It is not safe to assume (especially while teaching a second language)

I have had many lost in translation moments since arriving in Slovakia, especially while teaching.

Last week during one of my first-year classes, I discovered something. It was a puzzle that I could not figure out the entire first three weeks of the school year. At the beginning of a lot of my classes, I’ve put a writing prompt (just a five-minute beginning activity) on the board that begins with “Respond to the following in your notebook…” Half the class would just sit there, eyes glazed over and barely breathing.

Each time this happened, I would ask, “Does everyone know what they’re supposed to be doing?” They would all shake their heads “yes.” Then, some would pretend to write, and others would look around the room to see what their classmates were doing.

I would imitate the action of picking up a pen and putting it to paper several times, before finally just asking them to share their answers out loud.

Then finally, last Friday, one of my students finally helped me solve the puzzle. I wrote “Respond to…” on the board again. He said, “Excuse me, Miss Professor, what is the meaning of ‘respond?’”

Lightbulb. “Ohhh. They don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘respond,’” I thought to myself. “That’s why half of them just sit there every time I write this on the board.”


Today, I had another one of these lost-in-translation moments (or, what could also be called a poor-listening moment).

Last week, we finished reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (an abridged version) in my first-year classes. They really seemed to enjoy the book (although some of the sexual references seemed to go over their heads), and we had fun with an activity where they all created their own “portraits” of Dorian Gray. I hung them up on the bulletin board in the classroom, which they seemed to really enjoy when they came in and saw them Monday morning.

Anyway, I announced that we would be having a test on the book this week. I’ve written it on the board and reminded them out loud every day since. Monday, I passed out a study guide that, at the top, says “The Picture of Dorian Gray study guide.”

As we winded down our unit on “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in my first-year classes, I had them make their own picture of him. They really got a kick out of seeing their artwork hung up in the classroom. I even did one too, and I forgot how much fun art is.

In the directions of the study guide, it says, “If you can complete this study guide, you will succeed on the test Friday.”

Seems clear that we’re going to have a test over the book Friday, right?

Wrong again.

Today at the beginning of one of my first-year classes, I asked them how their week was going and whether they had a lot of tests this week. They said they didn’t.

“What’s one test that you do have this week, though?” I asked, kind of in a joking way.

Blank stares. “Uh oh,” I thought.

“We don’t know,” they said.

“You have my test this Friday,” I said, as I glanced behind that same phrase written on the board behind me.

“We have a test?” some of them said.

I paused to make sure I was taking this all in right.

“Um yes, you do have a test Friday over the book we read. I’ve written it on the board and telling you this since last week,” I calmly told them.

“Ohh,” they said. “So the study guide, it’s due Wednesday?”

“Yes. That’s also why I have that written on the board as well.”

“Ohh,” they said again.

Lesson No. 394029: Never assume anything (even after the fourth, fifth and sixth times).

As review for the test over the book, we played Jeopardy —an idea I got from some of my former teachers. The students really got into it (especially because the winning team gets bonus points on their test), and some of them were even jumping up to tell the answers.

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