March 24th, 2010 | Published in Teaching ESL in China
Well, it happened today — perhaps every language teacher’s worst nightmare.
I was teaching one of my small oral English classes (small meaning about 25 students; see footnote for more details*), and asked them to do some discussion in class. The chapter we were working on focused on a girl who didn’t want to go to school because she was afraid she was going to get made fun of. And the discussion question the book provided was “Why do you think children don’t like to be different from others?” That seemed germane and easy enough to talk about, so I went with it. I carefully asked the students to discuss the question in pairs, taking turns, with three minutes for each person to share her ideas. I stressed that they should speak only in English, not Chinese.
I asked them to begin, and they didn’t do anything. So I asked them to begin again. They looked at each other awkwardly. So I explained it again. And told them to begin. So they began.
Last semester when I assigned discussion I would wander around the room to make sure the students weren’t just playing on their phones or chatting in Chinese. But this semester, thanks to the fact that I split my classes in two to make them more managable (again see note below), I can actually just sort of stand at the head of the classroom and keep an eye on all of them and sort of hear bits of what each pair is saying. Or at least make sure that they’re saying it in English, not Chinese.
But today, as I was standing at the head of the class, I realized that it was fairly quiet in the room, aside from a sort of general mumbling sound that made it impossible to tell what any one person was saying, save for a couple of students who were obviously doing the discussion. So I sort of looked away from them to try to focus on the general sound in the room, which is hard to do in a room of 25 people. And then I realized that I wasn’t actually hearing any English at all. Or Chinese. I was hearing a lot of people “talking”, and when I looked at the class they all appeared to be doing the assignment (i.e. their mouths were moving and they were nodding and making conversation-like facial expressions), but nobody was actually saying anything.
Yeah. If it’s not already obvious, that means that I realized in an instant that most of the students in my class were pretending to talk. They were moving their mouths and nodding their heads in agreement, as though engaged in meaningful discussiong, but they were actually just miming speech, play-acting more-or-less silently with the sole purpose of making me think I had actually given them an assignment worth anything. I tried to inconspicuously focus on a couple of pairs of students and confirmed it…there was definitely no sound coming from their mouths. At all. At least a couple of them. So I asked one student if she was actually saying anything, and her and her partner both cracked up laughing instantly, and I ended the activity immediately. A little shaken, but glad, at least, that I had figured out what was going on.
So then I did what I often end up doing in class, which was to lead the whole group in a discussion by asking each student the question individually, rather than asking them to do the discussion on their own. I was planning to come back together and discuss as a group anyway, but my hope was that by giving them the chance to dicuss one-on-one first, everybody would get a chance to flex their language muscles and get ready to share with the rest of the class. Which didn’t work. Dismal teaching failure number 3,958.
I still haven’t figured out how the hell to use discussion in class and have it work. It is the last and apparently most untouchable speaking practice, as far as I can tell, yet reputedly the most effective, like the Holy Grail of language teaching. But I just can’t make it work. I’m sure if I were teaching classes of four to eight it would work just fine, but in a room of 25, not to mention 50, which is my normal class size, it is just impossible to have a bunch of people talking at once. Everything devolves into chaos and one language learner can’t hear or understand the other. So everybody mimes, just to make the teacher feel better.
If any wayward Internet traveler or reader has any ideas on how to make discussion-en-masse work, I’m all ears. Till then, I think I will try to hone down and specify the discussion assignments even further, and make it more like a “practice what you’re going to say” type activity. Which is I think what all their other English teachers do, anyway. Which is sort of like discussion, right?
On a side note, I am performing tomorrow night in a play entitled (in Chinese) “The Foreigner Is Coming”. You can guess what character I play. I have a few throw-away lines that the audience won’t understand, and one throw-away line in Chinese that they will understand, but mostly I am in the play for my blond hair and freakish height. Oh, and I’m playing “You Are My Sunshine” accoustic with students accompanying me. I can’t remember how I ended up agreeing to do it anymore, but I’m sure I wasn’t in my element, whenever it was. There will be an audience of about 500. Oh, and last night I attempted to sing a rather difficult Chinese song at another school assembly, again with 500 people in attendance, and forgot the words, killed the audience with microphone feedback, and then had a broken microphone for half the song, oh, and also, there was some awkward trying to hold the microphone with my arms full of flowers that the students surprised me by running onstage with during the song, and the choral singers that joined me onstage at the wrong time. Oh yeah, and I can’t sing or dance to begin with. Or speak Chinese. It was awesome.
Let’s hope “The Foreigner Is Coming” goes a little better tomorrow.
*Footnote: Last semester I had four different classes, all about 40 to 50 students in size, with a total of about 14 teaching hours per week. So I was a bit of a stress ball and found teaching that many students mostly hopeless. But this semester I had fewer classes and less class time (only two different classes, both 50 students, for a total of 8 hours per week), so I elected to divide the classes in two and meet with each half once a week, and the whole group once a week, making for a total of 12 class hours each week. As if anybody cares…but the difference between teaching 50 students in one small, hot, sweaty room and teaching 25 students in that same room is the difference between war and peace. And I didn’t know that last semester.