The other day I was teaching a standard test prep class. For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of of this particular standard test, the way perhaps some people are also interested in how water-boarding simulates drowning, you can check out the finer points of the STEP test here. Usually, I use the test as a jumping off point for more traditional language classroom activities. You know, things like:
– Communicative activity: take a dialogue from the standardised test and have the students personalise it and practice it in pairs.
– Vocabulary work: Have students run through a series of multiple choice questions, identify unknown vocabulary words, and working in small groups create new sentences using the vocabulary words.
– Negotiation/language awareness: Have students solve a set of questions (usually 3) and then, in English, discuss the answers they chose and why they chose them before doing to a group consensus and checking their answers.
– Language Awareness: Pass out a batch of questions compiled from previous tests. Students try and find two or more questions which are testing knowledge of the same grammar point. Answer the questions and generate a grammar rule which can help them quickly solve similar questions in the future.
But before I have the students study, I like to take a baseline of where they are. So last week, all the students took the listening portion of the test individually on their own computer in the computer lab. I wrote on the board that they were supposed to take the test from beginning to end. They were not to stop the audio or rewind it. And when they finished, they were to correct their own test and provide me with the scores. I walked around and just made sure that they had found the correct files on the server and were moving along. One student, lets call him Mr. M, seemed to be progressing slightly slower than the other students. After about 40 minutes, when all of the other students had finished the test and were checking their answers, Mr. M had just started answering questions on the last part of the test. I sat down next to him and tilted my head in that way that signifies I’m curious about something (and which lately so infuriates my daughter…and perhaps has always infuriated my students as well without me ever noticing). Mr. M raised his eyebrows and his mouth formed this small circle of surprise. Perhaps you know the look, the one that usually follows an accusation like, “God! How, in one afternoon, could you have possibly eaten that whole jar of guacamole dip which I was planning to serve on Saturday?”
Mr. M’s look of guilt mixed with surprise led to this conversation:
Me: Mr. M, did you pause the recording while you were taking the test?
Mr. M: (looking like he just jingled a prison cell door and found it unlocked) No, I didn’t pause it. I never paused it.
Me: Did you rewind the questions and listen to them more than once?
Mr. M.: I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Me: Hmmmm…. (and I am sure my head tilted a bit more, which, according to my daughter means I am angry and which only serves to infuriate her further)
So here I was looking at Mr. M and thinking, “How could he have simply ignored everything I had instructed him to do at the beginning of class? What is wrong with him? What is wrong with all these students that they justcan’tfollowdirectionsanddotheonelittlethingIaskthemtodosoIcangetabaselineand…” And in the middle of my crazy-anger-James-Joyce-has-infected-my-though-process mental ramble, I stopped thinking and looked at Mr. M. He was now kind of slumped over and looking at his shoes. I’m pretty sure that guilty ‘o’ shape of his mouth had been replaced by a ready-to-be-reprimanded frown. And then I felt this kind of sudden weightlessness. As if I was floating just a few centimetres above my chair.
Me: So the test was pretty hard?
Mr. M: I didn’t know almost any of the answers.
Me: Yeah, I know how that feels. I hate it when I can’t understand things in Japanese.
Mr. M: I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, so I rewound the questions until I could understand them.
Me: That’s great. I’m so glad you’re keen to learn.
Mr. M: (Looking up at me)
Me: Probably, if we get know what your score is on the test without you rewinding your answers, we can find out which answers are the most difficult and then we can make a really good study plan.
Mr. M: (nods)
Me: How about this, tomorrow will you take another test. This time do you think, even when you can’t understand a question, you can keep moving along with the test until the end?
Mr. M: (smiling) Yes. I can do that.
There’s no real big lesson here. I’m sure that there are many many teachers who don’t struggle with seeing the student in front of them. I’ve had mentors who just instinctively knew where a student was at and were always willing to let go of their teacherly expectations and do what was best for the student. I’m not one of those teachers. But the other day, for at least one moment, I slipped into that space. I realised that making Mr. M feel bad for not following directions was going to serve no practical purpose. And I wonder, how can I find my way back to this kind of space more often. Because being a teacher isn’t about trapping students like Mr. M in a box of guilt, but showing them how each and every step, the stumbles made out of anxiety as well as the confident strides of understanding, are all part of the journey of learning.