Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unplugged weather

I have been trying to come to terms with teaching unplugged. To start with I set off with a hiss and a roar, and thought that it was the best thing I had discovered since I started teaching. In reality my lessons had taken a 'semi' unplugged approach ever since that fateful 3hr class with no materials (see my previous posts). However, after a couple of months I began to find that it was actually becoming more difficult, not easier, to stimulate conversation and find that idea to build on and develop. And my lessons went back to being semi-unplugged.

Last week I was teaching my most difficult class of the week and we had a beautiful class with no materials - something I had not achieved with these students before. I have a father and his 15yr old daughter together for two hours - and while I have protested to this set-up on many occasions they insist on continuing. The levels aren't terribly different in terms of grammar (intermediate students), but the father has the listening skills of an elementary student while the daughter has the listening and comprehension of an upper intermediate. The father is a colonel in the army and doesn't seem to listen even when people speak to him in Spanish, but maybe I am getting carried away with myself and I am sure that warrents and entirely different post!

I began class with my standard 'how was your weekend', and the father began to tell me about how he had travelled to the south to look at a piece of land. And it was 'dense' the entire time he was there. Dense? The daughter quickly corrected him with 'rain', which he corrected with 'sometimes rain, but not wet'. Ahhh, fog? Mist? Bingo - here is my lesson!

Image courtesy of: englishsubjectarea.blogspot.com

After getting them to draw and describe the weather for the entire weekend (luckily it is incredibly changeable in the south) we moved onto a word map for describing weather. I had never thought about how many different ways we can describe rain! As reinforcement I had them brainstorm all the features of those large weather reports that you see in the Saturday newspaper. Each of them then went on to draw in symbols the forecast for the next five days, including tides, humidity, UV index, sunrise and sunset, probablility of rain as well as temperature and weather conditions. They then read them out like a newsreader on the TV (using all their new vocabulary) while the other furiously wrote down the forecast. Feedback was a summary of the other person's weather report. The father had problems at this point but with the use of his notes, and the daughter's pictures, he was able to complete the exercise.

We finished the class by going online and looking at some real weather reports for places around the world.

This was a very successful lesson and there is very little I would change for next time. There was a lot of new vocabulary, and a revision of the use of adjectives and adverbs, all of which will need to be revisited in the future.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On teaching unplugged

*This post is modified from comments I made on Jason Renshaw's English Raven blog.

Getting lost... I think it how we all feel when we first step into the classroom!!
Recently I have discovered that there are other people out there who are willing to 'let the lesson go where it goes', and I feel like I have been found!

I remember my first 'dogme moment', though at that time I had no idea that that was what was happening and I came out of the class thinking that what could have been a disaster just turned into one of my most successful classes. I was teaching a group of 4 pre-int students 3hr classes at the airport. I was dutifully preparing materials and back-up materials and taking along at least 10 pages of photocopies to class 'just in case' I ran out of material (which induced the kind of panic usually only reserved for visits to the dentist).
One day I arrived at the airport with only 5 minutes to spare before class, opened my bag, and realised that I had left EVERYTHING in the office, right down to my MP3 player and speakers. Cue dramativ music and cold sweats!!! No internet, no support paper or listening materials, just me and the whiteboard for 3hrs. As conversation started with my students (and I was quickly preparing some failsafe games to buy myself some time to think) it arose that one of the students was going to be conducting job interviews to hire a new person for the HR department - bingo! And so 3hrs of job interview related class proceeded without a hitch. First the students wrote a job description together, keeping it to less than 30 words because it was to be published in the newspaper. Then we discussed questions that are frequently asked in job interviews at which point there was a lively discussion on the differences in the interview process between Chile and NZ/Aus (there can be up to 4 interviews in Chile and a couple of visits to a psychologist!) After some revision of question forms we moved onto possible answers, at which time we ran out of time! That's right, I ran out of time in a 3hr class with no materials. It left plenty of material for the next class (model answers, the difference between the present perfect and the past simple, and roleplays). Whatsmore, the students congratulated me on the class that had been one of their most enjoyable ever. What?? The class should have been the biggest disaster and I am receiving compliments?!  

That was about 2 years ago, and I have been teaching the same way ever since (and trying to convince others to do the same). Recently I stumbled across the Teaching Unplugged movement on the internet, ordered the book and read it cover to cover. I feel validated knowing that what I am doing is recognised by others as a valid and useful form of teaching (not me simply being a lazy teacher as a colleague once refered to me as I was walking into class without any photocopies). Forgetting my materials was the best thing that ever happened to me! Now I am trying to pass it on to others.....

The majority of the learners in Chile seem to respond well to the unplugged method as most of them are completely bored with books. Luckily, at my institute we are already running half of our programmes from a task based approach which makes it easier to step into a unplugged type of lesson. I wouldn't say my lessons are 100% unplugged as I usually provide a topic or initial stimulus (usually task based), but they are certainly flexible as to the direction they take.

They problems I see with an unplugged approach are related to the clients (large businesses who want to be able to measure student progress against a fixed rubric) and resistance from the teachers themselves. I recently ran a workshop on teaching from emerging language in our task based courses and it was met with significant resistance from some of our most experienced teachers. I encouraged them to try it, and I think maybe 50% of them I have given it a go, while the other 50% prefer to think that their Academic Director has gone completely mad. 

I am trying to find other ways of helping these teachers find value in allowing the students to guide the class, and it will be an ongoing mission of mine. I hope that I can share and gather other opinions here to help me and my cause!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A little about me....

Originally trained as a scientist but always with an interest in literature and teaching, I have been imparting the English language on unfortunate souls since 2009.
Upon arrival in Santiago Chile with no home, no language and no job, I was taken in by Grant's English, a small independet school specialising in teaching business English to small classes of adults.
About 18 months later I graduated (probably somewhat prematurely) to the position of Academic Director, and now supervise a team of 18 teachers. A year into the job there is a hectic relatively predictable cycle of hiring, training, organising classes, juggling schedules, putting together workshops and trying to stay on top of paperwork.
Recently when I was preparing a workshop on tack based learning I stumbled upon the concept of teaching unplugged. The more I read the more excited I became, someone else does it the same as me, and my method has a name! In an effort to become more connected to this wonderful world of sharing of knowledge I have decided to jump in, and document my thoughts on the matter here in a blog. I hope to share my experiences and reflections both as a teacher and Academic Director.
And the reason for the name? I am a kiwi, one of 4 million flightless birds that just love to travel!!