Saturday, May 14, 2005

What do they think we're doing?

At the university I worked (and worked, and worked) at today some people have to teach in an unpopular building. It is unpopular because the classrooms are on the twelfth floor, and the lifts are slow and inadequate. It is also unpopular because the windows only open a crack (I imagine there are fears that a despairing student - or teacher - might jump), the classrooms too small for the numbers of students using them, and the air conditioning is centrally controlled and not on yet.

I am lucky. I do not have to work in that building.

The indignation of teachers having to use these rooms reached new heights this week. They arrived at their horrible twelfth floor classrooms to find that notices had been pinned up explaining that teachers are now required to close the doors to the classrooms when classes are in session, and to keep the noise down. Apparently workers in the offices on the same floor are being disturbed by the amount of 'oral English' coming out of the 'oral English' classes.

We wondered what the administrative staff thought the purpose of the university was, and the purpose of our classes. We often wonder this, actually. I mean, if you really wanted students to learn a language, would you offer them language classes that met once a week for ninety minutes and upwards of thirty students per class? (Some teachers have fifty students. I have been lucky this year - the largest class I have is thirty-five or six.) I listened sympathetically as my colleagues launched into bitter speechlets (no time for full speeches in the breaks between classes) about education in Japanese universities.

It's a good thing I'm not up there on the twelfth floor. My mathematics majors today almost deafened me. I couldn't tell them to shut up because I'd asked them to speak English, in pairs, and that's what they were doing, loudly and uproariously. When they'd finished I told them they'd done very well, and they looked pleased with themselves. Then I added that they'd done so well that next week I was going to bring ear plugs.

We are hired in order to get the students speaking English, and I did such a good job today that it has given me a headache. If I was in one of those twelfth floor classrooms and got that sort of appreciation for my efforts I know what I'd be tempted to do with their stupid notices.


Faerunner said...

You must be a wonderful teacher, BadAunt. To get all those students so excited and practicing so loudly... my Spanish classes never practiced loudly. We were always quiet and self-conscious and didn't want to make mistakes in front of our partners. How do you do it?

Badaunt said...

I use an egg timer! I know it sounds mad, but I'm pretty sure it's the reason.

I get them all having these conversations at the same time. Previously I have explained how to begin and end a conversation, and they have the basic structure in their notebooks. They know how to greet (Hi! How's it going? - and they have a lot of alternative greetings as well) and they have a list of 'topic starters' in their notebooks to choose from (mostly questions), for after the greetings, and know how to make the transition. I tell them that when I shout "GO!" they're to greet their partners, and then do that transition and carry on chatting until the timer goes off. During that time anything goes, as long as it's English. When the timer goes off they have to make the transition to ending the conversation. ("Sorry, I have to go now...")

They're doing it all at the same time. This is the trick, I think. The first time, when I shout "GO!" half the class says to the other half, "Hi! How's it going?" relatively quietly because they're embarrassed, but the combined voices of 15 or 16 students saying the same thing makes them laugh, and then relax. They suddenly realize it's going to be noisy, and feel free to carry on and make mistakes knowing they won't be noticed. They understand they won't stand out, even at the end, because they all end at the same time as well. And as they gain confidence they talk louder, and the noise level goes up and up and up as they struggle to be heard by their partners, until they are all yelling. In English. (The classrooms have awful acoustics, which actually helps at the beginning.)

Having the structure down pat is important. They know how to begin and end a conversation, because it's in their notebooks. We did that in the previous classes, ad nauseum. So they're pretty confident at the beginning, and the momentum of that and the noise levels keeps them going through the tricky 'free' middle part.

But I also didn't let them speak much in the first couple of weeks. I held them back and got them all thinking about conversations but not actually having them. They wrote a lot of stuff in their notebooks, about beginnings and endings and transitions and so on. By the time I get them doing these 2 minute timed conversations, they are itching to try it. That's why it's like uncorking them, when we finally start.

Once this activity is established, every week, I wander around listening in and taking notes. Between conversations I sometimes give mini-lessons on things that I can hear some are having trouble with. I teach little things like how to say 'Um...' and 'Do you know what I mean?' (i.e. stuff that isn't in textbooks and that they don't get to hear in Japan) and occasionally small grammar points they're all getting wrong. They really pay attention, because they get to try these things immediately with their next partner.

But I'm pretty sure the timer is what makes the whole thing work.