I’ve a little confession to make. For my Level 1/ Level 2 evening class, I left a gap in the forward planning of my scheme of work. It was just a week, and I had a vague idea about something halloween-y, but that was about it. Everyone does this, surely? They have weeks or sessions where you end up leaving it empty because you can’t think exactly of what to put there, or because, as in my case, you’d run out of oomph for a particular topic, but because half term is coming up, you don’t want to start a new topic for it to be interrupted by half term.
Now, anyone out there reading this who teaches a vocational course leading to a fixed qualification is likely to be thinking “er, no. I plan my schemes well in advance during the summer break and then tweak it to fit the students when term starts.” In which case I hate you. An ESOL course takes as its starting point the, er, starting points of the students, which is something you can never know until they roll up in your classroom on your first day. And given that a) there’s enough in a teacher’s workload at the best of times, and b) learning is neither a linear nor predictable process, it is simply unworkable to suggest that forward planning goes on more than about six weeks in advance. This is why, where I work, we ask for no more than this. It’s quite a straightforward process: once diagnostics and whatnot are done, you plan in six weeks, plus some notes and thoughts about what. Isn’t follow as and when they occur to you. Then every couple of weeks or so you go back into your scheme and add another couple of weeks. Repeat until exam time, and then abandon everything in a flurry of exam practice and mocks.
The beauty of this, of course, is that if a news story pops up of interest to your class, or something happens locally or in college, or whatever, you can simply throw in a lesson or two on that subject. The course plan then shifts down a week or so, and you have an opportunity to use real, living, exciting events as a jumping off point for language development, rather than relying on the tedious “real life” so beloved of deficit-model ESOL materials writers. Even planning six weeks in advance, the whole thing will be a week or so out by the end of it, if you are a halfway decent teacher who recognises that there are people on the classroom apart from them, and listens to them, learning about their developing needs as the course progresses. (There are some teachers out there, of course, who think that setting some SMART targets and a learning styles assessment are all you ever need to know about your students, but the less said about those sort of people the better.)
So anyway, this does mean that the planning can go awry, or that, in my case, you get the odd week where you think “I’ll come back to that later” but never do until the week happens upon you. I was looking for something on a creepy ghost story theme. Which is when I found this lovely resource for the British Council. For the first lesson I did more or less the “pre-reading” element as it stood, and for the second, having noted some issues with adjectives, I launched into an adjective task where I got the students to research online for information about different aspects of adjectives (comparatives, superlatives, adjective order, etc.) before sharing.
I wouldn’t say it bombed, as such, but it didn’t zing as I had thought it might. It sort of pootled. Ambled and wandered. One or two people got lost. Another one or two got a bit bored. As a result I had to work bloody hard in the lesson to make up for the shortcomings, and bring those people back into the lesson. To take the ultimate observer line, I would say that learning of a sort happened, but it lacked structure and dynamism. What went wrong, I think, is that the decision making process, in terms of content and theme was y responsibility, and I misjudged. The activities themselves were fine, and for the most part my management of those activities was fine in terms of set up and final checking of understanding. However, in the second lesson I sort of abandoned the stronger students confident that they were able to manage the research task, and focussed instead on the weaker students, which weakened the process somehow: if nothing else I think students like to know you care about them.
So yes, the basis of the problem in this lesson was around the long term planning decisions: trying to do too much for some students in terms of language to be covered, not enough thinking through of the gaps in the learners’ interlanguages. It was my lesson, my topic, my themes, not one for the learners. I chose the text based on my agenda not that of the students. But I’ll find out what they think of the story after the holiday, and whether we want to explore it more. If the students see more opportunities in it, then we will, but if not, then a single lesson to close things off and then move on. We’ll see.