Random Thoughts

about reading, writing, and anything else that interests me

Giving up control

I am a control freak in many ways.  I like to think I only use it for good, but I am sure some people would disagree with me on that!  Anyway, as a teacher, I like to have a firm plan for what is going to happen in class.  I have options built in, of course, but I like to know what is going to happen any particular day in my class. In my current situation, using Matt Purland’s You are the Course Book method, I have been preparing weekly plans and I am quite comfortable with that.  He has a plan format that really works for me; everything is there and I can vary the order of activities depending on what happens in class.  I also build into it a few extra things — computer time, outside readings, etc.

This 8-week term I have larger classes than I did last time. They still aren’t big classes by any means, but there are more students.  It has taken a while to figure out how I wanted to do the class, but I think I finally have it under control.  And of course, having it under control has involved giving up some control.  Not always easy for me, but this time it seems to be working.

Really all I am doing is using Purland’s approach.  I am having students work in groups and come up with their own texts and questions and everything.  Last term we did a modified version of this, where we created texts as a group and I wrote them on the board, but this time I am just having them work in groups to develop their own.  Then we share the texts and make corrections as needed.  But they are doing the work.  And it is working!  We have done it twice already, and I have been very pleased.

Last night in class I saw a great example of why this is so important.  I had written a text about my weekend, and we had read it together Monday. This was to be an example of the kind of text I will want them to write next week.  We used it for vocabulary work and to look at past tense verbs as well as for practice in writing questions.  We finally got to the point where I turned it over to them: they were to work in groups to write questions that could be answered by the text.  And that is where I really learned a lot.

First of all, I discovered that my students couldn’t really form questions correctly even though some of them had been doing it with me since last term.  We had been practicing just the night before, and I thought they could do it.  At least when I was guiding them, it seemed like they could do it.  WRONG!

Then I discovered that they were having trouble writing questions because they didn’t really understand the text.  What was the surprise for my mother?  Was Natalie my mother?  They had been able to answer questions about it when we first read it, but I guess I picked the main ideas to ask about and to guide them through writing questions about.  Left to do it themselves, it was much harder.  Was the text too hard?  I don’t really think so.  But there were things that confused them — like pronoun referents.  Having them write questions about the text really helped me to see what they understood about the reading and what they didn’t.

In both these cases, if I had kept the control, I would never have made these discoveries.  I would have gone along thinking they could write questions and that they had understood the text when they really couldn’t and hadn’t.

There is no big new idea here — just a reminder that I have to let my students struggle sometimes.  The old 3Ps (presentation, practice, production) model of teaching doesn’t work well unless you give students enough time to practice without my guidance and then produce.  I wasn’t giving them enough time to work on their own, to struggle and finally to “own” question formation.  Purland’s method makes it pretty easy to do that.  I am glad I discovered EnglishBanana!

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