ANYONE READING THIS FOR THE FIRST TIME SHOULD KNOW THAT THE REALLY INTERESTING CONTENT IS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW, WHERE ARTICULATE BLOG-VISITORS HAVE PICKED UP THE BALL AND RUN WITH IT IN UNEXPECTED DIRECTIONS.
Like most of my posts, this one has been sparked off by a casual remark in a conversation. In this case, it was with a Spanish friend of mine, who was complaining that her Spanish PLS boss gave more credence and value to comments made at staff meetings by native speaker teachers, many of whom had hardly any teaching experience and, in one case, only a month’s experience of teaching in Spain.
The conversation reminded me of something that happened on one of the Drama Plus courses Dede and I used to run in Hungary.
I was doing a presentation on how to use stories to present grammar. Something very, very innocuous and uncontroversial.
Like all teachers, I have a few little tricks up my sleeve. Mine are really easy to spot. I am so paranoid about talking too much in class that I do two things constantly:
1 I say things which are clearly and sometimes outrageously untrue.
2 I pretend I don’t know words.
Why the first?
When I meet a new group of students or teachers/teacher-trainees on a course, I want to knock down … never quite sure what to call this … the wall of silent respect that exists between a class and a new teacher. I’m all for respecting teachers, but there are limits, especially if they’re talking nonsense. And I want any group I work with to know that I am as likely to talk nonsense as the next person.
To encourage them to think this, I might say something that is clearly not true. I once said to a new group of trainee teachers: “I have no idea how many irregular verbs there are in English – probably about a million.” A few of them raised their eyebrows but no one said anything. I reacted to the raised eyebrows. I looked all innocent and say “What?” (falling intonation) “Something wrong?” A few nods. Someone said it sounded rather a lot. (There are between 400 and 500, I think).
“Look,” I say. “If I say something you think is nonsense OR something that you don’t agree with, you must tell me. I’m just the teacher here. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. And it doesn’t mean you have to agree with me.”
Teacher as facilitator, enabler, whatever. Most definitely not teacher as all-knowing, all-seeing. That’s what we have God for.
Encouraging students to do more than raise their eyebrows when the teacher says something nonsensical or controversial has a really useful side-effect. It means that students actually ask me to repeat what I say even when I’m not (as far as I know) talking nonsense or trying to be controversial.
Listening encouraged all round. All good, so far.
Once students/teachers latch on to why I’m doing this, the atmosphere improves. And teaching becomes a DIALOGUE, not a monologue.
Why the second trick?
I enjoy stories, especially story presentations of new vocabulary or structure. I like to wander round the class picking up ideas from the students like burrs and feeding them into the story.
However, the story may need to maintain a narrative thread, so it may be necessary to supply most of the information and not let the students invent for themselves.
This is where I think it helps if you ‘forget’ words.
The narrative might go: “So, this woman (who the class have just described to me) goes to the … what do you call that place where you wait for a bus?”
“A bus stop!” they shout. They have by now been persuaded it’s all right to shout something out when the teacher is talking.
“Right, and then she catches a bus into town, and then she goes into a … uum….what do you call that place where you borrow books?”
“A LIBRARY, cloth-ears!” (They don’t actually shout ‘cloth-ears’, but that’s what they mean, in a friendly way).
“OK, she goes into a library, but she doesn’t know the name of the book she wants, so she goes up to the ….. what’s the name of the person who works there?”
Etc. And of course there is always the chance that no one actually KNOWS the word. So I count to three and tell them it. No earth-shattering new methodology here, just a bit of interactive common sense.
Actually, the above exchange doesn’t read as well on the page as it feels in real life. And anyway, I don’t know any other way of teaching. It turns the whole process into a dialogue of discovery.
What has all this got to do with NESTs and non-NESTs?
Back to the Drama Plus course. I finished the session on story presentations and we were having some coffee. One of the participants came up to me.
“I love the way you pretend you don’t know words to keep us all involved,” she said.
“It isn’t always pretending,” I answered.
“No, it’s brilliant,” she said. “I’m going to do that when I get back to my class.”
This particular teacher was one of the very best teachers I’ve ever seen anywhere. Everyone on the course was entranced by her enthusiasm and skill when she did short demonstration lessons. More than one participant expressed a wish in their course evaluation that she had been their English teacher.
However, when she left the course and went back home to the Czech Republic, she had a bit of a shock. After two weeks, her head teacher called her into her office.
She had taken several of her current students the year before and they weren’t impressed by the fact that her English seemed to have disappeared during the summer break. They had gone home and told their parents that their teacher had forgotten how to speak English. The parents rang the head.
She sent me an email and told me about it.
She had a young British colleague who was famously very relaxed about his knowledge (or lack of) English grammar. When students asked him to explain the difference between two similar examples, he would cheerfully tell them that he had no idea and promise to find out for them the next day. It was the same if they asked him what the difference was between two lexical items – ‘buy’ and ‘purchase’ for example.
I really like the idea of students in a small Czech city having access to a relaxed, young, cheerful and enthusiastic native speaker. But why didn’t the students go home and complain about HIM to their parents?
I think I’ll stop there for now. Re-visiting readers will note that the brilliant TV programme The Wire featured strongly in the trailer for this post, and yet didn’t make an appearance here. As usual, the post had a mind of its own and went off in another direction. Maybe we’ll come back to The Wire and similar televisual and filmic challenges another time.
Meanwhile, anyone want to throw some petrol on the flames of this NEST/non-NEST distinction that I feel is still alive and well?