The power of silence

I’ve been a teacher for almost 30 years now. Through self-education, experience and observation of colleagues, I’ve acquired an extensive toolkit of useful classroom management tips and hacks. Paradoxically, the most obvious ones are usually the most effective. Oftentimes, they are so apparent that they simply slip our minds. So, here I am, reflecting on and reminding myself of one of the most important tricks I’ve learned throughout my teaching career.

It is unquestionable that for us teachers, our voice is our biggest asset. We have the power to speak whenever we want and what we say and how we say it is crucial for the quality of our instruction. But silence is equally important as the words we utter. Without silence, sound would be meaningless anyway. And even though silence can be uncomfortable in some situations, its psychological benefits are indisputable. However, in a language classroom, moments of silence can be of practical value, too.

Here’s a list of situations in which, in my opinion, it is more effective to keep quiet:

  1. At the very start of the lesson, right after you enter the classroom. At this point, there still might be a lot of chatter. There’s no point in yelling at your students to calm down right upon your arrival before you even sit down to take attendance. Give them some time to adjust and let your commanding presence speak for you.
  2. Later on, during the lesson, you might occasionally need to discipline the class again. To get your students’ attention, especially with large groups, it’s sometimes more effective to suddenly stop talking and wait patiently for a moment. The students will soon notice that something is a bit off and they will gradually settle down again.
  3. During tests, unless you need to announce how much time is left or unless a student asks an important question. In this case, I’d quietly address that specific student, not the whole class. I usually write the information on the board, so that anybody can refer to it if need be.
  4. After you’ve given instructions and the students have already started working. There’s no point in interrupting the activity unless you think you’ve forgotten to mention something really important. In such a case, stop the activity and make everybody look up and listen.
  5. When monitoring and listening to a pair/group having an interesting discussion on a topic. It’s tempting to chip in but it may interrupt the flow of their conversation as well as their train of thought.
  6. When waiting for an answer to a question you’ve just asked. Do not speak if the answer doesn’t come immediately. Give the student(s) some thinking time and discourage others from shouting out the answer too quickly (unless it’s your intention or the point of the activity).
  7. When a student makes a mistake but you are interested in the message rather than its grammatical correctness. Just listen and potentially react to what they say, not how they say it.
  8. After the bell rings. There’s simply no point. Nobody is listening, let alone paying attention, any more. Period.

My list is by no means exhaustive. I believe the reader will be able to add more situations in which silence is useful.

The 30 questions and student thinking time

The other day I came across an interesting post by Nick Bilbrough about student thinking time, at the end of which the author poses the following question:

Is student thinking time as important as student talking time? If so, what’s the best way of maximising it in your classes?

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Obviously, my answer is yes! and here’s why.

I’m proud to say that most of my students love speaking activities and they jump at every opportunity to chat about practically anything. If you give them a set of thought-provoking questions to discuss in pairs or groups, they won’t even wait for the instructions – they’ll instantly start to chatter away. This is fantastic, isn’t it? This is what we English teachers want our students to do – to spontaneously communicate in the target language.

There are a few minor issues, though. First of all, prior to the lesson, you probably have certain aims in mind and chattering away freely may not be the main one; you may want your students to practise specific vocabulary or grammar items or you just want them to approach the speaking task in a particular way – for particular reasons.

Today was the first day of school after the two-week Christmas holiday. So like last year, I gave my students a set of 30 questions to answer about the previous year. The questions were originally shared by Anna Loseva here, and they have recently inspired another great blogging challenge.

Anyway, when we did the same speaking activity last year, I looked at the questions as mere prompts, which were to help the learners express their end-of-the-year reflections as clearly and easily as possible. Despite the fact that the activity went quite well, I felt that it could have been designed more meaningfully. The truth is that I had practically handed out the questions and let the students converse.

Hence, this year, I opted for a slightly different approach; I decided to give Ss some thinking time before the actual speaking. I handed out the questions (slightly edited to suit my mostly teenage classes) and asked Ss to read them and record the answers first. Before they could roll their eyes and sigh in despair (I knew this would be too time-consuming), I told them to write each answer in just one word, namely  a word that summarises or represents the whole answer. Eventually, it took them only about 10 minutes.

During this relatively short period, I observed Ss silently racking their brains, trying to come up with adequate answers. Not only that; they were looking words up in dictionaries, highlighting, taking notes and occasionally negotiating meaning with one another. In other words, lots of learning was happening prior to speaking.

This makes me believe that thinking time is important; at least as important as the production stage (if not more).

Here’s my edited version of Anna’s questions:

1. The best/ most memorable moment of 2015.
2. What/who inspired me the most in 2015?
3. What was the major news of the year?
4. What was the best song of the year?
5. What were the most important people of the year?
6. What was the most difficult task for me to do in 2015?
7. What colour was the year?
8. Which event of the year would I choose to remember forever?
9. Which word did I use most often?
10. What was my most ridiculous purchase of the year?
11. I shouldn’t have experimented with …
12. Last year was wonderful because …
13. Which problem did I solve successfully?
14. Who did I hug most?
15. Whose party did I have fun at?
16. What was my average pocket money last year?
17 Which conversation turned everything upside down in my head?
18. What new project/activity did I start in 2015?
19. If I could become a superhero for just one day, what would I do?
20. What am I dreaming about now?
21. What do I consider to be my most important achievement of 2015?
22. What would 2015 be in one sentence?
23. The latest message I’ve sent.
24. The best quote/sentence I came across in 2015.
25. Did I achieve everything I’d planned for 2015?
26. How many new friends did I make in 2015?
27. Who did I help most 2015?
28. Where did I travel?
29. Which projects/tasks am I putting off?
30. What do I want to achieve in 2016?

Everyone is a genius.

I must admit that the older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity and spontaneity in language teaching. It makes me very happy when a beautiful, meaningful lesson grows out of something seemingly trivial or when an impromptu action leads to something truly valuable.

20151118_122225bThe other day, in class, we read an article about Albert Einstein. It was one of those classic coursebook texts accompanied by a classic reading comprehension check. Quite boring, I should add. Nevertheless, the text contained an idea that immediately grabbed my attention. Allegedly, Einstein was a pretty bad student. However, as we all know, despite his rather poor study results, he eventually became one of the best-known scientists of all times. So, after having read the article, we talked a bit about what makes somebody perform well/badly at school, about the role of grades, motivation, concentration, intelligence, etc. The students brainstormed some really great ideas.

Anyway, in the next lesson, I felt it might be interesting to elaborate on the topic a bit more. One thing I really love working with is quotes. Quotes are everywhere and everybody loves them. In language teaching, they can turn into nice warm-ups, cool icebreakers or efficient lead-ins. You can choose any word, grammar item or topic and you’ll always find quite a few related quotes. Apart from containing useful target language, a good quote is a well of wisdom and a springboard for interesting discussions. And (off the record), if you don’t have time to prepare your lesson, find a quote. 🙂

So, …

Supposedly, Albert Einstein is the author of the following quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Bingo! That was what I needed for my 15-year-old B1 students. At the beginning of the lesson, I drew 28 lines on the board, each one representing one word of the quote. I explained that it’s a quote by Einstein, closely related to what we had discussed in the previous lesson, i.e. education. First, I revealed that it includes an animal which people typically eat for Christmas in the Czech Republic. When Ss guessed the word, I put it on the appropriate line.

1___  2___  3___  4___.  5___  6___  7___  8___  9___  10_fish__  11___    12___  13___  14___ 15___  16___  17___,  18___  19___  20___  21___  22___  23___  24___ 25___  26___  27___  28___.

VýstřižekIn a random order, I gradually defined all the nouns, i.e. fish, genius, tree, life. Whenever Ss came up with a wrong word, I drew a part of the Hangman. Then I continued with adjectives and verbs, which, like nouns, are quite easy to define. We played with different parts of speech, i.e. able > ability, judge (which is a noun as well as a verb) synonyms, and antonyms. I said that the quote includes conditional tense – something we had spoken about a couple of lessons back. I also pointed out that some verb forms need to be changed (see believing, for example). At this point, Ss had to concentrate on vocabulary as well as grammar. I love it when lexis and grammar merge and blend this way. Anyway, when I added all the content words, I left Ss to their own devices. They had to fill in all the grammatical words themselves (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, etc). This was a useful language practice too, and the fact that they were close but not quite right at times kept everybody in suspense till the very last moment.

When Ss guessed all the words, I asked them to discuss the meaning of the quote in pairs. To my surprise, it was not as easy as I had expected, but most Ss got it right in the end. I elicited some answers and put them on the board as bullet points. Then I got Ss to substitute fish with a different animal. Obviously, the rest of the quote had to be changed, as in … if you judge a parrot by its ability to swim … This helped Ss to reinforce the tricky grammar structure (if… to + verb) and some new vocabulary (judge….by, ability). Also, I made sure that each and every student was clear about the meaning of the quote. After that, as a whole class, we discussed whether we agree or disagree with the statement and why. I asked about the connection between the quote and what we had talked about in the previous lesson (Einstein’s failure as a student, education, grades, etc.).  This provoked an interesting debate too.

We also talked about Ss’ strengths and weaknesses and we mentioned that it’s important to focus on what they are good at.

Finally, as Ss liked the quote, I said it might be cool to learn it by heart. I used the erase-the-last-word technique. I erased stupid first and got a student to read the whole quote. Then I wiped off all the words one by one – each time somebody having to read the whole quote – until there was nothing left on the board. Eventually, I asked them to write the quote in their notebooks from memory.

I guess something similar can be done with practically any quote. To work with quotes, you can use various activities, such as the running dictation, Chinese Whispers, Spelling Contest, Bingo and many more.

A lion or a squirrel?

IMG_20150920_183610When I think of dogme, what first springs to mind is the type of teaching where, ideally, all the resources and the content of the lesson are provided by the students. Although I’m by no means a pure Dogmetist, I regularly love to indulge myself in teaching Unplugged.

Handing it over to the class can result in an enormous wave of creativity and genuine, meaningful conversation, not only in the actual lesson but later on with other classes too. The key is to let yourself inspired by your students.

The other day, a 13-year-old Jane was eager to share a personality test she had come across on the internet. We had a couple of minutes left of the lesson and it was before Christmas anyway, so I thought it may be a great way to wind up. So she enthusiastically marched to the front of the class and told the following story:

Imagine a very tall banana tree. Under the tree, there are four animals: a lion, a giraffe, a chimpanzee and a squirrel. The animals decide to compete to see who can get a banana from the tree first. Who do you think will win? 

If you’re curious to see the results, you can watch this video, which I’ve just found on YouTube. Or you may well think about the answer yourself and wait till the end of the post. 🙂 To cut it short, each answer, i.e. animal, equals a different personality trait. Anyway, Jane elicited some answers from the class and after a short discussion, she revealed the results.

It was fun and everybody loved it, but I immediately realized the activity had a much greater potential. So the next day, I shared it with other classes. By the way, I’m not a great storyteller but I did quite well with this one (it’s very short after all). Needless to say, each and every time, the story provoked different reactions and different language points emerged, depending on the students’ age and level of proficiency.

However, the trick is not to reveal the results immediately. Obviously, there is no correct answer, even though at first sight, some alternatives appear more logical than others. So, let your students tell you what they think and see what happens. Remember that you’ll keep them in suspense and fully engaged as long as you keep the answers a secret. But even later on, once your students are familiar with the results of the test, you will definitely hear some interesting ideas. Most likely, there’ll be words of disagreement or doubt, which is highly desirable and beneficial at this stage. Based on my experience, with advanced classes, you’ll probably end up having a serious, deeply philosophical debate while with younger learners, it’ll be just a light-hearted chat.

Here are some of the questions you might want to ask after you elicit the answers (before you reveal the results, which you can see below the image):

  1. Why did you choose this particular answer?
  2. Why did you dismiss the other options?
  3. What do you think your answer will reveal about your personality?
  4. What will the other answers reveal about people in the class?
  5. In the other class most people chose ‘answer 1’ but here most of you agreed on ‘answer 2’? What do you think this might mean?

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  • If your answer was the lion, you are a fighter. 
  • If your answer was the giraffe, you are a logical thinker. 
  • If your answer was the squirrel, you are an optimist. 
  • If your answer was the chimpanzee, you are a deep thinker. 

Now, I have lots of follow-up activities up my sleeve, but that would be another longish post. So, until next time ….

C’mon, let’s speak

IMG_20150619_111735In this post, I’d like to share a couple of speaking activities I recently tried out with some of my classes. I believe that the activities are worth sharing because they generated a lot of genuine conversation as well as some useful language. As most of the language input was produced by students themselves (not the coursebook or the teacher), the content was highly personalized and thus motivating. In fact, I was just a mediator & moderator while the students were responsible for all the language & content emerging along the way. This enabled me to use the activities with any level and age group I currently work with (from a fairly low-level classes up to C1 level). Also, I needed next to no prep time or materials – just paper and pen (and a coin for Activity 1).

Activity 1:

IMG_20150819_123933Give each student a blank card. Ask them to write a question they’d like to ask their peers. Ideally, the questions should generate some controversy/disagreement/interest. They should neither be too personal nor addressed to one specific student. Examples of how your students can start the questions: Do you believe… What do you think about… What’s your viewpoint/attitude/opinion…. Your students are totally responsible for the content of the questions, but you should keep an eye on what they come up with, just to make sure it’s not going to be embarrassing or inappropriate. This is a great time for working on PARSNIP topics.

Collect all the questions and shuffle the cards. Ask Student X to come to the front of the class and pick a random card. He reads the question and tries to answer it in 4-5 sentences. Then he flips a coin (a real one or a virtual one). If it’s heads, other students will have to find arguments to support Student X’s opinion. If it’s tails, they will have to disagree/find arguments to oppose his original opinion. This is much more interesting than if you just let everybody say what they think. Some students noted that they didn’t like the fact that they had to pretend disagreement or agreement, but I explained to them that they can circumvent this by saying something along these lines: I personally don’t agree but I imagine some people might argue that (for agreeing) … I agree but my friends often say that (for disagreeing)  ….. 

Activity 2:

Ask your students to help you generate a list of pairs from certain lexical sets. They can be opposites such as day/night, black/white, or just similar items, i.e. smartphone/tablet. Ideally, they should always be nouns or gerunds. Prompt Ss with categories, such as sports, food, colours, electronic gadgets, school subjects, seasons, etc. Record the students’ ideas on a sheet of paper. When you end up with a list of about 20 pairs, ask Ss to take a piece of paper and a pen. Tell them that you are going to read the pairs one by one and that they quickly have to decide which item they prefer, i.e. day or night? fishing or golf? English or maths? Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? movies or books? etc. They always have to choose and record one option. If they aren’t sure, they still have to make a quick decision. Based on my experience, at this point, even the most demotivated and lazy Ss will liven up. So, each student will eventually end up with a slightly different list of words. Now, put Ss into pairs/groups and ask them to glance at their lists first to see if they are ‘on the same wavelength’, i.e. if they have the same preferences. Then, get them to discuss their answers one by one. My students came up with interesting ideas and lots of useful language which we then worked on as a class, such as: I prefer night because everything’s quieter and more peaceful (comparatives). I prefer black to (preposition) white because it goes with every clothing item (countable vs. uncountable nouns).

As a follow-up activity, you can ask Ss to come up with five more pairs each (crazy ideas allowed here) and during a mingling activity, they can ask people in the class about their preferences. This can be done as a survey, for example, which can later be presented in front of the whole class: Question: What surprised you most? Answer: That most girls prefer wearing pants to skirts. 

I hope these activities will work as well as they did for my classes. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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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.

The best game ever! (How to increase student talking time)

11128056_10204932516485743_3420885650259449598_nOne 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! 

Challenging one of my personal myths …

If you have been a teacher for some time now, there are probably certain principles you strongly believe in. It is possible that you consider some approaches better than others. For example, you might believe that communicative language teaching is better than the grammar translation method. Or, and this is my case, you may believe that certain seating arrangements work better for your classes than other alternatives.

I’ve always felt a strong dislike of teaching language classes in the traditional classroom layout – straight rows facing the front of the classroom. Ironically, although this straight row arrangement has been widely criticized, mostly because it is said to inhibit experimentation in the classroom, it still predominates in most educational settings. It is not surprising that the majority of classrooms in the school where I work are arranged this way.

I’ve always preferred the horseshoe arrangement, mainly because I believe that it’s best for both student-student and student-teacher interaction. I like it when I can face all my students and I like the space this type of layout provides. But more importantly, I think it’s good when students can see one another’s faces (and mouths) all the time. This is particularly important in a language classroom, where people listen and talk to each other most of the time. In fact, whenever I had to teach in a room where this arrangement wasn’t possible, I felt extremely uncomfortable.

But some time ago I became a student again and I started attending seminars and workshops, where both types of layouts were common. Suddenly, seen from the student perspective, the one I disliked as a teacher didn’t seem much worse than the one I preferred. On the contrary, I remember occasions when I felt physical and psychological discomfort when sitting in the horseshoe arrangement; either because I had chosen an inconvenient spot – one of those places where I was forced to keep my head and neck in a very unhealthy position when looking at the board – or because the room was jam-packed with people and I felt I had lost my personal space – the intimate zone reserved for close friends and family members.

Back to my teaching context, though. I teach in a small room which can accommodate up to 22 people. The size of the room allows you to make a horseshoe out of 8 double desks at the most. However, as I started teaching slightly larger classes back in September, and I didn’t really want to move into a different room, I simply brought three more desks and created an additional, smaller horseshoe inside the big one. As you can see below, although it looked pretty cosy and learner-friendly, it was crammed with quite a few students. This realization, as well as my personal experience, nudged me into a small experiment.

Before …

One day, before the first group entered the room, I had changed the current layout to the traditional one (see below). As it is quite a small room, the change didn’t look too dramatic to me, but I felt that at least I had created some space around each desk. Nevertheless, it was interesting to observe my students’ first reactions to the tweak. I had to smile when I overheard some of the comments the kids uttered upon entering the classroom: “What? ” Oh no! ” What’s this supposed to be? ” “Oh dear!” “This is terrible!” Some just looked puzzled thinking that this was only a mistake which was going to be fixed as soon as their lesson started.

After

The whole point of the post will be revealed soon. I obviously might have changed the layout right after having heard the initial negative reactions, but I decided to wait for a couple of more lessons and enjoy all the psychological impact this alternation had on my students. I want to stress that all my students are in their teens, which means that their negative reactions may only be a type of adolescent rebellion. Anyway, after the second lesson spent in the ‘new’ room, when they seemed to have adjusted to the change a bit, I asked each group the following question: I know you said you felt discomfort when you entered the room for the first time, but I’d like to ask you to share with me some potential advantages this seating arrangement might bring. 

I was really surprised at some of their ideas. Although some students still kept the defensive pose, others had already changed their mind. Well, actually, it’s not that bad. I’m enjoying it after all.

Here are some of the perks they eventually came up with. The tongue-in-the-cheek ones are indicated with a smiley face.

1) I can hear my partner better during the speaking activities, probably due to the fact that our personal space is not invaded from all directions.
2) I don’t have to look at other people’s faces 🙂 My personal note: I believe that some students might also find it embarrassing to be constantly observed by their peers.
3) At least it doesn’t feel like the awful evening language course we attend. 🙂
4) My neck doesn’t hurt anymore.
5) I can rest my arm on the radiator, which I couldn’t before. 🙂
6) The teacher can’t spot the mobile phones hidden under the desks. 🙂
7) We can concentrate better.
8) Swinging on chairs is safer now. 🙂

The most obvious conclusion is that most people resist change and they don’t hesitate to express the resistance as soon as they are confronted with something new. But once they adjust to the new thing, they may discover that it’s not that bad in the end. It’s possible that sooner or later they will want to come back to the old and traditional, or maybe they’ll want to move one step forward. I myself made a step forward when I tried something I had always been reluctant to do. I should add that from a technical point of view, there are some advantages to this seating arrangement, such as the fact that the students can easily and smoothly change partners without even having to stand up. But this is for another post.

…and this is probably a parody of my post :-))

 

Preferences, approaches and aspirations

The oth71be3-mc5a02bdorter day I went over to Steve Wheeler’s blog and watched a short interview recorded at the INTED 2015 conference in Madrid, Spain. I highly recommend watching the video, in which Steve talks about the importance of technology in education. The progressive, yet moderate view on technology resonates with me but what really struck a chord with me was the following line: Every student has different preferences, approaches and aspirations. Nothing new under the sun, right? Yet, it got me thinking and inspired me to write this post. When I heard the line, I immediately thought of learning styles and the heated debate they have recently inspired, and I realised that it’s much better to think of students’ differences in terms of their preferences, approaches and aspirations than in terms of the looked-down-on learning styles, which, to me, represent a rather narrow perspective. However, as you’ll see, it’d probably be more comfortable and easier to deal with just seven learning styles than with a plethora of different preferences, approaches and aspirations.

It’s obvious that each and every student wants a different thing – hence the different preferences. When learning English, one student prefers grammar tables; another favours picking up the language through reading books. You don’t need to prove this scientifically because you can tell what your students want – they show you, implicitly or explicitly, or they just tell you if you ask. Also, it’s beyond doubt that each and every student deals with school work in a different way. You can observe this directly, provided you give your students some choice and control over their learning approaches. For example, some like learning vocabulary by underlining words and recording them in their notebooks; others use apps on mobile phones to memorise and revise lexical items. As for aspirations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find two students who aspire for the very same thing. Few students will do without English when they leave school, but there might be some in the end. Maybe they’ll need German or Russian instead – not English. Not all students will need to be able to speak the language at a high level; some will get by with passive knowledge of vocabulary since they won’t use the language to communicate orally. For instance, they will only read texts for academic purposes. Others won’t have to do a lot of writing, so they won’t have to panic about spelling and linking words a big deal.

Now, if you take into account that there are at least 3 constants – preferences, approaches and aspirations, which, by the way, can be highly variable – and you have a class of, say, 25 students, then it’s really difficult to adjust your teaching to satisfy every student’s needs. You’d have to have an inventory of up to 25 times 3 different teaching approaches/methods/techniques/styles/magic tricks, which you obviously can’t perform all at once. i e. in one lesson. Plus you would sometimes have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell what exactly you students want on a particular day, in a particular lesson.

What is the solution, then? Individualisation? Yes, but there are 25 individuals with various preferences, approaches and aspirations in your class, remember? Personalisation? Yes, but there are 25 persons sitting in front of you ready to start talking about what concerns them. Making your teaching learner-centred? Absolutely! However, there are 25 learners to be focused on. Give them tasks to complete? Yes, but what if they prefer to absorb knowledge through listening and taking notes, and it bugs them when they are forced to learn through completing inauthentic tasks. Dogme? Well, yes, but imagine how much variety would suddenly emerge at one point if you were really liberal; would you be able to handle it? Let them use technology then? Good idea but there are some who prefer to see things on paper and they hate looking at the computer screen. The matter is complicated by the fact that I, too, have my preferences, approaches and aspirations, and beliefs.

I’m not exactly pessimistic but whenever I enter the classroom and see those 25 little heads, I can’t help feeling I’m not doing enough – I can never do enough. What is my role as a teacher then? Mind you, this is not a philosophical question; this is a question I ask as a practitioner with some experience in the classroom and I bit of theoretical knowledge. Can we do anything at all or would the whole system of schooling have to change completely, as some argue? Before this happens, I guess I’ll just be there for my students trying to do what I believe is best for them …