‘Is this a purple apple?’ I ask with a straight face. The Italian two year olds fall over backwards giggling hysterically. ‘No!!! Red Apple!!’ they tell me emphatically.
‘This is a blue banana,’ I try. Back down they go their laughter contagious. ‘Yellow banana!’ they want me to know.
A minute later we’re all up on our feet, some hopping about, some simply rising up on their toes trying to get off the ground as they sing about those five little monkeys ‘jumping on the bed’. The lesson ends with the children saying goodbye to me and to the stuffed animals I carry around for them to play with.
‘Bye-bye bear. A kiss!’ The animal is lovingly squashed in a bear hug before being put ‘back in the bag’.
It’s interesting, it’s lively, it captures their imagination and attention – and they learn.
I have been Teaching English in Rome to very young children for the past 10 years and am continuously amazed at the ease and joy with which these children approach the language. But then again, it is not so surprising at all. Everyone, not just little people, learn when they are having fun, when they enjoy doing what they are asked to do and when their teacher approaches them with a caring and interested attitude.
That same afternoon I was standing in front of a classroom at the Lyceum where I have taught for over 15 years. This time though my class is made up of professors whose subject areas range from Science, Math and Physics to Greek, Latin and Philosophy. Part of the CLIL (Content Learning in Language) project they are my peers and for the past few weeks we had been trudging through exercises for the University of Cambridge’s Certificate in Advanced English (CAE). It is 2pm in the afternoon, the readings are difficult, the grammar complicated and my ‘students’ are tired after long hours with their own classes. Having three classes of adolescents myself, I know how they feel.
The next time we meet, we leave behind our CAE books, move into the IT lab and pull up Youtube on the lim. Anticipation fills the room but is immediately replaced with perplexion as the soft notes of the lullaby ‘Hush, Little Baby’ start playing.
But I also know they trust me and valiantly hang in there while I explain that we will be looking at the progression of this theme. I am quickly rewarded with wide grins when Carly Simon starts belting out ‘Mockingbird’ and dances across the stage on James Taylor’s arm. This is our music, our adolescence and our memories. We can relate, so the lively discussion that ensues is a given.
In a few minutes though we’re back to those quizzical looks since Eminem’s beat takes over, we begin analyzing the lyrics to his ‘Mockingbird’ and the English learning becomes more arduous. This is our students’ world and what they are living with but it gives us a fantastic opportunity to peer into their lives as we analyze the text and its grammar – or lack of.
‘When it spins, when it swirls
When it whirls, when it twirls.’
Whether dealing with infants or academic professors, a lesson will always be at its best when it’s interesting, it’s lively, it captures their imagination and attention – and they learn.