Friday, October 7, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Yesterday I had the privilege of going back to UCT to run one of the English Method sessions. I had been tasked with doing some creative stuff with writing and talking about the methodology behind teaching students to write as well as basic planning.

I'm not going to bore you with the finer details of what happened, but I will say simply that I had the most wonderful time. It was very interesting for me to be on the other side of PGCE again. I ran a session earlier in the year, but that was more looking at what to expect on Teaching Practice and answering queries. Yesterday was about methodology and how to approach this thing we call 'teaching English'. I ran through a little exercise that I came up with and I talked through the approaches one can take when undertaking the exercise. It was most refreshing not to be asked 'Is this for marks' for once! It was a particularly rewarding experience for me to run through the activity as reflectively as I did, because it forced me to re-evaluate and justify everything I was doing. Fortunately, I'm still happy with the approach I took and the students who I was teaching didn't have any negative criticism about it either, which I think is a good sign.

After going through the writing stuff and talking about it, we did a session on planning. Luckily, Nigel had had a few teachers in to talk to us about planning last year, and so I had some idea about how to manage the session. I did put my own spin on it a little bit, but most of the groundwork had been done for me. I think perhaps I should have pointed this out to the students. Throughout my 'presentation' I emphasised that teachers need to be collaborative with each other so that the very best content and methodology is used more often in more places. I don't think that it's vain for one teacher to say to another, 'Here's an activity I used and it worked really well. Use it if you like.' This process can lead to a lot of 'peer-reviewing'--for want of a better phrase--and can be tremendously beneficial. There is a risk of some people feeling threatened or sensitive when a colleague criticises their work, but this is something that has to be gotten over. It is only through critique and editing that ideas can be honed and perfected--if ever anything in teaching can be perfected.

The planning session proved to be very beneficial to the students, because it is a real application of their minds to a task which, I presume, many had not really thought about. The Teaching Practice environment is one that is isolated from what real teaching is, because one has to teach things that might already have been started, and one usually has to fit into a plan that already exists. The idea of simply having a list of necessary tasks and subject content that needs to be covered within a time frame does not quite filter through here even though it is such an integral part of what one does when one is teaching full time. It was interesting to see the various approaches the groups took to planning their term structures. Some wanted to go for regular sessions where the class covers either language or creative writing once a week. Others debated whether it is necessary to introduce permeating topics before one begins to teach a set work, or whether it is more prudent to do so after the class has gotten into the novel a bit more. We also spoke about reading at home and whether or not students actually respond to the expectations of their teachers when they are asked to do a good portion of the reading at home.

This term I have chosen to get my 8s to read The Hobbit largely at home and then we have done peripheral activities in class. This saves me having to read through the book during lessons, which many students find incredibly boring, and gives me more time to do more in depth work on the novel itself. That being said, I'm sure that the weaker students have found this a bit of a tough ask and I will have to make a very careful assessment of where the students are at the beginning of next term to see whether my less intensive approach has worked or not. As I pointed out many times yesterday, I'm also learning and hope to continue learning for as long as I am in this career.

We ran out of time towards the end, so I had to rush through my schpiel about being able to push the boundaries of what is expected of one. Even within a rigid framework like a term plan, there are still areas with which one can exercise creativity. We talked about how language and writing can easily be integrated with each other and I talked briefly about looking to overlap things. With The Hobbit, the students were required to write an informal letter to a friend while pretending to be a troll who was upset by the portrayal of trolls in the novel. With this exercise, the set work, informal letter writing and language all overlapped to form a combined assessment. The students loved it and generated some really wonderful stuff and I think that if this type of activity can be done more often, we should see very pleasing results. I finally rushed through my approach to unprepared orals:

  • Generate a list of 30 random topics (some examples: Interesting uses for earwax; It was pink, fluffy and smelled vaguely of cinnamon
  • Sit at the computer (or print out the list) and ask students to call out a number.
  • Whatever number they choose they speak about. They have a minute to prepare.
  • It's a good idea to give the next student his or her topic before the person before them has to speak so that they have the time to prepare without having to wait for a minute each time.
My experience with using this approach has been that my students really do enjoy the random topics and they are able to come up with some really entertaining stuff. I do think that I need to do some more conventional stuff at one point so that we can test whether their ability to speak spontaneously has improved or not.

The response from the English Method students was very positive and I hope that I've been able to make them feel a bit more comfortable with the journey upon which they are about to embark. I know that not all of them will become teachers and even those who do might not stay in the profession for long, but if I got them to think differently about things, then I achieved something.

If you were one of the students from that English Method session who have chosen to follow this blog, firstly, thank you. I am deeply honoured that you care about what I have to say. Secondly, if you have any feedback from the session, good or bad, please let me know. I've explained how I feel about criticism :)


  1. Hi Shaun

    What I love about planning as a teacher is that it means SO many different things, depending on your subject and who you are!

    The thing I've found useful in my first year of teaching is to "steal" other people's methods of preparation on and off throughout the year. I've obviously tried quite a few things of my own, but looking over someone else's shoulder (borrowing and adapting their slides, using their worksheets for a change, asking them how they're planning on teaching x y or z) has been stupendously helpful...

    Also a great time saver and stuff-up preventer!


  2. As the 'Nigel' referred to Shaun's article, I have to say that after he had left the English Method class, the students were hugely appreciative of what he had done with them. More important than that, however, was their realisation that teaching methods that don't simply reinforce the current, often entirely unsuccessful, methods, can in fact work, and do result in students really learning about English for the first time. Any good method produces students whose world has changed, even in the tiniest ways. To be able to read just a little more sensitively or thoughtfully; to write with just a little more self-confidence; indeed, to find English lessons becoming the highlight of the day are all indications of successful teaching, and that means the use of imaginative and successful methods.

    I need hardly say that Shaun has been remarkable in this respect. His beliefs about teaching are reflected in the way he teaches. But for me, as someone who has spent his life working with teachers, and hoping above all else that they avoid the 'grey lizard' status, what marks Shaun as a seriously good teacher is his overwhelming enthusiasm, and his genuine love of teaching.

    'Grey lizards' by the way, are those teachers who drearily drag their way through the teaching day, teaching in the same old way they have taught for years, who sit in staff rooms moaning about students and about marking and about doing any kind of real work at all. They are the kind of teacher who is quick to try to disabuse students on teaching practice of their enthusiasm for the profession. One of their favourite tropes, usually presented with a snort of derision, is 'Once you've being teaching for a while, you lose all that enthusiasm.' They have to say that, because such students present a very real threat to their own submission to the dull, the bland, the quick way out, and above all, to the utterly unimaginative way they teach. Such teachers do more damage to students than they can ever know. Shaun is the antithesis of such teachers, and he, and many other teachers like him, alone educate our school students into becoming men and women of self-confidence, imagination, and a deep respect of learning, of, primarily, of themselves.

    Well done, Shaun. I hope this blog gets read by all the right people
    Nigel Bakker