Just a simple idea …

IMG_20150912_105330In one of my previous posts, I talked about a new student from Hong Kong who’d recently joined our class. He speaks next to no Czech, but he can communicate in English pretty fluently. He doesn’t get all the grammar stuff perfectly right (for example, he constantly omits the -s in the 3rd person singular verbs), but he can clearly express most of his ideas. From a perspective of an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic, there’s still a lot he can learn grammar-wise, but fluency-wise, he’s far more proficient than the rest of his peers.

The class he joined is divided into two groups for their English lessons (let’s call them Group A and Group B). When Group A has an English lesson with me, Group B has a Russian lesson. When Group B has an English lesson, Group A has a French lesson. Chi Kit’s ‘surrogate parents’ (the folks he’s currently staying with here in the Czech Republic) thought that taking up another foreign language (apart from Czech) would be too much for Chi Kit. So they asked me if he could only attend the English lessons. I asked the administrators and found out that it shouldn’t be a problem.

The only problem is that Chi Kit attends 6 lessons of English per week, three of which are just a repetition of what we already did with the other group. I don’t think it’s something I should panic about, still, I do worry a bit. As I mentioned above, Chi Kit’s English is quite good and I suspect that the lessons are not challenging enough for him, especially because he hears the same thing twice. I don’t think he really minds because all the unknown stuff he has to deal with every day is overwhelming anyway. However, I feel I could do more for him – both as his English teacher and his homeroom teacher.

Not that I don’t try to keep him engaged; when the kids are doing a coursebook exercise Chi Kit has already done, I sometimes give him English magazines or a Czech-Chinese dictionary to keep him busy. Alternatively, I give him a piece of paper and ask him to write about his feelings, insights and things he has learned so far. He’s already written a short paragraph about the differences between the Czech Republic and Hong Kong and it was a really interesting read. He also wrote about a project day we had had at our school the other day and I truly enjoyed reading about his observations.

Anyway, earlier today, I came across a post called Interview with ptec Members: Mike Griffin. For some inexplicable reason, when reading about the benefits of reflection and blogging, I suddenly thought of Chi Kit. And a simple idea occurred to me; I might well ask him to start writing a journal! Whenever he can’t work on something the others are doing (when the kids are translating something from Czech into English, for example), he can open his journal and write a paragraph or two.

I believe that to a certain extent, such a journal could reveal what he’s going through and how he’s feeling. As I don’t actually need to give him grades or provide any type of summative assessment, which, by the way, is extremely liberating, the journal could be a base for the final formative feedback.

I’m surprised that the idea didn’t come to me earlier. The only excuse could be that I wasn’t familiar with the context in advance, i.e. Chi Kit’s level of English was completely unknown to me, as well as the fact that he might wish to skip the French (or Russian) lessons.

So, I’m going to give him a notebook as soon as I see him next week and I can’t wait to read about his reflections and insights. I should stress, though, that Chi Kit comes from a culture where people don’t tend to sulk and complain too much. Moreover, he seems to be very polite and reserved, so I don’t expect him to delve into the depths of his soul. One way or another, it might keep him busy and it will certainly give him an opportunity to express what’s on his mind.

#BlogChallenge: What Did You Teach Today?

20150713_131427This post is a response to a Blog Challenge started by Anthony Smith. This is what Anthony says:

Out of curiosity and intrigue, and as a means of reflection, write what you did in your class(es) today, from checking attendance to giving a test to blowing students minds with the most dogme-inspired, task-based, mobile-assisted, coursebook-free, PARSNIP-full lesson non-plan ever. You don’t have to explain why, unless you’d like. Just give the raw, nitty-gritty details.

Here’s my take:

  • Day: Friday
  • Date: September 11, 2015
  • Number of lessons: 5 (45 minutes each)
  • Start: 8:45 am
  • End: 1:15 pm

Lesson 1 (8:45-9:30):

Context: A group of fairly motivated senior students (18-19 year-olds), most of them around B2 (intermediate) level, preparing for their final exams taking place in May 2016. In the course, we use a topic-based syllabus. No coursebooks.

In this particular lesson, students were asked to produce a text about travelling (the minimum was 120 words). This was a test and it had been announced in advance so the students could properly prepare for it. I handed out A4 sheets of blank paper and bilingual dictionaries. Some students finished in 30 minutes, others used all the 45 minutes. 

20150714_162537Note: Travelling is one of the general topics they need to be able to discuss during the oral part of their final state exam. Altogether, there are 25 topics we need to go through till April, which means that we need to cover 3-4 topics per month. As there are 23 students in the class (an unusually large group), it would be impossible too time-consuming for me to examine each of them individually, i.e. orally, so in order to track their progress, I decided to test their knowledge of the topics in writing.

I hope to achieve a couple of things via this strategy: 1) First of all, students will get lots of opportunities to practise writing coherent texts. Basically, they’ll be required to write one at least once a week. 2) They’ll be forced to recycle vocabulary related to the topics and grammar needed to produce the text. 3) Most importantly, through putting things down on paper, they will sort out and refine their ideas for the ‘real’ exam.

Lesson 2 (9:50-10:35): 

Context: A2 students (14-15 year-olds), started a pre-intermediate coursebook two weeks ago. We are going to cover Units 1-5 this year. Overall, a pretty weak class and not too motivated. Everything always goes slower than I expect.

In this particular lesson, we revised adjectives for personal traits, i.e. mature, polite, rude, confident, etc. Especially the opposites (confident vs. shy) and prefixes (as in immature) appeared somewhat problematic. Moreover, everyone seemed too quiet. I wondered if it was the low pressure or the topic. The other half of the class, who had done the same thing the previous day, had definitely seemed more lively. I must admit that I feel a little obsessed with limited by the fact that I need to cover all the things I do with the other half of the class. In the lesson, I realized that although I had known I will be recycling a plan I had already used with the other group, I had entered the classroom rather unprepared. I hadn’t checked my notes before the lesson and my confusion may have been the reason why students were so quiet.

IMG_20150714_095226Anyway, there was a Bingo game in my lesson plan, which I hoped would lighten up the atmosphere. Each student chose 6 adjectives and wrote them on a piece of paper. Then they stood up and mingled. Their task was to define the adjectives to their peers. The aim of the game was to tick/cross off all the six adjectives, i.e. the first student whose words were all guessed was the winner. Then we did grammar – we contrasted the present simple and the present continuous. Boring. Although I heard students make a couple of mistakes, I decided not to go into too much detail since this was actually a revision from previous years. 

Lesson 3 (10:45-11:30): 

Context: A2 students (13-14 year-olds), a class one grade lower than the previous one and the complete opposite of the previous one. I consider this The Ideal Class – motivated, responsive, always eager to participate.

In this particular lesson, we contrasted ‘will’ and ‘going to’. It may look like another boring piece of grammar, but with this class things are never boring. Students interviewed each other about their potential work experience. They asked each other what they were going to do and what they think it would be like. Then we changed the topic completely and talked about The Iceman. We talked about types of material people had used in the past. This group is into history and they seemed to be enjoying the topic (chosen by the authors of the coursebook we’re using). As usual, students listened attentively to what I and the others had to say, and they responded appropriately. 

Lesson 4 (11:40-12:25): 

Context: A2-B1 learners (15-16 year-olds), just started Unit 6 of the pre-intermediate coursebook mentioned above. One of my favourite groups. Lessons are usually conversation-driven, lively and fun.

In this particular lesson, we discussed social networking sites, which is my favourite topic. The class was quieter than usual (the weather?), but I did my best to keep them engaged. We did some listening and reading related to the topic and then worked on vocabulary. We talked about addictions: Can Facebook become addictive? What about being addicted to smartphones? Is it the same as being addicted to alcohol/chocolate/coffee?

Lesson 5 (12:30-14:15): 

Context: A group of fairly motivated senior students (18-19 year-olds), most of them around B2+ (intermediate) level, preparing for their final exams taking place in May 2016. However, in this course we do not directly focus on exam preparation. They have three more lessons of English with another teacher, who concentrates on exam-related stuff. We’re using an upper-intermediate coursebook, which, by the way, I’m not exactly excited about. Most of the topics are uninteresting and irrelevant, the grammar sections long and too complex to grasp. Anyway, I started teaching this group only two weeks ago so we’re slowly getting to know each other. I was somewhat worried about this particular class before I first met them, but so far things have been going well. As the topics and grammar in the coursebook are challenging, I’m forced to write detailed lesson plans. This is pretty time-consuming.

IMG_20150713_184323In this particular lesson, we discussed some advanced ways of expressing probability. Students practised using these when describing a picture showing a demonstration (the whole unit revolves around the topic of politics and I must admit that I’m having a hard time. I can’t say I’m into politics and it’s not easy to make the topic interesting and relevant to a group of young adults anyway).

After the grammar section, we started discussing nationalism, namely the situation in Ireland. I displayed a map of Ireland on the board and tried to explain, in very simple terms, what the situation in Ireland looked like in the past. I recycled some vocabulary from the previous lesson, such as atheism, patriotism, nationalism, etc. I was surprised that the students had never heard of the IRA, but I soon realized they were too young to know (luckily).  What caught their attention, though, and what I’m definitely going to elaborate on in the next lesson, was the fact that the Catholics never went to the same schools as the Protestants. What immediately occurred to them was the story of Romeo and Juliet. We contrasted the Troubles with other conflicts they are familiar with.

I wrapped up the day with the most challenging class and not the most intriguing topic, but I felt happy and relieved that things had gone well that day.

A point of connection

Teaching English in classes where everybody IMG_20150831_193020shares the same L1 is not one of the most authentic experiences. At times, it can even feel somewhat ridiculous.  You ask a question in English, for example, but a student replies in Czech. In an attempt to indicate that this is not exactly what you expected, you pretend you didn’t understand. You ask, with a quick but perceptible wink, “Pardon? Can you repeat it, please? I didn’t understand”.  But while most of the class is giggling  and chuckling now, the student in question has failed to see through your trap and obediently repeats his original answer, in Czech again. He doesn’t get it till the whole class bursts in laughter and his best friend whispers: “In English, dimwit!”

The use of L1 in English lessons is a frequently debated issue. Some teachers insist on L2 only while others believe that using L1 is justifiable since it can be beneficial under certain circumstances. One way or the other, if your students all share the same L1, you will probably never eradicate it from your lessons completely.

Having said that, I’m happy to announce that for the first time in my life, I’m teaching a multilingual class. There are 24 students whose mother tongue is Czech and Chi Kit, a 15-year-old Chinese boy, who joined the class a week ago. Needless to say, his arrival dramatically changed the whole L1 vs. L2 situation.

Chi Kit is here to gain experience. As none of us speaks Chinese and he speaks next to no Czech yet, the only possible means of communication are body language and English. Body language can be quite tricky because Chi Kit comes from a totally different culture, where certain gestures are used and interpreted differently. Thus, English has become the most reliable bridge between us and him.

This has had a tremendously positive impact. First of all, English is no more a mere subject for my students. It’s not something they use to please the teacher or to pass their exams. It’s not something that has to be 100% accurate and correct to be worthwhile. It’s not important what accent tints our speech or which English we choose to use. For the first time ever, it is a genuine means of communication and the only thing that really matters is to be understood and to get the message across.

Chi Kit’s arrival has an impact on other teachers too. As some of my colleagues don’t speak English, they need to find ways to communicate with Chi Kit in their own subjects. They can either ask me or other English teachers to help out, but I’ve reassured them that Chi Kit’s peers can easily translate and interpret for them if need be. These are some of the greatest motivation moments for those talented students who previously felt under-challenged.

Personally, I feel that speaking English in front of the class is no more a constant reflection of power inequality, i.e. of the fact that I have something my students don’t and they are there to learn it whether they like it or not. I feel that I use English because it is what we all know. And this shared knowledge helps us become closer as human beings.