About the lesson I taught yesterday and my observation of one student

12

May 25, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

Kim really surprised me yesterday.

As part of the Business English course, I ask students to give a 20-min presentation each on a topic of their choice (except from their home country), I video-record it and they do some self-assessment later. Yesterday, Kim talked about a business management system, something she’s studying at university back home. The slides were good, her research on the topic was also good – the ‘language’ oh very good. I say ‘language’ with ‘ __’ , because it’s the language that we’ve been working on this month: she used presentation signposts we saw two weeks ago; new expressions like ‘to sum up’, which she hadn’t had active in her vocabulay; and some adverbs that caught her attention in the previous lessons.

All language input I’ve been giving come after students’ production, spoken or written. Fortunately, I don’t have to follow a grammar-based syllabus. So, when I say Kim used the adverbs, it’s not that she had to use them because they were prescribed, but because during our first conversations, adverbs of manner were nearly absent, so I brought it up in class, later she used them in one of her writing tasks, made one or two mistakes, which I showed her – and in her presentation, I don’t know why they were there. Well, I kind of know why; Kim pays a lot of attention and she’s a good note-taker (interestingly, I realized that she only takes notes of the things that she finds useful – unlike her classmate who takes notes of everything and ends up with lots of things he’s not likely to recall and use later).

I don’t know to what extent this approach, of dealing with grammar in a more natural way, is better or worse for my students. Maybe Kim would’ve learned the adverbs anyway if we had used grammar boxes and gap-fills instead of dialogue. Or maybe not, since she’s about 22 and has studied English in her home country for about 10 years now, most probably with grammar boxes and gap-fills. What I know is that it’s better for me as a teacher, I feel the lesson is more pleasant, that the language work is less artificial, and it feels good that what I teach is closer to what they need, instead of what someone else who is not even there thinks they need. I’m not delivering pizza.

But back to the presentation and why Kim surprised me. She didn’t surprise me so much with the presentattion actually. It was alright, but she hesitated a lot and well, she was nervous, so it affected the quality of her presentation of course. The main problem was eye-contact, sometimes she was talking looking at the wall, she couldn’t look at us for more than 2 seconds. She already said many times how shy she is; and I once told her it would be a good idea if she kept more eye-contact when she speaks.

When her presentation finished, she wanted to go straight back to her seat, but we had some questions so she waited, answered the questions, and then I started to ask about her opinion. All these students’ presentations tend to have no more than 3% of personal opinion or experience – I don’t know why they keep them factual and distant, even when I let them do it about their countries.

So, then I started to ask about her opinion on how much of a company’s financial situation should be disclosed to employees, the other student also wanted to give his opinion, and I also had my point of view. The Q&A part of Kim’s presentation turned into a conversation, we shared some experiences, agreed, disagreed, changed perspectives, well it was great – and she was on a stool, we were in our student chairs; she started to look more comfortable, kept more eye-contact. I was so good to talk to a student that was sitting in a higher position than myself, and I think it did her good too.

So here’s the real surprise: The second half of this 2-hour lesson was prompted only by 2 questions. And for the first time I was able to ask only 2 questions because yesterday Kim was on fire; she engaged in real conversation, gave her opinion, even interrupted the other student to take the floor.

(A parenthesis to the other student: he’s adorable, very intelligent, and he likes to talk, so many times he talks a lot and dominates the conversation, and for Kim’s learning this is not so good because most of the lesson is conversation-driven)

Normally, I need an arsenal of questions to keep Kim talking, I’ve tried very informal topics, serious stuff, personal, professional, anecdotal, humour, and rarely did she engage in a sustained speech that would allow me to understand better how I could help her improve her language. But yesterday, it was so easy! She talked a lot, made mistakes – great! – I could draw her attention to the lingering I’m agree, she helped me draw the other student’s attention to the also lingering It depends of. We refined the nuances of agreement and disagreement with more adverbs, I partially agree; she contributed to a couple more adverbs, I noted on the whiteboard. They learned they can use one / one’s instead of using he when talking about an unspecified individual, and so on.

So what happened?

From an eye-contactless shy English language learner to an engaged participant willing to share her thoughts.

I can try and believe it’s the dialogic teaching, or I can try and believe it’s the magic stool. What happened I’ll never fully understand. No teacher can fully understand what makes his/her learners tick. I can think about the lesson, blog about it, listen to your comments and I’d love to; I can try the same material and approach with other students and see if it there’s a similar outcome. But there’s no way I believe whatever I conclude hasn’t got some guesswork.

Well, my dear readers, there’s no grand finale in this post, sorry, it’s as simple as that – simple, because teaching is simple. Learn how to observe, listen and care for other people’s development and you’re halfway to become a great teacher. I like to believe I’m on my way to become one.

– I’ll come back next with the ‘lesson recipe’ I used yesterday.

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12 thoughts on “About the lesson I taught yesterday and my observation of one student

  1. dingtonia says:

    This is what teaching is – magic and mysterious and suddenly something happens. All we provide is the time and the space, then we allow the mistakes and false starts and then we observe and wait and observe again until it happens.

    Once again, we are in some sort of synchronous space. I have just blogged about “simple” Needs Analysis. It’s a dreary old post, but I’m so tired and I just wanted to say that all the jargon and waffle is unnecessary and it’s time we remembered how beautifully simple it is really. 🙂

    • I think Candy nails it when she says that “all we provide is the time and the space”. Why your lesson worked was because you seem to have been generous with both – and the subtle change in the physical space also had unforeseen consequences. Not working within the constraints of a grammar syllabus is another kind of space, too. (I have ‘space’ on the brain at the moment, after last weekend’s Open Space conference!)

  2. you know, one of my favorite definitions of teaching is:
    to expand the space of the possible

    I don’t remember who said it or if this is the right phrasing, but I’m using it now. I’m almost sure it was Brent Davis in his excellent book Inventions of Teaching

  3. Mirian says:

    Loved to read about your class; I’ve experienced this kind of “WOW” moment sometimes and couldn’t quite put my finger on what triggered them. Maybe because I was part of them.

    One thing that occurs to me, about your class, is that when she made the presentation she was, perhaps, “parroting” someone else’s beliefs and discoveries, something she probably didn’t care about/relate to. I guess the “click” happened when you and the other student asked her opinion on the matter, in a more genuine, real life discussion. I think sometimes students feel quite silly in a classroom which most of the time feels artificial and superficial.

    Once I attended a speech by Jeremy Harmer, on fluency, and one of the things discussed was the definition of fluency. Many people described it as “a rush to speak, to say something, in spite of the mistakes one might make”. Maybe the Q&A was the “rush creator” moment.

    My two cents…Good luck with your future classes! 🙂

  4. acLiLtocLiMB says:

    Don’t you just love it when something like that happens? I know I do. If only it were as simple as the Magic Stool syndrome! I think we all need to have patience and persistence. In every shy person, there’s a stifled outgoing character struggling to be heard 😉
    Chiew

  5. Ed Pegg says:

    I’ve observed this change in learner outlook many times, in professionals making presentations as well as in the classroom.

    I was working with a partner in a venture capital firm recently who had to give a presentation to investors in New York. In the orginal presentation, he had planned (was being encouraged) to stand behind a lecturn and deliver the presentation. Many of the issues you mentioned above were also obvious in his delivery. This is someone who had made over 50 similar presentations and spent all day talking to and directing people.

    Between lessons, a conversation was held and he told me at the next lesson there was now no lectern, the microphone was free and he could move around the room. This style of presenting, much more conversation like, suited him so much better and almost all of the eye contact body language issues had disappeared.

    As a result, I’ve started introducing a ‘presentation style’ aspect to my lessons, helping learners see there’s not one way to present and learners need to find a way that they’re comfortable with.

    Ways I do this is comparing youtube videos of David Cameron and Steve Jobs (often mobile) with Obama (Static behind a lecturn) and Richard Branson (often sitting) and discussing the difference in impact, approach and how they engage audiences in different ways.

  6. @Mirian
    That’s interesting! I did feel a bit like she had memorized what that management system could do, which is in fact not a problem per se, but the thing was that being an undergraduate student she doesn’t have substantial experience on the topic. My first question to her was ‘Have you seen this in practice?’ to which she answered ‘no’, then I decided to take another approach and ask something like ‘If you were a business manager would you use a system that discloses the company’s financial situation to employees?’ and that was better but still difficult, then I realized I had to make things simpler and asked something like ‘How would you feel as an employee working at a place that …. ‘ – at that point she started to speak more eloquently.

    Was that Harmer presentation in Sao Paulo last year? I was there 🙂

    • Mirian says:

      Yes, it was. It was brilliant and has helped me reshape my classes. BTW, I do agree with you on the syllabus-based course syndrome; whose needs does it really meet?

  7. I’ve had something similar myself. Each student giving a 5 minute presentation on something about which they are passionate. The language they use often becomes secondary to what they want to say and, like you, I’ve had nervous students giving it their all.

    Plus of course we found out some pretty weird and wonderful stuff!

  8. As a teacher of deaf students, I wonder if it is at all possible to reach the same kind of “aha” moment in written presentations…
    Fascinating post!

  9. David Warr says:

    Hi Willy, I agree with Miriam, and I liked the questions you asked your student, in your response to Miriam. I think that when we try to sound clever, we talk in abstracts and present objectively, but the listeners just want a nice story – with the facts and what-not embedded in it. This is what seems to have happened with your final question to her. It became real and alive, and so did she.
    Or perhaps it was the stool.

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