From memoirs to diphthongs: August/September updates from the classroom

When winter break ended in early August, I joined the rest of the Letras department in adapting to an entirely new schedule. And like, I mean entirely new.

For whatever reason, the English faculty at UCS don’t teach the same classes from semester to semester. Instead, they’re assigned classes seemingly at random, and fairly late, too–I don’t think they found out what they were teaching until partway through break. Obviously, this makes it super hard on the teachers, who have to constantly invent new curricula and sometimes teach themselves entirely new disciplines (like functional grammar, which Prof. Samira taught for the first time last semester, despite having no background in it) on extremely short notice.


UCS in its springtime glory

But if students and teachers find themselves with more work around this time of year, I ironically ended up with less. Due to scheduling quirks (namely, a dearth of late-afternoon classes and a concentration of evening classes largely on the same days), I’m actually helping with a lot fewer classes than last semester. Whereas before I was attending classes Tuesday through Thursday, this semester, I only help teach on Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday.

(I actually felt bad about this; per Fulbright guidelines, we’re supposed to be working 20-25 hours a week. Not counting prep time, 2.5 classes a week adds up to just about a third of that. But it’s not like I could even take on more classes; the few courses during times I was free were simply covered by other ETAs. So I had to get creative and plan some other things instead.)

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been up to for the past two months:

Business English I — Mondays 7:40-10:30,  Prof. Maria Valésia

My first business class at UCS, this course has the unenviable position of being required, prerequisite-less, and for some reason, not geared toward true beginners. As a result, students’ English skills range from conversant to nonexistent, and our pace in class is glacial.

As I understand it, this class dynamic is the result of another quirk of UCS politics. Apparently the head of the business department fought against a placement test, which means everyone gets lumped into the same class. Meanwhile, the book we use is for intermediate-beginners, and we spend no time in class on the basics that so many students need to understand and meaningfully engage with the book’s content

As a result, I started offering free small-group tutoring an hour before class, which three of my students reliably attend. I’m using one of Maria Valésia’s old workbooks as a guide, and we literally started with conjugating “to be” and going from there. It’s slow going–given that we meet an hour a week and I have literally never taught basic English like this before–but it’s better than nothing. I can tell the students are feeling more confident, at least, and I try to supplement our mini-lessons by connecting them to English-learning content available online.

In class, I’ve led some exercises on asking questions (providing a long list of questions, having students ask/answer them in pairs, and afterwards discussing what are the most/least relevant/appropriate questions to ask in a business setting), comparing simple present and present continuous tenses, and phrasal verbs (trying to identify patterns in meaning based on their preposition, followed by a memory game in pairs to match the phrasal verbs we covered and their definitions).

English VIII — Wednesdays 7:40-10:30, Prof. Elsa Mónica

Working with nearly the entire Oral and Written Skills class from last semester (plus some new faces), this is the final semester of English that Letras students have to take. I wanted to provide a long-term project that combined reading, writing, and speaking, so I developed a semester-long memoir project. For these two months we’ve been reading and discussing excerpts from various memoirs, and in October we’re going to write and peer-edit our own.

As a result, this has turned into my favorite class this semester. In contrast to all the things it feels like I’m winging here, I’m confident in my abilities to lead a discussion about literature. And while it took a week or two to get going, some of my students’ insights genuinely surprised me. Plus I enjoy getting to share these memoir-esque pieces that I love, which I defined broadly enough to include stuff like the blog Hyperbole and a Half and the graphic novel Persepolis alongside traditional memoirs like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

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Excerpt from the first page of the excellent Persepolis

(And just to brag: I had one student transfer into this class after she learned about this project I had planned)

Phonetics and Phonology — Fridays 7:40-10:30, Dr. Sabrina

If you have spent any time listening to me speak, you’d know that I’m a terrible choice to teach impressionable young learners how to pronounce things in English. And as it turns out, this course is actually pretty difficult! The first class I sat in on dealt with where in the mouth different vowel sounds are made, and the second was about the international phonetic alphabet. These are all things I don’t know, and being a native speaker doesn’t especially give me a leg up; the phonetic alphabet is based on received pronunciation, which is British.

As a result, I think it’s appropriate that I’m only attending this class every other week–because I’m just as new to this as the students are, Sabrina has caught me giving them erroneous information. Sabrina reassures me I’ll be more useful once we start to cover stress and intonation, but we’ll have to see. Most of my contributions to class so far have been leading mini-discussions about the pronunciation mistakes I hear Brazilian Portuguese speakers make in English.

So as I mentioned, I have some extra free time this semester. On Mondays I’ve been attending one of Prof. Samira’s doctoral-level classes called “Inferences in Reading.” I don’t follow all of the in-class discussion, but some of the readings are in English, and I’m enjoying the chance to see what a post-grad Brazilian classroom looks like.

In return, the professor has started referring some of her other students to me for editing, as they’re trying to publish articles in English-language journals. So now I’m spending some more time editing as well.

Additionally, we ETAs are continuing our “English and Chill” discussion club series from last semester. I’ve already presented my two topics for this semester (differences in cultural values and voting, both of which will soon be blog posts), but I still attend every week to facilitate small-group discussions during the presentations that the other ETAs give.

English and chill poster.jpg

A preliminary poster I made for this semester’s English & Chill

And then finally, I’ve joined a discussion group for masters students in environmental law, focusing on the idea of the commons. It’s a class I admittedly get frustrated with–one of our goals is to define the commons, so I feel like we’re constantly having arguments over what the commons should mean because we can never get on the same page about what it is–but I’m also being immersed in an interesting discussion at the intersection of economics and sociology that I’m generally fascinated by.

Working at UCS, doing Fulbright, going through life in general—I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

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