Connect, Grow, Thrive

ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice, Number 21 (May 2017)

Enjoy reading our selection:

Kevin Stein: Shaken not stirred: Seven ways to start your class differently

ETAS Journal, Volume 34, Number 2, (Spring 2017), p. 22-23

Although research-based articles are extremely important in helping to inform teaching practices, I believe that it is also important for teachers to engage with one another and exchange practical tips and ideas. Kevin Stein's article, in the Voices of Experience (VoE) section, Spring Journal 2017, does just that. His ideas are practical and prompt critical reflection.

I particularly enjoy reading the VoE section of ETAS Journal because it provides teachers with an opportunity to reach out and share their ideas. I consider this to be our teacher-friendly publishing section where everyone has an equal chance of having their voices heard. These articles are often based on practical experiences, which means that we can take something away from them. This might be learning from the challenges that other teachers have faced when implementing specific approaches or testing educational resources, or it could be learning from their successes. We, as readers, also have a point of contact when an article is published in this section or any other part of ETAS Journal which enables us to connect with authors and discuss their ideas and views on a particular theme that catches our interest. Kevin, for example, has provided his twitter handle. So for those of you who use twitter get in touch and let him know that you've read his article. I don't know about you but when I read articles from VoE, I often find myself nodding in agreement or empathising with a challenging situation, which reminds me that I am part of a much wider community of practice and have the possibility to reach out and connect if I want to. So it is a valuable space in our Journal and serves many functional purposes.

In his article, Kevin reflects on a classroom observation that took place a few years ago and in so doing, demonstrates how useful feedback can be from a fellow teacher. This personalised feedback prompted him to experiment with novel ideas and different approaches in his classroom. He shares seven of these ideas with us. They all relate to starting a language class differently and breaking away from the usual routine, which is not such an easy thing to do. I appreciate Kevin's honesty and transparency when he explains that not all his attempts to change his usual routine were a success. As a language teacher, this is something that I can identify with. I am sure that we all have our students' interests at heart and do our best to choreograph interesting and meaningful lessons, but this doesn't always guarantee success. 

 One idea that I particularly like is number seven, which recommends taking time to listen to students as they enter the class and giving them time to settle. I completely agree with Kevin that we should use this time more effectively. We must not feel pressured by time limits and race in to start a lesson, but rather see these moments as opportunities to collect thematic material for future lessons and to develop interpersonal relationships. As you read Kevin's article, it also becomes evident that he is a teacher who is willing to listen to his students and involve them in the planning and structure of lessons. He negotiates with them and encourages his students to take ownership of their language learning. Hence, besides his practical ideas, it is this wonderful approach that he takes to teaching and communicating with his students that swayed me to select his article as my Editors' Choice. 

I won't give anymore of Kevin's ideas away. Instead, I suggest that you read his article and discover different ways to approach the start of your classes and to involve your students more actively in the language learning process. Enjoy the read! 

Patricia Daniels

ETAS Journal Editorial Board

Shaken not stirred: Seven ways to start your class differently

Kevin Stein

A few years ago, a friend came to observe one of my classes. It was a 4-Skills communication class and I remember that I started class standing at the front of the room and waiting a minute or two to get the students’ attention. After the class was over, my friend asked me, “Why did you start class standing at the front of the room?” I was a bit confused by his question, but tried to give a serious answer. “Because that’s where the white board is,” I said. He laughed and said, “But you didn’t use the whiteboard until 11 minutes into the lesson. You could just as easily have stood at the back of the room. Why don’t you try that next time and see what happens.” So next time, I did just that. The students had to swivel in their chairs to face me, there was no white board to distract them, and in general I felt that they paid more attention and responded better to what I was saying.

Playing with different ways to start class became something of a hobby of mine after that. Not all of my experiments were successful. But over time, I’ve come to realize that just doing the same thing again and again at the beginning of class is less effective than changing up those first three to five minutes and providing students with novel learning situations and a fresh feeling environment. So here are seven ways to start a class, some novel and some not so, that I’ve found to be useful for both my students and myself.  

7. Don’t do much of anything (just listen): I have 50 minutes in which learning can/might/might not take place. It’s not a long time. Sometimes I feel like I need to squeeze out every second of learning that I possibly can. That means I often start class at – sometimes even before – the scheduled time. A few years ago, some of my colleagues and I were watching a video of the start of one of our lessons. As soon as the chime rang, Trent, the teacher in the video, started telling students to get in their seat so he could start class. The students shuffled towards their chairs and settled down. After the video, one of the other teachers turned to Trent and asked him what the students had been talking about before class had started. “I don’t know, I was too busy trying to get them to quiet down,” Trent said. “Why not let them talk and just listen in on what they are talking about,” the teacher suggested.

There was a moment of silence in which years and years of missed opportunities rose up and swept over all of us. So now I don’t see (or try not to see) students chatting at the beginning of the class as a behaviour problem or stealing time from learning. Instead, I let them chat while I listen and take notes. Often what they are talking about provides the focus for the rest of the class. In one of my last lessons of the year, a group of students were talking about just how cool they thought Pope Francis was. Which led to an impromptu lesson on how Popes are selected, what they do, and religion in general. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t rush the beginning of class. Getting all the learning juice out of your 50 minutes might require a bit of peeling (which in this case means patience and listening…never mind, this is a terrible metaphor).

6. Not all students are ready to start the lesson at the same time or in the same way: We usually start off lessons with an activity which involves the entire class. But in the real world, people often drift into a conversation (and sometimes drift out as well). Instead of forcing everyone to jump into an activity, if there are two or three students who are ready and willing to go, just walk over to them, or call them together in a group and start the warm up with the students who are ready.

One of my favourite activities in this kind of situation is a simple pattern recognition game. I might say, “2, 4, 6” and then point to the student next to me. They will usually say “8”. Then I point to another student, who invariably says, “10”. Once all the students all seem to know what’s going on, ask one of them to say what the pattern’s rule is. You can do any kind of pattern. “Apple, banana, cat, diary, . . .” (each word starts with the next letter of the alphabet) or “I love cats but I don’t like apples…I like bread but I don’t like alligators (things you like start with consonants while things you don’t like start with vowels). If they are really into it, you can let a student come up with their own pattern and the other people in the activity have to guess the rule.

5. Mystery learning goals: Don’t write up the learning goals on the board. Instead, write up something like:

In this class we will learn: _____________, _____________, _____________

Tell the students that as the class goes on, their job is to write down the three learning goals for the class (even if you only have two learning goals, still make three spaces. Trust me, it all works out in the end.) Maybe it’s the fairly opened-ended way I teach, but I find that what I believe to be the main points of a class are sometimes different from what the students chose to focus on. By starting the class in this way, you not only encourage students to develop the metacognitive skills needed to take note of their own learning, you get a bunch of valuable information about just what each of your student is focusing on in class. It also leads to a fantastic closing activity where students get a chance to discuss just what they learned.

4. What the heck is that: Bring something novel to class and plop it down in plain sight of the students. Sometimes, in a language classroom, it’s easy to get memorizing mixed up with learning. Just because our students remember all kinds of English after a class is finished, doesn’t mean that there was much learning going on. If we want our students to learn, there should probably be a moment of confusion mixed with wonder. Giving our students a reason to genuinely ask, “What?” or “Why?” or “HUH!?” at the beginning of class helps create an atmosphere where learning can take place. I once brought my folding bicycle into class, unfolded it at the start of lesson, and sat it up at the front of the room. It was the most successful lesson on modes of transportation I’ve ever had.

3. Be the magician who explains the trick: If you have a detailed lesson plan, pass it out to the students at the start of class. Let students rank the activities they want to do from most to the least. If they don’t want to do an activity, have them write a reason in the margins. While teaching the class, use the marked up lesson plans from your students to modify the class. If you alter the lesson, take a moment to explain how and why you are changing things based on their feedback. I sometimes do this with my more advanced classes. Not only is it a great way to get student input, I also think it’s a nice way to model how communication is a continuous act of negotiation.

2. Group lesson review: Give every students who walks through the door a whiteboard marker and instruct them to jot the most important thing they learned in the previous lesson up on the board. Not only does this provide you with an opportunity to review what happened in the last class, it also gives you a chance to learn just what your students are most into learning now. If your school isn’t rich in whiteboard markers (or chalk), you can have the students just write in very large letters on one sheet of paper and then tape their “most import thing” onto the board. I have rarely (maybe never) been able to move on to new material after using this activity at the beginning of class. Which is great because it not only helps highlight the importance of reviewing previous material, it also helps show the learners that they are all focused on different things and moving at their own pace.

1. Secede your position of authority: When a student walks through the door, hand him or her your pointer or whiteboard marker or whatever symbol of ‘teacherness’ you might use and ask him or her to start the class off for you (In my case, I sometimes take off my glasses and perch them on top of the student’s head). This is a high pressure situation and I don’t recommend just picking any old student. But if you are willing to hand over authority like this—and the student is game to give it a try – it’s pretty amazing what a learner can do with a few minutes at the beginning of class. In my classes, students have: orally quizzed the other learners on vocabulary; taken roll-call; given a brief summary of what they learned last week; and engaged the class in small talk about what they did during the weekend.

We often say that the first few moments of a class are the most important, that they set the tone for all that follows. This might be true, but I also think that it’s an awful lot of pressure to put on ourselves and our students. Sometimes the first few minutes of class are just that, the first few minutes of class. If things go wrong and we are honest with our students and simply say, “Hey, I tried this new thing at the beginning of this class, and you know what, it didn’t really work out,” your students will be willing to forgive you and move on to the next moment of learning. Besides, like a conversation filled with false starts and sudden shifts in topic, playing with class openings gives our students a chance to deal with oddity, novelty, and even failure. So instead of using the first few minutes of class to get all the students to move in lock-step, perhaps our learners would be better served by creating a space to improvise, to create a kind of communicative jazz in which everything might fall apart at any moment. Because that’s probably a bit closer to what is actually happening as our students work together, while struggling individually, to grab ahold of this things we call language and make it their own.

Author’s Note: Originally posted on March 12, 2014 on Kevin Stein’s blogspot:

About the Author

Kevin Stein has been working in the education field for the last ten years as an English teacher, teacher trainer, and curriculum developer. He is also a published writer of short stories and poems, many of which have been featured on national TV and radio shows in Japan. In addition, he works as a translator from Japanese to English for a number of government agencies, NGOs, and private enterprises. Presently, he teaches English at Clark Memorial International High School.