Feedback (read between the lines)

IMG_20170514_112931Today a colleague of mine stopped by to observe one of my lessons. She’s a very nice, compassionate person and she never splits hairs when giving feedback. Still, I somehow wanted to show off a bit to prove that my students and I can do well (maybe because I’m the one who observes the members of the English department twice a year because it’s required of me as the head of the department to track the students’ as well as the teacher’s progress).

She chose to observe a group of 18-year-old students whose level of proficiency varies from C1 to B1. This huge gap is what worried me most when I learned that she was coming. And she did notice it indeed. She later told me was concerned about the weaker students as she thought the content of the lesson might have been too challenging for them. I didn’t agree and I explained to her that although the students might have struggled to understand every single word in the listening exercise, for example, they had successfully completed the tasks. But, as it later turned out, this was not the only problem.

It was the first lesson of the day. She entered the room a few minutes after the lesson had started so I hadn’t managed to talk to her in order to give her some basic information about the group. I didn’t think it would be an issue, though, as we are a small school and we know one another well and we also know the classes to some extent, even those we don’t teach. However, as I’m about to explain, it turned out to be quite an issue.

The trouble was that while observing the lesson, for the whole time, she thought I was actually teaching a different course. Also, she gathered that this group is using a specific set of coursebooks. However, we don’t use coursebooks at all. The students have a different teacher for their ‘regular’ English lessons and this, in fact, is an extension to their curriculum. My lessons are topic-based and they are focused on practicing the four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking. I imagine she must have been very confused the whole time. When I later told her that this was actually a ‘skills’ lesson, she couldn’t conceal her surprise.

What I’m trying to say it that the lesson probably looked totally out of context and out of place due to the fact that I hadn’t provided her with any information in advance. Thus, I think the observer should definitely and invariably talk to the observee before the lesson. Having said that, it really gets on my nerves when I hear all sorts of warnings from the observee prior to the lesson, such as “Oh, this is just a grammar lesson, don’t expect to witness any miracles“.

Anyway, I was quite happy with the first part of the lesson, which was actually a follow-up to the previous one. This, however, wasn’t to the good. The thing is that in a follow-up lesson, the students and the teacher usually know what’s happening because they were present the lesson before, but it may take a couple of minutes (or even more) till the observer understands where the teacher is actually headed.

Anyways, although the students seemed to like the lesson and the colleague took away a few useful activities, overall, I could have done better. I was particularly disappointed with the final part of the lesson because there was too much squeezed in and too little time left. What was the most frustrating, though, was the fact that I didn’t use its great potential.

After the lesson, my colleague said she had liked it, but I could tell there were some doubts questions swirling in her head. She asked me, for example, how I deal with errors in speaking. The thing is that as it was a”skills” lesson and the topic was moral dilemmas, I didn’t correct every single mistake – I simply didn’t want to interrupt a student saying something really personal or important. This may put the others off (especially those who are less confident speakers). This is how I explained it to my colleague. Then I pondered her question for a while and I realized that although I’m not too worried about grammatical mistakes, I almost always correct mistakes related to pronunciation. This demonstrates my priorities, I guess.

The bottom line is that not only do you get explicit feedback (when the observer says what they liked/disliked) but also feedback that is more implicit. This may come in the form of questions or puzzled looks, which are hints for a potentially fruitful discussion.

The Alligator River story

alligator-439890_960_720Earlier today I gave my students a version of the well-known story below.  The story is an example of a moral/ethical dilemma.


There lived a woman named Abigail who was in love with a man named Gregory. Gregory lived on the shore of a river. Abigail lived on the opposite shore of the same river. The river that separated the two lovers was teeming with dangerous alligators. Abigail wanted to cross the river to be with Gregory. Unfortunately, the bridge had been washed out by a heavy flood the previous week. So she went to ask Sinbad, a riverboat captain, to take her across. He said he would be glad to if she would consent to go to bed with him prior to the voyage. She promptly refused and went to a friend named Ivan to explain her plight. Ivan did not want to get involved at all in the situation. Abigail felt her only alternative was to accept Sinbad’s terms. Sinbad fulfilled his promise to Abigail and delivered her into the arms of Gregory.

When Abigail told Gregory about her amorous escapade in order to cross the river, Gregory cast her aside with disdain. Heartsick and rejected, Abigail turned to Slug with her tale of woe. Slug, feeling compassion for Abigail, sought out Gregory and beat him brutally. Abigail was overjoyed at the sight of Gregory getting his due. As the sun set on the horizon, people heard Abigail laughing at Gregory.

This is what we did with it:

Students read the story silently. Then I read the story out loud and sketched a plot diagram on the board. After reading, I paired the students up and asked them to rank the five characters in the story beginning with the one they considered the least offensive and ending with the one they found most morally repulsive. I asked them to briefly note the reasons as to why they had ranked them in that order. Then I put two pairs together to work in a group of four. At this point, we had three groups. They presented their original orders within the group but they could rearrange them so that each member of the group was happy. Finally, we sat in a semi-circle and all the class had to agree on one, definite order.

6 pairs >>> 3 groups of 4 >>> class 

Before the discussion started, I put some functional language on the board which I asked the students to use as much as possible:

  • I think/believe/assume/suppose/conclude
  • In my view/opinion
  • From my point of view/viewpoint
  • As I see it
  • On the one hand/on the other hand
  • However
  • Having said that

Some of my random observations – ranked from the most scandalous to the most encouraging:

  1. We ran out of time (after 45 minutes) so I had to wind the activity up by making some of the final decisions. This, however, finally appeased some who hadn’t previously fully agreed with the group’s choice (“You see? I told you that Abigail is the worst of them all!”)
  2. Ss didn’t use much of the functional language. I had to tap on the board demonstratively a couple of times to indicate that the language should be used. Not that it helped a lot.
  3. Ss were so involved in the activity at times that they even used expressions such as Shut up!  I added a few phrases to teach them how to interrupt someone politely.
  4. They disagreed a lot within pairs/groups.
  5. Each pair/group came up with a totally different order.
  6. The students were still discussing the topic upon leaving the classroom.
  7. The students kept still in their places until the very last minute of the lesson (not usual on a Friday).
  8. The board was full of useful language.
  9. Ss loved the activity and were fully emerged in the task.
  10. I loved the activity and was fully emerged too.



In the following lesson, I projected the table below, which I had originally created for my own purposes. Having witnessed the heated debate, I wanted to find a rational solution to the dilemma myself. Later it occurred to me that it would be a nice way of summarizing a rather challenging topic with the class. Also, I felt that since moral dilemmas have no correct/right answers/solutions (and this one provoked a lot of disagreement among the students), it might be good to look at the same issue once again while staying cool-headed and rational. Anyway, another heated debate arose again but it turned out that most students hadn’t changed their mind at all. Hopefully, some new vocabulary was learned (cowardice, compassion, selfishness, detriment).


On Homeland, identity and authenticity

IMG_20170501_114053I recently got hooked on a TV show called Homeland, of which I’ve just started watching the sixth season. What I love about the series is the fact that it takes place in many parts of the world, such as Tehran, Pakistan, the USA, Germany, or Libya. Being a language teacher, I particularly concentrate on the way speakers of various L1s use English as a means of communication. Also, I like to catch a glimpse of some exotic cultures as well as come across variations of English. Well, to be more precise, I only (to my disappointment) come across various accents.

Judging by the film annotation, the scripts have been written by people whose L1 is English. And as a non-native speaker, I can tell how much this fact influences the language used in the show. I mean, when a Russian guy speaks English, he speaks with a heavy Russian accent but otherwise, his English is impeccable. I haven’t noticed any signs of L1 interference, for example. There’s only one situation which implies a potential language barrier between speakers of different L1s:

A German guy says rather sharply to his girlfriend: “It’s not my fault that I don’t have a clue. I’m not a brain reader”. The American girl sitting next to him starts laughing and replies: “Or a mind reader either”.

You know, I’m a fairly proficient speaker of English but I’m quite sure I’d never be able to produce some of the complex utterances that flood out of the non-native speakers’ mouths in Homeland – especially in life endangering situations the characters encounter. My point is that the flawlessness is simply unnatural and inauthentic. I guess the authors just didn’t want to disturb the viewers more than necessary. However, if I were the scriptwriter, I would have exploited the fact that the Germans, for example, are played by German actors. I would have let them deviate from the script and play with L1 interference a bit. In other words, I would have gone further in terms of indicating a person’s national identity –  I would have gone far beyond their accent, style of clothing or color of complexion.

I’ve recently been in contact with speakers of various L1s – mainly through the work on the Erasmus+ project – and I know that language wise, one’s accent is only one of the indicators of a person’s national (cultural) identity. It’s the vocabulary or grammar they use which often reveal their true color. And I’ve started to cherish the uniqueness of each and every person’s language inventory, mainly because those people have become very close to me, which couldn’t have happened if we didn’t speak a common language, which we cutely and unknowingly distort in all sorts of subtle ways.  And I believe this is one of the most authentic scenarios one can ever encounter – when L2 is the bridge and the gateway to other people’s souls and when it doesn’t really matter how well we speak it provided we manage to get the message across.


On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve just finished correcting my young students’ progress tests. One of the tasks was to come up with semi-fixed phrases, e.g. as black as night, as light as a feather, as heavy as lead. Most students remembered the correct versions we’d learned in the previous lessons. However, some created their own phrases, e.g as black as my T-shirt, as heavy as a brick, etc. I think I was the one to blame for this misunderstanding which I caused by playing a song called Everything at once by Lenka; the author of the lyric is very creative and comes up with somewhat unusual similes. My students probably inferred that this is the way it works with these language items. Or maybe they just couldn’t remember the right ones. This, once again, demonstrates that some individuals are brave enough to go against the flow and take ownership of the language.