A tale of two lessons

(of circles and squares)

Customs O

Customs O by AdamSelwood on flickr

Last Thursday I taught two lessons, back-to-back, with two classes from the same school, with students from the same year, following the same syllabus and studying for the same exam. Not surprisingly, I guess, I used the same basic lesson plan for both groups. But (and again probably not very surprisingly) the two lessons turned out to be quite different.

The first class had thirteen students on paper, eleven in the flesh. There’s a shortage of classrooms at that time, so we were seated around a big table in a small room. When I say we were seated, I should say the students were seated. There was only just room for eleven seats around the table, which meant I kind of hovered around the edges.

I had planned some physical, up on our feet activities to kick off. The logistics weren’t ideal. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to get the students mingling and arranging themselves in alphabetical order according to their mother’s surnames as I had planned. So I had a quick rethink, and asked everyone to shuffle back a few inches, enough not to bang their knees as they got to their feet, and set them the task of working on the order for a “Mexican wave” with each student standing up in alphabetical turn, announcing their first name and sitting down again.

It worked very smoothly, with only a few knocks to knees on table legs. It got a few laughs and focused the attention on the group, on the circular table as the centre and the shape of the class. The rest of the lesson went smoothly too, with some discussion of family names passed down the generations, of those who liked their names and why, of those who didn’t and why not. Of names they’d give their children and whether they’d ever change their own. The students wrote about the discussion and we read a text about a father who named two of his many sons Winner and Loser and the consequences of the naming (a supposedly true story taken from Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner).

The table, and the fact that all the students faced each other, and none of them faced me; the fact that we had no board, but pieces of A4 paper that I wrote on and placed in the centre of the table when necessary (not very often); the fact that I stood at the edges, never at the centre, all added up to create a special atmosphere. Throughout the lesson, the communication flowed around and across the circle, kind of like a dodgems ride, nudged on at times by me from the edges with a long pole.

The second lesson was far more conventional. There were nine students in a classroom designed for thirty or more. The chairs and desks were fixed and arranged in rows. The blackboard was enormous and I had an abundance of chalk. We kicked off with the students up on their feet, mingling and arranging themselves alphabetically as planned. There was plenty of room to move, but somehow there was much less energy. Maybe it wasn’t the room, maybe it was because we were one hour closer to lunch time, or just one room away from the cooking smells of the canteen, but somehow the group dynamic just didn’t work as well.

Maybe it was because they chose to stand in a row in that first activity, rather than being forced into a circle? Or maybe they needed the dynamic of the wave? Standing up turned out to be, ironically, more static than sitting down. When we got back to our seats, the class all sat in the front two rows, looking ahead, paying attention, listening, focused, but there was an aisle that cut the class in two, and the whole lesson was much quieter. The conversation seemed to need to bounce back and forth off the front wall, off the blackboard, off me, not in a circle around the class, from student to student in a constant, flowing wave.

We followed the same plan, discussed the same topics, wrote similar texts, read about Winner and Loser, just the same as the first time round, but it was a completely different lesson. There was more quiet, individual work, hard work, good work, but less spontaneous, independent conversation. It was far more teacher-led and far less student-generated.

Was it really a question of rooms? And our reactions to those rooms? Or was it simply two different dynamics in two different groups? Whatever the answer, I’m looking forward to the round table again this week and to the challenge of softening the straight lines of the fixed rows.

This entry was posted in reflecting on teaching, thoughts on teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to A tale of two lessons

  1. Hi Ceri…
    I have asked myself that question so many times!!! It is not uncommon for me to have more than one group of the same level, same age range, same books…. using the same lesson plan is not always possible (different paces). But when it is possible, sometimes I have the same situation you mentioned happen to me. And I think each time the different outcomes have different reasons.
    In the case you described, I think the room setting is a big factor. Most times I have less students than half the number of chairs in the classroom, I have students move the chairs and arrange them into a circle in the middle of the class – whenever I forget to do that, it’s a very different “feeling” in the class. And it seems you had quite extreme opposite settings!
    But we can’t ignore that each group is made of different people, and the interactions between those people, how comfortable they feel with each other – so many factors!

    The question is: can we do something to change the dynamics on the second group so as to get the same outcome?

    Looking forward to hearing about what happens this week! 😉

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ceci,
      I actually taught the same lesson plan four times a week last year and of course the lessons never turned out the same. I kinda got to know what I needed to tweak and changed for each group so it was actually four lesson plans growing out of one. But last year we were always in the same room, so that was one variable less to take into account!

      I think I’m going to need to “learn” ( or relearn) the dynamics of the desks in rows. I definitely felt more at ease improvising in the smaller room – closer to my normal teaching habitat I guess – I need to find my around the rows. I taught another class in the same room today (different age group, different focus, different plan but same room) – and it worked a lot better. I took some of the lessons I’d learnt in the “circle” into the class (the Mexican wave) and whether it was that, or the weather, or the time of day, or (most likely) the make-up of a new group – but things went much better. I guess it’s going to one of those ongoing discussions as I learn to circle the square!

      Thanks for calling by and joining in!

  2. seburnt says:

    I have exactly this situation repeating week after week as I teach two different groups the same material in successive days (Tues & Wed – Section 6; Thurs & Fri – Section 3). Many times, because I do have certain material to cover, the lesson flows in a similar manner to each other, but factors that change are of course, the students themselves, the configuration of the desks in the different rooms, and the fact that after going through the lesson once with one section, I learn what I want to change and spend more or less time on with the next. Sometimes I feel like the first Section gets the unlucky draw of always being the “experiment” group for a lesson and wish I could somehow flip the order of the Sections the next week, but I can’t.

    There are so many factors that come in to play that it can be impossible to determine what influences what.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ty!
      I hear what you’re saying about the “experiment” group. Last year I used to teach the same basic plan to four different groups. But I think sometimes the first group were actually the lucky ones! I was fresh the first time, by the fourth the lesson was beginning to pale! But as you say, so many different variables. I think the room factor interested me because I haven’t had to face the challenge of the lecture-theatre type rows for so many years. Always good to be taken out of your comfort zone (literally so in this case!). 🙂

      • seburnt says:

        I personally like the lecture/theatre style… it gives the academic course some sort of face value with the students. Of course it isn’t the most conducive to moving around, but I’ve honestly never been a big mover-arounder anyways, except when putting people into groups.

      • Ceri Jones says:

        Sure, different rooms for different courses. Part of our remit is to do something different. Large groups of 35 + have been broken down into smaller classes so they can collaborate and communicate and make the most of getting more individual attention. I don’t think the lecture-theatre is going to hinder that necessarily, just that I need to find a way, various ways, of working with it so the attention comes off me as the leader, the giver, the shaper and shifts on to them. https://cerij.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

  3. Dan says:

    Hi Ceri. Your post got me pondering on the circles or squares issue in classrooms. The rows of desks and facing-forwards regiment style has been with us for centuries in schools. Who’s clever idea was it in the first place? And who decided in the 20th and 21st centuries to keep up the tradition? They’ve got a lot to answer for!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Dan!
      What I particularly enjoyed about the circle was being pushed out of it – just as the fixed rows are anathema to the teaching style we’ve “grown up” with in ELT – so the “dogma” of the horseshoe is our comfort zone – where everyone can see each other – the teacher, of course, included. For me the circle of students with me as sheepdog (or possibly buzzing fly?) around the edges, behind their backs, peeping over their shoulders, was also new (certainly for a whole class) – and definitely more enjoyable than the fronting from the chalkface. They’re both shapes I’ll need to play with over the next few weeks. Will keep you posted 🙂

  4. David Warr says:

    Great post and comments. Particularly liked the dodgem metaphor with the pole. Did it come to you in a flash? Am glad others redo lessons over the week. I used to do certain lessons with all ages and levels, the types where you have to design your own environmental project, for example. Definitely tweaked things as the week progressed.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Yes, it was a late night post, so the dodgems just kinda appeared and slotted themselves in there 🙂

      And I agree, recycling the basic seed, watching it grow differently in each class, it’s fascinating – borrowed the metaphor from you this time 🙂

  5. Baiba says:

    Hi Ceri, I loved reading your post and it inspired me to write this http://baibasvenca.blogspot.com/2011/10/one-lesson-with-two-faces.html

    Baiba (@baibbb)

  6. Physical space certainly has an impact. Keep us posted on the long term effect!
    great lesson ideas and fascinating post – thank you!

  7. Ann says:

    Hi Ceri,
    Seems like this problem is buzzing on the air waves – the very same discussion came up in a training session I took part in yesterday!
    Have just posted a link to this discussion on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  8. Pingback: A tale of two lessons | TeachingEnglish | Scoop.it

  9. Javi says:

    Hi Ceri,
    I think most teachers have gone through this feeling sometime. I agree with you. The class size, arrangement, the time of the day and very important, the smell of food coming out of the canteen!! I believe a group of students is like a football team . They have their own nature, style and group spirit. Even if you change on student from the “good” class to the other one, your feeling about the group won’t probably change. I have made some experiments like this and I’m still wondering what can be the real factor.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Javi!
      Thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting puzzle!
      After the second lesson I’m getting more of a feel for the two classes. They’re very different, mainly because of the human make-up. Obviously all classes are. And this time round they were a little more forth-coming. But I think the rooms and the different restrictions they put on us played a role as well in that first lesson. I think maybe the first class were jolted out of their shyness a little bit quicker because of the novelty of the non-classroom – and that I was a little bit more “on my toes” as well. The lesson I’d planned/foreseen didn’t really fit the room we were in and I had to make quick teaching decisions which probably heightened my attention and focus a little bit more as well. I think the more traditional classroom consolidated a more traditional teacher/student relationship. I think I need to find ways to subvert the “geography” of the second classroom and inject some novelty – for me and for them. Thanks for setting off a new train of thought – and a new challenge! Going to see how I can turn the rows on their head next time!

  10. Pingback: Circles -v- lines | efl-resource.com

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