"As language educators, our focus is on communication but how much of that communication is metalanguage and how much is actual face-to-face communication with our students?In my viewpoint, language teaching is more than teaching language functions and discreet points about a given language. Language teaching is modeling, expressing culture, and exchanging meaningful experiences through varied stages of communication." Talk to Me. ESLPundit
I think so too, and suggest that meaningful and authentic learning experiences are the pathway to building and sustaining both yours and your student’s motivation in the ESL classroom. While the language functions and grammar have their importance, they need never be the only thing we base our lessons around. Nor should we fixate on our coursebooks, an all too common practice in our industry.
Coursebooks are useful. While I have often used this space to rail against them, I do appreciate the sense of direction they help create in the classroom. One page follows the other. One exercise after another, each (hopefully) building on the one before it. There’s comfort there. But we must be cautious: if fixated upon, coursebooks can kill off passion in both yourself and your students. You’ll never deviate from its path, and never explore past the exercises planned out and created by "linguistic experts" who know way more than us mere mortals. (Why deviate…really smart people have already gone ahead to show the way, right?)
I’ve been there before, following the "experts" and marching my students down the coursebook’s pathway to language proficiency. But it was an empty trip that rarely stepped into the adjectives of "authentic" or "meaningful."
Was that wrong, or poor teaching practice? Did my students make progress? Based on what I have learned about motivation and its connection to language transfer, yes…I think passionless, meaningless classrooms are examples of poor teaching practice. The more meaningful and authentic the classroom exchange in the target language, the greater teacher and student(s) are motivated. The greater the motivation because "this matters to me," the more your students will pick up and use the language we’re helping them to learn. They’ll connect to it on deeper levels, and will find it harder to forget or neglect.
Progress does happen in the fixated classroom, but I suggest that it’s slower than the progress achieved in learning situations that are deeply meaningful.
So what is deeply meaningful? What do passionate classrooms look like?
I’m excited about the work I’m doing with my students. During the last month, my upper intermediate students and I have been working around a "personal leadership" theme. (No coursebook.) We’ve been exploring what and who leaders are. We agreed that leaders are anyone who exercises influence over another - which means that anyone and everyone can be a leader. Then, thanks to the Harvard Business School IdeaCast, (here’s the link to their podcast archieve if you want to explore) we tapped into one of the most meaningful months of conversation I have ever had within an English class. If you hop over to the IdeaCast podcast archieve, episode 14 is all about the fascinating topic of leaders and their legacy. I downloaded the podcast and we’ve spent the better part of the month listening to it over and over again, with a different focus or purpose each time.
One time through, I made a list of "gist" questions, and paused the recording ever few moments to get student’s feedback. Then, the next time through, I set up more difficult questions that were designed to workout my student’s "listening for specific information" and comprehension skills.
The podcast itself is very interesting, and deals with issues that matter - or should matter - to our lives. It asks "What will you leave behind" when you stop working? Can you shape that? How do you want to be remembered? And then we went personal. A few years ago, I read "The 7 Habbits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. (Great book, by the way.) There’s a chapter in there that is very similar to legacy, and deals more personally with the issue of "How do you want to be remembered, and by whom."
There’s an exercise that invites you to imagine yourself at your own funeral. (Scary, but very powerful.) Who do you want to be there to remember you? What would you like them to say about you as they share their memories and shared experiences they had with you? And the biggie: what are you doing today to make that happen, and what are you doing today that is destroying what you want to see happen?
Last week, I brought that exercise into the classroom discussion with amazing results. One student was near tears as she started thinking about matters that really….mattered to her in her life. Another shared a disconnect between her thoughts of how she wanted to be, and living purposefully to make those ideals a reality.
Our 1.5 hour time slots have literally flown by. We reach the end of the class (so says the clock) but find ourselves deeply involved in discussion that actually matters, and that touches us on emotional levels - leaving some on the verge of tears.
Today was going to be our last day talking about legacy, but only one student could make it to class as the other two were away on business. As we sat down to begin, my student excitedly told me that she had not stopped thinking about our previous conversations…and that she had actually began dropping them on her friends. She shared that over the weekend she had gone on a mini vacation with ten of her pals, but spent a lot of the time engaging them around the topic of legacy and purposeful living.
I was floored. I had never seen this level of connection to classroom activity before. When I mentioned that today would be our last day of work around the theme, she asked me to wait as her travelling classmate had also been heavily impacted by the topic, and would be very dissappointed if we closed without her.
Wow! I’ve never had that happen before either. Most of the time students (and myself) are happy to finish off a unit. We love the "progress" of starting the next thing, but I’m seeing something very clear now: Sometimes deep progress happens if you dwell on meaningful things.
Grammar was worked on - we were steeped in the future tense. We lived in "would" and "if" statements, and endlessly discussed progressive and present tenses as we described how we are living now, and how our everyday routines are building or destroying the legacy we so deeply desire to leave behind.
We practiced writing those ideas out, as part of the podcast talks about creating "legacy statements." (We worked on our own.)
So the typical stuff was worked on, but it was fueled by passion. Student and teacher did not cringe as a dry lesson on the "future tense" was dumped out on the table. We just found ourselves in the middle of it, making sense of how to use it as we tried to express something that mattered.
Today, I’d like to challange you to go meaningful with your classroom work. Sensitive exploration of things that matter kicks language transfer into overdrive. Go ahead and try it, your students (and maybe even yourself) will come back to thank you.
Boys having fun! by Ray (rayphua)