Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Classroom Discourse - the quiet ones

Of the six sixth grade classes I teach, only one has been consistently quiet and unenthusiastic.  This came as a shock to me, at first, because I've taught many of the students-in-question before, when they'd been anything but quiet.  Yet, that was the way of things for a few weeks.  This week, though, I think (and hope) I've gotten them past their stoic tendencies.

Since there are a few students I would describe as naturally shy mixed into the group, this didn't concern me for our first few weeks together.  I thought they just needed time to get used to each other... most of them were already used to me.  As time went on, it became clear that something else was preventing them from speaking openly.  On more than one occasion, I noticed normally talkative students open their mouth to respond or get that "I've got it!" light-bulb-above-the-head look on their face, only to restrain themselves from volunteering an answer.  I think the factor holding them back was their homeroom teacher.

Their homeroom teacher usually sits in class at a desk off to the side, doing some busy work.  He never gets involved in the class when I'm teaching or interacts in any way.  I've noticed, though, that he runs his class very strictly and is more demanding of his students' attention and obedience than the other homeroom teachers.  He does it in a friendly way, to be sure, but I don't think he tolerates distractions, either during his class or even their break-times.  His students are often late to classes in other classrooms because, I've recently realized, he has got them sitting at their desks and hasn't finished speaking to/directing them until a few minutes after the class bell has rung.  So I needed to get a message to my students that, even though he's present in the class, his rules are not my rules and only my rules apply during my class-time.. and it needed to be done without being disrespectful or stepping on toes if possible.

So when we met yesterday, I started class by asking my students what some common class rules were in other classes.  One of the first things they said was, "don't speak".  I stopped them right there and told them that's not my rule.  My rule is "speak".  I had them repeat "speak" with me, which made some of them laugh since their English ability, on the whole, is quite advanced.  I asked them to say it again, even louder.  I told them that my class is all about speaking and that I would never get upset at them for speaking unless they were interrupting someone else's speech.  I ended by saying English class is not like other classes and that the whole point was to speak to each other.

To reinforce the idea, I told a very quick story about an awesome restaurant I ate at on Tuesday.  A few students offered up their reactions/opinions about that and I opened the floor to another student who told me about a similar restaurant that he went to on Sunday in Banpo.  A few of the other kids knew about that place and one of them told me his dad loves it because they serve free, all-you-can-drink beer lol.  Some Italian place, I can't remember it's name now.  Sophia's?

I have told them stories before, trying to have a conversation to start class (the stories are usually related to the topic of study) and get them talking, but it was a lot more effective yesterday.  I wasn't sure whether addressing how quiet they were directly would bring them out or force them further into their shells, but it seemed to have worked.  I tried to focus more on the rules of behavior in school than the fact that their behavior was unsatisfactory to me, which I think avoided causing shame or guilt.

I also changed their groups.  Before, I had decided to spread out the most shy students among the teams equally.  This time, I put them all on the same team, hoping that the other teams' enthusiasm would naturally infect the whole class.  The second approach seems to be working better than the first.  If the classroom dynamic appears to have made a positive and permanent shift after a few more classes, I'll redistribute the most shy students among the others again, but the 'shy group' is actually doing quite well.  They seem to get along well and, though no-one wants to be the one to actually speak the answers, they contributed quite regularly during class yesterday.  They seem to have worked out some system for spreading out the burden of speech equally among themselves.  Doing my job for me?  Yes please ;)

Overall, more students were offering more frequent and complex contributions.  Their speech wasn't so unnatural, stunted, or awkward as it had been.  I heard lengthy opinions from several students who hadn't really spoken much before in response to the open-discourse questions.  They seemed to be more comfortable in class and I assure you that I was more comfortable as well!

I'm not sure if this behavior will stick.. I don't actually get to see this class again until May 2nd since they're going on a field-trip next week :(   Hoping for the best!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Morning Class

  I meet my morning class every day at 8:10am.  The class consists of 16 first and second grade students of mixed abilities.  This class is unique, for me, because I am focused solely on English instruction, as opposed to teaching history or science as I do in classes with older students.
  We meet quite early and many of us aren't really up to speed yet, so the warm-up for this class is essential.  We have been learning about animals and how to describe them, so my objective was to get them thinking about animals' parts in preparation for today's lesson, which was mainly a reading about clown fish.  It was also important to have them use full sentences since most of them probably hadn't used English since being in school the previous day - this is an objective of every  morning class.
  I started our class by drawing a mystery animal on the board with black, blue, and red markers.  I combined the features of a dragon, a fish, and a snail and asked the students to tell me about the animal using full sentences.  They did this enthusiastically, describing it's colors and various features.  In doing this, they had to use a lot of the vocabulary we have been learning this week, like "flippers," "trunk," "shell," and "scales".  I then chose a student to be my 'artist' as we created a new animal on the board. To do this, I had the students raise their hands for the opportunity to describe one of its features.  The animal we came up with had 20 short legs, a tiny mouth, a curly snake body, 3 long noses, 2 curly tails coming out of its back, 2 bat wings coming from its butt, and 12 eyes (one big eye, one small eye, and 10 little eyes inside the big eye).  They named it "Beauty Show".
  I think the warm-up achieved my objectives pretty well.  They recalled some of the targeted information when they identified my animal.  When they created their own animal, each student really wanted to contribute something and, as body parts were described and thus became unavailable for new contributions, they were forced to really dig through their lexicon to think of animal parts which had not been previously described.  So, we all had a good time and the warm-up succeeded in activating the target schema in preparation for the new material of the day.  Victory: Morning Class

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Focus on Warm-up

  After Saturday's class, I have been making a more conscious effort to activate my students schemata and get their little minds ready to make use of the relevant information for the day.  We have been studying weather events with my upper-level sixth grade classes, so the advent of yesterday's absurd weather was a perfect topic for discussion.  The morning had started out cloudy before it actually rained.  The rain gradually changed into snow, but by the afternoon, it was quite sunny and extremely windy... so there was a lot the kids could talk about.  
  I asked them to identify the weather and pointed out that we have learned a lot of great language to express it.  They talked about the different kinds of precipitation and we discussed the book's use of "freezing rain" as it related to what happened yesterday.  I feel that "mixed-precipitation" is a better term for it, and we talked about why each term was better or worse.  Their book also outlined a few cloud types and we tried to identify what the clouds were like yesterday.  I also asked them how they prepared for the weather in the morning and how, if they had known what the weather would actually be like, they would have prepared differently.  Two of my classes got really into these topics and were making good use of the vocab to express themselves without me really asking for them to do so.  
  My third class is a bit more reserved, so while we had this discussion, it wasn't really flowing and they were all quite worried about making mistakes in front of their peers.  I'll have to think of a better way to get them talking tomorrow..
  So the warm-up achieved its purpose in all three classes.  We re-familiarized ourselves with meteorological expressions which they probably haven't used or thought about since our class last week.  It was a good way to lead into today's material which covered thunderstorms, droughts, and floods.  I really need to focus on that quiet class though.. their schema was activated, but they didn't get nearly as much functional practice as the other classes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sean Bean's Magic Sneakers

  In my lower level 5th grade classes, we learned about the basic elements of storytelling: characters, setting, and plot.  I wanted to learn what these words meant, demonstrate their usage by identifying them in a short story, and begin reading the long story in the book (which will take 2 or 3 classes to complete).

  I began by writing a chart on the board consisting of 3 squares, plot being bigger than characters and setting, and asking them to tell me anything they knew about these words.  Each class had already been exposed to "characters" and was able to express what it meant in terms of story.  When they struggled to explain "setting" and "plot", I wrote the word "what" next to plot and the words "when" and "where" next to setting.  I then told them that each word answers a question and that "characters" answers the question, "who is in the story?"  They were then able to express "setting" and "plot" in their own, full sentences.

  I then made up a very story in each class using one of the students' names.  The stories were easy to understand, contained only one character, and were no more than five sentences long.  In one class, the story was about a boy named Sean Bean who lived on Jupiter 5,000 years ago.  He wanted to play basketball but couldn't jump.  So he made some magic sneakers which helped him jump and he became the greatest baller on his planet.  They were able to identify the elements of this story quite well, the most difficult part being the segmentation of plot developments by significance.  Some of the students were inclined to make a separate plot-development for each little detail of the story whereas I preferred them to understand plot developments  as more significant things which encompass several actions.  I think we'll have to discuss "main idea" in a little more detail to understand this and there will be plenty of opportunities for this while reading this unit's big story in their textbook.

  I then handed out elements of story charts to the students.  These charts were one-page replica's of the chart we made on the board together and I told them that we would be filling in this chart together as we read the story in the text.  We then began reading the story, "Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble" and I reviewed the word "predict" with them, which we learned last week.  I had them look at the title and the illustration on the title page and make some predictions about the story, rewarding students for explaining why they had come to their conclusions.  After making some predictions, we started reading the story.  I stopped them quite often to check their comprehension with questions.  

  I spent the last five minutes of class filling in the chart on the board as they did the same on their papers - we were able to identify two characters and one or two plot developments in each class.  We only read one-two pages per class of the story today, but we got a lot of the basics covered and will probably be able to read quite a bit more tomorrow.  

  Tomorrow, I'll warm them up by giving them another short story, a little more complicated than today's and displayed on a power-point slide, and asking them to identify the setting, characters, and plot developments.  If all goes well, we should be able to read quite a bit of their story tomorrow.

  I think class went well today, but it was difficult to get some of the students to focus.  Many of them are in the low-level classes because of a lack of motivation rather than a lack of intelligence, so it can be difficult to make the book stories interesting for them.  Still, it wasn't a major problem and I was able to reel them in by watching to makes sure they were actually following the reading, choosing them to lead the class by reading the text, and targeting them with comprehension questions.