Earlier, I described the challenge and enjoyment of planning my own lessons. In short, planning sans textbook is a form of bounded freedom – creative autonomy coupled with practical constraints.
Change is constant in creativity. As I gather more informal feedback in the classroom, I continue to refine and sharpen my creative landscape. Sometimes this entails creative expansion (when we broaden our worldview and deepen our experience, thereby deepening the creative well). Other times, we modify our constraints to better suit the needs of our constituents (like students and co-teachers). As I start this new semester, my lessons have shifted based on the latter – a change in constraints.
Last year, I planned lessons around two criteria:
- The activity must force students to speak English.
- The activity should be fun and motivating.
However, experience slowly exposed the following observations.
- Games are very motivating for higher-level students.
- Team games are often demotivating for lower-level students (they feel great pressure to succeed and little confidence in actually succeeding).
- Korean students are hyper-competitive.
Evidence included students dodging English production (which caused a rule-based arms race as I continually refined game structures to force English participation), as well as some students feeling embarrassment and frustration over their performance (one student buried his head in his desk and remained unresponsive for a whole class period).
I sporadically attend ESL teaching seminars at an educational university in the neighboring city of Gwangju. There, a lecturer from Seoul led a seminar about ESL games. In her presentation, one statement part really struck a chord:
“When you play games in the classroom, you feel an excited ‘buzz’ in the classroom. But be careful. That ‘buzz’ may not come from all students equally. Be mindful of who you are motivating and demotivating.”
This insightful consideration, along with my in-classroom feedback, inspired me to move away from games altogether. I still employ some games during quiet portions of the semester (e.g. right before Summer or Winter holiday) as well as for my student club (the English Conversation Game Club). But for my regular curriculum, I shifted toward alternative activities. To do so, I refined my lesson constraints.
- The activity must force students to speak English (This doesn’t change. It’s my job.)
- The activity must promote cooperation over competition.
- The activity must remain equally inclusive of higher-level and lower-level students.
- The activity should be fun or motivating.
One product of these constraints is an increase in dialogues. I write scripts myself, trying to add in bits of the target language. Each script has 5 roles (for groups of 5 students). I also try to include some joke or silly action to make the performance fun.
These do not always go over well. Sometimes a sleepy class will sleepwalk through dialogues like English zombies. I often refer to these classes as D.O.A. (dead on arrival). Moreover, implementing dialogues over games produced an initial drop in student enjoyment and motivation. I felt the same when I weaned students off of candy prizes.
“Teacher, where is the candy?”
“No candy today.”
They shrugged their shoulders and left on a down note. Several weeks later, however, they stopped asking.
Ask and you shall receive? If you stop receiving, you eventually stop asking.
Every class provides an opportunity to learn, amend, and improve. I included action descriptions to encourage students to use their hands while speaking. I added pictures to the dialogues to provide context. I simplified language and weeded out difficult words. Sometimes I make teams practice dialogues standing up to promote action and choreography (and to discourage sleeping). One benefit of teaching one lesson many times is the opportunity to refine and adjust procedures and content to ensure a smoother performance in the next class.
But rote memorization of scripts does not encourage authentic English use. Sure, it provides an opportunity for lower-level students to get involved (all of my students have basic reading skills). But I can see how motivation may be at a loss. So I often devote the bulk of class time to mini-projects.
These are short creative assignments that challenge students to form their own ideas in the lesson’s target language. For example, if we work on the past tense (e.g. I got married), then an accompanying activity may ask students to invent a character and tell a story about that person’s life.
Jeff is 40 years old. He graduated from Seoul University. Later, he went bald. He got married, but his wife divorced him. She hates bald men. He then lost his home. Fortunately, he won the lottery and became very rich.
Encouraging creativity is my favorite solution to the motivation problem. If students invest their own thoughts or ideas into an activity, then they seem more likely to take it seriously. (Even if they write their assignment as a joke, they are still personally invested in that joke).
As my lessons continue to evolve, constraints evolve in tandem.
- The assignment must encourage freedom of expression.
- The assignment must be short enough to complete in 10-12 minutes.
- The assignment should involve everyone in the group.
Assignments sometimes incorporate number three, and sometimes not. Some mini-projects ask students to cut their paper into 5 pieces to encourage individual work. Other assignments utilize only one paper per group. Sometimes I sacrifice less crucial constraints for the benefit of variety.
Students did not initially receive these changes well. Even students who did not enjoy games were used to the routine. However, after one month, the tide turned. Many classes brimmed with positive enthusiasm. Now, whenever I feel a “buzz” in the classroom, it feels more authentic. I am confident that more students enjoy themselves, not only the highest-level speakers.
I often hear one student writing and asking another student in Korean for an English word. The frequency of this helping behavior makes me a proud teacher.
As the new school year kicks into gear, I am using this lesson structure from the jump. Such lessons have shown great promise in second-grade classes (they acclimated to this structure as first graders last year). As for the new first graders, many seem shy but others have a great time. It takes time for them to adjust not only to my class, but to the rigors of high school. I remain confident.
The consistent challenge of creating the best lessons to challenge, engage, and motivate students continues to motivate me. After nearly two years on the job, I am neither bored nor complacent. If I stay a third year, I’m sure my lessons will take another turn. And I relish the possibility.