Pootling

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. 

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3 comments

  1. I’ve always wondered about the value in planning things so far in advance. When I was at Bromley, we were expected to do a half-term ahead (so, more or less the same time as your 6 weeks’ worth), but I was never very good at the whole ‘plan a bit more as you go along’ and so would end up frantically doing the next half-term’s planning during the week break.

    I also always wanted to try out something in the way of a ‘post the event’ syllabus, which would be like a checklist that you’d tick off items that you’d touched on after every lesson or every week – otherwise being completely free. But, of course, that doesn’t really sit with the higher ups and expectations about being ‘properly planned’… so I never actually did. Other issues factored in, such as multiple teachers teaching the same group also rendered it something that would have been difficult to manage. Maybe one day, in a freer classroom and a freer institution if and when I get back to teaching, I’ll try it out.

  2. I think it’s good to reflect on lessons like these. Everyone has them and they usually come after a run of brilliant lessons. Sometimes it’s the topic, the mood of the learners and sometimes it’s just overcooking things. Still, blackberry week soon?

  3. The thing is, though, you don’t actually know that the lesson pootled, ambled and wandered. You just think it did. And coming at it from my perspective, pootling, ambling and wandering are all pretty good ways of going about a lesson.

    Teachers often seem to rely on their feelings when evaluating a lesson, but how reliable are feelings? Whoever said that learning needed to have structure and dynamism (and may that fellow be shot at dawn)?

    Were there opportunities for learning scattered throughout the lesson? And were those opportunities taken up? How do you know? Do they open up new opportunities for further learning? It reads to me as if the answer here is “yes”.

    In my not-very-humble opinion, lessons drag when they become a little too obviously lessons. My completely unresearched and unvalidated opinion is that once the classroom door closes and the teacher begins speaking, the students’ brain reactivates all previous experiences of studying and settles down for the long war. Studying is not always the most fruitful and fun experience for most humans that we might otherwise wish it was. For most of us, it means settling down behind a desk when we are of an age to be running, jumping, skipping, climbing, wrestling, imagining etc.

    I wonder if what happened in this lesson might not have been -in part, only- that the learners were reminded of studying – the experience that Machado writes about: “A drab and chilling afternoon/in winter. The schoolboys/are studying. Monotony/of rain across the window glass.” That they persevered is a tilt of the hat to you.

    I don’t think that the planning was necessarily the problem. I don’t think that planning does very much other than make us feel a bit more secure as we step into the future. It’s the response to the here and now that is the only ever real experience – for a teacher or for anyone! In this, I hold most firmly with Scott Thornbury’s definition of responsive teaching: “tell me what u want to say & I will help u say it better” (tweeted on 28 August).

    The next time you find yourself short of a few hours worth of material, I couldn’t recommend Jamie Keddie’s (@jamiekeddie) videotelling more. Jamie has done a few videos about it and has a great website (http://videotelling.com/). He’s more than happy (I guess…) for people to steal his stories and pass them off as his own. Perhaps this approach to The Landlady would have made you come away feeling better about the lesson?

    In any event, I get the feeling that you are being hard on yourself here. Your commitment to your job and your learners shines through your writing constantly. And I think this is what students pick up on most. I “teach” some absolutely stinking lessons, and am always surprised when students don’t seem to notice. But I bounce around like Tigger on ecstasy and I take very firm stances on one thing or another. I think the bouncing stops (some of) them from drifting away and the firm stances make (some of) them feel that there are certainties…when really there are none!

    I could have written much less here. Ultimately, the message is: you’re clearly a great teacher; give yourself a break; the lesson sounds as if it was absolutely fine.

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