Trying to keep my lessons on target
Photo by NY Tech Teacher on Flickr
It’s easy to get carried away when lesson planning. Sometimes I can spend hours on what I think is a great lesson plan, only to find out that my students have no hope of doing it at their level. Other times I’ll encounter something through my studies that I think is really interesting, only to die on my arse because it’s just not interesting to the students. These problems are usually created by good old misdirected enthusiasm, so in a spare couple of hours pre-semester I set out to create some gliding principles to pin on my desk wall, against which I can check my creations.
I started off by mind-mapping some of the ideas that I had. I’ve been playing about with some online mind-mappers. This one was done with Mind42 which has nice functionality (way more flexible than bubbl.us, but not so nice looking) but seemingly can’t embed maps into WordPress. Thus there’s a link below.
From that, I tried to come up with the 5 most important things to check when lesson planning. This is obviously specific to my own context (Korean High School), but if anyone’s interested in comparing, contrasting or suggesting changes, the comments section is just below. Here we go then:
1. Make it fun.
This is self-evident really, but in my context it gains an even greater importance. Students in my class have little extrinsic motivation, with no grades or exams to prepare for (the real currency of Korean education). Often they have little intrinsic motivation either, with only a few showing any desire do improve their skills if not directly related to the test. Most language learners seem to welcome the chance to practice their skills, mine require it to be packaged as fun first. If not, they often simply don’t do it, leading to a very frustrated teacher.
This means that games and activities have to feature heavily, on the basis that if it isn’t fun, it won’t get done (sorry!). Perhaps I should be making them do it, but I don’t believe that forcing kids to do something means that they learn anything from it, and usually just develops resentment towards the subject and towards me. In terms of activities, it seems those that work really well are those outside of traditional reading, writing, speaking and listening (see my survey post for more on this) partly because they take some of the terror out of communicating but mostly because they are simply good fun.
Second to fun is interest. Content needs to be linked to their interest (so music and movies can feature heavily), opinions (debate class was pretty successful) or each other. However, if it’s not fun, it’s really not worth doing.
2. Level it.
Probably my single greatest failing (of many) as a teacher. I tend to teach to the top of the class, and ignore some of the willing but less able students (as well as a lot of the unwilling). This is partly due to the fact that in trying to make things interesting I tend to overcomplicate them. I swear this semester that I will level down tasks, and simply think about how to allow better students to push themselves. I’ll also try to provide choice where I can, especially where students have to answer questions to give them more chance of finding something that they can do. After all, it’s not really interesting if you can’t understand it.
3. Focus it.
One criticism that rang very true from the student survey was that last semester’s classes were lacking in direction. The lessons were one or at best two week units, and the students weren’t really aware what the target of the lesson or the course was. This semester is going to be different, with one or two student goals per lesson, and better links between lessons over at least three or four weeks. Thus lessons will be born out of the previous week’s activities, and where possible I will try to explain why we are doing what we are.
4. Make sure there’s something to show for it.
Anyone who has taught in Korea knows how the upper end of English education works. Listen, read, learn grammar, reproduce in exam (though this is beginning to change, not before time). Speaking and writing simply are not important for the university entrance exam, and so are ignored. This gives us a choice as teachers not tied to the exam. Also teach to the exam, or try to provide the counterpoint. I definitely fall into the second category; if students want to go further with English, most universities demand that freshmen take English, and most students bump up against the TOEIC test at some point, both of which demand output skills. Even if they’re not directly useful now, they will be later.
Therefore, I want my classes this term to have a strong focus on output. At this stage of their learning I’m going to focus on getting any kind of output from the students, be it written, spoken or anything else. Students tend to be able to deal with discrete items of grammar, but at the same time be almost incapable of building a sentence. Therefore anything that encourages them to think about the structure of English from a structure point of view is going to be helpful. To encourage output, students will also need to be comfortable and prepared. This means no speaking without time to prepare (extemporaneous practice can come through follow-up questions) and that output must come as a result of having first absorbed some of the vocabulary and structures that may be required.
Finally, one of the things that frustrates me is the fact that previously students have had very little tangible to show from their English classes. Materials are in short supply and so writing is done on scraps of paper, which get thrown away, and presentations are performed, evaluated on the spot and then forgotten. This semester I am determined to take advantage of some online opportunities to allow students to create content that they can display, share with each other and the world, and evaluate over time. I hope this will give them something to show for their efforts, and allow them to track their progress somewhat.
5. Take it outside.
I see my students for 50 minutes, once a week. Not a lot of time to get anything done really, particularly not conversation with a class of 25 students. This semester is all about how I can extend what we do in the classroom into the outside world. This means extending my communication with the students (mostly through Twitter) and encouraging them to communicate with other sources of English. Both of these have to start in the classroom, so the focus is on integrating technologies and staring debates that the students will want to continue outside of class. Sometimes this may even result in a slightly unnecessary implementation of technology, but if it assists in building a communicative network for students outside the classroom I beleive that it’s all in a good cause.
Given that this post is now well over 1,000 words it seems a little long to pin up by my desk. Thus I’ve made a quick checklist to ensure that I am meeting most of these goals in each lesson. You can see it below.
If you made it this far, thanks a lot for reading. I hope you’ll be moved to comment below.