If at first you don’t succeed, you have to challenge

When I go into the classroom, of course I want my students to have learned something (anything) when I leave.  But more than that I want my students to enjoy English.  The Korean English teachers do a very good job of teaching grammar rules and vocabulary (although I’m probably weird in thinking vocabulary is kind of fun).

When I plan a lesson or make up a worksheet, I’m not thinking of grammar points or vocabulary (although I do consider them) — I’m thinking if the students can “play” with the language.  Most Korean students (or Asian students, or might I even stretch and say Western students)- don’t get to play much with a subject.  And that is sad.

Here teaching to the test is important; the test is the be all and end all of most classes.  Teachers here are morally obligated to make sure that their students are prepared for the test.  So there are a lot of mini tests and vocabulary lists and verb conjugations.  It is enough to put me to sleep and I’m one of the teachers! —  however, I’m a bit of a wild card at my school.   I don’t have a test to teach to.

Like I said before in a previous post, in a way it is liberating to not have to be slave to a book or test, and in some ways it is stressful. Everything is on you.  I do like making worksheets and making lessons.  I like being creative.  My students are still a little afraid of it, but once they get that I’m not after one answer and that one answer is the only answer, most get into it.   The hard part is getting them from “teacher, what?” to having fun.   And English is a very fun language.  There are a lot of ways to say something, most English speakers like puns and anagrams and puzzles and jokes; word play is valued in conversation and writing.  But it is difficult to switch from a mind-set that is concerned with grades and tests and the right answer, to a mind-set that is “playing” with a subject.

I’m lucky in my school. Most of the teachers I work with are supportive of my approach, and want the students to have fun.  But it is much harder for a teacher to pull, pry and coax a student to find their own voice than to give them the answer.  Last week we worked with proverbs.  Most of the students didn’t know what to do with the worksheet at first.  It took 15 minutes of class time, trying to coax one sentence.  It takes a lot of patience and you have to explain the same thing multiple times.  Thankfully, most of my students are engaged, and are really trying.  Once they were able to get one sentence completed, and once they realized I was going to be happy with a “wrong” answer (not the actual proverb) they were able to finish the worksheet in good time.

However, not every student is engaged, and no every student wants to work, or be creative.  They want the teacher to just give them the answer already, then they can memorize it and do well on the test.  These students are usually in upper level classes, so they can be frustrating. They should know half of the stuff you are trying to get them to do, but they will say “teacher, don’t know” —   Don’t get me wrong.  If a student is sweating, and trying, and asking what a word means, I’m willing to work with them and I’m still very proud of them.  However, if I go to a group, and the girls are all playing with their hair, and they haven’t even looked at the worksheet, I am somewhat less than sympathetic. ( I should make a caveat here: my smallest class has 14 students and my largest class has 35 –   this only happened with 5 girls, so I know I’m a very lucky teacher)

I am not willing to dumb down my lessons for a few students who are not very interested.  I am willing to go all out to make my lessons interesting.  I don’t want to make things easy.  I want to make English something that my students can engage with and enjoy.


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