In 1990 I taught a seminar at an International Conference on Innovative Teaching that was held at Janus Panonius University in Pecs, Hungary. In 1991, while leading a seminar in an international program for teachers of language arts at the University of Delaware, I met one of the Hungarian university faculty members, a participant in the course. She was intrigued by what she called “my unusual teaching strategies,” using imagemaking and storymaking to teach language and persuaded her Chair to invite me to teach a similar course for graduate students studying English as a foreign language. I accepted the invitation and prepared to teach in Pecs at the university.
When I meet students for the first time, I introduce myself, then ask members of the class to introduce themselves. In the many countries where I’ve taught, it’s never been a problem, but the Hungarian students stared at me, as if unable to comprehend what I’d asked them to do. When I explained that I wanted us to begin getting to know each other, one of them said, “What you’re asking us to say is personal. This is a class. Who we are is not important.”
Despite their five years studying to be English teachers, none of them felt comfortable speaking. I hadn’t expected such resistance and tried to reassure them that conversation would be our focus. I would not correct mistakes until everyone felt so at ease speaking they’d asked for corrections. This made them laugh but there was no joy in their laughter.
After an awkward silence a few people volunteered: “I have a brother.” “My mother is a nurse.” “My grandmother is good cook.” Simple declarative sentences with no emotional content. They showed me a few of the required essays they’d written through the years—getting a dog license, applying for a telephone . . . I couldn’t imagine them having much interest in those and similar topics.
The first few sessions were extremely difficult. I told stories, slowly, had them sculpt and paint images in response to abstract prompts like make an image of a moment in the story that is important to you, then write a few words that come to mind. I had them share their images and words, but they did so reluctantly, visibly distressed, bewildered by my “strange” methods. They were used to authoritarian education, and since I was the authority, they did what I asked, as minimally as possible.
I guess it slowly dawned on them I really meant I wasn’t interested in perfection, only fluency and ease. They began to talk a bit more, a bit less wary. They got used to painting and sculpting and sharing. The atmosphere was slightly less heavy. Teaching became a little easier, but not much.
One day, as I was preparing the tray of fingerpaints, the students rushed in, and one of them accidently bumped me, spilling the paints on the newspapers I’d spread out on the floor. They looked at me, horrified. Terrified. Waiting for me to yell at them for being so clumsy. I looked at the mess of paints on the floor and all I could think of was Jackson Pollack. So, I sort of yelled, “Jackson Pollack.”
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.