June 04, 2007

My textbook doesn't work



Having spent half the weekend in Tokyo for JALTCALL 2007, and after spending too much time preparing in previous weeks, I decided to cut out the fancy stuff, and just go by the book for once: just follow the instructions in the teacher's manual. Would you like to know how it went?

I knew you would! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

The book I'm using was chosen for me, and is pictured above (see more details on the Longman website): Powerbase Elementary.

Keep books closed. Hold up a newspaper/magazine and point to a job advert. Say what is it? Try to elicit advert or advertisement in L1 or in English. Say It's a job advert.

Open books. Ask students around the class Are you a accountant? etc, and elicit replies.
Oops. Didn't read this instruction in time to prepare. I didn't have a newspaper or magazine (stopped reading them years ago, so I didn't have one handy in my bag). I skipped this part and just told them "these are adverts. These are job adverts." Pretty ingenious, eh? I also skipped the part about asking them "are you an accountant?" because all the students in the class are university students, they all know each other, and so they can all answer "no" to any question I ask them; they know it's pointless and they'll just look at me like, "what...... are you doing?" Moving on.
Focus attention on the adverts. Ask students to read them quickly and fill the gaps with the jobs in the box.

Walking around the class, I noticed hardly anyone doing this. Did they not understand? Thinking this might be the case, I went around pointing to the jobs highlighted in yellow which are supposed to be used for this exercise, and showed them where on the actual job adverts they were supposed to write their answers. Nobody seemed thrilled, but they (oh! so slooowwwwly) got into gear and started reading and writing. No collaboration, no talking. You could hear a pin drop. I put on some background music. A couple of guys were already asleep (this is the last period in the day). I walk briskly around the room, jollying them along, but asking myself "what's the point?"

By now, some have quickly finished the exercise, while others have just started, and yet others are doing nothing at all except possibly waiting to be told the answers. (This is a teacher's exercise, so sooner or later teacher will check the answers aloud with the class; they can just wait till then and write down the answers. Saves time and brain "wear and tear".)

Already feeling disheartened, I plough on:
Ask students to read the job adverts again, then ask check questions such as What is Trevor Gibbons's telephone number? Where do they want a piano teacher?
This is toe-curlingly slow. Nobody answers. I have to stand in front of someone or call their name, then wait up to 30 seconds or even longer while they figure out that I'm asking them a question, that it has something to do with the text in front of them, that they are going to have to actually read the text to get the answers, and is it really worth the effort? Meanwhile, I'm aware that most of the rest of the class have tuned out because I'm asking a particular student. I belatedly realize I should have added another activity: read the friendly text. Again. After a couple of questions, I abandon this activity, and move on. They don't read the text. They only read the text, when they hear a question regarding it has been directed at them. Then they hold the whole class up while they stare at the text trying to figure out where in it the answer lies.

The next activity requires them to match (write) verbs with nouns, such as "send" + "an email", or "make" + "arrangements". I walk around the room, but most students have already finished the exercise, while (again) some haven't even started. Do I make the quick ones wait and insist that the slow ones complete the exercise (some students don't even have the textbook; I've lent my copy out already)? Or do I abandon the slow ones and move right along? I decide to abandon the slow ones.

Now it's listening time. There are 2 conversations on the CD which refer to two of the jobs listed in the adverts. Which ones? I make a meal of the explanation, to make sure everyone gets what the activity is, where to write the answers, etc. I play the CD. I just let it run, and, remembering that up to now I've kind of been flogging a dead horse, I decide not to replay it, but ask students what they think the answers are right after stopping the CD at the end of the 2nd conversation. The first student I pick looks at me with an expression that tells me she hasn't got a clue, and may not even understand what it is I'm asking her. This time, perhaps, I should have gone more slowly... I long for the days when I did drama, and barely used a textbook at all...

To be fair, it's not entirely the textbook's fault, nor the students': some are not interested in English at all, but others genuinely want to try speaking it. Some of the fault is mine, for not properly preparing and anticipating some of these problems in advance (I've worked here long enough, I should know by now. And I did! I just wanted to try just following the teacher's manual for once, instead of spending hours creating my own version of the text and the teacher's book, because that just takes too much of my time).

But they want to talk to the foreigner, me, not their partners. Talking to one's Japanese partner in English is so weird and unnatural that they do it as little as possible. They are not really interested in learning to use the bricks and mortar or the language, they just want a genuine opportunity to speak it, and they want to say and hear something fun, funny, cool, or all three. What would go down well with this group is a scene from a popular movie, which they read out or maybe act out with appropriate gestures and movements.

There is a major mismatch between the students' wants on the one hand, and the curriculum that has been prepared for them on the other. The textbook is well put together, based on some sound pedagogical principles, but it fails to grab the students' attention or imagination: they're not interested in learning grammar or practising discrete grammatical or lexical items. They just want to talk. I need to come up with something fast. Maybe some role plays with role cards? There are far too few conversations in this textbook, conversations that students could use as models (not just for listening exercises) to base their own creative efforts on.

In an earlier class, I had had students practise three different conversations, then perform them for me in pairs or threes. This went rather better than the last class of the day, the one I described above: altho I was not "teaching" for most of the class, students were practising their conversations in English for much of the time (some downtime while they waited for their turn to perform for me, inevitably), and enjoyed the interaction with me, some hamming it up (including pretending to be completely clueless and unrehearsed, simply in order to spend more time getting my attention and annoying the groups waiting for their turn).

3 comments:

Doug Noon said...

I like this: "There is a major mismatch between the students' wants on the one hand, and the curriculum that has been prepared for them on the other."

It explains so much of what happens - and fails to happen - when I rely on prepackaged curriculum materials. And yet, as you say, it's hard to constantly create new lessons from scratch.

The public performance idea sounds like a winner. Even though it doesn't feel like "teaching," those conversations with students may be the most meaningful form of instruction we can offer.

EFL Geek said...

Good post. Thanks for sharing. I feel your pain.

Marco Polo said...

Thanks for the comments, Doug and EFL Geek. I think you're right, Doug, and the conversations with students are the way to go. There's still a tension here, tho, as the syllabus specifies which topics I'm to have them talk about; which may or may not be what they want to talk about. If they don't want to talk about it, I'm pulling teeth, or leading aquaphobic horses to water.