Friday, October 13, 2006

Trying a Task-Based Lesson at a Japanese Junior High School

This week I was invited to a junior high school in rural Iwate to give a demonstration lesson (a 50-minute lesson). I taugtht 35 second graders (8th grade US - 14 years old) and there were approximately 30 local teachers and officials wathcing the lesson. I had never met these students before and had not developed any kind of working relationship with them. This was also my first time going to this school. To top it off, the students seemed a little nervous about having 30 onlookers watching them.
I was asked to teach a page of the textbook. Below is the text of that page. I have changed the content slightly. The students had not studied this page before

"A New Parking Area for Bikes "
Lincoln Park will become a parking area for bikes.
People complained when a bike fell on a little girl (Jasmine Kuroda) near the station. They asked the city for a new parking area.
But some people are against the plan. They think we should keep the park.
A park or a parking area - that is the question.

New Words

become, complain, little, girl, boy, against, for, should, ask...for

Key Sentence

People complained when a bike fell on Jasmine.

I am now going to write the Task I decided to try, how I went about doing it, and the successes and failures of the lesson:

Here were my goals for the lesson.
1. Do 95 % of the class in English with the students understanding.
2. For the students to experience and enjoy group work.
3. Reading Strategy: Students make use of their background knowledge (what has happened in the chapter up until " a new parking area for bikes") to understand the text.
4. Reading Strategy: Students use the outline of the text I gave them to understand it and put it together.

The task I picked for the lessons was an "ordering and sorting task". I divided the above text into 6 parts (sentences) and gave each part a letter (A - F).

A: They think we should keep the park.
B: Lincoln Park will become a parking area for bikes.
C: But some people are against the plan.
D: People complained when a bike fell on a little girl (Jasmine Kuroda) near the station.
E: A park or parking area - that is the question.
F: They asked the city for a new parking area.

The Task
For the lesson, I printed each sentence onto a small piece of paper and placed them in an empty classroom (Click here). The objective of the task was to go to the empty classroom, find and memorize one of the sentences, go back to your classroom, write down the sentence, and then recreate the whole passage with their group.

Preparing for the task
The class of 35 students was divided into 6 groups. Each group had 6 students (one had 5). Before the class, I asked the teacher who usually teaches them to made sure the students were sitting in groups. Each student in each group was assigned a letter(A~F). I asked the teacher to make sure that each group would have 2 students who were very good at English, two students who were average, and two students who struggled with English. Students who struggled with English were assigned sentences C or B. Students who were average were assigned sentences A or F, and students who were advanced were assigned D or E.
These students had little experience with group work so I brought 4 graduate students from my university to help the different groups because I imagined each group would struggle mightily with the task.
Students also wore nametags which in addition to their names had their sentence letter and group number. By the letter on a student's nametag, I could tell whether or not she struggled with English or was pretty confident in it. I still called on students indiscriminately because I do not believe on only calling on the "good" students. However, it is nice to have an idea beforehand about the likelihood that a student will respond to a question.

Doing the Task and the Class
Here is what we did for class:
Note: When the class began, students were already sitting in groups of 6.

1) Greeting and Review: The guest teachers introduced themselves. I then asked students "How're ya" (intentionally using a strong American accent) and told them they could answer by saying "Great", "Good", "OK", "Not so good". I then had all the A students from each group stand up and ask "How 're ya" and answer around in a circle. I called some other letters too. I did not plan this but the atmosphere was so tense that I wanted to try someting to loosen things up.
For review, I reviewed what had happened up until "A New Parking Area for Bikes" reading. Usually, I would ask the students questions but I knew in such a tense environment students would not want to raise their hands so I summarized what had happened. The purpose was this was to get them thinking about what "A New Parking Area for Bikes" was about

2) Task

I told students our goal for the day was to write the newspaper article from the text titled "A New Parking Area for Bikes". First, I said that we would have to learn the new words. I introduced the new words using word cards the graduate students made. I first used the new word in a sentence and then asked the students what they thought the word meant. I wrote the sentences on the blackboard before class to save time (Please click here to see what the blackboard looked like). Of course, the students did not answer and I should have known better. Afterwards, a teacher advised me that I give the students a multiple choice answer. That would have been much better rather than directing a question to the whole class.

After introducing the new words, I gave students the instructions for the task. I spent a lot of time thinking exactly how I could give them instructions in such a way that they would understand. Below is what I told them:

We are now going to make the newspaper article. The article is divided into 6 sentences. Sentence A, sentence B, sentence C, sentence D, sentence E, sentence F. Each sentence of the text is in room _________, but it is in a secret place. Each of you has a letter on your name tag. The letter is your sentence. People with sentence A, please raise your hand. Each person with Sentence A will go to room _____ and fins sentence A. When you find Sentence A, please memorize it. Then return to your group and write your sentence on Sheet 1. After your group has written all the sentences, use the sentences and make the article. The sentence order is not A, B, C, D, E, F. (文書の順番はA,B,C,D,E,Fではない). Use the hints, to help you put the article together.
You have 20 minutes to finish the task. In other words, you have 20 minutes to make the article.

Students quickly found their sentences and were able to write their sentences on their respective sheets (Sheet 1).
I had written an outline of the article on the blackboard to help them put the sentences together:
1)There is a plan.
3)There are some problems with the plan. 
4)The conclusion.

Time started to run short and 4 of the six groups were unable to put their sentences in order. Students were confused by the outline and they had not learned the phrase "There is" to my chagrin.

I realized that had I written the outline as below maybe the students could have put the article together:
1) A plan
2) Why? (2 sentences)
3) Problems (2 sentences)
4) The conclusion

Post Task:
We read the actual article in the textbook out loud. I made the mistake of calling on a group who had successfully put together the article to read their version out loud and they were too shy to do so.
I gave students the following evaluation sheet. I wanted to know which of the words we had studied that they understood. I also wanted to know which parts of the task they could do and which they could not do. The purpose of this task was to think of the main ideas of the sentences and how they fit together. One teacher told me that perhaps my evaluation sheet was a little ambiguous. Maybe I should have written something like this:
(1 = Strongly Agree; 5= Strongly Disagree)
1) Today I understood the main point of the sentences 1-2-3-4-5
2) Today I understood how the sentences fit together: 1-2-3-4-5

My Reflection: Doing a research class in front of many onlookers is an incredibly humbling experience. It would have been nice if I had known the students beforehand but oh well.

Good points: I did a class in mostly English and it almost worked. Students understood the task and the new words.

Bad Points: Students were unable to put the sentences together and perhaps thus the lesson did not accomplish its main goal. Furthermore, the evaluation was a little ambiguous.
When I gave a question to the entire class, it was never answered. This is common in Japan; I should know better than to direct a question to an entire class of students that I do not know, but I cannot help it, it is my nature and the way I was educated.

Overall: Unfortunately, I fear that a lot of teachers watched my class and it might have reinforced their belief that English classes in English only do not work and children must be spoon fed everything to learn. My opinion is that doing something new in the classroom never goes smoothly the first time. As time progresses and the students and teacher get used to the new activities and working with each other, the class will go smoother.. For students to become good English learners, they have to learn how to read English by themselves. On November 7, I will have another opportunity to go to the junior high school and teach. To be honest, doing this on top of my university work is incredibly burdensome, but I will give it another try and hopefully do better. Trying new ideas at the junior high school level has given me the opportunity to understand the students better. I must further think about how to adjust the class plans to be more suitable to the needs and abilities of the students. I have a feeling that no matter what I do though, classes in this kind of high-pressure setting will never go smoothly. The reason is that students will be trying something for the first time and they need the opportunity to get stuck on a task or make mistakes. This will help them learn how to do the task in the future, I believe.


aNne said...

i enjoyed your reflection and could identify, sympathize and relate to most of it in my own experiences in junior high classrooms in japan. it sounds like your lesson had some small, but meaningful successes! and a series of small successes leads to significant learning! congratulations!

JH said...

Dear Anne and Tanya,
I really appreciate your encouragement. I just did another class at the same jr. high school with different students and it went better. I am slowly getting used to jr. high school students and learning about what they will and will not do in class. I think this understanding is the starting point for trying to make a difference.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you should try teaching kindergarden. From what I see in this video, you need to be a clown more than a teacher.
This is what gives ekaiwa teachers a bad reputation

Anonymous said...

I think you have done a good job! Adopting TBLT is very demanding for teachers. There is so much work to do to prepare for and follow up the classroom time.