How teaching English in a class of infantils resembles a zombie apocalypse.
The setting: An animal rug in the corner of an early childhood classroom.
Characters: Precious, occasionally booger-smeared 3 to 5 year-olds.
The context: Teaching a half hour of English per week to a gaggle of children who’ve barely mastered Spanish.
“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” is chiming out of my phone, and I’m dancing and singing with eight or nine enthusiastic three-year-olds. They touch their heads, their shoulders, etc, and then blink up at me waiting for acknowledgment. We’ve mastered the high-five as the token of a job well-done, and so periodically they’ll wave their hands at me and shout the words louder and louder until I give them one.
We’ve been singing this song for three weeks now. They know the words and the motions. And so today, I thought, I’ll draw a picture of a girl, and we’ll label some of the parts of her body. I think they might be ready to see what the sounds look like on paper.
I start with the head. I hold up the picture, and point to the head.
“Cabeza!” they scream.
“Si, pero en ingles?”
“Si!” one of them cries.
“High-fi!” pleads another.
One of them starts to chant, “Channa,” their variation of my name, and the rest join in. Then they thrust their hands out for high-fives, rather pleased with themselves.
I begin to sing the song. I touch my head, and the head in the picture. “Head!” I tell them.
“Heh! Eh! Deh!”
They make sounds vaguely corresponding to the sounds in the word, and I write out “head” on the page. They’re squirming closer now, closing around the bench on which I’m sitting, craning to see.
I point to my shoulder, their shoulders, the shoulder in the picture. I begin to sing the song. “Heaaaaaaad…”
That third one is the closest I’ve heard, and so I dole out a high-five, and suddenly they’re all clamoring for one.
“Dah! So-dah! Soooooooooo!”
The littlest boy throws himself over my knee. They’re behind me, patting my back, reaching up for my hair, striving for the word: “So-dah! Soo-dah!” They can grab onto the sounds for a second or two, and then in the whole mass of them the sounds dissolve into noises and gruntings, and the instant I give one of them a high-five, their hand is thrust back out for another. And of course, if I don’t dole out my high-fives equitably, the tears spring forth. And when one starts to cry, the others look around them frantically, as if to say, “What am I missing?” and then decide they might as well erupt into tears, too.
I suddenly realize, and then can’t help but laugh aloud, that this is what it might feel like to be caught in a zombie apocalypse: bodies lurching closer and closer, making unintelligible sounds, crying, howling, reaching out to grab you and drag you into another world.
When I start to laugh, they do, too, and then we’ve dissolved into this pile of giggles. I place the picture aside, and we sing and dance together one more time.
I realize then that I’m here to make them feel good about the English language, to introduce them to its sounds and rhythms. It’s alright if they don’t know much more than “Hello” and “Bye-bye” and “Channa” when I leave in December. Early immersion is just that: tossing someone into a language, so that by the time they’re developmentally ready to recognize the words as separate entities, to form sentences, they’ve adjusted to the temperature. They’ve been bobbing around in the pool for a while.
I’m happy when I leave school to a zombie-choir of “Bye-bye! Bye-bye Channa!”