Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons – Redux

You are in a classroom. There is a dais with a desk, behind which there is a blackboard. In front of you there are eight novices awaiting instruction.

I choose to engage the novices.

Go ahead.

Today, I have a plan. However, I am interested to know if you have a different plan. My plan can be for another day. Please imagine different situations that you and Rob or Vanessa (our regular Non-Player Characters) might be in. Use last week’s lesson as a planning guide. If you need help, please ask me.

Roll D10>3 and D4<4 for successful engagement and +1 courage.

D10=7,

D4 falls off desk… =1.

It went really well, actually. The students planned in two groups of 4. One group decided on explaining a road relay (and did very well indeed), and the other planned to teach how to make miso soup, which they underestimated the complexity of, but I see this as a good learning experience. I also think that by giving my students a metaphorical look behind the curtain that they can understand the success criteria for the tasks I create a bit better. I would still like a bit more linguistic complexity in their output, but today I am going to take this as a success.

XP +D6

D6=4.

Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Shoe on the other foot

I’m no longer absolutely strapped for time so I’m back in ‘I am actively learning Japanese’ mode. There’s a standardised test in December that would be kind of useful to have for jobhunting and stuff. It would also be nice to know I’m being sort of clear.

I’m also taking all of my own advice. I am using monolingual dictionaries (because it’s appropriate to my level), using corpora, reading books again, and listening to radio programmes. I am also taking notes and looking at them.

No lessons. At least not yet. I don’t want to be *that* picky student but I wonder if I would be. I might call up my old Japanese teacher for a crash course before the school term starts again. I just hope that I don’t end up being annoying.

Learner Autonomy ought to be Awesome not Anomie

Ooh, Marc. Your classes always look like you give your students loads of freedom. 

Yes, it does look that way but sometimes I still feel like I’m spoonfeeding. So today, I ditched my plan and tried an experiment. 

To prepare for a discussion on health. I set stations that the learners would practice at.

  • Vocabulary brainstorming at the board.
  • I suspected that the learners would just pick out single words. I later elicited collocations. 

  • Discussion planning.
  • Or functional language planning. What can you say to open a discussion, control a discussion, agree, disagree politely, change the subject and end the discussion. Not amazing. 

  • Fluency practice.
  • Teacher led choral, response drills, function drills. Popular with the learners but not my bag. Useful to an extent. 

  • Reading.
  • Read the handout then discuss it. Response task on the back. Reading has a gloss and few if any ‘hard’ words. 

  • Mini-discussion practice.
  • Set a task (actually part of the exit task). The post-task was to report to me three best balances of nutrition and taste for the discussion. 

How did it go?

 

Well, I’d be lying if I said everything was amazing. The vocabulary was very successful with my morning classes, and OK with the afternoon class. The reading was basically spot on and the mini discussions went well. The discussion planning kind of sucked a bit. Some learners took over and derailed the activity and it took a while to get back on track. 

All in all, not bad, though. I’ll probably try something similar again but I definitely want to tweak the language planning, perhaps with a handout. But that takes the autonomy away. 

Travel Problems – a Dogme-ish lesson

 

In this post I’ll go over a bit of a Dogme-ish (and I say Dogme-ish because it’s kind of Task Based due to the syllabus that I knocked up based on the absolute lack of any definite needs for my university students other than ‘learn some English’). With that, I designed a bit of a travel-based task cycle, of which every lesson stands alone or links. This is the final one in the cycle and perhaps my favourite. This is a role-play lesson with a bit of a difference.

  1. Give out slips of paper. Tell students to each write one different foreign travel problem on the slips. They don’t need to worry about spelling very much because it’s not the point of the lesson. Take all slips in.
  2. Put students into groups of 4 or 5 (I’d say groups of 3 might be too much work for one person – you’ll be assigning rotating roles to the students). The rotating roles are speakers who role play each travel problem and two or three listeners who listen to all or some of the following:
    • Grammatical accuracy;
    • Lexical appropriacy;
    • Pragmatic competence;
    • Pronunciation;
    • Communication strategies;
    • Fluency;
    • What they would do the same or do differently.
  3. Give the slips out, ensuring groups have as few duplicates as possible. Set the students to plan one role play (not script writing – focus on speech acts and reactivity) as a group for students 1 & 2 in the group to perform for 6 minutes. Then have students 1 & 2 perform the role play while 3 & 4 listen and then give feedback. Teacher monitors and takes notes.
  4. Focus on Form. Probably a good idea to cover things you noticed but the student listeners didn’t.
  5. All students planning again – 4 minutes this time.  Students 2 & 3 perform, 1 & 4 listen then give feedback.
  6. Focus on Form.
  7. As previous planning and roleplaying but with 2 minutes planning. 3 & 4 perform, 1 & 2 listen.
  8. Focus on Form again.
  9. No planning. 1 & 4 perform, 2 & 3 listen and give feedback.
  10. Student groups pick the most successful role play. Teacher randomly  (or not) selects pairs from each group to perform, gives feedback.

Your Secret Weapon

For loads of us in a (largely) monolingual EFL setting, there is an amazing resource available under our noses. I’d argue that a lot of people feel it’s a bit rude but I’m going to argue that rude or not, you get to maximize engagement in lessons through greater relevance and also at least partial schema activation.

Eavesdropping on your learners when they’re using L1.

If you can do it, this pays dividends. You get to give them what they are already thinking about but may not be able to do in English. For example, are people on your business class complaining on the phone? Can you help them do it in English, with appropriate language and pragmatic competence? How about the young learners talking about cartoons? Can they explain the plot, the characters or the appeal by involving you in a real conversation?

“What about the syllabus?” you might say.

Can you postpone that item? Work it in? Abandon it? I think we need to remember that syllabi are guides not commandments. And if we make things a bit closer to learners real lives they might want to work through that syllabus a bit more.

Diversions



Who hasn’t had a lesson where they’ve followed the lesson plan to get to a very worthy but not especially engaging activity? Students not being interested in different tasks might be related to something unrelated to the classroom, or it could be that in our plans we get a bit over-zealous.

Some experiences I’ve had lately with corporate classes:

Everybody needs to describe their company’s products; nobody likes to do it.

At a company where I teach sales and sales support staff we had a lesson about describing products. The company’s products are highly technical. Everyone did the pretask and exit task well but it seemed to be done with gritted teeth.

What could I have done? Any number of things. The lesson wasn’t bad, but I think it left my students wondering about how bloody difficult the next lesson would be. I could have cut the description into stages: basic spec, example uses, benefits. I could then have united these in the exit task. Or I could have used mass-market products first and then used the client company’s products.

Sometimes what will motivate your students is a discussion about television.

At a software company I was trying to draw blood from a stone by asking about alternative marketing and publicity stunts that could be employed to market their software. This turned into an exercise in going through the motions and then gold in the feedback – just talking about what some interesting TV shows one might watch on a popular internet video platform. This caused my student to switch on, really expand more and give me a gateway to get her to be brilliant next lesson.

So, next time, perhaps I should wing it more, don’t you think?

Who’s Driving?

I finished my DipTESOL last week, thus I have time to sleep (after I wean myself of 7,234 cups of coffee a day) and, well, blog.

I was in a conversation on Twitter last week with another teacher about bullying in the classroom. How can teachers prevent themselves from being bullied in the classroom by students. I’ve also been thinking about levels of classroom autonomy that I give.

Bullying of teachers by students happens more often than people think. It can happen with children’s classes, teens and adults.

Root Causes

My opinion, and reflections of classes where I’ve been bullied, is that there’s a difference in expectation for the classes. I’ve had a bunch of nine-year-old girls complain to the head of the school/franchise owner because I wasn’t ‘fun’, where fun was endless card games and hangman. I did play these but I also made them speak English in actual conversations, the cardinal sin. It was a relief to finish the contract.

There has been a university class where I had to “lay down the law” because only three of thirty five were on task, using English or even L1. I left the class, telling the students they would not be marked present unless they got on with the work they were supposed to do, but made it clear I would be outside if anyone had questions.

Now I have a better relationship with that class. Boundaries were re-established and the learners are aware of their responsibilities. There are parameters set at the start of the lesson that I will only mark learners present after I hear them speak English x times.

Parameters, Boundaries

I think all learners need boundaries and parameters to work within. I think it is one of the things that has helped me use Task-Based Language Teaching, too.

Make clear and negotiate what is OK and not OK at the start of the course (my mistake with the girls). If there is a reason, give it. “Endless hangman means you learn nothing.”

Set parameters and/or success criteria for every task. I do this for almost everything now, about expected language complexity if I know learners will use overly simple language, time limits (asking learners how much time they need), groupings, fluency, etc.

Example:

“Talk to each other about your best friend. I want two details about appearance,” (gesture by running hand from head down) ” two personality details,” (gesture by putting hands on your heart) “and three more interesting details. I think seven minutes is OK but you have ten minutes.”

Board “2 appearance details, 2 personality details, 3 other interesting details, 10 minutes”.

If you can negotiate success criteria with your learners, so much the better.

How About Ambiguity?

Some learners don’t deal with ambiguity and vagueness well, and perhaps won’t ask for clarification and then be paralysed by a fear of doing the wrong thing. The solutions are either rigid parameters and instruction checking (not my favourite, to be honest) or a looser, wider acceptable range of outcomes that foster autonomy of decision making, judgement and let learners follow an aspect of the task that interests them (very much my favourite). That isn’t to say it’s a free for all; you still need to monitor to ensure there’s learning and/or application of learning happening. Don’t be afraid to pause tasks for clarification and stop them when they turn out to be too easy or too difficult, (but have an idea about what to do next).

#BlogChallenge: What Did You Teach Today

Well, Anthony Schmidt started this challenge about what we taught today and it sounded intriguing; documenting a normal day in the life at work.

Today was the second day back at school after the summer holidays and the first day back at a company class after a week off sick. They had a substitute teacher doing textbook stuff with them last week.

School

8:30-9:20 3rd Grade Junior High

Prepositions of location on the syllabus but I know these kids know them. I proposed half a lesson to talk about anything they want. They chose nothing and were lethargic so they got a task to describe their partner’s room which was done but with no enthusiasm. Had to tell two students to get work done. Very unusual for this group. Like me, they were probably tired from last night’s typhoon.

9:30-10:20 3rd Grade (Different Class)

Massive difference. They chose to talk about summer holidays. The prepositions of location were fine. The holiday chat brought up problems with go and prepositions so I reviewed that and checked some pronunciation of ‘-ed’ as /t/.

10:30-11:20 2nd Grade

Occupations on the syllabus. Brainstormed jobs with given criteria in groups (outdoor jobs, jobs with uniforms, even more). Pairs discussed parent’s jobs using follow-up questions.

11:30-12:20 2nd Grade (Different Class)

As above but these students got finished really quickly so they talked about their dream jobs. A bit of scaffolding and vocabulary help here and there.

13:00-13:50 2nd Grade (Another Different Class)

Jobs again but not categorizing as these students were keen to talk about jobs from the outset. Parents jobs talked about in more detail than expected. Told the students to speak more loudly because I can’t always hear them. Last class at school for the day.

Corporate

17:45-19:15 Business English/ESP

The other side of town. Two weeks ago they planned a business trip to Europe to train engineers. Today they trained each other in a highly specialized area of manufacturing. All from them; book never opened. The linguistic focuses were on hedging and emphasis. Very keen to do well; vocabulary precise but I needed to draw attention to morphology and a bit of grammar (overuse of passives). Set homework to preview socialising language in the textbook.

I am now tired and looking forward to dinner.