Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.

Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …

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 :-))