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?
- 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
- Go to www.veryfunnyads.com
- Choose three ads, watch them and then describe them in writing.
4 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.