Saturday, December 5, 2015

Is Full Immersion Learning Possible?

Of course it is, you might argue. After all, isn't that how children learn to speak their native tongues? But what about learning a second language, while still embroiled in learning your first one? Is full immersion English learning possible in China?

I have a clear idea of how I'd like to engage in such teaching. Parents, teacher and students form a learning community.Teacher works really hard to impart fundamentals such as speech and grammar in an informal setting – say, sitting around in a circle, with nary a desk in sight. For example:

Topic: Colors

Each color is introduced, and its name repeated until spoken correctly by all of the students. Plenty of visual aids to go along with the oral lesson. Of course, hands on materials such as flash cards and magnetic boards should be used. Once the colors'  names are learned (by both parents and students), connections are made. The red dress, the green sweater, and so on. The topic is further reinforced through songs about colors, and then a scavenger hunt ensues, wherein parent/child teams must find different colored items on a prepared list. Everything is done in English. 

Ideally, parents actively participate in the learning and encourage their children. While each lesson only lasts at most 45 minutes – long enough for a young child's attention span to remain captivated, the reason the parents should sit in is so that the learning is reinforced at home. Having class every 3 days should be sufficient to ensure proper pronunciation of the subject material, and grammar fundamentals are learned passively, by repetition of proper sentence structure throughout the lessons. 

I've tried twice to engage in this style of full immersion teaching, both times with small children, around age 5. Both time I met with less than stellar success.

The first time was in a more formal setting. My friends had set up a classroom environment, enrolled the students and saw to the administrative side of running a school. All I had to do was teach. I thought I had communicated, and we had agreed on how I would teach: actively, with students' and parents' participation. What I was met with were parents that sat in the other room, drinking tea and wondering why the class was so loud. They disapproved of the dancing and singing and playing, of the hands-on method of learning, and flat out refused to actively participate. In the end, their complaints led me to teach in a more traditional Chinese style: emphasis on rote learning, writing, plenty of sitting at desks and raising of hands. I couldn't reconcile that archaic image with what I picture a full immersion English class for young learners to be. The experiment ended a few months later.   

After that dismal failure, I shelved the idea of teaching full immersion English. I wasn't feeling well at that time anyway, and rushing across town twice a week to conduct class in such an oppressive atmosphere didn't help me feel any better. Although it was nice to have the extra money, I couldn't handle the stifling environment.

That was a few years back, and I don't know what happened to those friends. They 'dumped' me after that failed experiment. I went to the coffee shop they owned in an arty part of town and their shop had closed down. Recently I found out they had moved back to Thailand. And that's the end of that story.

These days I feel so much better! I have tons of energy and, aside from painful twinges from my still healing leg, race around and do and do. As you know from 2 posts back (See I'm Back! Entry), I'm teaching as many courses as my Chinese counterparts at my university, and that keeps me pretty busy, but long before that – before I broke my leg, even, I had made a promise to my friend, Sam. I wanted to volunteer at his little daughter's kindergarten, teaching English. He was over the moon at the prospect!

Starting fall semester, I reminded him of my promise and averred I was physically capable and more than willing to make good on it in spite of my busy schedule at the uni. However, he countered that volunteering at Erica's school would pose a problem because I would, in effect, be taking work away from the English teacher already working there. He suggested a compromise: we would hold class in his apartment, with parents in attendance.

I had explained to him the idea that I had for full immersion and he agreed it was possibly the best way to teach English, you see. At his proposal, my dream of full immersion resurged. Surely, with Sam working with me, I could make a go of it!

I'm not faulting anyone except myself. Bear that in mind while you read this next.

Sam and his wife Penney arranged for 6 students to come on Saturday morning, parents in tow. The lesson started well. Everyone was eager for what might turn out to be a learning discovery, and the parents were certainly appreciative that I would volunteer my time. That first lesson, all of the parents sat in and practiced. They translated everything I said. Soon, the kids faced me while I talked, and then turned to their parents for translation. The parents, naturally, obliged.

Discussing the class afterwards with Sam, I indicated that translation was not the point of the class, but that the kids should get used to following simple instructions in English: Sit down (I demonstrate by sitting down), Stand up (raise my hands and stand to indicate standing) and so on. Even if the children did not recognize the gestures, the parents should have, and they did, instructing the kids in Chinese on what to do. 

The next week, only 2 parents sat in. The week after that, all of the parents had retreated to the other room and closed the door, so as to not distract the little tykes from the lesson. I suspect it is because I didn't clearly communicate my vision of how the class should run.

Of course, the kids like the lessons because they are fun and interactive, but they have a hard time recognizing that it is learning time, not playing time, so they get unruly. Erica, Sam's daughter, went to get her mother, who sat in on the class. She disciplined while I attempted to teach. While reading Snow White (in English), I reconciled myself to another failure.  

As of now, the plan has been scrubbed. It is a lot of stress for me – busy as I am anyway, and then preparing materials and conducting class; for Sam and Penney, who end up hosting the kids left by their parents, and for the parents themselves, who have plenty of other things to do on their days off. This colder weather is not helping, either. I still believe a full immersion curriculum is possible but I haven't found the right way to do it.

Do you agree with me that a good teacher should connect with her students, and have a good understanding with their parents (if they are younger learners)? That's what I strive for in my classes. And, while we have no trouble bonding, it seems that teaching is an either/or proposition. Either I should engage in a formal setting where the kids recognize they are to go into 'learning mode', or we play and all thoughts of learning is out the window. Naturally, the parents do not consider their children to be learning if they are playing.

I can't seem to find a middle ground. I would love to make a go of this type of teaching, but apparently cannot communicate how it is supposed to work. Or, am I battling the age-old Chinese ideal of learning: desk, raised hands, lectures, and such? Is such full immersion possible if the parents do not reinforce what their children learn?

Do you have any suggestions?  

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