Monday, November 07, 2005

Combined observation report

UF's Academic Spoken English program (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. All three of my observations were of this lecture component of one of the ASE 2 classes. The first observation occurred early in the semester, giving me a sense of where the class was at the beginning. I did my last two observations back-to-back in the second half of the semester, in order to see what progress had been made. Observing consecutive classes gave me a picture of the continuity from one class to the other.
The lecture component has little in common with a traditional “lecture” course, but gets its name because it is the only portion of ASE 2 that is teacher-fronted in any regular sense. Lecture focuses on communication issues, mostly in the context of small-group discussion, debate and opinion-sharing. The goal is to get students comfortable with real-time academic English. For the first observation, 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 elicit 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, I’m not sure 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 influential 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 special 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-- 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 was thinking about telling him that he can't bring the electronic dictionary to class anymore. One-on-one evaluations were coming up shortly, and that would 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.
During my first observation, time management seemed to be an issue. The teacher had to negotiate how to give attention and feedback to each student, when a few of them demanded more than others. For my second observation, I decided to focus on the strategies she used to maximize student interaction without cutting into the time spent on other students. I was also interested to see what progress had been made in classroom interaction.
As students entered the classroom, they chatted amongst themselves and with the teacher. Those who had been talkative in my previous visit remained talkative, but this time the other students were talking and laughing as well. They seemed to have a very friendly, natural relationship with the teacher; there were few inhibitions. The class came more or less to order when a student asked the teacher about the topic for the following week's presentation. She turned the question back over to the class, and asked if they could agree on a topic. They negotiated eagerly but failed to reach a conclusion, so after about a minute the teacher ended the discussion by telling them that the topic was open. Once again, I observed the entire class participating.
The class then concluded the previous day's activity, in which the students had played different roles in a mock trial: it was time for the judge to give the verdict. The student appointed to be the "judge" was nervous, saying "I don't know judge's style," so the teacher gave him a phrase: "I rule in favor of X," as well as briefly explaining the words "defendant" and "plaintiff." As students continued having problems with word choice or vocabulary gaps, the teacher would offer suggestions.
The transition into the main activity was brief: "You guys like acting. Let's do a little acting." The instructor passed out slips of paper, each which defined a character and described how that character would act in the role-play, and then wrote the names of the characters on the board, explaining who was assigned to whom. This caused momentary confusion, as of the nine students only eight seemed to know what their roles were. So the teacher had to backtrack and have each student say, in turn, what his role was until the confused participant was identified.
Several other things slowed the instructor down. For example, when she asked for volunteers, nobody offered, so after badgering them for a few seconds ("you guys sleepy today?") the teacher gave them two minutes to prepare for the role-play. As they prepared, several students asked basic vocabulary questions that pertained to their roles. There were so many of these questions that I wondered whether it would have been worthwhile to do a little vocab prep beforehand.
The role-plays were all amusing scenarios-- a reluctant kid at a doctor's office, someone trying to persuade a friend to join a whale-watching cult, an obnoxious waiter, and a paranoiac warning a passerby that the local bank had been overtaken by aliens. The fact that they were really funny situations helped to loosen the students up, being allowed to say absurd things probably made them more willing to experiment with their language. The teacher took notes as they did their dialogues, and intervened when they worked themselves into a corner.In the roleplay where a believer-- who I'll call Bert-- was trying to convince a skeptic to join a whale-watching cult, the student who played the skeptic acquiesced very easily. The teacher intervened more than once ("Do you really believe in telepathy with whales? Isn't there anything you want to say?"), and the "skeptic" attempted to argue, but when it was apparent that this would be a prolonged conversation, the teacher cut them off: "OK, Bert, you win!"
The banking roleplay involved a student, "Sean," who in my previous observation had been very reticent. While he was still one of the more quiet students, he participated readily, coming up with quirky responses to keep the dialogue going. He did have some vocabulary gaps, but because he was talkative it was possible to determine what areas he needed work on-- before, he'd been so silent that it would be pure guesswork just to decide what was appropriate to teach him. As the roleplay drew to a close, his partner-- who was warning not to invest in a certain bank because it had been taken over by aliens-- seemed to dominate. But when the teacher pushed Sean a little ("You're not going to take his advice, are you?"), he got back into the argument and successfully negotiated an escape from the situation.
The teacher concluded the roleplays by speaking about them for a few minutes, pointing out what they had illustrated: "What do you do if you're in an awkward situation and you want to get out without being rude?" Because there was little time left, she wasn't really able to get the class into a prolonged discussion about the usefulness of the exercises in the real world-- but hopefully enough was said that they'll think about it on their own time.
Time management was still a problem here. It's tough-- when you want to get students talking, you don't want to have to cut them off. But it's equally important that each gets a chance to have his say, and that time remains for the teacher to wrap up. Often a few moments of teacher-fronted class time will frame the entire period in a way where students are able to reflect upon whatever activity their time has been occupied with. None of the role-plays reached a clear conclusion; it seemed that the students would have been willing simply to not stop talking. So the instructor had to find appropriate places, where they had progressed far enough to get something out of it, but not so long as to steal time from others.
After the teacher left, the students stayed in the classroom for the next component of their class, Language Lab. As they were waiting for their instructor, Bert drew a few others to the blackboard and wrote out a logic puzzle. It was a series of dots, and the goal is to connect them all with four straight lines. I was impressed at his ability to explain the concept, and successfully negotiate questions: another student wanted to know if it was OK to draw diagonals, and although neither of them knew the word diagonal, they quickly communicate the concept and reached the appropriate answer (diagonals are fine). This was a small example of what I'd been wondering about earlier, whether the class could reach the point where students would interact without instructor mediation.
As a trainee in ASE, I’ve been regularly observing classes and team-teaching certain components. Having gained this experience since my last conference with this teacher, I felt comfortable making a few comments that are more in line with Freeman’s model of the “alternatives approach.” Nevertheless, I still see myself primarily as an apprentice and so my comments largely took the familiar non-directive approach. As I continue to develop experience in ASE, I may eventually be in a position where I can confidently and wisely act as a supervisor, but this will occur no time soon.
The teacher commented on the improvement in class participation, saying that while she’s seen students like Sean getting gradually better, there was a noticeable leap right after the midterm evaluations. Two weeks earlier, she’d had a chance to meet one-on-one with each student, and she made a point to encourage Sean to be more assertive in class. She believes this reassured him, because while he’s unconfident about his English skills, he now knows that she recognizes this and wants his participation nonetheless.
Time management actually wasn’t something she was too worried about. This class was on a Friday, and was intended to be loosely structured and fun. Nevertheless it was important to give adequate time to each student. The teacher said that sometimes she sets strict time limits, announcing the students that they have ten minutes, for example, to prepare before an activity, and then warning them during the activity about how much time they have remaining. When there’s a lot to cover in a day this is necessary, but on a Friday doing something that’s essentially review and reinforcement, she was willing to be more lax.
I commented that the role-plays, while being terribly fun, had a purpose (from the teacher’s point of view) that the students probably didn’t get. They needed to practice the negotiation involved in extracting themselves from difficult situations, but in the role-plays most of them were happy to continue with the dialogue for as long as they could. They didn’t really work on this, the teacher agreed, and this is the second time that she’s brought the topic up. Next time she plans to introduce the purpose before-hand, and to remind the students during the role-plays that they should be talking with exit strategies in mind.
I was also able to observe the following lesson, on Monday afternoon, with an eye on speaking. While the Friday class had been a loosely organized activity, Monday’s consisted almost entirely of housekeeping. The teacher told me that she had to introduce the final project and convince the students to start thinking about it, as well as prepping them for a short debate in the next day’s class. They’ve been doing a lot of debates in class, and the teacher said that initially she’d planned for the end-of-semester project to be something different. Traditionally, however, the two ASE 2 classes do a final project together, holding a debate against one another. Because of this external constraint, the rest of the semester will continue to focus very heavily on debate, so the students should have very good debate skills by the end. While they’ve had a lot of practice, the teacher assured me that there are still some areas they’re weak on, particularly organization and use of key language. I recalled that in the previous class a student assigned to be “judge” had expressed concern that he didn’t have a good grasp of the sort of language traditionally used in court decisions.
Class began more formally than it had the day before, with the teacher introducing the end-of-semester debate and asking for topic suggestions. When the students were reluctant to volunteer ideas, she offered one: should professionals be allowed in the Olympic games? This wasn't very productive: she could elicit student reactions only with a lot of tooth-pulling. Eventually she gave up, and made it a homework assignment for the next class, with each student required to bring one debate idea. As she gave this assignment, the teacher noticed several students writing furiously, finishing a homework due that day. She got them to stop by extending the deadline for an additional day.
With an eye on the clock, the teacher quickly moved on with instructions for the debate. As she passed out an instruction packet, she pointed out a typo and explained the format. She then reminded the students of their weaknesses: organization and key language. The last few pages of the handouts had lists of key phrases useful in debate. In order to draw their attention to it, she had them repeat each phrase after her in chorus. While this probably didn't do much to teach them the phrases, I suspect it reinforced their awareness of those pages as a resource.
The teacher then moved on to the final task of the class-time: preparing the students for the next day's activity, in which they'd have to argue a position. She began passing out slips of paper describing the position they would have to argue.
At this point, the student who had arrived late asked his neighbor what had happened at the beginning of class. His neighbor discreetly and quietly explained the homework assignment, as another student pointed out anerror on the debate packet: it had been recycled from the previous semester, so all the dates were wrong. The teacher apologized and discussed due dates with them. I was impressed at the complexity of her students' questions as they confirmed the dates for the project.
The students were then given five minutes to read their assignments and begin thinking out arguments in support of them. Some objected to the positions they'd been assigned, jokingly attempting to trade papers. The teacher firmly forbade this, but laughed as she said "no, no no no no no no," keeping the tone of the interaction light-hearted.
The teacher had warned the class that she would have to leave early, so after half an hour she wrapped up and left. As she walked out the door, Bert suggested that they remain to discuss possibly debate topics. To my surprise, they all readily agreed. So Bert went up to the blackboard and began writing down his colleagues' brainstorms. When one suggested gay marriage, the others quickly shot it down, as well as anything else political: "No more abortion or gay marriage! Let's talk about something positive!" Bert affirmed this, saying "Let's try to find something very small, where it doesn't matter too much whether you're against or for." He cited cheese import laws as an example, and the others quickly began coming up with ideas ranging from the UF international student fee and traffic light orientation, to whether ASE 2 was a worthwhile course. This continued until the end of the hour, when Bert announced in a mock-authoritarian voice that class was done. The other students chuckled and applauded, several telling him sincerely that he had done a great job.
"Thanks," he laughed. "I want to be a teacher."
The class I observed earlier in the semester definitely wouldn't have discussed and debated anything together without pressure from the teacher. But now they can. Part of this may simply be due to the fact that they're more comfortable around one another, but a lot of it is from what their instructor has done. By consistently pushing the reluctant students to speak, and by individually communicating that their participation really is important, she's brought them to the point where they can actually manage without her. It was particularly interesting being an observer because occasionally the students would draw on me as a resource. The first time Bert called on me to explain a vocab word, I was startled, but warmed to it pretty quickly. While I didn't interrupt the discussion, I figured it would be prudent to answer questions put to me and provide feedback when asked for it. Overall, however, they would have done fine without me. Several students made various speaking errors, or revealed gaps in their vocabulary, but more often than not the rest of the class filled the gaps in or corrected the errors-- for any given problem, it seemed that at least one student had the answer, and was willing to share.


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