By Vasiliki Lismani
Since 2016, by Law (Government Gazette B’ 2419/ 5 – 8 – 2016), Greek students officially start learning English as a Foreign Language in the 1st Year of Primary School, at the age of 6 (children attending private nursery and kindergarten schools may begin 2-3 years earlier).
However, with few exceptions, so few that they confirm the rule, students learn English in Greek schools but complete their English language training by attending Foreign Language Schools in the afternoon or evenings or when they have finished at their regular Greek school.
Greek parents have always been very interested in their children’s foreign language education because they consider foreign languages to be a great asset for further educational and professional development. Parents invest money, students invest time. Therefore, foreign language schools are a very important sector of Greek Private Education because they fill an educational gap and help to fulfill expectations.
So, this is Where I Teach, in a foreign language school in my birthplace, Piraeus, Greece.
During the school year (Mid-September until end of May), things run smoothly like in any typical Foreign language school: regular tests, students’ reports, exam preparation classes, projects but also fun activities, school parties, end of the year performances, trips and so on. I am not going to talk to you about these.
What I am going to talk to you about is my intensive summer course and the students who made the courageous decision to sacrifice 1.5 months of their 3-month summer holidays under the hot Greek sun to attend an intensive course and complete a level! Obviously, this decision raises some questions:
How are students chosen to attend such a demanding course?
Not all students were qualified to do this intensive summer course, even if they (or their parents) wanted them to. The main criterion was their performance in the school year which had just finished, in other words students with average grade below 90-93 were not allowed to attend.
The practical reason behind this rather discriminatory approach towards students is the extremely quick pace of these lessons which almost takes for granted that students understand everything they are taught with the fewest possible explanations (more explanations would be time consuming).
However, in my opinion, an equally important factor is the child’s personality: children should be cool, self confident, hard – working, responsible independent learners, have developed critical thinking and a variety of metacognitive skills.
Quite often students with exceptional grades do not manage to do as well as had been expected, not because they do not study hard enough but because they cannot withstand the psychological pressure of the course; self motivated students have a greater chance to thrive! However these students are sometimes thin on the ground. .
Do children attend this course of their free will?
The picture on the left could have been taken by any of my students. On the contrary they spent 1, 5 month in a classroom attending an intensive summer course!]Free will? Hmmmmm… not exactly!!
It is mostly the decision of the parents which governs the summer holidays for these young students.Unlike previous summer holidays when they had fun, hung out with friends, stayed up late etc, this year they found themselves in a situation which involved 3 hour lessons (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), Monday to Friday, loads of studying, weekly tests, early nights and early mornings.
Actually, every day they had to complete work which would have taken a whole week in the winter course.
I am not really sure that at 13, my students could appreciate the benefits of the intensive course, and I could understand.
Could I get annoyed with them for sleeping on the desk before I entered the classroom?
Or for feeling bored most of time, for not studying as hard as they could, or for complaining every time they heard about a test?
Of course not! Did I feel “guilty” enough to apologize for the trouble I was causing them? Absolutely!
Demanding situations ask for extra effort. The intensive courses have always been as challenging for me as for my students (even if they cannot see that!). Sympathising with unwilling students was one thing, but at the same time I had a responsibility towards the school and the parents. I felt like I was walking a tightrope all the time!!
So, this time I decided to make it a priority to try and get the students on my side. I could not stand the idea that these young teenagers would connect knowledge and me with a negative experience.
Although it was much harder for me, I decided to use the book as little as possible (contrary to the “tradition”), and to modify and enrich the course with content that I thought would be more interesting. I decided to focus on issues and topics which were new to them and it worked.
There were times when we really had such great debates or group presentations that it hardly seemed like a lesson at all.
I also felt that I had to put a lot more effort into encouragement and motivation. I pointed out their improvement to show that the summer was not being wasted. I found myself to be more tolerant and lenient towards them compared to my winter students.
If a student gave me some lovely explanation to justify why she hadn’t studied the previous night “Sorry Miss, I got terribly sunburnt this weekend and it hurt too much to study!” and her red face showed she was telling the truth, I didn’t come down too heavy on her. These kids were missing so much summer fun.
During the breaks they feasted on snacks and we even sacrificed one lesson time to have a birthday party (frankly, I couldn’t have done that in the winter!!).
Nevertheless as Greeks who love Thalassa above all else, their mind was on the blue sea, and they even asked me to correct their papers with a pen in their favourite colour, Aqua Blue!
For all of us the end finally came.
Let’s be realistic!!! I wouldn’t say that the students begged for more lessons on the very last day of the course, but at least the days ran more easily than was originally expected. Strong friendships were built which was also very important since they needed each other’s support all the time.
On the last day the director of studies and I decided to give everyone an award not only for their high scores but mostly for their determination to achieve their goal despite the difficult circumstances!
What have I gained from this summer course?
As always after a course, I am wiser, full of experience(s), faith, respect and admiration towards my students.
Once more, it has been proven to me that thinking and acting out of the box (like having a party instead of a lesson) can save the day because teaching is like cooking an omelette, first you have to break the eggs and then whisk them altogether. Good teaching and learning cannot happen when nothing changes, when things stand still.
Finally, I got the biggest reward:
Their hugs and the warmest wishes to enjoy the rest of my summer.