Friday, July 29, 2011

How Quickly They Learn

In yesterday's class, Dimitris said Arnold Schwarzenegger was a "loser." This came during a small-group conversation as we looked at People magazines's portraits of the last century's 100 top American celebrities. These kids may not be too sure about the difference between "they're" and "their," but they know almost all of People's celebrities: Mohammed Ali, Jennifer Lopez, even John Lennon. American culture has clearly infiltrated Crete's middle schools.

The week has not been an exactly easy ride. The kids are restless. It's oppressively hot. We're often not very sure what we're doing. And in our class, at least, the range of proficieny is vast--from the 15-year-old girl who could probably teach the class, to the shy 11-year-old boy who struggles with basic vocabulary.

And yet. They are wonderful kids: smart, goofy, and willing to spend time with a bunch of Americans who think they can help steer them, in some small way, toward successful adulthood--without losing any of their Greek heritage.

It's a heritage of utter hospitality. As I have been sitting here in the hotel lobby, for example, one of the women who helps run the place handed me a kok, a sweet, fabulously delicious Greek treat. Other women are peeling fresh vegetables in the kitchen. They're getting ready for a bachelor party here tonight for a relative who is getting married Sunday. There will be somewhere between 150 and 200 people and a menu of lamb, chicken, and who-knows-what-else. They will dance the siganos and the haniotis, two Greek dances that Sam's daughters taught(or tried to teach)us last night. And then on Sunday, they will close the hotel down and all go to the wedding.

We'll play tourist this weekend, then return for our second week at school.

And by the way, I didn't disagree with Dimitris.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Smarter than a fifth-grader?

Am I smarter than a fifth-grader? Joanna and Irini would say, "No way!" (I'm sure there is a Greek translation.)These 10- and 12-year-olds stayed with Kevin and me for their entire free period today, trying to teach us Greek words and phrases. After much head-slapping and groaning, they seem to have decided we were hopeless. "See you tomorrow!" they called as they left, which we took as both an optimistic sign and also a clear indication of their bilingual superiority.

We have now taught for three days. Every morning a bus picks us up at 8 at our hotel and delivers us to Saint Martina School, about 10 minutes away. We return to the hotel at about 1:30. In between, we teach three 45-minute classes and use one free period to recuperate.

In some ways, it is more challenging than I thought it would be. We plan many of our activities on the run. Some work; some clearly need re-thinking. And the kids vary in their English comprehension. Some can write a coherent paragraph; others have trouble with basic vocabulary.

It is also more fulfilling than I imagined (see Joanna and Irini above). The kids are eager to learn, even in this very hot weather on their summer vacations. I am also thrilled to see my daughter becoming attached to the third- and fourth-graders she and Samantha are teaching.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, it seems nothing like a hotel. It’s more like a big house with lots of bedrooms and a big dining room. It is impossible to tell the owners from the relatives from the guests. Here in the lobby, they gather to talk, play cards, and feed us. They don’t speak much English, but they hug us and laugh with us. We hear there's a party here Friday night; I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kalimera (hello)!

By Mary

We are a far-flung group here. Lara lives in Newfoundland on an island where she watches whales up close from her front yard. Samantha is a college student in North Carolina, but hails from, well, everywhere, currently Texas. Brenda is a California
mom who likes kick-boxing. Kevin, Maggie, and I are the Minnesota reps, telling everyone over and over that yes, it does really get that cold up there.

For the next two weeks we're going be a pretty tightly-knit group. We've come to Crete under the umbrella of Global Volunteers, an organization that sets people up on vacations that include service. We're pretty pleased that our own service--teaching English--happens to be in this tropical island just south of mainland Greece.

We've been asked to teach English here because kids can't get into college without it. The public schools only offer two hours of English a week, not nearly enough to get that English diploma. So families either have to send their kids to private schools or hire tutors--an impossiblity for many families experiencing Greece's long and severe economic slump.

It's not that any of us have any expertise in teaching English as a second language. That doesn't matter, the Global Volunteer staff has told us; you just need to help these kids become better at conversational English. So when classes started this morning, we went forth--with some guidelines, some lesson plans from former volunteers, and of course, some well-deserved trepidation.

It's a summer camp for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade. I have to admit I was secretly hoping for younger kids, but Kevin and I wound up with the fifth and sixth graders, those boisterous but often-lovable tweens. And our class includes both--16 of them (more or less, depending on the day) who, we learned, love to compete with each other in word-search games, but don't care so much for writing paragraphs. We are revising as we go along.

Our coordinator here is Samantha Pinakoulaki,a tightly organized and very kind woman of British birth, who met her husband here when she was in a touring dance company. Twenty years and five children later, she and all her kids are bilingual--and all help with the program. The kids work in the classrooms as translators--and often as managers. Thank goodness.

We're staying at the Hotel Handakas, a small hotel where the owners feed us with fresh produce from their garden just outside. Patiently, they also teach us Greek and treat us as loved family. That's pretty much how we're feeling.