Flowing with the current

Lately, I have been reading a lot of dismaying posts by teachers who are frustrated or having trouble with their classes. This is an especially hard time of the year. But I implore you to keep at it. Keep coming in day after day and teaching your heart out.

You may ask me, “How can I do that? These kids don’t care.”

I know deeply how you feel. We teachers are passionate people (if we weren’t, we wouldn’t come into school every day for relatively low pay and spend the whole day with large groups of other people’s kids). The result of that passion for teaching is that we have a tendency to take it personally when kids aren’t responding to what we’re doing. We pour our hearts and souls into what we do for kids who don’t always appreciate it or even care.

We all have had “that” class — the one that makes us question whether we’re cut out for doing the job we’ve devoted our life to doing. Sometimes we have a class (or 2…or 3) like that and we think about just giving up and packing it in and doing something easier. I have had classes like this and years like this. I can’t tell you how many times I have googled “Non teaching jobs for master of education.”

In years past, I have resorted to going back to the textbook and teaching straight up grammar and vocabulary. But upon reflection, that’s not the way to get a class under control, especially in the way I was doing it: My mindset at the time was, “They think my class is boring? I’ll show them boring!”

This year, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t resort to that. Instead, I would try to have a positive mindset.

Instead of immediately jumping to being mad or getting frustrated about student behaviors (talking, being off-task, etc), I have forced myself to take a larger view of the situation. I’ve been thinking of questions like, “What’s going on in their other classes? What’s going on in the school community? How has this class acted in years past? What’s different? What’s the same?”

As I think of these questions, I have been trying out things that flow with the kids’ energy rather than work against it. Here are some common strategies and activities that I have found successful:

  1. Starting off with a quiet assignment – If you know a class has trouble with being too loud or rowdy, it can be a good idea to incorporate a calm start to their class routine. I like to get really rowdy classes started on something very calm and individually-focused; no group work, no think/pair/share, no discussion activities. Starting the class with a reading assignment is a very easy strategy to use here. The students are still getting comprehensible input even if they can’t handle their behavior during a full-class activity like story-asking. On the other side, if you want to evaluate student output, written picture descriptions or stories can be good activities to have students start working on. Starting class with a calm activity can set the tone for the rest of the period. Then, as the period goes on, you can decide whether to ramp up the level of activity in the classroom or keep it very calm.
  2. Small group activities – If the kids want to socialize, I find that sometimes it can be good to lean into that desire and give them classwork that allows or requires them to talk. These kinds of activities can be character creation activities, skits retelling the points of story/novel we’ve been reading (aka reader’s theater), or student-written movie trailer scripts based on reading assignments/novels. They get to talk a little bit while they’re working, but they also are working on something that helps them practice one or more of the modes, especially presentational writing/speaking. And they can infuse their writing with their personalities and instead of using language to practice, they are using it to entertain their classmates, which enhances their motivation even more.
  3. Quiet/Active activities – Any activities where the students are up and moving are a big hit in my classroom. Instead of asking questions and getting oral answers, I have found success with having students choose and answer with their movements – designate an area for yes and another for no and then ask questions and then they move to the area that shows their answer. Running Dictation is a great one for this because the kids get to move around and be engaged and challenged in a different way than normal, but they are required by the rules and structure of the activity to not be rowdy or loud.
  4. PQA with Whiteboards – Talking with students about what they’re interested in or about their lives outside of school is very powerful. They all want to share about themselves (or they want to make their friends laugh, which can also work to your advantage). At the same time, with all of them wanting to share, there is the potential for a chaotic classroom environment with all the students trying to talk over each other. This is where white boards come in. I can ask questions and instead of students all fighting to be heard, they can answer at the same time. For example, when talking about pets, instead of going around and asking, “What’s your dog’s name? what’s your dog’s name?…” over and over to each student, they can all write their answers and show them at the same time. This means that no students are getting into side conversations while they are waiting to talk to me. And I get to ask lots more questions, meaning that the students get to share more and they get more input about questions about their pets.
  5. Games – Any time you make using the language part of the rules of a game, the students will do it. The basic idea is that they want to win the game and if the only way to do that is to use the TL, then they’ll rise to the challenge. They have a reason to use the TL in a focused way, but they aren’t practicing language just to practice. Examples with lots of use of the TL include Telephone and Simon Says.
  6. Story-Asking from the Board – I have one elementary class that is especially hard to control. These kids have trouble following our procedures, especially the “no blurting” and “no side conversation” rules. This class was also the one that I started with reading activities (as described above). This was successful for a while, but I needed to change things up; I needed for the students to be able to interact in the classroom in a story-asking activity. So I made a hybrid activity: I project the written story on the board in a powerpoint presentation and I only show them 1 small paragraph at a time. This way, they have more scaffolding for what’s going on in the story and they can look back if they get lost and see what happened earlier in the story. Then, for more engagement, I milk the suspense for all I can: I circle around the sentences that they read with me and I ask lots of questions about predictions and what they think will happen next. This activity was much more successful than just story-asking while taking a few notes on the board. I learned that maybe the problem with student off-task behavior wasn’t that they couldn’t handle interacting in the class, but they just needed a little more support. In other words, I learned that the problem was with my presentation of the story rather than their ability to behave.

As you can see, there is nothing revolutionary about the activities I am incorporating. The revolutionary part has been internal for me. Working with the flow of the students rather than against it makes for more productive classes and more positive attitudes from me and my students. I can’t do them all every day and sometimes I have to throw away my perfectly crafted lesson to do one of these instead, which can be frustrating, but ultimately, an engaging activity like one of the ones above is better than an unengaging “perfect” lesson any day.

The biggest takeaways from this re-evaluation of the activities I do in my classroom are: Students are who they are and we can’t always expect them to be where we want them to be and a class’s rowdiness can be used to the teacher’s advantage.

That being said, is every day of teaching perfect? Definitely not.

But perfection is an unrealistic goal. In the past few weeks, I have been talking more and more about CI and the teacher’s place in the world of language acquisition (I wrote about my teaching philosophy a few weeks ago). As I teach and learn about language acquisition, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the old-school, grammar-based, and perfection-oriented instruction model isn’t the right approach for novice learners. We shouldn’t expect perfect target language use from novice learners. In the same way, we shouldn’t expect perfect human behavior from novice humans. They are kids and they are emotional and weird and wonderful in their own unique ways and still learning how to navigate the world. We should recognize this and have lots of different things in our teacher toolboxes that we can do in order to accommodate them and help them to acquire the languages we teach.

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