Friday, June 25, 2004

"Tetelestai!"

"It is finished!"

I made it. I completed my first year of teaching. My first year overseas. My first year out of college. Wednesday was my last day of teaching at Viator until summer classes begin July 26. I've been as busy as a bee for the past few days working on the curriculum. I and my co-teacher for Junior 2, Kevin, had to create two lessons for summer classes, as well as revise all eight lessons from last year's fall curriculum. Apologies to anyone reading this that had a hand it in making last year's book, but I was fairly underwhelmed by it. I was offended more by the sins of omission than those of commission. That is, what was there was quite good; I just wished more had been there.

Originally, each lesson consisted of a long list of densely typed, single-spaced vocabulary in two or three columns. Providing a vocabulary source is good, but there were some major flaws in how it was presented. First, there was little room for students to write about the words, so their pages often looked like bloody inken battlefields by the end of each week. I've remedied this flaw by listing the vocab (1.5 spacing) all on the left side. Now, the right side of the page is wide open for notes.

Second, the words were rarely grouped according to semiotic (~logical) and/or grammatical associations. They were just thrown on the page, mass nouns clumped with count nouns, adjectives modifying over and under nouns, verbs acting over and under adjectives; animals stuffed between mismatched terrains, terrains cluttered with mismatched animals; indoor activities scurrying around outdoors and outdoor activities stewing indoors; etc. I've tried to rectify this confusion by grouping all vocab in four main grammatical categories: "count nouns", "mass nouns", "verbs", and "adjectives & adverbs". On top of this, I made a conscientious effort to list words with their roughly appropriate semiological neighbors. Pardon my French, but does a dolphin shit in the woods? No. Hence, like a magnanimous Aslan, I've let marine animals swim with other marine animals and forest creatures frolick with their arboreal kin.

A third flaw is that the words were just that: words. Bare. Lone. Random. Abstract. Words. In a conversational English class, this is like providing only numbers without functions in an algebra class. It's counterintuitive, but, thanks in large part to Noam Chomsky's work, we know people don't think in words; people think and speak in whole phrases and sentences. Our brains are predisposed to assemble words - the variables - according to syntactic categories - the constants. So when students, especially foreign students, see a big list of words, all they see is a big list of erratic letters and meaningless symbols. So, to help my students I’ve added sample phrases and sentences in parentheses next to many of the words in each lesson. This way, students aren’t just seeing words and hearing a fleeting definition. Rather, they’re seeing the word in a natural syntactic “habitat” as well as discovering its lexical “genome.”

In the original textbook, usually two or three dialogues followed the vocab jumble, which leads me to the fourth flaw. Many of the vocab words were never used in the dialogues. Worse than that, the dialogues very often introduced new vocab that wasn’t in the main vocab list. To add insult to injury, the words were only sporadically emphasized as key words in the dialogues, so students never got trained to "latch on" to them as they read. All the time I spent introducing the vocab before we tackled the dialogues was redundant, an exhausting waste of time. It took me weeks to realize this flaw wasn't going away, but once I did, I stopped teaching all the vocab first, getting ambushed next by a dozen new words in the dialogues, falling behind in my course plan – and instead I just began teaching a few key words and taught vocab straight from the dialogues.

Students need to see and use vocab over and over, even if they just read it together a few times from a scripted dialogue. The key is that they habitually connect the presented meaning of words – even if they’ve only got a tenuous grip on it – with the movement of their tongue as it pronounces those words in a conversation. It’s all about reinforcing, overlapping, dovetailing, repaving, double-coating: seeing vocab as well as hearing it as well as speaking it. Therefore, I spent a lot of time (e.g., four hours straight Tuesday night, six hours straight last night until 5:15 AM, etc.) making sure the vocab appeared at least once in the dialogues and, alternatively, that any vocab in the dialogues made its way into the main vocab list.

Another enhancement I made was to make the characters in the dialogues the same characters the students will get to know in their other English book. This provides a sense of continuity and familiarity in an otherwise alientating array of ephemeral voices. I’m sure many of you will be delighted to know I made Mr. Burns, from The Simpsons, a character in one of the dialogues. “Eeeeexcellent,” he says, when he hears about some shoe store discounts.

Earlier I mentioned training students' eyes to recognize key vocab as they read. In order to help students learn how to latch on to key dialogue words, I underlined and bolded all the key words (in at least their first appearance). In some cases, all this effort swelled the vocab list to daunting lengths. However, the fact that I snipped several words from the original thatch of words and increased the students' exposure to and usage of the vocab by two or three times per lesson makes it well worth the extra size of each lesson (in terms of paper space).

Now, a fifth flaw – really just a lacuna, one of those sins of omission – was that the conversational English lessons were not really that, well, conversational. We did a ton of writing and reading this past year and a lot of audiolingual drilling (“I-say-you-say”); but, other than dealing with my indomitable voice, my students didn’t do very much listening, and certainly not much task-oriented listening. To redress this deficit, I’ve added a song, somehow connected with the lesson topic, to the end of each lesson, and have replaced a handful of words with blank lines so students can listen to the song and fill in the missing words. I did a few song-based word-fills this year and had fun every time. (Plus, it’s a great way to keep the young whippersnappers engaged without using my voice!)

(NB: A great listening comprehension technique is to have students read along as you orate a text and intentionally misread words. Begin doing this without any explanation, to see if any sharp students call you on it of their own volition. But then, at some point, tell everyone to call out the true information whenever you misread. It can get pretty fun, as you could say some very silly things in place of the real words.)

Two other touches I’ve added include a warm-up question at the start of each lesson (e.g., “If you were a food, which food would you be? Why?”) and a discussion activity at the end of the lesson (before the listening song). The warm-up question not only serves as a conversational ice-breaker, but also helps the teacher assess the students’ knowledge of and interest in the lesson topic. The discussion idea is there to achieve the third P of the hallowed “three P’s” of ESL: Presentation, Practice, Production. The teacher presents the material (vocab); the students practice it (dialogues); and then they should produce their own material on a smaller scale (discussion). The icing on the cake is that I unleashed my tireless copy editor's laserbeam eye and formatted the whole textbook to look, well, actually pretty sleek and wart-free (uniform font, clear indentations, ample spacing, etc.).

To give you an idea of how significant this lesson overhaul is, keep in mind that the original textbook was about 22 pages long. Now, it’s just under 60. If I’d had more time (lessons were due June 24), I would have loved to have added a lot of pictures and small activities (e.g., crosswords, word searches, word scrambles, etc.). But, I can always add such things as handouts as the year progresses. Trust me, it’s infinitely better, for you and the students, to have too much to cover than too little.

Now, I mentioned I and Kevin also had to write a couple of lessons for the summer classes. Due to his schedule constraints, and the fact that I had an idea I could run with, I ended up writing the whole of both lessons. This is just as well, because, one, I sheepishly confess, I’m kind of a control freak, so it felt good to just get the lessons done to my satisfaction; and, two, my lesson plan was devised in two parts, so it was easiest that I alone made them overlap. The lessons are called “The Early Years” and “The Golden Years”, and are parts one and two, respectively, of “From the Cradle to the Grave”. Part 1 is about birth and childhood. Part 2 is about old age and, yes, death.

The first dialogue takes place between a husband and wife and their seven-year old son, Jeff. Jeff wants a baby brother, and he ends up divulging his surprising knowledge of reproduction (in bolded and underlined tones, of course) with humorous results. The second dialogue takes place eleven months later, when Mark and Sylvia have just returned home from the hospital with their new baby, Robert. This time, Jeff speaks all too bluntly about how little Robert looks (if I recall correctly, “a big raisin with arms”).

Part 2 is focuses on the twilight years of these same brothers. Robert has Alzheimer’s and, in dialogue 1, Jeff is visiting him in the hospital. It’s a poignant scene. Dialogue 2 has Jeff and his wife, Monica, discussing Robert. Suffice it to say, Jeff’s really warmed up to little Robert over the long years. The discussion idea for part 2 is for students to what happened in Robert and Jeff’s lives between Robert’s birth and his hospitalization.

Well, I know I’ve gone at some length about something you won’t be teaching and certainly won’t be learning. But, if you’ve read this far, let me explain my excess. First, I’m a chatty bastard. (“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say that out loud?”) Second, and more to the point, I’m waxing as I am, not, I assure you, to toot my own didactic horn, but because I’m truly excited about this curriculum. All year I taught someone else’s material, seeing what students respond to or ignore, adapting as best as I could, biting my tongue about flaws, biding my time to make improvements. And now my time has come. I am no longer a part-time instructor-cipher. I am full-time teacher at Viator High School, and I am responsible for preparing a full year of curriculum. I finally get to put my experience, trivial as it is, into practice for my own students. I’ll be using this curriculum next year, so every improvement I make now pays off later. May God be with me!

1 comment:

marry said...

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