By Hogan Gill
Kia Ora my fellow Mikans,
I recently worked myself out of a pickle and thought it worth sharing on the chance anyone else out there was suffering similar sorrows. When I arrived, I was told that along with a Junior High School and three Elementary Schools, every second Wednesday I had two 90-minute Eikaiwa classes at the local community center. The classes were mostly made up of retired folk and housewives who were interested in improving their English ability. But with absolutely zero teaching background, I had no idea how to run these classes.
My first class was easy enough. I brought in a self-introduction powerpoint that I’d designed for JHS. It had oodles of photos of me growing up, my family and of life in New Zealand. Everyone enjoyed seeing the photos and they all had questions, which managed to take up a decent chunk of the 90 minutes. After this I asked everyone to give me a quick self-introduction, this was when I became aware of the variation in English levels. We ranged from the almost fluency of a student who’d lived in the USA for five years, to ones who were struggling with “My name is…”
Come the second class, I was pretty lost as to what to do. I asked them how they would like the classes to run and was met with a wall of silence. Eventually one student made mention of how the classes used to go. Everyone would take a turn at making a short speech about what they had been up to, a news item they had read or a story from their past that they wanted to share. No one seemed opposed to continuing this style of class, so this was how it went for the following year. I would come in, have a 30-40 minute yarn about how life in Japan was for me and what activities I had partaken in, then we would run through each of the students giving short (or sometimes looooong) speeches. Topics included the quarrels with China over who owned the Senkaku Islands, the pretty little hand-woven baskets that someone bought at the local market, and even the training of a particular student’s mind-powers so that he could kill the annoying morning crows with a mere thought. After each speech everyone would clap, I’d try think up a few questions for the speaker, and then everyone would clap again.
These speeches were for the most part entertaining and lesson preparation was obviously minimal. I learned a lot about the class members and was able to sort a bunch of little dramas like where the best dentist was or the most cost efficient way to get to Osaka. There were, however, a few speakers whose presentations were not as interesting (for the other students at least). Some of the heavy political talks for example, had words and content far beyond the capabilities of the others. On occasion these were over 15 minutes long, and I was the only person in the room who could understand the speech.
One fateful day, instead of giving a speech, a student decided to share their views of the class and how it was run. They mentioned that sometimes the talks were “too long and boring” and that they’d like a mix up in the way things were going. I was a little taken back by their bluntness but I appreciated it immensely. I put it forward to the rest of the class to see if they all agreed. Again I was met with the silence wall, but this time I saw a cheeky nod or two.
So it was time to switch things up. However, I was completely lost as to how to teach English to a class of such varied abilities. I asked one of my wisest and most trusted friends, Mr. Google, for some advice and I came to learn that I was not alone in my struggles, and that others out there had been presented with similar issues and come out the other side with a class of satisfied Eikaiwa members.
I began making a word file with all the ideas/activities that I came across, activities where students of any English ability could participate and hopefully learn a thing or two.
Here are a couple of examples:
Print out pictures of people from various countries/ethnicities doing various activities. My pictures ranged from a guy in a suit using a flaming $100 bill to light his cigar to a tribal dude with more piercings in his face than there are words in this article. Number each picture. First, walk around and get each student to pick one picture at random. Then, ask them to write a small self-introduction from the point of view of the person in the picture. After this, collect all the pictures and spread them out, with a few extras thrown in (about 40 pics in total worked well), over a table. Get the students to stand around the table and take turns at reading out their self-intro. The other students must look amongst the pictures on the table and decide which number picture the self-intro was written for. A lot of fun and an interesting insight in to their views of people around the world.
Make a stack of various English words: a mix of nouns, verbs and adjectives works well. Split the students into a few groups and have one student from the first group come to the front of the class. They pick up a word from the pile and try to explain/gesture that word to their group without saying the actually word. For example, I pick out ‘mountain’ and say “It’s very tall, and I can climb it, there is a famous one called Fuji, etc. etc.” If the group guesses the word correctly, the student picks up the next word and tries to explain/gesture it out. Students have one minute to get out as many words as they can, and one point is given for each correctly guessed word. This was always a lot of fun and easy to adapt to a class of varied English abilities. I allowed the lower level students to skip if they didn’t know the word.
-The deck of conversation (You’ll easily find the rules for this one if you give it a Google. Highly recommended.)
-Aesop’s Fables (I changed the stories to easy English in a bunch of fables, we read the stories and discussed the morals)
– Mad Libs
-Yes/No are Forbidden (Everyone has three scraps of paper. They walk around and make conversations with other students, if someone says the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they must hand over a scrap of paper to whomever made them answer yes/no.)
A few months down the road, at the end of a class one student asked if they could say something. They stood up and bravely declared that while the latest range of activities had been entertaining and helpful they would like to be able to have a class of speeches every now and then. Again I put it to the rest of the class, expecting another null response, but this time I got input from several people. They agreed with the other student and suggested that we do an on/off rotation: one week being individual speeches, the next being an activity that I prepare. Along with this there were suggestions of a set of rules to be placed around the speeches. We discussed these for a bit and came to the following list of laws:
1. Speeches must not go longer than 5 minutes.
2. Students are free to ‘pass’ on their turn, should they have nothing to talk about.
3. After each talk, students must form a few questions for the speaker so that it has more of a conversational feel to it.
Now I finally felt that I was doing as decent a job as I could with the students I had. I would come in and have the same 30-40 minute chinwag about my latest adventure(s), then we would move into either the individual talks or the English activity I’d prepared earlier. The students seemed at their happiest with this set up, and it was a fun challenge for me to create exercises that could be done by the varying levels of English. If you’re after the assemblage of activities I collected, just flick me an email at email@example.com, and I’ll forward them on.
And that’s all I have to say about that,
About the contributor: Hogan Gill is a former Saijo-area ALT from New Zealand.
About The Mikan: The Mikan is a blog by and for Ehime JETs. If you would like to contribute, contact Editor Anna Sheffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.