me with him. He told me he was sparing money to go to University, he could not stop studying, he really could not stop!

I also met Aliou, who was over the moon because he had passed the exam to study nursing. He told me: “Of course I want to study, I must help les personnes”.

I even met Francesco, who greeted me shaking my hand with a profound and all-telling grazie.

Now, I am ready to start again. I am ready to start this other final round with a new class. I am ready to meet Soufien, Enrica, Paolo, Chiara, Michelian, Moustafa, Boubou and Blerina’s eyes. All different but all equal in their thirst for redemption.

Definitely, my students are different.


Storyteller: Silvia Tobaldi, University of Tuscia, Italy — partner in the Erasmus+ project GuLL

More info about GuLL: www.pleasemakemistakes.eu

Guerilla Literacy Learning is a project co-funded from Erasmus+ (Agreement no. 2014–1-BE02-KA200–000472)