Let it be(e)!

One of the things I’ve always liked to have in my life is control. It sounds a bit authoritarian but I believe it’s one of the basic human desires no matter what anybody says. This has also long been one of my deep-seated convictions about teaching and classroom management. So, as a teacher, I like to have the upper hand in class, too. Not that I crave power because I like the feel of it, it just feels safer to hold the reins and be in charge. To be more precise, deep down I believe things go more smoothly and effectively, i.e. students learn more when there is an order as opposed to chaos.

When I was younger, I often lost ground when things slipped out of control in class, especially with younger kids. Consequently, I would feel really bad about myself. In my book, it was always my fault. Luckily, it’s much better now because a) I’m more experienced so I don’t often let things go out of control – simply by taking precautions, b) if it does happen, though, I have some strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation, and c) I’ve come to realize that after all, losing control may not always be a bad thing. I’ve learned it the hard way, though…

I’ve learned there are many situations when things can’t be controlled. And you have to accept it. When a bee flies into the classroom, there’s not much you can do to stop the disorder and confusion immediately. People feel threatened in such situations. It’s their basic instinct to start screaming and jumping around like crazy. Well, you, the one in charge, can kill the bee (which I’d rather not do) or let it out (which I always opt for), but this intervention takes time. Needless to say, by the time you handle the situation, the class has already fallen apart and you’ll need a lot of energy to restore some kind of ‘law and order’. When your student gets so sick that you need to call an ambulance in the middle of your class, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never be able to resume the lesson. It’s so strange, you know … when the sick student is safe and in good hands of the paramedics, your teacher-self automatically wants to pick up where they left off because you feel you owe the other students. But it’s not possible and it’s actually insane to think you can simply rewind and start over. And let’s face it, it’s you who desperately needs the restoration, not the students.

It may sound too harsh but apart from being a control freak, I also like to mentally abuse myself. When I feel things have slipped out of control, I always ask myself: What would people think if they suddenly entered the classroom? What would they see? Chaos. Mayhem. Havoc. They’d simply see the opposite of what a normal lesson should look like and I’d probably have to explain myself, which automatically adds to my dissatisfaction with myself as a teacher.

But sometimes I’m kind to myself, which is happening more and more these days, so when things slip out of control (because kids are having too much fun during an activity or something has just upset them), I force myself to stop and quietly observe. In other words, I do not jump up and interfere right away as my true nature dictates to me, but I take a step back, metaphorically and literally speaking. And sometimes things settle down after a while without the slightest intervention of mine. The chaos in front of me gradually reshapes and remoulds itself into something perfectly harmonious. It’s just a bit noisier. Sometimes I realize that things are actually perfectly fine even though at first sight, they may look a bit disorganized. And oftentimes it is not chaos at all; I just see it that way because I’m such a despot.

This is not to say that I believe that all of a sudden, things can go all liberal. What I’m saying is that it’s often the teacher’s (read: me) focus and perspective that need to change. And although there has been a lot of self-flagellation in this post, I still believe I’m a good teacher and particularly my classroom management skills are my strongest suit. I just think that I could be happier and more content if I just let it be. 🙂

Is there a way to turn haters into lovers?

I’ve never had a student who would openly say that they hate my subject. Not right to my face anyway. I remember a few who did say they didn’t like English, though. These were either the students who I had just started teaching, so they had had some previous (presumably bad) experience, or those who I had been teaching myself for a while (and thus I felt it was me to blame for their lack of enthusiasm).

Needless to say, one should always be wary of taking things too personally. Let’s not bash ourselves too much about things we can’t control. Instead, let’s stop and carefully analyse all the possible reasons why students may actually dislike English classes in general. Here’s a list I’ve compiled for myself and those potentially interested.

  1. Some students simply find the lessons boring, no matter what; for the most part, they can’t relate to the topics typically covered in English courses.
  2. They reckon it’s not a serious subject with all those silly games and fun activities.
  3. They feel like English classes are a waste of time; after all, they can learn English from movies, video games and YouTube.
  4. They dread failure; they are anxious about tests and other high-stakes events which can spoil the joy of learning virtually anything.
  5. Although they don’t mind listening and reading, they hate performing in class. It is the productive skills, i.e. speaking and writing, which they find extremely threatening.
  6. They hate being constantly in the limelight; they find it particularly uncomfortable to expose their feelings and personal views.
  7. English classes may be hard to swallow for individualists who need their own pace and who feel the others are just holding them back (including the teacher). They may also feel the teacher’s methods are not suitable for them, e.g. they find the communicative approach to teaching an L2 totally off.
  8. Related to the previous point, they don’t enjoy pair/group work; they feel like they can’t learn much from their peers so they don’t see the point in collaboration of any sort.
  9. They hate being taught/told what they (think) they already know, i.e. they don’t see the value in recycling the language over and over again.
  10. They feel the lack of some sort of tangibility and immediate achievement; the outcomes and success may often feel elusive throughout the process of L2 acquisition, especially when they hit the plateau stage.
  11. They don’t feel comfortable in a particular group. They feel their level of English is not high enough in comparison with others or they feel other types of peer pressure.
  12. The lessons are potentially challenging for highly sensitive students who crave structure and certainty. Successful mastery of English is preceded by a long journey with lots of unpredictability along the way. It’s a highly individual process, too. Nothing can be fully granted to anybody at any stage. In other words, you can never promise that if a student does X, they will automatically achieve Y. Inevitably, this can be off-putting for some.

There’s a high probability that by reading the list, you’ll actually get to the bottom of the problem. For me, part of the mystery has been solved: it’s not just the teacher to blame in the end. Let’s stop trying to please everybody at all costs. As teachers, we can indeed adjust a few things here and there, but there are some issues that are too complex for us to fix for good, no matter how competent and professional we are. Sometimes, all we need to do is to accept the fact that each student is an individual coming from a different background. What I’m saying here is that there will always be some students who hate English. What is more important is that there will certainly be a few that will love our subject, and these are the ones we should focus on primarily because you know what, the ‘lovers’ may eventually pass some of their enthusiasm on to the ‘haters’. Also, and most importantly, by finding out what is actually so loveable about our classes we can eventually find solutions to some of the problems mentioned above.

Defossilization of our teaching habits

There are many articles about fossilized grammar errors, fossilization of errors, dealing with fossilized errors, overcoming fossilized errors, arresting fossilization, etc. But there aren’t many on the topic of fossilized teaching practices. In L2 learning, fossilization refers to the process in which incorrect language becomes a habit and cannot easily be corrected. Although language fossilization has a rather negative connotation, especially among us English teachers, by now we’ve accepted the inevitable; we know all too well that fossilization is unavoidable to a great extent. Still, we never cease to look for ways to help our learners deal with fossilized language.

One of the ways is prevention. For example, if you teach real beginners, you can focus on accuracy from the very start and nip each problem in the bud. However, you should still keep in mind that students follow a non-linear learning trajectory towards the aquisition of the L2 and sometimes they will keep making the same mistakes regardless of your efforts. So you need to be patient. One way or another, fossilization can only be fixed when attention is drawn to the issue. That is to say, learners need to become aware of the problem to have the capacity to correct it.

The same as fossilized language, fossilized teaching practices are difficult to fix. The main reason is that for the most part, they are invisible to the eye of the performer. Thus they first need to come under the spotlight to be confronted. But if it is us teachers who help our students to see and overcome fossilized errors (because they can’t do so themselves), who will help us to fix our fossilized teaching practices?

I would argue that we, teaching practitioners, also follow a specific, non-linear trajectory when developing professionally. At the beginning of our careers, we know nothing. They did tell us something in methodology courses but the truth is, the reality shock is overwhelming. Later on, throughout our professional lives, we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again until somebody points to them or until the circumstances (lessons that simply don’t work) force us to change some of the things we do. It is only then that we spiral up to the next level.

On a more practical note, here are some of the ways of putting ourselves in the limelight: we can record a lesson of ours and watch it, we can ask a colleague to come and observe us in action, or ask for feedback from our students. These methods may be really painful at first. It is indeed agonizing for our egos to hear that what we’ve been doing for years and years simply doesn’t work the way we thought it did. But they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and recognition and acceptance of a problem is the first step towards solving it. Alternatively, to circumvent the pain but still learn and evolve, we can go to ELT conferences and read books and blogs about reflective practices. Or we can blog about our own teaching experience. Putting ourselves out there like this will help us shine a bright light on some of the areas of our teaching practices, which, in result, will become less ossified.

In conclusion, we must constantly question what we do in the classroom. Asking questions and looking for answers is the best way to potentially defossilize our undesirable teaching habits.

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.

How to survive six lessons in a row?

Without exaggeration, having to teach six consecutive lessons with 5 or 10-minute breaks in between may sometimes be a real ordeal. In my context, it is the maximum you can reach because then you REALLY need a lunch break. If you wanted to sound overly optimistic, you could say that there is a lot of variety. Indeed. We’re talking about a lot of variables here, such as six different groups, ages, mixes of genders, coursebooks, sets of additional materials, classrooms, numbers of students, seating arrangements, vibes, levels of motivation, etc.

Now, if you are good at maths, you know that these variables provide an awful lot of combinations. Let’s say you start with a group of fifteen 12-year-olds (odd number is never ideal) which consists of three boys and twelve girls (not perfect either), you need to grab a specific coursebook (which you may or may not know like the back of your hand), you teach in a small classroom on the top floor (while your office is on the ground floor), the seats are arranged in a horseshoe (good… if it’s your preferred arrangement), the students are eager to learn (excellent!) but are a bit too noisy sometimes (you need to take this into consideration when planning the lesson). Then you go on to teach a group of fourteen 16-year-olds (6 students are missing, 7 haven’t done their homework), the classroom is in the adjacent building, you are using a brand new coursebook you are not quite familiar with yet, etc. If this marathon happens on a Monday (which will be my case from September on), you have the whole weekend to prepare for it. But even with thorough lesson plans, you have to be perfectly fit on that day (no mild colds, headaches, hangovers or other types of sores). And if you are like me, you may even need a lot of coffee all along.

Most of all, be prepared to cut corners in order to survive. In no particular order, these are some of the tips that have worked for me.

  1. Don’t feel guilty if you come to the classroom a few minutes later. You don’t have a jetpack after all. Explain, apologize and start the lesson as if nothing happened.
  2. Do not overrun a lesson. If possible, finish a minute earlier rather than a minute later.  
  3. If you are preparing some additional fun materials (warmers, games), do not hesitate to use the same activity in two or more lessons (with all the necessary adjustments).
  4. In the morning, put your coursebooks in a pile in the order you are going to need them – with the first one on the top of the pile. The same applies to the additional materials and the equipment you’ll need, such as your CD player. Have everything at hand.
  5. In advance, ask a student from each group to meet you at your office to help you carry all the stuff. Your transfer to the classroom will happen much faster.
  6. To save your vocal cords, include a lot of group/pair work and/or writing/reading practice (or tests). Speak as little as possible. Let the students do the work.
  7. ‘Lay low’, i.e. do not experiment or take too many risks in the form of brand new, untested activities. You don’t really need to spike up your cortison levels.
  8. You may feel tired towards the end of the day. This is when caffeine stops working and your energy levels drop. Thus conflicts may arise (at least in my case). Be careful. Do not be harsh on you or your students.
  9. Do not rely on technology too much. The internet may not be working properly on that day so if you have planned the whole lesson around a YouTube video, you may feel bitter. Also, it may take some time to connect all the cables laying around before you are able to turn on the damn smart TV. In fact, I try to avoid technology completely on such a busy day.
  10. Finally, remember that your students have had six lessons in a row too, so it’s not just you who feels tired (and possibly bored to death). Be patient, especially towards the end of the day.

Most importantly, and this is where you can’t cut corners, you really need some sort of a plan, no matter how experienced and good at improvisation you are. I always look forward to my upcoming lessons, even when there are six consecutive classes ahead of me, but I do have to know that I am well-prepared for each and every one to a certain extent.

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 :-))