Thursday, April 21, 2011

Testing, Testing (Part Two)

This is a continuation of "Testing, Testing" posted last week, April 13. In that post, I wrote:
I’m working on two posts that I’ll soon publish. Maybe I can complete them this evening. The first will explain the work I planned for my classes and illustrate the expectations I had looking ahead to the tests. The second post will illustrate the test and discuss the results, student reception, and their apparent study habits. I’ll try to offer an honest evaluation about the success of the lessons and exam.
I've been sidetracked because the work on my critique of progressive libertarianism and meritocracy has been rather fun. Sidetracked isn't the best term, I guess. I've been reading and haven't taken the time to write about the last month at school. Here goes.

First, I'll discuss the work we completed over a four-week period leading up to the conversation exams. I teach 20 classes each week, each class has 35-42 students. Korean high schools have three grade levels, first through third. I teach the first and second grades. For three weeks, we watched three short-films and worked in groups to discuss and write sentences answering questions about settings, themes, characters, moods, and genres. In the fourth week, we reviewed the three shorts in detail, trying to focus on how to speak about the more interesting scenes in each story and to reinforce new vocabulary. The fifth and sixth weeks have been for the speaking tests. Next week, the students will take their regular, midterm exams. As you can see, I've developed a method for teaching my high school English conversation class that builds a conversation over a four week period. I do this to reinforce new vocabulary, to promote acquisition and to build confidence through familiarity with the chosen subject.

I like this method for two reasons. As I mentioned in my first post, my students' English language skills are lower than expected and desired for university-bound 16-19 year olds. Rather than focus on rudimentary language games that entertain as much as teach, that they've played since early childhood, and rather than focus on building confidence through staging scenarios for conversation via cheesey conversation-starter exercises, I believe my lessons reinforce the kinds of English my students will be required to use as students over the next five years. The lessons are designed to be accessible to almost all my students while being practical for those who will attend university. In addition, my approach doesn't insist that I teach only to the smartest students who are likely going to be competing with many thousands of students, many from higher ranked schools, for positions at the most respected Korean universities. And I simply refuse to teach to the middle, which is always teaching in opposition to critical thinking. My lessons produce space for all students regardless of their English proficiency to practice English and build skills, vocabulary, understanding and confidence.

As teachers we ought to help create a potential for learning to occur rather than work on teaching learning. We help make it possible to produce spaces of learning. We don't create the space and then permit students entrance to it nor  do we enter a space already created and then direct students how to use it. We produce space with the students and work in it together. In Korea and United States, the dominant mode of teaching is what I like to call teacher-ing. Teachers perform for the students. If you want to see heinous examples of this, go to You Tube and search for English Conversation Classes in Korea. You'll find many examples of teachers as clowns. Entertaining, maybe. Hard work, maybe. Not teaching. But the kids and colleagues think it looks like what good teaching should be. In a future post, I'll offer a further critique of this kind of teaching.

Teacher-ing contains things: information, data, language, personality, ethos (both habit and character), intention and equipment. Students are offered an opportunity by teachers to learn what is provided within the well-rehearsed performances. Students who figure out how to score well on exams are rewarded. In addition, students who behave well are rewarded. Some teachers are great performers, but the learning that occurs is never related to the performance. We're all too aware of this; some teachers and administrators love the performance so much that they are unwilling to actually give up and teach. They're dedicated teachers, for sure. They're just not good teachers. They're good performers; good at being the center of attention; they're good graders. In fact, we're learning, much to the chagrine of the education business and its biggest supporters and benefactors, that scoring well on exams and good behavior are not only inaccurate indicators of learning, they may measure something other than learning altogether.

Teacher-ing is the performance of the material in a lesson combined with a sincere hope that students will model the performance and through modeling learn the lesson. I use the word teacher-ing because I believe the performance is actually one step removed from teaching: it's a teacher doing teaching. Good teachers look like good teachers because they're doing things teachers are thought to do and thought ought to do and their students react well to the performance. Teaching, on the other hand, is about working within the public discourse community to produce a space in cooperation with students, school administration and others in the community in which learning occurs through purposeful discourse about different subjects. The objective is that students learn to actively participate in the subjects in a manner that can benefit themselves, the teacher, the school, the community. They learn how to do, to think and to create in cooperation and work with others. Teaching is something one does in a discourse community. It's a role, certainly, but not performed as if on a stage. A teacher's work is performed in media res.

I could continue to make this issue more complicated. In the US, for example, individualism is tied up with the idea that we are sovereign unto ourselves though we are citizens of a state and as such participate in the maintenance of a social contract, whether or not we are conscious of what that means. In Korea, this sense of sovereignty may in fact exist but is not much permitted in school. It's just not encouraged. Here, school is a place of highly structured collectivist culture. And not in the way Americans often think of it: school spirit, clubs, fraternities, sororities, etc.  At any rate, I'm not addressing this significant aspect of teaching in this post. I'm trying to articulate I believe we ought to create lessons that promote teaching rather than resort to teacher-ing.

My classes are 50 minutes in length. I like to have 15 minutes of group work each week, and I usually explain/lecture for about 10 minutes. Half of each of my classes is spent either speaking with the students and them speaking with me, so in some sort of conversation, and/or listening and observing something that is presented in English. This year I'm using short films with little to no dialogue. The films tend to be around 2-3 minutes in length. My rule is that they never be more than 10 minutes. I want at least 15 minutes of conversation in each class.

I can't assign reading in my classes for two reasons. We have few materials and little money for materials and I have no way to insure the students will complete homework. Basically, I get 50 minutes a week with 20 classes. It's very difficult to cultivate a productive and useful space for English language learning and acquisition to occur in a meaningful and consistent manner.

I must bring all materials to class and leave with them and must be able to set-up the classroom in a matter of minutes or else I lose valuable time with my students. I decided that bringing a laptop and necessary cables was the best solution. I can start a class in the time it takes for a projector to warm up. While I get the computer, screen and projector set up, my students form groups and distribute my weekly handout.  I'm going to focus on one lesson rather than all three, but describe to you the procession of lessons in summary. Though I've created a routine for my classes, the lessons build on each other. In my classes, we really do work together to approach a useful, meaningful and somewhat interesting English conversation about our subject.
Over the last month, my students have practiced speaking first about setting and characters, second about themes and kinds of stories, and third about how stories make us feel. The fourth week, we sat back and watched all three short films, one after the other, with the volume down low, and we spoke about each scene using the vocabulary I provided them on the handouts.

My next post will present, in detail, one of the three lessons. The following will discuss the speaking test. The third will offer a critique of what I think about the kind of teaching I have witnessed in classrooms here. Needless to say, I am not impressed and happy about it. I have to attend a teacher training session next week, and I'll pan my third post so I write about it as well.