Teaching the younger crowd

October 31, 2014
A little girl learning English

Generating enthusiasm and bolstering confidence

How do you get ten wiggly second-graders, released from their loosely supervised after-school care and put back in the classroom, to stop poking their neighbor in the side or fiddling with their locker keys, to sit up straight, listen closely and speak clearly? Short of standing on my head or announcing a fire drill, I haven’t really found the ticket yet. There’s a popular classroom management tongue-twister where the teacher says, “1,2,3…eyes on me,” and the students respond, “1,2…eyes on you.” It worked to quiet down my restless first-graders last year. However, those students had the benefit of a Czech-speaking assistant who was able to step in to help clarify rules and discipline issues. They also had textbooks, an established curriculum and English lessons before lunchtime. Regardless, I still need to channel my class’s enthusiasm for horsing around into enthusiasm for learning English.

Keeping and maintaining my 30 second-graders’ interest has proven to require a tremendous effort. But it’s not the only change I’ve experienced this year. Rather than return to the English program in the state school where I taught last year, this September, due to changing Czech educational requirements for foreign language teachers, as well as a desire to be my own “boss,” I’ve started my own business teaching English.

I finally took a big step and applied for a trade business license, a procedure which seemed in theory a lot more daunting than in reality. I’ve had to broaden my thinking beyond questions of classroom management, standards and curriculum and ongoing skills assessment to include the nuts-and-bolts questions of running my own business. I needed to communicate effectively and professionally in Czech and English, to set my course rates and policy, to pay my own insurance and social benefits.

As I’ve muddled through my first few weeks as a business woman, setting up my own business bank account and learning how to issue invoices. I’ve wondered if it would have been easier to find a reputable language school and start teaching there. I knew I wouldn’t have the freedom that I have now, but I probably wouldn’t feel the pressure either. When I feel discouraged, luckily, it doesn’t take long before I teach another class, and I remember again why I chose to branch out on my own. Marketing my courses as speaking-focused, I am encouraging both my young children and my adult students to actively “own” their English language education.

Generating enthusiasm and interest in learning English, I think, is often the first step toward making significant linguistic progress. With this attitude, I believe that a 45-minute well-organized English “club” with songs, role-play and practical question/answer sessions can do a lot to supplement the more traditional English language instruction in a Czech state school. Once children have the desire to improve their own English, progress can come quickly. Likewise, without self-motivation, students tend get through their English classes without ever really knowing what’s going on.

Over the years, I’ve heard complaints from Czech parents saying that their adolescent children don’t actually know anything once they are put into a situation where they are required to interact in English with native speakers. Despite having attended (per Czech state requirements) at least three hours of mandatory English language instruction a week from the 3rd grade onward and often making all “A’s”, many teenage Czech students aren’t prepared to actively use their English. Czech schools commonly offer school trips abroad to England for students in the upper grades of elementary school. It is during such trips that children often discover they aren’t able to manage basic communication in English. Of course, this situation becomes upsetting, both for the parents back at home who’ve paid for their child to have a good first-hand experience in a native-English setting, and for the child who doesn’t have the adequate skills.

While parents assume that the children don’t know “anything,” and that all the years of mandatory English have been a waste, I saw it differently last year in the conversational classes that I taught to 9th graders. Many students knew more than they thought. However, perhaps because they were embarrassed about their pronunciation or didn’t know how to put a complete sentence together or how to make practical conversation, it took a huge effort just to communicate basic information. Being persistent and showing a genuine interest in my students paid off. Even though my students figured out that I understood Czech, I spoke only English in the classroom, and I tried to show them that speaking with mistakes is an important part of learning. Correcting their spoken mistakes in a respectful, but consistent manner and using magazines and online material from real teenage life helped. At the end of the year, even my non-talkative students were eager to share their post-elementary school plans with me. Although I only saw them once a week for 45-minutes, I could tell that they had made progress, particularly in their confidence.

I didn’t intend to teach lessons in a school setting this year. Instead, I planned to lead some private and small-group lessons in my home, mostly to adults, although I promised a few of the mothers that I was teaching that I’d try to set up small groups for their children as well. Then, in the back-to-school parents’ meeting, a few of the parents in my son Oliver’s second-grade classroom expressed their dissatisfaction with the school’s English program. My name was suggested as a potential native speaker teacher, and with the parents’ endorsement, Oliver’s classroom teacher went to the principal and asked about the possibility of opening an English club after-school activity. I was granted permission to rent a space from the school, and to offer optional after-school English classes. The second-grade teachers offered the optional “extra” English class to their students, and in the end I created three groups of ten students each.

I have had enough teaching experience to know that activities that work well for one class often don’t transition to another class. Still, I was surprised to discover that the lesson plans that I’d planned for the three classes worked in the first class, but not in the second two. Or they worked in the first two classes, but not in the third. The classes were on different days and at different times; the students had a mixed range of abilities but they were all in the second-grade. After a few weeks I realized that I was beginning to see some trends. While my Monday class liked to read and to be read to, my Tuesday class wanted to play fiercely competitive games, most preferably team games with football names like Sparta and Dukla. My third class had a few students who wandered away from the carpet to look around the room at the crafts or out the window. In order to capture my wanderers’ interests, I taught them a chant. We made it through 11 rotations of our “what’s missing” chant guessing the missing vocabulary word before they wanted to change games.

Because many of these students know that I’m Oliver’s mom, they expect me to speak English and they do their best to answer me in English when I give them instructions or ask them questions. Although I can sense a high level of frustration when they don’t know what I’m asking them to do, I’m trying to read their clues and keep my instructions and my expectations as low-key as possible. Generating enthusiasm and interest in the English language is my primary goal. I’m not trying to replace their classroom teachers; I’d just like a chance to make their English language experience a bit more fun and hopefully more productive as time goes on.

I don’t have all the wrinkles ironed out of my English program yet. In fact, I doubt that I will anytime soon. Still, I’m grateful that I’ve taken the challenge.

To balance out my new professional life, I’ve started taking piano lessons, too. My teacher, Irina, is a young, talented pianist with little tolerance for sloppy hand position or improperly played scales. I’ve had three lessons so far, and in my last one I was intimidated near to tears because my pinkie finger kept flying off the piano, and I couldn’t get the proper curve in my hand when I played ascending and descending notes.

I’ve got a ways to go with my piano, but when I put myself in the role of a student I see how important it is to be a good teacher. I’m determined to find a way to get my wiggly second graders to focus and have fun learning English. It’s got to be easier than practicing my scales.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Lisa ve Vrchlabi November 13, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Congratulations on the new business venture! I’ve been away from your blog for a long time but was happy to see you still writing insightful, entertaining articles that I can completely relate to. 😉 I am also teaching English a bit more this year – last year I had both kid and adult students but this year is primarily adults. Like you, I am trying to give my students a fun experience, focused on speaking and generating interest in the language (and a bit of culture – we just had a unit that included a scene from ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!’) through games and activities. I have found the same thing that you have – my lesson plans that work for my Wednesday students don’t always work for my Thursday students. I am getting better and better at improvisation. 😉 Hope you’re enjoying it – it sounds like your students are having fun!

    Take care,
    Lisa in the Krkonose

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