Being a better teacher

Unplugged (literally)

Recently I caught myself on a total attachment to my laptop: I was taking it with me to all the classes, no matter what age, topic or materials I used. In some cases, we had an electronic version of the book, sometimes – online materials or listening but often there was a speaking class with no technology involved. Somehow, it looks professional: the teacher entering the classroom empty-handed seems to be unprepared and light-headed. What is he going to do? Hasn’t he prepared worksheets for practice and a song which presents the grammar point in a nice way? Oh no…

Also, there is a little shock when the head teacher sends you to the classroom with the kids you’ve never seen before. And the class starts right now, just keep them busy for those 40 minutes. My mind starts jumping through no prep activities, those with guessing words or some group projects “Draw your dream and tell about it”. Well, we all know this stuff; but somewhere deep inside there is always an idea making its way to the surface: you don’t know the kids, what if they speak zero English? I am already tired (will be so tired after my classes)… So why don’t we watch a movie? or a cartoon (depends on the age). Certainly, with subtitles. I will even sometimes stop it and ask questions to check understanding… And after a short mental fight, you end up with the laptop, relying on it more than ever.

This winter I decided that it’s time to unplug my laptop and face the class without the technological veil. The results were quite interesting and I’d like to share my conclusions.

  • After a relaxed habit of relying on the laptop and material which keep my students involved (without me doing anything), I felt like an astronaut in the open space without that rope, which can pull you back into the spaceship. It was like balancing on a thin line. But it was opening a new perspective.
  • Teaching with lots of technology steals from students the most important thing: the habit of learning. With literally everything on the board, they get relaxed and not as concentrated as they could be. Listen to the page number? Well, it’s written here, no need to bother. If the page is already on the board, sooner or later the answers will appear there as well, no need to worry about it.
  • The most “forgotten skill” surprisingly, turned out to be listening. Students don’t take teacher’s comments or peers’ replies as a listening practice. But when it’s “Unit 7, exercise 4; listen and answer the questions”, read by a specially chosen person with a nice British accent – well, yes, that’s what I am going to listen to, worth my efforts and reasonably short. It leads to two problems: 1) students lose to chance to get the most authentic listening possible – to learn something they don’t know yet. For example, what they are going to do next. 2) The habit of listening to specific parts only stretches far beyond the borders of the lesson. After a while students may find themselves “off”, not following the answer to the question they just asked. Even from the foreigner in the “real discussion” context.
  • There is a huge gap between entertaining lessons with music, moving objects, automatically shown answers, games and whatever else and a typical assessment form in schools: a sheet of paper with questions, multiple-choice, fill in the gap and, the worst possible, writing task. When they need to write with a pen. A lot. On time. And that striking difference between the fun part of the class and the lonely time with the exam paper in a totally different format. Honestly, I don’t know what to do with this. But there should be some improvement.
  • What is the worst thing possible when your lesson is planned for the laptop? The total blackout. Sure, it happens once in a while. But other little troubles may spoil your day. You made all the preparations for the task. Students expect the game. Everyone is ready. And then the internet is gone. The speakers or the projector stopped working. The cable fell apart and there is no way to fix it. You know those situations.
    You have to find another off-line activity right now. Lucky you, if it can be easily transferred. But if it was an online game with no way to make it happen – you need a plan B. We are supposed to have it always, but… But you already spent an hour choosing the right materials and thinking through the connections between them.
    The success of the new turn of the lesson is 50/50. If it was the practice part, you can do without it, just some speaking, not a big deal. If it was a song for the start of the lesson and you planned to pick from it great examples of the grammar point – you are in trouble, unless you are ready to sing it yourself.
  • I enter the class, say high and go through the cables. I connect my laptop, check the image and the sound. Open the right page, adjust the sound, zoom in. Turn the page, zoom out. Re-attach the cable when a child occasionally pulls it out. All of this is happening around the teacher’s table. Wireless mouse does a great job, but still, the attachment to the table is strong. It annoys. I like to move around the classroom, to be closer to my students. Plus these are seconds that count up to valuable minutes.
    When I enter the class with the course book only, I start the lesson immediately and without delays, because here I am, here you are, why should we waste our time?
  • I want to have more of my students in the lesson. Their ideas, suggestions, feelings. Certainly, I’ll ask them lots of personal questions, but I know and they know, that the class is planned ahead and if the video I’ve prepared is about pandas, the no polar bears even though I’ll certainly listen about them. And if no one mentioned panda, I’ll do my best to elicit this word.
    To share what students really want and think, they need time. Not like the time to find the words, but a feeling of the spare time to really talk to the teacher. Understanding, that they can influence the lesson flow. With the laptop in class they, usually, follow the flow and are not as creative as they can be.

 

I have to tell that I am not against the technology in the classroom, nothing like that. But there should be a good reason to use it. And there is no good reason to use it constantly, every single lesson.
These points are applicable for skype lessons as an online platform is a form, not the content of the class.

And, the last one, all of this is my experience only. I teach in a private school. Kids. 24 students in a class and the discipline is not the best part of their schooling. A cartoon or a song give a valuable break to the teacher and keep students safe and quiet for some time. Just that there is a trap that doing it one the teacher can start overusing it, turning into a lazy teacher with poor rapport.

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