Category Archives: class notes

Fear *not*

Among the 14 drafts existing on this blog and scaring me off with the menacing look of their titles, blank pages and ideas loosely hanging in the air, there’s one about fears. So I’ll get done with it first.

This post you’re going to read now will inconsistently tell a story of one my big professional complex or maybe a chronic fear.

The fear of silence in the classroom.

 

***** Noise *****

My impression is that teachers pay attention to noise their students make: useful EFL-type noise (speaking English in class in various situations), and a range of potentially annoying types of noise, which may cause discipline issues, seriously get on a teacher’s nerves, or have neutral effect.

I thought I am creating noise, too. And only some part of this noise is of the useful ELT type.

I haven’t measured my TTT percentage and I’m unlikely to do so unless (1) pressed to do it (2) suddenly curious about this percentage. TTT, like pretty much any other relevant ELT acronym, is not my point here. I seriously think I’m faced with a psychological “wrong”, and a kind of paradox, too. In outside of classroom life I’m happy to be engrossed in silence. Hearing no people speak, as well as no TV or music on, is not a problem for me, on the contrary, it’s a soothing time.  Then what’s happening with my brain when I enter a classroom?

I attempted to search for possible reasons for my panicky fear of hearing no human voices for 60-90 min with students. There’s one reason I liked best, and it is about silence standing for this teacher’s uncertainty.  My association, wherever it comes from, is that silence means a teacher losing grip of the lesson. As a consequence, the room gets filled with a heavy air of expectations, which a teacher then needs to come up to. This whole explanation that I formulated for myself looks so wrong when typed. I realize now, at this moment when I’m not teaching anyone, that I don’t need to have full control of my class all the time, I realize that. But as soon as a lesson begins, I’m not so wise anymore. And so I make some noise.

 

***** How I sort of taught, in silence, and what it sort of taught me *****

This part of the draft dates back to as long back as November 2013.

I had to “teach” 4 classes of/for another teacher who was absent that day. I say “teach” or sort of teach as I agreed (with myself) to mostly use the lesson plans that teacher had left for me. That meant assigning the students a set of tasks to be completed on their own. I didn’t really manage to totally “disappear” from those lessons, but a positive 80% of the classtime I did, and that was how I discovered silence for the first time in my teaching career maybe.

I had the space to observe, take a distanced look and reflect. Teaching (?) a lesson I didn’t prepare. Teaching (?) a lesson my teacher self was not much involved in (how do you like that statement?). Teaching (?) a lesson that didn’t have me in its plan. Teaching (?) a lesson I wouldn’t have agreed to plan myself.

So observing students do the work was happening. As I’ve said before, they had a set of tasks to do on their own in class. The room was silent: flipping pages, reading, thinking, writing. That was happening. I saw one student doodling in the squares of her notebook, and I was mystified. Several students were in a sort of a daze. They could have been thinking, or taking the time to shake off any thoughts, or formulating ideas, or maybe they were plain bored. Whatever their particilar silences stood for, it was beautiful to observe. “Next week I’m going to try the same with my students” – I thought, and that had to wait till April (see the link at the bottom of this post).

 

Another interesting insight that came from watching those students at work was my realization of how I’m perceived by students who are not my students, who are not familiar with my teaching style and habits, good and bad. I mean they really didn’t seem to care. They didn’t have expectations for this class from this teacher, they were unaffected by this teacher’s ways. I didn’t matter for them, and that made a difference to me.

It made me think that the importance of a teacher is only a valid point under certain conditions. I imagine you come to teach my class for an extended period of time – will the students show different results? will they learn better? how will your teaching ways affect their learning? I’m oversimplifying, but to me so much comes down to the impact of a personality of a teacher on how students do in their learning. I do believe this impact is so large, and well maybe not necessarily always positive.

 

Other, random points I noted during that silent teaching/monitoring learning:

1) Questions: Do they need me all the time? Do they need the sense of “activity” all the time? How much group work do they need?

2) Come to think of it, when I’m writing blog posts or articles I like to be alone. I need this type of space to read, think, process my thoughts, and write them down. It’s a prerequisite for the writing being done – silence at my workspace.

3) Come to think of it, when I’m self-studying Japanese – silence is essential.

 

***** Less fear *****

Several months after paying conscious attention to my fear for the first time and looking at it closer during other classes, I think I can say I fear a little less. I’ve also been unintentionally practising sort of silence in my classes. I noticed the following habits:

At some point at a lesson I just stop and sweep my eyes over students, with or without a smile. In the middle of a  lesson I sometimes feel caught in the whirlwind of their buzzing and the activity that I keep pouring onto them, and I stop and take a breather. At any point during a lesson I may just stop and stare at them or into space.

Students’ reactions to any of these can be smiling if I smile at them (which I seem to most often inexplicably do), but the majority look puzzled, lost or expectant. There’s no pedagogical/ methodological/ psychological implication that I put into these odd moments. They never really ruined my class even when they came across as awkward, weird, or occured at a wrong time. They are also not really promoting the useful ELT-type of silent classroom time. But I don’t fear these moments anymore.

 

Thank you for reading. Here’s one of my recent posts describing useful silent time in my class once in April. I also encourage you to try sort of teach, for insights and whatever may come along.

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From within.

If you’re on this page, odds are you’re an English teacher. You might be busy and quite likely to be about to skim through this post. Please do me a favour and watch this video first. Thank you.

Now you can skim.

*** Commentary ***

– This video (animation without voice-over) was shown last Thursday in class by one of my students as a presentation he’d prepared (he was reading the text at that point). The presentation of any topic of their choice is an obligatory part of the course this term. The student had spent about 12 hours filming it, and then I suppose more recording his voice because I asked him to do that. Because I selfishly wanted to share it here in my blog. The student created this animation out of his own idea, out of his own will. His teacher (me) did not motivate/ inspire/ encourage such performance in any specific way. The student did use multiple sources to research for his work, including reading non-fiction books on the psychology of fear and such. His teacher (me) has little, or more accurately – nothing, to do with this attitude. I’d say it all came from within.

– One thing we do with my students after watching presentations is writing personal feedback messages. Students are asked to write 5 sentences, or as much as they’d like, in their notebooks with their impressions, notes, suggestions, advice. After that they hand over their paragraphs to the presenter and then to me. This has been my practice for two months only and I do think, supported by feedback from the students and their enthusiasm that I’ve seen, that this idea is a winner on several levels. Well, after this particular presentation on FEARS I asked the group mates of the presenter to share their biggest fear in the message they were going to write. Before I did that, both the presenter and I had revealed our fears, so I thought that’d be fair and maybe interesting to give a chance for others to open up (if they wished – that was a condition). As a result, half the students felt comfortable and added this personal sentence. Several wrote they’d never thought about it. Others were either vague or not willing to share. Well, whether we pronounce our fear or not, it stays within I guess.

– In my next post, which I boldly almost announce in this way because it’s already half-written, I’ll tell about one of my biggest professional fears. The fear I revealed to my students in class is of existential nature. Scared by my own thoughts – that is about me. From within?

– I’d not known about sleep paralysis before I watched this presentation.

 

And yes, the student said he can’t draw.

We (the student and me) thank you for watching and reading.

 

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An ELT play of sorts.

With very few lines from characters and an Act of Silence.

/note: all Acts should have been more logically called Scenes. But an Act of Silence sounds too good to reject it../

The People in the Play:
Teacher of English
9 university students

*****

Act 1 At the door

TEACHER: There’s a password today to enter the classroom. Think about our lessons, concentrate on your thought. Now in order to come in you need to complete the idea:”I think it could be a good idea to … in class.”

(whispers, muffled sounds)

note: each sentence from a student is followed by a reaction from a teacher, such as “oh, wow, great, thank you, I like that” + making a note of the idea. All students eventually end up in a lesson.

STUDENT D: I think it could be a good idea to watch short videos in class.

STUDENT Aboy: I think it could be a good idea to read books in class.

STUDENT Sgirl: I think it could be a good idea to listen to songs in class.

STUDENT V: У нас идеальные занятия, меня все устраивает и у меня нет никаких предложений. (We have ideal classes, I’m satisfied with everything and I have no suggestions.)

TEACHER: Sorry, thank you, but please think of some idea for the sentence. Thank you!

STUDENT Sboy: I think it could be a good idea to have a break in the middle of the lesson.

STUDENT Agirl: I think it could be a good idea to have fun.

STUDENT V: I think it could be a good idea to sometimes sleep a little in class.

STUDENT K: I think it could be a good idea to write letters to each other in class.

STUDENT B: I think it could be a good idea to discuss our problems with physics.

*****

Act 2 Perceptiveness

(all students are taking their seats and getting ready for class)

STUDENT V (to Teacher): Why are you sad?
(Puzzled look and a silly near-smile on Teacher’s face)

TEACHER: That’s a very good question. How do you know?
STUDENT V: I have this feeling.
TEACHER: I don’t know. I slept very badly and I hate this weather.

(In Teacher’s mind: very unusual and sweet that it’s this particular student who noticed change.)

*****

Act 3 Skipped, or On Fast Forward

(feedback conversation on students’ suggestions for class, organizational moments, questions, Student D brags about a white scarf very fashionably tied around neck, brief review of what reported speech is all about)

*****

Act 4 From Tales of the Unexpected

Synopsis:

Teacher hands out copies of Genesis and Catastrophe and invites to read the paragraph about the author preceding the story. Students learn that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is actually a book first. Teacher goes a bit exclamatory about Roald Dahl’s legacy and its fun and use for learning English. A couple of Students are noticed to take a note of the author’s name.

Part 2 of task: reading Page 1 only. The page ends with this line: “None of my other ones lived, Doctor.” Several Students make articulate and very recognizable “aaww”, “oohh”, sigh and wonder out loud (“Will he live?!”).

TEACHER: You’ll get the copies to read the story till the end at home, if you wish.

Part 3 of task: dividing the dialogue in half and working in pairs to transform it into reported speech. All Students are noted to be working, even those who normally openly sleep.

*****

Act 5 Act of Silence

(One student finishes very early, flips the page and goes on reading. There’s still 40 minutes of class left and a whole big, partly irrelevant point on the lesson plan to be done with.)

TEACHER: Please read the story when you finish with your work.

 

The 25-min silence that followed was broken several times by the following:

STUDENT D: Why is the text so sad??

STUDENT Agirl (the one to have begun reading first): He’ll survive.

STUDENT D: He shouldn’t have.

(in a while)

STUDENT Sboy (jumping off his chair and exclaiming almost in panic): This is about Hitler!!!!

(this outburst resulted in a lot of moaning, disgruntled remarks, hushing, blaming of “spoiler-ing” the story for those Students who were reading behind)

 

25 minutes of near absolute silence being engrossed in the story. Pleasant silence. Unhappy when broken. Unusual to all in the classroom. Filled with mute emotions on Students’ faces which were read from their, very different, changing expressions: shocked looks, raising eye-brows, laughing (??!), frowning, sighing, eyes wide open. Watching Students read for Teacher was most exciting and eye-opening. The reactions of certain Students, who might have previously been labeled for repeated lines in their behaviour, shook the world of Teacher’s mind.

 

As everybody were leaving the classroom, after a brief sharing of  opinions regarding the title of the story and the shocking impact, the following lines were heard and noted:

STUDENT V (to Teacher): Goodbye. Don’t be sad.

STUDENT Agirl (to Teacher): Sleep enough.

Everybody leaves. Closing curtain.

*****

This class happened last Thursday and the notes used to write the post were made during the lesson itself. The decision to give the time to read in silence in class was impulsive. We didn’t do planned things. Reading literature is not part of our syllabus (and these are Physics students). I’m not ready to analyze how effective this move was and how much they learnt in comparison to what they could’ve learnt had we followed the plan. I can’t know or measure the impact of the decision I take until I take it and see what happens. As Josette LeBlanc used this word in her post once – fluid – it’s become one of my favourite words. Looks as if it refers all around my understanding of teaching at the moment. If the day/group/mood/ whatever other conditions had been different, this wouldn’t have happened, wouldn’t have been my choice.

And there’s no further analysis to this Play, just a funny post factum observation that we did read in class as one of the students had wished to do at the beginning of that lesson. =)

 

Thank you for reading.

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Feedback that just happened

This pile of students’ end-of-term feedback sheets has been on my desk for almost two months now. Every paper has fine varied questions about our course: with a range of answers provided, open-ended, specific, and encouraging a reflective look at the term of learning. As soon as I got them in mid-December, I flipped read through them thoroughly, with all due care and attention… in the metro, leaving my workplace for 6 weeks of winter holidays, with 85% of my brain activity being focused on something other than feedback sheets. *sorry kids*

Well today I was back in class. Same students for me this term, which is not too typical for our scheduling at the department. And for certain reasons I feel visibly energetic and happy, which is not too typical for me after a 4-hour sleep. I step into the class with a beaming smile and just a touch of a heavy heart of having to hide it from students I haven’t done my holiday teacher homework (not pretending though that they’d care too much). We do holiday time hashtags (laughter happened). We do SMART goal setting (learning and an amazing thoughtful attitude happened). And then, as casually as it does, feedback happened.

I am in the middle of going over the nitty-gritty of the point system we’ve been using, again, when one student raises his hand and says something like: “Can you give me some bonus points for the correction of mistakes on my essays? You always make notes and leave messages for me, but I really never pay any attention and just throw the paper into the waste bin. I’d be motivated to look into your notes.” (Several other students start nodding and expressing agreement. Apparently few of them ever paid attention.)
Bang. Thank you.

“Great idea. We can arrange that.”

I distribute post-it notes and say whatever suggestion or idea for improvement comes to their mind during the class, they can put it down and hand over to me.
But in fact we just start talking about it.
“More grammar, please!” (No surprise here, read this and this. Some variants have been agreed on.)
“Consider updating the spreadsheet with our points more often, please!” (?! No way. Once a month is my smart enough goal here.)
“Give away Teacher’s Pet Essay Award points that you decide on subjectively.” (Wow. I do write personal messages for everyone, sometimes long and detailed, sharing my impressions… It’s good to see they are appreciated and want to be seen as measured quantitatively))
“Let us see a monthly max of points we could score.” (Very logical and doable. I am being honest and tell them I was lazy but will fix it.)
“Let’s introduce bonus points for regular diligence. A student who performs at over 80% of monthly max for all four months gets prize points.” (Here they actually started showing off their mathematical mindsets and suggested intricate scoring schemes involving variables, but I stood my ground by protesting and was mercifully excused for being a language teacher.))
“Teach us idioms and proverbs.” (OK)
“Multiply assignment points for those who approach a task creatively or choose to do it in a more complicated format.” (? Multiplication suggestion is funny and clear, but the criteria for this generosity are not.)

Other, more ordinary and less interesting comments were also made. When I thought we’d really said it all and there was nothing to be added to my lengthy list of their remarks, concerns and proposals, some students handed in those post-its with yet MORE comments (others expressed a wish to keep the stickers in their notebooks in case they’d have some more insights for me). Every possible aspect was mentioned. I was blown away by their willingness to be part of the process, the part that matters and that can/will be heard.

I now have to revisit my own smart goals for these groups. And rack my brains for ways to make most of this actually happen. And keep the open space of our class open for more than this one class, when for certain reasons I feel insanely energetic and happy.

I also hope I have a heart big enough for any amount of bonus points)))

Thanks for reading this. Happy teaching!

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