Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Teacher's Diary: back to basics

If my previous month's teaching was like playing football, then I would have been a scrappy, unskilled third division player suffering from fatigue.

In my defence, that slump has been due to yours truly working seven days a week. That's a lame defence though, since I do so voluntarily. 

The month was already going badly enough, with me trying to engage students about different forms of tax and taxation in a foreign language, but it was compounded by 'head office'. 

Last semester, 'head office' rejected an exam I wrote because: "the questions weren't from the book". I explained to my boss that I designed the exam that way to test students' understanding of the concepts I taught, rather than just have them reciting from the book. My boss understood, but like the rest of us, she cannot argue with 'head office'. Teachers are forbidden to contact our counterparts at HO, who get to judge their own exam against ours and 'decide' which is better. 

So anyway, this semester I did as bid and used questions based on the course book. A prize to the first person who can guess the reason given by 'head office' for throwing out all of my work once again and using the HO teacher's exam, full of waffle about Justine Timberlake and complete with smiley faces. He claims he was a lawyer, you see, and by ranting on about an American pop singer well past his popularity peak with teenagers, he's connecting with the students.

I could feel the burnout coming on and I decided to take action. I sat down and looked at what had gone missing from my lessons. I decided to restore an exercise I call the 'two minute chat'. The two minute chat is where I set a class some questions loosely based on the topic we have studied, each student chooses a partner and for two minutes they speak only in English about the topic. Before we start, I always give a pep talk about how important it is not to use a single word of any language except English for those two minutes.

Indeed, two minutes is a short time, but not when speaking a foreign language, especially for weaker students. My philosophy behind this activity is that it gets a 'foot in the door'. By encouraging and showing students that, yes, they really can speak only English in a conversation, that achievemet becomes a stepping stone. Next month we can talk for four minutes, then eight, and so on. The activity also uses meta-cognition. By reflecting and verbally using the things they (hopefully) learned, students are far more likely to retain the information rather than just mentally sweeping it away when the bell rings.

But it was no use getting the students on form if I was still off. I took a conscious decision to be more laid back in class this month. In my opinion, classroom discipline is all about balance. Balance between being likable and being in control, between fairness and firmness and about realising when a student really is out of line and when a teacher is just getting frustrated. In other words, if my class is going well and a student is intentionally disrupting it, I'll come down damn hard. But when I myself am not doing a great job, I can't raise my voice to a student who is doing the same.

Now I don't know if one or both of my changes had an effect or if I just got lucky, but this week was close to spectacular. Not one, not two, but three classes produced the best spoken reports they have ever done for me in two years.
Students lined up to tell me about their own 'home made' super hero story (grade eight) , the different types o f taxes and how they work (grade nine) , and the difference between starvation and malnutrition (grade ten). 

It might not see like much for a private school student to speak in English for a few minutes, but believe me, it's a moral victory.

My opening question in speaking tests is "what did you learn in this unit?". It's designed to get the student to talk about ideas, rather than just recite vocabulary. Stronger students will always give me some ideas but I take equal pleasure in weaker students giving me any ideas at all. This week, a student whose name I couldn't even recall told me "Now I know about the different parts of food and how they work in the body".

He seemed bemused by the effect he had on me. AS a student, he couldn't understand how those few words bought such a smile to my face and help me to keep going

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