Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alicia's Smile

Alicia is not her real name. It's the name she would most likely have if she were American and not Japanese. She's a college student in a conversation class I teach.

Alicia has not been the best of students. In fact, in class she often seems despondent, making little if any eye contact with me. I've had to ask her not to sleep in class a couple of times. If she were in American class, she might be thought of as a student with an attitude.

A week ago, the class activity was to write a letter about a personal problem, real or imaginary, and ask for advice, using a pen name. Alicia wrote the following:

"I'm sleepy everyday everytime.
Because school is hate.
Morning is hate.
Maybe, every night is very busy so, I'm tired
but I need money.
I must work every night.
I'm very tired.
I hope want holiday.
I want sleep.
I want go to shopping.
I want go to my friend's house.
. . . etc . . . [sic]
I hope get up time. What should I do?
Sleepy Girl"

I have no doubt that what Alicia wrote was very real. As I read the letter, I realized that the young woman is simply not getting enough sleep, mainly because of her part-time job. Knowing how grouchy I myself can be without enough sleep, I began to understand why she has an “attitude” in class. I was particularly dismayed, though, about her stating so blatantly that she hates school. I wished that I taught at the school full-time so I could be accessible for her or any students who wanted to discuss problems they were having with school, work, friends, parents, etc.

Then, yesterday, we were discussing a topic that was fairly easy for everyone, housework and chores. (Many of the topics in the textbook, such as abortion, cloning, and addiction, are much more challenging for this class of Child Care majors whose English grammar and vocabulary are extremely limited.)

The students were in small groups for discussion, as usual. After talking about who does the housework in their family now, and who they expect to do the housework in the future (when they have a roommate, partner, or husband), I had them do a kind of role play in which the people in each group were housemates. They had to come up with a schedule of chores, which could either be permanent or rotating.

I circulated the classroom, making sure the students were on task, helping them with vocabulary and spelling, and discussing the topic with them. When I got to Alicia’s group, I noticed they had written “walk the dog.”

I asked them what kind of dog they had. They weren’t able to answer at first, so I asked, “How big is your dog?” gesturing with my hands to show different sizes. Alicia replied with her hands, showing the approximate size, so I asked, “That big? It’s a pretty big dog.” Again, I asked, “What kind of dog is it? A German shepherd? A collie?” using breeds they might understand. One of the students in the group finally piped up, “A Dalmatian,” and everyone eagerly agreed.

At that point I saw that it was Alicia’s “job” to walk the dog 4 times a week. I asked her if she liked dogs and she nodded. “Alicia and the Dalmatian,” I said, to which she and her “housemates” responded with a giggle. I continued, “It sounds like a nice story for children, ‘Alicia and the Dalmatian.’” Alicia’s face brightened and, for the first time, I saw a genuine smile.

I don’t think Alicia hated school at that moment. She enjoyed getting special attention. What’s more, she understood everything I was saying. As for me, I’ll never forget Alicia’s smile.

Below is a photo of other students enjoying English conversation in Alicia’s class.

Alicia's Smile

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