Saturday, November 05, 2005

Report, Observation #2

My second observation was of the same ASE 1 class that I observed earlier in the semester. It seemed useful, for this observation, to focus on time management.

The bulk of class time was to be spent on a series of role-plays; in addition the class had to conclude an activity from the previous day.

I remember from my previous observation that time-management had been a problem the teacher was concerned about and working on. That day, she had broken the class into small groups each working on their own activity, and then went from group to group in order to clarify and elicit interaction. One group, however, had demanded the bulk of her attention and she’d been unable to work at all with another group because of this. It's a problem she was well aware of; nevertheless there were just certain students that took a lot of time. She'd talked about planning to converse one-on-one with these students and see if she could find ways to encourage them to be participate more readily in class.

As students entered the classroom, they chatted happily 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.

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 "defendent" and "plaintiff." As students continued having problems with word choice or vocabulary gaps, the teacher would offer suggestions-- but rarely feed a single phrase. The students seemed comfortable with one another and with the teacher, so she had enough presence and influence to keep things moving, to get them to act.

The transition into the main activity was brief: "You guys like acting. Let's do a little acting." She 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 who. This caused momentary confusion, as of the nine students only eight volunteered 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.

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.

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, and the fact that they were 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. On occasion, a student wouldn't completely understand his role, and would ask for clarification on vocabulary. In fact, there were so many vocabulary questions that I wondered whether it wouldn't have been better to have spent two or three minutes beforehand going over some of the more difficult words.

In the second roleplay, where a believer 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, [believer], 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 by 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 succesfully negotiated an escape from the situation.

After the roleplays, the teacher spoke 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.

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, one student 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 how easily he was able to explain the concept, and succesfully 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 negotiated the concept and reached the appropriate answer (diagonals are fine).

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