My latest guest blogger is Slovakian teacher, Vladimira (Vladka) Michalkova, someone I met through twitter. Vladka works in the lovely city of Kosice and, like my last guest blogger, Ania Kozicka, has been teaching for five years.
I am Vladimira and I have been teaching English language for almost five years. I am teaching at a state language school in Kosice, Slovakia. My students are mainly adults but I have several teenage classes as well. And even though I feared teaching adults, I found out that teenagers can be a far greater challenge. Teenagers are commonly considered a pretty difficult age group to teach and to somehow keep concentrated in the classroom.
Getting to know your teenagers – through diaries
“It’s not about the writing. It’s about the feelings behind the words.” Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata, Animal Crossing: Wild World, 2005
Writing, as a skill, is often neglected and avoided in the classroom as many students as well as teachers find it too time-consuming and better as homework. The emphasis in the classroom is put on the speaking, listening, comprehension or training your students’ skill in expressing their opinions.
However, if you find yourself struggling with your class, it may be really painful and almost impossible to get the message across. How can we expect then that they will share their thoughts with us or their peers and speak freely in the classroom?
Teenagers are really an amazing age group. They love to be the centre of attention, yet it is unlikely they will talk about themselves (just because we teachers want them to). Moreover, in the new era of internet and social networking, where they easily lose their identity, it is very difficult for them to cooperate and communicate in a real-life face to face classroom environment.
I remember a class I had two years ago. There were 25 teenagers in the classroom. Three of them were really interested and willing to learn, a small group of boys were always laughing, one boy was permanently bored and stared at the walls and another one, wearing his eccentric clothes and sunglasses, was always making inappropriate comments or playing with his mobile phone. The rest of the class was, let’s say, easily influenced by what others were doing (or not doing).
I admit I was nervous and sometimes even terrified before the lessons. At the beginning of December, I was completely exhausted and ready to give up on them.
Then I came across the film Freedom Writers, the true story of a teacher in Los Angeles, played by Hilary Swank, who has a class of students described as ‘at risk’ and ‘unteachable’. She tries to help the class express their feelings and frustrations by getting them to write diaries.
If you aren’t familiar with the film, you can read a plot synopsis here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Writers
I decided to give it a try. I asked them to use the time they spend at home during the Christmas holiday writing diaries. We watched the film and then I gave them notebooks with a note for every single student. I asked them to keep writing their own diaries, to write down anything they find interesting or important for them (songs, films, actors, school, anything).
Teenagers are indeed truly emotional beings and I could see that on their faces when we were watching the film.
That was the beginning and I was really surprised by what followed after the holiday. Well, it was not an instant miracle but rather an amazing discovery for me. The students watched more films and wrote their reactions in their diaries.
Most of them watched one of the Twilight movies and the truth is that their first entries were mostly about the actors (namely Robert Pattinson, Robert Pattinson and once again Robert Pattinson), songs and books (and you can guess what names were repeated when writing about books).
Though, this information is not intended to reveal any of their secrets, you can learn a lot about your students.
We had very similar rules like in the film. I don’t read their diaries unless they want me to but I check on their entries regularly. I don’t correct their grammar, their writings, or comment on them.
And it happened that sometime in the middle of February, I was asked to read their works regularly and the content of their diaries moved from describing their heroes to sharing their own personal beliefs, hopes, problems and opinions.
I learned a lot about the people in my class and I believe they learned a lot about me as well. We moved to the next step when they wanted me to comment on their works. Of course, not all the students were writing about themselves, but all of them were writing!
It seemed they found a pleasure in handwriting, they somehow re-discovered the charm of it in comparison to their “traditional” typing on the internet. The whole experience dramatically improved classroom dynamics and the atmosphere in the classroom. I believe it was the fact that all of us shared a sort of “common secret”.
And after two years (I am no longer teaching them) we are still sharing thoughts and ideas, now using their common ground, networking sites.
Vladimira blogs at http://vladimiramichalkova.edublogs.org/
Vladka has also published a guest blog on Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent Six things site, and you can read that here. http://sixthings.net/2010/03/22/six-ideas-and-tips-for-homework/
You can see an extract from Freedom Writers here – http://youtu.be/m0PRB4YsXn4