January 27, 2012 by Willy Cardoso
“How was the lesson?”
“ Awful!” – said Frank. “It’s hard to teach someone who doesn’t even bother to bring a pen, isn’t it?”
Encouraged by attentive eyes, Frank continues:
I started this one-to-one lesson with a little “get to know you” Q&A. It didn’t really work. How this can NOT work puzzles me.
It didn’t work because I tried to start up a conversation but had only monosyllabic responses in turn. I might be exaggerating but, talking about his work, his home country, his routine, etc, didn’t give me any ‘teachable moment’. Emergent language seemed not to emerge and the scaffold was dismantled.
All in all, I wasn’t able to do what I do best, which is built up a lesson from authentic conversation.
Conversation was not really an affordance in this particular case. Frank’s decision: bye, bye Dogme*, see you in another lesson.
Next step seemed to be trying to engage the student with a resource, something he could read, watch, or else. Based on his profession I decided to present him TED.com, which he didn’t know. And based on my experience, there hasn’t been an adult English learner who didn’t get thrilled about TED when first introduced to it.
We watched a 5-min video, cherry-picked by me, and already used in dozens of lessons. The student enjoyed it but didn’t have much to comment. We went over the script to give him some vocabulary, and… well, whatever (Frank makes that whatever look which speaks more than a thousand words).
And there I went again in a series of questions connecting the presentation to his life, but without much responsiveness from the other end of the table. I noticed he had an iPhone and told him to get the TED app; also, I asked him what kind of apps he had that could ‘in a pleasurable way’ help him learn some English. It turned out he only had games. I gave him a couple of suggestions which were received with a nod and a smile, but… whatever.
Technology was not really an affordance** in this particular case. Frank’s decision: bye, bye, tech, see you in another lesson.
Gladly, there was only ten minutes left, which I basically spent telling the student that he had to engage with authentic materials because one lesson a week is too little contact, and told him a couple of times ‘come on, talk to your work mates’, because he didn’t – because his English was bad.
But if he doesn’t care to improve his English, then why is he taking lessons? It’s hard to understand. He seemed nice, I mean, he was not grumpy; he was actually quite smiley and somehow enthusiastic about being in the lesson. But when it came to have some ‘learning attitude’, I don’t know… really… why he didn’t have any.
It’s incredible how learning attitude influences teaching attitude. I’ve always tried to achieve what Carl Roger’s called unconditional positive regard, and it’s a principle I really think teachers should aim at. But boy, sometimes it’s just sooo hard.
I’ll probably not teach him again soon, or maybe I will. In fact, a small part of me wants to. But the rest of me, thinks that if there’s a next time, I’d probably just photocopy a unit of a coursebook, pitched at his level and on his apparent needs, and that is going to be the learning material.
No Dogme and no tech. This is, in the end, what most teachers in the world do, isn’t it? So, it shouldn’t be so bad.
I’m just thinking Frank is in a very privileged position, and that he’s complaining for nothing, because the kind of difficulty he had is pale in comparison to how the big bulks of foreign language classrooms work. He had one ‘difficult’ student, whereas some teachers have 50! (at the same time!) !!
But I’m also thinking that if for Frank, an seasoned teacher, it’s kind of easy to just abandon what he believes is good teaching and get back to photocopying some worksheets and just follow the rubrics; imagine for teachers who work in more difficult settings? Even if, like Frank, they believe in a Dogme approach (conversation-driven + emergent language) and in the use of technology to enhance stimuli and engagement; teaching can become so exhausting that it’s just much easier for teachers to follow a coursebook and photocopy random worksheets.
*Dogme is an approach to teaching English language teaching
**Affordance is a term that has been used in Complexity and Ecology of language learning/teaching/research. See articles in the Complexity page of this blog.