egg faced monster by Wilheln on Flickr
I’d been on a pretty good run of lessons recently. My incursions into the blogosphere this year have provided some excellent techniques and lessons, and my reflective work on this blog has crystallised some of my vague notions of how my students work best. I’m also learning a lot from the teaching module of my MA studies. All of this has combined pretty well so far, and I’m feeling like I’m accruing a fairly substantial body of knowledge. Nothing like a good dose of reality to keep me modest then, which is just what this week’s Easter themed lesson provided.
This lesson drew on a few things that I’ve read recently. It incorporated a live-listening activity, in which the students had a chance to interact with me during the listening piece and so more accurately mirrored a real conversation. It also took the ‘pyramid’ approach of starting with individual work, and working up to pairs and then small groups as inspired by The Speaking Cyclist. Finally it intended to put the students in the position of having something to tell me that I didn’t already know, with the idea that this would provide a greater reason to communicate with me.
The lesson plan was fairly simple. We’d watch this video clip:
and answer some “Where?” “When?” “Why?” “What?” questions, which should lead us to thinking about Easter. We’d then do the live-listening, with me talking about Easter in England while the students took notes individually. They would then get into pairs to discuss their notes in English only (the first time I have tried this) before forming a larger group to create a speech comparing Easter in the two countries. I even had Cadbury’s Creme Eggs for the winners. Simple, effective, and a complete and utter failure. So what went wrong?
Engagement & Motivation
Every time I ran this lesson I struggled to get students involved. Almost no-one did the note-taking, and there was very little interaction during the live-listening from almost every class. A bit of informal feedback from the early classes was that they didn’t really understand what the final goal was, and so couldn’t see the point. Valid criticism, and I resolved it for the rest of the classes by clearly outlining the task before the live-listening stage. As well as this my most important and fundamental mistake was in choosing the material. I assumed that Easter was similar in Korea in terms of importance (to religious and non-religious alike), when here it is just a religious festival observed solely by Christians. Thus my students didn’t really know what they were talking about, which didn’t help matters. I also think that introducing the live-listening activity cold didn’t help, and some form of “learner training” might be necessary in order to ease students into the concept that they can interrupt/interact when a teacher is talking, which goes against cultural norms here. Finally, the level of difficulty involved in this was too high for some of my students, meaning they lost heart pretty quickly.
The fact that I have my first run of a high school lesson with my most difficult class is not a great way to start a Monday, and my worst fears about pair work (and the reason why I usually avoid it) were realised. With a class of 25, as soon as I move to monitor and help one side of the class, the other side stops working and this spreads. I ended up losing control completely of this class, and never completely regaining it for the rest of the lesson, resulting in several groups having a speech consisting of just one or two lines. I like to view classroom control in terms of critical mass: if you have enough students pulling in the right direction, all will more or less follow. If the critical mass swings too far the other way then you lose almost everyone. I think that pair work in my situation provides too much opportunity to get off-task.
The other big problem here was that I forgot we were in the run up to school exams, which means that students are even less focused than usual on my classes (or anything that isn’t cramming their brains full of facts). Usually I try to do something a bit more lighthearted at these times, but I got carried away in my enthusiasm to try this lesson.
Doing activities in English only
One thing that did go well during this lesson was the insistence that my students work only in English in parts. Most groups at least had a go, and while there wasn’t a great deal of genuine communication between group members, the communication with me was definitely useful. Once again, this was probably above level for quite a few, but I’d like to have a go at something more simple next time, and I think it would go well.
A couple of tips for putting your class in “only-English” mode that I found worked very well. First, give them an “air-lock” period (I used 30 seconds) in which they can quickly check the meaning of the instructions and say anything else they want to in Korean. The second is provide some motivation: I gave each student a post it that could be exchanged for a Skittle at the end of the lesson, or removed if they do lapse in Korean. Finally, the instruction should probably be “English only” rather than “No Korean”, or some of your students will simply switch into Japanese.
In conclusion this was a pretty depressing week, with the class largely failing to get involved and not really enjoying the class. However, there were some positives to come out of it, and some surprisingly good speeches from students who don’t ordinarily contribute too much. Also, some of the process (as opposed to the product) was good, particularly with groups who didn’t take any notes during the lesson, and then had to spend a while asking me questions in order to catch up. I think the basis for a good lesson is here, but needs some more interesting content. I’m going to leave it for next week though, and do something a bit more fun for my poor kids.