Two quick (and cool?) location-based ideas I’ve never really done

I think about space and location in the classroom a lot. One thing I often consider is about where I place myself in the room as a teacher and what it means. I know it is a no-no in some contexts but when I am sitting down it usually means I am taking notes one what students say. When I am at the board I am certain to be sharing incredibly important language-related knowledge. When I am front and center I am probably giving instructions on the next activity. These are habits and trends that I have fallen into. I suspect students pick up on them and sort of realize this is how Mike rolls and this is how it goes in class. I have not been explicit about this. It’s just what tends to happen. Lately I have been toying with the idea of being more explicit and making more considered choices but also trying out some new and different ideas.

The first idea, and one I’ve never really done (1)  is to set up and announce that when I am in one specific area of the room I am talking about really important sheet and people need to listen up when I am in this area. I’d only use it for the most important things ever like assignments and the moments of brilliant lucidity regarding the English language that invariably come out of my mouth when I have a board marker in my hand. I am imagining carving out a very important space in the first week of classes and making sure I utilize it at least once per class. I am slightly concerned about the implication that when I am not standing in this zone what I have to say is not so important. While that is likely the case I have a slight concern this system might devalue the rest of my blathering.  

This term I am teaching a course called “Professional Communications.” You might know it by such names as “Business English.” One thing we are playing around with focusing on very professionally in class is register and formal language. I think I am seeing students having a hard time distinguishing between when they should use the regular (casual and semi-academic) English they might usually use to communicate with classmates. While it could certainly be a related to task design, teaching skills and my very casual nature I think part of it relates to the “Now we are using professional language switch” not really getting flicked on or  maybe taking some time to settle into this mood and mode. My idea for this is, and I think it is not too late in the term, is to designate an area in the room as the “professional talk area.” When students are there they’d be expected to use the the most professional and businesslike language they have at their disposal. My thought is that by moving to a designated space it might help clearly show what sort of language is expected and act as a constant reminder. While I have never done this (2) I am keen to try it out and see how it goes.

Okay, those are my two possibly cool ideas related to space and place in class. Any ideas to add? Any experiences with something similar? Any tips, concerns, or caveats for mine?

Notes: 

(1) I actually did something vaguely similar in a presentation one time. I’m not really sure if it had any impact at all. I have no idea why I’ve never done it with a class.

(2) One similar thing I’ve done was to use the metaphor of “hats” when asking  participants on teacher training courses to discuss things.  The idea is that sometimes it’s helpful to think as a student/active participant in a lesson or session and then sometimes helpful to think as a teacher. Sometimes it can be hard to know where we are and in what way we *should be thinking and what we are basing our thoughts upon.  So, on some courses we say “OK now it is time to put on your teacher hat.” This can be taken a step further with the creation of actual literal tangible paper hats so the distinction can be even clearer.

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14 comments

  1. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,
    It was in the second paragraph when you said: ‘… when I am in one specific area of the room I am talking about really important sheet and people need to listen up when I am in this area’. At this point I rubbed my hands together happily and was about to tell you what you actually said yourself a few lines later: ‘I am slightly concerned about the implication that when I am not standing in this zone what I have to say is not so important’. Am I reading your mind or are you reading mine?
    Anyway, I think the “professional talk area” is a great idea. I’ll definitely try something similar; I believe that this might be easily adjusted to anything.
    I also have specific routines regarding my location in the classroom. I’d add that when the students are writing a test, I deliberately go to the back of the room where I can easily check on everybody. The best thing is that they can’t easily check on me and thus take the advantage of me not paying attention 100% (sneaky me). This, I hope, reduces cheating, or at least the students’ attempts to copy answers from their neighbors.
    All in all, a very nice post.
    Hana

    • mikecorea

      Hello Hana,
      I surely smiled when I saw this. I cannot be sure who is the mind reader and who is having their mind read. I am glad that you noticed a potential problem with my plan before I did. Although I am not really doing it I still have some attachment to this idea. My current thought is that it is fine and natural and normal to have some things that are more important to say than others and maybe considering these (as well as how to convey our message) can be important. I will be sure to let you know if I do end up doing the zone idea!
      Thanks for sharing your test routine/location as well. Very clever. 🙂
      Thanks also for reading and commenting.

  2. Rob Dickey

    Once again, some neat ideas for reflection from Mike.

    Here’s my take on them.

    1. Space. I’ll respectfully disagree with the idea of identifying zones for usages. I do opposite. At least once most semesters I will teach from the back (or at least start from there, and stay there a good portion of class). I may spend time in the middle. I can work two sides and front of the room. I sit in (on?) windowsills. Why? Life and work is not ‘safe’ and ‘stable’, not even for a bureaucrat safely ensconced at his(her) desk. Same for note-taking: few bosses will hand out lecture notes or prepare and make available a full powerpoint at meetings. Students need to develop these work-skills, multitasking while in English, change and fluidity, etc. There Korean profs who read from a book or their powerpoints are not fostering these skills.

    2. Hats. I have used this metaphor as you do, with a scale on the board from slang through casual/informal to formal. I use quick board drawings of a ‘backwards baseballcap’ and a tophat (think Monopoly man) for the extremes. (The first appearance of the tophat needs a tuxedo image — I think Monopoly Man, they think Charlie Chaplin or an English gentleman.) I also refer to a (neck)tie, and that beomes a quick reference to ‘more formal)’. Since I wear a tie in class, a quick stroking or point to my tie indicates they they should consider the formality of language.

    • mikecorea

      Great response, Rob.
      I think you make some great points about how safe and stable real life is. I like your emphasis on change and fluidity.
      I suppose it is about finding a balance between prep for real life and finding workable routines for class. I think the change and fluidity aspects can be manifested in many different ways as well.

      I might to start wearing a tie! That is a great move. A nice and clear way to indicate formality. Thinking about my class today I feel I might have spent a bit more time than I’d have liked to talking about what level of formality we are looking for at each stage. Thanks for the ideas on this!

      By the way, I shuddered for a moment when thinking about the reading ppts or straight from a book. Yikes.

      Have a great time at TESOL!

  3. livinglearning

    I taught a not very successful business English class in the summer one year. One of the things that made it less successful was my difficulty expressing to the students when to use formal language and when to speak more casually. I’m not a particularly formal person at the best of times so I wasn’t a good model for this.

    I imagine having a I’m-saying-something-important corner would have me thinking oh-wait-i-have-to-stand-over-there-to-say-this and rushing over, focusing more on where I should be than what I should say (which I’ve forgotten by that point anyway). I hope the experiment works out better for you.

    That said, I think designated areas for language would draw students’ attention to it and I also like the non-verbal cues Robert mentioned.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks Anne,

      I had a similar image of the racing to the “very important corner” and lots of pausing while I found my way there. Somehow later it doesn’t seem like the most productive use of class time, but at the same time I am thinking there is something to the idea of deciding what stuff we say would possibly be deemed the critical stuff and what stuff is otherwise. Maybe, maybe this might lead to thinking about how to make the critical stuff more clear and might also impact how we say the non-critical stuff. Just a thought though.

      Oh hey, I just remembered something I did last year with future translators with my seating. Somehow I didn’t think of it whilst writing the post. Depending on where I sat in the room I had a different mission. In one seat I was attentively listening for English confusions, in another I was just talking to them as a person and engaging in conversation and in another I was doing more (?) teacherly things like explaining stuff.

      I think this was pretty effective because when i was in the conversation seat and I asked a question they were sure it wasn’t some kind of BS teacher secret feedback but was actually just some dude asking a question.

      I feel like I have noticed a lot of times when teachers talk to students, the latter tend to think most of what is being said is feedback on performance. I think this is easy enough to get away from and one step of this for me in that particular class was a new seat.

      Instead of keeping my ramble going I will now respond to what you have written here. I think your point about formal language and teachers perhaps not expressing when to use formal language and when to speak casually is a good one. Cuz, you know, sometimes we are just people talking about stuff and sometimes we are students pretending to be businesspeople or something. It can be tricky for sure.

      Thanks so much for the comments and for the chance to think more about this.

  4. Neida

    Hi Mike,
    I like your idea using metaphor to active students in a lesson. Conversely, I think you should include board drawing like Rob suggestion, especially thinking about the visual students. Talking about a specific place in the room, I’m sorry I don’t have a specific routine about it, sometimes I’m in the middle or from back and I never sit during the classes.
    I love your reflections, thanks.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Neida,
      It is very niece to see you here. I appreciate the comments. I am glad that you liked these reflections. I was worried they might not be useful or interesting to anyone else. My current thought is that it is nice to have a clear idea of what we are doing and where we are doing it. I believe it can be easy to fall into a routine without ever really deciding why we do these things. I think this fits into Rob’s comments a bit as well. Thanks again for the comments and maybe let me know if you discover something new!

  5. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    Here’s my invaluable sheet to add:
    Your idea makes me think more or less about academic writing and that arguments need support. Perhaps in one area of the room, students are allowed to make claims and discuss issues just from an opinionated point-of-view (i.e. without actual evidence but conjecture or speculation or feelings). Then in a different part of the room, they have to back up their claims with evidence. Maybe this evidence comes from texts we’ve been through thoroughly. Maybe it’s from outside sources they’ve found.

    I like it, but wonder if the latter part of the room would be empty much of the time. I think we’d have to make it a rotation type of activity.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Tyson! It is very nice to see you share your invaluable sheet here. I like how this location idea can be used in different contexts. I like the EAP flavour of it. My thought as I read your comment was that maybe it is great for one corner/area to only be used a little bit as that might make it fresh and new and serious while it happens.

      By the way, today in class I had a perfect chance to use the location idea I mentioned but I passed on it. We’d already had a lot of moving and a lot of random/strange ideas put forth from the teacher. Maybe next time.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  6. Sandy Millin

    Hi Mike,
    Reading this a few weeks down the line from when you wrote it, I wonder whether you’ve tried any of these things?
    One of my favourite things to do with groups I’ve been teaching for a little while it to stand outside the room while they work together on a particular task, especially if it involves them agreeing on answers on the board, or creating some kind of puzzle/quiz for me. If I’m not in the room, they can’t consult me all the time, so are more likely to work together. I stand outside and eavesdrop, but can never hear clearly, just enough to know if they’re still on task and speaking English! It normally works pretty well 🙂
    Sandy

    • mikecorea

      Commenting a few months later, I can say that I have not really done either. I did try to make things more clear when I was making a correction or simply talking. I did ask students to move around to new spots in the (big) room when I wanted to simulate something like a formal business meeting. I didn’t stick with that same location always being the serious/formal talk zone but I did try to change the mindset on a specific day and say like “when we go there we are in formal mode.” Thanks very much for the important questions and for reading!

  7. Pingback: I might not have been around much, but these awesome posts were. | 4C in ELT

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