Monthly Archives: October 2013

talking sticks and twenty questions

When I arrived at work this afternoon, it was with highlights from #KOTESOL2013 still swirling in my head. I made my coworkers dizzy talking about motivation, ELF, reflection and intercultural communication until I ran out of breath.

However, when I walked into my first class, I found an eager group of 12 young learners, ready for anything. We started with a warm-up of 20 questions and Esther and Elly immediately put their hands up to start the questioning. And a thought occurred to me: one of the points my boss made when she was giving me feedback from observing that class is that those two girls do the majority of the talking in that class.

Professor Tom Farrell gives a plenary address at #KOTESOL2013

Professor Tom Farrell gives a plenary address at #KOTESOL2013

Then I remembered that Tom Farrell had shared similar observation statistics in his plenary address. He mentioned that the teacher in his case had solved the problem with talking sticks. I didn’t have anything like that prepared, but I decided it was worth a try. I told all the students that they each could only ask two questions.

This led to quite a bit of jostling as students negotiated who would ask which questions. Esther and Elly were mostly unsuccessful in trying to push other students to ask questions they wanted. During the game there was a lot of conversation and teamwork about what information they had already and what questions would be the best to ask. And everyone participated.

Overall it was a really interesting and positive result for that activity with that class and solved a problem I had worried about without Elly and Esther feeling like they were doing anything wrong. I’m curious to see how it works in the future.


UPDATE (11/11): I’ve used the 20 questions game with other classes and some insist on playing every day. One class has made up their own variations to the game, mostly changes for the better, and play it in their free time – in English! Here are the changes they’ve made:

  • 2 questions per students wasn’t enough and led to silence. They changed this to 4.
  • Too many options also led to silence, so they began to choose topics.
  • Guessing the answer right away led to random guessing, so they added a new rule: you can guess the answer, but if you’re wrong you’re out. That way students had to guess at clues that would lead to the answer. I suspected this would lead to uneven participation again, but so far it’s worked.
  • The winner gets to be “teacher” for the next game. They keep careful track of this, too!

What gets me is how cool it is that the kids have changed the game to suit them and to make sure it’s fast-paced, interesting, and can still involve everyone. They keep track of how many questions they have left and argue over the dynamics of saving all your questions till the end. In the end, all I do is facilitate and sometimes play.

…and then I gave them all three hours worth of homework

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my own teaching. Regular readers (all three of you) will remember that I recently moved to a private academy. I’ve spent the last 5 weeks settling in and getting used to the challenges of a new position.

The settling in period is far from over and life has been confusing and challenging as well as interesting and rewarding. I will put aside time in another post to try and unravel all the confusing threads. Today I want to talk about a lesson that I’m dissatisfied with.

My boss and I are working together to design a writing curriculum focusing on a combination of genre writing and process writing. We created a syllabus for a two month course, with the aim to teach our middle school students to write within four different genres: informal letters, formal letters, newspaper articles and reviews. Today was the first day of that and it didn’t go so well.

Photo taken from by @acliltoclimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

Photo taken from by @acliltoclimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

First of all, today was the first day back after a two week break for the middle school students, who just finished their midterm exams. Thus a 50 minute lesson turned into a 40 minute one while they chatted and got caught up with each other and reestablished the class dynamic. All three classes spent at least 10 minutes getting caught up and settled in.

Then we spent a few minutes free-writing. In the first two classes, I selected the topic and set a time limit. In the third class, I told them my selected topic was optional if they didn’t think of anything they wanted to write about on their own. This seemed to work well. After the time was up, I told them to read their writing again and use their dictionaries to fill in words they didn’t know. A few students also asked about structures they were uncertain of. I got to glance at their notebooks, but since they needed them for their next tasks, I couldn’t take them up. I realised that the students will need notebooks dedicated to writing class.

The next thing we did was look at example letters. I gave the students three example letters to read and told them that I wanted them to compare the letters and figure out the format of an informal letter. We put the results on the board and they wrote down the vocabulary they didn’t know. Then they drew diagrams to show where each part of the letter goes.

And that’s as far as I got, in every class. I had a collaborative vocabulary activity planned that there wasn’t time for. We were meant to complete five units’ worth of “useful expressions” and so I gave them those five units as homework. The first class didn’t buy it. I had failed to explain the purpose of the homework and the target we were reaching towards. The second class bought it because we looked through the topics of each unit and they immediately saw for themselves why it’s so useful. The third class grumbled, but they bought it, too. I had to sell them the usefulness of the vocabulary in those five units, though.

Photo taken from by Ellen de Preter, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

Photo taken from by Ellen de Preter, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

In every class, I was left with the impression that it could definitely have gone better. I think what went wrong was my expectations of what could be done in a single class. I forgot that the students would need some time to get used to being in the class again. I forgot that I’d have to sell this new idea of learning genre writing to them. I forgot that many of them had never studied writing before. I forgot that five units of vocabulary can’t possibly be learned in a day. The first class greeted me with blank stares and silence. They’re the lowest level and I was the first teacher who saw them today. I had to threaten motivate them with a test to get them to participate at all.

On Friday, I will teach this lesson again. I still have no idea how to help the students manage the amount of vocabulary they need. I have to find a way to shift the focus away from the vocabulary and onto the writing process, using the vocabulary as a resource instead.

Questions, suggestions, ideas and advice are all quite welcome.

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