Tuesday, 11 August 2009

First English lesson of the new school year

I took an online 'teacher personality' quiz, which had the following question:

Which do you agree with most: It's the first week of school. This is a time to:
  • Allow kids to get to know you better without requiring a lot of work.
  • Teach the students your rules and enforce them strictly.
  • Get to know each student while testing them to find their level of
  • Jump right in and get started on the curriculum.
This made me think of my first week of school next week. I would very much like to take the first option, but I have always maintained that, in our system (which I briefly outlined in my previous post), it simply is not possible. To get through all the course content in the 6-7 weeks allocated for each grading period, I have usually had to follow the last alternative in the list - start work from the very first lesson onwards, with a little bit of diagnostic testing, and, of course, explaining my classroom rules, too.

I am not happy about this rather impersonal approach to meet my first groups of the year, though. What if this year I did it differently? During my summer reading I came across Paul Blogush's post about first impressions, which effectively convinced me not to start by enforcing my rules, or going through the syllabus and frightening especially the poor nervous new first-graders about how much more work senior high is going to require of them. In the first meeting of each class, I am going to try to meet the students more personally by engaging with them in some interactive moments of getting to know each other.

Another new revelation for me during my personal online summer studies was learning about the 'dogme' approach to language teaching, outlined in this article by Scott Thornbury. I am not surprised that we haven't heard about 'dogme' here in Finland, as EFL in Finnish senior high schools ('lukio') is taught by non-native teachers relying on set textbooks made in Finland to prepare students for the written national final exams. However, I got inspired to step outside my comfort zone next school year and introduce a weekly dogme-style lesson in all my courses. I also thought it would be a good idea to set the new tone right from the first lesson, so I am going to 'go partly dogme' with all my groups in their first lessons next week.

This is my lesson plan for my first-graders' first English class.

- new to our school (16-year-olds, 7 years of English studies behind them)

I will leave all the rules, textbooks, syllabus etc. explanations till a later time. Instead we will focus on the people in the classroom and understanding certain underlying principles of my English lessons.

One of my principles is arranging desks into groups of 4 instead of the traditional rows. I will divide the students in the groups in advance, mainly to make sure that there are both boys and girls in each group, but also to avoid quiter students being left out or finding it too frightening to join others. I firmly believe that group seating in foreign language classes engages students, encourages interaction and communication and allows learning from peers.

Another important principle in my classes is the importance of spoken English skills, too often neglected with the traditional, mostly written, textbook + grammar approach. Instead of doing the pre-prepared icebreaker 'getting to know each other' exercises provided by the textbooks or the dozens of others easily found online, I am going to ask each group to prepare 10-20 interesting questions to ask their classmates to be able to introduce them to the others later. I want to get the input from the students to elicit meaningful and new questions rather than the worn-out and predictable teacher-prepared lists. As one of the grammar points we are supposed to revise in the first course is all the tenses in English, I am going to go through them briefly with them - probably write an introduction of myself with all the different tenses in it and project that for them for a quick recap of the grammar. Then I will ask them to use as many different tenses in the questions they prepare as possible.

Once the groups are ready with the questions, each pair of students will then work with a new pair from another group. After greeting each other, they will then in turn ask their questions and make notes. To introduce the idea of communicative skills, I will ask them to avoid a repetitive, going-through-the-motions question-and-answer style, but instead try their best to take a real interest and keep the conversation going. The problem with, at least Finnish, students is that they tend to just go through their questions as quickly as possible and provide only very short, matter-of-fact answers.

To finish the lesson, each pair is then going to introduce the two students they interviewed, and we will hopefully get to hear many interesting anecdotes about all the new people in the group. From previous experience, I have also realized that our students are usually too shy to reveal a lot if asked to introduce themselves, so introducing somebody else might make it less threatening and help us learn more about each student.

From a grammar point of view, introducing another person, and not yourself, also brings in the 3rd person singular plus the pronouns 'he/she', which always need special attention with Finnish students. In Finnish we only have one word for both he/she, and so a typical mistake in English is, for example "Do you know my mother? HE is a nurse." Rather confusing, isn't it? All along, I will make notes of typical mistakes - how to form questions, forming the tenses etc. and in the next lesson I will briefly go through the problematic points with the whole group.


With this lessons plan I hope to achieve to following goals:

  • break the ice in an unthreatening way and learn something about each other
  • engage each student in a communicative exercise, and introduce the idea that in my classes they will be expected to SPEAK ENGLISH (with each other, and in public)
  • keep it all in English
  • talk about topics that the students find relevant
  • start introducing the course grammar in a (hopefully!) less boring way
  • get the students used to the idea of working in small groups from the beginning
  • set a nice and relaxed atmosphere


Paul Bogush said...

I am going to actually try and remember to do a video of my first day and post it--it kind of goes against every normal teacher impulse ;)

I did talk about it once here:
Keep in mind it was a bit of a crazy podcast that I used to do while riding my bike to school!
And another post I did on my first day of the last school year:

What I don't think people realize is that every minute you spend connecting pays off in a more intense academic time. When your kids trust you, they will go extra lengths to work hard, and do not need a list of rules to keep them inline. I might take 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each period to connect, but then there are no pauses for the next 50.

By the way, you first day looks great...except for one little thing...

"I am going to ask each group to prepare 10-20 interesting questions to ask their classmates to be able to introduce them to the others later." Don't forget to include yourself in it, and you can even put yourself in the group with the shy kid.

sinikka said...

Hi Paul

Thank you for your comment and the links - I will look at them today.
I totally agree with you about the importance of connecting, but somehow in our school culture it's not often a priority after primary school. Straight into business and 'no nonsense' efficiency is. Our classes are only 45 mins, so I guess teachers feel that they can't spare any of that short time.
Thanks for the tip of including myself in it, too! I had already thought about that :)
I look forward to seeing your video!