19 November 2012

Teach us like this

Two posts in a week! The world’s gone mad.

Actually, it feels like my advanced class has gone a bit mad. When we returned from the tea break on Friday, it was clear that something (else) was afoot. A deputation had been organised.

“Laura, there’s something we want to tell you.”

Heart beating fast (obviously all I was hearing was, “Laura, you are a TERRIBLE TEACHER”), I put down my mug and pulled up a chair to hear what they had to say. It was this:

“We don’t have enough grammar to cope with this book. That’s why we only got Cs in our test. You think we’re advanced level, but we’re not. In class we want you to explain basic grammar in detail and then give us exercises, and make extra grammar worksheets for us to do at home. That’s what the Georgian teachers do.

Why do we always have to guess things? Just tell us the answers. Don’t teach us any vocabulary in class, because we can learn the meanings of words at home and check them in the lesson by playing word explaining games. But no other games! The only ones we liked were the word explaining games and the prefix and suffix dominoes.

Don’t do listening in class either. Do grammar and writing, because we can’t make correct sentences when we write and this is our biggest problem. You should give us written tasks each week, and we email them to you, and you send them back with comments. Is that OK?”

Wowsers, right? I’m a terrible teacher and they hate this class. I’m a terrible teacher and they hate this class. I’m a terrible teacher and they hate this class. That was pretty much me on Friday night.

But now (Monday afternoon), having spent the weekend thinking on the conversation, I feel quite excited about what happened. I realised they don’t hate the class, as thirteen of thirteen have just re-registered for this term; they just felt comfortable saying what they wanted. And how often is this likely to happen? Having students who can and will articulate their needs is a rare blessing, so I should see this as an experiment rather than an indictment. I have a few comments on their comments, though.

First, I’m under no illusion that they’re advanced level. Since whole levels are completed in just 50 hours here they’re understandably upper-inty, so they’re right to say they don’t have enough grammar to cope with the book prescribed by the school. We’ve been using SpeakOut Advanced which is, I admit, a chewy little biscuit, and I often can’t do the exercises myself.

Second, the ‘word explaining games’ they mentioned are back-to-the-board and a card game version of it. I’m not sure why they got the seal of approval when other games are “a waste of time”, but the dominoes, I suspect, were successful because they were taken from an upper intermediate resource pack and were therefore of a more suitable level. And by ‘guessing things’ they meant deducing meaning from context, which to be fair is hardly a walk in the park when (as in SpeakOut) at least 50% of the lexis in any given exercise is new.

Third, their writing, unfortunately, is as bad as they think it is, and they do indeed need more practice. But when I’ve set written homework before only two-thirds of the class has handed anything in, and the half-arsedness was tangible.

Am I correctly interpreting the messages they're trying to give me? They find the class too hard, they didn’t like getting Cs and they find aspects of CLT infantilising? As graduates, they've passed all the way through an education system which prioritises rote learning and examination grades* so their feelings are not exactly surprising, but do I indulge the request or challenge it? Do they want better integration of technology? Some of the students bring iPads to class, yet the teaching centre has nothing so high-tech as an OHP between 25 teachers. Do I need to look into flipping my classroom...?! 

Basically, with thanks in advance, I’m soliciting advice from my PLN:

What would you do with this class?

* Perhaps Michael Gove would like to do a field visit.


  1. Wow. Great reflections Laura, especially seeing the value that they are telling you exactly what they want. It can be so easy to take a negative response to that...I know because I do.

    The writing point is interesting, I think it is too neglected in clt in general as "can be done out of class" (which means isn't done out of class). By setting it as homework it also devalues the exercise and suggests it's "easy". I know my Russian speaking is much better than my writing because I usually just blunder through my mistakes. (I also wonder if they will do the vocab learning at home...anyway)

    I think I'd probably start of with some lower level activities looking at the grammar from a up-int perspective and then build upon it. I'd probably try to give grammar research in advance of the lessons and then test if they had read up as well.

    Another question. How is their speaking? Could it be that writing is an attempt to cover up their lack of confidence with speaking?

    Being honest though, I have mostly only taught lower levels so I am really unsure myself.
    Hope you get some great ideas.

    1. Thanks Chris! I think 'grammar research in advance of lessons' is a really good idea and something that could be part of a flipped class - I just worry that relying on the technology here might be a bit of a gamble. (Also I don't really know how flipclass works...but then journeys into the unknown are generally A Good Thing.) Strangely, they *do* seem to have excellent motivation (and recall) with regards to vocab so fingers crossed! Thanks again for the advice :)

    2. Just a word here to say you don't have to have a whole load of tech for a flipped class (or at least something like it). You could do it by sending a grammar explanation worksheet home in advance of the lesson, and then getting them to come with their questions and problems :)

      Alex (@breathyvowel)

    3. Thanks Alex - this is somewhat encouraging. I need to read more about flipping the class (or approximating that set-up)...a brief google search turns up so many tech-heavy results that I haven't stepped back and thought about what it actually *means*. Have you done this? How did it go?

  2. Hi Laura,
    Your post reminded me a lot of my first Polish advanced class (coming after a couple of years with laid back Brazilians). First they grilled me on my qualifications, and then they grilled me on my grammatical knowledge. Seriously. It was terrifying. After we'd got all that out of the way, they became such a loyal class that they wouldn't have anyone else!
    I've never taught in Georgia, but, at the risk of stereotyping, I do think there is a certain bluntness in ex Eastern bloc countries. I got to rather like it, as I prefer to know where I stand really. In this situation, I might be inclined to be fairly blunt back. Something along the lines of- you're absolutely right that you need to work on your grammar and writing- so why aren't you putting more effort into your written homework? It does seem as if they are expecting a rather jug and mug approach- where you pour knowledge into them- and I would certainly be inclined to challenge that. On the other hand, a very CLT type approach might not be right for them either, so perhaps there's some more discussion and negotiation to do?

    1. Haha yep I'm definitely noticing the bluntness - I like it too! Refreshing after south-east Asia where everyone is so busy saving everyone else's face that you're never sure where you stand :) I think your point about negotiation is exactly right, and there has to be a level of give and take. They know what they want, but maybe we have to decide between us how they get it, and their lack of prior exposure to less, um, Eastern bloc teaching doesn't mean that elements of it couldn't also be useful. I guess there's the dual issue of wrong level coursebook + different approach to untangle. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  3. Well, Laura, first of all, congratulations are in order because they told you what they wanted, which means they knew they could communicate with you and they knew you'd listen.

    I'm in favour of communication; I'm in favour of the students saying what they want to do in class. Of course, as their guide, we'll have to decide if what they want is the same as what they need.

    Coincidentally, your students appear to want the same as what my latest group want. I've been reflecting on this: http://dogmediaries.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/poetry-anecdotes-dogme-tbl-or-neither/

    Of course, the difference is it's a very small group; I don't know how big yours is. Read it and tell me what you think.

    1. Thanks for commenting and for the link - interesting post. (My students here also asked to read books and discuss them in class, oddly enough. I had to start a weekly book club because our contact hours are so few anyway!) You've got me thinking about poetry - it would hit so many of the right buttons and I barely touch on it in my classes. I wonder why not? I also think 'decide if what they they want is the same as what they need' is a great nugget to keep in mind...thanks again for taking time to read and share.

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this, what an honest and interesting post.

    I thought I didn't have much to say but then I couldn't resist sharing some thoughts.

    (Shock Surprise... a contrarian view and scattered response with lots of questions from me)

    First of all...I agree that it is really great they feel so comfortable so as to share this with you. Especially what seems like so soon (to my view at least).

    I am not sure how much I like the whole "we think" business though. From my experience this "we" is not always reliable and I personally feel a lot more comfortable when I know how many "we's" there are.
    (I am not suggesting that you squash this line of communication just that maybe this is not exactly 13/13. Just a thought. Anyway good information to have and better to have it earlier.)

    As for the "That’s what the Georgian teachers do" business, well you are not a Georgian teacher and you are not likely to be one anytime soon. (Again not discounting the message or the line of communicating.) In a previous place of work we heard a similar line quite often but I kept coming back to the point that we were not Korean teachers of English and that presumably they joined the class aware of this already. If they want a Georgian teacher I would think that there are more Georgian teachers than British ones. Just a thought. :)

    I might also wonder how well the "explain grammar to me" stuff has been working working out for them.

    As for guessing. I wonder if perhaps it might be worthwhile to share your reasons behind this? Also if possible to show how effective it can be? (This is with the big assumption that this is something you want to keep.)

    I also wonder if there is some explanation/guiding that could be done about the "other games." (again if you wish to keep going with them)

    The request for not teaching vocab in class is an interesting one. Perhaps this could be done as an experiment and you could all see how it goes without any vocab instruction.

    As for listening...how important is it to the goals of the course? How much of a need for the students is it? It seems like they want to shift from more of a 4-skills type thing to a grammar/writing type thing. Is that cool with you? Is that cool with the school?

    I don't have a lot lot in the way of out and out suggestions. I was thinking about something like trying it their way as they suggested for a few weeks (with minimum % of homework completed and 0% half-arsedness) with you sneaking in bits of what you think is important (in the way that you feel it is best) here and there.

    Thanks again for the post!
    (I am pretty sure you are a great teacher and they like the class)

    1. Hey Unknown. I suspect you are more known to me that your moniker would suggest and as always, I am grateful for your input. Loads to think about here. The main thing I'm taking from it I guess is the sharing reasons about why I'm doing what I'm doing. When they raised the issue on Friday I did in fact ask them why they thought the coursebook was structured as it was, why they were asked to do so much 'guessing' etc, and they weren't really able to answer - but their feelings are doubtless being compounded by the book being too hard for them. I think the first and best thing to do probably is to make it much clearer to them why I'm doing what I'm doing. A (Georgian) colleague also recommended that I say 'Now we're going to do grammar' before we do it, otherwise they don't notice! - which I thought was kind of fascinating. Anyway. I'm going to try explaining / guiding and will let you know how it goes. Thanks again for being such an awesome supporter (awesoporter).

  5. Really enjoyed reading this lol! Did make me cringe a bit as you seemed to live through what would be my worst fears hahahaha! It might be worth finding out if EVERYONE feels the same...ie have a class discussion about it. I once had a guy saying everyone hatedertain approach

    1. Ah, see what you mean about your comment 'not quite working' but thanks so much for stopping by to read!

  6. Hi Laura

    I've experienced that kind of talk and it's not pleasant. But, you're right! It is good that they felt able to talk to you about it and it is good that they are reflecting on their learning.

    Since you both agree that they need to work on their writing, perhaps that can be brought into the classroom where you can guide and help out as they need it, focusing on aspects of grammar as relevant. A process approach to writing, where they get a chance to consult and improve with the support that they obviously feel they need, seems like it might be worthwhile.

    The vocabulary could be worked on either in preparation of a topic or after needing items for their writing (and in preparation for their games :-)). Similarly listening could be set for homework to research a topic, or to give them something to respond to in writing in class.

    Good and not so good pieces of language can be gathered for collaborative error correction. Perhaps they'd like the game of bidding on sentences? It is grammar focused!

    I have to say that I'm not fond of having students guessing from context when they only understand 50% of the text. It just seems too bewildering for them and of limited value.

    I don't know if this helps, but hopefully between all of us you'll get some ideas you can use with this group.

    Best wishes,

    1. It absolutely does help, Carol! The process writing suggestion I think is absolutely spot on - we're moving (partly) to a continued assessment system this term which will include a major piece of writing so I'll see how that goes. And we did a grammar auction recently and it went pretty well - I wonder if they considered that a 'game' or not? I guess I need to probe a bit deeper, but they do seem to dig error correction. Many thanks for reading and for the advice.

  7. I agree with unknown. Explaining why you are doing certain things is really important. if you explain that you are more likely to remember if you work it out for yourself, that might make them try it with the other half of their arse as well. but is it actually true? maybe not for some people, and then you could give them some rules too.

    it does sound as if they want to be taught, not learn for themselves.

    no nuggets of wisdom really, but I just wanted to see if I could remember my google password to be able to comment.

    1. I think they do want to Be Taught (the jug and cup thing someone mentione above) - but then they don't shy from homework in the general scheme of things, so I'm not sure it's true that they don't want to learn for themselves. Maybe I didn't give them the right kind of writing homework, or enough support with it in the class. Anyway. Pleased you remembered your google password. WHAT IS IT

  8. Hi Laura,

    Firstly, I would agree with many above in saying it's fantastic they feel comfortable coming to you and that you see this as an opportunity.

    I agree with Rachel that the bluntness can definitely work in your favor and that perhaps being blunt right back might work. I dunno, I am not in your situation, I do know I am jealous because I myself have a very hard time with Korean face saving. ;)

    I would agree with Chiew as well in recognizing that we are their guides and ultimately need to choose where we decide to lead them.

    This dilemma they are posing you is something that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. The first thing I wonder is "why are they learning english". have you had a discussion about that yet? And I don't mean "to pass tests", but truly, how do they see themselves using english once they leave your class? Why are they demanding more grammar? I understand that they recognize their writing isn't up to snuff (which is good that they notice) but are they demanding it because "that's what is done". (That answer doesnt fly with me).

    Finally, I could see myself half-arsing the writing hw for 2 reasons...it's hard and I am alone...and because I have a hard time connecting it to why I want to write in English. In that regard I would say that perhaps if you found ways for them to write that connects them with the world outside the classroom they may respond better.

    BTW, I am currently co-creating a magazine via blog format with my Korean students, Russian, Ghanaian (and possibly Swedish, Brazilian)students. Perhaps your students would like to add their voice? A way for them to practice writing and communicate with the greater english speaking world giving some positive pressure for focus? Just a thought ;)


  9. Hi John! Will be in touch re the magazine idea - meant to ask you about it a couple of weeks ago. I think connecting writing to the real world is something I really have to keep in mind. We've talked about why they're learning English and their responses in general have been vague - you can't get a decent job in Georgia without it, yet most of them don't really use it in their work. They just want the certificate that says they *can*, as far as I can see, which makes isolating their needs, separate to what they tell you, quite tricky. But it's a question I need to keep raising with them I think. Thanks so much for reading and commenting and for your sage advice :)

  10. Everyone has already said such useful and insightful stuff that I have almost no other stuff to add. Only that I am very very happy to be able to read two of your posts within one week. Your writing is a joy to read.


    1. Agree that everyone has been v useful / insightful - but I am nevertheless grateful for your stopping by and for your very kind words :)

  11. Well done, insightful and intelligent writing as usual, both this and the next. Keep it up. Hope it's all going well in the big T.

    1. Thank you. Pleased you're still reading :) Hope all's still well in the big K. x

  12. Hi Laura, I really have no idea why I didn't read this when it came out, or the following day, or the week after..but it's great I have finally found my way to your post. Now this is going to be the path I will remember to take on some more or less regular basis in 2013:)

    Because I am such a cowardly teacher and because I fear that one day a whole class might approach me with similar statements about what I am doing wrong, I have devised a 3-stage plan to keep myself safe.
    1st stage - at the first lesson of a course ( after doing a basic needs and wishes survey) I tell that being my student means being open and honest about our classes. Don't think this particular task does you a lot of good? Spill it out. Don't think we're putting enough effort into some language aspects? Tell me. Of course, I take the feedback into consideration, but I anyways rely on my own understanding of what needs to be done. Well it can be difficult to juggle these two, to be honest, but in general I have found it's worth it.
    2nd stage - mid-term (or mid-course) questionnaire. Just to make sure everyone can have their say if they have something to say. With university students I often find total compliance, but there are always some students who give me good ideas how to spice up our lessons, or more importantly what to add. My weakest point in teaching is grammar, and I keep struggling with myself to try and improve it...with adult learners the questionnaires serve a good basis for a healthy discussion and working on objectives, reconsidering them and so on. I then can adjust the rest of the course.
    3rd stage - end-of-term survey. Practically same as second stage, with a bit of change in questions I put. This system has proved working for me for about two years. It is not flawless, but I know I am timely informed and can react accordingly.
    As for the problems your students announced - I have had such students, not whole class though. I wouldn't ever totally give in and give them the learning type they know. Students should not only learn the language but also learn to learn in different ways) flipping the class - perfect idea. Anyway, in 20+ comments above you have discussed a lot and every idea is great.
    Wish you luck with them next term)

    Really happy to have found this, seriously))
    Happy new year))

    Best from Moscow,