The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?

Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

After a hectic 4 days at IATEFL Brighton, followed by the come-down of those post-conference blues, I started to reflect upon the talks I had attended and the same message that seemed to be stressed and repeated again and again. And when I realised that I could no longer tweet these thoughts in 140 words, I gave in to the pull of starting my own blog, suppressing previous embarrasments and worries of the seemingly ego-centric nature of the extended airing of my own views and experiences online.

The conference started with Peter Grundy striking the perfect balance between humour, practical teaching tips and academic rigour as he spoke about the importance of Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and the creation of meaning through conversational implicatures.

The message: Communication is much more than literal meanings, for meaning comes from use.

In Dave Willis’s talk, he demonstrated the use of an authentic conversation used in a task-based classroom.

The message: Learners don’t systematically build up their grammar in the linear fashion that coursebooks would have us believe in.

Fiona James spoke about the use of visualisation to tap into the students’ imagination and inner lives and in doing so, develop the students intrapersonal skills, improve their self-concept, and most importantly for the language teacher, encourage lots of speaking and emergent language.

The message: Learners’ lives and imaginations are the most valuable resource that can be tapped.

Eugene Schaefer’s talk ‘Chuck the Book! Learner-generated Roleplays’ entertained the delegates with practical ideas and energised us with an array of drama-based activities.

The message (I got out of it) : A coursebook-less lesson could be filled with excitment and fun, and doesn’t have to resemble a chat in the pub.

Chaz Pugliese talked about using creativity in the classroom to motivate learners, reminding us teachers to have fun, or we might bore the students.

The message: Real-play, as opposed to Roleplay, allows learners to bring their own identity into the classroom.

Ultimately, they all point towards one thing. That good teaching is simply about supplying structures and frameworks that allow learners to bring themselves into the language classrooms, facilitating genuine interactions that put learners at the centre of their learning process, and providing opportunities for learners to encounter language in use. It is certainly not about letting coursebooks dictate which grammar point one needs to learn next, diverting learners away from what they truly want to talk about in favour of the perfect lesson plan we have created, or playing audio recordings of John and Jane Doe that learners do not care about in an attempt to enforce some listening practice. Ultimately, they all point towards a Dogme approach to teaching.

My conference experience was wrapped up appropriately by the Dogme Symposium, in which Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan, Candy Van Olst, Howard Vickers and Scott Thornbury talked about this conversation-driven, materials-light, and student-focussed approach to teaching. Amongst lots of laughter as we watched Luke drill us to say ‘Dogme’ in the Danish way and Anthony sing to get pairwork to stop, Candy hit the nail on the head when she said that we should let learners talk about what is meaningful to them as we learn to be the listener of stories rather than the storyteller. Why do we spend time contextualising our lessons, when the context is right there in front of our eyes? In Anthony’s words, why import interest into the classroom when we have real stories of people’s lives in the room?

During the gruelling Q&A session, less-convinced delegates started to question the effectiveness of Dogme in Business English classrooms especially for newly-qualified teachers, claiming that the teacher needed to plan the technical jargon that they were going to teach, and couldn’t afford to be caught out during the lesson. It took me a lot of effort to stop myself from yelling ‘In all my years of Business English teaching, I have never been asked by any of my students to teach them jargon!’ Most of my students know more business jargon than I do, and I see no shame in getting them to explain the concepts of their specialization to me. The most important lesson I had learnt when I completed my LCCI CERT TEB (a Celta-like qualification for Business English teachers) years ago was this: I am an expert in using English for business communication. I am not an expert in their business areas. Living by this motto has allowed me to humbly ask questions and listen to my Business English students tell me about their work and specialities. And in the process, I have learnt more about finance, marketing, human resources, sales, architecture, trade, law, politics, etc. than I could ever glean from a coursebook.

Ironically, Dogme is not a dogmatic methodology, as some might think, and as Luke Meddings said in his talk, isn’t new to teaching. Business teachers, for example, have been approaching their lessons in ways I have heard termed ‘Authentic Participation’ for ages. But the moment Scott Thornbury gave it the ‘Dogme’ label, it enabled us to start thinking about teaching in a different way. As Vygotsky would say, labels help us to process thought and concepts.

The message: Whether you call it Dogme or any other name (I will resist quoting the trite Juliet to Romeo speech here), it is simply about good teaching.