Silence and control (part II)


July 24, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

In 1 minute, write down anything that comes to your mind. GO!

(1 minute later)

In 2 minutes, talk to the person next to you about the things you wrote. GO!

(2 minutes later)

In 1 minute, write down topics you’d like to discuss in this lesson. GO!

(1 minute later)

Tell me.

(they did! yey!)

Then I took notes of the topics each one suggested, for every topic that came up I asked if anyone else would like that, some topics needed to be narrowed down a bit in scope and students actively contributed to this process. For example someone said films, then they decided it would be better if everyone made their own Top 3 and found some trivia about them. It was also decided that my job was to bring some vocabulary related to films.

Other topics were: books (which unfortunately we didn’t have time to do); music (we had a great discussion about what genre best represented each decade, from the 60s to the upcoming 20s); British history (we didn’t do it either mainly because I told them that I would not be lecturing in a speaking focused lesson, so if they could come up with something they could do about history that was aligned with the objective of the lessons, fine, eventually they didn’t); and the best of all relationship (that was one of the most interesting lessons, here my job was to provide some idioms used to describe relationships).

And that was it. We had the a syllabus for the week with everyone’s ideas. Oh, happy day!

The ‘relationship’ lesson:

Students were interested in finding out how youngsters behave when trying to hook up with someone in their respective countries (France, Italy, Russia, Ukraine and Brazil).

Since no-one was married I later brought up the topic of marriage and asked how they saw themselves in this ‘situation’ 😉

Everything was going alright except for one student who was stereotyping his countrymen as perverts and his countryladies as whores, this would be okay if there wasn’t another person of the opposite sex (read: woman) from the same country who evidently disagreed pissed-off-ly. However, since this dude’s comments were so hard to believe students were mainly taking them/him as a joke when then …

the topic of homosexuality came up. One student told the story of his classmate who has two dads and how terribly bullied he is at school. Some other students made short comments and were all seemingly okay with the topic, I mean, we were talking about homosexuality not as if it was a taboo topic, i.e. very openly and naturally, and extremely respectfully until the same dude said:

bla bla bla… if the gay people and the normal people … bla bla (and I interrupted)

I said, sorry but you can’t say that.

He tried to rephrase, though he thought I’d said it because there was a mistake in his sentence.

I interrupted again, and said No, you can’t say gay and normal; think about it!

Now he understood it was not a grammatical mistake. But he insisted on having the argument and said something really atrocious.

A couple of students started to look really pissed off.

I said, Ok this is too much crap, end of story, change the topic, I don’t wanna know.

there was Silence… (control)

I looked at the clock, 10 minutes left. I don’t even remember what happened in those last 10 minutes, probably there was me mumbling some homework and then letting them go 5 minutes earlier.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this episode. I struggle to give students a voice and to allow them to express themselves in meaningful ways even if it’s the most bullshitical thing I will ever hear, it doesn’t matter, it’s their voice. But this… I couldn’t take it.


The films lesson:

To cut a long story short: A disaster. (for me, not for them. I explain)

So each student had their Top 3 movies. They took turns talking about them, they invested in their speech I could see that, they thought about it carefully, they self-monitored, they asked for words and all that. But there was no conversation. For me, there were 6 monologues. When one mentioned a film others hadn’t seen, no one asked questions; when it was a film more than one of them had seen, still no comments. I did most of the follow-up questions myself and tried to engage them fruitlessly.

What’s the point? I thought to myself. They chose the topic, but all they wanted was to tell ME about it and know if they made any mistakes?

Tomorrow there’s a new group, some students went home on Friday, some will stay another week and new ones arrive on Monday. The only thing I can hope for is that they are a wee bit more interested in the lives of others.

that’s all for now.

>>I worry I might be giving the impression that I don’t enjoy these conversation lessons. In fact, they’ve been quite a learning experience for me,  and that counts so much. I could only stop enjoying teaching when I cease to learn from doing it, if ever.


12 thoughts on “Silence and control (part II)

  1. Willy, your post captures (eloquently, also brutally) some of the challenges and risks of a conversation-driven pedagogy. These could be summarised as:

    1. Avoidance: students (even when signed up in so-called ‘conversation classes’) will neither initiate nor participate in conversations, and an uncomfortable silence ensues. The reasons for this might be any number of factors, including basic insecurity about their own language competence, lack of a conducive classroom dynamic, unfamiliairity with a learner-centred classroom environment etc. In your previous post (Silence & Control) these issues are dealt with insightfully in the comments, so I won’t add more here;

    2. Lack of interactivity: as you note, when students report experiences of their own (e.g. films they have seen) there may be no incentive to interact (this happens in some conversations between native- or proficient-speakers too, when the conversation becomes a series of monologues because there is no real shared interest in one another). One possible strategy might be to impose the kind of task which forces interaction, e.g.tell each other about a film you’ve seen recently, AND PERSUADE YOUR PARTNER THAT THEY SHOULD SEE IT. Students do this in pairs, and then switch partners until they have talked to everyone in the room. They then each decide which of the films they have been told about they would want to see. It’s a bit contrived, but it will probbaly produce a better quality of speaking and listening than simply talking, in open class, about films – for no apparent reason.

    3.Negativity. As in the case of your anti-gay student, opening up the agenda to the learners carries certain risks, but I think that these are risks worth taking. All you can do as a teacher is to respond – as you did – authentically, i.e. in the way your would respond with a group of people in the pub, one of whom expressed a questionable or even unacceptable opinion. You can indulge bigots to a certain extent – in the hope that you might either shut them up or change their opinion (faint hope) – or you can just walk away. Your walking away might even motivate some of the others in the group to take responsibiltiy for some group-mediated awareness-raising. Who knows?

    But thanks for raising these issues – it seems to me to be one of the most exciting and powerful areas of language teaching that we need, continually, to address – how to make talk work.

    • Yes, I have seen some ‘cronic’ cases of unfamiliarity with learner-centered lessons.
      E.g. Last week I asked the student who chose the topic of relationships to ask the first question and she said “Why do I have to do everything?”
      It was quite weird because she always showed herself as an independent French young adult so self-conscious and down to earth, etc, and she really is a very pleasant person to be around, I totally enjoyed talking to her, etc, but when it came to taking the handle of the lesson even if for 5 minutes she didn’t seem very happy.

      Lack of a conducive dynamic – a teacher’s worse fear perhaps. This is one of the reasons I now worry less about ‘materials’ and how to ‘explain’ stuff. And focus on dynamism. It’s been somehow hard to self-evaluate it though.

      #2 Interactivity – I’ve been working hard on it with good progress, I’ll write about it later, I want to have a hands-on blogpost with the best moments of this course in regards activities.

      #3 Negativity – Thank you! That’s basically what I have to say.

      How to make talk work – there you go, the title of you next book? 😉

  2. mcneilmahon says:

    Fascinating reading Willy, many thanks for sharing. With regards the films non-conversation, I think perhaps your expectations are possibly unrealistic, since as Scott points out, this often happens in conversations in L1 as well. In fact, I’d say it happens in A LOT of conversations in L1, and this is probably much more likely to be the reason for the students wanting to tell you rather than interact with their peers rather than any flaw in your activity.

    ‘What’s the point? I thought to myself. They chose the topic, but all they wanted was to tell ME about it and know if they made any mistakes?’

    Point is, not only did the students choose what to talk about, but they chose how to talk about it – in a way that reflects their behaviour in L1 conversations. One way to respond to this is to impose a more interactive task, or you could just accept it as their way of conversing and move on – it’s still a worthwhile task if you’ve listened and given them language feedback as they wish.

    Or perhaps you could involve the students in designing a listening task which develops their listening skills and gives them an intrinsic reason to listen (something to do with thinking about which films they may want to watch seems the obvious way to go here). Perhaps this could be done next lesson, using your initial intriguing format – ‘In one minute write down what you remember of your classmates films…’ as a way of leading in to listening more to each other and conversing rather than presenting.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your classes.

    • Thanks, Neil!
      You’re right, in fact, I should be happy they chose the topic and chose how to talk about it, and they did talk a lot, even if without too much interaction. I think that part of my frustration comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy seeing students just waiting for their turn and not listening to others, in this type of activity one can easily be quiet for 25 minutes until their turn.

      Today, I included some more interactive elements like having students stand in the front for speedy presentations and it worked well, the level of attention was generally very high, I’ll even write about the whole activity in a later blogpost because it did work really well.

  3. Wow.

    Interesting. It all started so well, and then went downhill. I don’t think I could’ve handled it better. When folks have strong opinions, opposing them often makes those opinions stronger. I guess that’s the (faint hope) in Scott’s comment above.

    I think I would’ve cut it off too, and honestly that’s a power worth exercising. It’s the lesser of two evils. Thanks for sharing. Cheers, brad

    • Thanks, Brad!

      Yeah, I think there was little else I could’ve done. One thing that I’m now happy about is that the same guy hasn’t done anything similar this week; he’s been nice and all. I think it was more of a one-off thing, you know? These things very young people would do to draw attention.

  4. Lao The Younger says:

    I don’t know, Willy. I’m never one to back down from an argument though, so I’m not the best equipped to answer. I perhaps would have gone down a different avenue other than the “You can’t say that…” approach. Because, although I know what Scott means, you are NOT in a pub. You’re in a classroom and there’s no reason other than the hierarchy why you should get to decide what can be said and what can’t be said.

    I’m reading between the lines here and can imagine the ethnic grouping of this individual. The chances are that he has grown up in a culture that has taught him that men are perverts, women are whores, and gays are freakish abominations. He’ll have been receiving this message since he was at school. I’d be tempted to let him say what he wanted. The education comes for the others who have to learn to argue forcefully against antiquated (as far as the enlightened world is concerned) bigotry. In other words, people have to learn to listen to this crap and respond to the *person* saying it.

    Which is not to preach the dull liberal message of acceptance for all. I don’t buy into that one at all, I’m afraid. What we do need to do though, je croix, is demonstrate categorically that although we are prepared to hear idiots out, their message is one that reflects very badly on them and their culture (and possibly their religion). The message they should receive from us is that they cannot talk with impunity – they either need to grow up or shut up.

    I had a fascinating discussion with some Saudi students recently. These were all men of the world who had travelled, were well-educated, were not so hypocritical as to even bother pretending that they observed the restrictions of their faith etc but all of them believed in the power of some people to curse others and to place evil magic at their disposal. They believed that it was possible to die and then use magic to come back to life and go about your daily business – not just if you were the [straight?!?!?] son of god, but if you were the local newsagent.

    The more we talked, and the more I heard, and the more I saw, the more I reflected on what upheaval sudden and devastating wealth can have on a society. These guys’ parents probably lived very simple, rather uninspiring lives in places where the village nobility was the only nobility. The along came a bunch of raggedy dictators who, in 50 years, have imposed themselves on the hearts and minds of the populace and created a country out of all of these villages of desert dwellers.

    You are not going to be able to correct their views on homosexuality any more than, to keep it sexual (which is a curious obsession), they are going to convince you that paedophilia is harmless fun. But through the discussion, a dialectic is created. One that they need to enter into – to learn that there are times when your cultural absolutes are no longer absolute. In a case like this, the lesson could be dragged back to the conversational skills necessary:

    Right, X has said something that I find…HOW do I find it?
    Yes! Shocking. Why?
    Because it has come from the sixteenth century and reveals a level of critical thinking that one would normally expect from a mountain boulder.
    Hmm. X, did you realise that you had shocked me?
    Y, how did you know that X had shocked me?
    Because your mouth hung open, your muscles tensed and I thought you were going to ram X’s head through the window.
    Hmm. So, you see X, you really need to learn how to spot these signals and defuse them before somebody does put your head through a window. What can we say when we can see how we’ve just offended somebody?
    We can…
    Right, as travelled, experienced intelligent sorts, we can also intervene and stand up for people who have committed these faux pas. Write that down. Faux-Pas. So, X, imagine I go into a coffee shop in your country and say There is no god but Versace, and Diana was the Messenger of Versace…how could you intervene and stop me being pummelled by…all those heavily-perfumed, moustachioed men?”

    How, indeed?

  5. Lao The Younger says:

    Or “je crois”…it’s been a while and the heady mix of religion and sexuality has obviously distorted my capacity to spell…

  6. Mark Barnes says:

    Very cool post and interesting comments. Thanks to Brad Patterson for leading me to this blog. Looking forward to more from Willy.

  7. Hi Willy, I had some teenage boys in a summer school, we got talking about their afternoon trip, what they’d like to see there, one said “strip club”, we talked about that, then one called them “bitches” (bloody American English), I said you’re the ones paying the money! The one, I think, looked sheepish, but I’m not expecting him to change from that exchange.

  8. Bren says:

    re your “disasterous” fil lesson: I’m not going to criticise, because I wasn’t in the room, so can’t give a meaningful critique, but in those conversation lessons, I strive to take the focus off me – which is the crux of your self-criticism, I think.
    I would have put the class into pairs or groups to describe their film.
    1) Elicit film vocab – genre, to be set, cast, happy ending, twist, director, CGI etc
    2) Quick demo (I’m in a completely new vibe with instructions – DEMO IS KING! – You could read out a sonnet by Shakespeare as your instructions, then do a demo and everyone would know what to do, so why go in for instructions???) of Ss asking me questions e.g. Where’s it set? Who’s in it?
    Maybe if they were a low level, you could board some easy questions after elicitation e.g. What’s the film about? Is it funny? etc
    3) Ss ask questions to find out details of their partner’s film.
    4) Ss tell a new partner about previous partner’s film.
    5) Class Feedback from 1 or 2 Ss
    6) Delayed error correction from monitoring of earlier tasks
    7) Class recall all films talked about – board titles
    8) Ss in larger Groups: Task – going to a cinema as a group and have to choose one of the films to see together. Decide the top choice for the group.
    I know my point 8) is throwing in a bit of TBL, which isn’t strictly a “conversation class”, but as you are completely autonomous to decide the content of those afternoon classes, then why limit yourself?
    …and continue from there.
    Later discussions on…
    a) Do girls prefer a certain film genre to boys?
    b) Do you think you will basically have the same film taste in 5 years? 10 years?
    c) Will film audiences in 25 years look at the films of 2011 and laugh at the pathetic CGI, like we laugh now special effects from the 1980s?
    d) Are film stars really worth $20 M a movie…or $50 M like Johnny Depp in the new Pirates movie?
    e) Will people still go to the cinema in 2030?
    f) Are films today too violent?

    That’s a good meaty start, I think, which contains more communicative elements than those that you described (indiv Ss reporting to T). With every new discussion, obviously you would use your skill and teaching repetoire to vary the way each topic is discussed.

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