Afthonidou, Clementine. Mobility disability project with junior high school students, Evosmos, Thessaloniki, Greece. Spring 2014
Clementine Afthonidou studied English at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and did a master of arts in Applied Linguistics at Reading University, England. She was awarded a distinction for both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. She has been teaching in the state school sector in Greece since 2001 and is currently based at the intercultural junior high school of Evosmos, Thessaloniki. In addition to teaching, she works as an oral examiner for Cambridge ESOL and the Hellenic American Union. She has foreign language certificates in French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. Her personal interests include foreign travel and dancing.
"Working as an English teacher at a junior high school in Greece, I have observed that students are frequently not motivated to learn English at school, as most of them study English in a private language school anyway. Most students say that they do not find the course book interesting and as a result they may be bored, may not participate and can even avoid doing their homework. What is worse, during the lesson some students do exercises from the textbook used by their private language school, completely ignoring the lesson based on the school textbook. Others choose not to bring the school textbook at all and they often tell me that we should do something more interesting.
Many parents expect their children to excel at school and this pressure to get high grades stresses students to the point that they find it difficult to have fun anymore. Moreover, students are frequently expected to sit quietly and listen to their teacher from 8:00 am until 2:00 pm, attending one class after another. There is little magic, only rare moments of surprise, and not much new to change the daily routine. The educational system often requires students to memorize information and accept knowledge passively instead of encouraging them to think critically and produce original ideas.
For this reason, I decided to add teaching materials outside the school course book, which would lend variety to the lesson and attract my students’ attention. For example, watching movies and documentaries or listening to songs in English were both entertaining and educational, while exercises on vocabulary and grammar were more appropriate for my students’ level when they were written by me or selected from an extracurricular book. However, this year I discovered that what strongly motivates students to participate in the lesson is surprisingly none other than a lesson aimed at their innate kindness and compassion for other people.
This realisation came about when I did a project on mobility disability with my students in the second grade of junior high school. At the beginning, I invited the students to participate in a project whose purpose is to raise awareness about the issue of mobility disability. I explained that they would work in groups to share their ideas and that they would take part in empathy games and activities. Unfortunately, most students refused to participate, saying that they were already involved in another project. Having recruited the minimum number of members, I decided to devote some class time to this project, as my students often refused to stay and work outside school hours.
From the beginning of January until the end of April 2014, one teaching hour every week was devoted to the project. Overall, 14 teaching hours were spent on the project and at the end of each lesson one assignment was given for homework.
During our first session, I asked my students if they were familiar with the term mobility disability, and if they knew what problems people with a mobility disability might face in their daily life. All students could relate to the topic because they knew someone with mobility disability either from school or from their family. To examine different aspects of the issue, the students who volunteered to do the project were divided into 3 teams and were instructed to find relevant information on the internet. The first team had to find the definition of the term and distinguish it from other forms of disability, such as blindness or deafness. In addition, they described the facilities in our city that help people with mobility disability. The second team had to examine in what way the infrastructure of our city creates problems, while the third team had to describe the behaviour of other people which makes life more difficult for people with mobility disability. For homework, students of all teams practised the second conditional by writing and completing sentences such as ‘Life would be easier for wheelchair users if…’ or ‘If I were a wheelchair user, I would not want people to…’
The activities used in each lesson to raise students’ awareness about mobility disability were taken from free online resources offered on disabled-accessfriendly.com and www.howwasschool.org.uk. From the Disabled Access Friendly Campaign free teaching material, I chose three lessons entitled ‘Basketball’, ‘No Comment’, and ‘Staff Benda Bilili’, as they are appropriate for my students’ level and cover topics that teenagers find interesting. Not only did the grammar and vocabulary exercises help my students practise the language, but also the reading texts and comprehension questions generated discussion and encouraged my students to use their critical thinking and feel empathy for other people. From the project ‘How Was School’, I used three worksheets entitled ‘Everyone’s Different’, ‘Looking Out For Each Other’, and ‘Friendship’, which contain discussion and activity ideas and empathy games. Once again, the aim of the activities and games was to encourage students to care about other people.
At the end of each lesson based on the worksheets from the project ‘How Was School’, I casually mentioned that if they wished, they could do a writing activity or project for homework. In our next meeting, all the students, even the ones who had never done any homework before due to limitations in the English language, presented their work with enthusiasm. I was not only amazed by their willingness to do their homework, but also by the wonderful ideas they expressed in their writing, showing how sensitive, caring and kind they are to other people. For example, when asked to design a poster entitled ‘School Values’, listing ideas on how to look after each other in school, my students came up the following ideas:
‘When someone makes fun of my friend, I ask them why they are doing this and not to do it again’
‘When my friend feels sad, I try to cheer him/her up’
‘When my friends need me, I am at their side’
To my surprise, whenever I assigned activities, their homework came pouring in. What pleased me was that the students who had refused to participate actually enjoyed the project and produced as much work as the students who had agreed to do it. With these lessons, not only were the students motivated to do their homework, but they also had the chance to practise the language and skills in a meaningful rather than in a mechanical way.
I believe that of all the lessons we did, the ones they will remember will be the ones we devoted to raising awareness about mobility disability, learning to accept people who are different and care about others. What I discovered by chance is that bringing out the best in your students by teaching them to respect other people is what touches their heart, stimulates their interest and brings them closer to the teacher, to the lesson and to understanding how other people feel.
Finally, I think that the role of a teacher is to be an “educator” or “mentor”, not just a teacher. I feel it is my duty to help my students develop their emotional and social intelligence, and not just teach them English. I feel proud that my students left the classroom having learned something of real value in life, and not just some aspect of grammar or vocabulary."