Saturday, October 23, 2004


Today I tried a little experiment in the class where I have the problem student, who I will call Mr Catatonic.

In the same class, there is another potential problem student, for completely different reasons. He is a big guy - not fat, but big, built like a wrestler. He has a voice to go with it, and an exuberant personality which could be a huge problem because he is great friends with everybody, and if he decides to play up then I'm in trouble. He could easily overwhelm me using his size, his voice, and the sheer force of his personality.

As it is, I have managed to keep him on my side, so he is not a problem. He could be, though. I like him a lot (it's not possible to dislike this kid) and he generally cooperates with me. Well, he does once he notices I'm actually trying to get his attention - but he can start a riot by raising his voice slightly and saying something funny, and tends to get caught up in a circle of noise and activity and laughter. When he raises his voice slightly he raises the roof, pulls all attention to him, and I am ineffectual. My voice simply cannot compete with his miracle of projection.

But he's wonderfully good-natured, and responds to my not-so-secret weapon, which is to tease him like mad. This started early on, one day when I'd been trying to make myself heard for a few minutes and he hadn't noticed, and the uproar around him was going on and on. I gave up yelling, waited for quiet, and he eventually noticed I was waiting and told everybody to shut up. He got the instant compliance I'd been hoping for but not getting, and the classroom went deathly quiet. (I don't think he means to take over the class like that. He just can't help it. He gets too happy and his energy overflows.)

Everybody stared at me. It felt like the quiet after a storm. I looked down at the roll, which I'd been trying to call, breathed deeply, frowned, and looked around the room. Then I opened my mouth and yelled his name.

He jumped. "YES!" he shouted, and practically saluted.

I peered around and pretended to spot him.

"Oh, there you are," I said, mildly, and smiled at him. "I hadn't noticed you."

He looked startled. There was a moment of silence as this sank in, and then he roared with laughter. I had to wait another five minutes for the class to subside again.

But anyway, this kid is fine. His English isn't great, but when he's working at it I can hear him over any amount of noise the others make, and it encourages everybody else to try as well because he makes so many mistakes and just carries on regardless, correcting himself, laughing at his mistakes, asking his partner or me when he doesn't get something, and generally being the sort of student I wish all my students were. He works hard and seriously when he settles down to it.

So today I tried a little experiment. I paired him up with Mr Catatonic. I was not very sure about the wisdom of this. Mr Catatonic hates attention, and there I was dumping him right in the middle of it. But since Mr Rumbustious is so good at taking control when I'm having trouble, I figured I'd have nothing to lose from trying. Mr Catatonic has been coming to class every week, not doing anything, and not writing anything either. This was my last-ditch attempt to get something out of him. There was the danger, of course, that it would make him worse. Or tip him over the edge altogether, so I was feeling a little apprehensive.

Mr Rumbustious had forgotten to bring his glasses or his textbook, and this turned out, I think, to be a blessing. It pulled the two of them together in ways they wouldn't have been if Mr Rumbustious had been more prepared. They had to sit side by side to share a text, and when I finally dared to look up and see what was happening, Mr Rumbustious was leaning so close to Mr Catatonic trying to read he was practically in his lap, because Mr Catatonic hadn't moved his book over. Mr Rumbustious was constructing some question loudly and ungrammatically from the cues in the text, and was wearing a determined expression, as he usually does when he decides to do something about this language learning business. But astonishingly, Mr Catatonic, while still staring down at the page as he usually does, was grinning. It was a very small grin, but I'd never seen him show any expression before at all. A grin? I almost fell off my chair.

And then - more astonishment - his lips moved. I didn't hear any sound come out, but I was half a room away and it was noisy. I wasn't the only one, however.

"PARDON?" bellowed Mr Rumbustious, frowning so fiercely and so seriously that I had to smile. He moved his ear closer to Mr Catatonic's mouth in an effort to hear and they almost bumped heads.

And after a long, heart-stopping moment Mr Catatonic's lips moved again. Mr Rumbustious nodded vigorously and carried on, so presumably whatever he'd said had made sense.

Now, I don't know precisely what happened - I was taking care not to pay too much attention, being afraid that if it was working I'd ruin it by noticing - but later on, when they finished the activity, I happened to glance at them again just in time to see Mr Rumbustious sit back, look directly at Mr Catatonic (who was still staring at his textbook) and grin hugely, bellowing, "DEKITA!" ("DONE!"). And I suddenly got the distinct impression that despite his apparently oblivious bull-in-a-china-shop approach, he knew exactly what he was doing. His expression said, "Ha! Knew you could do it!"

Mr Catatonic continued to stare at his text expressionlessly, but something had changed. I don't know what, exactly, but somehow he wasn't quite Mr Catatonic any more. He had progressed to being Mr Not-Very-Responsive.

We'll see what happens next week.