Saturday, April 29, 2006

Small Miracles

I'm trying to accommodate learners and learning styles in my class. One thing I'm doing is making each test the same format, so that students know what to expect. And on the final test, I've offered to let students take the essay portion orally, in a conversation with me, if they would prefer this. I don't know yet how many takers I'll have.

I am also trying to give more chances for grades on homework and on oral, in-class participation, through discussion, questions, and reading. I'm doing these things because some students are so much better at speaking than at writing. When they talk, they suprise me with how much they know and how well they express themselves.

As far as letting students talk, I still find it is the most difficult thing to do. I ask a question about The Miracle Worker, and students volunteer answers. My tendency then always seems to be to jump in and agree with them, or amplify what they've said. I go on and on like a know-it-all, and oops, they're not talking anymore. I think the hardest thing for a teacher is to keep quiet and let the students talk, to guide the conversation, but let the bulk of it be theirs, to ask clarifying questions and perhaps more importantly, allow long silences. I'm talking to myself here!

As for the oral reading, I do it because we are reading a play, and I think it's good for the students to have their parts and begin somewhat to identify with the characters they are "playing." I don't make them act--but sometimes I insist that their voices reflect the emotions specified in the stage directions. Also, I can correct pronunciation and answer questions on vocabulary and idioms as we go along. Another thing is that when, the following week, they get to watch the same scenes in the movie, they will remember the lines to some extent and be able to listen better. They will also compare the way they read them to the way they are spoken on the screen. To me there's a parallel with their speaking, then hearing these English words, with Helen Keller's coming to the realization, in the play, that these words mean something: "Water. It has a name." They see the words come to life. It's a small miracle. And that's a very good thing.

It's not at all similar to the tortuous reading classes of my elementary school years, when we had to listen to our classmates struggle through paragraphs and sentences while we counted down to the paragraph we would get, and got ready.

At least I think it's not like that--and I hope the students agree. They have done so well with their reading. I do think at least some of them have gotten a kick out of being the characters. I thank them for their willingness and their good work.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I'm not the Miracle Worker

Hmm, I seem to have two classes in one--students in my class who are very good on paper but quiet in class, and students who speak very well but don't do well on paper. It's a cultural thing, and I've dealt with it before. Also, I know I'm not the only teacher with this dichotomy, but I'm looking for some creative ways to deal with it.

One thing everybody seems to like, that we have done for a couple of days, is reading the play aloud, with individual students playing particular characters. I stop them at the end of each page and ask for questions. I use that time to make any comments or ask them questions. It's good. I think we need a break from it now, though.

Yesterday I asked oral questions and gave written credit for each student who answered. I will continue to offer more oral work, so that people who are strong in speaking and listening have a chance to get some points that way. And really, the ones who excel on tests and other written work can use the oral practice.

At the same time, everybody has to get a grasp of the grammar, writing and spelling of English--unless there is a revolution in our educational system, unless we decide to do away with the TOEFL.

Doing away with the TOEFL, there's a concept!

No, for now I have to help them improve in their weak areas. I think I'll give more in-class exercises, let them work together, step by step.

It sounds so obvious. It is! I can't work miracles--but maybe I can help my students fill in some gaps and get to the next level, God willing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hel-lo-o, Get Real, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

Sometimes as I write this, I know I sound like a new teacher--naive, taking things personally that I should have gotten over years ago, going blindly from day to day, making it up as I go along.

Well, I do make it up each time; I'm not one of those teachers who has a set syllabus with the same lectures term after term, the same tests, the same everything. I adjust my class according to my students and how things go with us; I expect that most ESL teachers do the same.

But I am naive; it's true. Take this test I wrote about last time. I was so proud of it, and I expected my students to love it too, to savor it like fine wine. What am I, nuts? It's a test, for heaven's sake. They just want it to be easy and to get it over with.

And to be fair. Today I asked them if they thought it was fair, because they took it yesterday, and in a lot of cases, their performances were disappointing. "Didn't you study?" I was thinking. "Didn't I tell you this was important?" "Don't you see the clues?" On the other hand, in the essay portion of the test most of them redeemed themselves, writing opinions about the play and the characters that I thought showed they had been reading it and also thinking about it.

Today, when I asked if they had anything to say about the test, one person said that they had thought it was a quiz; was it really a midterm?

Good question. I said it was a test on Act I, and since it was the midpoint of the term, I'd thought it could be a midterm. But that wasn't fair, I realized. So we wouldn't have a midterm; I would change the course description and grading. We will have a test at the end of each act, so this was one of three.

Okay, they said. And I also said I would try to give more credit for the essay section than for the individual items--fill-ins, matching, parts of speech. I want them to learn those, but I'll have to teach it better, differently, more.

Then we had a good class. Simple. Reading, and stopping at each page to ask for questions, or to comment, or ask them questions. It worked. There was good participation. Also, one brave girl acted out Helen as we narrated about her actions. Bravo!!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

It's Been a While!

It's a new term, and I'm teaching a totally different class. Traditionally, we call it Novel/Film, but this term it's really Drama/Film. What we are reading is a play, The Miracle Worker, by William Gibson. Then we watch the movie version, not the newer Disney creation, but the classic, black-and-white Academy Award winner, with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

I love it, so it's a good thing for me to teach. It was my idea to use this story, and I hope the students like it. They seem to. They are enthralled, as students always are, when I turn on the TV and play the movie--so that's good; I love to see that. They also keep up well with the reading so far and know what's going on in the story. I was so surprised at first at this! Wow, they did their homework! Wow, they understand it! Then I remembered that the levels I'm teaching this term are higher than last! My students this term are drawn, actually, from three levels: EAP1, AC, and GSE. So they are advanced, one foot in the university, almost.

Another difference this term is that my class is huge compared to last term; I have eighteen students. So I can't be as personal in my teaching as I could last term. But I enjoy it.

I missed the second week of class because I had to be out of town. I feel like the class is just beginning, but actually, next week is midterm, and I'm giving an exam. It's on Act I of The Miracle Worker, focusing heavily on vocabulary, with character IDs and a short essay that will allow them to express themselves a bit, let me know what they know and what they think.

I like to make tests, and I think this one is pretty good. I think everyone should be able to pass it if they study, and I think only the best students will get As.

After the test, we'll start Act II. I'm making this up as I go along, since this text and movie haven't been used before. I hope to continue to teach vocabulary but begin to put more stress on in-class reading (they all have parts now) and discussion. I want them to talk!