Josette LeBlanc very gently prodded for me to elaborate on why I would make this bold statement on facebook: “I may have had literally the most pleasant experiences in my classroom in my life today.” I’ll attempt that now. Really there is nothing to it. The students weren’t productively communicating at a higher level than they typically do. So outcomes didn’t shift. The atmosphere of classroom felt healthier than usual however. When I reflect on this Monday’s class I see three elements that I can elaborate briefly upon:
a) Ability to “turn the tide.” My first hour class entered right after a school wide awards ceremony. The word rambunctious seems to fit their behavior. Sometimes I “get lucky” and the students are too drained to provide classroom management challenges during the first period of the day. However, that was not the case during this period. However, through the use of a game, a degree of humor (I have gotten into the potentially annoying habit of deliberately misconstruing students names for an attempt at comedic effect—it worked on this day, as I called one student not by his proper family name “Jeong,” but rather “Jjang”—or “very good”), and the structure effective rules can provide. By the end of this class, with the assistance of a language game which produced a suspenseful ending, I really felt I “had” the majority of the students “in the palm of my hand” for that moment.
b) Feelings of flow. In my third period class for the same day, I had a few of those so-called “teachable moments.” Typically, I will provide opportunities for students to practice the target structure by progressively removing scaffolding. At the “final stage” during a typical lesson, students will have an image with a speech bubble which they need to complete. This time, I had a picture of a puppy dog. The target structure was “I’m looking forward to…” Usually I provide models, but they are dry presentations—such as “I’m looking forward to resting after school.” Today, somewhat spontaneously, I decided to add an element of humor. I delivered two comedic lines which connected with the students: “I’m looking forward to eating dog food” and “I’m looking forward to biting [student name here].” I could really feel the level of rapport increasing with such techniques.
c) Clearer recognition of what enables “greater success” in the classroom. While I was reflecting on Josette’s “challenge” I realized that in my experience as a middle and high school level teacher, the factors trigger both a more congenial classroom environment and greater insight as a lesson planner is based on the intersection between rules and reward. For example, these days during the “game” portion of a semi-typical lesson, students are much more well-behaved. The reason is simple I have established clear criteria for participation and “eligibility” to receive the reward (i.e. students must raise hand to receive the points; students must answer in a complete sentence; an individual student can only answer three questions during the game; those students who do not participate during the game cannot receive candy at the end of the game, et al.). Such structure has greatly tidied up my planning and in-class teaching.
So I guess the moment wasn’t so special upon further analysis, however, it does remind me that reflection, especially structured and routine reflection, pays wondrous dividends. Also, even if the “accomplishment” doesn’t look all that amazing, the feeling often is…that is something that shouldn’t be neglected.
Tweaks for the Week
There were a plethora. I’ll strive for brevity!
a) Warm-up is the absolute first thing I do. No briefly explaining objectives…no detailing opportunities for students to receive additional candy. My classroom requires that students are provided with an orienting activity once they enter the classroom.
b) Nested displays. I do this while explaining target functions. Previously, I would have all components of a “grammatical” explanation on one slide. For instance, as it pertains to the previously cited “I’m looking forward to” I would have brief explanatory key words like “future” “excited,” “+verb+ing.” Now, I will put one slide with future, the next slide will have both future and excited…and so on until all components of the grammatical explanation are visible. As a new slide is introduced the text is highlighted on the PPT. This is perhaps excessively detailed. However, I feel it is important to retain a personal commitment to doing one’s best in any way perceived during a given teaching task.
c) Humorous bubble modeling…I have already explained this during the write-up on my “best moment ever.”
d) Mix Korean and English names during worked examples. I used to simply place only Korean names or only English names for the “characters” used while students practiced worked examples during class. Now, I have decided to mix the two. Why not? perhaps it promotes the message to students that they don’t have to segregate themselves from foreigners.
e) Funny rules. As mentioned before, I have some “rambunctious” students and classroom dynamics (to say the least). I attempted to acknowledge this with a bit of humor this week. While laying out the rules to the game, I spontaneously added a new one: “rule 1a: shut up” in that situation it worked to humorous effect. It really depends on classroom mood at a given time, but a humorous rule may facilitate greater rapport in the classroom if used judiciously.
f) Funny names: see the above write-up again.
g) Debrief errors. As I detailed in a previous post, I provided students with an “opportunity to get more candy.” They had to recognize the errors I deliberately placed in my PPT display. If they did it appropriately (i.e. raise hand) within 30 seconds they were eligible. If I had extra time during a class, I would have students scan slides to “find the error.” Now, I have decided to simply spend the last few minutes of class reviewing the slides and “finding” the errors. I also will align my deliberate mistakes with the target grammar of a particular lesson or as a review for the preceding lesson’s grammar.
h) Model expectation. Few things irritate me more than students who arrive late and decide it is appropriate to announce their presence with a loud, almost celebratory yell. This isn’t a party, it is a classroom. When students do that now, I simply tell the student to go back, enter quietly and sit down. If there are any issues (such as the need to get a book), the student can simply raise his hand and we’ll proceed from there. It takes about three times per incident for a student to “get it,” but that’s how the game is played.
i) Candy: eat it after class. I frequently use candy as an external motivator. I know how toxic that strategy is in the long-term. However, any critics don’t understand just how toxic my environment is for learning in the present. Thus, candy is an unfortunate lifesaver (though it isn’t the lifesaver candy—perhaps fortunately). However, I used to inattentively give the candy to students…they would then eat it and throw the wrapper on the floor, then starts a silly cycle again. Now, I inform students a) eat it after class and b) other students cannot pester a student who has more than one piece of candy (which was technically earned) during class. Students have, somewhat surprisingly, accepted this rule.
j) Participation is a prerequisite for candy. Previously, I would divide students into teams for a game. All members, with the exception the MVP, received the same amount of candy. This was a mistake. Now, a student must provide at least one correct answer in order to get a piece of candy. Hopefully, this will encourage more diverse participation among teams during game time.
k) Cueing returns. Prior to playing textbook audio, I give a loud 1-2-3 count to cue students to pay attention to the audio. Not much, but it’s better than simply playing the audio.
Questions plaguing me
I lost my cool in the classroom this week. Every other week, as a warm-up my (very low-motivation and low-level) students unscramble five vocabulary words with the prospect of receiving two pieces of candy. I always introduce the assignment saying in Korean and English “please don’t speak…write the words…when you are finished raise your hand.” Of course, there are multiple students that feel the need to announce the answers orally despite my chiding. During a particular class this week, a higher proportion of students were stating the answer orally. Thus I screamed at the class (in their L1): “don’t speak…write…we have done this for at least 3 months, you still don’t get it…are you stupid?” That got the class quiet for most of the period. I knew I crossed a line. My co-teacher wanted to talk to me after class. Much to my surprise, she praised me for my fluster. She claimed a teacher needs to do that sometimes with certain classes and students. My outburst was in no way pre-planned. However, I’m left wondering: was my co-teacher right? Do I need to show that harshness to survive in a low-performing middle school in South Korea? Maybe…your thoughts?
One thing I have learned through composing this blog on a weekly basis is that reflection gives profound hope to a teacher; it allows one to see potential errors, and make very clear alterations. The real question is efficacy. That requires data collection…perhaps as I continue to become a more mature professional and more organized I will be in a position to more efficiently collect and analyze data…however, honestly such a project overwhelms me just thinking about it. Nevertheless, I recognize that while reflection may give me hope that I can improve, it doesn’t give me solid evidence that my practice is improving. I may have to move into the next stage soon.