Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Present

With less than a week until I turn in a final draft of my masters thesis, stress and anxiety seem to have moved in, unpacked their bags, and made themselves very comfortable in my life. Control issues, wannabe-perfectionism, and a sincere desire for validation are all at play during these final hours in which I am truly driving myself crazy. Not quite nut-house crazy, but definitely sleep-deprived, stressed-out, hanging-by-a-thread crazy. It is nearly impossible to keep it together and show up like a normal person in the classroom, in my personal relationships, and in life.
During a phone conversation with a dear friend last night, I described strange moments of calm and confidence which I have experienced sporadically between periods of insanity and anxiety. I described my day at school as follows:

“Yesterday afternoon, I sat down in the library and I was on a roll! I was getting things done but not stressing about how much more I had to do...I was working hard but not giving myself a hard time about needing to work harder...But at some point later in the day I started thinking about how much time and effort I have put into this project and how badly I wanted to end on a strong note and how I needed to really push harder to make this happen...and I started to feel so stressed and anxious that by the end of the day I was in a depressed rut that I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of. How can I go from a place of peace and acceptance to a place of total fear so quickly?

She immediately answered me matter-of-factly, “Well, you said it right there, you started thinking.” So simple, and so true. The moment in which I stopped doing and started thinking, I let the fear in. I let it in and I let it stay and I believed the things that it told me, and pretty soon I was lost in stress and anxiety. The key to that purely peaceful period of time which had preceded it was just that: I wasn’t thinking, I was just doing. I wasn’t lost in worry about the past or fear about the future, I was simply in the moment, doing the task in front of me. One thing at a time. As soon as I took myself out of that moment, I lost the feelings of peace and acceptance that come with being in the present.

I like to think that I have gone on enough retreats, read enough books, and one enough daily practice to remember that living in the present moment is the solution to nearly all of my problems today. I guess I needed to get in some pain yesterday to be reminded of why I try to live my life this way. Because without it I am truly lost. So, for today, I am taking a deep breath, turning my thoughts off, and just doing what I can in this present moment, because when you think about it (or not), that is really all we have.

“The past is history, the future is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Authentic Language on Election Day

Yesterday was an important day for the United States (and the world). The presidential election, a once-in-every-four-years historic event, was taking place, and you had to be living under a rock not to hear, see, or be touched in some way by the opinions, advertisements, propaganda, and chatter going on around it.

     Though my students are often blissfully unaware, or painfully indifferent, about many US traditions, customs, practices, and events, this one was definitely on their radar. Even though it was the first day of a new session, and there were grammar books to be delved into and curriculum objectives to be achieved, I decided to take the day off and address what was going on “out there in the world,” hoping to give my students an opportunity to practice English in a context that was truly useful, interesting, and relevant to them.

     Despite my attempts to leave my own politics out of the classroom, my students sensed my political leanings, and were quick to assume that if I felt this way, most Americans did too. (Remember: I am teaching ESL in Berkeley, California, liberal epicenter of America, and constantly am reminding my students that Berkeley is in no way representative of the greater American population). I wanted to present an accurate picture of the political landscape, the candidates, the process of electing a president, and, most importantly, the issues to students in order to allow them to come to their own informed decision about what might happen that evening.

      So we delved into the literature. We read biographies, news stories, and reports on the candidates and their stance on difference campaign issues. To most students, these texts may as well have been written in gibberish; the dense political vocabulary was too much for many of them. In order to make the content comprehensible to students in the classroom, and others in the school, we broke the reading down, issue by issue, targeting essential vocabulary and getting rid of non-essential fillers. What we ended up with were single-sentence summaries of the candidate’s general stance on what student’s decided were the most important issues: healthcare, budget/deficit/taxes, immigration, energy/environment, same-sex marriage, and foreign policy. 

     For example, in order to understand the candidate’s general positions on budget/deficit/taxes, students wrote:
           1. Romney wants to cut taxes.
2. Obama wants to spend more money on the economy.

Simplistic, yes. Generalizations, yes. However, by breaking down each issue into simple sentences, and organizing these into a visual representation of each candidate and their positions, students gained a general understanding of the differences between candidates, and thus a better understanding of why people voted in different ways (not simply based on residency in a liberal city).

      At the end of the day students had created a poster showing off their work and new understanding of the candidates and the issues. I caught some of them bringing peers into the classroom over lunch to show off their work, and explaining the meaning of their summaries.

      I ended the day with the smile on my face, feeling like I had given students an opportunity to practice authentic English which was truly engaging, and will actually be useful to them. Homework was to watch the election, and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Happy election day, everyone!