[part of an on-going series about teaching an A1.1 class using a negotiated-syllabus approach]
As soon as we’d finished our class yesterday, I sat down at the computer to write a summary – not for the class, but for myself. We had just spent an hour and a half meandering through a number of different conversation tangents and I felt I needed to capture them and process them as soon as possible. I’m not sure why, but I think I felt I needed to see where we’d been, what we’d done and whether it had been worth it. At the time I was only interested in the narrative, but then, back home, having switched back to domestic mode, I was washing up and preparing lunch for the family and started to process the “story” I’d written. I was wondering whether it would be interesting to share as a blog post, or was there really nothing much there that would interest anyone beyond our little group. And I started to think about the nature of our conversations and the role I played – or the different roles I played – throughout the lesson. So I’ve reading through the summary again, filtering it through the question in the title.
I went into today’s class with a couple of directions prepared and a photocopy of a page from a coursebook to consolidate one of the vocabulary areas that had cropped up in the previous lesson. I had set some homework that I thought would offer us a good springboard for conversation and I had the summary from the last class cued on the projector. When I walked into the classroom, the students were already deep in animated conversation … in Spanish!
[roles: Prior to the class, taking stock of where we’re at, looking ahead to directions that might be fruitful. At the beginning of the class, leading but listening, gauging the students’ interest and mood, looking for seams to mine.]
I stood and listened and tried to tune in. They were complaining about a tricky bit of pavement that had tripped one of them up. I joined in asking which bit of pavement they were talking about, and the conversation switched to English … well, slowly morphed from Spanish to English, with mediation and suggestions from the ring leader and classmates. The initial conversation usually peters out and they look to me to start the routine of the lesson: summary, questions on the last class, an extension from a past theme or a springboard to a new one. But this time the conversation just ran and ran. And as it did it covered a number of different topics: the colour and texture and beauty of a special kind of tile made in Seville; where it can be found in the patios and bars of the old town; the difference between door and gate (helped along by remembering The Doors are The Doors and not The Gates – all showing our age at this point!); the use of –ful as an adjective suffix in colourful, beautiful, careful and wonderful. The pronunciation of –ful and full lead to a question about the word fool and we discussed an old Spanish radio show called The Fool on the Hill (and the song by the same name). We talked about how the star of the show can often be seen in town, and that he has a very unusual face, one you can’t miss. They told me about scandals in his past. By now the board was full of new vocabulary and expressions. We paused a moment or two to process and absorb, but the impetus of the conversation was too strong. We left our first crop of language on the main board and regrouped around the mini whiteboard we use as a centerpiece for our table-based conversations. I left my place at the board and sat at the table with them.
[roles: multiple! Initially participant, sharing in a story about shared experience, a conversation we could just as naturally have in English or Spanish but also a kind of catalyst (I’m not sure that’s the right word) because if I hadn’t been there, and we hadn’t been in an English class, the conversation would most definitely not have been in English! As the topic shifted I took on new roles: the outsider who needs to know, so this time a different kind of catalyst, setting up a real and natural information gap; the language expert, supplying language explanations, pointing out patterns and structures; the note-taker, adding phrases and new vocabulary to the board. At the end, when we paused to look at the language we had “farmed” I needed to quickly analyse what we’d got and make a decision about what to do with it. I spotted a lexical set that we could explore: describing the interior of houses (door, floor, rug, tiles had already come up). I could easily have set up an activity to draw out more vocabulary and we could have moved on to talk about our homes, but that didn’t seem to fit the mood. I made a mental note to come back to this next lesson. I guess maybe my role there was learning manager?]
The conversation turned from question and answer to a kind of collaborative story-telling. Our main story-teller was in full swing and his classmates aided and abetted as he told tale after tale. The sentences were weaved with ideas from one, words from another, corrections from yet another. I found myself able to sit back and act as scribe. The stories were well-told and held everyone’s interest – and from one story spawned another. First from one student, and then from another. We travelled in distance and in time. The main theme became stories of poachers and wild fowl, of old country lanes, of beautiful beaches and tiny villages that have developed and grown (much to everyone’s disapproval!), of camping on the beach with cows grazing around the tent, of a grandfather’s smallholding at the foot of a hill overlooking the Atlantic, where the story-teller had a favourite rock that he lay on to watch the vultures overhead. I’d say, without having any hard data to back it up of course, that about 80% of the stories in English, with the other 20% coming from me in the form of translations or paraphrases for specific terms (poachers, seagulls, tent, quail) and a few helping structures: I’m the only person who says that, at the foot of the mountain, two months ago. Support from classmates came in the form of corrected or prompted past tenses (in a recent post I talked about how this particular grammar area is “growing”), repetition, reframing, embellishing. There were times when we took a tangent to consider linguistic issues: the coverage of the word birds and its equivalent(s) in Spanish; the difference between a road and a path, and the use of path in computing; highlighting the use of there (which the class focused on a few weeks ago).
[roles: it seemed that there were two interesting things going on here for me. Firstly, the students stopped making eye-contact mainly with me and started to make a lot more eye contact with each other. They were no longer referring to me as the expert, they were listening very carefully to each other and supporting each other in creating and extending the stories. And secondly, the nature of the conversation and my role as listener/participant. This was a combination of informed and uninformed for all of us. We all knew the places that were being talked about, we’ve all known them for a long time. I think this helped, there was no need to slow the conversations down with explanations of the background and the students could concentrate on the details and pitch in with agreement and extra details. I chipped in too with my experiences and anecdotes. As well as participant, I was still the language expert, the note-taker, but no longer the leader or the learning manager. I don’t think I had ever stepped so far out of those roles, nor had the students ever before taken so much responsibility for their language use in class before.]
After well over an hour of continuous chat, I interrupted the flow to draw our attention back to all the language we had farmed. It was difficult! We categorized words (e.g. words for talking about birds) and then I deleted each category as we dealt with it. We remembered the context certain phrases and expressions had appeared in and briefly summarized the respective sub-plots. We focused on a few useful structures (the person who(that)/the thing which(that) and past expressions, the first time, the last time, twenty years ago). I finally handed out the photocopies with the exercises consolidating the vocabulary from the lesson before (parts of the body and the face) – a lot had actually cropped up already in our chat. I had no chance to look at the sentences they’d all written for homework. But they didn’t care, they were happy enough to look at them in the next lesson. As homework I asked them to write up one or two of the stories from the lesson. They didn’t like this idea, they wanted to tell other stories! I explained that I wanted them to try and use the language that had come up during the lesson, so they asked if they could write new stories on similar themes. The hour came to an end and our chat slowly morphed from English and Spanish. I wanted to tell them how impressed I was by their collaboration in creating the stories. I did this in English but their responses came flooding back in Spanish. They were really pleased with themselves too. I was worried that they might not feel that they were learning, but they listed the structures they felt more comfortable with (question forms, negative forms, past forms) and they said they felt that they were understanding a lot more. They told me they were watching Spanish programmes with English subtitles, translating the titles of films and comparing the two, moving away from literal translation and noticing the English around them.
[Roles: here I tried to step back into the role of leader and learning manager, and did to some extent. The handouts were received with nods of acceptance, their value appreciated, the homework task not so much, here they wanted to hold onto the role of managers and negotiate a task that they wanted to do. In the few minutes after the lesson ended I’m not sure what my role was, they were talking to me as their teacher, sharing their experiences as learners, it felt like a very positive moment.]
Reading back over this, I’m not really sure what conclusion/s to draw, or if there are any conclusions to draw, or where exactly these reflections will lead! But it was a lesson we all enjoyed and I think one of those lessons that’s going to stick in my mind.