Some end of semester reflecting (Part 1)

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No more students 😦

So I have survived the first semester of university teaching, and actually, in places, quite enjoyed it. It’s definitely more rewarding than teaching high school classes, where there was no incentive to, well, do anything really, and seeing students more than once a week, before they’ve had a chance to forget everything you taught them last lesson, is a definite  bonus. It’s also had a very positive effect of making me feel a lot more a part of a wider ELT community. I feel like teaching in many public schools is a completely different enterprise to the kind of ELT that you read about in the literature, or tend to hear about in conferences, and left me feeling rather excluded. In my view solving this problem is something that would immeasurably improve the world of public school teachers here. I certainly feel more like an English teacher now, closer to the content of my MA course, and to the world in general*.

* This is in no way intended to suggest that public school teachers are in any way not real teachers, nor that they don’t do real ELT. It’s solely reflective of my own experience of one public school. I personally know of many people in public schools doing amazing and valuable work every day. 

While the move up to university teaching has been satisfying professionally, it has not been without its difficulties. This blog post is an examination of some of the difficulties – and some of the successes – of the last four months or so, and an attempt to build on them for next semester.

What am I supposed to be doing?

This is the question that has hung over me the entire semester, and continues to hang over me now, though I feel that I have come some way to solving it. The problem for me lies in a conflict between the explicitly stated goals, and the implicit goals imposed by the structure of the course. In terms of outwardly stated goals, the aim of the course is to boost students’ speaking skills. To do this  I am given a relatively free rein over my classes, and no guidance in teaching them whatsoever. However, I am advised to give weekly written or spoken quizzes, with the suggestion that these feature translation of the ‘key sentences’ for each chapter of the book. Then I am also supposed to set exams which constitute 50% of each student’s grade, 70% of which comes from reading, listening, grammar and vocabulary. Most of these questions are also expected to be multiple choice.

This then is my problem: how to square what I think the administration, myself and the students all want, which is a heavily speaking based and interactive class, with enough book work to get students through the quizzes and exams. Over the course of this year I have learnt that I need to selectively ignore quite a lot of suggestions, such as model sentences, and most of the textbook, in favour of more speaking based activities. This of course leaves me with a problem that setting exams becomes a little more difficult, but I’ll talk about that later.

What helped a lot with my thinking was a reflective workshop with Tom Farrell that I went to in May. I’m very aware that I’m still a very inexperienced teacher, and that there is a lot I can do to improve. Because of this, I tend to pick things up that I read about and try them in class, because they seem interesting to me, or because they seem like the way things should be done. Tom’s message was essentially that most of this was the sort of thing that male cows produce from their rear ends, and that the place we should really be starting was at the students. This made a great deal more sense to me, and helped me see that there were several things I could change about my classes.

The first of these was that I can’t expect my students to do a great deal of practice outside the classroom, nor should I necessarily. These are not English majors, and often don’t really want to be doing English at all. To expect them to go away and practice what we did in class seems a little optimistic. I also think for many of them, that their time would be much better spent either working on their majors or simply having some fun. Thus, the class had to be much more of a practise area, with more focus on just getting involved and doing stuff – even if it meant stopping, correcting and doing it again. In general I think I prefer this approach anyway.

This leads into the second part of my unease with the program – the textbook. I’m not a 100% unplugged enthusiast, and generally I think textbooks have a place. However, I think the textbooks that we select for the students we have are  rather inadequate, not on account of being textbooks, but on account of being traditionally levelled for people starting out with learning a language. Sadly that doesn’t really suit someone like Tae-hoe, who has a passive vocabulary of at  least 2,000 words, and has probably done phrases like “My favourite…” a number of times through school. Tae-hoe however, through a combination of nerves and lack of practise speaking English, can’t put it together in a sentence. He doesn’t really need it nicely presented in the book, with grammar explanations. He needs a framework in which he feels comfortable to practice it, and the opportunity to practise it enough times to give him a degree of fluency. Most of this can, and should in my opinion, be done without recourse to the textbook.

So towards the end of this semester my class became a lot more talking, a lot less trying to shovel whatever disparate bits of lexis and grammar the book suggested in, we just did lots and lots of practice, and looked at how we could say stuff that we wanted. All sounds a bit d***e-ish I know. One other innovation I had was linking the content of class to the English Cafe program, where students can come and talk to us one on one. I offer class bonus points for discussing class topics in cafe the following week. I only had a couple of weeks of this in class last semester, but it seemed to be successful, so I will be starting it from week 1 this year.

This has turned into a long, and probably not very coherent blog post, so I’m going to end it here. I’ve probably got another few of these in me if I have time (you lucky, lucky readers), so keep an eye out.

Cheers,

Alex

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5 responses to “Some end of semester reflecting (Part 1)

  1. Casey Steffes

    I can identify with your question that has been nagging you. From day one I have been asking myself: “what exactly am I supposed to be doing here?” And I’m still clueless for the most part. However I will say that my most successful classes thus far have involved drawing from the students’ prior knowledge, and using those words and sentences in real communication situations. Great post!

  2. Hey man,

    Sorry, have been in a bit of a bubble lately (mostly listening to recordings of Red Riding Hood) and have been neglecting my blog a bit. Cheers for the comment. Honestly I think everyone feels like that from time to time, and the more theory that you read the more confusing it gets. Reflecting on what you doand finding a way that works for you, and more importantly the students, is the important thing I think. Sounds like you’re doing that already though 🙂

  3. Pingback: Activities & Techniques: Tried & Tested | The Breathy Vowel

  4. I liked this post detailing your first semester at the university level. My questions is about the student you mentioned: “Tae Hoe.” Did you find any ways to provide a framework which he feels comfortable with? Did Tae Hoe make any use of the English cafe?

    Cheers

  5. Hi,

    Thanks for the comment. I wrote this at the end of my first semester, and I now find myself at the close of the second, with much more experience under my belt. Honestly, most of the first semester was a bit of an experiment, and so Tae Hoe himself never really got the benefit of any frameworks that I might have implemented, as the course was done before I’d had a chance to put them in place. He did come to English cafe a few times. At first he was too nervous to say anything, but the more he came the more confidence he got, and this did show in class too (he actually ended with a very good grade).

    As far as the second semester went, I felt like things were much more settled. This was due in part to the textbook (I campaigned hard and successfully to switch to English Firsthand, which is written for false beginners in Asia) which made lessons much more on level and task based, giving the students something more substantial and coherent to work with. I also spelled out exactly what I wanted from the students in terms of a participation rubric, which emphasized things like quality of answer, using all the time for an activity, and appropriate use of Korean. This made a big difference. Finally, I got confident enough to say sod the administration, and made my class very heavily speaking based, with the greater part of assessment being done through Kakao talk voice notes. This meant that the focus was mostly on oral skills, with some success I think.

    Cheers,

    Alex

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