Since coming to Byåsen, I have only worked with three classes: an International English class, an English class in the health vocational track, and a Social Studies class. So I was excited when a teacher contacted me about a month ago asking if I could stop by her English class in the restaurant vocational track. She sent me a follow up email earlier in the week asking if I could talk about life and work in the US and that she had “also picked up that [the students] find the litigation culture interesting (specifically, “why people say they will sue people so often”).” To be frank, my initial reaction to the comment on litigiousness was “I wish I knew.”
Anyways, I duly set about planning for my lesson. Because the topic was so broad I wasn’t quite sure how to structure things, but in the end I decided to talk about:
- Demographics: What the Population of America Looks Like
- Religion and Politics
- Work and Family Life
- The Restaurant Industry
- Particular Quirks of the Restaurant Industry in America
Now I wouldn’t say that the lesson was a complete disaster, but it was definitely a bit of a reality check.
My International English and Social Studies classes are in what is called the “college prep” section of the school. College prep more or less covers core subjects, similar to what you would learn in an American high school, with the goal of helping students go to university. The students that I’ve encountered in college prep all tend to have very good English.
Vocational tracks on the other hand are geared towards helping students enter their vocation of choice. The impression that I got from my Fulbright education orientation and comments made by teachers at Byåsen is that vocational students are generally not the best at core subjects like English. While I occasionally work with a health vocational class, the English level required has never extended much farther than “Who is your favorite singer?” (in most cases Justin Bieber) or “If you were stranded on a desert island what are three things you would bring with you and why?”
Having been spoiled by the high English fluency of my college prep students and the pretty good English of my health class, I completely overestimated the English ability of those in the restaurant class that I was visiting.
Now there were definitely some vocab words that I knew I shouldn’t have used. When trying to explain the Supreme Court I used “unconstitutional” and immediately realized I should have said something like “illegal” or “against the law” instead. I also knew I would probably have to go back and explain what a census was. So when my co-teacher asked if we could review the slides and some of the vocab I had used, I was more than happy to oblige. I think I fully realized how much I had overshot my audience when we had to check if the students knew the meaning of “government.”
Even though most of my lesson was a bit too complex for my students, it still proved to be an instructive and hilarious class. I think the parts of the lesson that amused me most were when:
- We were reviewing political parties and I was asked what the turtle and the camel were for. Democrats and Republicans take note: your political animals could be drawn better. After I got over my fit of laughter, I didn’t even bother using the terms Democrats and Republicans, realizing that things would go over better if I called them the donkey-people and the elephant-people. In the end, I told them not to worry about the elephant-people since their equivalent doesn’t even exist in Norway. To be fair, they thought that the donkey-people were pretty weird too.
- Answering why there is no Church of America. In Norway, most people belong to the Church of Norway and so my students were a bit confused as to why America doesn’t have a state church. I then explained how many of the people who first came to America were coming to escape religious persecution (I then totally blanked on a simple way to explain the word persecution, resorting to a poor definition along the lines of “people actively didn’t like them”) and how that made our founding fathers value religious freedom. After the lesson, I speculated on what a Church of America might look like and settled on thanking our founding fathers for not allowing that to happen.
- Tipping. First things first, apparently the word tipping means betting in Norwegian. So my students initially thought I was describing some weird betting system that exists in US restaurants. Once I managed to clarify, my students were still at a bit of a loss as to why you would just give people extra money. When I explained that the federal minimum wage is just above 2 USD/hour for certain restaurant professions, they began to freak out. Needless to say, they began to understand why Americans have this weird habit of giving away money as tips.
While my lesson was not the smashing success I had hoped it would be, it was definitely still a fun experience and a learning experience. I’ve learned that in a vocation track it’s important to review my lesson slide by slide and to be more diligent in consulting with my co-teacher about the level of English that I’m working with.