Friday, August 17, 2007

Getting Strict: Changing my teaching style

It has been a long time.

I got a little burned out from sitting in front of the computer and reduced my computer time. For the past couple of months, I have used the internet only to keep up with my beloved Red Sox. At work, of course, it seems like I spend the majority of my day writing e-mails and when I get home at night I prefer not to look at a computer screen.

Well, a couple of months ago I had a very shocking teaching experience which has affected my teaching and personality in the classroom. First, let me give you a little background. I teach full time at one institution, a teacher's college, and part-time at a liberal arts university and a nursing school. At the teacher's college and liberal arts university I am pretty much myself in the classroom: I don't get angry at my students for not doing homework or skipping class and sometimes will share things about my personal life such as news about my son, what I did over the weekend etc. I find that this approach works well and for the most part the students are very diligent. If I was a tougher teacher who got angry at students for falling asleep in class (I tease them instead), punished students for being late or missing homework, or did not flash a smile in class I do not think I would get any more effort out of these students.

I had tried this approach at the nursing school where I teach a class of 40 students. About 25 are girls and most students are either 18 or 19 years old. A couple are in their mid twenties and one or two are close to my age. The content of this class is English for nurses. We study some medical English and dialogues to use with English speaking patients. I started teaching this class in April of 2007 for 1 and a half hours a week and the first few months went well. The students seemed interested in the class and always participated enthusiastically. Their quiz scores were also decent which meant that they were studying outside of class. There was one student who openly rebelled and went out of her way to show me that she was not going to try but I was confident that she would eventually change because I knew that she was better at English than she was pretending to be.

Well, last July after a few bad weeks I had one terrible class with this group and it changed the way I conducted class with them. Because I had missed a previous week's class, the nursing school asked me to teach two consecutive periods (about 3 hours). I thought that this would be a great opportunity to focus on speaking because it seemed like our speaking activities were always rushed. I designed a slightly redundant speaking activity that was supposed to take about an hour where students would do a role play. One student would play a clerk at a registration desk in a hospital and the other a patient. The clerk had to ask the patient about her insurance policy, etc. and write the information on a form. For these students the grammar for asking questions in English is incredibly difficult. Most of the students can ask questions using the be-verb (ex. Are you sick?) but struggled to ask questions using the do-auxiliary (Do you have a fever?) or wh-questions (What is your temperature?). I had designed this task so students would be asking a lot of do-auxiliary and be-questions so that they could get used to the difference. I has planned the pair work so that each student would do the role play about 5 times with a different partner. I realized that 5 times to do the same role play was a lot but I thought that students really needed the practice and that changing partners constantly would make the activity more fun for the students. I planned on giving the students 5 minutes to do the 1st role play and then to reduce the time limit for each ensuing role play. I was hoping to build on students' fluency. Before the task we reviewed how to make questions in English and had done some exercises. Let me tell you what happened.

From the very beginning about half the students acted like doing such an activity was about as exhilarating as a colonic exam. Like after you have run 15 kilometers and every step is a burden, for these students every time they opened their mouth was a tremendous effort and every time they moved their pencil on the paper to write a piece of information required extraordinary strength. As I have to wake up at 5:30 AM every Monday morning to catch the train to go to the city where this gosh darned nursing school exists and I had not had much sleep the night before so I could plan the day's activity, I was ready to throw these miserable students out the window and relieve their suffering (I am just being literary). To make a long story short, most of the students did not do a damn thing. The class became more like a social hour and after 40 minutes I called on a couple of random pairs of students to perform the role play in front of the class. The students who were called on looked at me with an expression that said, "How dare you?!" Their effort and performances were pathetic. I called on a second pair who did an even worse job. I stopped the second pair and told everyone in the class to shut up. At this point I was very frustrated. I told the class that I could not bear to watch them any more. I added that I considered them adults and not children. I told them that I am a busy guy and did not want to waste my time being their baby sitter. I then said that I was very disappointed with them and if they were not going to give me any effort I would not give them any effort. Then, I left the class (there was 20 minutes remaining).

I departed the nursing school as fast as I could. The nursing school teachers asked me how class was and I lied and said fine. If I had told the teachers what had happened, I am sure that they would have disciplined the students severely but I wanted to keep this matter between me and the students. I returned to my full time place of employment and was surprised that day to receive a class from the homeroom teacher of the nursing school students. She apologized and told me it would never happen again. One of the students had told the teacher.

The next week I had a class at the nursing school which would then be followed by a month-long summer vacation. I went to the class and did not prepare anything. Usually I had students use name cards in the class and I would call them by the nicknames written on their name cards. For this class, I did not use the name cards. Rather I used the seating chart to identify students and called them by their last names. For boys, I added the suffix -kun onto their last names and for girls I added the suffix -san. I did not smile once. I entered the class and told them to open their textbooks. We did the textbook and a handout I had made for that chapter a year before. I did 95% of the class in Japanese. I only used English to read the textbook. I called on individual students to translate certain sentences from English to Japanese or from Japanese to English. The class was quiet and everyone worked hard. Even the perennially rebellious girl had brought her textbook and was actually writing in her notebook. In this class there was no pair work, it was a teacher-centered class and English was not used communicatively whatsoever. Also, there was a great distance between the student and teacher in this class. Instead of me being Mr. Hall, the father, husband, wanna-be sportsman and diehard Red Sox fan living in Morioka, I was Mr. Hall, the teacher. The students were also just the students I did not care about who they were individually; I just looked at them as names on the seating chart. At the end of the class I asked students to write what kind of class they liked better. Did they like the style of the previous classes or did they like the style of today's class?

15 students said they liked the style of that day's class. 10 students said they liked the old way better. 15 students said they wanted a combination of both lessons. I was very interested to read the reasons of the 15 students who like the strict class the best. One student wrote that she liked the strict class better because she did not have to worry about working with other students or fighting with other students. Another student wrote that she felt nervous in that day's class but she liked that feeling of nervousness. Yet another student wrote that she felt that day's class was best because all her classmates could pay attention. Even one of the more energetic students wrote (in English) "I am sorry. I like today's class the best."

What does this mean? I interpreted this to mean that most of these students preferred to have a stricter teacher. They want to be taught more and want everything explained to them in Japanese. Many of them don't care about me or my personal life so I should not talk about it. Also, I should probably not ask them questions about their personal life.

Before I end this post, let me just say that I had been already using a lot of Japanese in this class and this class already included a lot of metalinguistic explanations (grammar rules) in the students' native language. I also felt that interaction, listening to a lot of English, and experimenting with using what you have learned was important for learning English. So, I had tried to make a class that gave students 1) a lot of exposure to English, 2) the opportunity to use English and a comfortable environment to use it in, and 3) the support they need in Japanese to be able to use and understand English.

Well, I did not succeed in doing the above. From now on I have decided to be an all-powerful teacher when I step in the classroom and forget who I really am for an hour and a half. I will use more Japanese and provide more explanations. I will do mostly the textbook and make supplementary handouts but not spend so much time planning activities. Perhaps for 10 minutes in each class students will have some kind of very controlled pair work activity where they have to read a dialogue or translate something into English or Japanese. For this class, I think it will work the best. I do not think it is the best way for these students to learn language but it is better for them to learn something than nothing at all.

10 comments:

Alex Case said...

I like the idea of giving them a contrast and asking their opinions- worth doing even when they seem happy. Need to be careful how you interpret what they say, though.

All the things they like (not doing pairwork, not interacting with the other students, not having grammar explanations in English, being told exactly what to do, the teacher doing most of the speaking so they can sit back and just listen) seem to have one thing in common- it is easier. Whether we should give them what is easiest, though, can depend on a lot of things- most of which will not be based on what they think they need.

As far as the original lesson goes, I would have added a few components that might have worked a little better:
-A warmer
-Grammar input and controlled practice before the interviews
- An example interview they can fall back on if they get stuck, maybe as a listening task
-Choose the interview pairs carefully so no one is working with someone they are uncomfortable with (with 19 year old Japanese, means don't ever force them to work girl with boy/ goth with posh)
-A clear result of the interviews stated before they start, e.g. "...and tell the class who was the most convincing liar"
-A game element, e.g. the interviewer mixes up the questions and misses out just one. When they have finished the interviewee has to try and remember which question was left out (only referring to the interview sheet if they have to). Feedback on who guessed, repeat once or twice.
Or:
With the time limit thing you did, tell the person being interviewed to delay asking the questions as long as possible and score one point per question answered to the interviewer
-Take away the crutch of the example interview slowly (e.g. 1) can read from 2) one person can read from 3) can look at briefly before interview but not during 4) can't use
- Never get Japanese students to perform in front of the class. If you have to, give the people listening a clear listening task that is not judgemental, e.g. count the number of times they say "do"
- Have an activity to do after that you can also use as a back up plan, e.g. something more controlled

Sorry if you knew all this before, but once I started writing I couldn't stop (no computer all weekend!)

JH said...

Dear Alex,
Thank you for your comment. I was aware of most of the things that you wrote but sometimes when you get stuck in a rut you forget some fundamentals. I actually printed out your comment and stuck it in my class binder to remind me to keep my activities a little more fresh.
Regarding your comment, I have a couple of things I want to say.
1) About making pairs
I agree that choosing the interview pairs carefully is important. In this situation, I only teach the 40 students once a week for 1.5 hours. The seating is determined by their home room teacher. The homeroom teacher paired boys with boys and girls with girls as much as possible. There are still some pairs that do not like working together. However, if I just change the problematic pairs I reveal to the one pair and the rest of the students that there is a problem with that pair. If I decide to change multiple pairs so that the ineffective pairs are not singlked out, I run the risk of making worse combinations. I find that in big classes (40+) where I only see the students once a week, it is difficult to ascertain which students will work best with other students. I do find, though, that if I keep the pairs the same and tell students that they will be working with the same person for most of the semester that most pairs eventually will learn to work together because they do not have much of a choice.

2) About having boys and girls work together:
I find that sometimes this can be disastrous. (For example in high school classes or large freshman English classes.) However, I have had a lot of success pairing boys with girls in classes of 20 students or less. In fact, it seems to make the lesson a little more interesting. When making the pairs, I take the students' personalities and English abilities into account but after students get used to working in pairs and with a member of the opposite sex, pairs can be assigned completely arbitrarily.

3) About never having Japanese students perform in front of the class.
I agree that Japanese students should never be required to perform in front of the class without knowing beforehand that they will be asked to do so. However, as long as students are aware that they will be asked to perform a task in front of the class and are prepared to do so, I do not think there is any problem with it. Many jr. high school English teachers in Iwate will choose a student pair to demonstrate a language learning task after the class has completed it and usually there are no problems. Also, I have found at many a party or formal meeting, students are called upon to make a speech sometimes with no warning beforehand. I think students have many opportunities for public performances in their daily lives in Japan and are capable of doing this in the English classroom.

Well, I have rambled. Thanks for reading my blog and I will put your site on my list of feeds.

Jimbo

Alex Case said...

(1)True, (2) true and (3) true. Now that is a nice short comment like I meant to leave last time!

TEFLtastic blog- www.tefl.net/alexcase

bhauth said...

"Another student wrote that she felt nervous in that day's class but she liked that feeling of nervousness."

I think she likes you.

Glen Teacher said...

This is a very interesting post, thank you very much for putting it up on your blog. There is a lot in there that got me thinking.

I had a few questions, if you don't mind. Before you read the results from the class survey, did you have any expectations of what their answers would be? Were you surprised by the results?

Also, how much do you think that the students were/are aware that the informal chit-chat aspect of the class actually can benifit them in the form of practical experience and exposure? Do you think them (or, maybe, students in general...younger students) knowing the value of this would change their opinions about what they like better or how they approach learning in the classroom? That is, possibly some of the students see the "interaction" as just your need to talk about yourself or something?

JH said...

Glen,
Thanks for reading the post and commenting. Here are my answers to your questions:
1) At first I was surprised at the results of the survey but upon reflection realized that the students wanted a tougher more authoritarian teacher. I do not think I wrote an epilogue to this story but after a month I was able to find a better balance between playing the role of the authoritatarian teacher while trying to have a more learner-centered class.
2) Students did not realize that informal chit-chat can be useful for their L2 acquisition. The reason why the class broke-down was more a result of my poor task planning then students' attitude towards communication. I believe in the "goldilocks principal", that is, for students to be engaged in a task it needs to be challenging enough to maintain their interest but not so difficult that they give up. After this bad experience, I started to realize what was manageable and not manageable for these learners.

Anonymous said...

Hello I know how you feel! Good work trying to keep yourself dynamic. I think its cultural, in our culture (I am from North America) I think we relate to personable friendly teachers more than robots. Good for you! I hope you dont lose site of your awesome personality in those classes where students dont value you and your work. Thanks again.

i love bohol said...

your post made me think about the way i teach. i will try to be strict and see the results.

Alexander said...

Hi Jimbo

Thank you for your blog. I have just started teaching English to Japanese students and I've found it very interesting and helpful.

Also I am writing an essay about how one could/should change their teaching style to suit people from different cultures.

Would you mind if I used some quotes from your blog as anecdotal evidence? If so how could I reference you?

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you.

Alex

Alexander said...

Hi Jimbo

Thank you for your blog. I have just started teaching English to Japanese students and I've found it very interesting and helpful.

Also I am writing an essay about how one could/should change their teaching style to suit people from different cultures.

Would you mind if I used some quotes from your blog as anecdotal evidence? If so how could I reference you?

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you.

Alex