There’s no gainsaying that we learn from our students. Indeed, rare is the English teacher who doesn’t daily encounter—that is, purport to instruct—those on the other side of the desk who possess a greater facility for how second languages are actually acquired. This week, two students of mine from the Volkshochshule deeply impressed me with an intuitive approach toward understanding complex lexical phrases.
I should perhaps preface this reflection with an observation on the homage of its title. Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian educator, is a long-time hero of mine. In college some twenty-five years ago, reading his Pedagogy of the Oppressed galvanized my decision to become a teacher: His criticism of what he deemed “the banking method” in the classroom (where students are merely empty vessels to be filled with the teacher’s doling out of precious knowledge) and his proposal for a revolution in education (where learner empowerment informs curricular design, which, in turn, leads to the betterment of society) were so inspirational that I left my studies of literature to pursue a degree in TESOL. And while it might be rightly argued that we are far from the slums of Sao Paulo in the 1960s, the greater premise of Freire’s work on the collaborative and communicative nature of learning is one that rings intuitively true even here in the tony and well-heeled neighborhoods of Munich.
I teach a B2-level conversation course for seniors in Schwabing. The sense of community in the classroom is unparalleled: Many of the students have been taking the course (which, prior to me, had only one other teacher) for over two decades; they drink coffee together after every session and even vacation together on occasion during the course breaks. There are three men and twelve women, all between the ages of sixty-five and eighty. Over three iterations of the course, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well—and each, as you might imagine, has a distinct personality in the class.
One of the men (who is in his late seventies) had often demonstrated churlishness and inattention during the lessons, grumbling at requests to participate in activities and fallaciously challenging explanations of grammar. I assumed, as teacher, that these affective features were problematic; they were certainly frustrating to manage. Once, when he was absent, another student confided that he’d been fighting cancer for years.
That piece of information shifted my paradigm of the student. I saw his stubbornness now as a strength that made it possible for him to come to class even through the struggle of a life-threatening illness. While he was often disinterested in small group work, he assiduously took notes as I spoke. This week, he approached me with question about an idiom he had heard (“none worse for the wear”), and, as we spoke of it, I saw his notes. He’d take pains to copy down the collocations I’d used while fronting the class: “Come to think of it,” “Is it possible that,” “Greatly missed/immensely happy”. I’d wanted to affirm how important this was—making this list, observing real language, et cetera—vis–à–vis lexical theory toward his own learning; but he seemed shy about the list, and I merely smiled, pointing to it with a thumbs-up.
Later that evening, I taught another B2-level conversation class—this one was in Pasing and made up of eight women between the ages of twenty and sixty, all of whom are very engaged. One of the students, of Hungarian descent and in her early thirties, approached me after the lesson to give some feedback. We’d done some information gap activities and pursued a lively discussion of current events, including the recent verdict of tax evasion by Herr Hoeneß—and, as she was saying that she felt tonight’s lesson had been particularly fun and helpful, I noticed that her open notebook, too, had a list like I’d seen earlier that afternoon.
She showed it to me. Hers had specifically sought to document the prepositions that follow verbs that came up in my teacher-talk or as I was rephrasing what students had formulated: “To think of,” “to feel about,” “to prepare for”. I was astonished. I praised the practice and encouraged her to continue, noting that that was exactly the kind of good habit that catapults one toward near-native fluency. She nodded in assent—but, then again, I knew I was preaching to the choir, for English was her third language.
On the walk along Bäckerstrasse to the train station, I silently read the signs in shop windows, noting the gender of nouns and their attending articles, and became overwhelmed with the awareness that I still had so much to learn.