Learning Diary July 14-17


Here’s another idiom: turnabout is fair play. All of my students in my summer classes at Sichuan University are also teachers. If I hadn’t been so intimidated my first week I might have enjoyed the classes more. First, I’m used to large classes of 50 students, ideal for an introverted person such as I, who can “act” his way through class and not have to risk the one-on-one contact that a small class offers. Second, they’re teachers – PhD.s, professors, people who supposedly know what they’re doing and who can look at my own skills with X-ray vision.

Then there was my wake-up call on Wednesday. One of my students told me after class that I was way too serious, and seemed nervous. She hinted that this might not be the best approach to encourage confidence and fluency in my English students. I knew that I’d been uptight, and I’d barely slept at all the night before, but I never dreamed that I was giving off these kinds of vibes in class. I was taken aback. The next day I was Mr. Super-Cool, going so far as to invite the students to imagine an event in their lives that made them happy or sad, and playing Nico’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” while they sat with eyes closed putting their thoughts together.

I spoke of learning – my second class, teaching primary and middle school teachers – begins next week, and I’m also taking an online class through UCLA Extension on Materials Design for English classes. I expect that a wealth of ideas will be bouncing back and forth between my teacher and student halves. Think of it as total immersion.


Wall in my study room



Here’s a brief recap of some of the activities I used during class this week:


Monday: There were 14 students the first day, and I began by putting them in pairs to introduce themselves to each other. We brainstormed “What questions do you ask when meeting someone for the first time?” Each student then introduced his or her partner to the class, which required listening, remembering details, and paraphrasing what their partner had said.

I had more activities planned than we had time for. We read one conversation from the textbook and discussed some “job search” vocabulary. In groups of 3 or 4, I then had the students brainstorm about their learning goals for the class, and what discussion topics would interest them. The end of class came too soon and I didn’t properly tie up the loose ends, or bring the issues back to the class as a whole.


Wednesday: Class 2. I get the feeling that the classes are a series of disconnected events. My ideas look good on paper, but I need practice explaining them and implementing them in a way that actually engages the students, and doesn’t make it feel like they’re performing tricks for my benefit.

Today was Listening and Speaking. I talked too much about “listening strategies,” because I’d just read an explanation in my language teaching textbook about top-down and bottom-up listening, and how they should be explained to students. Or not. I did my standard “list of 10 words” dictation exercise, using words that have at least two spellings and meanings, for the students to “self-test” their comprehension of individual sounds and words. It wasn’t very useful, though it’s more successful in my big classes. Next was an “interview” exercise in which students had to ask a set of questions, about job satisfaction or how they obtained their current jobs, to 3 other students. I talked to individual groups to ask questions about the responses they got. We finished with a 2-Minute Talking partner activity, in which we arranged ourselves in rows facing each other, and students had short conversations on pre-selected topics, changing partners by moving one seat to their left at the 2-minute signal. Once again, time ran out before we had a chance to “process” as a group.


Thursday: Class 3. Two activities today. First was a listening exercise, a short telephone conversation on the CD that accompanies the textbook. I asked comprehension questions about main ideas and details. I then gave out transcripts of the conversation, with blank spaces where some often-used idioms or language “chunks” occurred (examples: “how are you doing?” “I’ve decided to….”) I then asked the students to fill in the “clozes” or blanks either from what they remembered, or by imagining how they might complete the sentences themselves. This turned out to be much too hard for them. One student finally asked me to play the recording again, which I should have done much sooner. I made one interesting discovery: when listening to the CD earlier, I hadn’t realized that, although the actors speak very clearly and precisely, when it came to the phrases or “chunks” they often resorted to normal native speech patterns, dropping sounds, running words together, or speaking faster. Some of the phrases were difficult for the students to understand, requiring me to repeat them clearly and to indicate how they would sound in “normal” American speech. Then I had the students practice reading the conversation in partners, and had two of them perform it for the class.

Once again, the activity felt disconnected, with no extension or application in which the students took what they had learned or practiced and then created something new with it so that they could “own” the new language patterns or phrases. The rest of the class was a step-by-step fluency-building activity that I adapted from An ELT Notebook http://eltnotebook.blogspot.com/2006/10/developing-fluency-at-intermediate.html

In the 50-minute period, I incorporated the following steps:



2) I invited students to close their eyes, or to just spend 2 minutes thinking, without writing, of a personal experience. I played “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” sung by Nico.

3) I told the students they had 5 minutes to either make a list of words and expressions they would use to talk about their experience, or to write out everything they would say. I played music while they wrote, to get the creative juices flowing and to relax them.

4) I explained that each student would tell their story twice, to two different people, and that the first time would be a “rehearsal.” I put them in pairs, and started them talking. I listened to a couple of conversations and asked questions.

5) I had the students choose new partners, and to re-tell their story, noting differences in their comfort level and in how they told it.

6) We had limited time to “wrap it up,” so I asked students to self evaluate – on a scale of 1 to 10, what was their comfort level each time? How did the story change? Did it get longer? Did they tell it in a shorter time the second time?



Well, that’s it for the week. My own homework for next week is to learn how to better use my textbook: how to introduce and explain activities, how to adapt the book to my purposes, etc. I think I’ll start the new week by letting the students choose what topics and chapters will be of most use to them, and having them “rank” them in order of usefulness. I’ll also start my second class (4 weeks duration) in oral English and teacher training for primary/middle school teachers.

Time to relax; it is Saturday night, after all. Maybe an old Jackie Chan movie (in Chinese). Toodles.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s