Adjusting expectations…

‘Do you have any questions?’

‘No, Ma’am’.

I’m interacting via Skype with Grade 8 students in a SOME session at Ashraya Neelbagh, a residential school for children of migrant labourers near Bangalore and, to my surprise, I’m not finding it all that easy!

When I first began to interact with Indian kids in this way, it took a while to overcome the obstacles, to understand their context and to adjust my expectations. You can read about my early sessions with SOLEs and SOMEs here and here. Once past that initial stage , my experience of such sessions with SOLES  in the past couple of years has usually involved a bunch of enthusiastic, noisy children gathered around the computer, often all talking at once. In one case, it led to a series of valuable learning interactions between some of my own students in Australia and a group at a rural school in Shiragon, 100kms from Goa. Despite the differences in language, environment, culture, economic background, and religion, they found much in common.

This is the first time I have worked with a group in an organized setting such as Ashraya, and it feels more like a school class… albeit a very different type of class than the ones I am used to in my own setting. The children sit in rows on the floor, listen attentively and respond when spoken to with a ‘Yes Ma’am’ or ‘No Ma’am’. They look towards Rajkumar, the volunteer facilitator on their end, every now and again for clarification or reassurance or both.

In my first two sessions, I call them to the camera one by one and ask them individual questions about their families, their favorite subjects at school and the festivals they recently celebrated. They respond willingly and I make a few notes beside their names on my list to help me personalise our connections. I notice 14-year-old Marlinga, right away. He tells me he loves Maths because it’s like a game. It’s different from the other answers, which are polite, short and to the point. He’s the only one who really responds when I ask why a particular subject is their favourite. Is it because his English is better than theirs? Or is he is just a little more confident than the others in interacting with this strange, foreign woman?

When I ask if they have any questions for me, they say ‘No ma’am .’  I share pictures of Australian animals which they appear to enjoy. I show them where I am on the map compared to where they are and they answer my questions about their area. I show them photos of kids at my own school. They seem interested, but have no questions. I am a bit at a loss as to where to head next. I wonder what interests them and how to move past their polite responsiveness.

We talk about games and they tell me what sports they play. They mention a game I am unfamiliar with, and Marlinga tries to explain. When I ask if it’s played with a ball, he says yes and there is a bit of quiet laughter. I ask if they can share what’s funny and after a little resistance, they reveal, with help from Raj, that it is not played with a ball. He has simply said yes, because it’s easier than trying to explain. They show me the sort of stone they actually use and when I laugh, they all laugh with me and  the ice seems to have broken… for now. I ask them to demonstrate the game. They get up and kick the stone around, laughing and chattering as they show me. I feel optimistic, but I know that next time they will be back on the floor in rows, listening, waiting and responding politely…

I need to be respectful of their context and of cultural expectations. Communication is somewhat restricted by language limitations, differences in accent and the Skype connection. But I know I need to find ways to get them to relax a little (me too) , to ask questions and to engage in a two-way conversation. And I know I can’t do this the way I would at my own school…

14 thoughts on “Adjusting expectations…

  1. I smiled when read this, because it could have been an account of my own first session which I had this morning..these children are soooooo polite it is hard to get them to talk up but I guess it will take time and familiarity…


  2. Reblogged this on languagesupportuk and commented:
    What a lovely story. Its just brilliant when the light goes on and both the tecaher and pupil communicates it makes everyone feel great.

    I have not heard of Soles and Somes before but it seems like a really interesting project.


  3. Reblogged this on EMASUK and commented:
    An Inspiring story to get our blog started. Language is all about communication and this story shares factors that sometimes we do not consider when talking to our students, like it being too difficult to explain so the children just say yes.

    Having worked in schools where we have been that teacher and seen the child say yes, but witness the blankness behind the words and wondered what to do, and then, how do we get support demonstrates clearly the reason for EMASUK. We want everyone to be able to communicate on a daily level, in ordinary circumstances. Our solution is to create resources and tools that does just that allow the teacher to be able to communicate in more than the language they know and understand and the same for the learner.
    Equally this is the same in business where you may need to talk to a supplier in another country, or the health service talking to patients, the police talking to suspected criminals or the local council offices where someone has moved into the area and they need help with housing etc. the possibilities are endless.


  4. I’m really interested in using Skype to facilitate communication opportunities between my students and those in English speaking countries. I work as an Assistant Language Teacher in a Japanese Junior High School, and I’d love to use Skype in my school. The trick in Japan is for any ALT to have a permanent Japanese English teacher to back-up their ideas and help facilitate their outcome (something I’m still working on).

    Hopefully I can help give you some ideas, though. From my experience teaching in a culture of “polite responsiveness”, so polite to the point where (the non-rebellious) students bow to me when I walk past them, getting students to speak English in a legitimate conversation takes a lot of craftiness on my part.

    If I want to have legitimate conversations with my students, l need to explicitly ask questions such as “why?” or “when?” or “with who?” and speak in grammar patterns similar to those they’ve already learned in their lessons.

    I’m really interested in how you facilitate these sessions. How do you go about connecting with other teachers and classrooms? What kind of discussions do you have with the volunteer facilitators before you go into a Skype session?


    1. Hi Terry.
      As a second language teacher of 30 years, I agree about modelling grammatical patterns in your own speaking as well as your suggestions for ways to engage in dialogue. This is a different kind of setting however, and the goals are different. It’s not a school project connecting with teachers and classes. The sessions are not language lessons, as much as friendly interactions to build students’ confidence, get them talking, expose them to ideas and people they wouldn’t otherwise encounter in their settings. You can take a look at the Soles and Somes wiki, linked to in the post above to find out more. It’s an extension of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall project, interacting with less advantaged children in various settings in India.

      Your idea of using Skype to encourage conversation for your own students is great. Have you looked at the Skype in the Classroom website for potential classes to engage with?


  5. Hi Edna,
    Being an Indian, I immediately thought of langugae being the chief reason why the students preferred not to answer or take risks. When one does not know how to say something, the best option is to keep quiet. I would love to try and skype with them and talk in their language of the indian official langugae and see whether they remain quiet and deferential.

    Also, if they are exposed to skype more, I am sure they will open up eventually.


  6. I think we should be careful about guessing why they are polite and unresponsive. I have seen Britisha and Australian children behave exactly the same way with their teachers. They expect to be bored and are resigned to their fate. In India it could be a bit because of language and the rest because they cannot conceive of behaving any other way with a ‘teacher (master)’ in a ‘class’.


  7. I ran into the same issue decades ago teaching in the Philippines and it was perhaps the key moment that starting me thinking about what makes good teaching and learning. I re-oriented the class for the rest of the semester: the only thing the students needed to do was to ask questions about something that interested them with respect to the physical universe (it was a geology course). Then we would discuss those questions knowing that at least one student in the class cared about the discussion. I ended up covering all the material I needed to cover, but completely through the lens of their interest. I know Bo Adams and Jill Gough used this technique some in their Synergy 8 class, too.


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