Finding balance

When I’m teaching, I always try to find the balance between giving enough directions and direction to my students and giving too much. It is hard. I want my students to own the language, and to be creative and have fun with the language. With my advanced and my basic classes it is  a lot easier to find that balance. With my advanced lab class I give as minimal directions as possible and leave most things up to them as for the interpretations.  I am often pleasantly surprised. For my basic class; well they don’t really have enough language to interpret things on their own. I give a much more direction, try to elicit as much language that they will use and put it on the board, and go through two or three questions as a class.

It is the low and high intermediate classes that I have the most trouble planning the directions for. I want them to have enough language, and directions  that they can feel confident to do the tasks, and at the same time, I want them to produce and feel confident with their own language.

This month we are on a tourist theme for our classes.  Last week for my basic and intermediate classes we had a dialog between a  travel agent and her customer.  I had most of the dialog written out, with blanks for several categories.  ( I used English First Hand– one of the best books for basic and low intermediate students who are adolescent or adult)   The dialog went something like this:

* I’m looking for a package tour

^ Where would you like to go?

* I went to Florida, now I’m looking for something  ____(1)____

^ How about __(2)__

* Hmmm ___(2)___?

^ They have ___(3)____ in the world.

* That sounds interesting

1. prettier, 2 Thailand 3. the best beaches

The real dialog is a bit longer, and has prices as well.  The dialog also had three choices for each number.

For all the classes I went over the dialog with the whole class, and explained that they could pick and choose from any of the choices in each category.  I then put them in pairs, and had them practice.

For the basic class, I had them change partners and practice again, using a different choice each time.  I just made them move and start over with a new person for most of the class, and then towards the end, stopped everyone and had them present their dialog.  (When I first started, I would never get volunteers for presentation, now I usually get most of the presenters volunteering, even in the basic classes)-

For my low and high intermediate classes after they had practiced with the script, I stopped the class and asked them to make up their own countries and adjectives.

For the advanced class, I went over the dialog and then had them make up their own countries and adjectives, then we changed direction a little and I had them do another worksheet that had them recommend places in Seoul for me or other visitors to see and do.

the worksheet went something like this

They might like_______ because___________

I think they will enjoy___________ it has____________

They should see ____________. I think it is_____________

I went over the worksheet, and went over any words they didn’t know (they are advanced so they are pretty good about asking if they don’t know a word. I’ve got them trained. Every time they ask, I give a lot of praise and tell them that by asking, they are now excellent students- because the best students always ask when they don’t know something) I then put them in groups and told them that me and my friends want to do something interesting this weekend. What do they suggest. I then left them alone, and walked around the groups keeping them a) actually working b) nagging them to use English and c) answering any questions that come up as they are doing the task.  But in the end, once it leaves my hands, it belongs to the group.  – I got some good ideas for next weekend too.

This week I’m using the advanced class worksheet for the low and high intermediate and basic classes.   Both intermediate classes need quite a bit of help getting the idea. We put a lot of places and reasons on the board before they even went into groups, and I was fairly strict about writing it out in English ( although I wasn’t strict about the spelling of Korean words using the romanized alphabet)  For the Basic class I put a couple of actual questions on the board, usually giving them two choices for each question– usually by correcting their own language and ideas.   I put them in groups and let them fill out the worksheet, and go around and help them as much as I can.   With the basic classes I’m much more likely to give suggestions, and help them with the reasons.

We always do presentations at the end of class.  At first the students really felt shy, but now they are pretty good about speaking up, and speaking to me. The presentations help them get over their shyness, and since it is everybody, they don’t feel singled out.  I even now sometimes have to choose between groups for the first volunteers.  It makes me feel good.

I don’t have many rules for my class. Mostly it is because they are young adults and I want them to feel like young adults in my class. I expect them to behave without my having to state explicitly that throwing things and yelling and being a jerk is bad.  My rules are this:

Everyone works together.  – we are all in this together and if we want to succeed we need to get together.  The whole point of language is communication. If you can’t communicate with your own group, and your own classmates, then you have a big problem.  Plus I don’t have enough time to talk to all 35-40 students one on one in a 50 minute class. What are the other students going to do during that time as well?  So we have groups, and when we have groups we all have to work together.  Plus even in highly competitive work environments, eventually everyone has to work together.

My next rule is respect each other.  They are all the same level in a class. Plus as my mother would have said: there is no excuse to be disrespectful  to anyone on the planet. Everyone deserves the basics.  What I really want is for them to be quiet when their classmates are giving their presentations.  Mostly it is so I can hear the presentation, but I think we all have a lot to teach each other.  My trick is to stop the presentation and ask another group: “What did she just say?” or “What did they just suggest?” – you get the idea.  I try to stay pretty random, but if the other students are talking – I use it a lot more.

The last rule is keep the volume down.  This is because our class is not a lecture class. They have to talk to each other and in a language they are struggling with.  I sometimes have to remind them that we have to respect the classroom next door too.

I think keeping The Rules down to only three is valuable, because it isn’t overwhelming to the students, and these rules cover just about anything that can happen in a classroom. Respect each other and work together covers everything from acting out, to bullying, to just being a jerk.

However the first rule has met with some controversy among some of my colleagues. They say, rightly, that Korea is very competitive. It is a bit unfair to ask a student to help their competitors get better at English.  (what was happening in some of my groups is that one student would do the worksheet, and the other students would do nothing)- But in the end I am the teacher, and I want my class to be something of value to all my students. Even the ones that aren’t as good as the others.  Plus learning to cooperate and still compete is a valuable lesson.

Finding the balance between controlling the classroom enough to get things done and letting the students find their own way and be autonomous is one of the most difficult things I face as a teacher. I try to remember to first, do no harm. Then I hope and pray that they will have at least one nugget of information or truth to take with them and keep after each class.  I want them to own the language, to make it part of their skill set.  I want them to be able to use the language outside the classroom.  I am making progress. I’ve gotten several students to answer the question “How are you?” with “Good” “Not bad” — anything other than “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” — It is an uphill battle.


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