Dialogues: moving away from the words on the page in 5 easy steps

"Valentine and Proteus" by Henry Courtney Selous.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Valentine and Proteus” by Henry Courtney Selous. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I attended a roundtable discussion through Nara JALT on, “The New Academic Year: Resolutions, Reflections and Revelations from the Classroom.”  It’s a great title, and it was a great two hours of teachers just talking about what they had done in the classroom this year.  In Nara, (the ancient capital of Japan by the way) teachers, or at least the teachers at the roundtable discussion, seem to be using lots of dialogues in their classes.  But they all had pretty much the same two big worries:

1) Students get stuck in the simply-read-the-words-off-the-paper-without-looking-up stage.  And even if they manage to look away from the paper once in a while, they rarely sound natural or seem to genuinely engage with one another.


2) The dialogues are bat shit crazy a little unnatural and a tad on the boring side.

I think there is probably a pretty strong relationship between point 1 and point 2 here.  I mean, if you read something that resembles the dialogue from a James Cameron movie, minus the cool special effects, it’s going to be pretty hard to  sound natural when you’re saying your lines.  It might also be a little difficult to pretend you’re interested in what your partner is babbling on about.  But let’s put that issue off to the side as I’m hoping to touch on it in a followup post.

Let’s say you’ve got a coursebook, you have to use it, and it’s got some dialogues in it.  What are a few things you can do to help pull students away from the page? How can you help the students actually “get into” what they are saying?  Truth is, I used a coursebook this year.  And I used the dialogues in that coursebook.  And I tried out a whole bunch of different ways to use those dialogues. What worked with my students might not go down like a storm in your class, but when I used the following activities, students in my class could finish up a 50 minute lesson and present a dialogue with: no paper in their hand, a decent sense of prosody, and an occasionally surprising and authentic seeming gesture or two.

1. Listening for Silence: before getting into the nitty gritty of dialogue practice, have students listen and put a slash between words whenever they hear a pause.  These chunks of language between the slashes are called sense groups or syntactic groupings.  Often times they are clauses.  And during dialogue practice, if students try to produce a full sense group at a time, they will immediately sound much more natural.  Added bonus: it gives the students a good reason to really listen to the dialogue a few times before they have to produce it.  I think one of the big reasons students keep their eyes glued to the words on the page is because that’s all they have to work with.  Unless a student has a chance to hear a dialogue multiple times (and in my experience I’m talking 6 or 7), they are going to have no confidence in their ability to orally produce the language.

2. Look/Think/Turn Over/1-2-3-Speak: Students love the paper in their hands.  They grip it, stare at it, refuse to glance up from it.  You can command your students to, “make eye contact.”  But once you wander away to a different part of the room, they’re just going to go back to staring at the paper.  So get the paper out of their hands.  Have the students put the dialogues on a desk just off to the side.  They can look at the paper as often and for as long as they want.  But before they start talking, they have to flip the page over.  And not only do they have to flip it over, they have to count to three before they talk.  Yes, I realise that this will make things even more stilted sounding.  But only at the start of the exercise.  If they have those sense group slashes marked on their dialogue, most of the students will be able to hold one syntactic grouping within their working memory.  And the more they practice saying that one natural chunk of language, the more human they will sound.

3. Less becomes More: Students refuse to let go of their dialogue worksheets because they don’t feel that they’ve remembered the words.  And they don’t feel they’ve remembered the words because they keep relying on that piece of paper.  So how about showing the students that they are actually remembering huge swaths of language while they practice.  How?  By having them whittle away at the text.  After a few practices with the dialogue, have them rewrite the dialogue without any vowels.  So a line like, “I have to catch the 6 O’clock bus for Bugharvest,” ends up looking like, “ – hv t ctch th 6 clclk bs fr Bghrvst.”  This will provide them with enough information to practice, but will also tax their working memory enough to aid in memorising.  The next step is to rewrite the dialogue again, only this time, they only get to jot down the first letter of each word and then a dash for each remaining letter.  So they would end up with “I h_ _ _  t_ c_ _ _ _ t_ _ s_ _ O_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ f_ _ B_ _ _ _ _ _.”  At the beginning of the year my students met this task with a lot of moaning and complaining about how I’d asked them to do the impossible.  But actually, by this point in a lesson, students have pretty much remembered most of the dialogue and find that they can get through it with little to no problem.

4. In Your Own Words (L1): A final option is to let students write out an L1 equivalent (not word to word translation) of each sense group in the dialogue.  I know that there is some controversy about how much translation, and L1 in general, we should be using in the class, but if you are really having a hard time prying students away from the printed dialogue, it might simply be a sign that, as they are speaking, they are trying to puzzle out the meaning of what they are saying.  The more sure they are about the meaning, the more confidence they will have in trying to convey that meaning and not simply saying the words.  In my experience, when my students use a sense group translation as a kind of cheat sheet for their final practice, they are much more willing to use gestures and sometimes even try on different accents.

5. Put Some Ground Beneath Their Feet: A few years ago, the teacher in charge of the drama thread of our English program observed a class of mine which made extensive use of dialogues. During our feedback session, the drama teacher asked if I ever gave the students a set of stage directions.  He grabbed a script for a play off his desk and pointed to the stage directions at the start of the scene and said something like, “Without a stage, a set, and some props, students are floating in an ocean of words.  But even without all those things, a good set of stage directions can set the students down on firmer ground.”  So if your students are gripping their dialogue sheets like a castaway clinging to a life-preserver, perhaps what they really need is some stage directions.  Here is an example of simple stage directions for a dialogue about one high school student asking another high school student for help with their homework.

John and Tracy are in the park near the school.  John is sitting on a bench, holding a book.  He looks worried.  Tracy and standing under a tree a few feet from John.  She notices him and walks over.

But But But…a final word

Yes, I realise that almost all of these activities seem to give the students a good excuse to stare even harder at the paper in their hands.  Slashes between sense groups usually mean students look at the paper longer so that they can remember where to pause; words without vowels take time to decode which also means more time staring at the paper; and of course stage directions have to be read and understood.  But even though this series of steps results in more interaction with the paper over the course of a class, it also provides the kind of support and framework for students to eventually set the paper down on their desk and walk away from it.  And when they do walk away from it, they are sure of:

  • what they have to say
  • how to say it
  • what it means
  • where they are saying it.

When a student knows all these things about a dialogue, there is a much better chance that they will be able to speak their lines, if not with emotional conviction, at least with a healthy dose of confidence.  And here in Japan, with the students I’m teaching now, that sense of confidence is often the point at which real communication can finally start to take place.


Why not leave it up to them

IMG_4127-2Yesterday was the start of the 3rd high school semester here in Japan.  That means all the students came to school for a one and a half hour “School Opening Ceremony.”  There were speeches about how important it is to study and prepare for university entrance examinations, why learning Japanese history is a key component to finding your place in the international community, and a final speech on how Japanese culture has a tradition of the ‘fresh start’ so this semester was everyone’s chance to change and become a better student.  And once all of these very serious (and very long) speeches about change and the importance of studying were finished, we had 20 minutes scheduled for homeroom, were supposed to say ‘sayonara’, and send the students back home…without holding classes.  Which got me thinking about how cavalier schools are about students’ time.  We tell them when to come, how long to be there, if they can stay late or not.  And especially high school teachers (and certainly I am accusing myself of this as well) are constantly trying to impress on students the importance of using their time effectively.  And yet, in a traditional school environment, students are actually given very little control over how they spend their time aside from whether they pay attention to the teacher or not.

After the School Opening Ceremony yesterday, as I was about to start my 20 minute homeroom, I stood up at the front of the classroom with a folder of flyers, standard test result reports, study abroad applications, and even an advertisement for a lecture by the architect Ando Tadao sponsored by my school.  I looked at the students.  Most were happily talking about what they did during winter vacation.  They were animated and smiling and listening intently to one another.  One student had a book, Key Words to Mastering English, open on his lap and seemed to be having a wonderful time studying vocabulary.  And not a few students were busily trying to finish their winter homework assignments.  I looked at them and decided that all of the things I had to say, pass out, or return to them could probably be done on a one-to-one basis.  I walked from table to table and gave the students the flyers and chatted a bit about some of the buildings Ando Tadao had designed and why it would be an interesting lecture to attend.  I laid standard test results upside down on the desk in front of students without interrupting their conversations (they new what they were and how to read them).  I handed each student a study abroad application and spent a bit of time with students who had expressed an interest in going to Australia in the second semester.  And 30 minutes later everything was passed out.  It took 10 more minutes than usually.  But when I stood up in front of the class  and made eye contact with a few students, saying, “I missed you,” to each one in turn, it got quiet pretty quickly.  And then I told the entire class, “I really missed you all,” and ended the homeroom.

Which got me thinking.  How often do I demand an entire classes’ attention?  Does everyone really have to be listening to me when I talk about what is going to happen next in class?  When I talk about the average score of a test?  When I introduce a group work assignment?  There are plenty of students in my school who can figure out an activity by themselves after a few seconds of watching without any directions from me at all.  And if those students can be using that time more effectively (and want to use it to do something else), what kind of message does it send when I demand they stop whatever their doing to do whatever it is I want them to do?  When we talk about a student-centered classroom, shouldn’t some control of how students use their time in the classroom be at the heart of that idea?  So here’s a few other ways teachers can allow students a bit more choice in how they use their classroom time:

Don’t give oral instructions for written work:  Give simple written instructions of how to do a written assignment and then walk around class and check in with students who seem to be having difficulty.  Students who read and understand the instructions can start the assignment when they are ready.  Or if they want, they can help explain it to students who are a little lost.

Don’t start with the class, start with a student:  teach what you want to teach to 1 or 2 or 3 students who are ready to learn.  Take a small white board to class, sit down next to the students and start teaching,  If another student shows interest, invite them over to join you.  Show the students that when you start teaching, it is actually worth listening.  If the students really believe this, they will be much more willing to stop what they are doing to listen to you.

Don’t collect homework:  I’m not a huge fan of homework on the very best of days.  But I do give it to students.  Often times I just want them to have a bit more practice working with the language we used in class.  If my main purpose is (forcing) providing students with practice time out of class, why would I collect and mark the homework?  And why would I stop the entire class and use everyone’s time to collect homework whose main purpose was to provide individual practice and review time?  Instead, let students know that if they want feedback on homework, they can turn it in to you and you’ll be happy to let them know their areas of strength or weakness.

Don’t assign classwide listening tasks: while listening, we often give students a task such as ‘write down every verb you hear,’  or ‘while listening circle the stressed/key words on the transcript.’   But this both ends up using time for instructions and assumes students need similar listening practice.  Instead, give students a weekly (or bi-weekly, or even monthly) task which is more suited to their individual needs.  So if you like to start of your lesson with a listening activity, everyone in the class is primed, ready to go, and knows why they are doing what they are doing. After the activity, what should you do with the stuff they have just written down on looseleaf paper or in their notebook?  See: don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect tests:  See don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect anything: see homework and tests (caveat: you need to explain the system of how you give feedback at the beginning of the year.  And you need to hope and pray that there are at least a few students are going to give you something so that when they get the most excellent feedback you have to give them, other students realise that it is a pretty groovy thing to voluntarily hand in assignments, tests, etc.)

Don’t wait for activities to end: If students are doing individual work and 1 student  seems to be finishing up, then grab her or him and start the next activity with that student, alone.  And when another student finishes, well the first student already knows how to do it, so just pair them up and let them go.

Don’t officially end your class:  If you follow most (or even some) of these ideas, there’s a very good chance that when class time is winding down there will be a lot of students doing a lot of different things.  What’s the point in stopping them all and making them look at you?  Really, what’s the point of officially ending class in general? Instead, with a minute left in class, just walk around to the students and let them know you are leaving the class to get ready for your next lesson.  And let the the students keep doing what they want to do.  Trust that they will leave the class in time for the next class of students to come on in.  And you know what, they might just keep learning right up to the very last second. I’ve even had pairs or small groups of students head off to a nearby cafe to continue their lesson sans teacher.

There’s this term, ‘classroom management.’  Whenever I hear it, I kind of get itchy all over. Why would I want to manage my classroom?  I think I’d rather spend my time creating an environment where students can, as much as possible, manage their own learning.   Luckily, as a teacher, how I spend my time during a lesson is mostly up to me. I wonder how classrooms might look if students, whenever possible, were provided with that same opportunity.

Lessons Learned in 2014 (…as a homeroom teacher)

My ChartI am a homeroom teacher.  And this was a year of being a homeroom teacher. No adjectives.  It was just one day.  And then another day.  And sometimes one of those days ploughed into the next day, the way cars can smash into each other on an icy Michigan freeway after just a moment of carelessness.

This was the year I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if a student had dyed their hair (because it was my job to send them home, call their parents, and make sure they dyed it back to black before they could take another class), or calling mothers and fathers and explaining that yes, technically, eyelash extensions are a form of makeup.  It was the year I realised that having enough time to talk about how it’s a waste of time to use lots of time to write lesson plans was, now that I think about, also a huge waste of time.

This was the year I read other teachers’ blogs and thought, wow, here are all these new voices–to me–saying all these things I admire and helping to keep me going (Hana Tichá, you are amazing; David Harbinson, I am a huge fan, please keep doing what you are doing).

This was the year I would get  a mention on FaceBook (Sandy Millin), a trackback on my blog (Anne Hendler, Anna Loseva, Ljiljana Havran), or see a Tweet (that’s you Colm and Mike) and think, oh, I have not disappeared from the world, I am not transparent.  And all of you who worked to keep me connected, I thank you.

It was the year I took class notes and more class notes and maybe, once a month, I snapped at my co-workers and hid out in an empty classroom and tried to catch up on what was going on with my students when it came to English.

But for all this, it was not a bad year.  In all those days piling up one after another, I learned some things.  Some things I want to share as the New Year starts, because they were small gifts that my students and their parents and my coworkers and friends gave to me.

Parents know about their sons and daughters, they want to talk honestly about their sons and daughters, they appreciate when you give them that chance.  This year I sat down with a handful of parents and told them that I was worried.  I was worried that their child could not screen out the normal noise of a classroom enough to concentrate.  Or that their child could not get half way through a short sentence without forgetting the first two words of that sentence, in either Japanese or English.  Or that their child felt so much pressure about studying, that they didn’t want to leave the school when it was time to close the shutter at 7PM.  I had a lot of hard talks.  I was met with a lot of tears and shed tears of my own.  And almost every single time, the mother or father sitting across from me said, “Thank you for noticing what is happening with my child.”  Honestly, it might be kind of nice to work in a job where there were less tears, less sudden intakes of breath like the whoosh of someone losing their breath after being punched.  But now I know that honestly and clearly providing the small details of a student’s life, to both a parent and the student themselves, is part of what it means to be a teacher.  And when the conversation is hardest, when I would rather be doing anything than sitting down with a mother or father to say what I am about to say at 7 PM on a Friday night, I can feel grateful that there is no way to run away from this moment.  That this is my job.  That this is what it means to be a homeroom teacher in Japan, and probably in the rest of the world as well.

– There are an infinite number of ways to be right about something.  There are also an infinite number of ways to be wrong about something.  When listening, thinking about any of those rights and wrong is nothing more than jamming fingers into your ears.  Keeping track of all those rights and wrongs is, very simply, a way to NOT listen.  How strange, to finally understand at the age of 43, 15 years into teaching, 10 years into a marriage, 7 years into being a father, that before I can expect someone to listen to me, I must first listen to them.

– The space needed to grow as a person often feels exactly like the distance which leaves you cut off from others and standing alone.  This year, when I was overwhelmed, when I needed one more day to get a spreadsheet of student grades completed or a new version of a vocabulary sheet printed out, if I said something, my coworkers were immediately there for me.  They stayed late and helped me punch in data.  They made photocopies.  They made sure that my students, our students, never felt cheated because their homeroom teacher was a little too green at his job, a step too slow to get done what needed to be done.  But for all their help, my coworkers never jumped in and tried to save me when I didn’t ask for help.  They never crowded into my space.  They respected me and believed in me.  There is a difference between being cut off from others and finding the room needed to grow.  It is a difference in emotional nanometers, a difference that can only be measured in the response that comes when you finally ask for help.

* * *

This year I am a homeroom teacher.  Next year, if I am lucky, I will once again be a homeroom teacher.  If I am, I am sure that there will still be days upon days that seem to plough one into the next.  But perhaps there will be just as many days that are each a moment entirely in themselves; days startling in their clarity.  And I will see them for what they are because of the lessons that my friends, co-workers, and students took the time to help me learn in 2014: watch carefully and share what you notice honestly; listen more than you speak; try to do the best you can, but don’t hesitate to ask for help.  And maybe one more: every step on the journey is one more chance to say thank you, one more chance to practice gratitude.

Thank you for reading and may your 2015 be filled with health, happiness, and learning.

Kevin Stein

What Kind of Teacher…

hibachiLast week I was in Tsukuba for the JALT international conference.  The sun was out, and the leaves, red and yellow, hadn’t yet started to drop in earnest from the trees.  But now, winter has suddenly arrived here in Nara.

I’m sitting around the hibachi with Anna Loseva and Mamico.  We’re waiting for the water in the heavy cast iron pot to boil so we can make tea.  Anna has suggested we take a few minutes, maybe hours even, to just think and write about teaching.

When I was in Tsukuba, I saw Tom Farrell present on reflective practices.  During his plenary presentation, he asked us what kind of teachers we were.  He asked if we were open minded, if we could heed facts and admit we might be wrong.  He asked if we were responsible, if we thought about the choices we make and the impact it has on our students in and out of the classroom; finally, he asked if we were wholehearted, if we continually reviewed our own practices.  The #KELTCHAT-ers had a slowburn chat today which was loosely connected to a workshop Professor Farrell also did at the conference.  As I sip the tea (the water heating over the charcoal finally came to a boil), I’m answering a few of the pre-chat questions posted on the #KELTCHAT site.

▪ “Good teaching requires more than application of methods; it requires self-knowledge.” What does self-knowledge mean to you in this case?

Self-knowledge, I think, first means taking the time to step back from a situation and make sure you aren’t just reacting based on old data.  It means seeing the student in front of you, the situation that is unfolding around you, and being able—at least partially—to mitigate the biases that might prevent an authentic interaction from taking place.

▪How can we go about acquiring this knowledge?

I think there are an infinite number of ways to acquire this knowledge.  Blogging about your classes, taking notes as class is happening, recording and transcribing a class.  But I don’t have time for any of that right now.  The best I can do is simply take a few moments to think about what I am going to say to a student before I open my mouth.  And I just need to ask myself, honestly, before I talk if what I am about to say is going to help this student, or do I want to say it to meet a personal need which might have nothing to do with the person in front of me.  And then, after I do say something, if I can take a moment to look at how the learner reacts, their facial expression, body language, how they participate or don’t participate in class after our interaction, I can learn something about how I am behaving and how it impacts the people in my classroom.

▪How can knowing about ourselves impact our teaching?

Knowing about myself is how I can make a better choice the next time I’m in a similar situation.  But to do that, I need data.  That means I need to be aware of what’s happening in class.  I need to know what my students are thinking and feeling.  When I can tie how I behave in class directly to how my students experience class, I can start to make changes in my behaviours that lead to better outcomes for my students.  I don’t have time to do a lot of the blogging and video taping that I did last year, but I do have enough time to say something like, “During the activity today, you weren’t really participating, so I wrote the first letter of each word of the dictation on your paper.  What did you think about that?”  I do have enough time to chat with my students about what they thought happened in class and how they felt about it.

The #KELTCHATers also put up a list of sentence stems to finish and help us think about our own ideas about teaching.

1. To me, the word teacher means…

…someone who helps learning take place.  Sometimes that means by actively taking part in the learning process.  Sometimes it might mean almost removing oneself from the process entirely.

3. I believe teaching is a calling because…

…I don’t believe it is a calling.  I believe it is a job.  And we can get better at it.  We can learn how to relate to our students.  We can learn how to be empathic.  We can learn how to make people feel safe.  It’s not a calling.  It’s hard work.  Hard work with moments that are touched by the ghost of truth.  But perhaps all work is so touched.

4. When I first started to teach I…

…thought I could be a great teacher by knowing the right activity to run and understanding how the English language worked.

7. I enjoy going into school each morning because…

…I don’t have to follow a manual.  I don’t have to have all  the answers.  I can learn from my students as they learn from me.  We can muddle through a class period together and probably all end up in a better place than if I ‘knew’ how to teach the hell out of English.

12. The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is..

…I will never have enough time to do everything I want to do.  I will not even have enough time to do the things I should do.  In fact, I probably, regardless of how long I do this job, rarely have enough time to do even the things I need to do.  So every choice I make as a teachers means that some student, sometime during the week, is not going to get as much individual attention as they need.

14. My students believe in….

…each other.  They rarely if ever get frustrated while waiting for another student to answer a question.  They believe that their friends and classmates can and will learn.  They are a constant reminder that, more than anything else, my job is to believe in them as well, and have the patience and the compassion to make the space where that learning will happen.

* * *

For the past few months I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty that I don’t have the time to engage in reflective practices.  No teaching journal.  No regular blog posts.  No video recordings of lessons and transcriptions.  But answering these questions, I’m starting to think that maybe those things, while an important part of reflection for many teachers, are not sum total of what it means to be a reflective teacher.  6 months into being a homeroom teacher (and 3 cups of tea into this blog post) I’m thinking that this year, in learning how to take a breath, make a space, and be in the moment with my students, I am finding a new way to be ’open minded’, ‘responsible’ and ‘wholehearted.’

The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year

After 14 years of teaching, in one form or another, the Physical Description Unit, I finally have found what might be the perfect set of 3 priming activities and a task-based consolidation lesson.  You know the Physical Description Unit, don’t you?  Sure you do.   It’s the unit one where you get to teach fun stuff like:

– low frequency body-part vocabulary such as ‘eyebrows’, ’cheekbones’, ‘forehead’, and ‘earlobes.’

– the use of ‘has’ vs. ‘be’ (“She is tiny, but she has really huge ears!”)

– adjective order (general descriptor, size, shape, and then colour as in, “She has gorgeous, long, wavy, brown nose hairs.”);

– review of negative structures for ‘be’ and ‘has’, especially useful for people who have no defining characteristics (“Well, he’s not tall, and he isn’t short and he doesn’t really have long arms or legs.  He is just kind of normal looking.”)

– cultural norms and their influence on how we describe people (As in, “She has really cute, big ears.”  Big ear-ness being a ‘cute’ thing in Japan.)

– vague ways to describe age (“He is over 50, I think.”)

This is THE unit for non-stop conversation if the students in your class all have friends or family members who lean more to the Steve Buscemi side of the memorable-people-spectrum.  It is not, however, the very best unit for Japanese students who sometimes tend to think that all other Japanese people look the same.  Still, I put together a series of exercises for the unit which seemed to do the job and the students, according to their feedback, were satisfied with it. So here it is:

Activity 1: make a slide show of famous people who are chosen more for their distinct features than their fame.  I recommend Simon Rattle, Meghan Trainor, Angelina Jolie, and Lyle Lovett to name just a few.  Give the students 30 second between slides to write a short physical description of each celebrity photo that flashes up on the screen.  Wander around and pick up a few sentences that students produce.  Write the sentences up on the board, but leave a blank in place of the target language you want students to focus on.  Have the students form pairs, fill in the missing words, and then generate some rules around the target language.  My students produced the following rules:

– Use ‘is’ when describing a person’s whole body.

– Use ‘have’ when describing a part of a person’s body or something connected to their body like hair.

– Use ‘look’ when using an adjective such as ‘friendly’ or ‘crazy’

– Use ‘looks like’ when comparing someone to something or someone else.

Activity 2: have students get into groups of 3 or 4.  Each student picks one photo from their cellphone.  They all lay their cellphones down in the centre of the table and together they chose one and only one of the photos to work with.  As a group they write a physical description of the person in the picture.  Then it’s quiz time.  They show the pictures on their cell phones to another group and then read the descriptions out loud.  The second group listens, discusses, and guesses which photo is being described.  If the students show a decent command of the language at this point, you could turn it into a fluency activity by structuring it as a 4/3/2 exercise in which students have to present their descriptions in successively shorter amounts of time.

Activity 3: This activity starts off as a homework assignment.  I instructed the students to ask one of their family members to be a model.  Students were told to take a decent amount of time to really look at the family member and write a detailed description of him or her.  To help ensure the students weren’t slacking off, I included a few completely arbitrary rules such as: when writing about a person’s hair, you must use 4 adjectives; when writing about a person’s mouth, you must use at least two adjectives; when writing about a person’s earlobes; you must use 316 adjectives and 11 adverbs .  Here is an example of a description one of my students produced:

example 1

Consolidating all those physical features in one lesson composed of 6 easy steps:

1. take all those fantastic descriptions of students’ family members that the students did as homework and tape them up all over the walls.  Label each one with a number.  It should look something like this:

example 2

2. Have all the students wander around the room and read the descriptions.  You can give them a task to make it all a bit more focused.  For example, I gave my students the following two tasks: 1) correct any errors you find in the written descriptions.  2)  try and guess who wrote each description.

3. Students each pick one description which they like.  They then have to draw a picture based on that description.  I set it up in the same style as a running dictation.  The students can read the description as many times as they want, but they have to return to their own desks to draw the picture.  This ensures that students have to hold the language within their working memory which can help facilitate retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975) .  And in addition, they are transforming the language into images, which John Fanselow believes helps, “our brains make more connections than if the mediums remain the same.”

4. Now hang up the pictures on the white board and label them all with a letter.  It will look something like this (quality of artwork will vary):

example 3

5. Have students form small groups and discuss which picture goes with which description and why.  My students were producing excellent sentences such as, “I think picture I is #4, because she has beautiful, long, straight, black hair and she looks like a TV announcer.”  They should write the numbers directly on the picture.  It will look something like this:

example 4

6. Then comes the big reveal.  Hold up the picture and ask who drew it.  Once the student has proudly shouted out sheepishly raised their hand, ask them what number description their picture is based on.  Give both the picture and the description to the person who originally wrote the description.  So now you have a student holding a description of someone in their family, mostly likely their mother, and a picture based on that description.  This alone is often enough to cause a few giggle-explosions.  Ask the student who wrote the description to look at the picture and tell the class some of differences between the picture and their actual family member.  This ends up producing such sentences as “My mother doesn’t have long legs.  And my mother doesn’t have giant hands”

I wrapped up the lesson by asking my students to take the pictures and descriptions home and show them to their family members.  It hadn’t been part of my lesson plan, but as you might have noticed from the above descriptions, the students wrote extremely positive and warm descriptions and I thought it might be a nice gift to the family members.  I also really wanted the students to share the pictures as well.  I thought they would generate a lot of conversation.  And it turns out they did.  One student, M-Chan, told me her mother cried when she read her description.  And K-Kun said his family couldn’t stop laughing when he showed them the picture of his younger brother.  They finally decided to hang it up on the refrigerator door.

So there you have it, the very best series of activities for physical descriptions I’ve ever run in my class.  There’s only one problem. This weekend, I was hanging out with some friends at a professional basketball game in Nara, Japan (yeah, I didn’t realise that professional basketaball was a thing in the Japanese countryside either, but it is)photo-11 and one of my friends said, “So, does your brother look like you?”  And here was my chance to use all that language I had just taught my students.  But you know what I actually did (and I bet you do know.  In fact, I bet you might even be touching your cellphone as you are reading this, thinking, ‘God, Kevin is so slow, I’ve been thinking about cellphones since the second paragraph’)?  I took out my cell-phone and looked for a picture.  But there wasn’t one!  So, do you think I actually used that language I taught my students?  Of course not (and I bet here you might be thinking about opening an SNS app just to see how easy it is to find a picture of your brother, or sister, or mother).  I just looked at my brother’s FaceBook account and flashed everyone his picture.  And everyone agreed, by the way, that my brother did look like me, only he’s much more handsome (true that).

So what am I left with here?  I guess you could argue that, in the odd case my students witness–or worse are the victims of–a crime, they might need this language of physical descriptions.  But even if that happened, I think they would be a little too flustered to rely on the English they learned in this lesson and would be using an electronic dictionary or, perhaps more likely, their cell phone translator apps as they talked to the police.   I guess you could also break down the unit into smaller components and find some useful language points in there.  Knowing specific body part vocabulary might come in handy in the case of an injury; and ‘has’ versus ‘be’ as a comparison of an overall state versus a specific characteristic such as, “The house is big and has wonderful views of the mountains,” might be useful in other contexts.  But the fact is, I wasn’t focused on ‘other contexts’.  I was focused on teaching students how to make physical descriptions.  I’ve been teaching this material for 14 years.  During those 14 years, I haven’t stood still.  I’ve changed it up, tried out new activities, even revisited the underlying assumptions I have about how language acquisition works.  But in the end, I’m left wondering if I only really taught physical descriptions again this year because I’ve taught it for the past 13 years.  It’s especially ironic and disheartening that this lesson utilised so much tech (power point, the internet, cellphone pictures) and yet I somehow failed to recognise how those same changes in technology had mostly done away with the reason for teaching the lesson in the first place.

So here, in this blog post, I have shared with you the very best lesson plan that I will never use again. But before I end this overly long post, I’d like to share 3 questions that have been haunting me lately.  How much of what I teach is truly necessary language? If what I teach is not justifiable based on usage, but I teach it well, and it helps students generate and develop their own language system, does that make the lesson viable?  And perhaps the question that bothers me the most, how can I be sure that with these eyes clouded with experience, I’m able to clearly see the language needs of my students in the here and now?

My Friend, Marco

The following is a short story I wrote for my high school students.  Lately in Japan, there is a lot of talk about bullying.  But to be honest, I’m not really sure what bullying is.  And when I asked my students about it, almost all of them said something along the lines of, “Bullying is when someone feels like they have been bullied.”  But this way of defining bullying seems to put all the responsibility on the victim of bullying.  What happens if the victim doesn’t realise they are being bullied?  Does that really mean that there’s no bullying taking place (in Japan, that actually does seem to be the case).  Anyway, I wanted to discuss these issues with my students, for both my own understanding and to maybe help make a safer school environment.  That was the main impetus for writing this story (as well as to exorcise a few of my own nagging demons).  We used it in class, it generated a fair among of conversation, and even led to the illustrations that are scattered here and there in the text.  It’s a 984 word story and 98.47% of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) so it should be appropriate for intermediate level students and above.  I’ll try and follow up with a post about how I used it in class and some more details of the students’ reactions.  But for now, I hope you will give the story a read.  Thanks in advance for your time and also any comments you might have on how to recognise bullying or to get students to talk about the issue in general. My Friend, Marco (a short story for ELLs) (all pictures by Clark International Course students)

* * *

photo 5 When I was seven years old, I knew everything about everything.  I knew the names of all the people who lived in my 32 house neighbourhood.  I knew which dogs would bite and which wouldn’t.  I knew which trees you could steal apples from and which you couldn’t.  I also thought I knew this boy who lived across the street.  His name was Marco.  That’s not a great name to have as a child.  The other students all called him Marco Polio and ran away whenever he walked towards them.  Marco wore eye-glasses with heavy black frames.  Sometimes Marco would start swinging his head back and forth really quickly for no reason.  A few times his glasses flew right off his head and broke against the wall of the school. photo 3 I used to sit with Marco during lunch.  He didn’t say much.  But when the lunch room got too noisy, he covered his ears with his hands and started singing the children’s song Row Row Row Your Boat to himself.

Anyway, Marco loved ants. He had a jar full of big black ants.  During the summer, Marco used to sit in front of his house and stare at those ants for hours.  He didn’t wear a hat.  He didn’t move into the shade under the big tree in his front yard.  He just sat there in the summer sun, his hair sticking up here and there, and stared at those ants. photo 1-2 One day, I went out and filled up my own jar with ants, only I collected the red kind. Red ants are terribly mean.  They will bite a person for no good reason.  And boy are they fast.  I went up to Marco and said, “Want to try an experiment?”  I said that the red ants were fast and good at fighting, but the black ants were big and strong.  I said we could mix them together and they would have babies and the babies would grow up to be a super red-black ant combination that was big, strong, fast and good at fighting.  Marco wasn’t really listening to me.  He was still looking at his own jar of ants, with his mouth kind of half-opened.  So I grabbed Marco’s jar and took the lid off.  Then I poured the ants out of my jar and into his.  And those red ants just started attacking the black ants.  They tore the black ants’ heads right off.  Marco started pulling at his own hair and swinging his head back and forth so hard I thought that maybe his head was going to fall off too.  He kept saying, “This is a tragedy.  This is a tragedy.”

photo 4Marco also had the best tree to climb in the whole neighbourhood.  But whenever I climbed the tree in Marco’s yard, Marco always stayed down at the bottom.  He never exactly said he didn’t like climbing trees, but he never tried to climb a tree himself.  One day I decided Marco really really needed to climb a tree.  I thought it would be good for him, maybe help him to see the world in a different way.  So I got under him and started pushing him up the trunk.  Marco was saying no, no, no, no, no, no.  And I kept saying, just go up, just go up, just go up.  Then it was like an engine got turned on in Marco and he started climbing.  He dug his hands right into the bark and pulled himself up and up and up.  He climbed all the way up to the first branch, about 8 feet above my head.  Then he just froze.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat up there with his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around the branch.  I asked him to come down.  I said I would give him all the money I had in my pocket, $1.42.  Finally, I started screaming at him, “come down here right now!  Come on down you idiot!  Come down!”  I don’t know how long I was out there screaming like that.  But then I heard my mother calling for me to get home for dinner.  And so I left.  When I turned and looked back, I could see Marco still up in that damn tree.

I know it sounds like I was a pretty terrible child.  But in my experience, all children are terrible.  And anyway, I don’t do things like that anymore.  I have my own car shop. I’m a father.  I have a seven year old daughter.  I drive her 45 minutes to piano lessons.  I read her books before she goes to sleep.  Sometimes I tell her about what I used to do when I was her age.  I tell her about the snowball fights we had, but not about the blood dripping from Marcos’ nose.  I also don’t tell her about those red ants.  When I remember the small neighbourhood where I grew up, the white houses and cracked sidewalks, I can see Marco out of the corner of my imagination.  He’s still there, still up in that tree.  He is still waiting for me to help him down.  But I’m stuck here.  On the other side of time.  There is no way I can get back there.  There is no way for me to say I’m sorry for all the things I did.  Even worse, there is no way to say thank you. photo 2-2When I watch my daughter walking to school in the morning, always by herself, always with her head down, I realise that Marco was the closest thing I had to a friend then.  When I was seven years old, I thought I knew everything about everything.  But really, I didn’t know anything at all.  I didn’t even know that without Marco, I would have been alone every day of that long empty summer.

* * *

A PDF version of the story is available for download as well: My Friend, Marco

Vocabulary Profile: If the words ‘jar’ and ‘ant’ are pre-taught or glossed, 98.47 of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) as profiled on the VP-Complete-Input Vocabulary Profiler (http://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/) on Tom Cobb’s Lextutor site (http://www.lextutor.ca).  The specific breakdown is:
984 words total
NGSL_1 (first 1000 lemmas): 91.20%
NGSL_2 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas): 96.22%
NGSL_3 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas plus additional 801 lemmas): 98.47%

Seeing the Student in Front of Me

Hegel looking like he'd like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

Hegel looking like he’d like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

The other day I was teaching a standardized 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: You know, if we can get your score on a listening 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.