How do you build something great in the ESL classroom? Not good. Great. How do you go from average to kick-ass? How do you turn 3 hours a week into something deeply meaningful and REAL in terms of increased English proficiency?
These questions follow me around a lot. Most of my classes are 1.5 hour blocks of time, twice a week. If learning another language is largely about massive exposure to, and interaction with interesting and meaningful content, then 6 hours a month isn’t much to work with.
Over at the Learning Is Messy blog, Cosby asks a great question: Where are the Best Practices” Examples!???!
He then goes on to explore some reasons why it seems to be so hard to see meaningful "WOW" stuff happening in classrooms. Point five of his list really hits home for me:
"5 - At the middle and high school level teachers tend to have students for an hour or less at a time, so doing lots of web 2.0 stuff and getting it to a polished, publishable state is tough – and publishing “works-in-progress” isn’t always appreciated by administration and some parents until they’ve been enlightened about the process." (Where are the "best practices" Examples!???!. Crosby)
Polished Excellence from small blocks of time. How do you do it? What makes a 1.5 hour class meaningful and useful to your client’s language development? Is it about devouring some coursebook unit you and your class have been assigned? Is it about finishing coursework ahead of schedule? Is it about "moving up" to the next level after finishing a coursebook and passing some exam?
What is excellence in the ESL classroom?
I think it has a lot to do with a few of the points mentioned in Crosby’s post. Specifically point 5.
Meaningful learning experiences that really help clients step up in their language proficiency have a lot to do with content, process, constant polishing, and publication.
A look at Meaningful Content
I preach this often: Coursebook content rarely meets the needs of the students who use them. Coursebooks are mass produced, and usually attempt to cover broad themes that are related to general business and English. As a result, they are often disconnected from your client’s unique reality. Irrelevant.
9:00 a.m.: I love to stand in the hallway after class in a law firm we work with here in the city. Dozens of students spill out and file past me, usually chattering away with coworkers.
You can hear a lot of things as they move past you to start their day, but one of the most common things I hear are comments about how borring their coursebooks are.
Excellence in the ESL classroom needs to begin, I think, with content. The teacher is not the content. The language school should not provide it. It’s the student. They’re your content.
I have decided to make it my mission to learn about my students before I even begin "teaching English." How can I possibly hope to be meaningful and USEFUL to them if I don’t know what they need to do with the language first?
The answer is simple: I can’t.
I’ve had a really eye opening experience. Just yesterday I started working with a lady who is a country sales manager for the Swatch watch group here in Mexico. Our first "class" was nothing more than an intense needs assessment interview.
Through this interview, I learned that she comes from a long background of English study, but that background had turned her off to the language.
Her last language learning experience came from a mainstream English center here in the city, but it was stressful, confidence blowing, and completely useless for her career.
She needed to talk to big English speaking clients over the phone, and deal with customer service issues via email - but her english course had her conjugating verbs and memorizing useless vocabulary.
Not excellent. Not meaningful. Was there improvement? Nope - student said so.
During my first meeting with her, I tried my best to explain my disdain for coursebooks, and how our class would be built 100% around her. Her reaction was comical. She sorta just looked at me, waiting for me to say something about some really cool new book she’d need to buy.
Nope. No book. Just you. After a few moments of more explanation she started to smile, the idea had started to make sense. And instead of English dread, excitement was born.
Last night she brought a really cool high-end watch book that she needs to use when talking with her clients. She sat it down on the table, and said: "This is me. This is what I do. I need to talk watches." And that’s what we did. The rest of the class, and all in English, she explained one amazing watch to me. It was fascinating.
We talked production methods and timetables. We talked markets, and we talked prices and sales.
Time flew. She was totally into it, 100% engaged because of the content. It was meaningful. How do I know? She told me. As I rose to leave, she laughed and said that she couldn’t wait to get to work the next day. One of her coworkers had just signed up for English classes with one of the biggest providers here in the city. She said that her friend would be suffering with the same old, while she just had an English class about watches. Exactly what she does all day.
The student is the content: Step one towards developing classroom excellence. What do you think?