Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What's Worked, What Hasn't

by AJ

As I get closer to the end of my first semester at Thammasat, I have begun to assess my teaching to mine the good stuff and identify the catastrophes. Here's a brief summary.

What Has Not Worked For Me
*Conveying Low Expectations

I started most of my classes on a pleasant, but ineffective footing by giving the impression that I had low expectations. I wanted to reduce anxiety (a good thing)... but I did so by sending the message that the class would be "easy". While Im all for effortlessness, Im not so fond of slackness and shirking self-responsibility.

This was a mistake. Its possible to have high expectations AND reduce anxiety... something I finally learned how to do with my BAS class (which started two months after my other classes and thus theyve benefitted from my previous errors).

OK, I already knew this. But several of my classes (EL172, English for Airlines) have required textbooks and the exams are drawn from that material... exams I do not create. As much as Id like to burn these books (and I REALLY want to)... I know my students want to pass the exams.

I try to limit the damage by covering only the key stuff that will be on the tests... and by adding other material. But Im still handicapped.

*Boring Topic Articles
In the name of "remaining on topic", I often brought in articles related to the class. For example, for the airline class I would bring in articles about Boeing's new jet. But these bombed! Why? Because they were damn boring. My students dont care about the economics of the airline industry.

They DO care about flight attendant opportunities, travel, movies, music, and the like. Ive discovered that its better to stretch the definition of "class topic"... after all, acquiring English is their primary goal-- not mastering the details of the airline industry.

*Sharing Classes
I guess Im not a team player. Ive had to "share" classes with other teachers... they teach the class one day a week and I teach it on the other day. Problem is, I loathe textbooks and they follow them religiously.

This is the "too many cooks in the kitchen" dilemma. Frankly, these teachers are good folks and probably great teachers.. but I dont want to share. I dont want to compromise nor do I want to settle for some half-assed middle ground between our approaches.

Unfortunately, these have been... without a doubt... the worst classes for me. No doubt the students are confused by the strangely different approaches.. and have no idea how they will be evaluated.

Stuff That Works

*Free Reading, "Book Club Discussions", and Easy papers
This works. I let the students choose any English book they like.... they read it, then write a VERY short and VERY easy paper about it. They then discuss their book (share it) with the class. In the future, I may eliminate the paper... stick with the sharing and discussing... maybe add snacks & drinks and go for a relaxed book club vibe.

*Interesting Required Readings
Stuff like Harry Potter, The Hobbit,... or take student's nominations. There's nothing wrong with requiring some books... but they should be interesting TO THE STUDENTS (the teacher's opinion is unimportant in this case).

Harry Potter, as we all know, is an international phenomenon. Using the first two books as required reading has been a huge hit.

*Extra Credit
Its basic social work... basic psychology 101-- positive reinforcement works better than punishment. I give my students tons of opportunities to earn extra credit. For every article they bring to me (copied, read, and with new vocab highlighted and defined) they get an extra point. Also, my BAS class can earn up to 50 extra credit points by collecting 500 extra vocab words from authentic sources... if they do this they can skip the final exam. In the future, Ill increase that number to 1000 (for 100 extra points).

The extra articles have been very popular... and give opportunities to students who dont do well on the (idiotic) required exams.

Super cool and very successful. These are fantastic. They enable me to stay in contact with students throughout the week... keep encouraging them. They get no-pressure writing practice. They communicate and bond with each other. They post their learning goals in a public format and thus increase the strength of the commitment. And they read each other's blogs and therefore share ideas, vocab, feelings, etc.

Rather than pushing goals on them, I found it better to have each student write their learning goals. I insist that these be definite, measurable, and concise. While "get more fluent" is a great goal...I want them to write something more easily verified such as "collect 100 new vocab words per week", or "read 10 newspaper articles per week".

Students write these goals. I then have a short conference with them and review them. If they are vague, I ask for measurable details. Once we both agree, I have them photocopy the (weekly and midterm) goals. I get one copy and they keep one. They then post these goals on their website. This worked great!

*Provocative Articles
While boring "topic" articles have not worked... provocative articles have. These have included articles about learning a language effortlessly, articles on new trends in education/management, articles about dating, etc. The key, Ive found, is to find articles with strong ideas that challenge conventional wisdom.

We then discuss these articles in groups. With group discussions, Ive found a consensus-problem solving approach works best. I provide a question or problem... the groups then have to arrive at answers by consensus... ie. everyone in the group must agree.

*Newspaper As "Textbook"
Instead of using a (goddamned) commercial textbook, I use the Bangok Post as the "required text" for my BAS class. This is working well... especially because I have them first skim the paper's headlines... looking for articles that interest THEM. I dont choose the articles, they do.

We then read the articles as a class, and discuss them in groups (see above).

*High Expectations
While Im basically a friendly guy, Ive learned its best to expect greatness rather than send a signal that I have low expectations. Because I dont. I do expect greatness.

So now Im making that much more clear. Im still friendly. Im still relaxed. But Im making it clear that I expect extraordinary things.

And when I think of past coaches/teachers that I liked... those are the ones who stand out... the ones who cared, who were compassionate and friendly and respectful.. but who nevertheless pushed me to be great.