A Drop and a Drop Out Through the Rock

Can we break through the "toughest" students? (Photo by Marcelo A.H. Penna on Flickr - CC License)

My latest post was about new beginnings and the challenges that commonly come with them… Challenges can be so motivating! But sometimes we work and work at them and see no progress… And that is soooo frustrating! But sometimes I think teachers become frustrated because we set our expectations too high, we are too ambitious.

Don’t get me wrong… I think we should set expectations high and be ambitious (unlike many people I see ambition – within limits of course! – as a very positive thing. It drives us to be and do better.)

But this post is about celebrating little victories. It’s about not being taken down by not making progress with an entire group, but being able to reach one student. About not convincing all the students to do something, but having one of them buy the idea. I’ve had a few little victories this semester (we’ve had about 2 months of class so far, and the deadline for midterm is a week away). And I feel like sharing them, and maybe giving a few teachers who might be frustrated right now, a little hope :-).

My most challenging group this semester is a group of 10 “somewhat” beginners, the average age being 13 (currently reviewing simple past, soon to learn present perfect). Half the class is made up of excellent students who came from lower levels because of their outstanding performance. The other half is made of students who have been having a hard time with English for a long time and are currently re-taking the level. Quite an interesting group I’d say. One student in particular (from the weaker part of the class) called my attention. Bad attitude, refused to speak English, never did the homework, always trying to distract others… I initially tried the traditional techniques… Called her attention, refused to respond when spoken in L1, threatened to call the parents (which I did once), explained how her grades would suffer… all to no avail. Then something came to mind. She is a very outspoken girl, exhales self-confidence. And I know (from personal experience) that many times the ones who seem confident are actually very insecure (and the other way around). So I decided to approach it differently. I tried not to put the spotlight on her, not ask her to give answers out loud. But during the class I’d walk by her and ask questions about trivial things – her weekend, a new song, a new purse she brought to class, etc… and as she spoke Portuguese I’d try to convince her to at least mix Portuguese and English. I’d ask questions to get her to talk. I showed true interest. And I didn’t correct her – well, maybe a bit of recasting… hard not to. Well, today she spent an entire class without speaking Portuguese. And I’d like to think it’s a result from the new way of dealing her. Easing the pressure. Giving her space and showing interest. And she’s been doing homework too! I left the classroom fulfilled today because of that one little victory. Does two months seem like a long time? Maybe it does, and maybe it is. But we have to be persistent…and patient.

On another group my challenge has been to have them buy the idea of the electronic portfolio (which is our school’s tool for evaluation as you can read about here ). They’ve had bad experiences I suppose and started the semester voicing their hatred for the efolio. I reasoned, tried to show the benefits and finally (basically) said: too bad, sorry you don’t like it but it’s how we evaluate, deal with it. There was one student in particular who never missed a chance to voice her (negative) opinion about it. But, given no other option, she started doing it. And I made a personal point of checking all updates from her efolio on the same day. I left comments (our efolios greatly resemble Facebook) on every post she put up. Never correcting accuracy, but always asking questions and commenting on the content. She started responding to the comments and posting more often – maybe to see what I’d comment? All I can say is that a week before the deadline for submitting portfolios, hers is done – it’s got all the required activities and more. She’s been posting a lot about things she enjoys, things she comes across… I think I brought her to the light side of the force ;-) That made my day as well. Sometimes it pays off to forget the language a bit (even if just on the surface) and focus on the person.

The last one is a student from the same group as the girl I’ve just mentioned. As the rest of his classmates, this learner cringed at the idea of the portfolio. And he hated when I assigned a new project. In the handbook we use we have a “poster time”, where students should try to put themselves in the shoes of the opposite gender (the unit’s topic is Men X Women), and make a poster with disadvantages of being of the opposite sex (always easier to think of the advantages, isn’t it? I like to think differently). This poster was traditionally done with big white papers and markers. I transferred it to the virtual world and introduced them to Glogster. And told them to do the poster using it. This student not only did a great job – he loved the tool – but also started doing a lot of writing posts for his efolio using Glogster (he asked me if it was ok). He likes adding a song that he thinks fits the mood/topic of the writing, using decorative images, etc… We’re talking about students who were not only resistant to technology but especially, that hated writing (why is it so hard to get students motivated to write?!?!). They moan when I assign a writing – be it as homework or classwork. But this particular student was motivated to do his writing assignments in a different way. Double victory for me: got him to write more and use technology as well.

What I take from all of this? Make my way to my objectives one student at a time (which reminds me of the Starfish tale). Be happy with what you get. Sometimes focusing on the person instead of the learner is more effective. Students will write if motivated. Trust your instincts. Don’t give up.

P.S.1 – I realize I’ve been posting less regularly, but in my defense I’m taking the distance delta with IH London and it’s taking a big toll on my “free” time. i apologize and ask for sympathy from my fellow teachers. ;-) I miss blogging, but I have a goal!

P.S.2 – I have more ideas that I’ve been using to motivate students, web tools I’ve been using. If you’re interested I’ll be sharing some of them this Friday, as I fill in for Shelly Terrell on the American Tesol Institute Free Friday Webinar. Come over! 9PM GMT / 5PM Brazil time