With a full mug of instant coffee in my left hand, and a blue crate of bulky toys in my right, I kneed the classroom door open, flicked the lights on, clicked my mouse awake, and typed the username/password combo into the company laptop, fingers remembering before mind.
I double clicked the Google Chrome icon on the desktop. When it opened, I got the T-Rex game.
Our agenda would call for a reading activity, but first, a warmer for the kiddos: selected pictures to throw a ball at.
What could I do? All of my comprehension and feedback activities for the reading were to utilize the internet. Even my warmer used pictures. I doodled three pictures on the board, vocab targets for my kiddos’ infinite morning energy. Meanwhile, I asked my TA if she would find out whether other teachers were experiencing the same problem.
As it turned out, wifi was down in the whole building, and now I had no plan. While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to flying by the seat of my pants, I have to admit that I was excited by the intimacy of screenlessness.
When I was a boy, my family would always get upset when the power went out. I liked power outages, though. With the sockets dry, dad couldn’t be too busy with work, mom couldn’t cook, ignore. My sisters were afraid of the dark, so they were pried from their activities, too. Forced to pay attention to each other, we would inevitably sit at the wooden kitchen table, talking for hours.
The wifi was down so I was earnest. Excited, even.
The kiddos and I did our reading activity, just a basic gap fill/team race kind of thing, with papers tacked up outside in the hall. That went fine, but rather than monitoring my little kiddos properly, I had to think on my toes. I racked my brain: What could we do for comprehension? Feedback? They’d roll their eyes at the book, I knew. What had I even put on those darn slides? I’d put them together a week ago, and barely tweaked it the night before.
Pete and Peter were done first, of course. I should never have put them together. Not today. I asked them to help the others who hadn’t finished yet. That would buy a few minutes of thinking time.
No wifi: it’s like when your car breaks down and you have to walk or take buses and trains, which, if you don’t live in a major city, is a real hassle. You’re a helpless, naked baby.
After the gap fill, I asked everyone to take off their shoes and sit on the floor with me. We sat in a circle and took turns reading the text together. And something beautiful happened: I got questions from students who never talk. The boys who’d often shove each other quieted down, were easier. My kiddos actually discussed the text, often without prompting; they even went so far as to take contrary stances!
I think teachers can be, at times, parent-like in their authority. I still wonder how much parallel can be drawn from the wifi going down at school to the beloved power outages of my childhood.
Maybe Total Physical Response (TPR) has a weird relationship with technology. Technology simultaneously stimulates the students’ attention and keeps their bodies still. I cite every sarcastic thirteen year old as my evidence.
This situation got me thinking. I got to wondering about whether relying too much on screens could facilitate a teacher-centered classroom, even against the teacher’s best intentions.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t follow this up with any double-blind studies. I don’t know how far that could go anyway, since every class has a different dynamic. But I got joy from the experience, and I think the kiddos did, too. Don’t believe me. Try it. Cut the umbilical cord.
Shoeless, dirty feet kicking in the air, elbows leaning on their neighbors’ backs, and chins in palms, we completed a delightful reading lesson together.
Afterword, we drew our interpretations of the story with whiteboard markers on the waxy floor. And wouldn’t you know it, we followed it with another discussion. All English, pure gold. It makes me want to throw my laptop out the window.
Was it me? Or my students? Why did we all react as we did? Was it the simple matter of a refreshing seating arrangement? The cool, flat floor did feel nice. However, I don’t think that’s all there is to it.
I find that I’m easier to talk to with my agenda sidelined. Maybe that makes me a natural communicative language teacher. Because it’s not just the kiddos who feed on the ersatz, measured reality of clever .gifs. When the stress of following my lesson plan goes away, I better and more naturally hear the depth and content of my students’ remarks and wit. I’m not limited to my lesson’s one-way street. We stop to smell the roses—embrace the incidental vocabulary, the topic-changing remarks, even the jokes. There’s more time to appreciate the gaps in functional language while using the English they want to use.
Results You Can See
For me, ‘sticking to the plan’ emerges from scary boss observations that I perceive to have been cast with a looming, apocalyptic, prescriptive eye. I want to be a great teacher! And so I focus too much on staging, lesson types, and timing, because this is what I think has been asked of me.
Not wanting to make mistakes, I’ve kept on with it after being observed.
I’m further hampered by the tests that my poor little kiddos have been tasked to pass.
I think you’ll agree that testing is standard procedure in Asia. Data and metric improvement, in all things — testing, enrollment, observation feedback, etc.—is what schools and bosses need to do well. School is a numbers game. There’s no finger pointing going on here.
Before I left New York, I saw Scott Thornbury’s talk on Communicative Language Teaching. “CLT: 40 years on.”
I’ve since re-watched it three-and-change times, mostly for the part at 1:03:50 where he acknowledges that it’s hard for a teacher who’s green to replace vacuum-sealed lessons with communicative teaching. He points out that there are many potential pitfalls for new teachers.
I’ve always felt comfortable telling my adult students that I didn’t know, or that I’d double check the answer. It was an honest approach, but whether or not it was the most effective choice in my earliest days is arguable.
But Scott’s right. It does get easier with time. I’m no grandmaster, but at this stage, I’ve outgrown my greenness to a good degree. So if it’s hard for you, I can confirm that it’ll get easier.
In my opinion, teacher/student freedom and communicative teaching are extra super duper with adults in particular. I think effectiveness with teens and kiddos varies from class to class, depending on things like interpersonal dynamics.
I used to play basketball every day after school. And, though it may sound unlikely to those who have seen me in person, I was once even shorter than I am today. Not only was I a shrimp, but I was a shrimp with a sloppy fadeaway jump shot, and shrimps with sloppy jumpers didn’t get the ball much. The bigger kids didn’t always choose me for their teams, and when they did, they poked fun. So naturally, I always thought it would be cool if Patrick Ewing came to our school and sided with me. Tell them they should have chosen me, and then team up for an epic victory.
There I was, two days after re-watching Scott’s presentation, and the sky was falling, because I was knee-deep in a post observation apocalypse meeting, wishing he were there, strangely enough. And while we have fictitious Scott, let’s have him say, “Eli was getting so many follow-up questions. Did you really want him to stick to that boring, linear, prescription crimped lesson plan? You noticed how interested the students were, I know you saw.” And he would have saved me.
I’m still the same boy I ever was.
The truth is, in reality, Patrick Ewing would have been disappointed in my fade-away jumper, and Scott could, I’m sure, have found problems with my approach. But you get the idea.
Go With The Flow
And hey: how about those ancient Mesopotamians?
They built the first irrigation canals in the middle of the searing desert. Lined them with rocks to keep the canals intact in the middle of the desert. Civilization from dust! How inspiring! But: the Tigris and Euphrates rivers changed course often. So those hearty, thrifty Mesopotamians adapted.
Advice to myself (because it’s not my business to give it to you, Reader): If class is a river, go with the flow. Bring a map — but it’s OK to swim down that snaking stream you hadn’t noticed before.
Preface the Preface with a Preface
Let’s come back to unplugging.
Let me first say that technology has its place. It’s a great way for homework not to feel like homework. You can get creative with it. There are a million and one technological benefits. My favorite is cat gifs.
However, during class, a screen can act as a barrier between people. Why do you think your spouse doesn’t want you texting at the dinner table?
Kill Your iPad: PBL
Learners learn to communicate by communicating
-David Nunan, Task Based Language Teaching, P. 8
The beauty of this quote is that process language and functional language can be the same thing! Love it, Simple, quick and dirty, easy-peasy.
So there I am, room full of sarcastic Vietnamese teenagers—different class, not the kiddos—fresh off this Nunan thing, and I’m scaffolding a research/presentation project about local charities, and I have a sudden thought: this isn’t a good project. Not the topic. The project.
The process language and the functional language should be the same thing, yes! What that means (to me) is that the language (grammar, chunks, vocab) that the students need so they can negotiate communication during the creative process should be the main focus.
Unfortunately, my scaffolding process necessitated teaching my students how to use Google Slides before we could come anywhere near discussing charities. How can that be? How can the students be expected to communicate in English when they don’t know bold, italics, & ampersand, () parentheses. They don’t have the tools to say select that or align the paragraphs or put bullet points here or I hate that font, change it.
And: teenagers aren’t doing research. They’re texting. In any case, I feel that texting is not very communicative. We can text at home. And I mean that. It’s a great format for learning.
David Nunan had some cool ideas about painting a fence as a project. I think it’d be fun to repair bicycles. Maybe: grow hydroponic lettuce, in kind of a science-y CLIL approach. Or: cooking class, the mother lode of uncountable nouns! Something real. You get the idea.
Something to Draw On
Thank you for joining me on digression to Mesopotamia and the basketball court. I’d like to take us back to the class I was describing in the first place, though to a different day.
We were working on a project, me and my little ones, juxtaposing illustrations with sentences using “must.” My favorite entry was you mustn’t push people into the river. Why? Nothing extraordinary about the language. But the picture was hilarious.
Tom Two had drawn it. The children in his corner had laughed until their faces were red: Alice, Tom Two, and Merry would remember the language, the sheer hilarity of the stick figure’s faces serving as anchors.
We’d unplugged for some crayon time. Normally squirmy kiddos happily corrected their errors, and learn some incidental vocab along the way (e.g. fight, bomb, shoot, steal, poop…there were an abundance of mustn’ts): a small price to pay to be given a fresh box of crayons, wouldn’t you say?
I printed a bunch of copies on my lunch break and made some mini-books for them to take home. They were visibly proud. I want to reprint them with blank spaces for gap fills. Imagine the title of the textbook: by the kiddos, of the kiddos, for the kiddos.
I’d like you to know that the runner up to my favorite caption was: you mustn’t eat poop, because you can die. Actions got consequences, kid. Well done.
Let’s restate this hodge-podge. I think:
Plan, but don’t be a prisoner.
When you see tests, see if you can run away.
The computer isn’t your crutch. Unplug.
Finally, your students are not statistics. You might remember Freire and the banking system idea he came up with. I’m a fan. His prose is poetic, if a bit dark, and his ideas are beautiful.
Doesn’t using students as information banks and overplanning go hand in hand? Don’t they both rely on our expectations as teachers? And when we have strong expectations, it’s like we’re on a big fat crusade, isn’t it? Our destination is predetermined. On such a crusade, we can easily miss the subtlety, nuance, and personality in our students.
It’s true: the kiddos aren’t banks. However, when I have a pre-planned screen up, something happens that’s hard to quantify: there’s a glowing wall between me and them.
In other words, maybe Facebook is to friends as PowerPoints are to students.
But maybe not.
Author’s biography: Eli Case is an MATESOL graduate. He has been teaching for about three years. He loves his job. By nature, he’s a story teller, and is more interesting to read than to listen to, since in writing, he has had time to consider what is worth sharing, and what isn’t. Eli enjoys listening to podcasts, doodling in class, and writing about himself in the third person.