Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Senior English Club

This is a post that I have been working on for several years!  It involves an issue that I ran into when I was a new teacher: perpetual students.  Frankly, I have nothing against lifelong learners -- I'm one myself!  But there is a conflict between the needs of such learners and the grant requirements that made our classes (and my paycheck) possible.  I'm posting this because another blogger very bravely shared a problem recently and it occurred to me that it's a lot easier to share insights and successes than it is to confess mistakes and raise issues for which we don't have answers ... but it's both aspects that make a good community, right?  Note: I have recently left the agency where these experiences took place, so I have revised the text to reflect this ...

The EL-Civics program I worked in until recently exists for a particular reason -- to encourage learners to become active participants in their neighborhood and this country, partly through improving their English skills.  Their grant defines "success" through a combination of:

- learner gains (a certain percentage of learners shows improvement on a standardized reading exam)
- if learners demonstrate that they have learned several kinds of civics facts (US history, government, laws, geography, rights and responsibilities, culture, etc.)
- if any learners become citizens, register to vote, vote for the first time
- if any learners engage in sustained community participation (are active in community organizations, etc.)

While the last three items are important, test scores play an overly-large role when agencies across the state are competing for grant money.

Public libraries are lifesavers! (credit)
But prospective learners don't know any of this.  As far as they're concerned, the word on the street is that there are free English classes at the library.  Period!  It's quite effective: I was often amazed to meet learners who had barely gotten over their jet lag before inquiring about classes.  These are the learners for whom the program is designed.  However, there is another group of learners who also take advantage of such a program: the "perpetual students".

Let's look at a composite student that I will call Igor (I have no students named Igor).  He shows up faithfully for every lesson and does written homework -- sometimes spending quite a bit of time on it -- but he doesn't speak English except to communicate with me or when forced to do so as part of a class activity.  He doesn't use English outside of class, being immersed in a family and community with many speakers of his first language (L1). He's not looking for a job -- he's retired.  He post-tests again and again at about the same level as the pretest, sometimes lower.  He resists participating  in communicative activities and, when pressed, will take non-communicative shortcuts to get the activity over with.  Igor appears to be looking for intellectual stimulation and the company of other nice people.  His goal is met by the act of coming to class. It was assumed that students come to class to get help with English and move on, so my program didn't have a clearly-stated policy about students who don't ever intend to leave.  So Igor stayed in class for months and months ... even years.  Igor was nice and I liked him a lot.  But what was my responsibility with regard to his learning?

At first, my thinking was that such a student was seeking participation in the community in his or her own way, and that this could fall loosely under our program's intentions.  And it seemed that I always had one or two students who fell into this category -- especially in morning or afternoon classes. So, I was easy with the perpetual student.  But, after some time, I realized that even one or two such learners can have a big effect on the success of a class.  Igor's non-participation detracted from the success of communicative activities, he provided a poor model for students who were hesitant about taking risks, he used his L1 with any other students that shared his language (which marginalized others and was an obstacle to my recognition of arising issues), he took a seat that could be filled by a student whose needs were more strongly in alignment with my program's directives, and (finally) he hurt my agency's numbers.  While I personally don't think that standardized test data provides an accurate reflection of student progress, the program did depend on it. Lots of bad data = no funding.  One student like this may not hurt too much, but read on ...

Once I had eight perpetual students at the same time, I kid you not!  When I put up signs announcing an afternoon class at a particular library, it filled quickly.  It turns out that six of the group were elderly retired people who knew each other and shared the same L1. These students all scored at high intermediate or a little higher on our pretest.  I liked them as people. They were really quite sweet, slipping me chocolates and being like a whole bunch of nice grandparents. But they simply did not want a communicative class and they worked as a group to try and drive me toward a traditional teacher-led format -- where they could sit back, collect handouts, and enjoy the show while commenting to each other in their first language. Their number increased to eight because other students with the same L1 who joined later found it easy to go with the majority.

Every time I tried to break the class into groups or get students out of their chairs was a struggle.  Every time I asked a group conversing in L1 to try English, they would translate what they were saying to me (as if the problem wasn't that they were supposed to be using English, but that I didn't speak their L1). In activities where learners were supposed to collaborate they would simply work out the answer using their first language, then sit quietly and wait to report -- or converse in L1 about something else.  Being a relatively new teacher, I assumed the failures were mine and worked relentlessly trying to figure out how to manage this group. After almost a year of trying new lesson ideas, negotiating expectations, explaining the language-learning purpose for each activity, joking, asking individuals privately for cooperation, and even nagging, one day I just burst into tears!

That day, a final failed activity broke the camel's back.  It was a typical student survey -- students were to go around with a bit of paper and find out three health issues that interested their classmates the most (this would inform future lessons).  What actually happened: the group of perpetuals sat around one table chatting in their L1 while passing their bits of paper around to be filled in. Meanwhile, the four or five students who didn't speak that language surveyed each other and then tried feebly to break in and get some information from the gang.  When I regained my composure, I ended the lesson early and arranged a meeting with my program manager.

I finally called for help! (credit)
With my PM's permission, the next lesson saw me post-testing everyone in the group.  The lesson after that, I handed out cupcakes to celebrate the completion of our program and "graduated" the lot.  I handed out leaflets from a local senior citizens facility that offers various activities, meals and even transportation to and from the library area.  Most of the group already knew about it and nobody was interested.  I also talked to the library branch manager who eventually found an area volunteer to offer a weekly one-hour conversation group.  All of the "graduated" seniors later began to attend that session -- and I made sure that it was offered on some day OTHER than the ones when my classes were scheduled!

The next week I began afresh, switching the schedule so that the daytime class (popular with retirees) served beginners and the evening class was for higher level students. I ended up with a delightful mix of sincere learners in both classes, which was wonderful!  I eventually discovered that another teacher (an experienced one, at that) had had the same problem at this location a couple of years earlier.  At that time, they simply closed the class down.

By the way, the post-tests with my gang of perpetual learners showed no gains; indeed, one student didn't even bother to finish the test, claiming she was tired.  It dawned on me that students may have deliberately been fudging their post-tests, because if they scored above a certain number they would have to leave.  I have since had individual learners in other classes state outright that they didn't intend to do well on the post-test because they loved me and didn't want to leave!

This is a long post, I know, but here comes the reflection at last ...

 First of all, I don't really like the "solution" to this problem.  For one thing, the students didn't graduate -- I kicked them out. For another, I couldn't serve higher level students during the day for fear of this situation arising again.  And closing the class (as was done before) serves no students at all!  The question is:

How can one open classes to all, including retired seniors looking for intellectual satisfaction, while preventing the perpetual student problem?

After this incident, my team of teachers had quite a bit of discussion on this.  Everyone had at least one or two students who had been around forever.  Were the goals of these learners in alignment with those of our program?  We decided to set a policy where learners could not stay in the same class for more than a year.  Learners in a lower level class could move up to a higher level class, if post-test showed that they were eligible, and they could have another year at that level.  Looking back now, I have some more thoughts:

- Not all long-term learners are perpetual learners.  Some don't have a lot of time for study because they have jobs and family to attend to. Some have sporadic attendance due to other life issues.  But they participate actively and communicatively when they are in class. The time limit may be unfair to this group.
- We only served two levels ("lower" and "higher").  It can take more than a year to move from the low end of "lower" to "higher". We ended up tightening both of these bands, which resolved the issue.  But it would be nice to add an ESL class (focus on life skills) to serve the lowest levels and prepare them to enter the EL-Civics program.
- Could learners also be graded on the quality of their participation in class with high-scorers earning another year at their current level if they were not ready to move on?   How would one do this grading?  Could it be related somehow to the "community participation" standard that the grant asks for?

I hope I never run into the extreme case of eight perpetual students again!  But I think I'm a tougher teacher than I used to be.  Back then I requested cooperation from learners, but thanks to my shutting the class down and starting over, I know that I'm capable of demanding cooperation in the future.  However, if at all possible I would prefer to organize the program around encouragement rather than deterrence!
Tough, but not this tough -- I hope! (credit)


  1. Hi Kathy, I recognise and sympathise with the problem! I've been teaching senior students this last year and have been fascinated by the difference it makes to the dynamic, the teacher's role, everything! My context is very different. The students are in Spain and have very little contact with English speakers, except for the odd cruise passenger getting lost on the streets of their town. They're retired and studying English as part hobby (something to fill thier day), part therapy (keeping their brains young and alive). They don't need or want to do or pass tests, and luckily our funding doesn't depend on data. But at the same time they do pose a challenge and they don't always fit in comfortably alongside other students. I don't have any solutions to offer, just some experiences to share. The L1 problem is obviously the same as in our group of eight and we had to invent characters to invite into our classroom. We had George, a slightly cantankerous visitor who loved to go out and try the local food, we had Beverly, chatty and friendly who'd talk about just about anything, we had Pat (I think his name was) a waiter in a bar in London. We'd draw them or post photos of them on the board and build dialogues with them. The ideas and flow of the conversation came from the students, the language often came from me (these were beginners). And then we'd act them out. They seemed to enjoy the fiction and the pretense. That was one thing that worked to get them out of their L1 trap and communicating in English. Another thing I tried was setting them youtube viewing homework. I'd find simple clips presenting an area of language (once it was vox pops on the street with people talking about their jobs, another time it was a presentation on how to tell the time) and ask the students to watch them at home as many times as they wanted. In class we'd play the same clip without sound and the students had to commentate in English. This seemed to break the communicative ice too. But this is fine if your students are willing to play the game, if what they really want is to be part of a social group with an excuse to meet that also salves their conscience in some way, then I think the conversation class you suggested was the best solution. When I taught in Italy we had the "coffee morning" classes (our internal name for them) for students who really had no intention or need to study. But we were in a context where we could guide other students to other groups and classes. I think you did the best you could in the situation.

    1. Hi Ceri! Thank you for sharing your very similar experience. Part of why I finally decided to post was because teachers can end up feeling like they're alone in dealing with some problems. I definitely thought my problem was unique! It's helpful to know that others have been in a similar situation ... Though I wouldn't wish the stress on anyone!

    2. (Working on an iPad and hit the 'publish' button before I was finished!) I love the creative approach you took with your group. In fact, it rings a bell ... One of the eight (one of the two who joined later) was once highly engaged by a minor creative activity in one of our lessons. It involved a series of drawn pictures without captions. She not only delighted in writing a story to go with the pictures, but she later went on to expand it to several pages. I used her text as the input to a later lesson with the whole class, which I could tell made her feel especially good. I think the reason that the seniors are more interested in the English class than the activities at the senior center is because the English class is not "for old people" but about learning and creating and staying young. It seems like the activity where learners narrate the audio for a clip is sort of like the sequence of pictures activity. I will be keeping that idea in my pocket for the near future in my new speaking and listening class!

  2. Kathy,

    I know 'Igor' very well indeed. He is alive, ish, and pottering along in a class of mine in Japan. He has been doing so for at least a decade. He still thinks I'm American...

    Igor-san is retired, a widower, and has beaten cancer. The highlight of his week is to come along to my 'open' class at a kind of public community organisation once a week, prime-time evening slot, at a level that has been progressively beyond him. And reconnect with his friends, some of whom are very keen to engage in L1 as you have beautifully outlined above - a natter instead of an exchange; a check of answers a/b/c "ok" where I so want to here the language (any) of opinion, agreement, checking, listening, contrasting (anything!)...I look up after 10 seconds scanning my plan/tuning in to other conversations to see broad smiles of accomplishment & 'finished' from a predictable (far) corner of the table.

    After that, interference with other groups correcting their 'mistakes' (in L1) before they've had time to negotiate in any language. All of the answers for any possible activity in the text book have been filled in for at least the next 3 units...but will I hell do any 'homework' or review in the workbook? And don't give me a worksheet

    It is a rolling 3 month sign up that I do not control; hitting a minimum number = class gets canned. And anyone can sign up, and occasionally do because it is cheap, a good time of the evening, free parking etc. No graduation, testing, any kind of requirements at all beyond a pulse & a few quid.

    Class never notices the occasions when I have totally given up and stabbed myself in the eye with a marker pen/dragged my fingernails across the board to attract non-verbal attention/baked a cake in the corner of the room/given completely wrong answers or spoken in French.

    I like Igor-san out of class - he makes sure I have a full glass at parties; he has taken himself around the world to visit casinos (he then treats class on return to a 90 minute slideshow entirely in L1 of off the cuff commentary, unedited timeline, no maps or supporting references all the while munching on the obligatory souvenir haul class requires from any traveller returned). He has cocked a snook at the big C & knows loads of stuff. But less English than when I 1st met him & indulged his L1ness.

    I have absolutely no solution; when I'm in a good mood (last class of my day) & he isn't nodding off or answering his phone in class we can glide past the pot-holes "tell your partner what your last partner just told you" ('I have no idea because I couldn't be bothered listening')...or "what do you think the speaker will mention on the audio" ('I already read the tapescript & translated it').

    Thank you ever so much for posting about your class/experience, Kathy. I had a good chuckle & know these things are sent to try us. I loose new students in this class because of, and other learners loose great opportunities to become better (English) learners. However, their generosity to him informs me that maybe he has every right to be there & I had just better pull my head in a bit - it's their community after all (unlike your situation I think). I would love to deliver Rolls-Royce lessons week in, week out, but I usually end up with a Toyota Hilux (Top Gear variety).

    If at my own school - I'd offer short (3-month) "grey hair" courses on specific topics eg English baking (sic), Facebook, Venice, Christmas and try hard to retain the keepers, with a breathing space between to allow mutual cooling off. Yes, also brings in the exclusive aspect of next enrollment, but you are often doing the 'too polite to say anything' co-students a favour. Of course, you have to do this in such a way that you do not become an ogre!

    Apologies for the longer comment! You struck a nerve :)


    1. Hi Jim, you had me laughing out loud envisioning the class ignoring you while you desperately tried to get their attention (and also cringing with a familiar feeling!). When our program first started, it had rolling enrollment and we took in all levels below "advanced". There is a whole set of challenges that goes with that situation! I really like the specific topic courses ... It would surely appeal to learners who are in it for the purpose of keeping their brain in tune. Or how about an English-learners movie group, that prepares for, watches, discusses, writes a review about a specific movie once every few months. (Anybody running a school out there who wants to try it?)