Educator Insights

Learning about the Rainforest in German: A Lesson in Empathy (Teacher Interview)

Empathy is a tricky element in teaching. Many would agree it is essential to truly great teachers, as it underlies deep connection and rapport between student and instructor. That said, it is also not something likely to manifest itself without some sort of shared experience.”

-Josiah Long, TESOL Instructor.

Consider the above quote as you read the following interview with Long, (who happens to be my brother!) about an exercise he conducted with some teachers who were to be the instructors at a summer school for migrant children in his area, many of whom speak very little English. Perhaps you will find some ideas to glean from it.

L4P: Can you introduce yourself briefly? How are you connected to language teaching and Anabaptists?What’s your role where you are working now?

Long: My life as a language teacher began when I became a second-language learner for the first time back in 2006. My life in connection to Anabaptism started 10 years earlier, when the pastors of the church plant I grew up in accepted a pastoral position at a local Brethren in Christ fellowship. Because their decision was made with the council and input of the members of the church plant, a large portion of the congregation followed them and joined that fellowship.  As I have continued to learn what it means to be involved in a wider Anabaptist family, and have also come to understand more about some of the deepest convictions of the Anabaptist community of faith, I have grown to love and identify strongly with this particular branch of the family of God, especially in its emphasis on non-violence and living lives of active, courageous reconciliation. I attended a university that happened to have roots in the Brethren In Christ tradition, and there I fell in love with languages, and studied, German, Spanish, French, and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). I have been involved in TESOL in one way or another for the past 8 years, and I’m currently working on a Masters of Education in TESOL with a focus on international and non-public school applications.

I’m currently working with the Migrant Education Program in Adams County, PA. My job is something of a mix between an itinerant teacher/tutor, and social worker, with the end purpose being to support children of migrant workers in achieving higher academic success. Because overwhelming majority of migrant students in Adams county are Hispanic and come from non-native English backgrounds, much of the educational support I offer focuses on helping students to advance in their English language proficiency. In addition to my job, I am a member of a local hispanic Brethren In Christ congregation, and I coordinate an ESL ministry consisting of free, weekly instruction for the community.

L4P: You gave an Empathy Lesson of sorts to a group of your colleagues recently. What exactly did you do in that lesson? Describe the situation and your steps and actions.

Long: I was asked to do a presentation on ESL for my agency’s summer in-service, in which we try to give some helpful training to incoming staff and classroom teachers who will be working with our students during the summer (many of whom are English language learners, or ELLs). Because it was only to be a 45 minute presentation and the world of ESL pedagogy is large and complex, I decided that the most useful thing to do in so short a time would be to give my colleagues a first-hand experience as a student in an immersion style classroom – exactly the environment that their students would be in later that summer. I designed a short, fairly simply lesson on the canopy tree layers in the rainforest. The lesson covered the four basic levels, or “stories,” and their relation to one another, along with a representative animal that lives there. At the end of the lesson, students drew their own model of the rainforest along with the animals, and labeled the different stories and inhabitants. The catch is that the entire lesson was in German, from start to finish. While many of the attendees were fluent in Spanish, only a tiny handful had any experience at all in German, and this largely high-school or long-passed college classes.

L4P: Why did you want to create this experience for your colleagues?

Long: First and foremost I wanted to instill a sense of empathy in the teachers who would be in charge of classrooms full of ELLs. Most of the teachers had little or no experience as language learners themselves, nor had they taught ESL before. I determined that the simplest way to open their eyes to the reality faced by a beginning-level ELL student, as well as to give them some hands-on pointers regarding effective ESL instruction was to put them in the same position, and immerse them in a classroom setting, in a language they were unfamiliar with. I chose German because it is a language I am quite familiar with, and at one point was fairly fluent in it. With some focused review of key vocabulary and grammar, as well as careful preparation, I was able to lead an ESL-style classroom, completely in German, giving my students a complete, basic classroom immersion experience.

L4P: What were the teachers’ responses like? What are some of the things they had to say during and after the lesson?

Long: Teachers were at first completely lost, and many displayed signs of complete shock. None were prepared for a seminar led entirely in German! Gradually though, as they realized this was part of some sort of presentation, they warmed up and engaged more and more. By the end of class, nearly everyone was participating with some degree of success, practicing the words, and responding to the simple but pointed questions asked them.

Lp4: Were there any surprises along the way, either in carrying out the experiment or in reactions to it?

To be honest, while I had my hopes, I had no idea how the lesson would go off, because I had never done anything quite on that scale before. I have done short introductions to trainings and presentations on ESL students in German before, but never had I endeavoured to do a complete immersion experience. I was most surprised at how much German my “students” were able to learn by the end of a short 45 minute period, and how much they seemed to comprehend. I was also surprised by the warmth and positive feedback I received from nearly all who attended. Teachers expressed having really felt the terror of being completely lost, but then also the thrill of dawning comprehension as they dug in and engaged, struggling to understand and wring some sort of sense from the material.

L4P: What are some things that you learned?

Long: I learned that sometimes crazy ideas are the best ones, and I was reminded again of the power of building real, relational connection between an issue and those you are trying to reach. I am fully convinced by the feedback and the results I saw that a 45 minute classroom lesson in German did far more to spark and develop empathy for language learners in immersion classrooms than any powerpoint or presentation could have ever done. Furthermore, I learned the power of student-driven feedback. Many of the students came up to me afterwards and told me exactly what was the most helpful, or the least helpful, many even giving me really good advice on how to make the lesson even better.

L4P: Are there any things that you might do differently, or add to the lesson if you conduct it again?

Long: While my preparation for the language piece was thorough and in-depth, the activities were very simple, and quite minimalist due to time and material constraints. If afforded the occasion, I would use better pedagogical applications in the lesson, such as graphic organizers, games, and manipulables.

L4P: Is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked about?

Long: Empathy is a tricky element in teaching. Many would agree it is essential to truly great teachers, as it underlies deep connection and rapport between student and instructor. That said, it is also not something likely to manifest itself without some sort of shared experience. The lack of emphasis on foreign language study in most ESL teacher development programs predicts a corresponding lack of understanding and empathy in those teaching professionals being trained (to say nothing of non-ESL trained teachers and administrators!). This is not to say that teachers who have no foreign language experience are bad or somehow uncompassionate. However, just as we might consider it absurd to expect someone to teach driver’s education who had only studied driving a car in theory, so also we should consider carefully the wisdom of expecting truly effective outcomes in helping students acquire a new language, when those charged with the task have never endeavored to do the same.

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Contributing Author

Abigail Long is a 2012 graduate of Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and a member of Fairview Ave Brethren in Christ Church in Waynesboro, PA. She spent 14 months teaching English in South Korea at the Connexus Language Institute and is deeply interested in the connections between language learning, teaching and peacebuilding.

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