Monday, April 23, 2012

My Great Success

In the two years I’ve been teaching, I’ve found I dread teaching the Business English class the most. These students really don’t care much about learning English, or maybe they lack the confidence needed to become truly engaged in their studies. They are only in school for 3 years, if you count the year granted to them for their thesis preparation. For all intents and purposes, their formal college education ends after their second year. Their efforts earn them only an Associates’ Degree, hardly a cloak of invincibility when tackling the competitive job market.

They have other things on their minds: shopping, boyfriends, fashion, fun. They use their cellphones liberally during class to send text messages, play games and even to chat on QQ, China’s premier chat service. When they do speak up most of their dialog is in Chinese, or it is so quiet I can barely make out what they’re saying. A lot of them just don’t bother coming, especially if they are scheduled for the first class of the day.

Tina and Georgina are students in my Business English class. They are probably the most extreme example of what I’m talking about here (see entry of the same name, posted last week.) Other posts that reflect my despair over this particular group of students are titled Parties 2 and 3, posted December 2010 and First Came a Plant, posted May 2011. 

In all I’ve had 8 Business English groups, 2 each with the same bunch of students. Victor and I trade classes after Winter Break, if you’ll remember, and my last year freshmen are my sophomores this year. Add 2 groups of freshmen for this year to get to 8. Not that doing all that math is necessary.

Not all the students in these groups are indifferent. Lancy, Taffy, George, Jeremy, Stephie, Cooling, Isabelle, Annabelle, Tulip… they are/were good ones. Others, like Banana, Lily, Sunny, Angel and Kathy started out interested and just lost their verve somewhere between getting shuttled between Victor and me. They still come to class, but getting them to speak is a herculean task.

Since inheriting Victor’s Business English class after Winter Break, I’ve dreaded Friday mornings because that is when I have to face that impertinent, negligent bunch. Not the best way to cap off a week of teaching, not the best way to start the day and certainly not something I enjoy doing just before meeting my most exciting class, the English Majors’ Sophomore class. That is how my schedule is set up and that is what I have to deal with and that is that, no remorse and no recourse.

And so, I deal with it.

The first few sessions this semester my students trickled in, in dribs and drabs. Of the twenty five I expected, twenty three showed up. Within 3 weeks of class, my attendance rolls were down to twelve. Again I was rolling my eyes and despairing over how to reach this group, how to make class interesting, how to engage them.

And then, something happened. I’m not sure what. By week 5, my attendance almost doubled. They were coming in late, but they were coming. By week 8 I had nearly a full complement. Now week 10 everyone is coming to class, even my lone male student Bobby and that bothersome twosome, Tina and Georgina. Granted, those two still attempt to disrupt the class but at least they are showing up. I’m amazed.

My standard classroom methodology is to bound with enthusiasm, use exaggerated facial expressions and body language, talk about culture, current events or matters of interest to the students, ask for input and expect participation. That does not work with this bunch. In part because they feel their English skills are so poor, and in part because their English skills really are so poor that they only understand half of what I was saying, if that. I realized I need to come up with something different if I’m going to reach this group. 

A few weeks back, operating under the idea that these kids are not awake at 8AM, I decided to give them quiet work to do: worksheets that they can do in pairs or singly. For the first session, from 8:00 to 8:45, they worked on preparing for whatever exercise I had planned for that lesson. Interview role plays, ‘what if’ scenarios, surveys, picture assisted speaking assignments or dialogue exercises. The critical, most effective balance seems to be ‘quiet work, then speaking work’.

These kids are loving it!          

Being as the class is mostly female (Bobby had yet to put in an appearance), for midterms I chose a topic that most girls from anywhere in the world have thought about since they were little: their dream wedding. The plan was to have them draw a picture of their perfect wedding, and in the second part of the class, from 8:50 to 9:35, each student would get a chance to describe their drawing to the rest of the class. I brought colored pencils, paper, tape, scissors and construction paper of various hues for them to unleash their creative side with. Their excitement was palpable! I ate it up.

Unfortunately, last week I had laryngitis. Leading a class when you can’t talk is not an ideal situation, so I let them draw and create for the entire session, instructing them via my class monitor to bring their drawings back the following week, thus postponing their mid-term exam.

Today I had a full roster: everyone came to class, even that elusive Bobby, my lone male student. Not only did everyone show up, but most of them showed up on time. And, not only that, they were eager to get up in front of the class and talk. Some even volunteered to speak. All first time occurrences for this group. In the 2 years I’ve taught them, I have never known any of them to volunteer to do anything, especially not get up in front of the class and talk!

It was so hard to focus on their spoken words while marveling at their turnabout. I know this sudden reversal is not due to the fact that they all just woke up today and decided to be my dream students: engaged, enthusiastic and eager. No, this had a lot to do with the way I’m conducting this class. And the way I’m conducting this class has a lot to do with the way they need me to be, in order for them to learn.
Let me tell you: I love the challenge of finding activities that will stimulate and motivate this most difficult group. I get to let my imagination run wild. Whatever scenarios my fuzzy head dreams up and my practical mind can put into a classroom perspective is what the class ends up doing. My Business English class has gone from being my most dreaded engagement to my most exciting, stimulating commitment.

No holds barred here: after all the students talked about their dream wedding I took the podium and confessed my feelings. I shared with them how enormously proud I am of them for having made such an about-face. I made it perfectly clear that they get all the credit for their efforts, and for giving me such a challenge. I told them how I used to not want to come to class, but now that they are my most exciting group. I find I can’t wait for Friday mornings. I thanked them for helping me become a better teacher.

Oh, if you could have seen their faces! These kids shone with the brightness of having their efforts acknowledged. They sat up straighter, pushed their hair out of their face, shushed their seatmate if she started talking. Not a single one looked at their cellphone. They smiled, they made eye contact… for the first time since meeting them last year, they were thoroughly present, in body and in mind.

Before I could be overcome by emotion I dismissed my class, even though we still had about 15 minutes. There was something very exciting going on outside… see next post.


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