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3/30/09 Welcome to Spring Camp, aka Mini-Rant on Heterogeneous Groupings

I went to the English Language Immersion Camp, aka Spring Camp, with four other PCVs from my region. We're a pretty tight-knit group, thanks to sharing a souqtown and collaborating on most of our projects. (I'm a firm believer that when you have a dense cluster of Volunteers, you end up with *more* than the sum of our parts. We support each other, both emotionally and in our work.)

The five of us from the Berberville Region traveled north on Friday, then east on Saturday. We met up with our Fearless Leader Saturday afternoon, then our final two PCV teammates on Sunday morning.

We spent Sunday getting everything together, and were ready for the kids to arrive today, Monday.

As they arrived, we had a quick, one-on-one chat with them, in English, to determine their English language proficiency. It's a quiz disguised as a conversation. Here's a typical example:

"Hi! Welcome to Spring Camp!"
"I'm Kauthar. What's your name?" [basic statements of fact]
"Mohammad al-Bijanibi."
"Nice to meet you, Mohammed." [basic greeting phrases]
"Nice to meet you."
"Where are you from?" [advanced statements of fact]
{blank stare}
"What is the name of your city?" [simpler words - can they understand "to be"]
{blank stare}
"Your. City?" [simpler words]
"[Some nearby town]"
"Can you tell me about your family?" [can they understand or conjugate the present tense]
{blank stare}
"Do you have any brothers?" [simpler words - can they understand "to have"]
{looking expectantly} [can they conjugate it]
"Two brothers."
"Do you have any sisters?" [checking additional vocabulary]
"Are you happy to be here?" [can they understand basic emotional vocab]
"Why?" [can they conjugate "to be"?]
"Because. Friend. Happy."
"What did you do last summer?" [can they understand or conjugate past tense]
{blank stare}
"What do you want to do this summer?" [can they understand or conjugate future tense]
{blank stare}

At this point, I'd cut off the conversation with a big smile and a reiterated welcome. Kids whose English was still up to the challenge got some more questions, continuing this pattern of taking one big step, then dialing it down until they could respond, taking another big step, finding their level of comprehension and creation, etc, etc.

I'd then assign an English Language Level to the student, based on which questions they'd been successful with. It was complicated by the fact that, because of Moroccan educational methodology, nearly all the students had comprehension levels enormously above their ability to speak or use language. They memorize long lists of vocabulary words and conjugation charts, but never construct sentences, let alone paragraphs. But I'd assign them something, giving it my best guess based on our broken conversation, and then wait for the next arrival.

We kept our records of the students' scores, and our Fearless Leader used them to divvy the students up into four homogenous groupings: Beginner Low (no or virtually no English), Beginner High/Intermediate Low, Intermediate Mid, and Intermediate High/Advanced Low. For simplicity's sake, we referred to them as English 1, English 2, English 3, and English 4.

Our Fearless Leader compiled the lists and typed them up, then posted them this morning.

So where's the mini-rant promised in the title?

Thanks for asking.

Turns out somebody had made other plans, and had grouped the kids randomly. Which educators refer to as "Heterogenous Groupings". ("Homogenous Groupings" are those where students are grouped by ability level - ie, exactly what we'd tried to do - what we'd done! - the day before.) Educational theorists will argue the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two styles. In heterogenous groups, theoretically the stronger students will help the weaker students, thereby enriching their own understanding while supporting others. That's the theory. It works in concept-based disciplines, like social sciences and physical sciences, but tends to be less successful in disciplines that are more dependent on linear progression, like math and foreign language acquisition.

Which is a complicated way of saying that OUR GROUPS WERE BETTER. After we'd realized what had been done, we pointedly asked, "So then why did we test them all yesterday?" and got wide-eyed stares. Grrr.

When you're trying to teach a foreign language (like English is, to Moroccans) to a MIXED group of students, you're guaranteed to never meet all of the kids' needs, all of the time. Even when the kids are at roughly the same level, it's really hard to teach them all the same thing at the same time. But by scrambling our groups, they just ensured that our classes would be useless for at least half of the kids, most of the time. Sigh. I hate feeling like an ineffective teacher.

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