Episode VI: Return of the Teacher

Everyone likes a trilogy, right? So this is my third post on the theme of observation, in particular my own: if my last post was the Empire Strikes Back, with the empire triumphant, then this my Return of the Jedi. Hopefully not Revenge of the Sith.

Anyway, it occurred to me that meek and weary acceptance and passivity is very possibly the very worst way to approach lesson observation feedback. After all, grade or no grade, judgement will be passed, and the comments will go down against your name somewhere, probably on a spreadsheet. So time, instead, to gather my big guns, my justifications, arguments and my “yeah but no buts”. Not defensive: if there is something wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it, but definitely veering towards being on the offensive. Proactive, not reactive, for those of you who like things a little less martial.

First the lesson. That probably deserves a capital letter: The Lesson. Essentially three stages. The first stage was homework feedback. The students had been set homework to write advice using “should” for a hypothetical learner of English. I’d marked this ready to give back. To lead into this, I did a bit of a board based task on using the definite article to describe a unique item: something which many of the students had made mistakes with, along the lines of “You should use library.” It was the Queen’s 90th birthday too, so, swallowing my darker republican tendencies, I asked the students to talk in pairs and write down why they thought today was special. This led to the students writing sentences along the lines of “today is the Queen’s birthday.” Sort of. Then I gave the homework back: the majority of students had completed it, so I asked them to work in groups to discuss the errors and suggest changes. They did this remarkably well, with guidance. This probably lasted about 20 minutes in all.

Naturally, of course, students were still making mistakes with should, so I’d planned a longish recap activity. It’s also good to revisit language in a different context, so using the theme of health (linking to the theme of the rest of the week) we briefly (and somewhat unsatisfactorily, I have to admit) revisited parts of the body, and (equally unsatisfactorily, to my mind) revisited ailments and illnesses. This then led to a series of PowerPoint slides with different illnesses on: “I have a cold.” Students worked in pairs to write advice on mini whiteboards “you should….” I monitored this, used peer checking of good sentences, asked for group feedback or suggestions on sentences with errors on, and so on. The eliciting and practice here took a second slot of 20 minutes.

The final stage was meant as a free practice activity: students received a slip of paper with one of the problems on and had to ask each other for advice, at least three times, and decide which was good advice. This closed with a brief group discussion on the advice given, followed by a fragile and tenuous link to the next half of the lesson. At this point the observer left.

I liked the tripartite structure. It flowed neatly and made sense. There was no shoehorning of awkward bits and pieces. I liked that I had students working in pairs to compose sentences, and using the mini whiteboards gave me a chance to use peer correction by getting students with correct sentences to show them around the room. This then allowed lots of self correction (call it peer and self assessments if you like). This also made it very easy for me to check students and to go round monitor it. I enjoyed giving students the chance to self correct, and the subtle shaming (for want of a better word) encouraged a couple of students to sheepishly dig out their homework and hand it in, which presented later opportunities to feedback. I thought my lead in was a fairly engaging bit of fun, with a serious purpose to it.

But. But.

As I mentioned in my last post, I used the five minute lesson plan, and I was feeling less than well-disposed to the whole process. Aside from the overall structure, there was nothing much else in place until about 45 minutes before the lesson began. Even then, I spent most of my time checking resources and marking the last bits of work. I essentially took the decision that I would take the hit in the formal lesson planning document, rather than on the content and structure of the lesson. There was a lesson plan, and it was all there; it just wasn’t very good. The outcomes were fairly “rigorous” (i.e. completely false representations like “be able to write five sentences…”) but not differentiated to the different skills and levels in the group, with the exception of one student in the E1 group who is definitely a beginner writer.

And I’d say that this was where the lesson was shakier. It’s a big group at E1 and as such covers a pretty huge ability gap, with students doing all sorts of different qualifications. Because of the hurried planning, mostly, none of this came out particularly in the plan, nor especially in the lesson. So I could have moved students round into ability groupings, for example, giving me chance to push those stronger students, or tailor activities to the exams they will be taking (after all, we all like differentiation by negative backwash).

Would this have made a difference to the students’ overall learning? Probably. Not significantly, maybe, and the lesson would have run the risk of becoming dour individualised workshoppy bleurgh at one point. I am sceptical of the individualisation priority, but that’s not an excuse (although it does sound like a spy novel). I know that this is not the official view, and my own opinion is mostly a hunch, not an evidenced stance, and as such, doesn’t pass muster. And if I had spent an extra half an hour on the lesson plan, using a full lesson plan, I probably would have included this kind of detail. I’m not entirely convinced by the five minute lesson plan, I don’t think: but then perhaps I’m just an all or nothing kind of guy.

More time planning would have probably nudged me to remember things like formal reviewing of the learning outcomes. Again, I’m sceptical about this as a universally applicable practice, but I know that it’s generally expected, and takes no time at all to do with minimal negative impact. However, at the end of the two hour lesson, I did do a formal review: grouping the students into small groups I asked them to think of things they had learned in the lesson: groups of 3 had 3 things, 4s had 4 things to think of. This elicited, yes, that’s right, giving advice with should, and using the, as well as the work from the second half of the lesson. The brief plenary closed this lesson nicely, and would have been good to do in pairs at the end of the observed section before moving onto the writing half of the lesson.

So if we are casting around for blame, where do we look? It’s easy to say “the planning form”, but that’s not really true. I think it could work for someone else. Time management outside of the lesson? Definitely. Absolutely. Let me be clear, as well, I am fully responsible for this. I had some time in the week, and as such I mismanaged it. Mea absolutely culpa.

And it wasn’t a bad lesson. I’ve observed far worse, and taught worse. Students learned some stuff, and proved it to themselves and to me. So all in all, nothing to be ashamed of, not really. I’ll see what the feedback brings.

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