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June, 2010:

Tips for Teaching Teens (by Michelle Worgan)

Part of the series: Stuff All EFL Teachers Should Know

While trying to have a quick nap on a hot Friday afternoon in Southern Spain, I started thinking of what to write about for this guest post. Two ideas came to me – the first being the use of puppets in the early learner classroom, and the other being how to successfully teach teenagers. I’ve decided to leave the puppet post for my own blog sometime soon, and to write here about teaching teenagers.

In most ELT situations, a teacher will more often than not end up having to teach teenagers at some point. In private institutions, children are the most lucrative students, starting when they are young and hopefully (from the teacher’s and owner’s point of view – even if their reasons are different) continuing at least until they go to university.

However, for many teachers this age group is the bane of their career. It can be incredibly difficult to create a positive learning environment in which adolescents feel happy, secure, valued and motivated to learn. The reasons for this are many: teenagers are going through many physical and emotional changes, including changes in their brains (see Naomi Moir’s post on the OUP blog; they would normally prefer to be somewhere else on a sunny afternoon; if they do want to come to class it may be because it is where the rest of their friends are, as a kind of social club; peer pressure is at its highest and this can have a very negative effect during a lesson; and they may even be suffering from stress and exhaustion due to their demanding school and after school commitments.  These are just a few of the reasons why it can be extremely difficult to provide successful lessons and courses with this age group.

I have taught a fantastic group of teenagers over the past two years, and I think it will be useful to look at aspects of our teacher-student relationship to see why in this particular case, the course has been successful.

The First Day

The first few days are crucial to the way the course will run.  The students will make unconscious decisions during this time about what kind of teacher you are and it is essential to let them know that while you may be relaxed and friendly, you will not accept any nonsense. With an exam course like the one I have been teaching, I spend a large part of the first lesson explaining what will be expected of them during the next two years. I make sure they are conscious of the amount of work they will be doing both in and out of class and how important the pace of the course is, if they want to reach their objectives (in this case, passing the exam).

You may hear lots of moans when you make it clear that they are going to have to work hard, but generally I find that most teenagers expect to have to put in a bit of effort, and this usually motivates them. It is really important that they are motivated, especially if it is a two year course.

Good Cop Vs Bad Cop

I consider myself to be quite strict with teenage exam prep groups, and contrary to popular belief, research has shown that firm but fair teachers are preferred by this age group. Although you may be tempted to treat a group of sixteen year olds as adults, the fact is that emotionally they are not. Even though they may look like adults and demand to be treated like one, they don’t usually have the emotional balance and reason that an adult usually has. This means that if you do talk to them as if they were your friends or peers, they will often use this as an excuse not to study or do as you ask. At the end of the day, most teenagers don’t have the maturity to choose progress over fun and games, and you will find it much more difficult to get them to put in the required effort.

However, this doesn’t mean that you have to bear the stick constantly – give them a carrot when they have been working hard! The idea is you are seen to be in control of the class – something that teenagers consider a quality of a good teacher. Rewards such as games and other fun activities can be a great incentive to get the work done. Do make sure though, that you do give them the rewards you promise, otherwise they will just think that there is no point in doing the work.

Short-Term Goals

For you the school year may fly by and as soon as you know it, June is here again. For the average fifteen year old though, a year can be a very long time. In a two-year course such as the one I’ve been teaching, you need to provide students with plenty of goals to work towards during the course. Trying to get students to study for an exam that they will sit in two year’s time is almost impossible. Even if you constantly remind them of the exam, they will not see it as something realistic until about three months before. This means that you must set them regular goals that they can achieve in order to keep motivation as high as possible. You can discuss and negotiate these goals with your students, keeping them involved.

Motivation

One of the questions constantly posed by teachers of teenagers is “How can I motivate them? They aren’t interested in anything!” If you ask a group of teenagers what topics they would like to cover in class, they will come up with very few. Even if you do bring in some materials you have found about their interests, you will inevitably find that they show the same amount of enthusiasm as if they were the typical course book unit about the environment. The problem, I find is not the actual topic of the lesson, but the type of activities involved. Most course book pre-reading tasks for example, do not make you want to read! Trying to get a learner to read through a gapped text before attempting to fill in the gaps is a nightmare, usually because the text is about something not at all interesting and the student has no incentive to read. Imagine you have a text about someone who survived a shark bite. Instead of just asking your students to read, tell them the story from the survivor’s point of view from the beginning, but stopping before the end. Now ask what happened next, encouraging all kinds of funny or even gory answers, and then get them reading! The main thing is, unless you want to spend hours before every lesson trying to find interesting teenage material and planning lessons, to find fun ways to exploit the materials they already have in their course books.

Humour

One of the reasons why I have enjoyed teaching this particular group of teens is that we have had some brilliant moments of laughter. Sometimes I have been the instigator and sometimes they have. Although I have made the students work really hard and cover as much as possible every lesson, a good laugh now and again can motivate teenagers to want to come to class. I started this by making up stories, usually to introduce some grammar point, that they actually believed (like having sprained my ankle – lots of limping around the classroom), and then got a bit of a reputation as a fibber! However, this gave me and the students an opportunity to relax. When they saw that I was prepared to joke with them, they were much happier about working. They would themselves decide to work hard so that later they could have a bit of a laugh. I had the odd trick played on me (in a nice way) that had me crying with laughter.

I do believe that teenage groups can be the most rewarding. When you see how much progress they have made, when they have become more responsible for their own learning, how they have grown up and when you and they both feel sad on the last day of the year because you won’t see each other for three months, then it is really worth it.

I have been teaching English for over ten years, mostly in Spain. For the past eight years I have been living and teaching in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz. I love teaching children and I have a blog mostly devoted to Young Learner related issues and activities called So This Is English and you can find me on Twitter as @michelleworgan.

What You Can Learn From My PLN Quiz #4 (June 28)

Part of the series: My Personal Learning Network

Congratulations!

Colin Graham

Catherine Dorgan

Harini Dwi

Janet Bianchini (more…)

What You Can Learn from My PLN Quiz #3 (June 23)

Part of the series: My Personal Learning Network

Congratulations!

Arjana Blazic

Catherine Dorgan

Jane Barden

Katerina Zempeki-Stamelou

Leahn Stanhope

Marisa Parvan (more…)

Animal Magic with Young Learners (by Leahn Stanhope)

Part of the series: Stuff All EFL Teachers Should Know

I was initially very flattered when Barbara asked me to write a guest post, then my happy feeling turned to mild panic. Finally I just decided to write so here we are. This post is dedicated to one of my favourite ‘props’ for the young learner classroom which are SMALL PLASTIC ANIMALS. I like using a range of props which I keep in brightly coloured bags and clothes hampers. (more…)

A socializing game: Driver’s seat (by Anne Hodgson)

A few weeks ago I was teaching a group of personal and team assistants (PAs) I hadn’t met before how to assist international teams. This group didn’t need to go over critical incidents they’d had with foreign team members. Instead, they said their biggest challenge was making small talk with their visiting American team members. So that’s what we practiced.

(more…)

What you can learn from my PLN Quiz #2 (June 18)

Part of the series: My Personal Learning Network

Congratulations!

Anne Hodgson

Arjana Blazic

Janet Bianchini

Leahn Stanhope (more…)

Long Ago Lessons in a Japanese High School

Part of the series: Lessons Learned from Students

Back with the ink was barely dry on my MATESOL, I had a group of students from whom I learned many, many lessons. This post is about three of those lessons…

The setting: A once-a-week English class at a high school in Japan, in the mid 1980s.

The characters: Sixty 16-year old boys who had never seen a foreign person “up close and personal” and me, a teacher who still thought she actually knew something about teaching and whose Japanese repertoire consisted of hello, thank you, and I’m lost. (more…)

What you can learn from my PLN (June 13)

Part of the series: My Personal Learning Network

This post is inspired by several things: The “It’s worth taking a look at this blog” initiative that had folks recommending blogs they liked, Darren Elliot’s call for us to find and recommend hidden gems from blog archives, and my own (long neglected) posts about “What I’ve learned from my PLN.” (PLN stands for Personal Learning Network. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, read “What is a PLN, anyway?”) (more…)

Digital Digits: Creative Ideas for Finger Plays (by Shelly Sanchez Terrell)

I teach students between the ages of two- and six-years-old. When you teach young learners you discover how much they love finger plays. The children memorize the English quickly and are able to repeat the words and actions on their own.

Introducing the Finger Play

Finger plays are best used in the classroom with the children watching you and modeling your actions. Try having the children sit in front of you or in a circle. We like to sit on pillows on the floor. You may also want to use a felt board to begin introducing the vocabulary. Put up the characters in the order they will appear in the finger play. Place the name above each character. For example, for the Incy Wincy Spider I put a spider, a water spout, the sun, and the rain. I have the children repeat the words. When possible I also vary the voices for each character. I want the children to visualize the characters in order for them to remember the words that go with that character. (more…)

Formative Assessment (by Matthew Spira)

I was thirty-two years old the first time I stepped into a kindergarten classroom as an English instructor. Because I previously had fairly extensive leadership experience as a military officer, the general manager of a multi-million dollar software company, and as an operations manager within a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, I just didn’t think teaching children was going to present all that much of a challenge. How hard could it really be?

As you are probably guessing, those were indeed famous last words.

What do you mean children don’t instantly do what you tell them to do? What do you mean they don’t sit still? What do you mean they don’t want to do the “fun” activity I meticulously planned? What do you mean they have “accidents?” What do you mean they cry… all of them at the exact same time?

My first month as a functionally untrained and unprepared “teacher” was as disorienting as the first few days of military basic training had been, which was the only other time in my life I’d felt so lost. However, something I’ve always understood is even when you don’t know what to do, you still have to do something. So I did what made the most sense to me: I researched. I sought out advice. I observed other teachers. I experimented with different combinations of methods and materials, and I tried to pay attention to what did and didn’t seem to be working. After a teaching session, I reflected on what had happened and worked to understand why. I continued to voraciously research, prepare, apply, assess and try to improve.

Once I got out of absolute survival mode I started to realize that I was, in fact, applying skills and techniques I had picked up in my previous professional lives. My approach to lesson planning was essentially the Army’s “operations order” and “after action review” combined together. It might be surprising to hear, but once I adjusted to the frame of reference of their concerns and needs, I found the dynamics of classroom management of children in a number of respects to not be all that different from what it takes to lead a platoon in the military or supervise teams of technical support agents and customer service representatives in a call center. It’s still leadership, which has many different styles but a fairly universal set of key characteristics. How I was defining and measuring what I was observing in my classroom, and then the effort to create a coherent narrative from the data to understand performance was for all intents and purposes what my job description had been as a manager of workforce planning, forecasting and analysis.

Six months later, just as I feeling like I was settling into the role of teacher, and even enjoying it, (but at the same time looking forward to the summer break scheduled to start the following week,) we were called into the academic director’s office and informed that the school was closed, effective immediately. So instead of being on vacation that next Monday I was in a new environment and starting the process of mapping what I thought I knew about teaching to an entirely new set of students… only to discover what I thought were my key hard-won “lessons learned” didn’t completely translate from one school to another.

Fast forward another eight years, and while I don’t by any stretch of the imagination feel like I’m an “expert” teacher, I now have around 12,000 classroom/teaching hours under my belt. I’ve taught kindergarten to adult, from 1:1 tutoring sessions to class sizes ranging up to 70 students. While I haven’t taught every type of English class, or every kind of student, I have covered a fair chunk of the ELT territory. I do feel like I have my proverbial legs under me. At the same time, I often get the sense I’m still just scratching the surface, and it’s absolutely a case of “the more I learn, the less I know.” Consequently, in many respects I’m pushing myself harder now then when I first got started.

It is that last point which is really the key to my theme. Recently, the professional basketball player Ron Artest had one of the biggest moments of his life: he made the winning basket in a crucial, hard fought game. What did he do to celebrate? He went to the gym and exercised. He prepared for the next game.

You can do internet searches for “formative assessment techniques” or “informal assessment,” “continuous process improvement, “principles of leadership,” or any number of relevant topics to what I’ve discussed. However, without the personal desire to try and get better on consistent basis it just doesn’t mean very much. It is a truism about leadership that it has to be demonstrated by example. Applied to EFL, this means we teachers need to genuinely model the behaviors we expect from our students.

I am going to finish this post by offering one specific formative assessment technique I find to be extraordinarily useful. If you have a young learner who isn’t a true beginner, but is consistently struggling with comprehension, simply ask him or her to write the entire alphabet from A to Z, big and small letters, and observe as he or she does it.

I’ll let you discover for yourself what you can learn about your young learners from this task.

My intention when I started writing this post was to discuss and make specific suggestions about “formative” assessment techniques for use with young learners in the classroom or other educational context. Formative assessment covers the range of diagnostic things a teacher, tutor, mentor or parent can do to assist and improve the process of learning by his or her young learners on an ongoing basis. As I kept thinking about my topic, and about my personal approach to continuous process improvement–which is what formative assessment essentially is–what I started to realize and come to strongly believe to be something “all EFL teachers should know” is that analysis–the steps taken to understand something–is more of a mindset and attitude, and not just a collection of techniques. (more…)