Language Pedagogy as a Group Effort

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Rahul Bjørn Parson, South and Southeast Asian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010

A week before the first day of Hindi 1A, the instructor of record told me that one of my students was hearing-impaired and that I should think of a way to accommodate this student without neglecting the rest of the class. I had to try to avoid creating a personal tutorial for one student and then teaching the class separately. I had learned while teaching South Asian language and literature courses that all my students come with different experiences and abilities and varying knowledge of the region and culture; and that often the best pedagogical method is to empower the students to teach each other. It was surprising to me that teaching the Hindi language offered many of the same challenges as the rhetoric (R5A and R5B) classes. To meet the concerns of students with different levels of Hindi and/or South Asian exposure requires mobilizing all the students to offer insights such as mnemonic devices, creative ways of conceptualizing grammar, making the best use of technology, and contextualizing the culture from which Hindi emerges. The solution to this present challenge was that the class could not remain seated.

The previous structure of the course involved students sitting at their desks rehearsing grammar drills in turn, and while ineffective in its own right, this would also be completely inaudible to my special needs student. Rather, I asked my students to come to the board to write (and say) everything (which also helped them master the script at record pace). In the first half of class, each student would write out a sentence from the homework and discuss its meaning and alternate versions. The hearing-impaired student taught me how to speak so that she could read my lips, and the class also enthusiastically acquired this skill. She told me that she thought it was very helpful how we treated each sentence, even if it was wrong, as a project in and of itself and examined what it could have meant as well as what it should have meant. She dedicated countless hours in my office so that we could find a way to match Hindi phonology to languages she already knew: English, French, and Hebrew. I’ll never forget the moment we made a breakthrough with the nasalization sound in Hindi by linking it with the French possessive adjective mon. The other students were eager to offer suggestions from these languages, which helped with their pronunciation as well. I also frequently asked the students to perform skits or dialogues in front of the class, giving everyone a vantage point from which to see other students speak and perform Hindi. We worked for an entire year in this way, after which this particular student went to India linguistically equipped to successfully conduct her dissertation fieldwork.

The results were remarkable for the entire class, not only because they scored on average higher than the students in the other section, but also because they had perforce overcome some of the speaking shyness of first-year students. I received so much positive feedback regarding the participatory environment in the class that I have adopted similar strategies in my other classes. I have learned that students can often teach each other as well as their instructor. I am grateful to this class for what I learned about teaching.