But will this class fly?

My school has been hit hard by influenza.  We would normally cancel classes, but most of the first year students are off on a school trip in Hokkaido and the seniors are finished with classes for the school year.  That leaves only the second year students.  My morning class was reduced to six students.  Six students who were probably using most oftheir energy wondering how long they had until their joints started to ache and the doctor told them they had to stay home.  Not a high energy group.
There’s been a lot of posts on the net about functional grammar/pragmatics/cognitive grammar lately.  Scott Thornbury’s post on construction was one of the things that got me thinking more about functional grammar this week.  And then there was Brad Patterson’s post on “What it means to be polite.”   In my teaching environment here in Japan, at a school for students with extended periods of absenteeism, I bump up against the following issues when it comes to functional grammar and pragmatics:
1.      My higher level students see English as a means to pass university entrance exams, so functional grammar in the way of oral communicative English turns them off.  They don’t see the point.
2.      My students, if they use English in the future, will primarily be using it as a communication tool with other non-native speakers.  So how to implement f.g. when teaching ELF?
3.      My lower level students missed much of their junior high school English schooling, so, for those students, I want to keep class as simple as possible and provide them with language they can pick up and run with.  This means teaching a lot of chunks of language and a conscious decision to keep it simple.
But my mentor on the Dip TESOL told me the other week, that because Japanese has such distinctive registers, perhaps I was selling my students short.  Maybe they would be able to transfer some of that L1 knowledge and pick up on differences in register more quickly than I thought.  So I decided to teach some functional grammar to the still-standing-six who shuffled into class this morning.  How?  Paper airplanes.
I had the students space out their desks in a big circle.  Then I passed out sheets of blank paper.  I started folding a paper airplane.  The students looked a little anxious.  But soon enough, without any spoken directions, all of them were happily folding airplanes. 
I turned to S-san and said, “Can I see your airplane?”  As expected, she held the airplane up for me to see.  So I asked K-san, and he did the same.  Finally I just said, “Throw it to me!”  Then we talked about what “see” meant in the context of my request.  All the students wrote the question, “Can I see your airplane?” somewhere on their paper airplanes.  The students then had some time to look at each others airplanes.  But they couldn’t leave their desks.  This led to much paper airplane throwing.  I asked the students to get their paper airplanes back.  Silence.  One student said, “Can I see my airplane?” to another student.  But I could see that she was dissatisfied with the language she had used.  So I said to N-San, “Hey, can I have my airplane back?”  Which was an ‘aha’ moment for most of the students and a few moments later, everyone had managed to get their own airplanes back in hand.  And without prompting, they all wrote, “Can I have my airplane back?” on a wing or the body of their plane.
“OK,” I said.  “Now let’s see what everyone thinks of our airplanes.  How can we get another person to really think about our airplanes?”  Which, happily led to N-san asking another student, “Can you see my airplane?”  Ah, the joys of look vs. see.  A short explanation and students were ready to make the request, “Can you look at my airplane.”  But here I stopped the airplane throwing for a moment and we talked about the nature of our three requests:
          Can I see your airplane? (I want to do something.)
          Can I have my airplane back? (I want to have something.)
          Can you look at my airplane? (I want you to do something.)
Most of the students agreed that there was something different about the nature of the third request.  It required more of the person than simple tossing a paper airplane.  There was some sort of extra effort required.  So I suggested, instead of “can”, perhaps “would” might be more appropriate. 
Now I noticed that while most of the students were enjoying breaking class rules, some just couldn’t bring themselves to throw an airplane in the classroom with joy.  What’s wrong with kids today that they don’t want to toss airplanes around a classroom??!!!  So I asked them if it was uncomfortable to throw an airplane in class with a teacher watching them.  And it turns out, it was.  So I left the class and listened in at the window.  There was definitely less hesitation than when I had been in the room.
By the end of the class, students had also written, “Would you get me Maria’s airplane?” And “Could I please keep this airplane?” somewhere on their airplane.  I’m not 100% sure, but I’m pretty sure that students had developed some ideas of how levels of politeness can, in part, depend on where the locus of action is within the request as well as the duration of the request (“Could I please keep this paper airplane” resulting in a permanent state as opposed to say “Can I see your airplane” which is merely temporary).  And if not, they at least practiced some pretty basic requests which we can build on in our class tomorrow.
At the end of class, every student but one happily kept another student’s paper airplane even after the bell rang.  That one student, for whatever reason, just couldn’t bring himself to join in the last 5 minutes of practice/throwing.  So I hit him up after class and asked him what kind of things prevented him from participating.  And he said, “I just felt embarrassed.”  So I asked him if, when we did these kind of wacky lessons, he wanted me to just prompt him once in a while.  Would that make it easier for him to join in?  He looked relieved and said, “please do.”  So I took my airplane and wrote, “Would you please do that” on the inside wing, gave it to him, and headed downstairs to write up my class notes.

5 thoughts on “But will this class fly?

  1. Fascinating. With so little, so much… and fun while you're at it too!Interesting how you noted that the student wasn't pleased with the "can I see my airplane" request and it grew into something else for the entire class. This is dogme at its best. Nice work.As far as teaching for 3 different levels, that is an issue we all wrestle with in some way, and with each class it's different. I currently have the two best students who sit in corner of the room and barely participate, so recently I've been used Ken Wilson's advice and "putting them to work" leading conversation with the others and summarizing different group activities.Cheers for the fine post!-Brad


  2. Brad, thanks for the comment. The "not pleased" student is one of the best students (English and otherwise) in the school. It's a pleasure to have students who are looking for the kind of language that a communicative classroom affords. But maybe even better, is how she was able to kind of pull the other kids into her space so that what was an affordance for her, became an affordance for them as well. When kids do this in my class, it's usually just luck. I wish I was better at the whole, "putting kids to work" thing. Definitely have to be more conscious of it. Thanks again.Kevin


  3. Wow Kevin. Thank you so much for bringing my attention to this entry! I enjoyed it on so many levels. Of course I connected to and applaud the way you dealt with pragmatics, but the most noticeable point for me was how you checked in with how your students were feeling about the activity, especially that last students. You noticed something off, asked him, he felt safe enough to tell you, and together you created an agreement for future action! It's so simple, yet many teachers let such moments slip by. Some may even create scenarios for the non-participation, when simply asking could provide the solution. Meet the student where they are! Awesome 🙂


  4. Josette,You know, I often don't have the time to check in with students. I try not to bet myself up about it. So when I do have time, like I did on this particular day, I make sure to use it. But I'm really struck by your line, "Some may even create scenarios for non-participation." You know, when something goes wrong in the classroom, the first thing I think is something is up with the student. But sometimes it probably has nothing to do with the student per se, but with me and how I set up the dynamic or structured the activity. Have to keep that in mind. Thank youKevin


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