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“Could It Be Shorter?”, Could It Be Better?

I wouldn’t label this lesson as a disaster but I did end up feeling somewhat “blah” about the lesson as a whole and I’m not so much wondering where it went wrong in this case but what I could have done better.

So what did I do?

I had a lesson planned out… in fact I had two lesson plans ready to go as this class has already had a couple of ‘unplugged’ classes from me recently though I always have a ‘materials-heavy’ lesson ready to go if the ‘light’ class isn’t taking off.  However, straight out of the gate I saw an opportunity to jump on just about the very first thing that was said.

Student: “If it hadn’t rained yesterday we would have celebrated at the Corsórdromo.”

This took 2 or 3 attempts for the student to get out but he was obviously trying hard to get his conditionals right.  I wrote it up on the board and mentally filed my original lesson plan away for another day.  This would be the focus of the rest of the lesson.  And the reason for this was the next part of our exchange:

Me: “Could you say that for me again please?”

Student: “Umm, could it be shorter?”

Ha!  And there it was – proof-positive of my students’ reluctance and aversion to the 3rd conditional!  Now, I recently saw Robin Walker’s excellent ‘Pronunciation Matters’ seminar from IATEFL Brighton 2011 and his comment about Spanish-speakers’ avoidance of 3rd conditional was ringing in my head like a very loud bell (if you haven’t seen this talk, I highly recommend it!)

So what did I do next?

For a little while, we continued with the original discussion we were having.   I explained about my planned trip to Buenos Aires this weekend and they all joked that the place is so dangerous I won’t come out alive.  Capitalizing on that, I drew a face of myself beaten up, looking similar to this photoshopped picture of Mr Bean!  I asked if this was me next week, what might I say?

I asked them to come up with some fun examples but they basically came up with the standard 3rd conditional examples one would expect.  Oh well, next time perhaps. (I think sometimes those ‘funny’ examples are more for the benefit of the teacher than the students anyway.)

After that, I noticed the students weren’t really listening to each other and I was losing their attention as I focused on examples for each student individually.  Time to change tracks!

Getting them all round one table I got them to say a sentence in the 3rd conditional (I didn’t call it 3rd conditional, just “sentences like these” – wanted to avoid making this too explicitly grammar focussed).  The first student had to give a sentence, the next student had to repeat the first sentence and give their own, the next students had to repeat the first two and so on.

So here’s why I did it?

We had already looked at the chunks of language (“If it hadn’t”, “we would have” and variations thereof) and I had drilled it in an attempt to reduce the anxiety the students have, i.e. “Could it be shorter?”  (see this post on my other blog to get an idea of how I did this).  This exercise was an attempt to test if this advice and guidance had taken.  The activity also drilled and focused the students on the structure without doing it too explicitly.

So what would I like to have gone better?

I was quite happy with this last part but it did drag in some areas and even though it was each student’s job to do quality control for their own sentence as it got repeated around the room, there was some boredom.  Unfortunately a great follow up/wrap up to this exercise had to be cut short as we simply ran out of time.  I asked the students to write down all the sentences that we had been working on for the last 15/20 minutes or so.  While the task went uncompleted, I did manage to go round and make a couple of corrections to some revealing mistakes.

The pronunciation work had to be abandoned even though 2 or 3 of the 8 students were still struggling with “g”, “c” and “w” (good, would, could).  I gave a little extra time here already and even got to the stage where I specifically asked for the learners who weren’t having problems to describe, in L1, what they were doing with their mouths to make these different sounds.  This unfortunately had limited success.

So why am I not happier with this lesson?

The time management issue at the end came about from some dragging during activities as well as the pronunciation issues mentioned above.  What I would like to do is have a few more immediate class management techniques to be able to get more students active at one time without having to constantly remind them “no, you’re not finished” after only 20 seconds of effort.

Basically the pacing which subsequently led to a half-finished wrap up activity disappointed me here.  As a Dogme/Emergent Language lesson I’m relatively happy but it has certainly highlighted one or two areas I need to tighten up in my teaching.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Reflections

 

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Conversation Class Storybuilding

I’ve been trying to crack the nut of getting some effective storytelling out of my B2/C1 conversation class for a while now and with limited success.  Here’s an activity I tried about a week or so ago and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.

So here’s what I did

The idea was that I would have a list of pictures (see the slide show link below) to help put my students into the right frame of mind.  I should make it clear here that my students are all great and that I do have a lot of fun with them but they aren’t very good when it comes to doing anything they perceive as work.  Having spent several years going through English classes and preparing and sitting KET, PET and FCE exams (and passing all of them very well) they are now taking this class as something a little less serious, less driven and more conversational.  This drives me nuts because it ends up being a fight to get them to even pick up a pencil and take a note!

Anyway, I digress.  The students had a picture and I then provided them with a prompt.  An ending or middle to a story that would spark some ideas and would be something they could work towards when building up their story.

The story lines were as follows:

  • You are in the desert and about to start fighting with your best friend.  Why?
  • You are in your bedroom and very angry.  Why?
  • You are in the supermarket and you’ve got the giggles.  Why?
  • You answer a knock at the door and there is a giraffe outside.  What happened?
  • A woman storms into a restaurant and slaps you hard in the face.  Why?
  • You have a cut on your face and you are out of breath.  What just happened?
  • You start crying when you find out the cinema has run out of ice-cream.  Why is it so important to you?
  • You throw a set of keys off a bridge and into a river.  Why?

So here’s why I did it

I wanted to have a collaborative storytelling exercise that would make the students listen to each other, repeat each other, build on what they had said and all learn and use the reformulations I would insert into their story as and when needed.

So where did it go wrong?

Pacing.  It came down to pacing.  Since the students weren’t taking notes and this was being done as a class exercise we quickly had a long and not very interesting story to tell again and again from the start.  In a class of 9 students this turned into minutes upon minutes of inaction and boredom for many of them.  While there was some benefit to listening again and again and getting ready to retell the story it had really not been scaffolded well enough and for those students who had already told their part of the story, there was nothing to keep them active as the exercise continued.

And what was the outcome?

Seeing that the activity was not going to pan out as I had hoped, we quickly moved on to another story beginning.  Moving from the desert story to the restaurant/face-slap story, this quickly got a lively debate going between the boys and the girls of the class about whether the man (as they decided the protagonist would be) had done something wrong or whether the woman who made the scene had jumped to conclusions and overreacted.  This probably saved the class but not the lesson.

So would I do this activity again?

Good question.  Probably yes, but with a lot of alterations to the structure.

So what would I do differently next time?

Smaller groups that can be left to their own devices while the teacher can sit in for a couple of minutes and monitor language.  This would almost certainly be a more effective arrangement.

I’m not convinced that there was enough structured motivation for this exercise however.  Making up a story and being creative on demand is difficult in general.  Making up a story for the sake of making up a story probably isn’t motivation enough for most students.  I’m sure that more guidance, leading the learners to the conclusion that story-telling skills are important and need to be improved whenever possible, would have produced a far more energized, more focused group of learners.

At the moment I’m not sure how I would guide the learners to this conclusion but I’m sure that more immediate, clearer learning goals would also have made things easier.  Something like “use these phrases in your story” or “please include three women and two men in this story”.

On top of this, a more tangible finished product, such as a written story or a audio recording of a student-made story would be something that would help students by giving them something to work towards and focus on producing.

My feeling is that this ended up being that more ‘deviant/winging it’ side of Dogme where I had wanted to let the stories and students go with the flow but that ultimately this handed over too much control with not enough guidance or understood/agreed-upon lesson targets.

Hmm… still trying to think this one through.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Reflections

 

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Organize, organize, organize! (Forgive me if the contents of this post are blatantly obvious)

So I’m having a crisis of confidence at the moment and I’m sure that I am not alone in having felt this way about classes and teaching.  Like I said in the title, forgive me if what I am going to say seems ridiculously obvious, nevertheless  I think it is useful to put these things down in writing because if you can put it into words you are helping to define it, and once you’ve defined a problem you can start dealing with it.  And since I’m a sharer, I thought I would put this on the blog perhaps to give comfort to other teachers out there feeling the same way: misery loves company.  Regardless, even if this gets read by no one else but me, I’ve found it useful.

Okay, you’ve been warned.  I’ll continue.

I’ve been teaching in Argentina for about 6 weeks now.  I have a somewhat full schedule with 9 classes (approximately 50 students in total) over the week, 24 teaching hours but thanks to some classes taking the same course, I only have to prepare for 9 classes a week… in theory.  Of course, since classes have different strengths and weaknesses and move at different paces, there is some inevitable modification of those lessons which should be the same.

My primary problem is that I am starting to feel the water level rising, I feel I’m about to drop the ball somewhere, the going is starting to get a little tougher… have I bored you yet with all my phrases and metaphors and nonsense.  I’ll stop now.

So that’s what I’m doing

And where is it starting to go wrong?

As ashamed as I am to say it, since I only have my bigger classes once a week (I share the class with another teacher) I am still having huge problems remembering names.  They all remember my name, of course, but I have 50+ teenage Argentineans and I never worked out a system to learn and remember their names.

That’s a symptom of where it started to go wrong from day one: the lack of a system, the lack of a well organized filing and record keeping system on my part.  Part of this is laziness.  We’ve all been there; by the end of the day you’ve been teaching for 6 or 7 hours almost non-stop, taking your breaks for what they were intended, a break!  By the end of the day you are exhausted and even then it’s difficult to remember what you did in the first class.

However, part of this is ignorance.  Knowing what to do and knowing how to do it are two completely different things.  I know I need to be more organized but I don’t think I really know how.

I love computers, I really do.  I started keeping notes in a Word document about what I was doing in class.  But that depends on having the computer available to make notes or ideas when one pops into your head.  This is also a problem if you are projecting something over the computer for the students.  I also keep notes on paper but soon I have a pile of papers with hand scribbled notes, half illegible about some class or another but I’m not sure which one.

So what’s the problem to be fixed?

I’m entering week 7 and I’m wondering “What have I done with whom and why?”  NOT a good position to be in.

How?

I’m sticking to pen and paper on this one (sorry techies) and I’m going to keep a journal.  A teaching book that will keep separate each and every class.  This will serve two purposes (well, at least two really): it will keep track of my classes and keep a track of what I do with each of the classes (hopefully allowing me to start keeping better track of names).  However, it will also serve as a gauge for me; the way I see it, if I don’t have time in class to keep these notes then I am doing too much work in class, too much TTT, too much unnecessary TTT.  In 90 minutes of class time, students need to have some time to just get on with the work.  The benefits for improved recycling of language, reference to previous exercises, activities, vocabulary, grammar, etc, are obvious.

I’m surprised that there wasn’t more focus on efficient, effective note-taking skills when I did my CertTESOL.  Certainly we did a lot of reflection on the course, far more than a teacher can reasonably do in a day-in/day-out situation.  However, the action of keeping track of the class, as it happens, random thoughts that you think of in a flash but that can be gone just as quickly.  How much better and more connected would my classes be if I could start preparing them while in my class with my students?

My Challenge

This is a challenge to myself really.  Over the next few days, I’m going to start posting these notes onto the blog.  This will force me to keep doing it and, since I know there might be an audience, it will force me to keep the quality as high as possible – get into good habits.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on April 18, 2011 in Reflections

 

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