Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pedagogy: Teaching Large Classes

Dear All,

Teaching in large classes is a very common phenomena in many parts of the world, particularly in developing countries and in much sought after schools in Malaysia. Student numbers ranges from 40 plus to 50 plus. TEaching in such environment poses challenges. So how do teachers cope?

Here's an article written by a native speaker who had worked in South American high schools and developed effective strategies of his own.

Do you have a similar situation and what are ways that have worked in your class?  I'll be most happy to hear them and to share these strategies with other teachers.

Rodney Tan

Alastair Grant, a Teacher Development Manager in Buenos Aires, looks at the challenges in managing large classes of teenagers, and suggests ways to ensure successful lessons.

I shut the door behind me and realised I had made a big mistake.

No, this isn’t the starting sentence from a creative writing class that I went to when I was 12, but the feeling I got when stepping into that secondary school classroom…

Me, a first year teacher, fresh off my teaching course, and full of ideas about communicative activities, interaction patterns, etc., suddenly faced with 32 teenagers all speaking in a language which I didn’t understand, and not paying me any attention! I needed to change things fast.

Back when I started teaching (time seems to move at twice the normal speed in this profession), I found this pretty intimidating. We know that large classes can have their fair share of challenges – I’ve picked out five to get you thinking:

1.      Monitoring
Let’s see: you have 32 students doing an activity; that means you’ll have about 12 working quietly, 6 working together, 4 talking about their weekend, and 10 calling your name in unison, demanding help. And if you’re lucky, it’ll be in that order.

2.      Environment
There are desks in the way, bags all over the place and it can seem impossible to be able to reach your students to help with them while they’re working.

3.      Discipline
With even the best adolescents and adults, there’s a temptation for them to speak in their native tongue, or just not to work, which is even more common in a larger class, especially as there’s less chance of you spotting it!

4.      Interaction
Trying out a “find someone who” activity with a class THIS size can turn you into a policeman, because you have to make sure students don’t use the activity as a reason to speak in their language. It’s also hard to make sure everyone can get to speak to each other without creating chaos!

5.      Testing
Having 32 writing, reading, listening, speaking, and grammar tests to check for only ONE of your classes, is exhausting for any teacher.

Ok, so far so bad, but strangely, six months into the job, when asked by my director which class I was enjoying the most, I found myself answering “the one at the secondary school”.

So what had changed?

Here were my recipes for success. Five solutions to complement the five challenges!

1.      Monitoring
Introduce a “hands-up” system, and explain your methodology to the students, so that they understand and respect this: it’s their learning environment that you want to make as productive for them as possible. After all, there is only one of you!

2.      Environment
Right from the start of the class, make sure the students know where you want them to sit, not where they do. Your classroom – your rules. That means, where the desks go, who they face, where they put their bags… and get them to move the furniture!

3.      Discipline
The “red card” system – the first person to speak in their language (not English!) gets the card and it is passed on. At the end of the class, the last student with the card brings in something nice for the class for the next lesson. Also, give students a grade for their involvement in the classes, so they can see that it has a tangible effect, and that it contributes to their learning.

4.      Interaction
Ensure that speaking activities are structured, and that the students respect turn-taking, just like they would outside the classroom. Speed debating is a great activity for this: two students come to the front for one minute only, and discuss the topic. The rest of the students have to pay close attention, as you will randomly pick another student to come up once the minute is over.

5.      Testing
Although direct tests of speaking and writing are essential, using Multiple Choice and True/False tests for reading, listening, and even grammar, can drastically reduce your workload. Pre-prepared and editable tests are great too. You can be confident that they’ll be the right language level for your class and, because you can edit them, you can quickly adapt them to suit your own students. Perfect for saving you time and effort too.

Everything I’ve mentioned here has always helped to make a productive and well-organised lesson for me and my students.

And you? Imagine you were me, the voices of the 32 students drowning out the sound of the door as it closed behind you… What would you do?

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