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As the Semester Begins

Well, another season, another semester. I got my schedule, and not to jinx myself, it looks pretty good as it stands… provided it doesn’t change somehow, suddenly, surprisingly.

But I do have a number of other anxieties about the semester. And being the blogger that I am, I am going to go right ahead and get into them in public.

1. I am worried about leveling. I’m supposed to be teaching speechmaking and drama to my Freshmen students, and I have two courses of this. Now, if they’re of a decent level, then I am more than happy to teach this, and it sounds refreshing, fun, interesting. After all, it’s supposed to be more advanced Freshmen who can sign up for these things.

But last semester, my Video English course was supposed to be the same way, and I ended up with a room full of do-nothing Music and Physical Education majors. It was all I could do to get them to work through the workbook in class, or, in some cases, to even get them to not sleep during the video segments, which were unarguably far too hard for the vast majority.

I have this creeping fear that I will have two classes just like this, exzcept that they’ll be trying to make speeches and prepare a stage-play starting from a position of almost zero English. To me, it just doesn’t make sense to offer this course to kids in their first year of English, when they haven’t even gone through a proper applied conversation course and in some cases are unable to have even the simplest of conversations in English. What educational purpose can it serve?

Ah well, maybe I’ll end up with good bunches. But even that eventuality wouldn’t make my concerns about the internal logic of the program disappear.

And of course, there is another anxiety off to the side that, despite the fact I’ve taken drama courses before, and even won awards for my acting, I’m not completely sure what I’m supposed to be doing with a class full of students over the course of a semester teaching drama in an ESL/EFL context.

Should I do half the classes in the classroom, and the other half in some other space, where students are practicing the play, working on expression and blocking and projection? Should we perform a close reading one out of every two classes, piecing together the meaning of what the characters are saying so that the students understand the play? Should I require different classmates to study the same part, maybe even requiring all students to deliver one of the central speeches in the play as part of the midterm and/or final exam?

And what of the speechmaking component? While I’d love to work on speechmaking and presentation with advanced students, if I have a bunch of kids with almost no English, what am I to make of that component of the class? Can I just subsume it into the drama component, since all characters make speeches? Should I give students a crash-course on how giving a real speech works—not just reading off a paper, but actually speaking spontaneously from notes? Can I even do that in Korean? (This is a fair question since my Korean is of comparable level to the majority of my students’ English, and in a number of cases I know even more Korean than they know English.)

And pedagogically, what purpose does the preparation of a drama or a speech serve at the University undegraduate level? I understand the motivation for the course offering: it’s about offering kids a way of studying English in some way that seems different from the standard, boring, classroom-EFL setting. But marketing aside, what’s the real take-home value of studying drama and making speeches for these students?

I’m not saying there isn’t one, or even that I don’t have an inkling of what it is, but I’m just not sure I can quite express the real purpose in a way I would, for example, say to my Mom or one of my close friends. I could express it in academic-speak, and probably a lot of people would be convinced, but I’m not sure I’m totally convinced myself. Then again, watching the kids in my class perform their play very clearly, with a good understanding of what was going on, maybe I’m just making the question more complex than it needs to be. But you know, regardless of the University’s standards and expectations, I have to have standards and expectations of my own in mind when I walk into the classroom and start giving students lessons and homework.

Oh, and the fact that there’s no textbook that I know of at present is a little disconcerting, too.

2. I’m teaching English Conversation class #4 for the majority of my students. I have one Advanced-Level #4, which is fine; often those classes are pretty good. But it’s the other #4 classes I am worried about.

The problem is that the book doesn’t really demand much of the students. The book, in fact, demands almost the same as the previous book did, and conveys very little more to them in the way of new information or verbal structures.

And yet, these students will have reached the end of a full 2-year course in English conversation at the conclusion of my class. What saddens me is that from the outset, the book assumes they’re unable to say anything, and what saddens me more is that the assumption is, in some cases, quite warranted. And it’s a self-fulfilling assumption.

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the structure of the course itself is creating those problems to some degree. If a Math program were taught in which the second level course assumed students couldn’t remember anything from the first level, and that at the third level, students had forgotten all of the first and second levels, well, all of the bridges in the world would be falling down in short order. Learning in some fields is just inescapably, explicitly cumulative, and on top of that, learning in a language class is even more importantly micro-cumulative; it’s the small moments of using English as much as possible, day by day, that help students to increase their English ability.

Now, with Derrick Jensen’s Walking on Water (which I briefly review here) in mind, I’m starting to think what needs to happen is that evaluation be performed largely on the basis not of midterm and final exams, but rather on the basis of performance of exercises in class, speech-preparation homework assignments, a personal vocabulary notebook, and trips to the English Cafe (where speaking only in English is required).

Whereas the exam-based grading system requires students to truly engage only twice a semester, in cram-style, this alternative model uses examinations mainly as a kind of clincher, in a way as a kind of evaluative moment for the work the student has performed to date in class. It’s not that final and midterm exams would mean nothing, but rather that they don’t mean almost everything.

Instead, what means almost everything is the cumulative, learning work that the student does throughout the semester.

So I’m spending some time thinking about how to do this reasonably for a high-beginner (or very low intermediate-) level course.

Of course, among my anxieties is the fact that another employee of the University who attempted to make such positive changes to the curriculum and to teaching method was punished almost to the point of losing her contract. But it seems to me that if I am being paid to teach students, and if I am actually a part of faculty, then it behooves me to try structure courses in such a way as to make them conducive to actual learning. And to be honest, it would feel a lot better to see students make some real improvement, however small, instead of just zombie-marching through the book towards the midterm and final exam.

Well, it seems that I have a lot more thinking to do, in any case, through the course of this week.

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