A tale of two lessons:
It was the best of lessons, it was the worst of lessons. (but not in that order)
I bought myself a dicta-phone a couple of weeks ago, in part to prevent me having to lug my laptop and speakers around when ever I wanted to record some speaking, but also so I could go all ‘Alan Partridge’ and record thoughts and even sounds to help put together lessons. Monkey tennis?
Over the weekend I decided to record five sounds that would be of interest to my students, including my favourite sound of all time, to become the opening listening activity for this weeks lesson.
- The sound of a busy bar/restaurant
- Me buying some new clothes in Zara (clothes shop)
- Me and my girlfriend walking down the three flights of stairs in my apartment building
- Me catching the bus
- A cup of tea being poured (the best sound in the world)
From the very beginning of the class, things were different. I only had five students. No big deal, but normally I never have any less than seven or eight. We started of by doing ‘Up and Down’ pg 40 from teaching unplugged (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009). It’s a different way to get them talking about their weekend, than the usual talk to your partner and report back. It stuttered along, and never really got going, but we found out that one of the students had a car accident, so this became the focal point of the activity, producing accident and car related vocabulary. I put the slow start down to the new and untested activity, as well as the lack of some of the students who would normally help to, perhaps, drive the activity on.
We moved on. I told the class that they were going to listen to five sounds from my weekend. They had to simply listen to the sounds and write down where they think I was and what I was doing at the time. I played the sounds through once and then in pairs they discussed what they had put down. We then listened to each sound and I asked for their answers, helping to structure their responses as we went and confirming if they were correct or not. They did pretty well, and at the end I asked them to guess which sound they thought was my favourite. Eventually they guessed that tea being poured was indeed my favourite and I explained to them in a little anecdote, why.
When I was younger, I used to live at home with my parents. Our house was quite small, and you could hear what was going on in any room of the house if it was quiet enough. When I woke up on a Sunday morning, with a small hangover, I loved to hear the sound of my mum pouring tea into a cup. This was because I knew a minute later she would come upstairs and give it to me.
This story seemed to go down well. I asked the students if they could do the same. Think of their favourite sound and then tell their partner why. The room went quiet and I could see that they were deep in thought. The silence continued, so I moved around the room hoping to encourage some thoughts. Slowly they started to scribble something down, and after checking everyone had a sound, I asked them to tell their partner and explain why. Normally they would begin straight away, and the room would fill with the satisfying sounds of students engaging in conversation.Sadly this wasn’t the case. There was some blank stares and shrugging of shoulders, I was sure my instructions were simple and clear enough, so I asked one of the students to tell me his favourite sound and once he began to tell me, hinted for the others to ask him more questions about it. I turned and did the same with the other group. I turned back to the first group only to be met with silence. I engaged them again, cajoling, encouraging and trying to elicit some sort of response. Eventually some interesting things came out, but it was hard work. The sound of a Harley Davidson engine, waves crashing on the beach and so on. We moved onto the sound they liked to hear the least. More of the same, me asking and doing most of the talking. Still some interesting answers came out and we talked about the resulting vocabulary.
The next stage involved the other senses of the body and an activity from ‘Teaching unplugged’ (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009) called ‘Memory stars’ pg44. I elicited the senses from the students and then revealed a large five point star on the IWB with the five senses written on each point. I asked them to do the previous activity with the other senses. They needed to write a word or sentence that related to their favourite smell, sight, touch, and taste. I gave examples of my favourite things and then let the students write down their own thoughts. While they were writing I put some language chunks, sentence starters and expressions on the board that I wanted them to use in the coming speaking activity. Once they were finished, I mentioned the language on the board and then I asked them to stand up and mingle, showing each other their stars and asking questions about how, when and why. They seemed hesitant from the beginning, perhaps unsure or even lacking in confidence. I panicked a little, instead of waiting and allowing them the time to start speaking, I leapt into the middle and started asking questions to try to get things moving. Suddenly I was the centre of attention. No-one was talking, they were waiting for me to ask them questions. I had hi-jacked the lesson, it was now teacher centred. In fact the whole lesson had been pretty much teacher centred. Disaster! We finished up the activity and I recapped what we had discussed in the lesson. The lesson came to an end, the students left, somewhat despondent and maybe disappointed. They mirrored my own thoughts. I went out for a few drinks and put the lesson to the back of my mind. You can’t win them all I thought, reflect on it tomorrow after a good nights sleep.
The next morning
It was 5am. I was lying awake and I was angry. Pissed off at my inadequacies as a teacher, and replaying the lesson in my head. I managed to fall asleep again. Over breakfast I decided to do the lesson again. I walked to the Oceanographico in the morning sunshine, with a couple of motivational songs playing in my earphones. The last thing I said to myself before the lesson started was, sit back, don’t interfere and let them do the work.
The students were responsive, enthusiastic and interested from the word go. I barely said anything other than corrections and some basic instructions for each activity. There were only four people but when I asked them to talk in their pairs they actually turned to face their partner and forgot I was there. I simply listened and made notes, pronunciation, good language use, areas for improvement. The board was full, I drilled some of the troublesome words and even wrote out one in phonetic script (My DOS is going to fall of her chair when she reads this). This particular group is only one level higher than my project group but the language they produced was worlds apart.
One of the students was talking about her favourite sight and sound, the sea crashing on to the beach.
“I like to contemplate the strength of nature”
“I feel very insignificant in the world”
One of the student’s started talking about how she can hear everything her neighbours do and this lead to her talking about her least favourite sound.
“The sound of the T.V is the most annoying”
“I’m concerned that my neighbours can hear me”
I left the lesson on a high. It was a completely different feeling from the previous night, almost euphoric. What a wonderful profession this teaching business is. I spent an hour or so, later that day, getting feedback from my DOS about the lesson and then comparing it with the morning’s success.
What went wrong (first lesson)
- Teacher centered
- No pronunciation work
- Lesson too structured
- No space for flexibility
- No real work on emergent language
- I didn’t embrace the silence. I didn’t give the students time to talk among themselves.
- I kept interfering, I panicked
- The lesson idea required some quite abstract thinking. Making it difficult for the students to convey exactly what they wanted to say or talk about. It needed more scaffolding and the students more support from me.
What went right (second lesson)
- See above and reverse.