Monday, September 19, 2005

Report, Observation #1

UF's Academic Spoken English programe (ASE) provides teacher training for the university's international graduate students. Some courses are pre-service, teaching prospective teaching assistants (TAs) how to effectively teach English-language undergraduate courses, and others are in-service, mentoring current TAs and providing them with a forum where they can share insights and discuss problems related to teaching American students.

While ASE is, strictly speaking, a kind of ESL class, the program's philosophy is that the best way to teach effective English-language communication is simply to teach effective communication. Therefore the program is essentially one of teacher-training, concentrating on those areas where international teachers might find the greatest difficulty.

ASE 1-- an intensive pre-service training course-- is divided into three team-taught components: Language Lab, Video / Feedback, and Lecture. In Language Lab the students, assisted by a professor and by TAs, concentrate on individual areas of weakness-- lots of pronunciation practice. In Video / Feedback, they give presentations which are recorded and then workshopped. It was the final component, Lecture, that I observed.

The lecture component focuses on communication issues, mostly in the context of small-group discussion and opinion-sharing. The goal is to get students comfortable with real-time classroom English. I met with the teacher briefly before class. The lesson plan, which she said was fairly typical, was split into two major sections. The first was a warm-up where students presented news articles, and the second was a small-group discussion activity about an article on a controversial topic, chosen by the teacher. My focus in this observation was student interaction-- how does the teacher encourage and incite participation among all students? Because successful completion of this course implies ability to interact effectively with American undergraduates, peer interaction is an essential component.

All nine students were male. Seven were from east Asia, one from France, and one from Turkey. 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 communicate its humor. Then one of the students-- the butt of the joke-- continued to talk about the previous class'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 the paper-- to course material (the previous week had concentrated on phrasal stress and thought groups).

Other students entered more quietly. One (we'll call him Sean) took out an electronic dictionary. The teacher opened with what was probably a review of a previous exercise, asking Sean "how do I get from your house from here?" When he struggled with this (he said the word "bus" and left it at that), she simplified it to "how do I get from here to the Reitz Union?" and eventually invited the whole class to come up with directions. She did, however, pay special attention to Sean, getting him as much as possible to repeat the directions and keep trying to come up with them on his own. Most student interaction was between the teacher and individual students-- the teacher would mediate their dialogue by repeating a student's comment and asking others for feedback. While the class as a whole quickly came up with clear directions to the Reitz Union, it was unclear whether Sean was any farther along in being able to give instructions independently.

The lesson 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. After he did, she affirmed and clarified his response. Once again, student interaction (one student asks a question, another answers) was mediated by the instructor.

Next was a warm-up exercise: the students presented a short summary of the news article they'd selected. When nobody volunteered to start, the teacher picked Sean. He was hesitant, but she encouraged him, repeating the information he gave, clarifying it, and asking follow-up questions. Some students presented their articles simply and concisely, and the teacher quickly passed on to others. With those who had trouble, she spent more time asking questions and clarifying information. With some, however, the teacher asked questions designed not to clarify the article's content but 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 instructor began a conversation about Korean gang culture-- asking whether it was similar more to a mafia or to street gangs, what sort of illegal activity gangs engaged in, how influetial they were. The conversation wasn't very successful: the Korean students (Sean among them) seemed to have difficulty understanding the purpose of the questions.

When a student had especial difficulty answering a specific question, the instructor would try asking it a few different ways, but would eventually back off, sometimes going on to another student without resolving the communication gap. This discussion was also mediated by the instructor ("George says X. Edward, what do you think?"), with one notable exception. One student presented an article on Gov. Schwarzenegger's veto of the California gay marriage bill, and the teacher opened the issue up to the class for discussion. One student defended the veto, and another jumped in immediately saying "I disagree!" and articulating an argument for his position. The two had a brief debate, made lively by the fact that each was fairly concerned about accurately describing his viewpoint. The student in favor of gay marriage stated his argument with great clarity; his opponent had more difficulty finding the vocabulary to describe his position. The instructor filled in gaps to such a degree that, while this student readily assented to what she said ("Yes, that's right") I'm not confident that any of us were able to determine to what extent 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 reading. The teacher asked the class to guess the meaning of each word. About three participated readily, while the others passively observed and took notes.

After reading the article, the students broke into groups for discussion. Each began conversation readily, but the content differed from group to group. In one group, the three members were actively debating the article (it was a brief piece about a court case; 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 amongst themselves. It seemed that in some groups, one student would dominate the discussion while another might remain mostly silent.

The teacher 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-- Sean-- seemed to change his position based on her argument. Though her purpose in making the argument was to give him a chance to refute it, he took the easy way out by simply agreeing with her. She ran out of time before getting a chance to observe the third group.

A few days after observing, I met briefly with the teacher to discuss what I'd seen. We talked mostly about classroom management-- how to interact effectively with all the students, and how to keep them active and engaged. She said that she made a point to pay attention to the struggling students, and to give them plenty off opportunity to speak and discuss. If any student brought up a topic that had good potential for discussion, she'd offer it up to the whole class, but in addition to this she made sure that the weak students were pushed.

Each class has a different dynamic, she said, and she wouldn't bring up a controversial topic like gay marriage unless she got a vibe that they'd be able to handle it well. This class, from what she'd already picked up, was interested in debating such things, although one or two students had a tendency to dominate. There's a point, she said, when you gently ask a particularly talkative student to give another person a chance to speak.

Sometimes a teacher manages time poorly, and isn't able to give equal attention to all the students. For example, the instructor was unable to meet with the third discussion group. However, in the next class the students did a follow-up discussion, and that time round she made sure to give the third group plenty of attention.

Then there are difficult students, like Sean, who are reluctant to speak and pay more attention to their electronic dictionaries than to what's going on in class. The teacher said that she tries a different strategy every time. For example, in the class I observed, she tried to engage him in debate by arguing against his position-- but he merely switched sides and assented with her. Earlier, she said she had tried defending a position he took, hoping to get him interested enough to come up with more ideas on his own. She knows that he wants to open a bar in Korea, so she tried to relate the topic of Korean mafia to how it might affect his bar. So far, no strategy has been effective. Soon, she's thinking about telling him that he can't bring the electronic dictionary to class anymore. There are also one-on-one evaluations coming up shortly, and that will give her an opportunity to emphasize to Sean that if he wants to pass the course, he'll need to be more involved in class.

It is valuable for students in a communicative ESL classroom to engage in unmediated interaction. After all, such spontaneous interaction is the goal of the course. It's impossible, however, to expect that students will do this unprovoked. In part, their cultural expectation of what a classroom should be will likely involve an instructor-mediated approach. Also, most students-- even very good students-- rarely do more work than they have to. An effective teacher will push the students to interact with her-- this is better than nothing-- and frequently will be able to act as mediator or catalyst in peer-to-peer interaction. Eventually, she should be able to remove herself from the interaction, allowing the students to address one another directly. In the likely event that this breaks down, the instructor must continue to engage students-- especially those weak or reluctant-- in such a way that they have no choice but to participate.


Post a Comment

<< Home