No Man is an Island

Sorry, this is long even by my standards.

So here’s how it went then. We opened with a bit of dictionary work using the trusty photo dictionaries, taking a random letter then choosing a word based on the simple criteria of like or dislike. A brief chat to elucidate why chosen, before actually formally introducing myself. The reasoning being this: I knew there were a few late arrivals, things like “being an adult with a job/family/life outside their college class”, so used he dictionary work as a way of getting things going and giving me chance to get a picture of their strengths and weaknesses. No matter the detail of the supporting documents, nothing at all ever gives you the sense of strengths and weaknesses of a group apart from just being there.

So formal introductions led into a discussion about a map. Here’s an example of a map. What is it for? What do you do with it? This led to a fairly teachery section as I completed the map “about me”. So my likes were my “rivers”, my dislikes were “mountains”, the “cities” were the names of my family and my workplace. The learners then did their own maps (with the same outline as i had used) before comparing with their partners. Some struggled with the slightly abstract nature of the task, but with a little goading and coaxing we managed to get some basics down.

After a brief break, we did a little dictation about me: “My name is Sam. I live in Leeds. I like….” etc. I then let them self correct using the text on a PowerPoint slide, and gave printed copies to the very weakest learners in the group so they could work for a little longer and have a nice clear model. The self assessment was double checked by me, then a brief plenary on major issues, common errors, etc. The dictation was very informative, but also very challenging and caused some real “not interested, putting my pen down in a huff” moments for some learners who struggled to do it. Which meant reminding them that mistakes are a valuable part of the learning process. I have seen this before, where learners want (quite reasonably) to be right, and refuse to write or speak unless it is correct, and it can take some explaining and work to get them to open up. I won’t go into second language acquisition theory but you can have a look if you like. Interlanguage is fascinating, and the role of errors is vital: summary here
http://www.proz.com/translation-articles/articles/633/ and also worth a look at Corder: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=B19C6674C26E7459F39DFC12B9D423E1.journals?fromPage=online&aid=2718848

The learners then used the same text as a writing frame, some covering, some joining the sentences to make longer sentences, some simply copying and inserting their own details and ideas where relevant. Which meant that by the end of the lesson all the learners had written at least five sentences about themselves. Which was the point of the lesson, pr main learning outcome, if you prefer. Whether they had learned how to do it independently is perhaps another issue, but they had, in that lesson, demonstrated the ability to produce said sentences.

What was good? I learned a lot about the students. They were engaged for most of the lesson. They were all challenged. I got to exercise some long unused mental muscles.

And boy were they rusty. Apart from a couple of showpiece lessons on CELTA which were more about technique than about really getting down to the nitty gritty of teaching and learning, I’ve been a bit out of the loop there. So I remembered the stuff I can do well. I can manage a drill without thinking and use it well to provide feedback on pronunciation for individuals. And I can do a wicked job of eliciting the correct form without actually saying anything. I can do praise. I can execute mildly silly abstract ideas with low levels. I can do good feedback and questioning to guide and develop learning. And actually despite what I have always held as my biggest weakness, I can teach beginners.

Not well, it must be said. It fell definitely short of great. I have to work on my patience with slow writers (I have an evil inner voice going “oh for God’s sake, I’ll do it.”). And I need to get better at stretching the stronger learners (which also enables the weaker learners time to finish). But that’s planning and knowing your group, more than anything, especially to avoid those awkward hiatuses where someone has finished and is waiting for you to come over. But that’s planning, like I say, and I didn’t do a bad job of making it up on the spot, just a less good job than I would want to. So next week that’s a thing to be better at.

Would it have made a difference if I had shared learning outcomes? Perhaps. I think that it might have served to explain the map activity better, although I could have just, well, explained it better.
Certainly displaying them in a neat bullet pointed list would have been pretty meaningless. But I am going to give it a go next week. I have a fairly language focus lesson for next week on describing people. So we’ll see.

But to finish on a plus: I set up a class where learners were by and large generating their own content. There were lots of “how do you say this in English?” moments leading to proper learner selected vocab as opposed to arbitrary teacher led lists. So in one beginner lesson we covered accelerator, partner and electric, among others. We addressed apostrophes of omission. These weren’t in any learning outcomes, I didn’t formally set out to teach them. But I made room for the learning and discovery of them in the lesson, which is quite a different, arguably better, thing than teacher driven learning outcomes. I fully expect some the weirder bits of vocab to resurface in a couple of weeks and catch me off guard.

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