Monday, January 9:  In my English language classes, I do an activity I call “Problems.”  I did this activity with great success last summer at Northern Virginia Community College and I do it here at the university.  I ask my students to write down any problem they are having in their lives on a piece of paper.  The students are not to write their names on the paper; the problems are anonymous.  I tell them that I will read aloud the problems in class, but I will not reveal their names to their classmates.

After I randomly pick and read the problems aloud to the class, I ask the class for solutions.  The purpose of the exercise is so the students can practice giving advice using phrases like “She should….” or “She must…” or “I think the person can (do this or that).” It also builds trust in the classroom and a closeness between students and me, the teacher.   And it encourages the students to speak English.

problems, problems!

The main rule I have is that everyone’s problems should be considered carefully and seriously and that no one should make fun of any of the problems.  If the students cannot think of a problem, they can opt either to not write one at all, or they are invited to make one up.

In my fall semester class at the university, a class which had 24 girls and 2 boys, I read aloud some of the following problems, written by the students.  These are not corrected for grammar or spelling:

  1. I don’t have any time for sit whith my frinds.
  2. I have problem in listening quiz? don’t understand all that.  can you help me please.
  3. I don’t have time for study at home because I back home late and my brothers sons are very noisy.
  4. In these ege, I need to some body to help me in my diffecult time.  I mean I don’t have friends.  What I should to do?
  5. I want some advice for dandruff (dead skin under the hair which falls off in small pieces)  what I will do for it?
  6. I have a problem about how I can orgnize my time, because sometime I lose so much time without doing anythings.  But this not all time.  It’s only when I have a lot of homeworks and projects, so I don’t know how I can do all this.
  7. I’m always study hard for exsam but the day of exam I don’t know what happen for me I do alote of mistik and I start to cray fro along time and it keep me down.
  8. Hi! I think this years a changed because somethings that people like “the peace.”  Now some people they don’t reaplay the peace when we peace upon them.
  9. I can’t be annoy?  If anyone make me angrey or make something rong with me I can’t be annoy.  I speak with as no things happen.  What can I do?
  10. My friend always sad from what should I do?
  11. Some one loves me.  And he want to marry me, but I want to complet my study.  Can you help me?
  12. When I want to make afriend I get heart from them?  all time?
  13. I live to be lonely all time?
  14. I feel angry from small thing.  I don’t like that feeling but I can’t stop it.  What should I do?
  16. I don’t now how to cook! 🙂
  17. I have asmall problems.  I think it will affect in my life.  I can’t organize my time.  I can’t save it.  For example, I sleep in a longtime also when I have exams I sleep and when I get up I fell very tired so I go again sleep.  I think the sleep is take a hugh part time from my life.  What I can do to solve this problems.

Any time I had a few minutes at the end of class or before a break, I would take out a problem and read it.  I was surprised at the ability of my students to give thoughtful advice.  The students loved the activity so much that many times, if we found ourselves with a few minutes left over after an activity, they would say, “Teacher, Problems!  Problems!!”

When I first assigned the activity, some students said they didn’t have any problems.   I said, “Okay, then you can make one up, or you don’t have to write one at all.”  I collected the problems from the students and I didn’t really pay any attention to who gave me problems and who didn’t.

Several weeks after we started discussing the problems, one student, who hadn’t handed me a problem originally, came up to my desk and handed me a folded slip of paper.  I looked at the student questioningly.  The student said “Problem, teacher.  It’s my problem.”

When I pulled out the problem on the next-to-the-last day of class for the semester, this is what I read:

“Finally I started to feel like we are family everyone cares about each other even without saying a word or making an action.  I feel it.

My problem is I’m going to miss you all everyone, every single person even you teacher.

‘I’m sick of bonds broken, I know I die alone, but still I’m hoping. I know it’s better in heaven, ‘Cause being here is not living. I close my eyes and see nothing, but pain.’

What should I do, should I avoid making bonds to avoid getting it broken?”

When I read this problem, of course I knew who had written it because the student had brought the paper up individually.  When I read it, I felt touched,  even choked up.   This student was one of my favorites in the class and I knew the student was also a favorite among the rest of the classmates.  This person was pouring his/her heart out, and I could feel the sensitivity and the caring.  I could feel the student’s pain.  And I understood the sentiment, as I felt this way also about this special class of mine.

The students began to offer advice.  “No problem teacher!  We won’t break.  We will see each other at the university.  We can add each other on Facebook.  We will all keep in touch.”  All the girls in the class made promises all around, enthusiastic in their insistence that none of us would lose touch.

I said, “That’s great!  Yes, there are so many ways to stay in touch these days.  You can always stay in touch and keep your friendships.”

Suddenly there was silence in the room.  One of the girls said, “Oh.  Unless it’s a boy, teacher.  Then it is a problem.”

I looked at the students.  They looked at me.  There was silence. Suddenly it was clear.  If the person who wrote the problem was a boy, because of the separation of the sexes in Oman outside of the classroom, they would NOT be able to maintain friendships.  This is a fact of Omani culture.

I looked around the class at all my students, boys and girls.  I said “What if it IS a boy?”  I never heard my students be so quiet during the entire semester.  Despite the fact that these girls had plenty of advice for every other problem, they had no solution for this.  This was one problem that could not be solved, not at this time and in this place.

😦 A sad dilemma with no easy answer.