Lesson planning – the unexpected twists and turns

We, teachers, like to plan our lessons to the tiniest detail because they say that an hour of planning can save you ten hours of doing. But life and teaching aren’t just about plans – they’re about results, too. So in addition to punctilious planning, we set goals and expect certain outcomes.

That said, regardless of how meticulously we plan or how much we expect, and what specific bits of knowledge we aim to pass on to our students, every student’s takeaway and experience of that lesson will eventually be unique. I mean, each lesson plan, whether on paper or just in our heads, is in effect lifeless. It is through student engagement that it is finally brought to life. When this happens, our students have an experience. As a result, their experience, and particularly their reaction stemming from that experience, may bring about unexpected twists and can even create some new experience we didn’t even imagine it would. In other words, how each student responds to our lesson changes and/or enriches the original plan (or it may well shatter it to pieces) and subsequently affects the experience of others in the classroom, including the teacher.

Obviously, this is something you can’t fully control and predict. If you are an experienced teacher, you know all too well that you need to be prepared for this. But that’s all you can do about it – be ready.

Let’s say that at some point in the lesson, you plan to ask a really intriguing question. You believe it will trigger an interesting debate which will be a springboard for another activity. In your lesson plan, you note down that this debate should last for 5 minutes max. You ask that question. You wait. Silence… You wonder what’s going on in all those little heads. You wonder what the students are experiencing right now; is it embarrassment, boredom, or are they just being shy? Maybe it’s a difficult question and they are thinking about it. To avoid more potential awkwardness, you decide to step in. And here comes the twist you didn’t plan for; you say: “Ok, tell your partner first and then we’ll share some of your ideas together as a class”. Surprisingly, the students start chatting away immediately. It’s been more than 5 minutes now. You should stop them but it seems they are experiencing a lot of excitement. This makes you feel excited too. It’s a good feeling to see that they are fully engaged. It makes you want to keep them in that state a bit longer. You’re weighing your options. While monitoring and pretending that everything is going according to plan, you are experiencing a bit of indecisiveness. It’s somewhat uncomfortable. This discomfort makes you want to get back that good feeling of flow. “What should I do next?” You have a plan to follow and objectives to meet …

The above example clearly illustrates that it’s not just the plan and your expectations that will determine the course and quality of the lesson; it’s all the imperceptible, unexpected and unpredictable that happens on the spot which to a great extent shapes your students’ learning experience and the outcomes. All this uncertainty is not for the faint of heart; it may cause anxiety and concern, especially if you are a novice teacher. But, it’s exciting too. After all, teaching is an adventurous job. Nothing is permanent; everything changes and you are constantly pushed out of your comfort zone by some invisible, intangible forces. All this gradually makes you better and better prepared for what comes next. 

How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It’s as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it’s easy because many people have already done it before. It’s as if you were asked to do karaoke – it’s basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I’ve nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.… All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments – they’d probably remembered something resembling my story, or they’d simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support – because my story suddenly didn’t seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all – not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It’s not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it’s often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it’s something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example…

Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….