Tuesday, November 29, 2005


I handed in my teaching journal today, but would like to keep this blog up and running. It was really useful to review and look over the entries again, as I was compiling and editing them. It's just useful to keep a record of my reflections: what challenges I've faced, what questions I've had, and how those questions, how my perceptions of those challenges, have changed over time.

Saw a film the other day that talked about what it means to be a "student-athlete" as opposed to an "athlete." In the same spirit, I'm not simply a teacher. I'm a student-teacher. It will be useful, in this space, to reflect not only on my development as an educator, but also as an educatee.

In TESL class today we discussed and reflected upon the observations we'd done this semester. The teacher commented that, in retrospect she can see that some of the teachers that were observed simply are not good teachers. In particular, she complained that a few of the observed teachers didn't follow the lesson plan or the syllabus; they were relaxed and basically winged it.

There is absolutely such a thing as an underprepared teacher, and there is absolutely such a thing as winging it in order to fill out class-time, rather than to progress towards a goal. However, I'm not convinced that a structured lesson plan is always the best way to teach a class.

Lessons do need to be planned. The instructor absolutely needs to have a solid understanding of what the students can do, and what they need to learn. Classroom activities should always be structured with this in mind: we're going somewhere, not just passing time.

It's popular these days to think of information being organized in a non-linear manner. Instead of categorizing information on the internet, we do Google searches. Contemporary linguistics research suggests that, rather than processing information in order to create intelligible sound, we cluster it. And I'm tempted to think of lesson plans in a similar way.

There is definitely a linear progression of time throughout a semester, and from the beginning to the end of a class. And there is a linear structure to much education: first you learn the foundation, then you learn the details. While there's constant negotiation among levels (the "zone of proximal development"), it seems useful to teach first one thing and then the next.

Nevertheless, there needs to be room for spontenaity and flexibility. Let's say that the students need to work on linking & reduction. I can structure a lesson plan that first shows an example of the way native speakers link & reduce sounds, then ask students for examples from their L1s, get them to come up with examples from English, provide some more examples, give some time for practice, and so on...

Or I can brainstorm ways to make them conscious of linking & reduction, materials that will teach the English method of linking & reduction, stress-identification activities, pronunciation practice, fluency practice, and the like. I can prepare these materials, and have them with me all week, and insert them as I find the opportunity. The "topic" of class that week might be something totally unrelated, perhaps something having to do with vocabulary. But I might spend ten minutes on Monday introducting linking & reduction, and then as we work on other things throughout the week, throw in practice on linking and on reduction. If I observe the students becoming very conscious of the way their speech flows, I might interrupt whatever else is going on and spend half an hour working on fluency.

In a real sense, this is a way to intelligently "wing it." Rather than structuring every second of class time, I keep an eye on the students, keep an eye on their needs, and constantly adapt activities to suit their immediate problems, without forgetting long-term goals. While any given day of class might depart wildly from the lesson plan, I would still be teaching effectively.


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