Monday, February 27, 2012

All Things to All People

Or not!

I know it's not a healthy way of thinking to want to make everyone happy.  It's better to know your values, try to live by them and, in this way, be authentic in the classroom.  Right?
With only two arms, I'm no Guan Yin!  Photo via Oren Zebest.
But today I had mixed feelings as the lesson came to a close.   This is the group where I have been attempting to go full-Dogme and a lively group it's turning out to be!

As students filtered in, one student showed everyone a newsletter she had picked up at a popular city restaurant (White Dog Cafe, which has been a leader in the locally-sourced, sustainably produced food movement).  She had brought copies for everyone, so we looked it over, talked about it for a few minutes, and the group decided on one article to read for homework (the title: "Know Your Farmer").  I assigned each student to research four new words to share before we review the article in our next lesson.

Another student brought in a dozen donuts, so those were passed around while we turned to the homework assignment, which revolved around "to borrow from someone" and "to lend to someone". There was some confusion about related language -- when to use an object pronoun ("Would you borrow me a pencil?") so we explored in that direction for a while.

We then generated a lot of language for making and responding to a request for the use of a possession, and I put models on the board. (Do you mind if I borrow your ...?  How long do you need it?  I'm sorry, but I'm using it now. Etc.)  I prompted everyone to think of various items they personally would be willing or unwilling to lend to someone (plus a few silly ones like "my helicopter", "my toothbrush" and "my elephant") and we then had a "cocktail party" activity where everyone walked around making and responding to requests for these things, referring to the board for self-correction as needed.  I joined in and gave feedback.  It got pretty noisy and one small group eventually deviated to another topic (which I didn't mind because it was in English and it was at the end of the activity).  Another small group ended up near the board where they were pointing to different phrases and discussing them together (a lower level student, visiting for some extra practice, asked about something and others were explaining).  As things tapered off, I asked everyone to sit down and we reviewed what we covered in the lesson. I wrote what they dictated on the board and asked a volunteer to post it on edmodo for the two students who didn't come today.  (In the future, after they have seen several models of such class summaries, I'm going to ask pairs or small groups to work together to write them.)  After class was dismissed, students lingered.  A few chatted with each other in English and then posed each other at the board to take pictures next to where I had written "something crazy". Several waited to talk to me personally for various reasons.

All in all, I thought it was a dynamic lesson in which students communicated freely and also examined, explored and practiced "form".  Three of the students who wanted to talk to me were asking for advice about continuing practice outside of class in ways that were personally meaningful to them. And one wasn't.

He was waiting to say goodbye.  I asked if he was going back to his home country and he said "yes", so I asked when he would be returning.  There was a pause, and then said he would probably try to find another class.  He's a retired gentleman who prefers a more traditional lesson format.  I'm sure lessons such as today's do not sit well with him.  He gave it a good try (about two months), but has decided to move on.

I don't take it personally and wish him the best.  It's still in my drafts, but I have a long post reflecting on the topic of students who have spent their lives pursuing intellectual interests and who don't let retirement slow their quest for knowledge down.  I admire this. But my program's intentions are focused on helping students who want to use English outside of class as they seek their dreams and goals.

Still, I can't help asking myself if this is a sign I should pay attention to.  My lessons with this group have been far looser and more free-flowing than I used to be comfortable with. As a relatively new teacher, I needed to feel in control. This approach suits me better and I sense that this format will be effective for these high-intermediate students, but I don't have evidence of that yet.  As I'm learning to let go, are things getting too loose? Am I failing to serve some students?  I can't be all things to all people, but I do need to learn what things I should be to which people.  What do you think?

You can [teach] some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not [teach] all of the people all of the time.  -- with apologies to Abraham Lincoln

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