Has this ever happened to you?
You discover some new thing, something you weren’t really familiar with previously, and suddenly you notice it everywhere. This happened with the first car I bought: a 1964, baby blue VW beetle; 400 dollars and sporting a homemade wooden floor. It got me through my university summer job, and that’s all that counted. The funny this was, though, that having bought a VW beetle, I suddenly noticed how many others were also out on the road. They were, in fact, everywhere. The same goes for pregnant women. It is not until you, or your partner, is pregnant that you suddenly imagine that half the world is pregnant along with you. It is hyperbolic, for sure, but it sure feels like there are expectant mothers everywhere. This very same phenomenon is happening in my classroom, with what I have coined as, “SLOW moments”.
These “spontaneous learning opportunity windows (SLOW)” are moments that I have grown to love and cherish. I define them as those serendipitous moments when everyone is suddenly focused on exactly the same thing. It may be triggered by a student’s comment, a joke, a mistaken answer, something from the textbook, or something the teacher has just said. At that moment, everyone’s brain has stopped and a small window has opened. If the teacher is ready, it is very easy at that moment to slide something through the window and into the student’s brain. It actually gets easier and easier the more you keep an eye or an ear open for these SLOW moments. After 2 years, I now get at least five or six chances per lesson. The bonus is that when they happen, the students think that I’m off-script and therefore something “fun” might happen – and it does! They all learn something – and that is about the most fun there is.
This classroom interaction opportunity and strategy is a part of learning to improve your teaching techniques during a class. Richards and Lockhart point out that ‘teaching is essentially a thinking process [which] involves making a great number of individual decisions’ (1996: 78). These decisions are planning decisions, interactive decisions or evaluative decisions. Certainly, decisions both before and after a lesson have a great advantage in terms of time. However busy one may be, there is still the luxury of time to think before having to take action. Since interactive decisions must be made immediately on the spot, it is in our interest to learn what we can here and spend time honing these interactive planning skills as quickly as we can in the “live” classroom. Among other researchers who have focused on classroom interaction, some of my favorite educators include: Allright, D. (1988); Bailey, K.; Wajnyrb, R. (1992); Tsui, A.; and Nunan, D., because they consistently deliver a clear and useful message.
So, how is a teacher to exploit a SLOW moment? I’ll describe 5 types or scenarios that have all happened this year in one of my classes, and roughly how I’ve exploited them. First, though, there are three things necessary to become adept at exploiting a slow moment: confidence, awareness of the syllabus and the ability to “riff” like a jazz musician. If you don’t believe in yourself when you go off-script, you risk the students also not believing you in the SLOW moment. That’s when things can go wrong: the most common problem is that the group loses their cohesiveness and chattering ensues. Then you’ve lost them – not forever – but certainly for this SLOW opportunity. Secondly, you need to know the syllabus so you can make sure that everyone succeeds in being able to do what you ask them to do, using meaningful language that isn’t too far away from what you’re doing or have done in the past. Finally, riffing simply means improvising, but being able to stay on one track or one theme. So, here are some examples of a few catalysts of SLOW moments:
Rumi complains that she’s hungry (“Onaka heta”). Rumi is always hungry, every week, like clockwork. I call out, “Rumi is hungry again. Rumi, this morning I had a big breakfast. I had 2 pieces of toast – one with peanut butter and one with honey. I also had a cup of coffee and a glass of water. What did you have? Nothing? Really? Everyone – Why do you think Rumi didn’t have any breakfast? (Elicit, elicit, feedback, etc) OK, let’s give Rumi some good ideas to help her fix her life. Rumi, I think you should _____. Anyone else? What should Rumi do? Does anyone remember what I had for breakfast? Did anyone eat more than me today?”
Chikako reports, “I went *to shopping and *studying English last night.” I call out, “Double chance! Can anyone find any small mistakes with [I went *to shopping and *studying English last night.]? Can anyone else give me a two-verb sentence about last night? Can anyone ask Chikako if she bought anything cool?”
Miki asks, “What’s on the test?” I call out, “Miki chan loves tests! Miki, what do you think is on the test? If you were Steve, what would you put on the test? Everyone, ask your partner, “What do you think TERRIBLE Steve will put on the test?” Ready… Go. (time passes…) OK, let’s review what could be on the test.”
Hiroko suggests, “Let’s play a game today.” I call out, “Hiroko is the queen of “killing time” What does it mean in Japanese? Yes, exactly, jikan wo tsubusu. In this class, who else is good at killing time? Oh, yeah. Which teachers are weak against these killing time queens? Everyone, ask your partner, “How do you sometimes kill time?”
Yuri writes, “I take *on the train to school every day.” I’m walking around the room, watching students during a writing assignment. When I see this mistake, I call out, “Wow, Yuri, you are a very macho girl. Everyone, do you know how macho Yuri is? Every morning, she takes on* the train (I gesture putting on a train like a backpack). There are two or three good ways to say this. Anyone? Yes, “take the train”, “catch the train”, “get the train”… great. Everyone, be careful, though. Don’t make Yuri angry.
This technique is actually full of hidden bonuses: it builds extra rapport with students, it teaches students to learn from other students, it promotes consciousness-raising of grammatical patterns, it feels like it isn’t studying because unscripted lessons are so rare, and it encourages active participation by both instigators and students who respond to my questions.
The more you invest time into observing, recording and reflecting on what is ACTUALLY happening in your classroom, the more you will learn to handle classroom interaction better, and the closer you will come to becoming a master of classroom interaction. And those 45 or 90 minutes with the students have a disproportionally high influence in determining what they do with English or how they think about English for the other 10,000 minutes of the week.
Steven Herder (September 2009)
Allright, D. (1988). Observation in the language classroom. Longman: New York.
Richards, J. & Lockhart, C. (1996). Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wajnryb, R. (1992). Classroom observation tasks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Special thanks to Barbara Sakamoto for her inspiration to use NOTES as a writing venue.