Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, November 04, 2006


by AJ

Led Zeppelin often described their playing style as "tight but loose".

I think that's an excellent description for a teaching style too. Too many programs and teachers, in my opinion, focus on being "tight". They obsess over detailed syllabi, lesson plans, etc. They insist on crunching through the required textbook. They diligently follow their plan, or try to follow it, regardless of circumstances in the class.

As Eisenhower said, "Plans are nothing; planning is everything". In other words, it is important to plan. The process of planning makes you consider your goals, the needs of the learners, the limitations of the class, your available resources, your method, etc. The planning process is thus invaluable.

But the plan itself is nothing. After writing a syllabus, perhaps the best thing to do is throw it away. You've already done the important part-- if you keep the syllabus, it will be become a prison.

A class should be like a skilled improvisation, in which the students and teacher play off each other and challenge each other. Both students and teacher must always be ready to go into unexpected directions as opportunities present themselves.

I experienced this phenomenon Friday, during my MA class. The class has been struggling from the beginning- mostly because its focus is unclear. It was originally created as an "Oral Presentation" class. But at the last minute, the administration decided to tack on a "TOEFL Prep" element... making it an unwieldy "English Presentation, plus TOEFL" class.

I floundered around trying to mesh these two subjects. As a result, I abandoned the successful methods I'd used in the past when teaching a presentation course. Instead, I had them find "TOEFL-like" articles (science, psychology,... ) and present them to the class. The presentations were, not surprisingly, boring, stiff, and painful.

Last week, my students finally rescued the course. They told me they wanted to follow my usual plan, and not use notes for presentations any more. They also said they wanted to focus on topics that were relevant and interesting to them, such as personal experiences, job interviewing, and the like. Finally, they said they wanted me to teach them a presentation method that would be useful in real life, not just for the TOEFL exam.

Being a fan of tight-looseness, I chucked out the syllabus and took their advice.

The results were astounding. Astounding! This week, they gave the presentations of their lives. I was stunned at the dramatic improvement. Every single student improved, and many made huge improvements.

It was one of those days that makes me love teaching English. Given my recent burnout, it was a much needed day for me.

It was a day that reinforced not only the effectiveness of being flexible-- but the absolute imperative of listening to and following your students.


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