I had the same activities planned all week, with every class, and every level. It’s an activity that asks students to take on a new persona as a way to practice speaking. Each student got the chance to choose pre-drawn picture of a face from the book Faces created by my SIT professor Pat Moran. I laid out each original face on the desks in front of the class and asked the students to choose one. It was fun to see them scramble for faces they connected with. Some felt their pictures were too old, or too ugly. Some said nothing and went back to their desks. As homework, the students had to create an introduction for their characters. The introduction reviewed the language we’ve been studying since the beginning of the semester. The only rules were that their characters be Keimyung students and that their introductions cover what we had studied. As a guide, I provided questions, and an example of my character’s introduction. They also had the choice to design their character’s face anyway they wanted.
The idea was that during the next class these characters would interact with each other. Of course each class had a different flow and feel, but I tried my best to keep the same structure to each class.
On the due date I checked each introduction to see if students used the language we had covered. I only corrected mistakes pertaining to this. I noticed that some students (L1) seemed to have used an online translation service. The sentences made no sense to me and they used complex words. Some L1 students also complained that the homework was too hard. When I checked what they wrote, they had hardly used any structures that we had studied. They had tried to use more complex sentences and vocabulary. Other students wrote introductions that followed the structure we covered and the extra information that added was understandable, although the structure wasn’t perfect. Again, this did not matter because I was just checking structures we had studied.
While checking homework I asked the other students to practice their introductions so that they could get comfortable with their character’s story. I wrote this instruction on the board. While checking, I also asked students to tie a string on their picture so their picture could hang off their necks. Their introductions were behind the pictures. The idea was that this would help them take on the role of their character and they would be able to refer to what they wrote if they needed to.
The next step I wrote on the board was: introduce your character (yourself) to your partner. Your partner will listen and try to answer these questions – Level 2: What does he/she love/hate doing? – Level 1: What does he/she do everyday? Once they were done with their interactions, I went to each pair, or as many as I could and asked them to reply to these answers. Sometimes I asked other questions or they volunteered extra information. I was looking to see if they could reply using the correct sentence structure.
The next activity was the Cocktail Party. The gist of it is that as their characters, students mingle and practice the question and answers we had studied. I was the bartender (soda was served). In order to refresh the memories, in groups or pairs, students made lists of questions we had covered. After, they shared their lists with the whole class. I wrote the questions for everyone to see. Before starting the cocktail party I told them they could use these questions or others they thought of in order to meet people. For some classes this was it and I told them to get started with the cocktail party.
What happened next depended on the vibe of each class. In some classes the students lined up for a drink without talking to each other, and the only person they talked with, as their character, was me when they got their drinks. After, they would then sit down with their group of friends, and some even sat alone with their cell phones :P In other classes students would start conversations after a few people had their drinks. I could hear them laughing and discussing the lives of their characters. Since I was the bartender, and spent time talking to each student that came to my “bar”, it was hard for me to notice what kind of conversations were going on. I did notice that some were just speaking Korean.
After going through a few lessons where students only talked to me, but didn’t mingle much with each other, I realized that maybe they needed a better understanding of what a was a cocktail party. I created a cocktail party powerpoint with pictures to give them an idea. I also quickly noticed that they needed more specific tasks. On the board I wrote: Speak to 3 people. Ask 5 questions. Tell the teacher who you talked to after you are done. This worked magically in some classes. Students used their notebooks, or were able to clearly tell me about who they spoke to. Again, in some classes, this did not matter. They still sat down and talked Korean, or only spoke to their friends.
The Korean education system is set up in a way that does not prepare students for communicative activities. They are taught to sit quietly and not question the teacher. From the time they start middle school they learn that competing with each other is the only way to make the grade. This means that for the most part they aren’t used to, and therefore are not comfortable with activities that ask them to work together even in their own language. Then comes in the English teacher from Canada who asks them to pair up, form teams or work as individuals in a large group in order to practice their speaking skills. I realize that when I plan activities like this week’s, I can’t expect everyone to participate enthusiastically. I also need to remember that this is a mandatory class, and therefore the motivation isn’t always there.
Since this lesson plan spanned over a week and various lessons, I was able to reflect quickly and modify my plan from class to class. I felt that with each lesson my plan got better. This didn’t mean that the lessons were a success. Maybe if I had encouraged student to speak to ten people instead of three, I would have seen more talking. Maybe asking them to talk to three people kept them in their circle of friends.
Was the lesson a success? I felt it was a success when I could ask a student who they talked to and they could respond. I’m happy to say that this happened on many occasions.
In relation to the L1 students who wrote confusing introductions, I realized that the example I had given them may have been too complex. My example introduction had some creative sentences, although still simple, they did not follow the exact structure we had studied. I did this because I wanted to give some students the chance to express themselves creatively. I realized this backfired because it may have given some students the impression that I was looking for creativity. In other cases maybe students wanted to be creative with their characters, but still didn’t have the ability to do so.
I’ll do this activity again, but may refrain from being the bartender so that I can get a better picture of what’s going on at the party :)
My friend and colleague Kevin Giddens and I had this discussion this weekend: what message are we sending to our students when we encourage communicative activities? Is it possible for them to take the activities seriously and see their value? How do we help students who grew up with the kind of education mentioned above, understand the value of communicative activities like the cocktail party? How do they really feel when they are asked to communicate freely with their teacher when all their lives they’ve learned to keep their distance from teachers?