Communication – 2018
The Hungarian students chosen to be part of this exchange all speak English at a high level. Our students ask questions and are learning as many Hungarian words as possible, but there is really no language barrier. But how do we communicate with those with whom we do not share a common tongue? This was the question put to the Beth Tfiloh high schoolers in preparation for one of our programs here in Budapest.
We decided to have our students do some teaching in the SSG elementary school. Eventually, the third grade was picked, although we did not know exactly who they would be teaching at the outset. There was a great deal of skepticism on the part of many. The SSG elementary students know very little English – maybe a few words, but not enough to carry on a conversation or even follow directions. The question many asked was whether this was a valuable use of our very limited time in Budapest. Would it be just big kids and little kids staring at each other in silence? Or would it be a slow, stilted conversation with a translator in the middle? Neither was a very appealing option.
However, as a language teacher, I am aware that communication is much more than speech. The students and I met about a week and a half before I left for Hungary and I asked them to think about what I and their other language teachers did when we were trying to teach new words. I certainly don’t translate everything into English. In fact, when I used to teach elementary school Spanish and French, I rarely spoke English, to the point that often students did not know that I was able to. And yet, they were able to understand vocabulary, follow directions, and start to speak the languages themselves. So we brainstormed: pictures and acting can help to share ideas and teach new vocabulary. Games and music are universal. We thought of subjects that were recognizable to everyone. And we planned. The students created lessons on music, food, games, sports, and holidays, using pictures and props. When we found out the age and number of the students, we met again briefly to finish organizing, but the students were ready.
This morning, the students had their opportunity to teach. It was, in a word, magical. There was laughing, singing, playing, running – children having fun and being themselves. There was a little translation, a bit of aid from the bilingual folks around, but it would have worked without it. The BT students had planned to perfection, and the SSG third graders were loving it. There is no doubt in my mind that they will remember this experience for years. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that the kind of memories we want to make and connections we want to build? It doesn’t matter that they didn’t speak the same language. Because, you know what else is universal? A smile.
Expectations – 2018
Prior to this trip, our second to Budapest and to the Scheiber Sandor school, my partner teachers in Hungary and I exchanged emails about the classes I would be teaching. Amidst class numbers and information about English skill levels, I received a message from one colleague explaining that one of the classes to which I was assigned, an 8th year class, was particularly difficult. All boys, they were often rude to each other and to teachers, he explained, and had been separated out into their own small class for that reason. He prepared me for a group of disrespectful, unfocused, and unmotivated students. I taught that group today. I taught them a lesson that I had used with other classes – it was not specifically designed for them – and I did not structure it any differently than I would have with any other class. I felt (relatively and hopefully) confident that both they, and I, could handle it. When the class ended, I said to my partner teacher, “had you not told me anything about this group, I never would have guessed that there was anything different or challenging about them.” Another Beth Tfiloh teacher who stopped in during the lesson agreed, saying that she was extremely impressed with their focus and effort, even before she knew the backstory.
I am happy that I chose to stick with my original plan, despite information from the teacher that made me stop and think. I wonder what would have happened had I given in to the information that was given to me and restructured because I was prepared for a difficult, and perhaps, unwilling group. I’m certain it would not have been as strong a lesson, and it may have ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. What worked so well for this class was that they were being challenged. They were given tasks that were difficult, but not impossible. I presented them in a way that let the students know that I had complete faith in their abilities to complete the work. Had I come in anticipating that they would fail, anticipating that they would be poorly-behaved, they would have heard that in my voice, or seen it on my face. Why would they bother trying if they knew I didn’t believe in them?
I spent a lot of time today thinking about expectations. One of the beautiful things about being a visiting teacher is that you get to see the students with fresh eyes. I don’t expect them to behave any particular way. It’s a fresh start for all involved. That can be freeing for students. I remember being a middle school student and being placed in what came to be known as “the bad group.” In reality, I think we were just the C group. But we knew that they teachers all groaned when they knew they had us, we knew we were considered difficult, and we knew the expectations weren’t high. Frankly, it was a lot easier just to own that label than to try to change the minds of a bunch of teachers. So, we leaned into it, behaving just the way we were predicted to. I have seen this happen many time over with my own students. On a first day with a new class, someone will say “we’re the bad group. No one likes us.” It can be heartbreaking.
There is a yogic concept called aparigraha. It more or less translates to “letting go.” In particular, letting go of expectations. It is said that suffering extends from unmet expectations. And so we let go of expectations. We know that every day is going to be different: just because something worked yesterday, doesn’t mean it will today. And just because something went badly once, doesn’t mean it always will. Perhaps this can, in some way, be applied to teaching. Maybe frustration with students comes from them falling short of expectations, as well as exceeding expectations, creating disappointment in not having pushed them more or tried the lesson sooner.
Whatever the answers are to those musings, I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to teach this group. To greet them with fresh eyes, to guide them through the lesson, and to help them demonstrate how truly wonderful they really are.
Shabbat in Budapest – 2017
Shabbat has never been something that was observed in my household. I am aware of what it means and some of what it entails, but it is not a regular part of my life. Because of this, I was somewhat nervous about participating in Shabbat activities here in Budapest. I spent a lot of time leading up to Shabbos dinner thinking about how many mistakes I would make and whether I would stick out like a sore thumb. Frankly, I assumed I would make an error pretty quickly. I also assumed I would feel like an outsider, as I have at so many religious events in the past.
Instead, I felt, as I rarely have before, part of a special community. I was surrounded by people all with completely different stories and connections to the Jewish faith. I was not the only person there who was new to the experience, and many of the attendees, residents of Moishe House and their friends, were in various stages of understanding their judaism and figuring out what they wanted to do with that. It was a community that felt welcoming, one that encouraged learning and questions, and one where it was okay to still not know what your place is.
And it was fun. If I’m being completely honest, I have generally thought of Shabbat dinner as a serious event, focusing only on prayer. I was surprised and delighted by the joy and excitement that permeated the evening. We played games, we laughed, we shared food and drink, and we laughed some more. We talked about sports, about books, about education, about hobbies… I am told that the event was planned for about two hours. After three hours we were just saying our goodbyes, and we barely noticed the time pass. Once again, I felt like I was learning more about my colleagues than I thought I ever would.
During the course of the day today, we heard a lot about the struggles of Budapest, and in particular, the Jewish residents, throughout the years. There were stories that make me wonder how people can treat each other the way that they do and how anyone could survive in such conditions. We saw the moving memorial “Shoes on the Danube,” which was one of the hardest things to look at that I have ever seen. But having experienced what I did last night, at Shabbos dinner, in a community of people that the Nazis tried to eradicate, I recognized and was in awe of the amazing resilience of life.
Day 5 – Still Not a Tourist
Today was our first day here not working at Scheiber Sandor. I had anticipated feeling more touristy now that we are no longer going to work all day, but this was not the case. I have traveled a lot, sometimes on educational programs, sometimes purely for fun, but I have never felt so much a part of the community before. During the course of this week we have had the chance to visit places like the Opera House and Memento Park, to take pictures, and to post selfies on Facebook. Yet the overwhelming feeling is one of having really gotten to know a new city on a deeper level than I have experienced before. We didn’t just sight-see, we visited an old-age home and a community center. We didn’t just meet locals out at a bar or restaurant, we got to have real conversations with people and brainstorm ideas with them for improving the lives of those in the city. We have barely looked at souvenirs, we have not lounged around, we have not stayed out late. There are many things to do in this city that I know we will not get to, and we will not be traveling around the country. But all of this has made it a more authentic, more interesting, more rewarding trip. I have every intention of coming back to Hungary in the future to do all of those touristy activities that are not a part of this trip, and I plan on finding some souvenirs before I leave, but I feel so lucky to have gotten to know Budapest the way that I have. There is no doubt in my mind that, without a trip like this, I would never have understood the city or the country the same way. I mentioned yesterday the bittersweet experience of watching children prize their education as a way out of their country. This is certainly something that I could have been told without having visited the school or the community center, or even Hungary. But I know that I would not have felt the same sadness about it. I would not have understood what that really meant, and what people in this country are truly experiencing. It makes me wonder what I have missed in all the traveling I have done before, and it inspires me to look differently at travel in the future.
Day 4 – The Best and the Brightest
It has been a long and wonderful final day with the Scheiber Sandor kids. It’s 10:15pm and I am only getting to the blog now, so tonight’s will be short and sweet. But there were two things that really stuck out to me today that I felt compelled to share before I ended my day: one positive and one less so.
Something that has come up a few times this week, but in particular today, is how many of Hungary’s youth is determined to leave the country. Sadly, many of these students feel like their best option for a successful life is to make a home somewhere else. As it was pointed out today, if the Hungarian government does not make some significant changes, they will continue to lose the best and brightest of the country. It was bittersweet to watch these students so enthusiastic about their education in large part because it meant a way out.
Despite the fact that many of these students are already thinking of where they want to work and raise their families as early as 6th or 7th grade, they are still kids. And, as I said in an earlier post, kids are kids, no matter where you go. Every trope you see in an American school can be found here: the earnest kid, the social butterfly, the guy who is too cool for school, and the kid who just needs to make a connection. The breakthrough I made today was with this last kid. I had one group of 7th graders 5 separate periods within 2 days, so I got to know them pretty well. There was one student who was what teachers often euphemistically call “a handful.” She was loud and goofy. She talked to her friends instead of listening, and she spent an inordinate amount of time running from one end of the classroom to the other. I learned her name quickly because I had to ask her to stop talking so often. However, I figured out quickly that she was using this behavior to cover up insecurities, as is frequently the case with students like this. The minute I began to praise her, notice her for the positive, and encourage her, she because a different student. She suddenly worked extra hard, contributed to class discussions, and apologizing sincerely when she did talk out of turn. At the end of our time today, she gave me a hug and said that she would miss me. I’ll freely admit that I am bragging a bit. This was a moment that brought me so much joy, and I felt genuine pride at being able to make a difference in her life so quickly.
Day 3 – Spontaneity and Creativity
I’m told that many of the English classes in Budapest consist largely of rote, and very still, learning. Students sit at a desk with a grammar book and do grammar exercises. Granted, that certainly happens in the United States, and it is a part of how I teach in my classroom. However, it does not seem that the students in Hungary interact with English on a more creative level, which is something that I find to be an essential component to learning a foreign language. My focus today, in all my classes, was to bring creativity and spontaneous language to the lessons. I have found that students learn better when they have some agency in their education, and they are able to interact with the material in ways that are meaningful to them.
Most of my classes today at the chance to use the English language in novel ways to talk about things that were interesting to them. At the very least, each class got to play a game, making the material more interesting and appealing.
I started the day with a new group: 7th year. The students here have shown a lot of interest in learning about the United States and our culture. So, I introduced this group to different regions of the country via food. We looked at a map of the USA (each student had his own copy) and talked about the locations of the states. I asked them questions about where to find the states (is Wyoming north or south of Montana) and relative sizes (is Texas bigger or smaller than Maryland) and we talked about why different regions of the country might have different cuisines (location, climate, immigration). Since Hungary is so much smaller than the United States, the idea of different parts of the country eating vastly different cuisine was very new.
My next two classes were both groups that I had met with the day before, which was wonderful. Being able to pick up where we were before, already knowing some of the names, and having an established relationship with them made this day even more fun. With the 13th year, we started off by reviewing the prefixes we had discussed yesterday (with a memory game), and I challenged them with some sentence corrections. I gave them a list of sentences written by real non-native speakers that all had some sort of error, whether it be grammatical or orthographic. The students worked together to try and figure out how to fix each sentence. While on the surface it seems like a straightforward activity with little creativity, because of the higher-level thinking involved, it created quite a bit of spontaneous conversation. The students had to discuss English using only English. Sometimes when they weren’t sure what to do, they created new sentences that allowed them to test out hypotheses about the language and see if they couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
The 5th year, which I loved yesterday, was a joy again today. Somehow, they had mysteriously doubled in size! I was told that the 5th graders who had not been included in the group yesterday were very disappointed that they did not have the opportunity, and they asked if they might join. As far as I am concerned, a student that cares that deeply about joining your class is the kind of student that you want in your class. So, with my double-sized group, we worked on parts of the face, using games (Simon Says, 7-up), a book (Go Away, Big Green Monster) and a puppet that allowed them to create a new monster face over and over. Using English vocabulary, the students helped each other place the various parts of the face on the puppet to create looks for our monster. With so many students in the room, this could have been a chaotic and loud class. Instead, they were focused, excited, and full of enthusiasm for the whole lesson. What fun!
Finally, I had a double period with a different 7th grade class. While this group was clearly less advanced than the first group, they were very brave and pushed themselves to use English as much as possible. Once again, we played games, moved around, and did communication activities that asked them to speak to me and each other in novel ways using the target language. This class had a great deal of energy and was certainly less focused than other groups I have taught thus far. But they were every bit as engaged as the others. We had a lesson that focused on the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.” I am told that there is a similar story in Hungarian, but they did not recognize it right away. This allowed me to introduce culture as well as language. I am seeing them again tomorrow, so this was a more involved lesson that I have been able to teach with the others. We played games with the vocabulary, we read the story and answered questions about it, and I introduced them to the simple past in English. They had a chance to talk about themselves when I asked them to tell me something they did yesterday. Nervousness about speaking in English was overridden by the opportunity to tell me something about their own lives. We are going to continue tomorrow with this lesson, getting into some of the many, many irregular verbs in English.
It was a long day, and I am exhausted now (which is why I’m wrapping this up with little segway). However, I found so much joy in being watching the students start to realize that communication, not perfection, is the goal in a language class. Ultimately, through spontaneous talk and creative activities, they all began to recognize that you don’t have to know everything to be able to share your ideas with others.
Day 2 – First Day of School
The first day at a new school is always a bit scary, especially when you don’t speak the language. I certainly do not think I was the only one who was nervous to start teaching today. But I was surprised and excited to see how quickly it became comfortable. The big take-away from today was that kids are kids, anywhere you go! Since I am a foreign language teacher, I am used to children not always understanding what I am saying in the classroom, so I don’t think the adjustment was quite as large for me as some other teachers, but it was certainly new to not being able to translate for the students when there is something particularly confusing. Still it was so obvious that the students wanted to understand and communicate that it was impossible to give up – somehow everything got across!
I think the kids were as excited to have us there as we were to be there! There was so much enthusiasm from everyone around us, and I loved being in that environment. My first group was a class of 6th year students. I know that my partner teacher was worried that they were not behaving themselves, but the silliness and the chatting were so familiar that I really welcomed it. Since this was the only time I would see this group, I planned an English lesson on animals and habitats that could be done in one period. Although all but one of the words were familiar already to the students, they embraced the activities and games, and really enjoyed practicing the vocabulary. I’ll admit, the nerves got me a little in this group, and I forgot to do several of the activities I planned. But, that’s teaching, isn’t it? Changing things up on the spot? So, I did. And I loved it!
My second class was a big leap from the first – the 13th year! I was told that these students did not officially have to be there, so I was flattered that several decided to show up! Because they are older, these students have a great grasp of English. I was ready to try some higher-level instruction with this group. I’m particularly excited about the activity I did to introduce myself to them: I put several numbers up on the board that were related to me in some way (my age, how many siblings I have, how many languages I speak, etc.), and then the students had to ask questions to find out what all of those numbers meant. It was so much fun to see what they thought of and it really encouraged them to speak up in the class. Also, I find that asking questions in a foreign language is tricky, so it was a great way to see where they were with the language. We spent some time talking about the English language (i.e. which letter of the alphabet is the most common and which letter is silent in the word comb), and we worked on prefixes, which was a way to expand their vocabulary. We finished off the class with a game, because you’re never too old to play!
My last group of the day was the youngest: 5th year. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught this age group, but they are every bit as sweet as I remember. English is still very much a challenge for them at this level, but I was so excited by how much they wanted to participate. Many of them were nervous to speak up, but I could see that they really pushed themselves, and each one of them contributed at least 2-3 times. Brave kids! I focused on the basics with them today – colors and opposites. Once again, I was surprised by how well they already knew the vocabulary. But just like the 6th year, they were still thrilled to participate in all of our games and activities. My favorite part, however, was the last five minutes when I gave them time to ask me questions. Just seeing what kinds of questions they had allowed me to get to know them better. Is that my real hair color? What do I do in my spare time? Where is Maryland? And since they had been told that I am a Spanish teacher, they requested a Spanish lesson! So, I’m planning a new lesson for them, just to introduce them to Spanish – what fun to teach something brand new to them! And what fun to have students asking to learn something new.
As I said, my take-away from today is that kids are kids, and teaching is teaching. Despite the language differences, these classes felt familiar. A wonderful first day!
Our first night in Budapest. Tired and jet-lagged, we are all still so overjoyed to be here. We had expected to learn an immense amount about our partner teachers, our partner school, and Hungary, but I’m not sure we expected to learn so much about our Beth Tfiloh colleagues. Before the plane even took off from Washington, DC, we had a chance to laugh, bond, and learn about our peers.
Upon arrival in Budapest, we had had the chance to rest and recharge in the hotel, and then we had the pleasure of joining many of our partner teachers from Scheiber Sandor for dinner. It was a pleasure to meet for the first time in such relaxed and festive circumstances. Delicious food and wonderful company. Having had the opportunity to put faces to names and learn about our Hungarian colleagues, we left dinner feeling even more enthusiastic about starting our classes tomorrow, and so excited to see what the next few days bring.
Can’t wait to start teaching tomorrow!