Teaching the Kalahari Students - Questions and Answers

As part of the preparation for the Kalahari Experience, FIS students complete a questionnaire in which they are given the opportunity to ask questions relating to the teaching of Kalahari students. These questions have been complied below, together with my answers. In some cases the answers link to the videos I have created that already address the question, or to other useful external resources.

I suppose I'd like to know how much the connections I make with the students will matter in how they listen to me. Do they out of practice, listen to teacher? Do they tune out a teacher they don't like? (And a similar question: Do most of the students show some level of enthusiasm in general while in the classroom?)
It's certainly true that it is important to establish a respectful, friendly relationship with the Kalahari students you will be teaching. This is the basis for all good teaching and learning.
In most cases the students will be very keen to learn and appreciative of the work you have put in on their behalf - particularly if they feel that you have made an effort to prepare a good, interesting lesson for them. But there may be one or two students who don't seem to be paying full attention or who switch off completely. This is a fact of teacher life. If you have nothing to reproach yourself for in terms of your preparation and the learning activities you have developed, then you should not worry about it. Students who do not seem to be listening may well have other things on their mind that distract or worry them. Their lack of attention may be nothing to do with the quality of your teaching or relationship with the student.
Since we don't speak the native language of the kids at the Kalahari, how will we be able to explain the meaning of the words that are completely foreign to them?
If you watch these two videos you will find out some of the ways that you can explain the meaning of new words: here and here. These include the use of illustrations or other visual aids and getting a fellow Kalahari student to translate the word. If all else fails, ask a Kalahari teacher after your lesson to write the Setswana equivalent.
But, in general, do not become over-anxious if students don't understand everything you say. Teaching of subject content rarely breaks down over the failure to comprehend a single word here or there. So don't feel you need to explain everything. Important is that you understand in general what makes English difficult and how to simplify it for English learners. So, in summary, be prepared not be fully understood by the Kalahari students and don't worry too much when this happens.
In what grade do the children start being taught English? How much of their instruction when we are not there is in English?
In general, the students you will work with have most of their lessons in English. But with the growing understanding of the importance of maintaining the mother tongue, it could be that Setswana will in future gain a more equal status with English. The students you work with will certainly appreciate it if you can learn a few common expressions in their language and use them at the appropriate moment.
Is there a great difference in the level of English among the students in one class?
There might be quite a large difference in the English level of the students in regular Kalahari classrooms, depending on the age of the students. But in general you will be working with a much smaller subset of a large class, and it is desirable if your FIS teacher-supervisors or the Kalahari teachers create groups that are fairly homogenous in terms of English proficiency. This is an issue you should discuss with your supervisor, since the composition of the groups is something that should be determined in advance of working with the Kalahari students. And you need to know the approximate level of proficiency of the group you will be teaching.
Particular methods used to help ESL students - what methods are effective to get information across?
This is essentially a question about good teaching. What do good teachers do to promote the maximal understanding and learning of the students they are responsible for? There are various answers, some of which apply to all teachers of all subjects. Other answers vary subject-by-subject.
All good teachers know that a friendly, respectful relationship with their students is the basis of learning. Beyond that, teachers know that good teaching is based on a clear conception of what is to be achieved in a particular lesson or part of it. The actual methods used to impart knowledge or develop understanding and skills will vary according to the age of the students and the subjects they are learning.
I would choose two key features of effective teaching methods: Firstly, the ability to ask good questions; have a look at the videos on questioning for details: here and here. Secondly, variety and interest; students who are engaged in lessons by varied, interesting activities will generally learn more effectively than those who feel bored or disengaged.
How do I tell someone that they have made a mistake without sounding offensive?
It depends on the kind of mistake: Is it a factual mistake or a language mistake (error)? In the case of factual mistakes (wrong answers) hopefully students should already be aware that not all their answers will be correct and it is the teacher's job to react accordingly. The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has some useful tips on handling factually wrong answers.
If the error is a language error, you probably don't need to respond at all - unless the error is preventing you from understanding what the student is trying to communicate or the error is in an integral part of the task. An example of a grammar error that should be corrected is when a student fails to use the passive is talking about a science experiment: Salt adds to the water, instead of Salt is added to the water.
In such cases you would not, of course, say baldly: No, that's wrong grammar! You can draw attention to the mistake by repeating what the student said, but in standard English: Yes, you're right: Salt is added to the water just before it boils.
There's more about error correction on my website here, here and here.
Do they understand when one of us would talk at a normal speed, normal tone and normal everyday language?
Kalahari students, even those with good English, will normally take s little time to get used to your voice. Consequently, you should certainly slow down a little and endeavour to enunciate the words a little more carefully than you would if talking naturally with your friends or teachers. But don't overdo it to the point of sounding unnatural or even patronising. Here are my videos which give tips on how to ensure the Kalahari students understand what you say: here and here.
Are there any "alternative" ESL teaching methods that we are going to employ, such as games, or is it better to teach ESL straight from the book?
Well, first of all, it is important to differentiate between teaching a subject such as mathematics in English and teaching English as a subject. And then we need to differentiate between teaching the subject English (i.e. the subject that all students learn at FIS with the exception of those non-native speakers who have as yet very little English) and teaching English to non-native English speakers in special classes that only they attend. Your teaching role in the Kalahari will be either to teach a subject such as science, or to teach English (essentially English literature). You will not be teaching ESL as a subject.
So, after this long introduction, the answer to the question is that you may well be working with a book (either one that is mandated by the Kalahari school system, or one that has been put together as a series of worksheets by the FIS teacher supervisors). But you will not be working with an ESL grammar book.
As for teaching from the book, you may well be expected to teach subject content as presented in the book, but there is nothing to stop you making your teaching more interesting with games and other alternative methods in order to engage the students and help them learn what you are teaching them.
How do you engage the student and make it easier for them to read or understand what you are talking about?
This is in fact two questions in one. The best way to engage Kalahari students is to establish a friendly relationship with them, in which you demonstrate patience and empathy and your personal interest in them.
As to the second part of the question, there are separate videos on making spoken and written language easier to understandhere and here. The most important advice in the videos is to use visual aids (photos, diagrams, acting out, etc.) in order to make language understandable. And in fact you will find that lessons with lots of good visual material are usually inherently more engaging than those without.
Has any teacher/volunteer ever gotten really frustrated when teaching the students? Do the students ever get annoyed at the teachers if they cannot understand them? Should the teachers have some knowledge on the first language that the students speak?
All teachers get frustrated with their students sometimes, and all students get frustrated with their teachers. So don't worry if you find yourself getting frustrated in the Kalahari classroom. The important thing, however, is not to let your frustration show. Treat the situation with humour if you can, and skip to a different topic or question if the students are really getting bogged down. You could always talk the situation through with other FIS students or teachers in the nightly review sessions, to see if there are any good ideas how to overcome the impasse. but in general it's best not to worry very much if a frustrating situation arises.
What if you don't understand something that your supposed to teach the students? What if you don't know the answer to a question a student asks? What if you don't understand what a student is saying?
In answer to the first question, if you don't understand what you are supposed to teach, you should tell your FIS teacher-supervisor. It is unfair on both you and the Kalahari students if you are put in a position of trying to teach something you yourself are not fully sure of.
As to the second question, it is common for teachers to be asked questions they cannot answer. The best thing in such circumstances is to be honest and say something like: "I am not confident that I can give you a good answer to your question, but I will find out and tell you tomorrow." You can then ask someone more knowledgeable than you to help you understand the answer. But don't forget to return to the question the next day if this is what you have promised.
As for the third question, this is a little more delicate and needs careful handling. Certainly, you can ask the student to repeat what he or she said, but only once or at a maximum twice. After this it will become embarrassing for the student and probably for all the others present. In such circumstances you could say something like: "I'm not sure that I fully understand your question so I can't give you a good answer." You could then ask the rest of the teaching group. "Does anyone know the answer to X's question." If this does not get a response, you could ask the student to write his or her question in Setswana on a piece of paper, and then later find out from a native-speaker what the question means in order to devise an answer to give the student the next day.
How would you try and explain certain words or concepts (eg. grammar) in a simpler way? Some words may seem very basic to us already and it may be difficult to find an even simpler explanation for them.
This is a good question. The short answer is that you need to try to support your explanations with visual aids. Sometimes it might be enough to just write the words for the students to see - bearing in mind the frequent mismatch between English spelling and pronunciation. Diagrams and pictures and acting out words are often indispensable ways to make what you say comprehensible.
Be aware of the difficulty of phrasal verbs. The words look and up cannot be simplified. But in the sentence The weather is looking up! they are used together as a set phrase with a different meaning in combination than expressed by their component parts. Idioms of this kind are very difficult for non-native speakers of English.
Do I have to teach students from my grade level or rather students that are a lot younger than I am? I do not feel comfortable with teaching students from my grade level or grade nine.
I understand your concerns about teaching students around the same age-level as you. This is a question for your FIS teacher-supervisor, but I do not expect that you will be compelled to teach in a situation that is uncomfortable for you.
This feedback from a previous Kalahari Experience student is an excellent overview of my responses to various questions above to the question above:
I think patience and building a trusting relationship (learning about their personal lives) are most important when teaching the students in the Kalahari. Often, they will be very shy at the beginning and avoid any possibility of making a mistake (especially in front of their peers) so it's important that you show them they are in a secure learning environment. We are there to raise their confidence and enthusiasm for their English (and not make them more anxious) so it's essential that they engage in conversations as much as possible whether or not what they are saying is grammatically correct (so obviously don't correct all mistakes they make in their written work as well as their participation in discussions...). When discussing a text, for example, don't focus on defining every single unknown term that there is in the text (since we won't be there in the exam) and rather help them find a technique they can use on each. They are likely to attempt copying the work of their peers sitting next to them so perhaps think of ways to overcome this. Remember that every individual learns in their own way - so what might work very well for one student might serve as an obstacle for another. I was once completely lost when one of my students had no clue what a text was about and so what might be considered as a last option if everything else fails is to let the others in your group translate it into Setswana. Tell them they are also free to ask any questions during break/lunch/after school since they may feel uncomfortable about their friends' presence. Also, stick to straightforward and simple vocabulary and obviously try and speak slowly and clearly, rephrase questions sometimes when they don't understand you...