Sunday, May 15, 2005

They're alive!

I keep my students very quiet the first three weeks of semester, promising them they are going to be speaking English VERY SOON. (They frequently perceive this as a threat rather than a promise, but never mind.) I explain how they are going to do it. I make them take notes and listen to a lot of me. I use the chalkboard a lot.

I've found this a very effective method in my classes, where students are so reluctant to speak English and possibly make fools of themselves. They don't usually see the point. They can chat in Japanese and actually understand each other and make sense. Why use English?

I give them a point. When I finally uncork them, even the most disbelieving I can never speak English because I'm Japanese and therefore no good at learning languages, everybody knows that student is so relieved that for once they don't have to listen to me and write endless stuff in their notebooks that they'll jump at any alternative. They quickly learn that as long as they're speaking English I'm not harassing them, mainly because I can't make myself heard. The point is, it shuts the teacher up.

But I've been having a rather difficult last class on Fridays. It isn't difficult because the students are badly behaved, but because they are too well behaved. For the first three weeks (i.e. three classes - we meet once a week) I'd been feeling like I was teaching a room full of zombies. Usually I can make my students laugh. The other classes never fail to hoot when I trip over an extension cord or walk into a desk and yelp "OUCH!" (I do not do these things on purpose) but this class just stares at me expressionlessly. When I explain something to them and ask them if they understand, they stare at me expressionlessly. When I tell them that they will HAVE to speak English or else they'll fail my class, they stare at me expressionlessly.

I gave this class some puzzles at the end of the second class, because I'd gone through my lesson plan so fast (when there are no questions and no response at all you tend to gallop through stuff). These puzzles, which ALWAYS get an enthusiastic response, got answers (eventually) but no apparent enthusiasm. There was none of the self-congratulation or wild cheering the mathematics class reacted with. None of the head-scratching and "Bloody hell this is difficult - AH! I GET IT! AH! AH! AH!" I get from engineering students. No, these law students stared at the board politely and expressionlessly for a while, told me the answers, and then left, politely and expressionlessly. As far as I could tell they didn't even talk to each other. I've never had such a silent, non-interactive class.

So yesterday I was a bit anxious. I'd spent the week uncorking class after class and getting the expected uproar as the students burst into appalling English, and then I faced my last class, of polite and expressionless law students, who I worried were going to respond to being uncorked by politely and expressionlessly staring at each other in pairs instead of at me en masse.

I needn't have worried. They were great. When I gave them permission to speak, they did. They chatted away in English as if they'd been doing it for years. They weren't as animated as the mathematics majors, and their English wasn't particularly wonderful, but they were able to communicate and seemed to be enjoying themselves. They certainly didn't have any trouble finding things to talk about. They suddenly looked and behaved like normal people instead of zombies.

The really interesting bit, though, came after their five two-minute conversations with five different partners. I told them to stop, and they did, in their usual disconcertingly obedient way. They stared at me politely and expressionlessly, as per usual, waiting for whatever I was going to spring on them next. I stared back at them and thought, Oh, help, they're at it again. Did I dream all that or did they really just burst into English for ten minutes?

Then I mentally shrugged and carried on. I said they were great; they'd done very well. I told them that they'd be doing the five conversations/random partners thing every week from now on, at the beginning of every class, and that it might increase to three or four minutes depending on how they coped. I hoped they'd use this opportunity to try out the English they were learning, and to get used to using English as a communicative language rather than as an academic subject. I would help them when the occasion arose, but mostly this was their time for playing with the language and using it as much as they could without worrying about mistakes. They don't get much chance to do that here.

They stared at me expressionlessly. I stared back.

Finally I asked them if they understood. One student's left eyebrow twitched, so I took that as a yes and turned to the board to write up the next thing we'd be doing.

But as soon as I turned my back there was a sudden weird sound of sharply indrawn breath from thirty-four students all at once, then muted giggles and excited whispers. It was the sort of noise I get from classes when nobody wants to be the one to tell me I have just rubbed my nose with the same hand that had been holding a leaky pen, but I hadn't been using a leaky pen and nor had I rubbed my nose. I wondered if my skirt had suddenly fallen down and looked down quickly. Nothing looked wrong, so I turned around and looked at the class.

For a change they weren't looking at me. They were looking at each other. Their eyes were shining and they were looking exhilarated. I caught some of the disbelieving, excited whispers.

"Is that really what she said? Every week?"


"Sugoi! Every week! We're going to do that every week!"

They were practically HUGGING themselves.

I stared in consternation. It wouldn't sink in. I stood there dumbly, chalk raised ready to write, head spinning. I CANNOT READ THESE STUDENTS. I'd had NO IDEA they'd enjoyed the activity so much. It was as if they'd suddenly come alive and turned into actual human beings - but the trigger for it was something so bizarre (here, at least) that I couldn't get my head around it. The idea of chatting to their classmates in a foreign language, instead of filling them with panic, apparently filled them with such excitement that they couldn't contain themselves. But I'd never even heard them chatting amongst themselves in Japanese! What was going on?

As they were leaving, they started chatting to each other, again disconcerting me. I overheard some of them talking about how this was the most interesting class they'd ever had. It was metcha omoshiroi, they told each other excitedly. What a shame it was only once a week. They wished all their classes were like this one.

I don't get it. I've never had students like this before, and I've been teaching for a long time. I've had zombie students before (although not a whole class of them), but they generally turn out to be zombie all the way through. I've had students who, once they get to know each other, won't shut up. Unfortunately they usually won't shut up during class, and don't use English much. But when I told this class to talk to each other in English about whatever they wanted to talk about, they found it exciting.

These students seem to have decided that my class needs all their concentration, so much so that they forget to put expressions on their faces. It's spooky to find out they've been paying attention all along. I'd thought they were bored, and being polite about it. I'd even wondered if they hated each other, there was so little interaction.

We've only had four classes so far, though, and now I'm all anxious about letting them down. Will my classes continue to fascinate them for an entire year? And if their responses are so alien to me that I can't even tell the difference between WE'RE FASCINATED! and WE'RE BORED OUT OF OUR SKULLS! - how will I know?


melinama said...

I love this story. I've had utterly quiet classes before but I can see (because they are not inscrutable) that they think I'm god and that's why they're so quiet. It's rather intoxicating.