Talking to myself about pushing students

[A few weeks ago I was searching the dogme yahoo group archives for some quotes and thoughts about “English Only” classes for my friend Alex Walsh and I discovered some posts from myself. It was quite a trip and I thought I’d share a post from 2008 Mike and some responses from 2012 Mike. I welcome any responses to either of us in the comments.
I should also mention that the dogme yahoo group is an incredible resource that I highly recommend to anyone that is curious about dogme or ELT in general.
Here is Alex’s blog post about English only classrooms.]
(April 2008)
Ahh, I think I wrote two posts back-to-back just as the term ended.
I guess I had a lot of energy and questions. 
As I just wrote, I just finished a 10 week cycle (as part of a 20 week
intensive program). One of my classes was listening. Another was
“Practical English” which, “is intended to improve the speaking
ability of advanced English learners, through accuracy based tasks and
activities. Pre-existing bad habits regarding spoken English need to
be addressed and corrected, in conjunction with word usage and
appropriateness. This course is also concerned with euphemisms,
colloquialisms, idioms and pronunciation. The intrinsic interests of
students are extremely important for subject material and lesson plans
need to reflect these interests.” 
I sure hope I didn’t write that description but I might have. I still don’t really know what “Practical English”  means. I don’t think it occurred to me at the time but the description is only about what students will learn about and now what they will be able to do. Hmm. 
The class that I was teaching for this course was composed of 13
people Most of them work for the government in some capacity and
studying English is like a reward, a time-killer between
appointments,or a step before studying abroad. I really liked the
class and teaching them was very rewarding.
I remember this group! They were a lot of fun! I think I am friends with one of them on Facebook. 
They were at a nominally high level, but a lot of polishing occurred in the 10 weeks. They were with me for about 8 hours of their 30 hours a week studying. They were willing to try anything and we had a lot of fun. In fact, I often pushed back my plans because they were so talkative that I didn’t have
the heart to stop them.
I suppose sometimes it is not just enough that students are talking. What are they talking about and how are they handling it? 
They only problem was that they simply would not do work out of class. Many of them are married and have families and they are trying to enjoy their “vacations” from work. I decided early on not to push it. I basically said that I have tons of homework assignments for anyone who is interested but since the consensus was not to have much I would follow. (possible mistake alert)
I can’t say that my opinion has changed so much about this. I mean they are adults and they (or someone) paid for them to be there. I still have a hard time forcing students to do much work out of class, especially if it is not graded and there are not clear things that they need to be able to do by the end of the course. 
One of my colleagues had the task of teaching them writing. Perhaps she went a bit overboard on homework, but she found that only 3 people competed
everything.
Ok, maybe there was a possible middle ground with the group. I mean maybe they would have done a few assignments from each teacher throughout. 
I am also wondering if there was an element of helping students see the value of the assignments or the solo work that I was expecting. 
One of the ways that I tried to maximize the time that students spoke
in class was to write common errors/reviews/examples/answered
questions on a blog.
I did not spend nearly as much time on this blog
as on the one that I had last year at this time (when I was certainly
blog crazy and might have believed that blogs were the panacea for any
and all ills).
Ohh the blog crazy days of 2007.
Haha, I have slightly fond memories of that. 
I felt that the blog was a useful way to save time and
to give student some links and ideas on how to study on their own. Of
the 13 students in the class 6 students left a comment over the whole
10 weeks.
I am not sure how important “leaving a comment” was to the whole process. Perhaps this was another issue, I wasn’t really sure how I wanted Ss to interact with the blog. 
Safely said, it was not heavily trafficked. Around the time
of the mid-term test there were more hits than the previous 2 weeks.
The tests at my school do not matter for anything. In fact, students
are unlikely to get their grades until after the course is finished.
I am thinking about the (lack of a)  link between the assessments and the instruction. Maybe the blog wasn’t seen as important until test time came up. 
Some students crammed for their exams and I could not help but wonder
why they didn’t study continuously throughout.
Fair point…but I can’t really understand why they studied so much for the exam! I guess perhaps even the sound “exam” strikes fear into the hearts of students even if the grade has no impact on their lives. 
One of the indelible images that I have from this job was a student
last term who was extremely lazy in and out of class cramming and
smoking in the freezing cold of December in Seoul.
Well, 2008 Mike, you were right about that image being indelible. You will be able to call it up at will in 2012. 
Anyway, last week I was having lunch with the class that I described
above. We were having a nice lunch while laughing and joking. The
subject of my blog came up and a few people praised it effusively.
They mentioned that K printed it out. I joked with K, who is studying
about E-business, online communities and the paperless office that he
of all people should not have printed out all the paper and destroyed
the environment.
Printing out the blog posts is still pretty funny to me. 
He loved the joke and came and talked to me. He told
me how much he enjoyed the class and that the blog was really useful.We talked for a while and finally it was time for him to offer advice.
I can vaguely recall this. I think he was trying to choose his words very carefully so as not to hurt my feelings. 
He was very polite and friendly with his advice so I tried my best not
to take it the wrong way. He said that the class and the blog were
very useful but I needed to make students study harder.
Wow…its seems like some expectations were not met. I feel like we had different concepts about what the role of the teacher in such a program. 
I mentioned the writing class and my simple 15 minute assignment that went undone the previous week.
 Interesting defense. I guess maybe I had an expectation that all the assignments *should be done and if not I might not ask for so many assignments. 
He went on to tell me that he liked me and my class but that I didn’t understand Korean students and that they need to be pushed to study.
Very interesting point. Is this “a Korean thing”? What  exactly? 
It seems to me that there might be a cultural element. I don’t really like to think of myself as a drill-master but perhaps in this group there were some students that would have preferred such an approach. 
The only thought that I have now in terms of what I might do differently would be to collect more feedback earlier and to try to get a clearer picture of the students needs and expectations. Maybe I could have been a bit stricter for those that wanted and needed it. I don’t know. 
I said that I wanted them to study the blog because
they wanted to be better at English. We a had a nice goodbye, but I
was left struggling to understand the best course of action.
Well 2008 Mike, if it is any consolation, you will completely forget about this confusion soon after the course. 
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11 comments

  1. mrchrisjwilson

    Hey Mike, this is actually a really interesting and timely post for me. I observed a sample class this week where the teacher was very tough and set test every week and vocabulary to be learnt between classes…at a summer school! Most kids come for fun but this teacher was having none of it. He then informed us that in the first week of every term he has high complaints and some students change teacher but the ones that do stay really learn and self study.
    I wondered about my own teaching during term time, do I really push students to learn, Do I force them to do the work and invest their time to learn.
    I know that many students have outside lives and are busy (both adults and teenagers within the private and state system) and I do feel that they should be able to make the choice. However, I also remember when I was a teenager floating along at maths and not really doing my homework, my grades of course started to drop. After a while my maths teacher spoke to my parents and I and pointed out that I wasn’t doing my homework and so my grades were dropping. They all forced me to do my homework and my grades shot back up. I really needed that push and was really glad to get it.
    Perhaps we need to demand higher 😉 of our students and not be afraid of pushing them more.
    (of course, I could just be reading what I’ve been thinking about into your words here)
    P.S. I love the response to 2008 Mike! Really nice idea.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Mr. Wilson,

      I hope all is well with you and that you are enjoying the camp! Looking back at my 2008 thoughts I also wondered about my 2012 self and how much I actually push students. Maybe not sooo much. I think I gently push them during the time we have class but leave a lot up to them outside of class. I think your example of an extra push being helpful is a very good one…and something I will keep in mind.

      Your story about the “demanding” teacher also offers a lot. I think that perhaps what works with some groups and some students might not work with others. Thanks again for sharing and take care!

      Cheers,
      Mike

  2. Vicky Loras

    Hi Mike!

    A great idea! Sometiems I wonder about the things I wrote back in 2009, when I started my blog (I cringe at some ; ) and I see how much I have changed in my teaching and thinking.

    Here it is really interesting to see a part of you in 2008 and your thoughts in 2012 – I see the enthusiasm you ahve now, then too! I like what you say about collecting feedback early on in the course. I do it as well and I see that it has completely transformed my teaching and my students’ learning.

    Super post!
    Vicky

    • mikecorea

      Hi Vicky! I thank you very much for the comments. I also thank you for the support (as ever). Much I appreciated. It is interesting to think about some things that I have improve on since 2008, as well as some areas I might have regressed.

      Looking forward to seeing a current era Vicky conversation with Vicky 2009!

      Thanks!

  3. Sophia

    Hi Mike. First, and probably most importantly, that last line made me laugh out loud. Second, and more ramblingly, this post struck a lot of chords with me. I always stress over end of course of feedback, and every time I teach I am refining and thinking ‘this time it’s better, this time I’ve got it right’ or ‘next time, if only I do this…’ blah blah blah etc. But what I’ve kind of come to believe over the years is that…it doesn’t really matter what we do. Hang on, did I mean to say that? I mean, yes, it matters what we do in that we should develop ourselves our teachers, we should look for better ways of reaching of people, for more effective use of classroom time. But at the end of the day, learning is about the learner and not the teacher. You can have your London Olympic Games opening ceremony of a lesson and someone will say that they were really looking for some more focused correction of their mistakes. Someone will always be really happy and someone will always be unhappy, in the exact same class. I think you make an important point about cultural differences, and the same also applies to individual learner preferences – your student sounded as if he was speaking for the whole class but probably wasn’t. But it’s still important to question whether our ‘way’ of doing things is the right way for our students. I’ve been wondering too if those of us who have been trained in a CLT type of framework are really ‘doing’ enough for our students. But like you I just don’t see myself as a tough talking ‘drill sergeant’ kind of teacher. Some people do this very well, and it suits them, but I’m sure I would be terrible at it. Everyone has their own vision of themselves as a teacher and their own beliefs about the teaching and learning context and I guess I believe there are as many types of teacher as there are types of student – sometimes styles mesh well, sometimes not so much, and that’s life. I also wonder why I am working so hard to get adults to do things outside class if they don’t want to or can’t be arsed. Personally, if my French teacher asks me to do some kind of homework I do it, even if I think it’s a bit lame, because to me that’s respectful of what the teacher is trying to do for me, but not everyone feels like that, or maybe they have ‘personal stuff’ going on, or maybe the homework set is just to lame and life is too short. Dunno. When experimenting in this area I did have some success with homework that the students were really accountable for (eg: pairwork song presentations where they had to lead the class, introduce the artist, set a task, listen, check the task, do some detailed work on vocab and message in song) although I did have to set classtime to make sure they were really doing the prep and really understood that they were really going to lead the class. And problem of mild-mannered Korean girls presenting a Hillsong song, followed by Czech dude’s punk-rage-swear-fest song. But anyway, I’m not really sure where I am going with this rambling comment, sorry about that. But thanks for making me thing about a few things.

    • mikecorea

      🙂 I am glad you laughed! I had a good time writing it.

      I loved your response here. You thanked me for giving you something to think about and I shall do the same. Thanks!

      You wrote, “at the end of the day, learning is about the learner and not the teacher.” Very important to keep in mind.

      You also wrote, ‘I believe there are as many types of teacher as there are types of student – sometimes styles mesh well, sometimes not so much, and that’s life” and this is something that really speaks to me.

      Sometimes it is a tough lesson but we can’t’ please everyone all the time.

      I am often reminded of the story I heard (somewhere) of a language school owner that always made sure the bathrooms were disgusting so that students would have a clear focus of something to complain about.

      You mentioned giving homework that students are accountable for..and I think this is a great point. In my story above I suppose I just assumed that my awesome (?) notes were enough to get people actively involved. Hmm.

      Thanks again and “talk” to you soon,
      mg

  4. Sophia

    Can i just PS to that ramble?? Of course it matters what we do (thinking of @purple_steph’s violin post and @MrChrisJWilson’s experience). We can totally be the right teacher and the right time…or the wrong teacher…I’m thinking more globally I guess, of sts who learn in the worst of circumstances and sts who don’t really care despite Ts who do all they can…end ramble, really this time.

    • mikecorea

      Not a ramble! Well.. in any case, very useful and helpful and I thoroughly appreciated. I think that there can be a tendency of teachers to think that they are the only important component to students’ learning but that it clearly not the case, as you suggest w/ students learning in the worst circumstances and others not so much with teachers doing all they can. I think this is a very valuable thought. Part of my response to 2008 Mike might be, “Chill out a bit, you did what you could and it was really effective for some students.” Thanks again!

      Please note that rambling is highly encouraged here at “ELTrantsreviewsreflections”

  5. Pingback: Talking to myself about learner autonomy « ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  6. joannamalefaki

    Hi Mike,
    I really enjoyed reading this post! You did get me thinking about a few things.
    1. What was I doing during the blog craze (where on earth was I in 2007?). Also, I have never asked my students to answer blog posts and have never used them in class. Were/are they effective?
    2. Getting feedback earlier in a course. Great point. I think that needs to be done throughout a course. When I was teaching EAP in Bristol, students had to write journal entries about how they thought the course was going, what they thought about their progress etc. I learnt a lot about what they thought of my teaching (apparently I gave too much homework!) and how they felt about their English. I think I am going to get sts to do that a bit more this summer.
    Once again, great post!!
    🙂
    Joanna

    • mikecorea

      Hi Joanna,

      Thanks for the comments. I am glad you enjoyed this (strange?) post and glad I shared it.

      I can’t say my blog for students idea was super successful but I can say it was a nice chance for me to feel ok with not spending so much time planning but rather on the language that emerged or didn’t in class. I know some students got a lot out of the blog but I also know some didn’t. I feel that part of the problem was that there was not much room for students to engage in what was posted there. I didn’t ask them to show me any understanding or do anything with the notes. All in all I think it was good.

      As for getting feedback earlier I agree with you about the idea of collecting throughout the course (and even each class). I like this sort of informal way of communicating through journals. Sometimes I think it can be tricky to determine if the journals are for feedback or reflection or working though things or… other things but I generally love the idea.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. It was fun to share these old posts from an even longer time ago.

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