Today’s Talk was Terrific! Why?

Today is Thursday, end of the second week at GyeongJu University.  I’ve been ruminating over the sessions so far.  And I just finished a few hours of watching a Virtual Round Table session given last year by David Dodgson and following up on several of the links he served up.  These hours were a welcome tonic to clear away the dyspepsia of my ruminations, and the discussions by fellow teachers just happened to shed some light on why today’s English Conversation session with my Tourism Seniors worked so well.

I had one weekend to prepare for my first classes, three different courses, armed with one paragraph about each one to guide me, and for one of the courses, one textbook to follow.  Of course, the first sessions were consumed mostly with introductions and getting-to-know you activities.  Those sessions went well enough because, I think, the content is real even if rather pedestrian and predictable. 

I launched into the next sessions with some themes and topics, vocabulary previews, stories, dialogs, and situations hastily arrayed on some powerpoint slides, and worked hard to draw people into some interaction with me, drawing out information, practicing some readings and dialogs, extending material and pushing them into pair work production.  It all went smoothly enough, better with the juniors and seniors, fine with the sophomores and, well, as well as could be expected with the freshmen.  Most of them need some time to learn that forced feeding is over and life is not a passive experience.

As I say, it went smoothly enough but lacked something.  Outside of a few moments of working together, the other moments were a string of lumpy pearls that I was fingering dispiritedly, questioning technique, timing, activity, presentation, method, motivation, more of this, less of that.

One annoyance provided a breakthrough for me today. 

All the classrooms have a locked-down desktop PC which can be turned on and off, will display on a roll down screen through a projector, and will accept a USB key.  There is no way to connect one’s own laptop to the internet, speakers, or projector.   It’s USB key or internet cloud resources only.  I prefer resources in the cloud, both Windows Live and Google, but the LAN speed in the first couple of days was so prohibitively slow that I resolved to rely on the USB stick.

And yesterday I left the USB stick stuck in the PC of room 2422.  A kind soul safeguarded and returned it to me, but not before the session with my Seniors. 

So today I used the PC and projector to run through a couple of online resources that they would be using in homework this weekend and to add eight new students to the class roster.  Then I announced that I had lost my USB key and was rewarded with generous sympathy all around.

I rolled up the screen, shut off the projector, picked up a piece of chalk, and asked what we were supposed to do today.  Weren’t we about to run through some job interview role playing?  No, no, they protested, we were going to talk about culture.

So we started.  I asked lots of questions about culture at the school, in the GyeongJu community, the Korean nation, the older generation, the new generation, and so on.  I scribed the key words of the discussion here and there on the board, darting into their desks as needed to get close to the most shy and pull out some responses.  I ran from one side of the blackboard to the other to connect topics and flesh out some themes.  Before too long, they were taking the lead, countering some of my evaluations, and asking questions.

As I was working the crowd, I was thinking that I had had my best sessions several years ago working one-on-one for two hours every weekday with Simone, a young woman from Brazil.  At her request, we had reversed the role of the student taking notes, and I took notes and drew diagrams and stick figures and cartoons on pages and pages of white paper while she asked questions and I answered and countered with questions of my own.

Simone felt pressured by the task of recording key points and words while trying to stay in the conversation game and give attention to her concerns of living in a strange new place.

Simone had diagnosed her problem perfectly.  As a welcome by-product, I was relieved of the pressure of leading, and felt no pressure at all from my responsibility to doodle while talking.

A couple of years ago I tried out the same procedure with a retired Korean teacher, Soja, who wanted to learn English so she could take trips abroad more confidently.  Using the doodle pad was a tentative move because Simone had had knowledge about English and had lacked only sufficient listening and speaking practice. 

In Soja’s case, we were working from her extremely basic knowledge of English, but I tried out this doodle and talk routine anyway, occasionally prompting only by asking what else she might want to say.

At the end of each session, Soja and Simone kept the doodle sheets and would often start our next session riffling through them with questions to clarify a phrase structure, an alternative phrasing, this meaning or that, a different tense.  Soja frequently started her sessions with a quick glimpse at a sheet before starting a little speech that put her own thoughts into forms learned the week past.

No doubt, some of the reason for Soja’s and Simone’s rapid improvements was the strength of their motivation.  Both of them enjoyed rapid and significant improvement.

I have mulled over the experiences a lot.  I know in my gut that there was magic in the method beyond the one-on-one advantage and their motivation.  I know in my heart that I could have killed the magic with all of the well-structured and theoretically sound activities that I know.  I will always be thankful that I did not attempt to teach English.

At some point I had started using felt-tip pens in three or four colors.  In the doodles for one hour all of the example constructions might be in purple, topic words in red, variant phrasing or different pronouns or tenses in brown or green.  Another hour’s doodles would have different colors; there was no code.  They had no organization or orientation either.  There was no up or down.  They often resembled mind maps jammed together a bit too tightly.  They weren’t artistic; nor were they pretty, but they were pleasantly attractive.

Wordles are pleasantly attractive, in fact, they’re pretty and many are downright artistic.  Like my doodle sheets, they also tend to shun up and down orientation.

One of the newsletter emails in my inbox today was from Heike Philps inviting people to self nominate for presenting at the Virtual Round Table 2012.  I went to investigate and happened to choose a 2011 presentation by David Dodgson about using Wordles to engage language learners.  Yes, I am carefully avoiding the phrase “to teach English”.

Today I was limited to one huge, dark green slate rather fogged up by chalk dust and a single color of chalk, white.  Despite the limitations, I doodled magnificently, and filled it up in as many directions as I could with my feet still on the floor.

The color wasn’t critical.  The magic was there even with hazy white strokes on smudged board.  One girl leaving the classroom stopped to say it was a really fun class.  Icing on the cake, I already knew.

I carefully took four snapshots of the blackboard and will plow all of the contents into some form so that I can give the doodle sheets to my Senior class.  I was strongly tempted to ignore PowerPoint and get out some laser paper and felt-tips, and then run the sheets through the scanner.  I may still do that.

On the other hand, after watching the ways that Dave used wordles to digest and display words in intriguing ways to help his students to get engaged with themes and topics, I thought that the best thing I might do is to run the words from the blackboard through the Wordle machine.

I might read the pictures of the blackboard, interpolating some of the discussion that clustered around each word and drawing, and let Dragon Naturally Speaking produce a text for the Wordle machine to analyze.

But it wasn’t simply the Wordle-ing that incited me to essay today’s experience.  I was still alternating between chewing on lackluster moments and celebrating one magic hour when I started delving into the blogs associated with Dodgson’s VRT Wordle presentation.  The classroom successes described by Jason Renshaw ( English Raven LearnersNotebook  and more ), Dodgson on Dictogloss, and Pictogloss, and Anna Rose’s Dictogloss with E1s have resonated with my really fun class that used nothing but chalk.

We are all talking about the power of working together by engaging students in their personal worlds.

The methods are void of strength, and most certainly empty of magic, when they are used to structure time and control the crowd.  Even when we succeed in advancing the skill of language learners by doing a great job of manipulating them through beneficial activities, we will still fall short of magic.  When the methods are employed very well, we will suffer together less.

But when we work truly together by engaging each other genuinely, beneath each other’s skin, sharing the concerns and wonders we really have, that’s when the language details get employed magically and transparently—maybe even despite the mechanics of the method or situation. 

Anna Rose found that her personal text about her neighborhood worked quite well when another text did not.  The wonder of a snowy day was plaguing other teachers’ efforts to structure time and control the flow but became the core of David Dodgson’s lessons for days.  I have but skimmed over the covers of Renshaw’s videos and blogs, but I am pretty sure I’m going to find that his ways of putting his learners in control of their own notebooks is at the core of their work together.

The difficulty of cracking the hardened shell of standard class routines for English as a Foreign Language, taught English, will still be an impediment.  But I am still hoping that I can make ever more magic by getting more frequently beneath my learner’s skins and sharing anything that means something to them.

Update 3/16/2012:  Scanning for resources, I came across a blog on Manufactured Teachable Moments by David Deubelbeiss that resonates well,

Teachable moments are powerful “learning” moments (for teaching is learning). In many cases, unforgettable. A kind of student driven “Eureka”. An epiphany where you connect with the subject in ways that aren’t possible in the traditionally delivered, head on, step 1,2,3 lesson plan.  But can we try to make them happen? I believe we can and should as teachers.

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