Big Question Marks

Monday, April 12, 2010

Forever Learning

Hooray for spring! Perhaps there's something about the energy in the air and the new growth on the trees that has inspired us to add a few new activities to our weekly routines. Yoga's one of them: we recently enrolled in a weekly class, held just down the block at the community centre. We didn't know what to expect really — I'd taken a group class once before at Ryerson, and Adrian was familiar with yoga only through Rodney Yee, a long-haired television guru who used to lead us through a dawn routine, clad in a Speedo on a Hawaiian beach — that is, when we had enough space in our living room to flail around in front of the DVD player. But so far, so good. Our class consists of about 9 or 10 participants, mostly grey-haired, so there is lots of joint-cracking and not much self-consciousness about it (my noisy knees blend right in!). Our teacher likes to talk about the "bandhas", which we still don't totally understand — something to do with regulating energy in the body. We kind of thought she was making them up, but it turns out there's lot online about these mysterious bandhas. The yoga I learned before was more about "cat pose" and "mountain pose", which seemed a little more fun and cute. This new teacher's all business though, getting us to stretch all kinds of weird body parts to a soundtrack of CDs of new-agey music. And I must admit, last class when she mentioned something about the sphincter I nearly lost it. It's definitely an experience!

Another new thing I've taken up is literacy tutoring: basically, teaching English grammar, reading, writing, that sort of thing to an adult whose English skills aren't up to par with the rest of us. I was surprised to learn that there are actually many Canadian-born adults who are functioning in society but without the basic skills to read, spell, or craft a complete sentence. I thought since someday I may want to teach English somewhere overseas, it might not be a bad thing to try — first off, to see if I enjoy teaching, and secondly, to get some good teaching experience for the resume. It was a New Year's resolution of mine to start doing a bit of volunteer work, and after some hunting, I found this opportunity through a posting on the excellent Volunteer Toronto website. It's not a huge time commitment (two hours a week) and our sessions are organized through and held at the library/community centre a few blocks from our place, so it suits me well. At first, I was hoping to tutor an ESL (English as a Second Language) student, but the opportunity came along to be paired up with "a more advanced learner", so I thought I'd give it a go. My 'learner' (let's call her Natasha) is a Toronto native who is actually a year or two older than me, and is looking to go to university after a few rocky stints with college, and from what I gather, some health problems relating to a head injury have caused her to have trouble remembering and focusing. So sometimes Natasha is motivated to learn, and other times she's discouraged and kind of distracted. It's definitely a challenge to figure out how to convey the information in a way that's interesting and makes sense — while often re-learning the technical stuff myself behind things I realize I take for granted, like how to craft a complete sentence (** it needs a subject and a verb... definitely something I couldn't have explained to someone else before this!)! And as someone who likes a good to-do list and a plan, in the beginning, I found it a bit tough to adjust to and just accept our forever-changing focus at our sessions.

For the first few weeks, we went through some basic grammar rules; another week we jumped to brainstorming an entrance letter to York's kinesiology program; and for the last two weeks we've been going through the basics of how to write an essay. The amazing thing I've found with tutoring is that I'm learning just as much as Natasha is. It's also cool to realize how much information is stuffed at the back corners of the brain: though I haven't written an essay in years, as we talked about essay writing, suddenly so much stored knowledge about formatting, etc., just came rushing back. I'm happy to say that this week, I feel we had a real breakthrough — believe it or not, because we wrote a mini essay on Madonna (inspired by a concert that was playing on TV the night previous)! After an utterly discouraging session the week before, where Natasha confessed to me at the end how hard she found it to understand what I was teaching, this week she said "You know, I think I really get how to write the essay outline now — thanks for that." A great feeling after stumbling my way through the beginnings of this whole tutoring thing. And so I guess lesson one is that pop culture truly is a great bridge between people!

Sadly, I've come to the conclusion once again (my copy editing teacher at Ryerson brought this to light) that the Ontario school system was severely lacking in teaching us the basics of grammar, at least when I went through the system. I wish they would have spent some time teaching us what a conjunction, noun, preposition, and all of those nuts and bolts, were, rather than it being an afterthought after learning Shakespeare for months on end (Natasha feels the same). I know our parents' generation had all this stuff ingrained in their heads, and it's too bad we weren't as lucky (though I'm sure we would have growled about it at the time). I guess we're doomed to be a generation of people with poor sentence structure... though I'll bet at least we can spell better than the MSN/text-message generations following us!

Anyway, if anyone's feeling extra nerdy about learning some grammar, I can suggest a few good books for you: Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a funny one from a self-professed "stickler". There's the classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, which gets referenced a lot by writers/journalists but I'm a little embarrassed to say I still have yet to fully read it (we had so much to do in J-school!). I have another one on my shelf called Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O'Conner, which is a lighthearted grammar guide with a timely and appropriate chapter on email grammar, among other topics. And then there's Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, a great historical (and humourous) book about the English language, which I read while I was traveling and made me constantly realize my English had become quite "pidgin" while in Southeast Asia. And wow, just found an adorable grammar game! Enjoy. - D.