Monday, October 24, 2005

Classroom interaction

Next week I'll be giving a micro-teach focusing on "classroom interaction." This topic is a little more vague than, say, "vocabulary" or "listening." Nearly every presentation so far has been interactive. So I'll need to come up with something of substance that can be taught in a way that stimulates students to interact with one another.

Independent of anything else, I'd been thinking of teaching an introductory Russian lesson, just because it would be fun to teach Russian. But this probably isn't ideal, as introductory lessons are necessarily teacher-fronted. What I need is something that, once I set it up, will keep going without my intervention.

Interactive strategies that have been used thus far:
-Pairwork. Having acquired new vocabulary, the students practice a short scripted dialogue in groups of two or three.
-Games. Students use newly-acquired vocabulary to find other students similar to them in some way, or to elicit information from other students.
-Chorus. Having taught new vocabulary, the teacher elicits all the students to respond in unison, or one at a time.
-Rotating partners. In an information-gap activity, each student interviews several others in order to get a sense of the information they're missing. Then several students pool their information to come up with a common story.

I really liked the rotating-partner activity; I found it a very effective way to stimulate interaction. Half of the class (the "witnesses") had seen a short video clip, and the other half (the "reporters") had only heard the sound effects. Each witness, however, could give an account only of part of the clip, so each reporter had to interview several of us in order to get a sense of what actually happened. The reporters then talked amongst themselves in order to develop a clear description of the events.

Once this situation was set up by the teacher, she had to do relatively little to keep it going, to keep students interacting.

I would like to achieve a similar outcome: provoke the students to collaborate with one another, then back off to watch it play yet.

I don't yet have an idea of how I will do this, or even what sort of class I'll be pretending to teach.

Since I work in ASE, it might be useful to simulate an ASE class. The session could then be content-focused: introduce a topic, and get students to discuss it. Every week in ASE 2 the students spend a good 20 - 40 minutes just talking about their classes that week. While the teacher provides advice and occasionally brings up a point or a question, most of that time is simply student interaction-- they give one another feedback, and often very good feedback. The classroom interaction is free and easy.

But of course in ASE 2 they all have something to talk about-- and their spoken English is really very good. It will be more difficult for me to motivate the TESL class to have a free, interactive conversation.

But maybe I could.

Perhaps in my micro-teach, I could simply bring up some challenges that teachers face. Grading, or asking effective questions, for example. I could have the students read a brief excerpt from Communicate, then discuss its contents amongst themselves, then come together for a quick discussion of the issue.

Not only would this simulate a realistic ASE 2 situation, but I think the TESL students would actually benefit from it, since ASE 2 is also a teacher-training class.

Friday, October 21, 2005


I have never assigned a grade. While I'm mostly glad about this-- evaluating, ranking, judging students seems like no fun at all-- at times I've wished that I did have the authority to affect a student's grade. Simply because this would make me more respected/ feared.

I'm team-teaching a Video/ Feedback session, which itself is only one component of an intensive three-part pre-service teacher training course. The whole course is pass/ fail-- at the end of the semester, students are either adequately prepared to be TAs, or else they aren't. And it's the primary instructor who assigns the grade; while feedback from me may influence the instructor's decision, I don't actually evaluate my students.

One student just isn't doing well. He's not putting much effort into the class; he's not taking it seriously. Consequently, his presentation style is very weak. I'm trying to figure out how to put the fear of God into him so that he'll start taking V/ F seriously. His feefdback partner is also my best student: her presentations are always original, creative and well-prepared. She's managed to introduce some very complicated ideas in an accessible manner, and will be a strong teacher.

I worry that she will be de-motivated by the fact that her presentation partner is putting so little effort into the class. Already last week she didn't prepare for the feedback session, and I wonder if this was because she knows the other guy never prepares.

I really hesitate to pit the two against each other. There's a lot he could learn from her-- but while they're both in the same room, I mustn't treat them differently or express preference for one over the other. Nevertheless there's the simple fact that one of them is doing just about everything wrong, and the other has many things spot-on.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Role Play

Interspersed with our discussions in ASE 2 we've begun to do role-plays. We'll debate some aspects of an issue, and then have two students come up front and act it out. This is mostly in the context of interaction with students: how to confront cheating, how to negotiate make-up work, how to put off interaction until a more appropriate time, and the like.

I've been finding this surprisingly useful. By acting a situation out-- especially by playing the part of the student-- I'm alerted to aspects of it that I would otherwise not have noticed. Effective communication; how to speak the same "language" as the student. How to not give the student what they want but nevertheless have them leave satisfied with the interaction-- not because they got what they wanted, but because they understand my policies and rationale.

Being an effective teacher requires competence. If a student confronts me about a grade, and I've assigned that grade fairly and have reasoned it out well, then I can confidently look back over the test with the student and explain how I arrived at my decision. Or, if it turns out that I have made an error in grading-- but my grading policy itself is transparent and well-reasoned-- the error will be easy to find and easy to fix fairly and unambiguously. Either way, whether the grade ought to be changed or not, the student and I will arrive at the same conclusion: because I know what I'm doing.

If I've not thought out my grading policy well, if I've been careless or subjective in assigning grades, then there's much greater chance for the interaction to break down. I might go on the defensive, feeling like my authority as a teacher has been challenge and believing it more important not to lose face than to address the issue honestly and fairly. The best way to deal with sticky issues, in other words, is to prevent them altogether.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Thought it would be easy...

I had a brief assignment in ASE 2 today: to get students to reflect on a short section in their textbook, about the difference between direct and indirect expressions. It was really basic-- read & discuss in groups, then pull together to run through an exercise or two. Bland.

There's a particularly good student in the class-- call him Herman. He's an experienced teacher, his command of English is excellent and comes from a culture similar to that of the United States. He's a great asset to the course, but one of the challenges in teaching it is to make it worth his while. He knows a lot of the stuff already, and frankly he's a better teacher than I'll ever be.

So, as I was mechanically going through the exercise, asking for feedback, Herman suggested that the issue of "indirect" vs. "direct" statements isn't nearly as important as simply being a good teacher. Some teachers are blunt. Others beat around the bush. Just depends on your style.

His comment questioned the validity of doing the exercise at all. And for him, the exercise really was meaningless: it was targeted at other students. I was faced, suddenly, with the problem of having my authority challenged.

1) I essentially agreed with Herman. The time wasn't being spent very valuably, these mechanical exercises weren't doing anybody much good.

2) I realized it was my fault. Some of the Asian students in particular really do need to think about the way they construct their statements, as well as their tone of voice, because these accidental traits are things that many American students find confrontational. This is to say, the exercise had a good purpose, but I'd failed to draw out and emphasize that purpose.

3) I really had no interest in making Herman think that the exercise was important to him. My goal was mostly just to finish the task and move on. But, I felt this need to re-establish control and authority.

4) It's really bad to be forced to defend a position that you don't particularly agree with, or one that you haven't thought out in detail.

5) "You must listen to me because I'm the teacher" is unconvincing and weak.

So, what should I have done?

1) reflect more on the exercise. I thought I knew why speech directness was important, but it turns out that I didn't.

2) briefly present it to the class before plunging into the exercise. "This is about speech directness. While it's only one component of positive communication, it is nevertheless something to think about. What are different ways we might get the same information across? Why might we employ different strategies?"

3) refrain from turning it into a methodology. Indirectness vs. directness is not simply a matter of "when A do B." It's not a formula for creating perfect communication. Rather, it's something to consider.

4) place it in context. Acknowledge the importance of other factors.

5) If I had done all these things, I probably wouldn't have had a student challenge the importance of the exercise. Nevertheless, I would have had a good sense of why I believe it matters, and would have been able to make an effective case, rather than taking Herman's criticism personally.

Things did turn out very well. Herman was aware that he'd made me uncomfortable, and he apologized. I'm really glad he did this. Even though I was in the wrong, so to speak, his apology created the chance for interaction that wasn't based on our previous debate. We were now discussing not the content of our earlier interaction, but rather its context.

I'll have to think more on how I might have restored a positive relationship, had he not apologized.

I told Herman not to feel bad about making me uncomfortable. I told him that while I do feel the exercise has value, he's not the one who really needs it, and so I can see why he finds it a waste of time. Rather than try to re-establish my authority, I reminded him that I'm an apprentice, and that he's an experienced teacher. "I'm in training here. Give me feedback!"

This was, I believe, a good way to approach it. He's a better teacher than I am. And if I try to hide that fact and assert my superiority, not only will I fail but I'll create a good deal of tension. Having acknowledged his expertise, I hope to take advantage of it. And hopefully some of these mechanical exercises will become more meaningful if he sees them as a chance for him to evaluate me as a trainee.

"So you want me to push you?" he asked as we were walking out the door.

"Yes!" I replied. "Some day I'm going to have bad students confronting me, and I want to be prepared."

"I know," he said. "You'll get students who don't care how you feel, and the little fuckers will do anything to make it difficult for you."