One of the rewards of teaching a class of 16 talented, motivated 12-year-olds is that you feel that almost every activity turns into something really valuable. Not that you don’t feel the same will other classes, it’s just that with young learners it’s somehow more tangible.
Today, a classic game-like activity – originally meant to be just a warm-up to start the class – changed itself into a complex, meaningful and authentic lesson. I deliberately said ‘changed itself’, but I should probably say ‘the students changed it so’. I had come up with an unexceptional idea, but it was them who changed it into a pure gem.
I’m sure everybody is familiar with Categories (aka The Alphabet Game). You divide your class into small groups (preferably groups of three or four). On the board, you write a few categories related to the current topic or syllabus of your course, and each student copies them on a separate piece of paper (A4). One of the team members randomly chooses a letter. Each member of the team must quickly write down a word for each of the categories that starts with that letter. The first member who has completed all the categories shouts ‘Stop’ and the other must stop writing immediately. The whole team then goes over the words together and each member gets a certain amount of points for each correct word.
Normally, it can get pretty complicated because the team members (or the teacher) often have to verify if a word actually exists, or if it’s spelt correctly. Also, the team members are competitors and they don’t want to accept each other’s answer – for obvious reasons. This time, the game took a totally different direction, though. A few minutes after the game started, while monitoring the class, I overheard a girl explaining her choice (I should stress that I hadn’t pointed out to the students that they should justify their answers). Anyway, the girl, Tereza, had chosen the word ‘doctor’ for the ‘future’ category. Normally, you would expect students to opt for spacecraft, robots, galaxy, or other words that are clearly related to the future world. But I heard her say (in English!): I chose ‘doctor’ because, in the future, I want to become a doctor.
Now, her seemingly commonplace remark took my breath away. I stopped the activity immediately and told the students that Tereza had just inspired me and that we could make the game more interesting by adding a new aspect to it. From now on, you can choose whatever words you wish, but you will only get points from your peers if you can justify your choice. You must only speak English all the time.
Then a miracle happened. From then on, the students seemed less restricted by their vocabulary repertoire. At times, they chose crazy, seemingly inappropriate words for the categories. The crazier the words, though, the more effort they had to put into the justification stage. The student talk time increased dramatically because, all at once, they felt they needed to explain each of their choices, even the most obvious ones, such as I have ‘dog’ for the ‘animals’ category because … Also, they were suddenly more tolerant and supportive of each other, and everybody was nodding in agreement all the time, even in cases I would have rejected out of hand.
It’s not always ideal if a warm-up activity extends across the whole lesson, but I couldn’t help letting it last for longer than originally planned. I did so because the students were fully engaged and creative, they were using the target language, thinking critically, revising vocabulary, and they were supportive of each other. I’m fully aware of the fact that it was not a sign of decent classroom management skills when all of a sudden, I interrupted the activity and changed the existing rules. But I just grabbed the opportunity and I didn’t regret it later on.
When the lesson was over, I thanked the students for having turned the lesson into such a meaningful activity. Upon leaving, one of the boys remarked enthusiastically, in English: This was the best game ever!