There are moments in teaching when you experience for the first time a problem that is so well known that it seems more like a myth or something that has been so relentlessly discussed that for it to exist at all anymore seems… weird. But nonetheless, like many teachers, I have days in which a class of 30 students goes terribly and a class of 15 (or in today’s case, a class of 3) goes excellently. In short, large class sizes suck.
It feels kind of good, after a hard lesson, to lay the blame on something so far out of my control. There truly is nothing I can do about my class size. It will be what it will be. Like the devil, it gives me something to fight against that I cannot ever control. And, also like the devil, I think it’s largely imaginary. When I give in to this kind of “devilish” thinking, there is a little twinge of dissatisfaction with it. And what the problem is, is that class size isn’t a problem, it is a variable. And when we make it “the problem”, often we are just naming and shaming a variable, when in reality the heart of the matter lies in my fears as a teacher.
I had given in to the fears that my students don’t respect me; that they don’t want to learn. That my students think I’m a bad teacher. I have yet to really delve into the problem for real. But, we’ll open it up for a larger discussion. I am going to present two different lessons that I taught, back to back. They are not comparable, but can be viewed contrastively for insight.
Background: Students are 14-15 years old. They attend English class for 40 minutes every other day. Previous lessons have introduced language useful in warning about dangerous events. Such as, “be careful”, “watch/look out” and “pay attention”. I don’t overtly teach grammar (by design), but if they pay real close attention, they’ll figure it out on their own. I have been having a little trouble with student comprehension and understanding me. So my lessons have been based in communicating the ideas non-verbally and then introducing the language. Up to this point, the students have used the phrases in prompted and recited activities and are now trying to move into simulated situations and free discussion.
I posted four pictures of action films that the students are most likely to have seen. Most of them came from Korean cinema and also one from music artist, Psy called Gangnam Style, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The warm-up is done in pairs where the students try to come up with as many words as possible to describe the pictures of dangerous events. The instructions were done as non-verbally as possible, using gesture for “think”, “write” and a brief explanation via demonstration of what an adjective is. For good measure, and perhaps to show just how early my fear set in, I offered up a reward to the pair that came up with the most words.
The students were uninterested. We can safely leave it at that—but we won’t. The few who either want me to like them or like me genuinely, or genuinely like English, or learning or whatever got to work pretty quick. (maybe 4 students). Most sat talking (in their defense, quietly). And a few pretended to be asleep, or so bored that they couldn’t keep their heads up ANYMORE. As I walked by, students would begin working and as I left they would stop. At some point, a few groups said they didn’t understand what was going on, which fairly thoroughly gouged my weak confidence out like a spear through the stomach. I demonstrated some more throughout the classroom to smaller groups.. and they seemed to “understand”.
At the end of the warm-up, I had them tell me some words they had come up with, we wrote them on the board and then we moved on.
The point of this lesson is to get to a point where the students could discuss in some fashion, dangerous activities they have either participated in or have seen occur. The warm-up is designed to get them thinking of the words they will need later on to talk about these events. The presentation is designed to work up their communicative ability with the target language in a role-play type of environment.
I explained via demonstration, pictures and powerpoint; that each of the students were going to pretend to be directors and would think of things they would say to the actors (from the pictures) to keep them safe. i.e. “be careful of the fire! Look out for debris in the wind!” Bascially, use the phrases that have been taught (‘be careful, look/watch out, pay attention) and add a prepositional phrase (at the barest of levels). The students actually did seem to understand the instructions here, but maybe not all the way, I really can’t know for sure in hindsight. I switched up their partners and put them in groups of 3-4.
Again, a few did the activity for a moment. Most didn’t want to say anything to their peers, or at least I suspect that is one of the problems. The students feel embarrassed to speak with other students. Others were belligerently open with their disregard for the lesson. Doing their own thang, if you will. I would walk around and try to get something going. It could be it was too unstructured for them. I don’t know. They may have been legitimately bored (i.e. the activity was far below their level).
Before things got too out of control, I moved to the next portion.
The students would act as themselves, but in scripted scenarios. A group of four would be given a list of things that are potentially dangerous and they would attempt to warn the others in their group of it. This was done taboo style, where you can’t say the word. I gave the list of words (cut up individually and upside down) to each group and after explaining and demonstrating (twice), I set them off. Now, what happened next has happened before when I do this kind of activity, and I still don’t know where the miscommunication lies, or what I am missing. But, The second I let them start, one or more in each group begin sifting through the words I had given them. Like they were going to just choose and it didn’t matter if anyone saw. (perhaps it didn’t matter. They may have not cared that much).
This was the activity that just did it for my day. The girls, who generally don’t talk to begin with, ignored the game. If I came by they avoided eye contact and sat very still. I’m guessing they may have not understood what was going on. I tried to explain, gesture, demonstrate it. It never took. The boys ignored the activity for the most part until I walked by. Then they would immediately pick up a piece and say something that missed the point of the game (suggesting they didn’t get it to begin with, or that they didn’t care to understand it, or… something else).
This started with about 15 minutes left in class, so I washed my hands of the lesson at this point. We were not going to get to the discussion point and I saw no way of corralling them in anyway. I circled around a few times, participating in a few groups, trying to motivate others. In the end, the bell rang and the students left.
At this point, my feelings are either this activity was too simple, not engaging enough and/or not relevant enough to get the students into it. That, or it was well beyond the students ability to understand at this point. It may be that they need much more time in the comprehension stages, more miming, more basic practice. These students are “behind and unmotivated” (as I was told before I even got to the school, a wonderful generalization).
The Small Class Lesson
For the next two hours after that class, I was going to be coaching three girls for the district English competition. The week before, they had each won a school contest (judged by yours truly) based on grade level. I was going to whip them into shape. The district competition is split into a few different parts. First, there is a monologue of sorts; second, a picture description and third, impromptu conversation. For the most part, the winners had won because they did the best at their monologues. But, I was impressed with a couple of their descriptive abilities. They spoke for much longer than I expected they would.
The four of us were going to hone in those descriptive talents. Though, to begin, I had them practice some tongue twisters, focusing on the dreaded English [l]/[r]. The short story is that Korean does have the lateral segments [l] and [ɾ] (the sound in ‘latter’ and ‘ladder’ where the tongue quickly flips up and touches the roof of the mouth), but they are not like English [l] and [r]. First of all, The Korean [l] only occurs at the end of a syllable; or, in English, where [ɫ] usually occurs. (the [l] that you make with the back of the throat. Notice the difference in l’s when you say ‘local’). Well, [ɫ] doesn’t really exist in Korean and so it comes out funny. Now, this is not truly an issue that needs a fix. Most dialects of English have some sort of variation in the lateral segments. Even within the United States there are dialects that vary in their use of [r], or have lost it altogether.
After warming up with some tongue twisters (gotta get that mouth nice and loose), we began working on description. I would show pictures on the board and they would write down, or think of as many things to describe as possible. After the first picture, we went over it in detail. I tried to communicate some helpful ways of getting the most descriptive bang for your buck. The point of the descriptive section is to say as much as you can, for as long as you can, without stopping to think too much. If you pause for too long, they will send you off the stage. Keep your ‘ah’s and um’s’ to a minimum as well. Since they don’t have a lot of time to think about what they are going to say, we talked strategy. We start with the objects in the picture, which one jumps out the most in the picture? Start there. What can you say? Can you say a lot about it? Are there a lot of things to describe that object? Is it doing multiple things? The idea here is to find a focal point. Something that you have a lot to say about.After that first item, go as far as you can until you can say nothing else, about anything else. Chances are, they won’t have enough time to get all the way through their list anyway. Another problem they will have, is that they don’t get a lot of time to look at and prepare for the picture. So we did multiple rounds of describing pictures for 1 minute. After that, we moved to 30 seconds. Describing as much as they could.
(Update! My 9th grader got 3rd place and my 8th grader finished in 2nd! This was definitely due to the ‘descriptive’ and ‘question/answer’ segments of the competition (the other students spent much more time on their monologue). Congratulations to them (and to me!)
In both lessons, I don’t think the students thought it was very fun. They may have even been bored. But when there are just four people, it’s much harder to feel comfortable ignoring the task at hand. The girls did the work I asked them to do. We had a few laughs and they left my classroom two hours later a little mentally exhausted.
To contrast, I feel that the disinterest most students show is just as plausibly rooted in their own frustrations of trying and feeling like they’ve failed to ‘learn’ English. They may not see “progress” and interpret that to mean they just don’t get it. They can’t get it and they won’t get it. They probably feel like it’s bad enough they have to be in the classroom, why feel like anymore of a failure. Just give me something I can be tested on and get me to the next grade. I know that’s how I felt about Spanish in high school.
When you stand in front of 40 students, many of who don’t have great experiences with school, the likelihood that your lesson will be exposed for the fraud it is (or that you believe it to be), is greatly increased. This fear within myself as a teacher lies just below the surface of the front I show my students. The fear that I actually don’t know what I am doing and that I have no right to teach. This kind of rhetoric exposes a fundamental flaw in the method traditional teaching employs. That, as a teacher, I am suppose to fill the students minds like a sponge. Instead of engaging the students, like maybe a more advanced student, in the mystery of the subject.
Contrast that with a lesson with three students who are known to be studious, hard-workers and obviously like English enough to volunteer to participate in a competition. Walking away from that lesson, I feel like I could teach anyone English. That I could inspire the most American-hating, English-is-an-Imperialistic-language-believing that language (via English) is one of the most interesting subjects in the world.
We could chalk it up to that. Different students and sizes. But that’s too easy and frankly, washes my hands of my primary teaching responsibility. The question becomes: How do I address the fears within myself and the fears of the students themselves, so as to create a community of truth that turns the view of all of us towards the mystery of English in a way that informs, uplifts and inspires all of us.