I taught a lesson this week. I planned it, delivered it and it went according to plan. The stages of the lesson linked in a well oiled machine kind of way, and there were only two or three very minor digressions.
Warmer: vocabulary from the text – students work collaboratively to explain and discuss the language, first in groups of four, then peer supporting across the class.
Then a quick review of the learning outcomes: too quick, I think, and the thing I would change in the lesson.
Lead In: a photo from the news article.
Groups discussed briefly what the article was about (a truck getting stuck under a bridge: funnier than it sounds). Then they read the article and checked their ideas.
The text was a standard news story, but I had, in line with the aims of the lesson, removed all the articles and zero articles from the text.
Students then had a go at adding the articles, with minimal input from me and a little peer support.
We then reviewed the rules: I used a PowerPoint presentation with an example sentence from the text and the question “why do we use … In this sentence?” The students discussed in groups briefly and I selected the group with the best or clearest explanation to do so, supported by me as necessary.
Then I got the group to review the text again, before later going back to review their own writing from a previous lesson.
We played a version of Kim’s Game (what is there? “A stapler” what is missing? “The stapler”) and we closed with a final bit of general speaking where students had to “sell” otherwise ordinary objects in the classroom (empty stapler, dried up felt tip, broken elastic band, paper clip) to the rest of the class.
I planned stuff and almost everything went precisely to plan. There were some fun, high energy moments and discussions, lots of things. Students learned stuff, and we shared strategies to improve articles (basically: check your writing every time.) But if I were to evaluate it, I would say it was all right. Not bad. A bit average. It worked, but the whole thing felt very staged, and really a little bit lacking somehow.
I have the word “sparkle” lurking at the back of my mind now, but aside from being a bloody juvenile term, it’s also deeply unhelpful. What, if you don’t mind my asking, do we mean by “sparkle”? To say that someone lacks it is a pathetic cop out for someone who can’t think of a proper piece of feedback but can neither bring themselves to grant a grade 1 to the lesson. And anyway, it wasn’t that. In fact, while washing up this evening I worked it out.
It’s the difference between this:
I feel I should apologise for the choice of song, in a sort of “guilty pleasure” way, (although a very wise person once suggested that one should never feel bad about enjoying something), but it makes a point (and come on, the live bit is pretty damn awesome – Budapest, 1986, in case you were wondering).
The point is this: the studio recording is good – it is precise and has all the elements that make the song, just like my lesson. But the live version, with the risks of things going wrong (in the video, there’s a moment where it seems like Freddie has ended up on the wrong side of the stage when he was supposed to start singing), moments of inspiration and crucially, direct engagement with the “audience” is the winner every time. The live song has all the same elements as the recorded song but rendered and managed differently. The lesson lacked that “live” ness – it was too precisely planned, there were no gaps or moments where learners could insert themselves very much. Partly, I think, the topic was a frustrating one – one of the learners mentioned it in class, and I talked about it in my last post – articles are a very “meta” piece of language – they are largely useless in day to day conversation (if you don’t believe me ask a Russian or a Pole), are unlikely to get corrected or cause a lack of understanding, and as such tend to fall by the wayside. For me, and for the learners, there was engagement with the topic, as with the audience of the studio recorded video, who enjoy the song, but don’t properly connect to it, perhaps. I think, for me, an important element of a good lesson is not the bit where the teacher is showboating, although that can make for some good bits, and by golly I can showboat when it suits me, but rather we are looking for those bits of the lesson where the learners are singing along to the showboating, and the teacher is the ringmaster.
There is also, and this is very personal, the sense that I like a little bit of an edge to a lesson. In this lesson, the precision was scary, especially in the first hour – it was automatic, in the sense that I barely had to engage my brain in order for the lesson to run and the learning to happen. I like there to be a bit of looseness to the planning, where things could go a bit wrong – because that makes me focus on the lesson much more carefully. I’m not reading from a script of pre-planned activities, but rather I am watching and listening to the lesson, looking for a crack into which we can insert a crowbar of learning to open the lesson up wide. I get a lot of (good natured) schtick for being anti-materials, anti-planning, but if I did every lesson by the book, safe, predictable stages, and with safe, predictable resources, very quickly I would get bored and if I am getting bored then that is going to come across to the learners, who are themselves also going to get bored.