C is for Collaboration

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It’s your first day of work at a new office and, because you’re eager, you arrive early and locate your cubicle. Looking around to make sure you’re alone, you race around madly to each desk, snatching up everyone’s stapler so you can hide them all in your filing cabinet. As other workers trickle in, mystified conversations erupt about the missing staplers only to be silenced by your ominously evil “Bwahahahaha!” cry of triumph.

Seriously? No. In office environments and most other work environments, we mostly stress cooperation and collaboration, which make it all the more mystifying why our classrooms so often stress competition.

Competition is normal and healthy but it is not the only way to meet objectives or to educate students. Imagine suddenly informing your language class students that they have one minute to prepare for a long-distance foot race. What would be their reactions? Most would claim that they were not properly prepared, having worn the wrong clothes and shoes. Some would immediately eye the other students and size up the chances of success. Those who were most able might welcome the challenge, thinking their chances of winning were good; competition tends to reaffirm current abilities. Those who were least able would rebel at the task, refusing to participate, not bothering to make an effort, or adopting a tactical approach, such as by finishing the race but only just—perhaps walking instead of running. Continue reading

Back to the Future: Even More Low-Tech Activities
for a High-Tech Classroom

2013_Heyer_Sandra Sandra Heyer

In a previous newsletter, I described my state-of-the-art classroom and its hidden drawback: It was making my students and me a little lazy. I was glued to a high-tech console, and my students were glued to the seats of their sleek gliding desks. Concerned that our sedentary classroom style might have a detrimental effect on our health, I looked for a remedy. Fortunately, the problem caused by technology had a simple low-tech solution: interactive activities that got us out of our seats and moving around.

Up to now, we’ve taken a look at four activities: the Moving Line, Conversation Stations, Walking Dictation, and Find Your Match. In this article, let’s consider Opinion, Please and Line Up According To. Both of these activities require no prep time.

Activity 5: Opinion, Please
Levels: All

This activity works well before reading a text as a way to activate prior knowledge, and after reading as a way to begin a discussion. It gets the whole class moving to the front of the classroom.

  1. On opposite ends of the board, write in big letters contrasting responses, for example, YES and NO or AGREE and DISAGREE
  2. Present the class with a question or controversial statement. Give students time to think about their answer or, better yet, to jot down the reason for their response.
  3. Students walk to the front of the room and stand next to the answer that reflects their opinion. Ask volunteers to explain why they chose that answer.

 Examples of Yes-No Questions for Opinion, Please

Figure 1

 These discussion starters complement stories in the True Stories reading series.

“Something in Return”
Easy True Stories,
Unit 20
Is it a good idea to talk to a robber?
“Mr. Venezuela”
All New Easy True Stories,
Unit 3
Do you think beauty contests for men are a good idea?
“The Love Letters”
True Stories in the News,
Unit 4
Do you believe in love at first sight?
“Love or Baseball?”
True Stories in the News,
Unit 10 
Is it ever OK to lie to your boyfriend or girlfriend?
“Surprise! It’s Your Wedding!”
More True Stories,
Unit 16
Is it a good idea to trick someone into marrying you?
“Black Cats and Broken Mirrors”
Even More True Stories,
Unit 9
Are you superstitious?
“Two Yahoos”
Beyond True Stories,
Unit 3
If you had a really great idea, would you drop out of school and start your own company?

Variation: Four Corners. Post four responses in the corners of the classroom—for example, STRONGLY AGREE, AGREE, DISAGREE, STRONGLY DISAGREE. Or, for a multiple-choice quiz, post the letters A, B, C, D, one letter in each corner of the room. Ask a question, and give four possible answers. Students stand next to the letter they think is the answer. Continue reading

Teaching Short Stories

Alexandra_LoweAlexandra Lowe
ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College

The following blog post was written by Alexandra Lowe and originally published by TESOL International Association on June 3, 2015. It can also be accessed through the TESOL website.

At the recent TESOL International convention in Toronto, I was privileged to attend an outstanding workshop entitled “10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories” by Sybil Marcus, an inspiring teacher from the University of California, Berkeley. Presenting excerpts from two short stories, she showed us how she uses stories to teach critical thinking skills, style, grammar, and vocabulary, and to lay the groundwork for classroom debates and writing assignments. Sybil’s approach to teaching ESL skills through short stories sounded so compelling to me that I dashed back to my own classroom as soon as the conference was over to try it out.

One of the short stories she showcased in her workshop was Daniel Lyons’ “The Birthday Cake” (.doc). The story features two immigrants—an old, embittered woman from Italy and a young single mother from the Caribbean—who find themselves locked in an unexpected conflict. The story subtly raises challenging issues of attitudes toward immigrants, single parenthood, aging, isolation, and death.

The story was an immediate hit with my high-intermediate, low-advanced students. When we discussed an issue central to the story—whether the old woman was justified in her contemptuous response to the young woman’s plea for a special favor—my students were as bitterly divided as the two protagonists themselves. Even students who were normally shy and reluctant to speak in front of the whole class launched into a passionate debate over the merits of the old woman’s behavior. And what was particularly fascinating was the discovery that the battle lines among my students were drawn in unpredictable ways—students whom I would have expected to sympathize with the plight of the young mother were surprisingly hostile to her.

One bonus of this particular short story is that it is written almost entirely in dialogue, as if it were the script for a short play for three characters (the two women, and a man who finds himself entangled in their conflict).  So, naturally, I put my students into small groups of three and asked them to practice acting out the dialogue. After giving them the opportunity to practice their lines with three different sets of partners, I asked for volunteers to act out the story in front of the whole class. It was one of the highlights of the semester, as some of my shyest students threw themselves into their roles, displaying acting skills and abilities no one would have suspected, while some of the more outspoken students were able to “ad lib” additional theatrical lines for their character. Continue reading