Reach Out With Your Feelings

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I sit back and somehow manage to sit outside my head and observe the whole thing happening. I find it hard sometimes, but I was doing it last night and found myself reflecting on the way that an interaction flows from teacher to student to students to teacher. I guess you could call it pace, as well, a sort of underlying rhythm, almost the heartbeat of a class working through the lesson.

It was a fairly standard listening lessson: warmer, vocab, gist, detail, follow up, which perhaps explains the smoothness of the pacing: this is a lesson structure I can manage in my sleep, after all. The rhythm was particularly clear in the listening stages: instructions, do task, compare with partner, whole class feedback where appropriate, move on: almost tidal in the way the interaction flowed from teacher to students, students to students, then students back to teacher. It helped, as well that the class and I have been working together for some time, and that they have established routines, like checking each other’s work when they have finished.I’m wary of claiming this to be a “good” thing but certainly the rhythm felt right: the right amount of time spent on different tasks, the right balance of silent working and speaking/discussion: essentially we are talking about a lesson where the timing and the pace worked.

I wonder when I learned to be able to sense is. The knowledge of pacing and timing the ebb and flow is not really something to be consciously learned, but rather intuited through observing. Observing other people can help to identify what happens when the pace goes wrong, when students spend too long or too short a time on something, which can be hard for an inexperienced teacher to monitor because you are too busy trying to remember what to do next. Self-observation, reflection-in- as well as reflection-on action, if you like, is where you identify that pace in your own classes, once you have the opportunity to sit outside the lesson, during the lesson.

Certainly pace and timing is virtually impossible to teach. You get questions like this all the time on CELTA: how long should a listening activity last? (My other favourite is “how many times should students listen to a text in a listening lesson?” To which my answer is “as many as is appropriate for that lesson.” Oddly, this never wins me any friends.) There is no standard length for an activity. It’s impossible to say that a given activity requires a given amount of time until you have all the variables in place: a particular activity in a particular classroom with a particular group of students. In theory, at least, a five sentence present simple gap fill for a group of intermediate students should only take a few minutes, perhaps as a warmer, but perhaps there are some fossilised errors around third person singular -s (and there totally will be), or some questions about some of the vocabulary (“why do we say “have breakfast” not “take”?) which are perhaps unrelated to the main task, but which need addressing g, so the activity might end up with a few minutes of extra explanation time. For a group of beginners or low elementary students we might be looking at a significant chunk of time, where students spend maybe ten minutes doing the task, plus another five, maybe even ten, checking the answers, plus any extra explanation time. This might be even longer if you had a low literacy ESOL class because you would also need to consider the slower handwriting speed, issues with spelling and so on.

So rather than seeking precise, predictable and absolute pace, we need to learn to listen to the lesson. Reach out with all your senses, if I can be allowed to be that pretentious. Yes, there is a nice “hum” but is it because the class are all working, or because they have finished and are having a quite chat in L1 about something which they saw on TV? Maybe there is silence, but is that because all the students are working really hard on a task they are finding challenging? Or is it because they are staring into space waiting to work out what they are meant to be doing? As teachers we need to mobile, moving round the room, listening, watching and engaging. Not obsessively leaning in over every comment or mistake, of course, just watching and checking that everything is going the way it should be.

This takes practice, of course, and while perhaps a beginner teacher might not pick up on these things, I suspect that this is because they are too focussed on themselves and on remembering what the next stage is, what they should be saying and so on. They need, as Obi Wan Kenobi might say, if he had been an ESOL teacher, to let go of their inner feelings and reach out to the class. Abandon the technological trappings of time and computers.

Use the force, so to speak


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