One size does not fit all – a guest post by Sirja Bessero

Sirja is Estonian. She teaches English at a design college in Sierre in the Swiss Alps. We met recently over coffee and croissant at the ETAS annual conference in Yverdon.  We fell so easily into conversation it felt like we’d known each other for years. We found so many things we had in common, an interest in images, the fascination of bringing up bilingual kids, a shared teaching experience.  We both teach multi level teenage classes. We had both experienced the same frustrations.  Sirja described how she’d tackled hers and how she’d persuaded her college to let her implement her solution.  It’s such a great story that I asked her to share it on my blog.  So, here she is!  Thank you so much, Sirja, it was a real pleasure meeting you and it’s a pleasure welcoming you to my blog!

A creative solution

The description of that particular teaching post DID mention mixed-level classes but I dare confess now, five years on, that I took this « tiny » detail light-heartedly. I mean, all classes are mixed-level, right? So why worry that anything that widespread could become a major hurdle on my teaching path? Honestly, there are ways of dealing with the faster students and help that can be offered to the slower ones. All in all, I was not worried about that at all.

However, the reality started biting from day one, from the moment it dawned on me what a nightmare a truly mixed-level class can be.

I was facing a class of 15 students whose language levels varied from A1 to C1. Plus one girl who had never uttered nor written a word in English, and a guy who was bilingual (French, English).

My first year was mere survival. I worked countless hours trying to prepare lessons that would cater for all needs. For one hour in class I would toil away during three at home. I was desperate for the lower level students to progress and start speaking and for the stronger ones to find the lessons not only motivating but extremely useful as well. I was, let’s be honest, determined to accomplish an impossible feat.

But before I delve any deeper into my first year frustrations, let me explain how such a melting pot of levels came to be. Our school is a post obligatory school for future designers. It offers a four year training course which culminates in final exams whose requirements are set by the state. So for example, the level to be attained in the two foreign languages, German and English, is B1. Out of the four years of training three are done at school and one as a training course in an artist’s studio. My students have two academic hours in a row of English per week. To be able to enroll in our school students have to take entrance exams. There’s a policy which excludes relying on previous marks from previous schools thus giving everyone a new chance to prove themselves. Following along these lines you might imagine the variety of students who greet me on my first day of a new term. Not only do they vary in age but also in their previous experience. The time and facilities being limited, all the first year students follow the same language lesson no matter what their level.

But back to my first year.

So there I was, chatting to a group of young people. A couple laughed at my jokes, some pretended to understand them and quite a few stared at me with a terrorized look in their eyes sweating and hoping to go unnoticed. I did it for a year. Not the jokes, mind you, but juggling with these incompatible levels. At the end of the first year in the new school I had grown braver and instead of blaming my own ineptitude in performing a miracle I started questioning the whole organization of the classes. If the final objective is B1 then what should I do with the students who come to my classes with a higer level to begin with? If the programme is designed for students to attain level B1, is it my personal responsibility to create extra material for upper level students? Is it normal to rush through the lesson trying to « please » stronger students? Is it fair to hurry the weaker students who need support in order to achieve the final goals?

So instead of staying in my dark corner with the dark clouds over my head I started talking to everyone who cared to listen. I realized that the German teacher had excatly the same problems. But what’s even better, I discovered that our headmaster cared and promised to back us up if we found a reasonable solution. So together with the German teacher (the school being small we have only one teacher per subject) we came up with a plan. At the beginning of a semester we let stronger students take a test based on semester’s final objectives. If they pass the test with flying colours they are excused from the lessons under the following conditions:

  • they have to come and take all the big tests (a way to verify they know all the grammar and vocabulary covered during the course)
  • they have to do some private projects (to ensure that they keep working on their English)

To give you an idea of the nature of the projects, here’s what they need to do this semester:

1 Reading and writing

Choose a book in English (it should contain more than 100 pages). After reading discuss the following in writing:

  • What did you read? What made you choose this book?
  • Who was your favourite character and why?
  • Do any of the characters evolve in the story? How?
  • What was the most interesting / exciting part of the book?
  • Did you like the ending of the book? Why? / Why not?

2 Talking

  • Choose an occasion from the past ( e.g. a trip, a holiday, a party, a strange encounter, etc)
  • Prepare a short talk about this occasion.
  • Try to bring some pics to illustrate the talk.

3 Watching and writing

Watching and talking

  • Go to www.ted.com
  • Choose a talk. Take notes and prepare to talk about it.

Students have to handle these projects on their own, meaning they have no fixed deadlines. However, I do insist that they hand the writing in before the final part of the semester. As for the speaking part they are responsible for fixing a time and date with me.

Relief! Yes, that’s the feeling I have had since we got the ball rolling. It is so much easier to manage my classes. Not that I faced major discipline problems but it can be very destabilizing to have students in your lesson who keep fighting off sleep because of utter boredom. It is rewarding to see the progress in weaker students who can finally get the attention and help they need. And it is so much fun to discuss a TED talk with the stronger students or to listen to their incredible stories from the past illustrated with wonderful pics.

some of Sirja's wonderful pics of her home in the French alps

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14 Responses to One size does not fit all – a guest post by Sirja Bessero

  1. Daniel says:

    Hi Sirja,
    What a wonderful opportunity for the stronger students, too, to show that they have more than the English required so are rewarded with some freedom -not freedom to doss around!- but to work at their own level and with their own interests. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in class for no apparent reason, is there!

  2. swisssirja says:

    Hi Daniel,
    I agree. It is rewarding. And some of the students can definitely use this time to revise other subjects where they might be in disadvantage compared to English.
    However, it is very important to let them take this initial test. The first time we tried this solution there was no test but simply the teacher’s observation and evaluation. You might imagine the fuss it created with some students who THOUGHT they were strong too but were not entitled to this private project. However now, with the test, there’s no reason to “sue” the teacher 😉

  3. Hello Sirja,

    I’m just in the middle of trying to articulate a task-based course for my many small non-exam groups, so this post was full of good ideas.

    It looks like you’re a big believer in productive skills rather than receptive ones. Am I right?

    Thanks a lot!

  4. swisssirja says:

    Hi Alan,
    Ha 😉 you got it! I am a big believer in production. Sometimes maybe even too much so. As one of my students once put it “you want us to dance before we can even walk…” oups.
    However, he dances well now. So well that he even tries to teach the steps to the others.

  5. Reine says:

    Lovely! I think you’re lucky that you have only 15 students 😉 But you are so creative and brave and I absolutely adore you 🙂

  6. swisssirja says:

    Yes, I know that having small classes is a luxury and whatever you want to do can be easier simply thanks to the size of the class.
    Brave and creative-don’t know about that 😉

  7. CV says:

    I was that bored kid in so many classes in school and I loved my russian language teacher who gave me time off from her classes almost the same way. She didn’t even ask for extra work (only that I take the grammar tests), but I did it willingly all on my own, because I read russian literature in russian anyway – why not write an essay about it. I wish all the teachers where as open minded! My admiration 🙂

  8. swisssirja says:

    I think there are more creative teachers out there than we can imagine. Unfortunately many amongst us are bound by school policies and rigid programmes. It is also extremely important to have supportive colleagues and a headmaster who thinks out of the box. I am lucky to work in an art school where adherence to strictly academic approaches is anyway out 😉 and where new and interesting methods can be implemented.

  9. naomishema says:

    What a great post!
    I identified with it so much that I wrote about it on the competion blog today, here:
    http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/naomishema/comment-post-one-size-does-not-fit-all
    Way to go, Sirja!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Thank you, Naomi, for spreading the word about Sirja’s post and creative solutions 🙂
      Just checked out your post – you know you’re pretty inspirational yourself!

    • swisssirja says:

      Dear Naomi,
      I remeber we once “talked” about that. Probably in my previous blog. And I admire your enthusiasm and creativity. My “problem” is not completely solved, however. Even though some of my students have been excused from the lessons and are happily working on their private projects, the variety of levels in the class is still the biggest challenge I face. I tried working at different paces and with different objectives. I prepared more advanced tasks for higher level students and at them same time worked with the lower level students myself. I did that for a month, BUT then stopped. I didn’t like the way it kind of broke down the group, the group spirit etc. But I know that if I did it differently it could still work. I simply haven’t figured out HOW exactly. But I won’t give up working and looking for solutions.

      • naomishema says:

        Of course you won’t give up, and you won’t ind your work boring either. Not only is there no one way to solve such problems, there are different answers for different stages. I may try a different solution a few years down the road, every solution has its drawbacks. All I know is that I will still be here! I hope it is o.k. to wish the same to you!

  10. Pingback: Who’s afraid of mixed-level classes? | pains and gains of a teacher woman

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