What was going on? And what should I/could I do about it?
My razor-sharp mind soon (after a few years) noticed a few things:
1. students need to be told what to do
2. they try to blend in with the group, try not to stand out
3. they are afraid of making mistakes.
4. they seem bored of school (even if they just got here)
5. many of them shuffle along, like prisoners shuffling between their cell and the exercise yard.
At first, I searched for socio-cultural explanations:
* this is Japan
* in Japan, the group rules
* people are shy (afraid of the retribution of the group, what they call “the eyes of others” hito no me ひとの目）
* high school education focuses on passing entrance exams, not teaching communicative English.
* break up the group into pairs, threesomes, quartets
* tell them exactly what to do and make them all do it together (no-one stands out, then, no-one’s in the spotlight)
* focus on communicative English
* get them out of their desks and moving around
I used a dramatic story written by some friends of mine. That seemed to work more successfully than other textbooks or approaches, tho it was not perfect.
* students enjoyed learning real (as opposed to “exam”) English
* they gradually relaxed and became more spontaneous (their movements opened up, speeded up, became less inhibited).
I used this in some classes, but I also taught other subjects with many of the same students. So I developed another strategy, together with a colleague:
* provide a variety of materials and activities (this includes demonstrating them)
* let students choose materials and/or activities
* make the goal the creation of a portfolio of work which students must present at the end of the semester
* include materials that contain communicative English
* provide self-study materials, i.e. materials that are self-explanatory, that include the answers, e.g. listening cloze exercises that with the answers in a separate file, an SRA reading kit
* provide materials that are fun to use, that don’t seem like highschool study, e.g. games (Cluedo, Scrabble, Crazy Eights, Pictionary), movies on DVD (so they can switch between English and Japanese subtitles), popular songs, etc
This worked OK with some students: about a third. The rest didn’t understand it:
* what am I supposed to do?
* why do I have to make all these choices?
* it looks like the teachers are just goofing off
* then I’ll goof off, too
* no-one seems to care
* no-one’s watching me or standing over me making me do stuff? Then I’ll just go to sleep or maybe sneak out when no-one’s watching…
How did I know?
* by observing students in class
* by talking to some students in class (one muttered under his breath “Why’s he bugging me with all these questions?”)
* through written feedback (tho this was hard to come by; students did not understand why I needed their feedback, “This dude seems real insecure about his teaching…”)
* by the number of nearly empty portfolios at semester’s end
(To be continued)