The challenges of project work

IMG_20170626_114755For a couple of years now, I’ve been involved in a 4-cycle environment-related project called The Danube in a Suitcase. Each September, issues such as alternative sources of energy or sustainability are discussed. As implied, there are four cycles, each of which is devoted to a different environmental topic. My take on this is a 30-minute workshop held in English. Considering it’s a very short time for a ‘lesson’, it may look like a piece of cake. However, as there are seven mixed-age teams of about 18 pupils, I ‘teach’ the same thing seven times in one day. I deliberately put teach and lesson in inverted commas as it’s not really teaching or lessons what we’re talking about here. I do this project with 6 other colleagues – subject teachers – who look at the same topic from a different perspective (unlike me, they do so in Czech). The different perspectives interweave and eventually create a bigger picture, so to speak.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a similar situation, i.e. teaching the same thing several times on the very same day, but it’s something that scares me a bit each year before the workshop starts. The other thing that worries me, especially during the prep stage, is the little time allotted to each workshop. Also, there are only 5-minute breaks between the workshops plus one longer break after the second team finishes, which means it’s all really quick and pretty intense. Needless to say, it requires perfect organization, which, luckily, my colleague – a biology/chemistry teacher – always takes good care of.

When preparing the workshop, I try to keep several things in mind. First of all,  I don’t want to lose my voice (and mind). Despite the fact that each team is different and brings in a different type of energy, it may feel like working on a manufacturing assembly line. Thus I design the activities so that it’s the students who do most of the work, especially the talking. I should add that I have three assistants at my disposal – older students who went through all the 4 cycles of the project in the past and now they are in charge of the organization. This is great because they know what it’s all about so they can be very helpful and they can finally see the whole thing from the other side of the barricade. This, I believe is rewarding as well as educational for them.

Secondly, I must plan the activities so that there is enough to do but not too much within the 30 minutes’ time. This is not easy because I normally have a tendency to overdo things when planning my usual lessons. However, this year, things panned out just fine; we had a nice warm-up and the main activity, plus we had plenty of time for the final feedback and evaluation, which was really valuable and felt very satisfying. I think I’m getting better at lesson planning after all!

Thirdly, since each student within one team has a different level of L2 proficiency and a different amount of knowledge, the content of the workshop has to be challenging and motivating enough for the oldest students but at the same time, it needs to be comprehensible enough for the youngest ones.

One of the great things about this project is that it’s mainly about teamwork and we stress it right from the beginning that teamwork is our priority. As mentioned above, a group of 18 students made up from 4 different classes has to work towards a common goal. They are highly motivated to cooperate as the best three teams get a prize. One of the challenges is that the older students should help the younger ones but at the same, they need to give them enough space. In other words, even though an older student knows all the answers, he or she should wait and let the others do their job or at least formulate their thoughts in their mind. This is not easy for some of the competitive ones.

I love this project despite all the challenges I have to face. It means more work for me as a teacher but in the end, it’s really rewarding.

The Four Scenarios of Lesson 1

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I should be honest and say that I’m one of those people who, at the end of each summer break, have to pretend that: Oh no! School starts again soon. The truth is that I can’t wait for school to start.

Mind you, I do love holidays and being with my family full time. But I also love my work. I love being in the classroom and I even like all the red-tape and non-red-tape stuff I need to grapple with each year before the real teaching can start. This entails updating message boards, making copious lists of everything, filling in multiple forms, copying and pasting of all sorts, you name it.

And then Day 1 finally comes. Being in the classroom for the first time after a long holiday is always a thrilling experience for me. There are four possible scenarios I usually have to be prepared for:

  1. I teach the same group of students who I know well and who know one another well too.
  2. I teach the same group of students but there’s a new element – a student from a different school or an exchange student.
  3. I teach a new group of students who had a different teacher before so I don’t know them but they know one other well.
  4. I teach a brand new group of students who I don’t know and who don’t know one another because they all come from different schools.

Needless to say, for each of the above scenarios, I need to apply different strategies and methods, especially in Lesson 1.

Scenario 1 is the one I feel the most comfortable with. No ice-breakers are needed and we can dive into the syllabus straightaway. That said, in the first lesson, we usually talk about summer experiences and it feels natural and genuine – almost like talking to an old friend. Nobody feels too awkward or embarrassed and I feel I don’t have to invest too much energy into teaching. This is good because I can save the energy surplus for the other scenarios. There’s one caveat though: based on my and my colleagues’ experience, if you teach the same group of students you didn’t get on very well with before, this situation may actually turn into the worst-case scenario.

Scenario 2 is almost as safe as Scenario 1 but it can also be tricky: the dynamic of the group can change dramatically with the new element present. Conversely, the new student can feel a bit out of place, especially at the beginning, thus me, the teacher, needs to come up with strategies that will ease the burden. This year, for example, we have an exchange student from Brazil – a 17-year-old girl – in a group of students I’ve been teaching for 7 years. In the first lesson, all the other students behaved slightly differently and I think it will take some time for them to adjust. Although I can’t predict how things will eventually pan out, I believe the change will only be to the good.

Scenario 3 is my favorite, especially if it’s a group where the students are already motivated and have good relationships with one another. I’m the only new element there, which enables me to explore and, to a certain degree, shape things in a way I think is beneficial for learning. However, if your colleagues warn you in advance that this or that group is just impossible, you’ll be discouraged and biased from Day 1. I try not to pay too much attention to such negative comments.

Scenario 4 is to me the most challenging in terms of energy investment.  The newcomers don’t know one another and they don’t know me so I have no idea how this particular group is going to respond to my methods; I come to the lesson blindfold, so to speak. This may obviously create some tension on both parts. Also, I believe it’s good to have the same set of rules for each group but we all know that the reality is different; in some groups, everything goes smoothly whereas, in other groups, you discover after a while that you’ll simply need to tighten the rules up a bit. These are insights which you can’t have access to in the first lesson and sometimes they come to you when it’s a little too late.

This year, I found myself in all scenarios except Scenario 4. I find it amazing how varied teaching is and how unpredictable it can get. It doesn’t matter if you have taught in the same school/classroom all your life and you already know your coursebooks and your syllabus by heart. It’s primarily the students who always make teaching and learning a once-in-a-lifetime experience.