Do you really need it?

Recently I’ve been running some activities to try and get my students used to the fact that when it comes to listening, they just ain’t gonna hear everything that get’s said.  I’m lucky to be working with John Fanselow who is advising our schools.  He is unbelievably generous with his time.  He was telling me a story of how the old Bell Telephone Company put together a kind of clozed test to figure out the minimum number of relays they would have to install before reception degraded too much during a phone call.  Bell technicians (were they even called technicians way back then?) would phone people up and start talking, leaving out words in a set script.  And it turned out that there was no problem up to a certain point.  For example, if the Bell people called up Mr. Smoking-his-pipe-and-reading-the-evening-paper-guy and asked him, “What did you eat for ____ this evening?”  Well, Mr. SHP would maybe reply, “For dinner , son?  Well I had a nice steak!”  Mr. SHP didn’t even seem to notice that the word dinner had been “dropped” from the sentence.  Of course now we have wonderful things like schema theory and ideas about top-down listening to make sense of what was going on.  But back in the 1940s, Bell Telephone was just happy to find out they could get away with less switches than they thought they needed and make even more money off of their telecommunications monopoly.
Now my students are about as far away from Mr. SHP as you can get.  They are hyper-vigilant listeners.  In fact, one could even say that their unending desire to hear every single sound that is uttered by a speaker (the bottom-up thing), is one of their biggest problems when it comes to understanding. And that’s not the only issue facing them.  The way they listen, what they are listening for, is just not very useful when it comes to English.  If this kind of stuff gets your heart racing, check out Anne Cutler’s article, “The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing” or maybe even my own totally unpublished and hence perhaps unreliable article.  So anyway, I wanted to get my students used to the idea that they didn’t have to hear everything that was said, so I started doing a warm up dictation exercise in which I would leave out a few words or even in a sentence while trying my best to maintain the natural prosody of the sentence.  Basically I would end up saying something like this:
mother read novels every night living room be go to sleep.” 
And the students would write something like this:
                “My mother reads novels every night in the living room before going to sleep.”
Now the thing about this activity I want you to remember, is that it was just a warm up.  I did 5 sentences in five minutes and then would call on students to read what they had written down and I would write it up on the whiteboard.  As time passed, students expressed to me how much they liked the activity and it became a regular feature of class.  I was pretty happy with the activity and the students level of engagement, so I took a video and sent it off to John Fanselow, who called me up and said, “Kevin, why are the students facing the board?”  (I bet you thought this was going to be another detailed lesson plan dressed up as a blog post again, didn’t you?  Nope.)  Which was the first thing I learned from this episode.  What’s the point of sending something off you are satisfied with if you think you’re going to get praised?  If someone’s going to be kind enough to put some time and effort into thinking about what I did in my class, I should be overjoyed that they have an idea to make it better.  But for some reason I wasn’t overjoyed.  I was confused. 
“Where should they look John?”  I wasn’t being smart by the way.  I had no idea where the students would look if not at the board.
“Out the window,” John said.  “Have you ever had your students look out the window.”
“Nope.  Never thought of it,” I said.
I’ve observed enough classes to know that I can never know what is going to happen if I change this or that variable in a class.  And as John was obviously being sincere in his suggestion, that’s what I did.  I went into class the next day and told all the students to turn their chairs around and look out the window.  And we did the same basic warm-up.  And you know what, when it came time to get the right answers from the students, I thought that it was kind of a waste of time to have one student say their answer if I couldn’t write it up on the board.  And then I quickly realized that maybe having a student say their answer and writing it all up on the board was actually a big waste of time in general.  Instead I had them just exchange papers and see if there was anything different about what the person next to them had written.  Then I had them exchange papers again.  And again.  Finally I told them to get their own paper back and make any changes they wanted.  And then, just to see what would happen, I had the students all say their revised sentence at the same time.  And you know what, they all said their sentence with a lot more conviction than usual.
So the second thing I learned from this experience was you just don’t know what you don’t need unless you take it away.  The white board, that piece of white real-estate shinning at the front of the room, with it’s alluring blankness, wasn’t actually blank at all. It had filled up my class with all sorts of expectations and habits that I hadn’t even noticed.  So I spent the rest of the class like that, no white board. 
Lately I’ve been reading Kevin Giddens posterous feed, “Do Nothing Teaching.”  I dig it.  But I do think it’s pretty hard to figure out what you don’t need or don’t need to do on your own.  Some things become so ingrained we don’t even really think of them as an action anymore.  And if we don’t think about them, we can’t change them.  So a big thanks to John and to all the bloggers who are posting things to help bring my focus back to what I am actually doing moment by moment in the classroom.
As far as the rest of the no-white-board-lesson is concerned, well, I can’t say that the rest of the class was perfect or anything, but at the very least, it was a sunny winter day and one of the students told me that the feeling of the sun coming in from the window felt good on his face.


2 thoughts on “Do you really need it?

  1. Hi Kevin,Thanks for this post. I teach in Brazil but I encounter similar problems to you in that some people think they need to understand every word. I sometimes play them news stories in Portuguese and ask them to repeat every word back to me to show them that they can't even do this in their first language.Stephen


  2. Hi Stephen,Like the idea of having students repeat every word in a news cast in their own language. Any activity which will help students become more aware of how they actually listen will help point students in the right direction. I can just imagine the students' faces as they it dawns on them that listening isn't all about every word. Thanks for the insightful comment.Kevin


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