Monday, September 12, 2005

Observation 1

I observed a class last Friday. It was in Academic Spoken English, geared toward international graduate students who want to get teaching assignments. This course, ASE 1, helps prepare them for a spoken exam which they must pass in order to get a TA-ship. There are clear economic motivations, then, for doing well in this course.

ASE 1 has three components-- lecture, Language Lab, and Video/ Feedback. Each component has a different instructor. I observed an hour of lecture followed by an hour of Language Lab.

My emphasis, in this observation, was on student interaction. The goal of the course is for the students to interact competently with their own students, so the ways in which they interact with one another and with the teacher are very important.

The lecture component had nine students, all male. Seven were east Asian, one French, and one Turkish. As they entered the classroom, two Chinese students immediately engaged the teacher, telling an anecdote that related to the previous week's assignment. It was a funny story, and they were eager to get the humor across to her. Then one of the students-- the butt of the joke-- continued to talk about the previous week's assignment, which involved finding a newspaper article and presenting it. As he read the paper, he said, he "had trouble breaking it up into thought groups." He was relating real-life experience-- reading a newspaper-- with course material-- phrasal structure and thought groups.

Interaction, however, was primarily between teacher and student, not peer-to-peer.

The teacher opened with what was probably a review of a previous exercise, asking one student ["John"] "how do I get to your house from here?" When he struggled with this, she simplified it to "how do I get from here to the Reitz Union?" and invited the whole class to come up with directions. She did, however, pay special attention to John, getting him as much as possible to repeat the directions and to keep trying to come up with them on his own. Most student interaction was between the teacher and the students; the students rarely addressed each other in formulating their directions.

The class then transitioned to housekeeping. The teacher assigned topics for the video/ feedback component, and asked the students to think of ways that they would present the material. She then reviewed the V/F website, repeating instructions at least once. Few (no?) students took any notes, but one had a question. The teacher asked another student if he could answer the question. After he did, she affirmed and clarified his answer.

Next was a warm-up exercise: the students presented a short summary of the news article they'd selected. When nobody volunteered, the student picked John. He was hesitant, but she encouraged him, repeating the information he gave, clarifying it, and asking follow-up questions.

Some students presented their information simply and concisely, and the teacher quickly passed on to other students. With those who had trouble, she spent more time asking questions and clarifying information. With some, however, the teacher asked questions designed to elicit discussion. For example, one student had an article about gangs in Korea, and instead of talking about the information in the article, the teacher began a conversation about Korean gangs-- asking whether they were similar more to a mafia or to street gangs, what sort of illegal activity they engaged in, how influential they were. The conversation wasn't very successful: the Korean students had difficulty, I think, figuring out the direction of the teacher's questions.

When a student had especial difficulty answering a specific question, the teacher would try a few different wasy but if the difficulty persisted she'd eventually back off, going on to another student without resolving the communication gap.

One student's article was on gay marriage. Rather than going in to the details of the article (Schwarzenneger vetoing the bill), the teacher opened up the classroom for discussion: "what do you think of gay marriage?" This generated a bit of interaction among students-- one clearly took a side for and another against. One of these students had a short argument which he was able to state clearly and simply ("I disagree. I think that X. . .") The other student had more difficulty articulating his position, and the teacher filled in the gaps to such a degree that, while the student readily assented to what she said ("Yes, that's right"), I'm not confident that anyone was able to determine whether the teacher's summary of his argument was the same as his actual argument.

In preparation for a discussion time, the students were given a brief list of vocabulary that would appear in their discussion readings. The teacher asked the students to guess the meaning of each word-- about three participated readly, and the others passively observed and took notes.

After the students read the article, they broke into groups for discussion. Each group began conversation readily, though the content of the discussions were different. In one group, the three members were debating the article (it was a brief piece about a court case, and they had to decide how they would rule if they were the judge); but in another group, the students were clarifying the article's actual contents. It seemed that in some groups, one student would dominate the discussion while another might remain mostly silent.

The teacher briefly observed one group, then spent the bulk of her time facilitating discussion with a second group-- clarifying, asking questions, trying to generate opinions. One student with weaker language skills seemed to change his position based on her argument-- though her purpose in making the argument was to give him a chance to refute, not agree with her. The third group, she never observed.


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