July 10, 2011 by Willy Cardoso
London, 7 July 2011
EFL conversation lesson (B2 upper-intermediate)
in the room: 1 teacher and 8 adult learners
(after the initial chit-chat)
So… we’ve had interesting lessons this week, we talked about many things, and… you know, I chose all the topics. I was thinking that maybe for today and tomorrow you could choose the topic of our conversations, after all this is a conversation lesson and you must have things you’d like to talk about, and learn related vocabulary, practice some expressions used to talk about these specific things, maybe about your culture, jobs, I don’t know. What do you think?
(silence; some nodding; some indifference; some blank looks; some smiles)
What do you say if each one of you choose a topic? I’ll write them up on the board and we’ll see what common interests you have and build the lesson from that. So, what would you like to talk about?
(silence, 5 seconds)
(teacher feels uncomfortable and wants to keep talking though he manages not to and waits)
(silence, 10 seconds)
(teacher starts to feel itchy, nearly utters a slightly aggressive c’mon!!)
(silence, 15 seconds)
(teacher is now pissed off, but manages to look cool, he simply talks to himself If these guys come to a conversation lesson and there’s nothing they’d like to talk about we’ll be silent for 1h30, fine)
(silence, 20 seconds – a record breaker of teacher-students’ silence in classroom non-activity)
(he can take it no more…)
So… any ideas?? (he says with a big smile which hides itchy uneasiness)
Erm… I don’t know… I think it would be nice to talk about the government interfering in people’s lives. (says the blonde with an intonation of hopeless uncertainty and a look of why do I always have to talk first in this group?)
Interestingly enough, a week before that I taught the same course, but with different people, and I barely had to open my mouth to initiate any kind of discussion, students would do it eagerly.
The thing is, it was supposed to be pretty easy because you know, by the time they come to my lesson they’d had 3 hours of coursebook-oriented lessons, they are upper-intermediate, they can talk, none of them have any mental disabilities, they don’t look starved, the lesson is after lunch, it’s EFL, it’s holidays for most of them, they’re all literate and seem to have had privileged education in their home countries, and more than anything they chose to be there because afternoon lessons are elective as far as I know. But it’s not easy! Because they won’t talk if they were not asked a direct question.
It must be difficult for them for some reason, reason which unfortunately we don’t have much time to uncover. And it’s also difficult for me to deal with it for reasons I understand very well.
But it’s okay, I know some people come with high expectations of having no control, of granting the teacher full responsibility for creating content that is enjoyable and conducive to learning, even though this content might have nothing to do with their lives. As a teacher who does his best to understand his students’ referential points, I do understand such expectations.
In spite of it, a good teacher in this circumstance would be able to (or at least try to) identify his learners’ needs and interests and plan accordingly anyway, even if most of them will be there for a week only? But why would he do it?
Realizing the difficulty of such approach her teacher tries hard to implement and also understanding that such approach has been beneficial to her in the previous week, the youngest (stated) and brightest (according to my judgement) person in the group suggested we chose the topics beforehand in order for them to have time to prepare “something to say”.
Most of them agreed that it was a good idea. Another student suggested it would be interesting to know more about each other’s culture since they come from different places. Deal. Their simple task was to think of questions they’d like to ask classmates the day after.
The day after:
A quarter of the group had thought about what they wanted to know about each other.
No-one volunteered to kick off. After the awkward silence the teacher couldn’t take all over again, he improvised a genuine question to the youngest student, the one who suggested the whole thing. Her answer was quite good and generated a lot of comments, it also prompted questions from some students who hadn’t thought about anything.
Conversation nearly died about 7 times at least. The teacher had to ask most follow-up questions to keep the ball rolling because students were unable or unwilling to do so.
Some students when addressed a question from a classmate answered them looking at the teacher instead of at the one who asked the question. Weird.
There were interesting questions and interesting answers, most of the group was focused, they were paying attention to each other, they asked about some vocab they didn’t know, took notes. The teacher reformulated some incorrect phrases, etc. It was not a bad lesson, but not one I’m proud of either.
Needless to say, this is a simplistic account of these classroom events, especially because I didn’t say what we did on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and because in each one of us (teacher and students) there are a whole bunch of cultural baggage, learning stories, expectations, frustrations and so on… but still, I’d like to figure out how to do better and get more from them. If you have any similar experience or advice, please comment.