A personal misfire as an observer–revisited

Last year I wrote about my personal misfires as an observer. Through the miracle of modern technology (mostly related to storage drives) I was able to recover some notes from one of my first observations back in 2008. The scene was an intensive English institute attached to a university in Seoul.  As this was an assignment there were certain questions I was supposed to answer. An early example of this is probably my mention of pace.

This is part of my attempt to participate in the 5 posts in 5 days #blogathon suggested by Tyson. 
(In case you are wondering, the spell check suggested spelling change for “blogathon” is “bloodbath”)
(The first entry, also related to 5 years ago, is here.) 

What follows is snippets of my notes and some comments/observations/thoughts from myself in 2013 (in blue): 

The class that I observed had some familiar faces as three of the fifteen students are previous students of mine. I had also observed this class a few times already with different instructors so I knew a little bit about the students. This monolingual Korean class was comprised of quite a mix of students in terms of age, experience, English ability and motivation for learning. Of the fifteen students, there were ten college students taking a break from school for a semester or year. There were four men in their forties and fifties, in the back right corner, sent by their employers to study English. Interesting to note how much I added from my background info that I had from teaching the class and not what I saw during the class I observed.  There was also one woman in her thirties who is between jobs. I do not know for certain, but it would be a safe assumption that all the students were or will be university educated. For the most part, the students are highly motivated. Two of the students that I know are in their second round of twenty weeks! In my current teaching situation there are eleven levels. The class that I observed was 2A, which means they are just a shade below the middle. The textbooks that they use are listed as high-beginner to pre-intermediate. I would say that they are more towards the beginner side than intermediate.   The fact that this lesson occurred in the seventeenth of twenty weeks is important because they had been receiving thirty hours of English instruction for seventeen weeks already. Lotta class time. I should also mention that these students had tons of hours of class time before joining the intensive English program. Often, part of the reason they joined the program is because they weren’t satisfied with their level or progress to date and used the program as a sort of jump start. 

The lesson that I observed was part of the “Practical English” course which is meant to be a four-skills course mostly focused on speaking with an emphasis on accuracy. I still have no idea what Practical English is supposed to mean. I know that it surely means different things to different people. The primary focus of this particular lesson was speaking and using the lexis from the book effectively. Weird feelings about using the term lexis. I wonder what “effectively” means here. There was also a short time devoted to reading a passage from the text which was related to the topic of honestly and provided more vocabulary. There were not really noticeable changes of pace but there were mostly two fifteen-minute discussions with a bit of feedback and the aforementioned reading mixed in. I’d love to know exactly what the feedback was and how it was delivered as well how it was related to the aims. The instructor set the stage and gave the students ample time to practice with the material. The goals of the lesson were very much driven by what was in the textbook. The instructor provided and explained a series of questions for the students to work on in groups of three. That word “explaining” jumps out at me. What does that mean?  The students did the majority of talking but I felt that the teacher talked a bit more than necessary. Judgey. My biggest concern was how the teacher handled student questions. I got the sense that he was extremely focused on meeting his lesson objectives that it caused him to disregard student questions and just plow ahead. I can see my beliefs, which I still hold, about dealing with student questions/confusions as being extremely important playing a role in what I saw and how I saw it here. “Just plow ahead” sounds quite different than “maintain focus” or something like that.  A poignant example was how the phrase “sugar coat” was handled. He asked if anyone knew the meaning and then asked some useful concept checking questions. One previously shy student mentioned something about drugs and was promptly shut down. I felt that if the instructor had taken the time to consider the question, he might have found a good way for the students to commit this phrase to memory. I sugar coated this point in our post observation discussion, but I think that it would have been very helpful for him to ease off his lesson plan and teach the students rather than the lesson. Nice wordplay aside, I wonder how easy it was for the teacher to see what it might actually look like to teach the students and not the lesson. This is to say that hearing “teach the students and not the plan” is probably not the most helpful sentence for an observee to hear. 

I would have thought that the above incident would do a great deal to raise the *cough affective filter but the students and particularly the student involved did not seem to mind at all. Interesting.  The students generally plugged along and did everything that was asked of them, even when they were not entirely sure about what they should be doing. Sadly, this made me question the importance of a teacher. Happily! Question away, young(er) man.  Perhaps because of the long hours of the course, the students were warmed-up and ready to speak English without much prompting. They were very much on task throughout the lesson. They asked questions when they didn’t understand and helped each other with the material.  Sounds great to me. ‘Tis interesting to think about the standards that we bring with us when we watch another teacher’s class. I remember being particularly troubled by this teacher doing a lot of things that I wouldn’t do. I am happy to have since realized that it is not about me at all.  The students also seemed to incorporate phrases and grammar that they heard in other classes into their conversations. I was especially pleased and perhaps a bit proud when one of my former students basically shouted, “Honesty is the best policy!” Apparently a phrase that had been learned in my class. The students were able to link the phrases that they had been talking about to their daily lives. One good example of this was when a student who was absent the previous class was given many personal and helpful examples of white lies from her peers. I was very impressed with the students in many regards. I thought the class atmosphere was excellent and attributed it more to the time spent together and the personalities of the students rather than anything specifically done by the instructor. Hmm, giving the students most of the credit. Interesting thought. 

While the students spent a great deal (How much exactly is a great deal?)  of the fifty minute lesson asking and answering conversation questions from the final chapter of Top Notch 2 with their partners, there was not much explicit feedback. Between speaking tasks the instructor highlighted the differences between “My mother says I don’t have to wear a miniskirt” and “My mother says I can’t wear a miniskirt.” I thought that these few minutes were very useful because the confusion was something that came from the students and he gave examples that made things very clear. I hoped that the students would be given a chance to practice these distinctions but the difference was just highlighted. There were a few examples of corrections that could best be described as “offhand” and it was not clear if the students knew that they were being corrected or if the teacher was simply recasting what they said. I am willing to admit that I have a bit of bias because I have taught similar courses previously but I felt that the students would have benefited from a greater focus on error correction. When students were in groups he did what I felt was a good job to help students along with their speaking. He did this by having them repeat certain things or repeating what they said correctly to a certain point and having them finish the sentence. This seemed affective. Effective. 🙂  These errors might have been forgotten by the teacher and student because neither seemed to make a note of the errors. I thought that a greater focus on errors would have been beneficial.

I felt that the course’s focus on accuracy was not realized because the students spent so much time in their small groups and there was not much effort to help students notice features of the target language. Watching this lesson caused me to reconsider some of my beliefs about teaching. Great… Nice one. I guess it was a useful experience for me as a teacher, but perhaps not so much as a helper to the observed teacher.  I always say that if the students are talked a lot it was a good lesson. Then, this should have been a good lesson because the students spent a great deal of time speaking. They seemed to enjoy themselves and they walked away with a few phrases that they otherwise would have been unlikely to encounter. I am beginning to wonder if I have been overestimating the teacher’s role. More likely is that I have been overestimating what is needed to make a good lesson.

Although I sort of called myself out a bit for some comments here I think I was relatively even-keeled as I distinctly remember being quite frustrated as an observer. I felt like the teacher was “doing it wrong.” I think I even felt urges to intervene. I am happy I have developed patience for lessons that don’t match the ideal in my mind. Avoiding that is one of the biggest changes in my observation style. Another is that I am much more specific these days. Instead of saying “a long time” I like to think that I would include how many minutes. Of course that would have done no good at all. With the passage of time, I can see how much my beliefs on teaching impacted what I expected and thus what I saw. Thank goodness for digital storage as I enjoyed the walk down memory lane. Thanks for reading. 

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2 comments

  1. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    Cool. I love reflection (and commentary). When I observe, I like to keep track of from when to when this activity happened or the teacher led the class or the students were given to think. A lot of the time I doubt we realise how long (or more likely little) time is spent doing one thing or the other. I rarely, now, have the urge to intervene though I used to. I try to accept that unless the atmosphere is tense, the students are getting something they need from any lesson with any teacher. And that teacher too is learning from what they are doing and how the students are responding. When I meet with these teachers later, I’d rather hear what they think (if honest and critical) about the class than me list off critiques.

    Great read, Mike.

    PS – the last comment after paragraph 3 says “The students were”

    • mikecorea

      Hi Tyson,

      I think I thanked your for the headsup on the sentence to nowhere. If not, thanks! If so, thanks again.
      I am just now recovering from the 5 posts in 5 days madness. Good fun though.
      (I actually think I went 6 for 6).

      Your approach to observing sounds quite similar to mine. A training friend summed it up quite nicely by saying something like “I need another set of eyes, not another brain.”

      I liked your point that, you “try to accept that unless the atmosphere is tense, the students are getting something they need from any lesson with any teacher.” I think this is something to keep in mind.I think it was especially true in the situation in my post, where students were there for hours and hours every day so one less than great lesson was not going to make or break their English studies.

      Luckily the urge to intervene in lessons observed has left me. That was not a happy place.

      Thanks so much for the comments and support. It makes this sort of post all the more fun and interesting.

      Cheers,
      Mike

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