by Jiřina Helíšková
I had been working as an English teacher just for a couple of months when I heard about some Americans coming into our school. We didn’t know what to expect, who the people would be, we basically knew nothing. There were some rumors going around that said the Americans belonged to a religious sect. And now what? Should we let them in? I was standing firmly for Yes. What an opportunity for our students!! I started planning, I was so excited!
I do not know if it was my lack of teaching experience or on the contrary my own learning experience that led me to consider an intensive communication as the best lesson my students could get. I formed three groups of students for three weeks of learning English, I was allowed to take them from their regular classes and put them together with the Americans for four hours a day. For this project I chose those students who were interested in learning English and willing to participate. This moment was a bit controversial – on one hand that was motivating, on the other hand not everyone got the chance to be in the project.
Finally there came the day of my first meeting the Americans. I was in Sokolovna at the opening party and soon I realized “the Americans” was a group of University students who were going to stay in Czech families and help us Czech with our English. And that was also a day of my first meeting professor Steven Sternfeld. I can say now how lucky I was to meet him; he has become my mentor and a dear friend. We spent hours talking about a language teaching and the most important principle he gave me is this: Do not teach English, teach in English!
Later on I met more people and made some new friendships. I was lucky to guest Karen Marsh and her lovely kids in my house for a period of one month for two following years. She has been a great teacher, friend and a kind of language consultant for me ever since then.
What is the most valuable for me is a fact I achieved a new view at a language teaching. I had an opportunity to teach Czech in the classroom of American students of linguistics who barely spoke any Czech at all. What I was supposed to do was teaching them some Czech without using English (strictly prohibited!). I had watched Karen before having taught English – and obviously using no Czech – so I used that model too. I chose a well-known fairy tale, and it worked, students did understand! The point of my teaching was not to give the students any grammar rules – what for anyway? – But to give them an example of how we can communicate and understand one another, once we are trying and willing to. Can I practice this principle in my English classes?
However, I am aware of a general attitude towards L2 teaching and learning. I have heard people saying, What are the kids taught at the school if they do not know how to say… ? People expect from L2 learning more or less the ability to translate. Is that why the absolute majority of L2 textbooks are grammar orientated? Is that why most of us, teachers, use these textbooks (most of a time!) when teaching L2?
To know and use the L2 at a high level means to forget about the translating though… So here is a conclusion for my contribution: Let´s run the Project “New Eyes” ® again and let´s make a brand new English – Czech textbook! How does that sound?