The learning curve

PB190784.JPGI have been teaching English and doing English conversation for over two years now; much of my work is with individuals ranging from five and six year olds to adults studying for the Cambridge exams or just wishing to improve their English for business purposes. Generally these lessons are a joy although occasionally the children are not in the mood to study for which times I have plenty of educational computer games for them to play and as a last resort, Hangman which most of them adore. I am extremely fond of all my clients.
Teaching in the Academy is very different. I recently read an article written by an English man who teaches locally and it clarified many things.
Here are a couple of quotes from the article:
The noise level in the classrooms is pretty high and the real teachers who hold my hand in the lessons occasionally make someone change seats or leave the room. I presume this means the youngsters must be misbehaving in some way but I never notice. I do notice the ones who don’t participate at all though. There are several who just stare at their shoes or draw elaborate pictures in biro. There seems to be no expectation that they join in at any level.”
“One thing I have probably noticed about the Spanish Education is the apparent use of books. In the school my role is to model real English so I am expected to talk and listen. I am not expected to work to any particular scheme or pattern but I get the idea that most courses start at page 1, exercise 1, go on to exercise 2, exercise 3 etc. The youngsters are certainly keen, conditioned maybe, to fill in the gaps in the exercises. In fact it seems much more important to fill in the gaps than understand the language that goes into the spaces. This involves a lot of pencil sharpening, rubbing out and the modern versions of tipp-ex. I was told yesterday that I will be given a timetable for working through the various books – you know the sort of thing. By the end of January you will have completed Unit 4. Apparently parents don’t like to see the books that they have paid for not getting filled up with writing, rubber detritus and tipp-ex. Progress can be measured by the number of pages completed.”
When I read this I immediately recognised some types of behaviour that I see in my young pupils. When I started at the Academy I taught a group of six year olds and a group of eight year olds. Last year I had very few resources and a classroom set up for adults. The tables were arranged in one large square with all the children around the outside sitting on chairs with wheels. There was a box of felt tips and a few pencils which weren’t sufficient for everyone which meant that the children sprawled over the table to reach the things they wanted and all shouted at the tops of their voices. With my boss’s permission I quickly bought coloured pencils to replace the felt tips which are hopeless for small children who colour with determination and lots of pressure. I bought scissors, glue and rubbers (which were often chewed) but the children continued to roll over the table to get what they wanted and the noise level remained high. With my low level of Spanish there were times when I felt unable to get the children’s attention let alone teach. The first few weeks were miserable. Fortunately I have a teaching guru at home and after consultation, I moved the tables so that the children sat in twos facing me as opposed to each other, bought more pencils etc. so each table had their own and spent some time with google translate in order to have a conversation with the children about classroom rules and sanctions. We agreed on a few simple rules: Listen and look, stop talking when I am talking, no shouting, no fighting and no running out of the academy. The last rule is because once I started reading about how to teach small children a foreign language I discovered TPR (Total Physical Response) which is a great way to teach verbs e.g. jump, skip, hop and of course run – hence “no running out of the academy”.

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This is where we do TPR

Without a syllabus to follow I had to work out how to proceed and at what level for six year olds and eight year olds. There is a vast amount of material on the internet and I did a lot of printing and photocopying and sifting through the many American sites trying to find ENGLISH. I eventually settled on two sites, one American with some strongly accented games but loads of great ideas and the British council which has a site for children and one for teenagers which works pretty well for adults. Lessons developed a pattern and my lesson planning became much easier, the children seemed to mostly enjoy the classes apart from two alpha male eight year olds who spent most of the lessons arguing but I longed for more structure and resources that I didn’t have to spend hours trawling the internet for.
Gratifyingly, this year the majority of the children returned (apart from the two alpha males), bringing their friends and I teach two full groups of six year olds and two groups of eight year olds plus an adult group who are studying for “First Certificate” and intermediate level. My boss is thrilled and my pay has increased. We have found a series of books that have a multi sensory approach to learning and although the children groan a bit when the books come out, being used to books in their schools, they seem to enjoy the exercises although their focus is not trying to work out what to do (or listening to instructions) but to fill it in correctly consequently one of the phrases that trips off their tongues is “can I have a rubber please” – an improvement from “RUBBER, RUBBER, RUBBER” or the Spanish version of the same which was where we started. Pencil sharpening, especially among the younger girls is a splendid time waster and until I spotted what was going on, an opportunity for a competition to get the sharpest point. Several of the girls bring their own pencil cases to class and during the warm up exercise, fiddle about with the contents. After asking them not to followed by telling them off when they did, I now simply remove the pencil cases and hand out pencils when necessary. The groups of eight year olds are largely well behaved and motivated to learn and seem to be making good progress – their attendance is good. The six year olds, some of whom are only just six are a very mixed bunch, some of them were with me last year and know the rules but some are still testing the boundaries. They adore playing “Judith says” and singing along with the songs on the CD that comes with the books. Again, on the guru’s advice I have a system of tres avisos or three warnings for bad behaviour which culminate in being sent to the boss (I haven’t had to resort to that yet) and reward good behaviour and work with gold stars, lots of praise, showing the boss and occasionally, sweets. We have completed the first unit in the books in all four groups and although not all the children can do all the tasks with confidence and some can’t do much without lots of help, they have all made progress. I am debating teaching a Christmas song for a short performance for parents complete with reindeer head dresses. The learning curve is flattening a little but is still fairly steep but most days, I love going to work. Who’d have thought it.

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My Classroom
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2 thoughts on “The learning curve

  1. Lovely to hear your news again. It all sounds wonderful and I am so pleased things have worked for you. I will write in depth soon.

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