Uncharted Tesol

First Impressions: Your Last Chance

Like any relationship, your students form an opinion of you that will likely influence their behaviour for the duration of your time together. And, like any relationship, their mental image of you is largely created within your first few moments together. Without a doubt, your whole first class is the litmus test that could determine whether you pass or fail in their eyes. Do you want an A+ rating?

I’m sure you are familiar with the wisdom behind Stephen Krashen’s concept of the “affective filter,” wherein students’ emotional states change the very rate at which they can absorb new information. Stress, nervousness, anxiety and lack of confidence keeps the filter high, blocking retention, while conversely, relaxed, comfortable and confident students actually retain more new information. Magic! And totally within your control. I believe the first class is the perfect opportunity for creating an emotionally enriching atmosphere for your students.

While the ideas I’m about to impart are suggested with Japanese university freshmen in mind, they will work anywhere students are at or above an A2 proficiency level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. I’ve honed these activities for over a dozen years to address the issues of shy, nervous and stressed-out students, students who may have just moved to a new area and who may be living alone for the first time. Students who are forced to take English for yet another year, possibly for their last time, and who probably don’t even like English. Basically, students with very low intrinsic motivation. Another stress-inducing factor is that most Japanese university freshmen have never even had a class taught in English before, as the clutches of the Grammar Translation Method are only slowly releasing their grasp.

In Japan, as in many other East-Asian countries, the prevailing academic approach to motivation is strictly disciplined, teacher-centered carrots and sticks; points, gold stars, leadership boards, and students constantly seeking validation from the teacher. These behaviours are likely accompanied by fear of failure, and judgement from peers, obviously a scholastic culture in which teacher’s pets abound. Of course there are the rebels who reject it all, too, many of whom seem to end up in my classes! Did you know that in Japan, all homeroom teachers visit the homes of every single student? Yes, for the first nine years of public school education, at least once during the school year, teachers go to each student’s home to talk with parents and/or caregivers. So you can see the level of connection and involvement that students are accustomed to, and why extrinsic motivation is the guiding educational force here.

As an English teacher, especially in an EFL setting, fostering students’ intrinsic motivation is a complex and challenging blend of factors, and frankly, it is often beyond our influence. Plus, we needn’t be overly concerned about forming a connection with students who are sufficiently intrinsically motivated. However, for the rest… suffice it to say that if your first class receives an A+ rating from the majority of students you are well on your way to having the best possible outcome. OK, you’re convinced. But how do you hook them?

We all know that for best educational and emotional results students have to be comfortable with their teacher, but I believe a bigger element is that they need to grow comfortable with each other, to trust themselves, to bond. I am confident that the following four-step plan will endear your students to you, dissolve boundaries between them, and build a classroom community. In that first class, you need not only to break the ice, but to melt it, and slowly heat it to a boil, making the windows steamy with effort and enjoyment. At least for the first three quarters of that class! Then, once students are finally back in their desks, you “lay down the law” with your classroom rules and expectations, do a syllabus, textbook, and grading explanation, and even give homework.

Step One: Your Self Introduction
I recommend having the first slide of your PowerPoint up on the screen as they walk in, and when the bell rings, launch in. Why PowerPoint? Well, there are probably experiments and research to back this up, but I somehow know deep down inside that showing personal pictures will beckon the most distant of hearts. Baby pictures, even! I also suggest a customized first slide for each school you teach at, perhaps with a screen shot of the school’s logo or a picture of the school itself. Then, on slide two, my technique is to immediately ask them a question, such as where I was born or what year, and wait until the answers come.

12630674_903433039772823_1310138549_oGive hints, entice them, let them talk to each other, but it’s important to immediately make your self introduction interactive, not a speech. Phones will be turned off, put away. Continue with this approach when sharing pictures about yourself with questions like, “What do you think my favorite hobby was?” and, “How many people do you think I had in my family?” and, “When do you think I first came to Japan?” I also use a wireless clicker with a laser pointer (available on Amazon for U$20 and up) as I stroll around the classroom while talking, occasionally laser-pointing out something on the slide and asking, “What do you think this is?” or “Who do you think gave me that?” The reason I do this is that I am perfectly aware of the fact that I am putting on a show, as in fact we all are. You can pretend that you are not, but you are being judged and evaluated no matter what you do, and I want them to be both entertained and interested. Additionally, I am modeling the way I want them to create and deliver their own PowerPoint presentations (more on that later), which is why I also suggest customizing your slide designs, fonts and colours as well as using animations, transitions, and the insertion of a video. It shouldn’t be long, 30 seconds at the most. Perhaps your favorite rock video, or something more personal, but you want to demonstrate your mastery of the medium and the method. Go ahead, impress them!

If you are not comfortable sharing personal pictures and details, no problem. Create an interactive and intriguing PowerPoint about any topic that you like, and the results will be similar. Also, after your presentation, have a Q&A session, inviting students to ask you questions for a while. Letting them talk to each other for a moment in their native language will spark things off. Here’s another tip that may work for some classrooms: Leave. Just for one or two minutes, prefaced by something like, “Please excuse me, I must go to the washroom, and think of questions while I’m gone,” and confidently stride out of the room. Ninety second later, burst back in, and let the questions flow. However, as frequently happens in my classes, nobody asks anything. So, just hand out your pre-cut slips of paper and let them write questions for you. Give them a few minutes while letting yourself relax and get ready for phase two. Collect the papers and put them away until your second class, when you can start off by reading the most interesting four or five questions and answering them. By the way, this first phase can take a leisurely fifteen minutes.

Step Two: Name Game
After my ‘final’ slide of my PPT I have another that says, “Let’s play a game!” and they say, “Yay!” and then the words “Alphabetical Order Line-Up Game” pop up and they all look confusedly at each other. I explain the A to Z order, and the standing in a line, and if I have to, move some desks to make space. Then I pull out my iPhone and show them the stopwatch and give the rules; “You can only say your name, over and over, and listen to everyone else saying their name, and line up from A to Z. Do you understand?” When the nods are nodded I yell, “Ready, GO!” and they usually they ignore my rule about saying only their name but eventually they are all in a line, I stop the stopwatch, announce the time, and I go up to the first student and ask their name. “Nice to meet you” is said by both, eye-contact made, hands shaken, and repeated with every student. I make corrections in the order when needed. When I get to the last student I say, “Well, that was pretty good guys, but I think you can do it faster. Let’s do it again, this time with your family name, OK? Ready, GO!”

Invariably this second time is faster, I congratulate them, and then I teach them the question, “What’s your family name?” Now I immediately step back, having the first student ask the second, then saying, “Nice to meet you,” and shaking their hand, and so. Smiles abound, and round three is lining up according to their father’s name (“What’s your father’s name?” asked by each, no hand shaking needed). Yes, you guessed it, round four is their mother’s name. Often students’ parents have the same names, which is something the students  may never have found out about themselves, and these two rounds always produce genuine smiles. Also, in Japan hand shaking is rarely done, so we are breaking the ice in numerous ways. Round five is lining up according to birthdays, January 1st at one end and December 31st at the other. This is always the fastest round, and again having some same-or next-day birthdays is common. I’ve had the answer, “Today!” more than once, which therefore necessitates that internationally famous and embarrassing song. This name game round takes about fifteen minutes, but the reason it is so crucial is not only breaking the ice that exists between each other, but softening them up for step three.

Step Three: Group Game(s)
Obviously you can do whatever game you like that is fun and easy, but I like to start with the incredibly simple-sounding but surprisingly difficult to accomplish ‘Alphabet Volleyball.’ While they’re still basking in the birthday-line glow, pull a balloon out of your pocket, blow it up, and tell them you are going to play alphabet volleyball. Walk to the center-ish two students and split them, making two teams. Enlist the help of everyone to clear the desks out of the way, leaving one row of desks in the middle for the ‘net’. Once the two teams are assembled on either side of the net, tell them to get back in the birthday order, front person at the net. Explain that each person will say a letter of the alphabet from A to Z and then run to the back of the line. I tap the balloon from one side of the net, saying “A”, then tap it from the other, “B,” and they instantly understand. Also, and this is very important, explain there are not two teams, but one, because if the balloon hits the floor then the next person must start over at A again. (Hint: bring extra balloons. They burst.) In many years of doing this game I’ve never had a class complete it in one try, but if they do complete it quickly, have them do it again, but with words. “Apple, book, candy, dog,” etc. Once they’ve completed that, (in perhaps five minutes) you split each side into two or three groups for the next game, a group vocabulary game. Have each group take one desk from the ‘net’ and spread out, circling their desk. Put one piece of blank paper and one pen on each desk.

‘Four Category Vocabulary Game’: Holding up your phone (or other countdown timer), tell them they will have one minute to write down as many words as they can in four categories, and then make a sentence with one word from each. Have each group choose one writer, and it’s fun to tell them to whisper ideas to the writer so the other teams don’t hear their answers. This creates a conspiratorial, heads-tucked-in atmosphere, and, assisted by the time pressure, heats that melt ice into steam. Draw a large-scale paper on the board and put a horizontal and vertical line through it, cutting it in four even sections, and have students do the same. Don’t tell them the categories beforehand, but here are the four I use,  because they naturally allow for the creation of simple sentence: Jobs, Famous Places, Transportation, and Drinks. When you start the game and announce the first category, write it on one section of your ‘page’ and give them a spoken example for each. I often use “Teacher, Statue of Liberty, Helicopter, and Green tea.” After the fourth is done, give students three minutes to create a sentence using one word from each category. Each team must write theirs on the board. Again, write your example on the board; “The teacher went to the Statue of Liberty by helicopter while drinking green tea.” If you have a higher level class, have them flip the page to the other side and add a fifth category, “Adjectives,” and give them another minute to list as many as they can before starting the sentence creation. Tell them they must modify every noun, and that there are bonus points for funniest sentence, for example, “The annoying teacher went to the overpriced Euro Disney in a yellow submarine while drinking an ice-cold, triple-distilled single malt Scotch whiskey on the rocks.” Or whatever. Correcting for grammar and spelling is optional, as well as having the class vote on the most amusing sentence. You may also allow more time for each category, and another technique is starting with three minuets for jobs, and then decreasing by thirty seconds for each successive category.

Step Four: Getting Serious
By now about an hour has gone by, the classroom foundation is set and solid, so now it’s time to get serious. Get them to put all the desks back in order and sit down, and then call the roll. (Never, EVER begin by calling the roll. Nothing kills the buoyant potential energy deader than that.) Then, if you have one, show them the textbook, and no matter what your actual feelings are tell the class it’s the best damn textbook on planet Earth, and you are all going to learn a lot and have fun using it. I don’t suggest actually using the textbook in the first class, since many students won’t have it yet and you’ve got another 14 to 29 classes to dig into it. Then I hand my students a one page syllabus that includes major assessment dates and allotted percentages because they most likely have not looked at their online syllabi. If you choose to give them a text only version of the syllabus, that’s your choice (hint, hint). Now is time to explain your expectations slash rules regarding attendance, lateness, and so on. I point out that being late or absent is a sign of disrespect to me and to each other, and I promise to be on time every time. Your option is getting them to pledge the same. If you are teaching an elective class, or higher level students, or if you somehow sense the intrinsic motivation is in place you may wish to give them a metaphorical speech like, “I am not your teacher. You are your teacher. I am your communication coach, and I will do my best to raise your skills and abilities here in class. But this class is just practice, just for fun. Out there, in the real world, that’s your real test.”

12631152_903433013106159_473180436_oFinally, with perhaps fifteen minutes left in the class, I give the homework for the following week, a self introduction speech. They can begin writing it with the help of a handout that includes prompts on categories and language, and you can remind them of the contents of your self intro. I tell them this is a non-assessed two-minute speech and then I take time to slowly patrol the rows, asking each student if they need help. Depending on class size and ability PowerPoint is an option for this assignment too, but I usually save that for their first solo presentation. Regardless, the following class will not only tell you their proficiency level, but provide more opportunities for sharing personal details, strengthening bonds, and lots of clapping.

It goes without saying that there are countless methods, materials, games and activities that you could use in your next round of first classes, and you should only ever use what you are comfortable with. Nevertheless, I know firsthand that the above system is extremely effective for my context and goals. You want to shock them out of their high school complacency in the best possible way, letting them know your class will be fun, challenging, and most likely very different from what they’ve experienced before. Whatever you do in your first class, I believe it should be interactive and communicative with pair, group, and whole class activities thoughtfully chosen and artfully executed so that when they walk out that door they can’t wait to come back.

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Author’s Biography:

Crispy 3Christopher Philip Madden (MA-TESOL from The New School) has taught ESL in Toronto for two years and EFL for eleven years in Japan. He enjoys teaching at four universities in Tokyo, presenting, researching and writing, as well as collaboration with international colleagues. He also enjoys his two children and his Japanese wife.

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