Teaching Communal Learners

Me and a student

Me and a student

On June 17th I finished my second round of English classes on Clove Island. My organization has created its own curriculum. We offer three levels of beginner’s conversation English. Level Three has been created and introduced in the last two years.

I teach in three towns: the airport town and my home town twice a week, and two hours away in D-town once a week. Two other teachers teach classes at the airport town and my home town as well. When deciding which levels each of us would teach during our first round of classes, the airport town was easy. We began the program there so we all taught Level One. In my home town, classes had been taught beforehand so we had all three levels to choose from. I chose Level Three because I fancy myself a trailblazer and no one on my team had yet to teach this level. I was excited about the challenge of creating brand new lesson plans and tackling the unknown.

And…I ended up hating it. For many, many reasons I just did not like teaching Level Three. It was hard. The students were not prepared. The lessons just didn’t come together. I struggled with presenting the material in an interesting and intelligible manner. In the end, a full third of my class failed. I was disappointed in them, in myself and in the curriculum. And I knew I did not want to teach Level Three again no matter what!

After a break for Christmas and January spent teaching two month-long classes, it was time to decide which classes each of us would teach again. I really liked my Level One students in the airport town so, in my mind, the ideal scenario would be for me to teach Level Two in the airport town and my home town. I was just starting the class in D-town so that would be Level One.

Things didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. One thing I never anticipate and always dislike is when other people don’t just do whatever I want. Plans were made sans moi, arguments ensued, feelings may have been hurt…but the end result was that I was teaching Level One in the airport town and Level Three in my home town…again. *Sigh*

I trudged to class that first day back in March, dreading each step that brought me closer to the pain of standing in front of a class that doesn’t understand and not knowing what in the world to do about it. However, I had one trick up my sleeve. Over the previous several months I’d been doing the University of Toronto’s online TEFL course and it had given me new ideas that I wanted to try out.

I began the class by writing three questions on the board:

  • What are we learning today?
  • Why are we learning it?
  • What are we going to do?

These three questions are designed to take any initial confusion out of the class and help create a safe place for learning- nothing is a surprise. Students are not going into each activity wondering what comes next. I implemented this strategy in all three of my classes and found it wildly successful. On occasion, when I was in a hurry to begin, I have forgotten to write these questions. Each time a student has raised their hand and requested that I do so.

The second thing I implemented in each class, I refer to as Exit Slips. The last five minutes of each class are dedicated to these. Each student is instructed to take out a piece of paper and record these three questions:

  • What is one thing you learned today?
  • Was there anything you didn’t understand?
  • What was your favorite thing we did today?

The first question is for the student to examine his or her own learning. The second and third questions are integral for me to improve the learning of my students. If several students write that they didn’t understand the same thing, then I obviously did not teach it well and I need to return to that subject during the next class. And the third question helps me improve the overall learning atmosphere by incorporating more of the games that they enjoy.

In my Level One classes, these two measures made a world of difference. But I knew Level Three needed something more. After ending that first Level Three class in March, my dread for the remaining three months had not diminished. In fact, it had increased. Overall, I could tell that this class was at a lower level than my previous class, but worse than that, the range from lowest to highest student was enormous. I could have a normal conversation about practically any topic with one student, while not being able to discuss the simplest, most basic subject with another. How was I going to do this? Additionally, I had 30 students! We’d requested a cap at 25 students but for various reasons the administrator had allowed 30. The room was crowded and I was overwhelmed.

I walked home from class just as downcast, dragging my feet and pondering ways to get the worst students to drop out. The last time 7 of 20 had dropped out before the final exam. I needed that to happen again!

The next day, I did my normal devotions and prayer time on the roof of my house. My most brilliant ideas come from time spent with the Lord…go figure. As I’m thinking and praying about something completed unrelated to English classes, an idea pops into my head.

Family Groups!!

My team has been learning about the communal decision making of many cultures around the world, of which Clove Island is no exception. If they are communal decision makers, perhaps they are also communal learners! In which case, being incredibly individualistic myself and teaching in a way that makes sense to me, perhaps I was doing my students a huge disservice. What if they don’t learn like I do?

So I ran downstairs and took out their Exit Slips from the previous class. I divided their slips into advanced, intermediate and beginner. I had five students whose slips marked them as advanced students. So I created five groups and divided the intermediate and beginning students amongst those groups. Each group had 6 people in it.

In the past, all exams had been individual oral exams at the end of the three months. I knew that model would not work if I was to incorporate group learning. I was grouping them in what I decided to term “family groups” so that they would help one another learn. But individual oral exams did not promote a group-learning atmosphere. In the end, I decided to have them do a skit together. It would comprise 30% of their grade; every group member would receive the same grade so it was in everyone’s interest to help the weaker family members increase their competency before the end of the class. The other 70% would be the traditional oral exam of which the students were accustomed.

And so began the great experiment. Each family group chose an American last name by which to be called: Jackson, Jones, Smith, Wilson and Lewis. (Side cultural note: Islanders do not have “family names” like we have in the West. Each child is given a first name and their second name is the name of their father. So the concept of a “last name” that carries down from generation to generation is foreign to them).

Each class students sat with their family group. I began the class by passing out the questions I had been asked in the “Was there anything you didn’t understand?” question from the exit slips. With the combined knowledge of the family group they were usually able to answer their own questions without much input from me.

I noticed friendships and even some secret romances develop among family groups members. I had two students from different groups who wrote the exact same thing every single Exit Slip. Question: “What’s your favorite thing we did today?” Answer: “Working with my family group.”

Even more telling, I had only two students drop out during the entire three months.

Two weeks before the skit the groups were given their instructions for creating a skit:

Family Group Exam
Each family group will be required to present a 10-minute skit (sketch) on June 10th. The skit will be based in a restaurant. You need to bring your own props (plates, glasses, forks, etc.).
Every one in the family will receive the same grade (note). Your success depends on the success of your group. You will be graded on content, pronunciation, presentation, organization, time, props and teamwork.

Every family member must have at least 5 lines.

  • The skit should be 10 minutes.
  • The skit is in a restaurant.

During the skit, you must include:

  • Lesson One: Need + Infinitive/ Have + Infinitive
  • Lesson Two: Giving advice with “should + verb”
  • Lesson Three: Discuss the weather using vocabulary
  • Lesson Five: Correctly use polite language
  • Lesson Six: Describe an object using vocabulary
  • Lesson Eight: Describe a person using vocabulary
  • Lesson Nine: Use at least three adverbs
  • Lesson Twelve/Thirteen: all prepositions should be used correctly
  • Lesson Fifteen: Use at least one “if/then” phrase
  • Lesson Seventeen: Ask and answer at least one “which” and “how” question
  • Lesson Eighteen: Use basic math vocabulary when you discuss the bill
  • Lesson Nineteen: Use at least one present perfect sentence

Those of us who have grown up with a Western education have probably been required to do some sort of group presentation, skit or performance. Island education does not include this type of learning. Students were initially nervous and I was worried that they would completely bomb this assignment.

June 10th arrived and my housemate and I sat together with a rubric I’d created. I was so impressed with the results and so proud of my students! Some groups had obviously spent much more time preparing and their grades reflected that but every group presented a 10 minute-ish skit about a restaurant. They had real food and drinks (which I was able to sample…teacher perks!). They tried to make the skits humorous and entertaining. And they all seemed to have fun doing so.

Oral Exam Set Up

Oral Exam Set Up

In the ensuing oral exam, which I shortened and set a time limit, students were able to demonstrate their conversational skills. I ended exams pleased with the results. I felt that my students had had the opportunity to fully demonstrate what they had learned. Those that passed deserved to pass and those that didn’t will be able to re-take the course and study more.

More than likely I will be teaching Level Three again in the near future. I will not go into it with dread this time but with an openness to the students and their needs. I am not wedded to the “family group” model. The next class may be completely different. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to experiment in my classroom and create a learning environment that matches more closely with the culture in which I have the privilege of teaching.

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