March 28, 2008

The Chronicles: Part I

Welcome all to this new venture! The soul and spirit of this whole new undertaking, Ms. Chanelle Carver, a bright young lady with a vision and marvelous ideas deserves a standing ovation not only because of who she is but also for her inspiring efforts to include as many of us as possible in the dialogue for Adult literacy and Poverty. I, myself, got inspired and so I try everyday to veer my everyday activities towards the solution of this problem. That is how I decided that my contribution to this effort would be through community service.

“I was really nervous on my first day. Having no experience, whatsoever, teaching in a classroom, I felt like a fraud.”

To be more precise, I started volunteering at Columbia University’s Community Impact Program as a GED teacher and on Wednesday, February 6th I met with my new class. I got the idea that by chronicling the experience of teaching this class, I may be able to convey my ideas and concerns or issues I may stumble on and ask our readers’ opinions and comments on these matters. So, if you believe you might find something interesting in this experience, please be our guest and follow our blog!

The Beginning

I was really nervous on my first day. Having no experience, whatsoever, teaching in a classroom, I felt like a fraud. When I decided to teach the GED class at the Columbia Community Impact Program, I honestly never wondered whether I’m a good fit for such a classroom or if I have the gift of teaching. All I could think of is that it was a marvelous purpose to serve and if the Program Coordinators thought I am I good fit, I would just go along with that.

Ever since my first class, 6 weeks have passed and the learning experience is incredible! From the crowded classroom on the first day of classes, here were are now to an 18 people group, who attend classes regularly and talk to each other on a first-name-basis. The diversity of the class is incredible; from Latinos, to children of the Caribbean, to Morocco and Senegal.

“Another trivia I discovered, if an adult wishes to go back to school and attend high school class to get the diploma, they actually need to pay.”

At this point what I feel needs to be clarified is that the GED is not just for people who for whatever reason dropped out of high school and now find it hard to go back. That was a misconception I had. My classroom consisted mainly of people with nationalities and backgrounds other than American, and they are here only because they wish to better their lives and professional careers. Not to mention that some of them have already finished high school in their native country. Another trivia I discovered, if an adult wishes to go back to school and attend high school class to get the diploma, they actually need to pay.

During orientation at the beginning of the semester, among others, I was warned that my students will not always be well- prepared for the class, and that there’ll be students that will be late repeatedly or students that will cause a fuss in the classroom. And as the classes progressed I realized how true that was, and it frustrated me. One of my pitfalls was that I didn’t invest much time on setting out the ground rules of the classroom, such as no cell phones allowed, drinks or food, respect the fellow student when they speak and so on and now, how I regret it! After all, it’s hard to tell adults to behave themselves, as if they were grade school pupils. And that’s something I really need to work on, and I ‘m always open to suggestions.

The initial “suspicions” my students had of me are now all gone and mutual respect and trust prevails. We don’t always agree with each other and that usually sparks great conversations in the classroom! The subjects in the textbooks are relatively boring, and after valuable advice I received at a Teacher’s training session two weeks ago, I started bringing my own material to keep them on their toes. That’s another thing I believe works great within the Program’s system: they constantly seek to educate the GED teachers, get our feedback and address problems we encounter while teaching.

“…adults are more self-conscious than children and
more inhibited by their ignorance.”

The students’ buzz is constant. They participate, talk and share all the time. The teaching process seems simple, but it’s nothing but. An important task I had to accomplish was to get an idea of what the students’ level is, so that I could correspondingly prepare the proper material. That is a work in progress, since I’m constantly trying new things and observing the students reactions. For example, last week I brought them a Time magazine article about credit card charges to read and then answer GED-like questions that I came up with, based on the content. They found it original and refreshing, even though many of them had a hard time understanding it entirely.

What I’ve found I always do wrong is that I take it for granted that as soon as they don’t understand something, or dislike something, they’re going to tell me right away. But what I’ve realized to this point is that it’s not the case; adults are more self-conscious than children and more inhibited by their ignorance. I’m always working on that and try to find new ways to approach them.

Currently we are working towards the second half of the semester, and the students can relax from school during spring break. I cannot really claim I have a clear picture of where everybody is standing in terms of progress but I definitely do intend on working even harder to help them realize their potential. Unfortunately, we are constantly in lack of time and resources, but the intentions are always well-meant. After spring break we’re going to continue working on our material, so if any one out there has any suggestions on how to improve the quality of the class, please join the dialogue!

I would be happy to hear from teachers, students, parents or any other perspective available.

This post was written by Marina Sapountzoglou, M.D., Human Rights and Regional Development. Marina currently works with Commerce Bank, is an aspiring Human Rights Lawyer, active community volunteer and volunteer blogger with the Literacy 'n' Poverty Project. Please leave your comments or email with your questions.