This is a description of a class I taught a couple of weeks ago where the students took a really simple little idea and really ran with it. It started with this lesson plan, a very old favourite of mine that I’d half forgotten until a TEFL del Sur event recently, where teachers from our local area got together for a swapshop.
I used it with a class of seventeen mixed level high school students. We’re working mainly on reading and writing skills, but in this lesson we worked on planning and giving an oral mini-presentation. The work the students did in this class laid the foundations for the reading and writing tasks in the following class.
The first step is to nominate a letter from the alphabet. There was a tussle between A and W, but W won out. I wrote W on the board and asked the students to think quietly of ten words starting with W. As they did I quickly distributed pieces of coloured chalk to the weaker students and asked them to write their words on the board. They had to take care not to repeat any words that anyone else had written. Then I gave chalk to the stronger students with the same instructions. This basically meant the weaker students had a chance to write their words first and the stronger students had to dig deeper to come up with words that hadn’t already been used. This translates as success for the weaker students and challenge for the stronger ones, albeit on a very small scale!
When they’d finished the board looked great. I wish I’d taken a photo. There were about 30 words up there, which means that they’d ignored my instructions and written more than one word each. I love it when they ignore my instructions – especially if it’s to give more rather than less 🙂
These are some of the words I remember, I don’t have a record of them all, but you can see the different levels of recall ( the most frequent words being what, where, when) and of interest (warlord, witchcraft -there are a couple of fantasy fans in the class).
The next step was for the students to choose one word for me to talk about for one minute – with no preparation. They chose “world”. One of them timed me with the stopwatch on his phone. I tried to cover as many different topics as possible in the time. I managed to touch on the planet as our world and our concerns about climate change and sustainability, personal and imagined worlds having no end, the WWW as another world that we can access so easily, contrasted with the digital gap between those people who can and those who can’t. The students reconstructed what I’d said in pairs and then we wrote the main ideas on the board. The idea was to show how one word could lead in a number of different directions.
The students then formed pairs and chose a word each. I let them form their own pairs and it worked out pretty much as strong with strong, weak with weak. This was going to work fine for this activity and I was happy to go with it. Equal levels within the partnership would hopefully mean equal collaboration in the task. Strong-weak pairings could have resulted in one student leading and the other leaning. It was interesting too to see the topics they choose. A couple went for the light-hearted options (whisky, watermelons), one of the weakest pairings went for the weightiest word, war, and there were a couple of “linguistic” choices too: word, way, wonder.
I asked them to make notes on the different topics and decide how they were going to share the minute between them. They worked hard, some wrote mini scripts, some rehearsed their openings, some asked for help with vocabulary and language in general. Everybody was working to their level, engaged, focused. It was great to see. I think the simplicity of the task, the achievability of it, and the novelty all worked together to motivate them. When they gave their presentations, their peers actually listened and paid attention (something that’s not always easy to attain with this class).
As a follow-up task I asked them to write up their presentations. Here are a couple of examples. Very different styles, reflecting very different personalities. Both by strong students. That’s par for the course. The weaker students are usually more pressed for time and less likely to do any writing outside class. I’m hoping that after the follow-up class I might get a couple from the weaker students too.
For the next class I wrote out a summary of the mini presentations. This task was meant to kill quite a few birds with one stone. I want to encourage “fluent” reading. A lot of the weaker students still fall back on translating word-for-word. I thought that by producing a text which was about them from me, rather than by a third person about an abstract concept (like the reading texts in their external exams) it might be more motivating. I wanted to try and encourage the non-writers to write up their presentations, hopefully taking their example from me, and also using words and language from my summary as a starting point or scaffolding. I wanted to show them that I valued the effort they’d put into the class. I wanted to stress the continuity from class to class, that each lesson isn’t separate and isolated, but that we’re building something as we go along (we only have one, one hour class a week, continuity is difficult). I also wanted to work on raising their awareness of a common writing mistake in all of their writing, weak and strong: the tendency to drop the subject pronoun “it”.
Here’s an extract from the summary:
First I asked them to read it and supply the “W” words in the gap. Then I asked them to remember who presented each word and to add any other points or information they could remember. I then told them that there was a word missing throughout. No-one had noticed its absence as they read. I told them it was a very common word, a small word, a word they often forgot. In pairs they went back through the text again, filling in the “its”. I gave the fast finishers my copy of the text (in the image above) to check their answers, and then asked them to help monitor and check the others. (This monitoring is slowly becoming a natural part of all the lessons. The stronger students can’t sit back once they’ve finished, it’s their responsibility to help me monitor. They’re taking to it, as are the “monitorees”. I sell it as a way to do things quicker, so we can move on.)
That’s it. From there we moved on to explore a new topic. I asked those students who hadn’t written up their presentations (the majority) to do it for next week. I wonder how many of them will!