My “special group”

I think every EFL teacher has a special group. I don’t mean the one that I love, because I can take all of my ideas to them and get good feedback (though I have that group, too). And I don’t mean the groups where I learn a lot (I have a bunch of them). And, I don’t mean my most frustrating group (that’s a rotating honor, to be honest).

The group

I mean the group that I’ve had for literally years without making a lot of progress. The group that makes me wonder if I’m as good at this teaching thing as I like to think I am.

They’re great people: it’s an evening group that gets together as much out of the joy of seeing each other as out of any real desire to learn English. In fact, half of them are retired and will probably only ever need English on the level of “one beer, please” and the other three only might need English.

They know their English isn’t great, but I think they’re satisfied with how things are.

It goes without saying that I am not satisfied.

So, as I wind up the worksheet generating software (weird idea, but it’s basically finished, though I’ll probably never stop poking at it) I think my next big focus will be on growing as a teacher and using this group as the obstacle course on which I train.

Of course, they get the New Spork City stories every week, and they read and translate them faithfully.

The challenge

I remember someone summarizing her teaching style as “give them what they need disguised as what they want.” And it’s a good philosophy. It’s what I’m trying with these guys.

So, here’s what they want: to come in in the evening, have a good time, enjoy the connection that they have to each other, and go home. They wilt when we obviously drill anything for more than five minutes and, to be honest, they’re quick to grasp something like a structure or vocabulary “for now” but will struggle to employ it even thirty minutes later.

Here’s what they need (I think): They do okay with individual words. Voabulary isn’t the problem. The problem is forming sentences reliably. And, what they need is to practice them in a simplified way until they click and to build up from there. However, if it’s too obviously practice, energy leaves the room.

What I’m trying

I intend to write more with time, and I’ll describe some activities in detail, but I’m trying hard to find activities that feel like a game or a conversation, but which emphasize repeating the same structures over and over again.

In addition, I printed out a game board from LinguaHouse (I think, I can’t find it again…) that focused on asking questions and let them discover that that was hard for them. Then, I made up a first worksheet using the characters from New Spork City going through the fundamentals of questions step-by-step. (Eventually, I expect it to be very similar to the “passive voice for processes” series of worksheets already available here.)

My goal is to follow the same recipe that worked so well with the absurd business resources: make some great worksheets that I can reuse (and share here) and mix them up with customized materials just for the class that are fun to do because they’re about the class participants.

With time, I hope to write up some of the activities that I thought of in order to disguise the drilling I do with them (and other groups), but that’s going to have to wait for another time.

I spent years getting into this situation. It’ll take me a while to get out. But I will.

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I fixed my memory!

Yesterday evening I said to myself “I’m going to tackle adding crosswords as an available review activity for dynamic-efl.com.”

It was an activity that I’d been postponing since I got the whole thing web-based. To be honest, I don’t know why anymore. I just remember the feeling that it seemed like a lot of work and, hey, wordsearches were working, so why rush, right? But, whenever I listed everything that the website could do, I’d find myself tagging on “and I hope to add crosswords, soon, too.”

Which was ridiculous because they worked in the desktop version, so whatever I needed to get done to make them work on the web version was probably just a matter of a careful reading of the code.

So, yesterday I resolved to get them done, and I did. Easy as that.

I was almost surprised how easily it all worked. And, to be honest, it’s a bigger accomplishment than updating the memory activities, but who could pass up the opportunity to write a blog post titled “I updated my memory.”

 

crossword
Funnily, this one still includes multi-word vocabulary. I decided to exclude them from crossword activities in order to make things easier on the learners.

 

Inspired by that, I decided to tackle something else that’s been outstanding on my list: fixing the memory activities. The memory activities worked fine, of course, but there were two different activities: translation memory and, if a group had enough vocabulary with associated pictures, picture memory. It seemed most logical to make a single memory activity that would use pictures where they were available, and translations where they were not.

What’s more, the translation-only memory tacked a ‘cheat sheet’ on at the end for the teacher, in case I forget how I translated a certain word (it happens to me, and I wrote the translations. I guess it happens to others, too). Why not do the same thing, but with pictures and translations. In case one of the pictures isn’t clear.

So, this evening, I fired up the IDE and I got it done. There were a few hiccoughs along the way, but it was done in less time than it took for the kids to watch a movie I didn’t like. So, hooray for that, right?

It’s nice to feel productive. In fact, so nice that I’m not even excited about now getting to work on preparing for classes next week.

“Did you bring the next story?”

Something really positive happened last Tuesday. A student was frustrated that I had forgotten to bring the reading assignment, and I had to pass a sheet of paper around so that students could write down their email addresses to get it sent to them.

That hasn’t happened before.

New Spork City

Did you know that I wrote a series of stories set in the fictional “New Spork City” (the stories are available here, or will be as they get revised and edited.) I’ve been handing out one story every week since classes re-started for me at the beginning of this month.

My goal with the stories were pretty simple:

  • I wanted students to have a positive English encounter. Sometimes I get too deep into the ‘English Workout’ metaphor and everything is just work, work, work. Some students already have ‘fun English’ built into their lives, but for those that don’t have a chance to relax with English, they needed something that wasn’t homework.
  • There is an advantage to having a cast of likable characters that we can eventually revisit. If I could get a few people who the groups seemed to like hearing about, we could use them in other contexts, the way you can use “Jack Sparrow” with people who all love the Pirates of the Carribean movies.
  • Obviously, I am in favor of people reading. If this is a stepping-stone to students reading ‘real’ English, I’m in favor of it. (Or even reading more in their native language. Reading is good for everyone.)
  • The more ‘good English’ my students are exposed to, the sooner they’ll (hopefully) develop an ‘ear’ for English. I want people to be able to hear their own mistakes, and if they only ever hear their classmates speaking, that will take longer.

So, I wrote up a collection of stories, setting some constraints for myself:

  • Each story was no longer than a single A4 page, on one side.
  • Each story describes an entire situation or interaction. They all end with “to be continued” but only because the drama is never over. So far, stories cover a father and daughter in a restaurant, a few first encouters, a family planning dinner. But they cover it all the way to the end (though, obviously, not is much depth, see the first bullet point).
  • The characters speak ‘native’ English… but a little better. That is to say, they say things like “lend a hand” and “help yourself” which needs to be explained (more on that in the next bullet point) but they always do it using good grammar. Nobody says “you got a minute?” They would all say “do you have a minute?” I get that it’s not ‘native’ English, but have a look at the point above about these being a stepping stone.
  • I want my students to, in the best case, read the story in one sitting without the assistance of a dictionary. To that end, I imagine them getting a lot out of context (they are all fairly universal situations, adults know what happens in these situations) and I provide footnotes for words or phrases where I imagine them stumbling. There is one group that I have in mind when I write them, and I think “if they can read this, things will be fine.”

The reception

I pass the stories out in six lesson. On the first day, I explained that they don’t have to read them, but that I’m going to pass out the eleven that are already written and we’ll talk about whether they were helpful or not afterwards. Since then, I’ve asked once or twice “are you reading these” as I pass them out, and the answers are generally positive.

People like to ask about the funny names (see me and my love of absurdity). The landlady in the story is named Mrs. Geldsack (German for ‘Moneybags,’ basically.) and they love that.

And, more than one person has said they look forward to knowing what happens next. “I don’t think they’re super exciting stories,” I tell them. “I’m not Dan Brown.”

“That’s because you know what will happen.” Was the answer from one student.

And then, on Tuesday this week, I didn’t print out the next story because, well, it’s not automatic for me, yet. And, I got to class, had a good lesson, and, in the end, a student asked: “do you have the next story?”

“I forgot to print it.” I said. “That’s my bad organization again.”

“I have to wait a week?” She seemed genuinely frustrated.

“You can give me your email address and I’ll mail them tonight or tomorrow.”

“Please.” And everyone signed up for the voluntary reading worksheet.

I’m satisfied.