Image: Brandon Doran
It's great to talk about what works in our classrooms, isn't it? To revel in the successes, boast in the progression(s), bask in the warm feedback from learners and other teachers.
That's certainly true, but I think the very best "what works" accounts are in relation to things that didn't actually work.
I hope you won't mind me passing on a classroom experience of this sort. It is in relation to the wandrous whiteboard example lesson presented here, but deals with a problem that sprang up in that particular lesson -- one I didn't have time or room to explore in that particular post. I felt it warranted its own space and attention in a new post. This is about things not going to plan, not going the way we might have liked them to. And how precious and useful these bumps in the road can turn out being...
During the early stages of the wandrous whiteboard activity, in the first round of "come up and contribute something to the board", the marker was passed to Brad (his name's not really Brad, but I wanted to protect his privacy -- and anyway, I think he could well be Burma's version of Brad Pitt in terms of looks!).
He held it out to me, and said: "No."
At first I thought he didn't understand, or wasn't able to come up with something. He just needed the usual teacher smile and encouragement. Right? But even as I started on this most common of teacher sales pitches, he interrupted me.
"No," he said.
Loud. Clear. No hint of a smile whatsoever.
This wasn't a humble or uncertain "no, I can't think of something" or not even "no, I'm not ready." This was NO - I'M REALLY NOT UP FOR THIS. MOVE ON, PLEASE. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.
At this point, there is a pause. It only takes a split second, but it is the moment of truth when five streams of awareness shoot through me, kicking different kinds of neurons into gear to help me make a decision and then take action.
The first stream of awareness is a personal, emotional and reactionary one.
What? NO? What's wrong with you, man? We've done this activity before and you seemed to like it... You were up there writing stuff and joking and laughing with your classmates... Why "no" now? This is good for you. This is what I PLANNED for you! Think about the group, man! Stop thinking about yourself! You want to sit there in your comfort zone and pick and choose what you do or don't participate in? How the hell are you going to progress in anything? Is it... me? Are you trying to scuttle my lesson? Rebelling for the sake of it...? Fine! Well, just sit there like a stunned mullett, why don't you? Even better, why don't you just go home?
How... How... How DARE you! Are you trying to RUIN me?
Notice how first person (from the teacher's perspective) this sounds? Thankfully, I've noticed over the years that this reaction passes really quickly (and it has to). It's natural and human for a teacher who has invested in a group and a particular activity, a teacher who is confident and experienced and high on a wave of energy, working with a captive audience, revelling in a benign leadership role.
The second stream of awareness cuts in very quickly (thank goodness!).
Please take a look at me, teacher. When we did this last time, I was in a small group of people I know, who all share my first language and my own experience of fleeing wars in jungles then spending a decade in a refugee camp. Now I have an older Afghan gentleman on either side of me. I don't understand what they're saying, and I don't understand why they keep touching me and each other. I'm not feeling very comfortable at all. And you want me to get up in front of these strangers and demonstrate how very little I know? I'm sorry, but the answer is no. Please don't push the issue. Take that spotlight off me and point it elsewhere, I'm begging you. But try to understand that I can't afford to look like I'm begging you...
This second stream swallows up the first immediately, and gives birth to a third:
Know your students. Understand them. Respect them. Make this lesson about them, not you. Listen! Think!
But there is still a problem, isn't there? The activity has come to an abrupt halt. Has the sun completely vanished from the sky, or is it just a quick eclipse?
The fourth stream of awarness kicks in:
This is about communication. This is about language. Every single event in our classroom, planned or unplanned, twisting or cascading, is a chance to create communication and use language. This student has communicated to you. Go with that, and grow it...
It's at this stage that I begin to take action and start forming a response, but even as I do so, a fifth stream of awareness begins to take shape:
This needs to be integrated into what we're already doing, and I have to figure out how I can take it further -- give it legitimate life and the potential to grow amongst students as the original activity progresses. I can assimilate this into my activity, or I can accommodate it.
All of this happens in about one second. Admittedly, when I was less experienced, it could take four or five seconds to process, and there were times when not all five awareness streams managed to evolve within the single classroom experience and reaction.
Getting back to this particular moment in this particular classroom...
My mouth, which had started to flop open in something resembling a gape as the first awareness stream took hold, closes and morphs into a genuine smile.
Holding Brad's eye, I say:
... thank you."
In that heightened awareness that happens in a classroom moment when all the students have become aware that things have taken an unexpected (and rather uncomfortable) turn, it is now the students' turn to gape at me.
No... thank you?
I let it sink in for a second, then proceed -- through actions, body language and simple examples -- to show the group the essential difference between a blunt "NO" and "No, thank you." I show the potential reactions native speakers will have to the two responses in different situations.
"Would you like a drink?" --> "NO" versus "No, thank you."
"Can I help you carry those books?" --> "NO" versus "No, thank you."
And so on.
The students get it. They like it, and smile, and practice it a bit with each other.
I like it, too. Because I think I've shown Brad (and the class) that I was offering something, not demanding it. Because I think I've shown them that it is okay not to do something in my class. Because I think I've taken this little kernel of a situation and made it about communication and new, useful language oriented around a real-life situation and experience.
I work my way back around to Brad again and ask him: "Would you like to write something on the whiteboard?"
"No... thank you," he says, nice and clearly. And he smiles as he says it.
As we continue the activity around the group, a Karen lady also elects not to participate. "No, thank you," she says brightly when it comes to her turn.
And it's all good.
Well, it is all good, except that by the time we get to her and she gives her response, I have new streams of awareness flowing in (started in that fifth stream I mentioned above), and after acknowledging her response (and decision) I move to show her and the rest of the class the phrase and idea behind "I'll skip this time" -- and how we can merge it onto the end of our already known and already useful "No, thank you" chunk.
So it's all good, and getting better.
If you're a new(er) teacher reading this (and have managed to swim this far!), the point I want to highlight for you from this real classroom experience is the idea of the pivot.
The "pivot" is all about your ability to see signs indicating a turn, or a roundabout up ahead. You could drive straight over a roundabout, of course, and keep going straight ahead on your carefully planned and predetermined course of action. But there is a good chance something will get damaged, and also a chance you will be heading in a direction that is undesirable to or even ignorant of your learners.
At first, it is a bit like trying to spot and negotiate a roundabout. You need to slow down, turn carefully, give yourself time to choose the best new road to take. And there are signs everywhere -- but not all of them are going to point in the right direction in terms of your classroom reaction(s).
But as time and classroom experience with this kicks in, you'll see it more like a coin on the classroom floor. Potential riches just waiting to be gathered...
And learning to turn on a dime is, I think, probably one of the most precious of all teaching skills. It can be the difference between a teacher driving a truck and a teacher who can dance.
Dance with others, that is!