After a number of delays, changes of students and one change of location, we were finally off! True, only 6 of the 10 students could make it to the first class, but we thought it was better to just get started and let the others join in next class.
As with any first class, the main aims were just to get a feel for the group and their level, for everyone to get to know each other, and to create a safe and enjoyable learning environment. Additionally, as this is a research project, there was a bit of extra admin to do that usually doesn’t occur. Luckily, Chris was there today to meet the students as well, observe the class, and take a few photos and notes.
To be honest, I was feeling a bit nervous as lately I have been doing more teacher training and managing than teaching, much to my dismay. Also no matter how many years I teach, I always get a few pre-first class jitters, at least until I get into the classroom.
For now, I’ll be giving brief descriptions of the tasks and rationales, and where appropriate, what language emerged and how it was practiced. If anyone has any suggestions about other aspects to include or omit in future posts, please do let me know.
Getting to know you, a.k.a. ‘The Cloud Game’
After some light discussion while we waited for students to arrive (it is Costa Rica after all), we started with an activity I first observed my friend Cara Warkentin using years ago. I’m sure there are a million variations, but basically I drew/wrote a word, a number, and a symbol on the board within my ‘cloud’. Learners then had to ask me questions to try to find out their significance. You can see my cloud in the picture below if you’d like to guess yourselves… Learners then repeated the activity in groups of three with their own clouds on pieces of paper. We finished off by having learners give feedback about their group mates.
I felt the game went well, promoting lots of personalized speaking and student interaction, and generally setting the tone for the class. I made some notes with language and errors that came up, but decided to save them for later.
Previous learning experiences
Next I tried out an activity for the first time from ‘Teaching Unplugged’ called ‘My English’. As our questionnaire for the day was about their previous learning experiences, I felt this would be a nice lead in to the topic.
After dictating some sentence stems about their current/past English use, learners completed their sentences individually before comparing answers in pairs. They then boarded their answers in columns (see photo) and as a class we discussed any reoccurring words or themes. The class decided that speaking and jobs were the two common factors. Luckily for all of us, speaking was always going to be a primary focus, and now it seems more job lexis and discussions are probably going to be part of future classes.
After finishing ‘My English’ we moved on to a questionnaire we had created to help us with our research. This part of the lesson was clearly not very Dogme, but a necessary aberration we felt. To try to make it as engaging and interactive as possible, once the learners had completed the questionnaire, they then mingled to try to find someone with similar answers to their own. We finished off with some delayed feedback from the first half of the class, looking at some nice phrases that had been used and some common mistakes with prepositions + gerunds.
I felt this section of the lesson went reasonably well, considering the time needed for the students to finish the questionnaire. However, when dealing with some of the incidental vocab that came up, I definitely could have exploited it further, looking at more possible collocations, and including more drilling and practice.
Since we will not be using any coursebooks and few, if any, handouts, we decided to buy basic notebooks for all the learners. In the first half of the notebooks they will be keeping learner diaries and in the second half their lexical notebooks. To get them in to the swing of things, the students chose one of the incidental words that had come up, ‘to gamble/a gamble’, and I elicited onto the board all the possible information they might include in their own notebooks. The class did exceptionally well, suggesting meanings, examples, pronunciation, pictures, and translations. I then also prompted parts of speech, synonyms/antonyms, and collocations. The class was then divided into two groups who had to perform the same task on their own but with a different word. They chose ‘proud/pride’ which had come up earlier and off they went. For feedback, both groups boarded their ‘notebook entry’ and we compared any differences or elements we really liked.
With a bit of luck and some steady encouragement, the learners will hopefully keep up this practice. We’ve asked them to enter at least three items in detail after every class for homework, so I’ve got my fingers crossed…
Finally, to finish off the lesson, I borrowed a lovely activity from Jemma Gardner’s blog (bit.ly/oi8eHt), involving metaphors for learning a new language. I wrote Learning a new language is like playing an instrument on the board and the class came up with ideas as to why I chose this metaphor. Then, after giving the learners a minute to come up with their own ideas, we had a lively group discussion. In particular, the relationship between language and culture came up and was pounced on by the students. Likewise, the metaphor of ‘learning to walk’ provoked some interesting and original ideas. With the class winding down, I asked the learners to complete for homework a piece of writing describing their metaphors.
Although this was the first time I had tried the task out with English learners, it proved to be an excellent stimulus for conversation, and you could clearly see the learners pushing themselves to find the language to deal with more abstract ideas. In the future, I would try this activity at the start of the class as there was easily enough output and areas to work on to last an entire lesson.
In general, I couldn’t have asked for a more ideal class for this project. Not only did all the students present seem incredibly motivated, eager, and willing to participate, but they all had remarkable parity in their level of spoken English. The challenge next class will be incorporating the new students as seamlessly as possible.
Since this post has run on much longer than I intended, I’ll just quickly say that what I definitely need to work on for next time is my own language speed. On a couple of occasions as I was speaking I had an outer-body experience where I was watching myself speak too fast. Hopefully it was just a bit of teaching rust. As well, although it wasn’t feasible this first class, in the future I will be making a point of having much more time to deal with emergent language. But it’s a start!