The day after my interview a classroom of ten year olds looked at me with curiosity and hesitation. I felt a bit like something brought in for show and tell (Does that exist in Sweden?). Finally they started asking questions and telling me about what they like to do. Some were better at English than others, some were braver or more excited, some would shy away and giggle.
The first two days I helped with math and geography, walking around and asking if anyone needed help, making sure they were doing their work, and starting small conversations in English. I didn’t force anyone to speak with me if they were uncomfortable, and sure enough, eventually they wanted to try.
I asked a group of boys who were ‘working’ together if they can explain the assignment to me, because I can’t read Swedish and don’t understand. They were excited to be the teachers, forgetting that they were hesitant to speak English. We practiced our English while learning about the geography of Sweden.
When a student was scared to speak in English I would try in Swedish, which made them relax, “I like when you talk Swedish, you sound funny.” It gave them the courage to ‘sound funny’ in English.
“Meghan, can you help us now?” It was the shy giggling girl group that wouldn’t talk to me before. When they couldn’t say their numbers I made a deal with them. I would try in their language if they would try in mine. We counted up to twenty together, first in Swedish and then in English.
I overheard one student tell another in Swedish (something along the lines of), “Do your work! You don’t want her to lose her job, do you?” followed by a shy smile at me.
“Will you sit with us?” Every day a few kids would invite me to have lunch with them. We would talk about favorite foods, summer vacation plans, places they have traveled, what sports they like, favorite animals. One of the younger girls pointed at things in the lunchroom to see if I knew the Swedish word for it, and then I would teach her the English word. “Bord, table. Stol, chair. “Fönster, window. Gaffel, fork. Mun, mouth. Gurka, cucumber.“
Lunch often ended with someone saying, “I’m going to speak English the rest of the day!”
On my third day the 9th graders were taking their National exams and their teacher wanted me to help assess their English speaking skills. In small groups the students described where they live and spoke about controversial topics in group discussions. I asked questions and presented arguments while the teacher observed and wrote her assessment. It was interesting to hear their opinions and how they expressed themselves in English. Sometimes they got frustrated or shy, and sometimes if they couldn’t find a word they worked around it with descriptions. For someone who is struggling with her own second language, it was impressive and inspiring to watch.
On my last day I was working with three 13 year old girls that needed to write ghost stories in English. We brainstormed together and I encouraged their ideas. We talked about ghosts and grammar, spooky characters and spelling. When their 15 minute break came they insisted on working through it, not wanting to stop.
“How do you spell night?” “Night or knight? Which do you mean? There are two words that sound the same, but mean different things.” “When you sleep…?” “N-i-g-h-t.” Then I had to explain what a knight is, since I confused her. Armor, sword, horse, castle, princess, fairy tales, dragons – thankfully, she finally she understood what I meant.
Walking in and out of school, from class to class, from here to there, I would always hear, “Hi Meghan! Hello Meghan! Good morning! Good bye!” from different students, no matter their comfort level with English. Waves, smiles and recognition after only being there a few mornings.
Last night was Skolavslutning, which is a ceremony at the end of classes where the kids sing and dance, the rektor gives a speech, and the 9th graders graduate. After the performances the classes gather outside to receive end of the year paperwork, and wish each other and their teachers a nice summer. The teachers received beautiful flower bouquets and arrangements, chocolates, wine, food baskets, and cards from the students. And hugs- so many hugs!
Even I got hugs! All the kids from the main class I worked with came up to me and said their goodbyes and thank you’s in English. They were already more comfortable with me and using the language.
“Thank you for helping me in math, I never understood how to do angles before! It was fun to do in English, now I will remember and study. I hope you will be here next year!”
That’s the story of my first four days in the school helping/volunteering with ages 10-13. The next day I received a phone call to work with the small kids for two days as a substitute, which is where I would ordinarily be working. All the kids are under one roof and school, but the forskolan (pre-school) is completely separate and different. More to come!