This afternoon I went into class ready to teach something new. I had a plan in mind and I was ready to get learners to talk about life experiences and introduce an aspect of the present perfect in that context. I must admit I do not choose to teach this, we follow a syllabus and the syllabus indicated that this needed to get done. However, nothing went as planned and our school allows for a great degree of flexibility…
This is a very small class of four 4 A2 young learners aged 10. One of these learners had been absent for two and a half weeks and now he was back! Obviously, a lot had happened during those weeks. We started the class as usual, with a lot of revision activities and the classmates soon picked up on the fact that the kid who had been absent was a bit lost. Immediately, I noticed that the other three students were being extremely collaborative. I had two choices, go on with the activities as planned or take another route and adapt it (or change it) to this one learner’s needs. Obviously, I hadn’t planned for this, but these words came out of my mouth “You three are responsible of teaching your classmate what we’ve learned” I guess I thought about that because I firmly believe that when people are engaged in teaching someone else, they understand things better. Moreover, as a student myself, I was absent a lot because my parents used to travel for work, and I remember it was my classmates who always ended up helping me.
No sooner had I said that, than they stood up and told me: “We have to play the acting out game we’ve played before so that he learns the words for different feelings and the difference between –ed and –ing adjectives” obviously they didn’t word it exactly like that, but I got the gist 🙂
Students were soon acting the words embarrassed and explaining the difference between feeling embarrassed and an embarrassing situation. This was obviously done partly in English and also in their L1. I was surprised that they had so much language awareness. They said things like: “Adjectives that end in –ed son como momentaneos, tipo algo que sentis un ratito” (-ed adjectives are used to express temporary feelings) and thus compared them with –ing adjectives. Would this be emergent learning? Possibly, we hadn’t analysed language like this, but by getting learners to think together, this is what emerged.
This was followed by an instance in which these 3 learners got the student who had been absent to add the new words to his vocabulary list, and in some cases started discussing possible translations for some of the adjectives e.g. “frightening” Was I anyhow upset by the use of L1 that was going on? No way! Language awareness is quite abstract and I understand that A2 learners may not be able to express such abstract ideas in L2. Do I think that the use of L1 enhanced learning in this case? Definitely! I know they were using mostly English, but when it was too difficult or they thought it was useful, they used a bit of their own language, and that’s absolutely fine by me.
As you can see in the picture, it was very interesting how students were doing something that I always do when I monitor, which is standing on my knees so that I can be at eye-level with them. They were also catering for learner training, as they themselves were getting this student to take good notes of the new language.
To my surprise, this didn’t finish there, one of the students said “Can I write some exercises on the whiteboard to see if he understands?” Soon, the three students who’d always come to class were coming up with exercises on the whiteboard (see picture). These exercises weren’t completely accurate but the target language was being tested successfully. They wrote down three sentences and the student they were helping had to look at his vocabulary list and choose an appropriate adjective to complete the blank. Finally, I gave them some feedback and expanded on the practice my students had designed by playing a game.
Now, what have I learned from this experience? I’ve learned that as teachers we panic a lot. As YL coordinator, I’ve been told many times “What am I going to do with X who’s been absent a lot?” “What revision activities can I give them?” I myself have panicked numerous times. However, I have noticed that when you teach something well and you cater for students’ needs, the learners themselves pick up on good learning habits and may be able to put this into practice by helping someone else. With freedom and also careful monitoring and feedback when necessary, these learning moments can occur, especially if as teachers we choose to use our learners as the most valuable resource we have every single class. As stated by Paulo Freire, “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.”(Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed: 1972)