During my recent trip to Australia, I traveled on the train quite often between Mittagong (where Byongchan is doing a three-month residency) and Sydney. This poem was inspired by my time on those platforms. I was struck by the different speeds at which people walked, the choice of winter or summer clothing people wore, and the various languages people spoke. Amidst all the differences, life seemed to flow smoothly. I feel lucky to take part in such flow.
The truth is, I was really worried about walking into this classroom. You see, I haven’t strictly taught a conversation based class in six years. More importantly, I haven’t taught a beginner class in that time either.
To top it off, I didn’t have fond memories of this particular classroom. When I taught beginner conversation classes six years ago, it’s in this classroom I recalled my biggest challenges: building rapport with quiet students whose interest in learning to speak English either didn’t exist or slowly dissipated as the semester went on. I remembered how much I had dreaded walking into this classroom back then. Looking back, perhaps my students’ motivation was a reflection of my apprehension.
Then on Friday, after all that worrying, this happened.
This was my second class with this group of freshman. During the first class we did an icebreaker activity which involved finding out how old I was (age is an important factor in how relationships are built in Korea). Some students remembered that our Friday class together would be my 38th birthday. I never thought they would remember let alone go as far as buying a cake!
And just like that, my fears went out the door. We had a small celebration together which included one of the best rapport builders I know in Korea: group pictures.
During the rest of the class students shared their own birth dates. Some students discovered they were born on the same day. Then some learned the were from the same city; then the same majors.
Sometimes we can plan ways to build rapport with our students, but most of the time it’s just about being open to genuine moments of connection.
Sometimes a simple question spurs on an overflow of creative thinking. My dear friend and colleague, Tana Ebaugh, often asks me these kinds of questions. Recently she asked why I blog. This in itself was a gem that prompted curious contemplation. However, then she added to the power of this question by showing me this revolutionary video.
After watching this video, I knew I had to read more about Ken Robinson. I had already watched his previous two TED talks (one that you can find in my previous post and one you can find by clicking here), and knew I had to go deeper into his ideas. The next morning I downloaded his audiobook The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Having listened to it for three hours, I can now answer Tana’s question of why I blog.
* Above is an example of how my creative process relies on human connection and multimedia. Ken Robinson discusses how the creative process is unique to everyone, and extremely valuable to cultivate. It is this process that leads one to living out their element.
In his book, Ken Robinson talks about what it means to be in your element. You are in your element when you do what you love doing. This is only a basic definition though. It goes much deeper than that. You are in your element when time seems to stand still while you are doing the thing you’ve discovered defines your core self. When you do what you were meant to do, you are in your element. Everyone has this element, and I am grateful to have found mine. Although I knew I loved teaching teachers, it is only after having listened to his audiobook that I am able to tell you why I do, and why I think this is my element.
My desire to connect and to be heard makes me love teacher training. In this zone, I am in my element because I know that what I am saying is being absorbed and processed by my audience. If I feel that I am not understood, or that there is no desire to hear what I have to say, I immediately switch off. Whether at a party, or in a classroom, if I don’t think I’m making a clear connection with someone, I shut down. Knowing this, I am constantly looking for better ways to be heard and understood. Sometimes this means simplifying my message, or following the flow of my trainees’ needs. If they don’t need to hear what I have to say, there is no need for me to say it. I discover this need by gauging their reactions to my intellectual poking and prodding. They often tease me by saying that I am “slowly squeezing their brains”, or that “I poke them” gently through the learning process. If they are curious about the way I “squeeze” them, then I continue. If I see their eyes glazing over, it’s time for me to change my tune.
Being among a group of people who share my love of teaching also fuels my element. With my trainees, we are on a similar level. Even though we teach in different contexts and are from different backgrounds, ultimately we are in the business of sharing and guiding individuals through the process of learning. This common plain creates a willingness for reciprocal listening: I want to listen to them as much as they want to listen to me. In a sense, we feed off each others’ experiences. Without this kind of shared community, be it with my trainees, or my colleagues/friends, my light doesn’t shine so brightly. It is through their light that I can see my own.
This is why I blog. I blog because teachers who share my passion will read what I have to say. It is the perfect blend of community and communication. My blog is a multimedia reflection of my element.
A quote from The Element: In the 19th century, William James became one of the founding thinkers of modern psychology. By then it was becoming more widely understood that our ideas and ways of thinking could imprison or liberate us. James put it this way, ‘The greatest discovery of my generation is that humans being can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind. If you change your mind, you can change your life.’ This is the real power of creativity and the true promise of being in your element. – Ken Robinson
Over the course of the last two weeks, I conducted interviews with my students as their midterm evaluation. I could definitely dedicate a reflective entry to this interview process, but I’ve decided to focus on the student feedback that I requested from each student after his or her interviews were over. This was the first time I requested feedback this semester. In this post I’m interested in exploring how the students perceived the feedback and also what purpose it served for me.
After their individual interview, I gave each student a slip of paper with these two questions: What do you like about this Communication English (this is the name of the class as chosen by the Department of Liberal Education) class? What would you change/improve about this Communication English class? When I gave them the slip I gave them the choice to either include or omit their names. I gave them this choice because I felt it gave the chance to be open and honest. I feared that if they felt they had to write their name they would not be critical. They might feel that being critical would negatively affect their grade. I reminded them that their feedback wouldn’t be graded, and that I appreciated honest answers. I asked students to write their answers outside of class, and leave the paper on the desk at the back of the class when done. While they were outside writing their answers, I continued interviewing other students.
Out of approximately two hundred students, the majority of answers to the first question resembled these; “I like communication with friends and professor and enjoy the class.” “Free talking.” “Game is interesting to study English.” “Every week change partner good!! because meet many friends.” “This English Communication class very interested. I’m English speak no good. But this class many speak chance very good. Thank you.”
Answers to the second question mostly looked like this, “Nothing. Thank you teacher.” however some provided insights such as, “detail explanation please.” “more communication with partner”, and two of my most advanced students were able to go even deeper, “You make teams when we have a class every week. I suggested you separate fixed group. Our class is big. I think you can save the time.” “I don’t know what to say…Ah! The more opportunities to participate in the class, the more confidence students can get.”
Some students seemed to interpret the second question as if I was asking how they could improve or change. For example, they answered, “speaking, listening and full of confidence.” “English communication ability improve.” “English. My bravery? Thank you LeBlanc.” Since I hadn’t given students prior indication that I would ask for feedback, this reaction was expected.
If anything, I felt more confident about my teaching practice after reading their feedback. I realized that I was on the right track with group and partner activities. I also learned that I need to make sure that I balance these activities with clear explanations of the language point. Some students may not be able to perform as well in groups and with partners because they don’t feel confident with the language point we are studying in class. I need to brush up on techniques that reinforce language, but don’t require students to go through a typical grammar lesson where they only do activities in their workbooks. Their feedback has helped me realize that they want to speak, but they also need more reinforcement with detailed explanations of the language point.
How can I create lessons provide explicit (deductive) and implicit (inductive) learning? I believe I have a tendency towards creating lessons that focus on implicit learning of the language, when the students might need more explicit language instructions. I’m not always spelling out the grammar rules, because I believe they have had enough exclusivly grammar-based lessons in their lives. However, now I realize that this may be part of their comfort zone, and could help them connect to the group/partner activities more confidently. In future lessons I will work towards providing explicit instructions and activities at the beginning of lesson, and focus the rest of the time on partner or group activities. This will give them the chance to reflect on what they previously learned, and therefore they might feel more confident to use the language. This is the scaffolding that is necessary for a successful speaking class. Following this method, I hope students will increase their fluency.
I regret that I didn’t ask for feedback earlier in the semester. We only have four more lessons to go before the final exams. I believe that next time I will ask for feedback during week 4 or 5. This would give me more time to tweak my lessons in order to meet their needs. Since our time is very limited, meeting their needs is crucial to their learning and could also increase motivation. The feedback also helps me enormously when deciding what to add to my lessons.
I’m left with one question: Was this the best way to ask for feedback? For some students they may have found it too difficult to put their feelings into words, and therefore opted for the easy, “Nothing”. For lower level students a scale from 1 to 10 might be more effective for receiving honest feedback. This is something I can experiment with in the future.
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?