I have, for right or wrong, better or worse, been teaching maths to a group of 16-18 year old ESOL learners, and it’s been a bit of a ride, with a tricky bunch of students and Captain Laidback Softypants at the helm, with only a very vague idea of where to go with all this numbers n maths n stuff. It’s not been a total disaster, but neither has it been much of a success, and it occurs to me that rather than great teachers and educationalists, the role model I need is Keanu Reeves.
Do you think that’s really air you’re breathing?
I’ve spent 11 weeks killing myself with this maths lark. I am Keanu in the Matrix when he fights Morpheus in the dojo. I’m wearing myself out generating materials and lesson ideas, and really, I don’t have to. This is partly down to loose planning. Loose planning is fine if you are confident enough in your subject. (I’m not. I’ve been putting off division for weeks.) Loose planning is fine if you have a bunch of subject based activities you can pop out of the bag at a moments notice. (I don’t.) Loose planning is fine if you have a motivated and engaged group of adults who want to be there and are curious to learn and practice. (Yeah, right.) Loose planning is rubbish for a group of excitable young people who would, it seems, rather be having sex with or fighting each other than learning anything to do with maths: and let’s face it, who can blame them?
So this is something I have been tightening up a lot, and I’ve been going back to almost CELTA era timings (3 minutes: give instructions, five minutes do activity, 3 minutes check in pairs, etc.) and, of course, resource chasing.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m good at what I know. I can, I’m proud to say, take pretty much any given text and turn it into a passable lesson for most levels in ESOL. This very morning, in fact, I devised a reading task based on a sheet of tips on presentations, and knocked up a neat, smart looking handout, after a change of plan in the last fifteen minutes before the lesson. I can, and have, walked in with a bunch of Lidl store brochures and made a good fist of a level 1 lesson out of it. I’ve done a beginners lesson with nothing more than a pile of slips of paper and a chat about clothes. This sounds like boasting, but really, it’s just what I do. It’s the ESOL version of that bit at the end of the Matrix where Keanu Reeves defeats Agent Smith without even looking at him: you don’t think about it, it’s just a thing you do.
“Bloody wolves chasing me through some blue inferno”
The flip side of this, however, is that you forget there is a world of resources out there. So my mouth nearly hit the floor when a colleague came over with a book, yes a whole blessed glorious book of maths activities, carefully devised and tight through to practice various skills at the appropriate level. Then this afternoon another colleague, hiding very well the scorn I am sure she was feeling, pointed out that we have a whole shelf of books. A whole SHELF? Sure I’d seen the rulers, calculators, dice and so on, but books with photocopiable sodding pages?
It simply hadn’t occurred to me to look.
Suddenly, I’m Keanu in Dracula, mangling a British accent and being out-acted by everybody else around, even Sadie Frost, and wondering what on earth I am doing. I do this in ESOL too. Last week, I was teaching a lesson on understanding and giving directions, and the last thing it occurred to me to do was look in a book. Passives? Mangle-force a lesson out of a couple of passing passive sentences or select a nicely graded, focussed activity from a professionally written resource book or coursebook?
Guns. Lots of guns.
Sticking with Keanu as a metaphor, there’s a scene in the Matrix where he and Trinity set off to tackle the three Agents and rescue Morpheus. The time now is not only to rely on the self, but also on resources to support the self: in this case guns and a massive bomb. In my maths lessons, clearly, I need guns. Lots of guns. And then I can still roll with the lesson, to adapt and focus the resources to the specific needs of a lesson, but I also have the hardware, so to speak, to take out a class of 16-18 year olds with the educational equivalent of some slo-mo kicks and a couple of machine guns.