Sunday, January 4, 2009

Resolutions or Real Promises?

By Ela Newman
University of Texas at Brownsville

I’ve never created a list of my New Year resolutions, but I have made mental notes of a few of those New Year’s Day promises. I once promised to eat no bad chocolate. I got months into the year with that one. Another time, I swore to exercise more, or more or less- I’ve forgotten which it was now.

It seems to me that many of us, regardless of whether we actually produce lists of New Year resolutions (and when we are not joking around about bad chocolate) make promises about things that are acutely relevant, or inspirational, or rewarding, in our private as well as our professional lives.

This year, this “teaching year,” I am resolving to be a good observer.

But how could being a good observer benefit my students? And how could observation itself be seen as effective use of my time? Well, let me see...

Can observation bring relevance to the L2 teaching-learning process? Apart from helping the teacher decide on the pace of teaching, the type of material to be studied, and the techniques that can be used, its fruits can suggest the order in which we may want to arrange the material.

Typically, we assign a level of difficulty as well as a “place in line” to a given grammar structure. For example, many of us will introduce the Simple Present before we expose students to “the workings” of the Simple Past. By tradition, the Present is taught earlier because it is structurally easier, and perhaps also psychologically more basic, at least for young children, but it seems rarely to be more experientially relevant than the Past, particularly for older children and adults.

An L2 learner myself, I remember feeling a bit impatient when, in my first English class, it took a couple of months before I was exposed to ways of talking about the past. To my mind, the past tense seemed more pertinent than the present. I had the impression that my classmates and I would speak about the events of yesterday, last week, or last year more frequently than we would talk about what we do regularly or habitually, so we were eager to do the same in English.

Maybe, if I’m a good observer of my students this year, I will notice where their grammar interests, as well as their grammar needs, lie. I realize that teaching should not be guided excessively by such student impressions, but I feel that this impression is worth a second thought and it may help me make my lessons more relevant without making them measurably more difficult in terms of the ordering of grammatical structures.

Can observation bring inspiration? (Well, the two words rhyme anyway!) We know that watching students become genuinely involved in an activity we’ve prepared can “give us wings” and encourage us to continue creating tasks of a similar sort. But it can also motivate us to try something new or unusual.

I am a fan of discovery-based tasks, and although I realize that they can’t be used daily (they tend to be time-consuming) and that not all students feel comfortable with them- some students simply want the teacher to explain all the grammar rules- these tasks do have a place in many classrooms and the results of observation can help us decide if and when such unusual activities might be used.

Also, if we allow students themselves to become observers, they too can draw motivation, even inspiration, from the experience. Discovery-based activities, which involve language learners in close examination of usage material, encourage students to discover language patterns outside the classroom as well; these students usually realize they can become more independent learners.

Another way that students can become inspired by observation involves reflection on their mother tongue. I’ve noticed that students enjoy describing structures of their native language. (Ask me a question about noun cases of Polish and I’ll feel Goosebumps.) Tasks featuring native language descriptions give grammar discussions a special, personal touch. Students “observe” native language usage, and as a result often find studying grammar more naturally interesting.

Can observation be rewarding? I think so. It can show us which of our ideas work and which were “good tries.” And I believe that such news is gratifying since it points at what activities we should definitely keep in our folders and which ones need to be rethought (or, if I dare say, “tossed”).

I’ve heard that we are more likely to fulfill our New Year resolutions as “real promises” if they are realistic, valuable, and acted upon immediately. I believe that with effort I can become a good observer this year, and I’m confident that there are material benefits to doing so. Now, all I have to do is act (and soon, I guess!).

How about you? Are you planning any big or small instructional changes this year?

Happy New Year, everyone!