"What do you want to talk about?"…novel?

Note to readers: this is just a straight up reflection of a lesson I ran today.  There’s no overarching theme.  And the lesson itself has been done in a similar way by hundreds and hundreds of teachers before me.  But while I was doing it, it felt novel and new to me.  As John Fanselow says, “Each of us has to reinvent the wheel even as we see others using wheels.So here is my new wheel.  Not perfectly round, but it rolled well enough for 50 minutes today. 
     Influenza is knocking out students left and right at my school.  Most of the classes don’t have enough students present to push forward.  So instead of rushing ahead with the one (mostly) full class of first year students I had, I decided to take some time and talk with the students.  We dragged the desks to the back of the room and sat in a cirlce.  I said, “If you could suddenly speak perfect English today, what would you want to talk about?”  Here were the answers I got:
       Delicious Food
       Hobbies
       Music
       Sports
       Talk to Kevin (that’s me)
       Movies
       The differences between Japan and other countries
       Just talking with a friend, answering and asking questions
       Where I live
     I asked the students if they had ever spent time in their English class just freely talking about any of these things?  The answer was “No.”  Which is pretty amazing.  Not that they didn’t have a chance to talk about these things in their English classes.  That’s to be expected considering the school’s set curriculum and teachers’ hesitation to deviate from it.  What was amazing was the fact that most of the students answered the question at all, verbally or with a head shake.  They were engaged.  So I apologized for the fact that, during their first year in high school they didn’t get a chance to talk about what they wanted to talk about during English classes.  As the coordinator of the International Course, I felt at least partially responsible.  Now to defend myself (from who?), we actually did cover most of these subjects in oral communication class this year.  But obviously something about the manner in which the topics were presented and how practicing the language was carried out left students with the impression that they had never talked about hobbies or music or delicious foods in class.  Maybe my heavy handed focus on form short-circuted their ability to focus on content. I should have been thinking of ‘time-space.’ 
So I made a promise to the students.  We have about 1 month left of regular classes.  About 7 or 8 classes depending on what other things pop up in the schedule (and things always do pop up at my school). I promised we would spend those 7 or 8 classes just talking about a few of the subjects they had brought up.  I asked the students to vote and we would focus on the three topics students had the most interest in.  Now I felt kind of conflicted about this step at the time.  And feel even more conflicted now that I’m writing it up.  Exactly why did I feel the need to force the students to pick 3 topics?  Probably I wanted to regain some feeling of teacherly control in the classroom.  At least that’s what it feels like now.  And maybe it was anxiety about not being able to teach the students well enough or just “enough” as far as content is concerned.  I wanted to hedge my bets and give myself a chance to prepare. 
Students ended up picking “music”, “hobbies” and “movies”.  And by a vast majority, they wanted to spend the rest of class time–35 minutes– talking about hobbies.
So I said, “OK, talk to each other about hobbies.  Just give it a shot.  Talk for a minute.” I pressed the start button on my kitchen time (that’s how I keep track of time in class). 
The students talked.  I heard “Do you have what hobbies?”  and “What have hobbies?” and “Do you hobbies?” 
And I heard answers.  A lot of answers in…English.  The timer beep-beeped.
On the white board I wrote down, “What is Nanae’s hobby?” and I asked a student.  I said, “Kesukei, what is Nana’s hobby?”  He said, “Watch TV.”  Which I corrected verbally and then wrote on the board as “She likes to watch TV.”  I got all of their hobbies up on the board.  They were:
       Watching TV
       Listening to music.
       Playing video games.
       Using a computer.
       Drawing pictures.
       Reading books.
Then I wrote the letters “W” “d” “y” on the board.  I wrote them as giant frankenstein letters, scary in their enormity.  And there was also a lot of white space between them.   Then I asked the students to talk to each other about hobbies again but for 2 minutes this time.  They talked for a few seconds and then some students looked at me pleadingly.  I wanted to help, but we had an odd number of students and I was busy talking to Saki.  I was torn.  The kitchen timer beeped.  The students looked relieved.
 I asked the students what it was they had wanted to say or ask that they couldn’t get out.  One student said he wanted to ask about when their partner did their hobby.  I should fess up to the fact that I speak Japanese, so the students told me what they wanted to say in Japanese. But I didn’t rephrase it in English.  Instead, I pointed to those magic letters, “W” “d” “y” and said, “Here’s all you need.”  I was patient and waited and sweated while the students were thinking and they came out with, “When do you hobby?”  Which was great as far as I was concerned.  I got it on the board and circled hobby and replaced it with words from the hobby list and we were good to go.  And then another student said they had wanted to ask about where their partner did their hobby.  I pointed to those letters again and we got, “Where do you hobby?”  I’m not sure of hobby as a verb here, but as a kind of place holder it seemed to work and students didn’t actually use the questions, “When do you hobby?” or “Where do you hobby?” So maybe it was OK, although I think there could have been a smoother way to handle this linguistic hiccup. 
     I started the kitchen timer and told the students they had three minutes of talk time.  And as this is a reflective teaching piece, I have to ask myself, “Why are you so hung up on this whole keeping time thing Mr. Me?  Can’t you just throw that kitchen timer out the window?”  I’ll have to take that up in another post soon.  Maybe I should write it while watching a kitchen timer counting down.  Anyway, I talked with my partner, Keiko, who it turns out likes to watch TV shows.  American dramas. Every evening before dinner.  In her room.  But her TV is small.  Then I was ready to find out about the other students’ hobbies.  So I had the following conversation:
Me: Taka, what is Kenta’s hobby?
Taka: Reading books.
Me:  Really.  I didn’t know that.  Where does he read?
Taka: In his house.
Me: When does he read?
Taka: Every day.
Me: What books does he read?
Taka: ???????
Me: What books does he read?  Novels?  Nonfiction?
Taka: I don’t know.
Me: OK, Kenta, what books do you read?
Kenta: Novels.
I wrote the sentence “What novels do you read?” on the board and underlined the words “novels” and “read”.  I passed out blank sheets of paper to the students.  I set the kitchen timer for five minutes.  I said, “please tell me about your partners hobbies when I come back.”  And I left the room.  5 minutes of talk time for the students. 5 minutes of pacing the hall for me.  5 minutes with no over-eager teacher sucking up oxygen.  I think that must have been nice for the students. 
When I went back into class we were almost out of time for the day.  Just had a few minutes to find out that Kenta and Saki both really like the same author.  And that they felt pretty happy to know that.  I also asked students to let me know how they liked the class.  Because if they didn’t like it, they had to let me know or they might be stuck with this style of lesson for the next month. 
I did end up getting some feedback while I was helping students clean the entrance hall at the end of the day.  Kirara, a quite girl who sometimes avoids English class entirely because she hates the pressure of having to speak, told me, “today’s class was good.”  She got to talk about something she was interested in, she said. On the flip side, two of the more studious boys were sweeping and stopped to tell me that today’s kind of class was their, “real weakness.”  And I told them, “me, too.”  And it’s the truth.  I’m a plan-it-out kind of guy.  I try to be student centered, but I know my classroom can lean in the other direction.  Still I would like to think some of the teacher centered classes and focus on form exercises we did this year were useful.  I’m pretty sure that without them, the students would have never come up with the questions from the letters, “W”, “d”, “y”.  But then again, if the classes had been a bit more student centered, maybe the students wouldn’t have so completely forgotten what we had been talking about while studying the forms.   
Four more weeks and a pretty long list of required grammar points still left on the syllabus.  7 or 8 more lesson…seems just about the right amount of time to figure some things out, or at the very least, stumble upon a whole different set of questions. 


(A big thank you to all the bloggers on the right side of this page and many more.  In the past few weeks, your posts on teaching unplugged, Dogme, and reflective teaching have helped me to take a clearer look at what I am doing in the classroom and given me the confidence to admit when I can make something better.)
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9 thoughts on “"What do you want to talk about?"…novel?

  1. Hi Kevin,I enjoyed reading this post and I did something along the same lines yesterday. My course syllabus is established by the university and it's super textbooky. I've been exploring ways to move past that and yesterday I offered the students two options. One was to continue churning through the book 2 hours a day. The other was to free up one hour and do what they wanted, do another hour with the book and then have a 1/2 hour of homework. They were stunned to be given options… a seemingly first. It went well and surprisingly enough they took the homework route. Excited to see where this new turn leads us and will follow your adventures from this blog from here on out as well. Cheers, Brad

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  2. Choosing homework. Those sound like great students. But then again having a teacher who wants to meet their needs can be a strong source of motivation. I really enjoy your blog. And it's good to know you're trying out some similar things in the classroom. Will be interesting to see what happens. By the way, I take my coffee black. Sounds like your office has a fine cup of Joe.

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  3. Hi Kevin,I also really enjoyed reading this description of your class.I can see some definite advantages to keeping control in terms of the time and the number of topics, especially as the students don't seem to be used to having too much responsibility in directing the class; this will at least give them the illusion that the teacher is still in charge.I have a couple of questions for you. There is no hidden agenda here, I am genuinely interested;1. How much was this lesson planned and how much was it spur of the moment?2. How do the students react when you pair up with them?All the best,Stephen Greenewww.tmenglish.org

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  4. Stephen,Good questions. Let's see:1. The lesson wasn't planned at all. I had a lot of the ideas rolling around in my head for the past few weeks and the situation allowed me to try and put them into practice, but I didn't have anything written down on paper. So I did the lesson and then had to go back and write up my lesson notes. The time it took to check what I taught against the syllabus and to write up a review sheet of the language used for absent students ended up doubling the amount of time I usually need to prepare for a lesson from scratch.2. The students reaction to me as a partner…important question. It really depends on the student. I do have some students who freeze up if they have to talk to me during communicative activities. But on the whole, they focus and have pretty decent interactions. I do get the sense sometimes that they feel more pressure and I can see them trying not to make mistakes. So maybe this shift to focusing on how they are speaking when they talk might make the interactions feel a bit unnatural on both sides (and I think Michael Long and Teresa Pica have both written about the nature of negotiation with a teacher versus with another student).Thanks for the thoughtful questions.

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  5. I am a first-class clock watcher when teaching so all your reflections about the timer cracked me up! There is such a fine balance between managing a lesson (including timing) and letting it happen. Good luck as you figure things out and explore the next set of questions!

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  6. Hi Liz,"Letting it happen." That's really the whole point of being student centered, right? I'm all about letting it happen…in my head…when I'm thinking about how I want to teach classes. But I think cutting down on my kitchen timer use might be good first step. Thanks for the comments. Strange to think about how we used to be students together. Do you think about our teachers? Some of them are still my role-models.

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  7. Teaching elementary school is a whole different universe from teaching at the secondary level, so I don't often think about our teachers at NF. I did use Mrs. Schmidt's definition of gasses when doing states of matter last week. Do you remember memorizing it? It is a bit of my family's lore via my older siblings. I am curious which teachers are still role models for you.

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  8. Mrs. Schmidt of course. When I think about what it means to be a dedicated teacher, she's the first person to come to mind. And she seemed to enjoy what she did so much. I remember baby sitting for Mr. Horner. He was friendly and open, but I always knew he was the teacher. And Mrs. Kuenzel for Spanish. The fact that she wore hose hoop earrings, made everyone call her Senora Quenzal and refused to talk to the upper class students in anything other than Spanish. But most of all, she never once made me feel bad for being a miserable Spanish student. If I could respect my students half as much as I feel she did, I would consider myself a pretty good teacher. Ahhh…memories.

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