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Month: August, 2012

Discussing Discussion

by lslisz

When I did my practicum in the ESL program last spring, I wrote in my reflection journal about the overwhelming amount of student discussion that occurred during class. Having mostly taught Japanese students in the past, I was caught off guard by the amount of speaking that occurred in class and by how willing the students were to speak in general. I am used to encouraging students to speak (and usually successful in getting them to do so), but I realized during my practicum that I had little experience guiding a full fledged discussion in which everyone was already actively participating.

This is on my mind now as I’ve been teaching Japanese university students in the Shimane program. Classroom discussions don’t involve much “discussion” at all. Instead, a student usually says something about the topic at hand, and then another student will verbalize their own, often unrelated thought (after I call on them by name and volunteer them to speak).

However, when the students work and speak English in small groups, the things they say are often reactions to each others’ thoughts, not the isolated statements that usually appear in plenary discussion. In fact, during Panel Discussion class last week (in which other English speakers come in to talk to the students in small groups), there seemed to be a lot of actual conversations happening between the panelists and students. I think the reasons for the increased English communication/interaction in these small group situations are pretty clear. The students were clearly excited to be talking to the panelists, and were inspired to speak. Additionally, since the students were working together in these conversations they could often (with the use of Japanese) help each other in saying what they wanted to say in English. The pressure to only speak English (which I think they feel obligated to do when speaking in front of the class), simply isn’t there during small group work, ironically resulting in more English being spoken.

This has me slightly worried, as next week I will be teaching a unit on gardening and native plants. I am a little concerned about my ability to get the students excited enough about these topics to spontaneously speak about them, especially since there’s is a high risk of overwhelming them with new vocabulary and topics that I only have a few days to cover/uncover. Luckily, I’ve found some great resources on my content topics that I think I’ll be able to use in class, and I have some ideas of how keep things entertaining.  I’ll be sure to write more next week after teaching a few lessons and trying some of these activities out.


Learning from students

by Vilosopher

Watching every day how some students are doing great and some keep failing (academically), I’ve learned so much about life in general! All these kids start fresh with zero knowledge about the Russian language what so ever. At the beginning of the year we all make certain predictions on how they would do. Based on their level of education, the result of the language aptitude test, a number of languages they already speak, age and personality features, we like to guess who will go far and who will cause the most troubles. But… the outcome is always so surprising! It never works as how you expect it… It makes me think about my own language learning experience and about life in general…

For instance, I realized that “smart” students will mostly show average results. Surprising? Their language aptitude test score is high. They speak other languages. They went to college or just are well-read, educated people. But… Most of them have a certain attitude or an ego thing that holds them. They know they are smart and they don’t see why they should work hard: Things used to come effortlessly to them. They also don’t trust you completely. They doubt things you do. They are often sceptical and make good debaters in class. Sometimes, they are talented in particular areas and they ignore everything outside this. Just like we often see in life, smart kids don’t always make the richest and the famous.

Another thing that keeps me amazed is how some students build obstacles that prevent them from learning out of thin air. Capable, energetic students suddenly decide that they have bad pronunciation and, therefore, they can’t move on! The student  starts searching for articles, software and tutors to help her with her “bad” pronunciation. She is missing out everything else and eventually drops out, because she decided for herself that it’s not for her. In 99% of cases the student has normal or even good pronunciation, and all this noise was unnecessary. Or a student decides that the whole program is made in the wrong way. He starts writing letters to the superiors explaining his concern; he has long debates with the teachers proving that they teach in a wrong way. A lot of energy is spent because of… fear?…  I recognize this technique in everyday life too – instead of rolling up the sleeves and set to work, people start building these ridiculous obstacles to avoid the actual process. I stopped doing this for myself. Every time I recognize such behaviour, I ask myself, “Is it really THAT important or you are this student with the “bad” pronunciation?”

Another curious observation is the magic of positive attitude and acceptance. We all have heard how important it is to stay positive, to open your mind, to be kind and generous, and understanding. But… we underestimate how much it can actually do for you! Average students who come straight from the backwoods with the vague idea of where mother Russia is located on the map skyrocket in their language abilities if they just accept everything and stay positive during the course. They don’t cry over the irregular verbs and don’t brawl because the homework is as long as “War and Piece”. They just take things as they are and smile. They set the positive atmosphere in class and learn things faster and better! I never thought how important acceptance for language learning. You don’t fight a language. You have to take it all – with all its exceptions, spelling, cultural particularities, etc.

At last… Nobody likes to work with slow students, but these students need you the most. Most of them are not slow, but untouched. They are clean. They have no skills or techniques for learning; they don’t have this learning muscle yet. Some of them just don’t believe in themselves yet; nobody ever encourages them or show them how smart and capable they are. But if you manage to give them what they are missing, they bring you the most beautiful and rewarding results. You have to give a chance to everyone in life. everyone deserves a sticker 🙂

Why I might go back to junior high…

by jenfanic

I came to observe Kimby’s class in the EPGS program. She is doing an activity on writing abstracts, which I’m sure is very appropriate for the students’ studies, and is a part of their textbook on academic writing. In the middle of her lesson I feel a growing pressure and discontent. Nothing to do with Kimby’s lesson, but my own much-appreciated respite from academia is closing in on me with full force. Like a brick on my chest the thought of writing an abstract crushes my enthusiasm for being in a classroom. At least I come out of this experience knowing something: I don’t want to teach EAP.

I knew that I liked high school because I thought the kids were funny, and I had some idea that I could save them from the uncertainty and terror of college preparation. Help them find a voice. Assure them that it’s alright, and they are making their own decisions, something I didn’t feel as an adolescent, but rather that I was on a moving sidewalk of perpetual misery.

The previous day I had been in a classroom with paper airplanes sailing over my head. All in all teaching 10-14 year olds I was locked out of my classroom by students three times, I failed to prevent two paper airplanes from taking off over the balcony, numerous stickers adhered to the bottom of my shoes followed me all the way to Seattle, a cacophony of languages vehemently protested the smell of a Chinese students’ shrimp lunch, one translinguistic romance formed and faded, and no serious fights broke out. I would take the giddy transgressions of thirteen year old girls and the grouchy neediness of their male counterparts any day over the thought of an abstract.

On the first day of class I was introduced to my students, a motley crew of half grown children and budding young adults. They probably varied as much as two feet in height, and while some seemed to linger in childhood fantasies others pressed against the glass of maturity, one minute claiming Spiderman is real, the next proclaiming the only good thing about swimming is the girls in bikinis.

One particular student really stood out to me. He wore his hat to the side, wrote SKATEBOARDING across the entire sports and activities worksheet I had prepared, and had earned the reputation of a punk among the other teachers. But I had a soft spot for him. Maybe it was during a speaking activity, when I offered to be his partner and he veered from the topic and told me about his school in France, and the books they read, and that his father lived in Corsica but his mom in Nantes, in the west of France. When he shouted out during class that he was bored I listened, when he said the other teacher was boring I was flattered. He complained about greasy American food and the childish amusement parks. He explained his favorite French foods with the detail of a true gourmet, a child after my own heart. In class he was often distant, but reachable. I felt like he wanted someone to listen.

On the last day of classes he was in a foul mood. He hadn’t participated in the projects they had done in the other teacher’s class, and they were presenting. He didn’t even stand up with his group; he sulked in the corner. At first I thought, why is he being such a jerk? But I soon came to think that maybe he was really pouting, like a little kid who has failed to play along and now resents his isolation.

I wonder how often junior high teachers write off difficult boys as bullies, delinquents, when really they are scared little boys, too proud to show fear or sadness. I asked him if he was alright, and he said yes and avoided looking at me. For a second I though he might have been fighting back tears.

As a thirteen year-old girl I never imagined I would have any pity or sympathy for thirteen year-old boys. As an adult, however, I recognize them both as children and the young men they will become, complete with the wounds of adolescence. Their struggles seem more important than more intellectual pursuits, and their interests more real. Surprisingly, I think I like having them around.