ESL and extensive reading, and the absolutely horrible day

A post by EFL Geek about extensive reading and a comment from Dan prompted me to not only write a comment in reply, but to review my teaching day. It was bloody awful! It made me feel that, yes, institutional education is an oxymoron, and the morons are all in the institutions! (Including me). Perhaps institutions by their nature and purpose create a certain mindset in students, and it is next to impossible to change this (as John Holt attested in his experiences in elementary school all those years ago). My experience today made me seethe with envy when I read AJ’s latest, the lucky bastard.

Here’s an excerpt from notes I took during class (a task I had set myself for this week is to spend more time observing what students are actually doing, rather than what I think they are doing, or what they are suPPosed to be doing):
Today, I have 9 students out of 19 registered. 2 girls and 7 boys.
I have just given them an assignment: in pairs to practice reading aloud to each other a short summary of a scene of dialogue they have mastered, until they can say it smoothly. Then one partner covers the text and simply listens and repeats after his/her partner. Then they change round. This is the 4th time we have done this kind of activity, and I have made it plain each time that the purpose is to be able to say it quickly and with a minimum of errors.

Snapshot: 2 girls are talking together in Japanese, sometimes glancing at the text. Are they talking about it?
1 boy is slumped across his desk, inert, and apparently not doing anything. His partner his looking at his paper, just reading it.
Background classical music is playing, to create a sound “screen” so that pairs can talk freely without feeling inhibited, like BGM in restaurants. But today, the music seems to only hide the deafening silence of 8 people NOT speaking English (I can hear one boy’s voice speaking the lines from the narrative.) What are the others doing? I can’t tell, and when I approach them, of course, all of a sudden they are speaking English (I use the term loosely)….Someone is outside the slightly open door at the back of the room, beside the 2 girls and talking to them. I cannot see who it is. One girl looks at her partner, then at her watch, then talks to the person outside, apparently telling them how much longer there is to go.

We are now in week 4 of the semester. The previous 8 classes (two a week) I have been training them to use the materials (the dialogues and the extended drills and activities of my own devising). This training involves reminding them that the purpose of this class is to help them improve their English communication skills, which means (believe it or not) getting better at actually using the language. To improve in this regard, what do we need to do? (Deafening silence). That’s right! Practice USING the language. I gave them all a test in the first week which gave me (and them) a rough idea of their level in terms of hours of practice and study they have had. I used these results to reinforce the purpose of the class: to have their speaking and listening scores improve by the end of the semester. How are you going to do that? (Deafening silence). That’s right! Lots of hours of listening and speaking practice. I spent the following weeks drilling them in the use of the materials, how they are to be used, how to get the most out of them and maximize their chances of success.

So today I was lying low, trying to see what they would do without me conducting the orchestra. Obviously a premature move.

[Perhaps another reason I was lying low was I was low on energy due to spending time tidying up my room and my office, with help from this very helpful book, which is actually making the process fun and interesting. Don Aslett taught me how to make the most of spare moments of time, and Barbara Hemphill taught me a simple but effective filing system which I still use, and the software version. But neither of those made more than a dent in the disorder I live in perpetually. Dave Allen’s book helped me see why.]

I suppose one can excuse those students, and me (hey! These days nothing is ever anybody’s fault apparently, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!”) by pointing to the culture of testing which is rampant in this country (as anywhere I suppose these days). A high-stakes testing culture, as Mark Chapman pointed out to me recently, has negative impact on learning strategies and motivation. Perhaps these students have been so brainwashed by all this, they see everything in terms of passing tests. I wonder what they would answer if I asked them, “If I guaranteed you will pass this class but that you won’t learn anything, and learning something is absolutely not necessary for passing this course, would you be happy with that?”

Or perhaps they’re just not interested in learning English and that’s all there is to it. In which case, they shouldn’t be here. And neither should I. Is this a koan? Master: “Is today a good day? If you answer yes I will hit you. If you answer no I will hit you! Why?” Student: “Because you’re crazy. And I’m crazy for being here!”

Today was not a fun day, tho writing this has taken the edge of it. Thank you for reading. Please leave a donation as you go out.

4 thoughts on “ESL and extensive reading, and the absolutely horrible day”

  1. A really bad day this is. You’re right, we’ve all been there, we all know the highs and lows of teaching.
    Honestly, Marco, this is a mess and I think you know that you’ve got to sort it out. You’ve started with your desk and your office (BTW, I do the same) and time has now come to move on to the bigger and more complex issues. Knowing that there’s no perfect solution makes things a bit more difficult. I’m sure you know what next as you have already started to walk down that path. Keep going. Best wishes.

  2. Don’t give up on the learners yet. We can’t reach everyone, and sometimes we can’t reach anyone, but sometimes there is a person or people who help me get through. Like on Monday, when one student went off on two of his group-mates for talking while I was talking. He wanted to hear what I was saying and couldn’t. Then there are the international students and non-traditional students. They are priceless for keeping my spirits up.

    These are the positive experiences, which I hope you have sometimes, too. My other strategy is setting standards. My job is to expend all of the positive options that I have for engaging students, and then, for those who refuse to be reached, to let them know that another part of my job is to certify that they know a minimum standard of language. If they are not ready to comply with that standard, then they will not receive credit for the class.

    That makes more work for me, because I have to make clear standards and evaluate my students and myself frequently, but at the end of the day, at least I don’t feel the only recourse is to give up.

    We are dedicated teachers, and we should exploit every positive trick in our bags. Then we have to let the students know that most of the onus for learning is on them, and that our jobs are to inspire and evaluate.

  3. Thanks. Surprisingly comforting to hear that others have been there, too (even tho I know they must have!). I’m not sure I’ve put as much passion and energy as you do, but enough to feel a total dick, like I’d completely misread the situation and wasted tons of energy and time, and it was ALL MY OWN FAULT!?!?! Got more to say about the “siding with students” theme and I’ll post later tonight or tomorrow. Your comments and those of others have greatly helped me clarify my thinking on this fascinating issue.

  4. Bad Day

    Wow. I think we’ve all been there. I certainly have.. many, many times.

    Despite my gung ho “subversion”.. my “listen to the students” mantra… etc, etc,.. sometimes I find I just don’t know what to do.

    Last semester I had a class of “Russian Studies” students who were required to take English.

    It was a nightmare, exactly as you described (except they spoke Thai instead of Japanese). I tore myself up trying to find a solution.

    I poured energy into the class. Nothing. I changed the activities. Nothing. I solicited feedback. Nothing.

    Im sad to say that in the end, I just gave up. Decided to focus my energies on students I could impact.

    Looking back, Im still not sure what the problem was. Maybe it was me. Maybe another teacher could have connected with them.

    Or maybe, as you said, they just didnt give a damn about English and nothing or no one was going to change that.

    The truly frustrating part is not knowing why!

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