Do you have an alibi? – Good Cop/Bad Cop

First intermediate class of the week – Mixed years (Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors); Mixed majors; mixed levels; mixed feeling; Unit 3 – Interests, Breakthrough

Every time I enter this class I feel like I just need to dive in head-first and not worry about the water.  I have students in here who have spent years studying abroad, and I have some who barely know the present tense.  Luckily the majority is in between these levels. I also feel lucky that it’s a mixed aged class.  You see, in Korea the older students tend to take a leader/support role with the younger ones. At least that’s how it’s working out in this class.  I’m also lucky that those older students have the most advanced English abilities, so they can quickly explain what I am talking about.

Getting caught
Getting caught

The fluency activity I had planned was Alibi. To set up the context I told the students that someone broke into my house last night between 8pm and 9pm. They took all my things and broke the window.  Someone in the class did it and I need to find out.  I group students into groups of five according to their ability/fluency level.  Two are cops and three are suspects. I hand out example cop questions to all the students.  This is intended to guide the police officers in their questioning, and help the suspects create their alibi. I tell the suspects that one of them is the criminal and they decide amongst themselves. The cops are in another room thinking of questions they can ask. After a few minutes they come in and start interrogating.  For three of the four groups, the suspects are sitting next to each other. One group decides to break up the suspects and question them separately.  They think this will help them catch the suspects in a lie.  One group of cops seems to be doing a good job of catching the suspects in a lie. They think they know who did it.  I ask them to keep going to make sure they’re right.  The two other groups aren’t successful. They have no idea who may have stolen my things.   This continues for the rest of the activity. At the end the group that split up the suspects was wrong about the criminal. The group who thought they guessed, guessed correctly.  The other groups felt that maybe they hadn’t played the game correctly.  We discovered that those groups hadn’t tried to catch the suspects in a lie. They hadn’t planned their questions as traps as the other groups had.  For example, the group who guessed correctly asked one suspect where he was between 8 and 9. He said he was watching TV. Then the cop asked another suspect what they watched. He said “1 Night 2 Days (1박2일)”. Then they asked the last suspect, “On what floor was the movie theater?” He said, “The 5th floor.” Obviously there was a liar. 1 night 2 days

This activity took about 40 minutes.  I think I could have shortened it so that they took turns being suspect and cops.

To set up this activity as a past tense lesson, I used the vocabulary/lexical chunk section in Unit 3.  Together we went through the past tense verbs and practiced using the dialogue activity.  I told the advanced students that they could create their own dialogues if they wanted. These students just need time to practice their speaking skills. They are already fluent with the material we covered today.  After this activity I handed them a pictured list of irregular past tense verbs. I told them that they could use these verbs in the alibi activity. That was it for the list.

I feel like I didn’t know how to handle the list because of the different levels.  I know most students knew the words, but I gave the list for the ones who were less advanced.  For those students I feel like I didn’t help them learn the verbs. I think next time I would go through an activity that helps them identify with some of the verbs.  For example I might do a chain story activity, “it was a dark and stormy night…” where the students need to keep the story going by using one verb on the list.  By doing this the other students listening at least notice the verb meaning.  I think I would do this in small groups since there are 20 students in class.

I was happy to see the less advanced students interacted in the activity.  Even though they didn’t talk much, they listened to the more advanced and tried to participate.  The more advanced students included them in the activity by translating. I feel that at least this promoted noticing.

Luckily I taught two more intermediate classes the following week.  So after reflecting on what could be improved for the Alibi activity, I made a few changes.  In relation to helping students get a grasp on how to question and catch the suspect, this is what I did:

I thought that it would be helpful to help the suspects create an alibi. So before I separated the suspects and the cops, I asked them to analyze the vocabulary/lexical chunk pictures in the textbook and think of some activities that go with the picture.  For example, one picture had the lexical chunk “watch a concert”. In their groups of five, students had to think of what can happen at a concert, and they had to make sure it was in the past tense.  I felt that this would help them create an alibi.

The interrogation
The interrogation

Then I told the cops that they should use the question sheet I gave them only as a guide.  Some of the questions on there did not work for the context they were facing.  For example, if the suspects’ alibi was that they were at a concert, they couldn’t ask the question “was the waiter handsome?”

By creating this new flow to the alibi activity, the suspects were better prepared to answer questions, and the cops had a better idea of what kind of questions to ask.  All in all, this was a successful activity, because it encouraged students to create their own questions, and answer accordingly. There was a lot of smiling, which is great when you’re trying to battle low motivation :)

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Week 5, Fall 2009 – Students Take on New Personas – FACES

Faces

What?

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.

Introducing their new personas
Introducing their new personas

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.

Cocktail Party
Cocktail Party

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.

Why?

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 :)

Questions

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?

Week 4, Fall 2009 – Redeeming the Role-play

Tuesday, 9am-10:50am, Intermediate Level, 20 students, freshmen, mostly natural science and nursing students – My first class of the week

I have to say, this is a stellar group of students. They all came through with the role-play assignment. When I assigned it last week without it being my initial intention, I was concerned that they wouldn’t do it. 

 After doing a quick review of the language being addressed (adverbs of frequency), some students needed some time to edit their role-plays. This gave students a chance to practice. It also gave me the chance to help pairs who had questions, and also check out what the created. I was pleased to see that the had pairs creatively and properly used the adverbs. The scenarios ranged from a patient and doctor discussing unhealthy habits to Snow White contemplating her beauty with the Magic Mirror. I was concerned when I noticed that in some occasions one member of the pair took the responsibility to write the whole role-play. I assumed this fact because the other student had nothing in their notebook. I guess it is possible that they had met at some point during the week and one student had taken the responsibility of being the scribe.

I asked the students to perform their role-play in front of the class so everyone could listen and watch. I had thought about putting them into smaller groups, but I didn’t want to spend the time forming groups. I decided to see how this would work out. One team at a time, they came up front. Before they started, I asked them about their scenario and told the other students. Most of the students read off their sheets. They spoke loudly. The audience was attentive, and laughed when a line was funny. We all clapped when each pair was done.

This role-play activity was for practicing language.  It focused on accuracy, not fluency. I could have asked the students to remember the lines, but that isn’t authentic and still wouldn’t display fluency.  I could also have asked them to be spontaneous, but that wasn’t how I had set up the assignment.  In order to make it spontaneous, and therefore check for fluency, I could create the scene for the students and hand them lines to build on.  For example, I could hand a pair a piece of paper with the line “You never clean your room!”, and ask them to work from there without writing anything. This seems to be an activity for higher levels, and I’m still not sure if this group is at that level.  I know some could, but not all.

The way this role-play activity turned out, gave me insight into the class’ ability. Their sentence structure was better than expected. However, the fact that some students in the pairs wrote the whole role-play makes me wonder if the other students aren’t capable, or if they just did it that way out of ease.  I also learned that they aren’t shy to perform in front of their peers. This means that I could use drama for future activities.

Although, the fiasco turned out not to be so bad, I won’t assign a role-play as homework again. I want the main activity of the lesson to focus on fluency, not accuracy. I also want to get a better understanding of the ability of every student. What I will keep doing however is use role-plays for language practice. In order to spice up the role-plays found in the textbook, I will give each pair a scenario, or ask them to create their own scenario. Since I know this class is up to performing, they will perform these scenarios in small groups as a way to promote repetition and noticing of the language.