Friday, June 20, 2008

Advice to My Replacement Part 2: Games

I tried to treat teaching like counter-insurgency. These little kids are hanging out and having fun, and all of a sudden their mom turns off the TV, throws them in the back of the van, and ships them off to extra school. I am the despotic lord of their new world, and they are the directionless peasants under my thumb.

As with any all-powerful despot, you have 2 main options for controlling an unruly populace- the carrot or the stick. In general, I was pretty "carroty." My guess was that if the kids were busy being afraid during class they wouldn't be learning much. Plus, who wants to go to a school were the teacher is some arrogant ass who's into scaring little kids into obedience? I've had teachers like that, and it's no fun.

So as the year wore on, these were my operating principles:

1. Kids hate forced learning.
2. They love games.
3. Their attention span is really really short.
4. They love violence.
5. Class works better if they're always a little tired and a little off-balance.

Eventually, I was able to work all of this into a method for making lesson plans. I solved number 5 by asking for a bunch of big rubber balls to be stocked in our classroom. Have you thrown around a bouncy rubber ball lately? It's fun as hell, and it's like kryptonite to children. They can't resist. You know those cows that, given an unlimited food supply, will eat until their stomachs explode? It's like that.

If there were a few balls in the class room, the kids would instantly come in before class and play dodgeball/soccer/volleyball/ until they were sweating profusely and exhausted. This made them way more mellow and easy to control during the succeeding hour of class. They just didn't have the energy for their usual bastardry anymore.

As for the actual classes, I just tried to make those into one spastic game session. I worked off the assumption that kids can pay attention to something for like 5 minutes, max. I tried to always keep them moving, standing up, sitting down, talking loud, talking quiet, just keeping things moving as much as possible. Everything that could be turned into some kind of competition, was. If I say "He has crackers" and I want them to repeat it, I would make it a competition between 2 students to see who could do it first...that kind of thing. They go from not caring at all about English in a regular setting to it being of life-or-death importance when it's framed as a game.

All of the games would last for about 3 minutes or so, and after about a year we could cram in like 10-15 games in one 50-minute session. In the very beginning, we were doing a paltry 2 or 3 games per session.

The last thing, and one I didn't do enough of, is to keep the kids slightly off-balance. Every once in a while, I would just randomly stop class and call on a student to answer a question. Usually someone who wasn't paying much attention. This can interrupt the flow of class, but it's pretty good for keeping students on their toes. I never found a good way to do that while preserving the rhythm of class.

Anyway, once I got all this stuff institutionalized into the lesson plans, we were able to shred through the material like Godzilla through downtown Tokyo. It's amazing how fast these little bastards can learn when they're halfway engaged. By the end of the year they could have absorbed 3 times the material we had scheduled for one class.

So to sum it all up: make it fun first, and the learning will follow inevitably.

Any of the other teachers reading this: you have more experience than me, so feel free to throw in your own 2 yen.


d said...

Looks like you re-invented "Dynamic English", especially the sweating part.

Nate said...

I don't think I re-invented anything. I think I figured out by necessity what children's teachers have had to do since they outlawed the hickory switch as a focusing tool.

David Medeiros said...

Hey Nate,

I've checked your blog a couple of times now and find it pretty awesome. I think that your advise to new teachers is pretty much spot on - I'm glad that you were able to work in more games into the schedule. This is something I struggled with, as there were some pre-conceived notions I was fighting against. Therefore, I occasionally had to be a bit more of a 'stick' teacher sometimes, using fewer carrots.

However, I do think that the proverbial stick has a place. First, kids need to learn to respect one another, even when not tired. Now, asking teachers - especially foreign ones - to teach kids respect is a pretty tall order. Ideally, the teacher can reinforce what is being taught at home. Of course, respect is often not taught at home. I found this a lot in Japan, more so when teaching at Banks Elementary, and even more so teaching in Austria. Of course, what counts as 'respect' and 'respectful behavior' are subjective to culture and background, so I may be out of line here.

Second, I want to comment on using competition. Although I think it is true that most children (and again, this is culturally specific, but what I am about to say is, I think, very true of Japan) do well with competition, I think that probably 1-or-so in 10 don't. So one has to keep this non-competitive student's needs in mind.

It's a hard balance, kind of like a greater needs of the group versus individual's rights problem. In your situation, it's probably always better to err on the side of competition/exhaustion.

In any case, it seems like you are doing a great job. You are certainly doing a great job with this blog; I've laughed out loud numerous times.

Keep up the good work!

Nate said...

David- great comment, thanks. That's something I occasionally worried're about right with the 1 in 10 not doing well with the games, and I hoped that they got their fix during the "non-game" stuff like writing practice and reading practice. And if not...well, they shouldn't have entered Nate's English Thunderdome.

These kids seem to somewhat respect each other and, shockingly, me. The bad part about having crappy Japanese is not knowing exactly how far the kids are going when they're talking to their friends...there could be mega-disses left and right and I wouldn't ever be 100% sure.

Thanks for the compliment. I do it for the lulz.

denwanai said...

d is right -

Games are the only way to teach kids. We had slap games - with nouns and verbs on cards or two teams racing to the board to write something, or matching games, or board games, or all kinda happy fun games. Of course, the team that was winning would usually be either tripped up, or interfered with in a funny way, so there was usually laughter instead of sore losers.

Mix up the games slightly every time, and do fast ones, slow ones, sitting ones, etc. The kids always enjoyed the silly stuff, like those inflatable mallets that squeak when you hit the noisy kid on the head or telling the students to do random silly things like; stand up, spin and sit down, roll over or any variation of duck, duck, goose.

Just keep 'em guessing and they will come back for more.You are obviously a disciple of the dynamic english genre and an excellent teacher. Your students will miss you.


Nate said...

Sounds like you fostered a healthy attitude towards competition in your classes.

My theory was "well, if I pretend to take these games seriously, the kids will too, and if I blow them off like a joke, the kids won't pay attention." So in the beginning I always treated the games really seriously.

Sometimes things got a little too hardcore. These kids would be sprinting their little legs off to hit the vocabulary card with the hammer to try and get that all important point on the white board.

At least 2 students cried because they wanted to win so bad and lost. After that I toned the seriousness back a bit and it's been a lot more light-hearted.