For the next paper on my dip TESOL, I had to write a critique of any book from the suggested reading list. I was getting kind of tired of reading about action research and reflective teaching. I wanted to get back to some more nuts and bolts kind of texts. I had a bunch of short booklets from John Fanselow and they seemed perfect. But there wasn’t enough for a book critique. John was kind enough to send me 14 more booklets. Then I asked my guru for this unit, Dana, if I could critique the booklets. I mean, they included an introduction, there was a title (Huh? Oh…Aha) and if you squinted just right, it all seemed to be part of some kind of book. Dana gave me few words of encouragement and I started my readings.
Now I could spend thousands and thousands of words writing about these booklets. They are funny. John’s decided that if he ever becomes a spy, he’s sticking his secret messages in the preface to dictionaries, since the only people who should read them (English students and teachers) never do. And throughout the booklets, he’s severe in a way that shows a deep love for the teaching profession. When he asks if a math teacher would every compliment a student for an error riddled solution to a problem and wonders if we aren’t belittling our English students, I thought, “No and Yes and I’ll try and do better on this one starting now.”
But this isn’t a post about John’s booklets. You see, once a week, I have to teach these crazy communication classes for students who are trying to get into high level academic universities in Japan. Which means taking an entrance exam. Which means learning enough of the right kind of English to pass that exam. Which means that the students, in general, see communication class as a 50 minute pit of wasted time. Or they did, before I met them much more than half way and started making (slightly) communicative grammar exercises to help them memorize the key test grammar points. This has produced students who cannot hold a fairly basic general conversation, but who can, in a flash, convert a present perfect continuous statement into the interrogative form, ask their partner the newly formulated question and then take the response and if directed to, flip it into a future tense question. So it might go something like this:
A: I have been working on my report.
B: Oh, you have been working on your report lately?
B: Will you be working on your report over the next week?
And the students love this work. And you know what? I kind of like it too. I don’t know how long they will remember the grammar, if there is any kind of real acquisition. I don’t even know if it’s really communication based. But it helps reinforce what they need to know for the test and at least the words are finding some kind of life outside of the text book.
Still, sometimes even these students get burned out on the whole grammar jag, and then I ask them if they want to take some down time and do some real conversation work. They usually say, yes. The language that emerges is usually too simple grammar-wise for the test, but more practical. And the students enjoy blowing off steam for 50 minutes or so once a month. At the beginning of our last conversation class, all the students suddenly decided that all they really wanted to talk about was Evangelion. I think they had been planning this. I caught a few evil little smiles here and there. They thought it was funny. I didn’t tell them, but I thought it was funny, too. What I did tell them was that I once facilitated a 90 minute conversation class with a group of students who had, for some reason or other, all decided they wanted to talk about tomatoes. As far as I was concerned, the rich anime world of Evangelion was a full day lesson. At the least. And anyway, I had my secret weapon. “Take out your cell-phones,” I said.
I’m a big believer in following language as it moves. Right now, saying a student can’t use their smart-phone in an English class seems kind of crazy to me. Or if not crazy, at least shows a lack of trust in your students. It’s a darn good tool for getting important information and communicating. Especially in Japan where reception is good, data speeds are fast and everyone has an unlimited data plan. So the kids were kind of happy, probably thinking I was going to let them check out an Evangelion video or something. Nope. Instead, after eliciting some language and letting them practice, I told them to use the “voice memo” function and record everything they said for 2 minutes. Then I had them transcribe it. Then exchange their transcription with their partners and listen again, this time looking for any discrepancies between the two transcriptions. They probably would have been happier with a Evangelion video. But they weren’t exactly unhappy. And then I gave them the big news. I had checked with the head of the International Course, which is me, and had given myself and the other teachers in the program permission to allow students to use the voice recorder function at any time during any English class. During reading class, if they were required to read a passage out loud, they could record themselves and use the recording to practice dictation later in the day. If they were giving each other vocabulary quizzes in the TOIEC class, they could record it and use it for transcription practice. Basically, any time they opened their mouth and English came out, I encouraged them to record it. Then listen to it. Then write it down.
Now I wouldn’t usually have very high expectation about students following through with this kind of thing. The hulls of my discarded advice can be found all over my school. Half used vocabulary notebooks. Graded readers with the tenth page or so folded down at the corner, never to be opened again. But a big part of that is my fault. I don’t give students enough time to shift from one off activity to habit. And I also don’t give students nearly enough time to reflect on whether they themselves feel the activity has been useful or not. So I’m going to put the funky grammar quasi-conversation classes on hold and stick with these “voice memo” conversation lessons for a bit. See if maybe I can’t help it bleed into some of the other English classes.
For the past year I’ve been videoing pieces of my classes and recording conversation between students. Sometimes I let the students listen to it. Sometimes I don’t make the time for it. Which is too bad really. My wife is a professional announcer. She’s also a licensed Japanese teacher. And she always corrects my Japanese. I think it just hurts her ears too much to have those pointy shards of language left hanging in the air. So I always get to see how well what I think I’m saying and what I do say match up (or don’t as is often the case). But my students aren’t so lucky. And how can they improve, if they don’t get the chance to hear what they actually said? At least that’s one of the points John tries to make in Huh! Oh…Aha. That and the fact that maybe once in a while we should check the prefaces of our dictionaries for secret messages.