Thursday, July 26, 2012

My first teaching experience!

Today, I taught a class for the first time. I feel fairly good about it! At least, it was exciting being up in front of the classroom and witnessing my ideas actually taking root in my students' minds. I realized that I could prepare my lesson plan for as long as I wanted, but once class started there was no telling how it would go.

Let me explain a little: the semester hasn't started yet; it doesn't for at least another month. But right now, in the middle of Fulbright Orientation, all of the ETAs are getting three opportunities to practice teaching at Camp Fulbright. This is an English summer camp for gifted or high-level students from around the country; over the past seven years, it has gained a reputation for being one of the best camps of its kind. It runs for two weeks (having begun this past Monday), and there are about 110 students ranging from ten to sixteen years old.

In the class that I student-taught today, there were nine students who had been placed in an Intermediate level. Another ETA, Nina, and I were splitting the afternoon session, forty-five minutes each. Today's theme was Documentary (the theme of the camp is movie genres), so Nina's lesson had the students create their own proposals for documentaries they'd like to film. My lesson deviated a bit from the norm: I planned to show my students the trailer for District 9, talk about "mockumentaries", and then spiral off into a lesson about plot twists.

This morning, during Korean classes, I wasn't feeling that nervous, but as 1:30pm drew closer I got a bit more anxious. It didn't help that some of the other ETAs who were teaching today were beginning to freak out (thanks, Nhu). I gave myself all of ten minutes to bolt down lunch and then went upstairs to prepare the classroom. At 1:30pm, Nina gave her lesson. I was supposed to be writing comments and critiques while she taught, but I was getting too nervous to really pay attention. And finally, it was my turn!

The Class
When I introduced myself to the class, I mentioned that I was from California. Immediately, one of the more active students said something that I thought was, "California... has good girls!" I was totally wrong, though; he was talking about Californian cars. The whole class laughed at my comprehension mistake, but it was a neat way to inadvertently lighten the mood and get me to loosen up a bit.

I had them play Two Truths and a Lie with three "facts" I gave about myself: I can play the cello, I have been to fourteen foreign countries, and I am Korean-American. Most of the class saw right through the race one. I guess I don't like very Korean! I then explained that I am Taiwanese-American.

When it came time to start the actual lesson, that which every modern teacher fears inevitably had to happen: technological difficulties! The YouTube video I wanted to show wouldn't load on the computer. I had to refresh the page, but then YouTube wanted to show an advertisement first. It was unnerving and kind of awkward, but I just stalled until the video finally started. The point of showing the trailer was to have students think about what kind of people would be unwanted in a society. I stopped before the twist and asked them who they thought were the "they" to whom everyone kept referring. I got soldiers, immigrants, and poor people as some suggestions. And then: plot twist! "They" are actually aliens.

At this point, I thought I'd related my lesson to the real teacher's unit theme on appreciating differences well enough, but perhaps the connection wasn't clear enough. However, I wanted to quickly move on from the hook to the main lecture, which was on plot twists. Later, I got comments from my observers that I could have explained the movie a little bit more and explicitly talked about how District 9 deals with the treatment of a minority group. This way I'd have continuity or cohesion with the morning classes.

For the lesson on plot twists, I showed them clips from The Princess and the Frog (the scene where Tiana kisses the frog, only to turn into a frog herself) and Star Wars ("No, I am your father."), trying to give something for the girls as well as the boys. To check for understanding, I asked my students if they could think of any stories they knew that had plot twists. The answer: silence. Oh well!

I then talked about the phrase "As it turns out..." and how it is used to express a reality that is different from the expectation. After some examples, I gave them what I thought would be a great activity: skits! Dividing the class into three groups, I gave them each a short scenario that I had created myself, based on some of the themes from previous days (Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mystery), telling them to add a plot twist to the story and then act it out in front of the class.

The Skits
Once I reached this point of the lesson, I was feeling good. It was time for the students to do their own work, they were fairly involved in it and not (completely) lost, and I could take a breather from talking so much. In full teacher mode, then, I walked around the classroom and helped the groups move along in their assignment. A part of me feels like I helped maybe a bit too much, because I would complete students' sentences and give them very direct "pointers". But my observers noted that it was good that I took the time to help out students without their having asked, because often they will be too shy to ask for help.

The acting was pretty funny to watch. In the first skit, two astronauts landed on Mars and met an alien that they thought was going to eat them. But the plot twist was that the alien was a vegetarian. The second group had a whodunit mystery where a woman's jewels were stolen. "But, as it turns out..." the woman's husband stole the jewels! This group went a little out of bounds with the rest of their scene, because the detective, after discovering that the husband was "crime" (he meant guilty), said, "Now you will go to jail with me or I will kill you!" Oops. The last group had the most difficulty completing their script... or really understanding what was going on at all. But at least they got up and read some of their lines. I give them brownie points for that, but next time I will take more time out to make sure they understand what's going on and what's expected of them. (That way, also, their dialogue won't end with the ubiquitous, "Shut up!" and "No, you shut up!")

The Feedback
When class ended, I was feeling positive about how it went. But of course, there is always, always room for improvement. The main critique I got was the Camp Instructors who were observing me was that I stayed too close to my schedule. While my timing was "impeccable", it was also restrictive, because sometimes I would cut off my students while they were speaking or put words into their mouths since I wanted to move on with the lesson. I learned today never to shush my students, but instead to praise every bit of English that comes out of their mouths. If a particularly garrulous student won't be quiet, though, I have to address that issue in a different manner that still acknowledges that their enthusiasm for English is a wonderful thing.

I was also told to check more for students' understanding. Rather than simply ask, "Do you all understand? Do you have any questions?", ask for actual proof that they understand. In fact, I am already aware of this; as a current student of Korean (and a veteran of all kinds of foreign language classes), it's embarrassing to admit you have no idea what's going on when the rest of the class seems to get it. The secret is that most of the class also has no idea what's going on, and it's worth speaking for the rest of them by asking for clarification. But these students won't do that. So, have them say more, write down things more, and explain things back to you more. Play with wrong answers! Don't shut anyone down if they're wrong, but turn everything into an opportunity to speak more English.

In the end, teaching an English conversation class is about getting my students to speak, not to be perfect or to learn every last grammar point. I should also be focusing all of my efforts in building their confidence and comfort level with spoken English.

Looking Forward
Last night, as I interacted with some of my students at a homework help session, I was interviewed by a few of them (their assignment was to interview an American). They asked for my hidden talent (ukulele, hand-whistling), my favorite superhero (Angel), and my goals as a teacher and my goals in life. Before I even taught for the first time, I decided that my goals as a teacher would be to help my students achieve their dreams, especially by giving them the tools to help themselves learn. And that starts by giving them confidence. So, for my next lesson, I'm going to be more lenient with my time and more focused on giving my students a voice!
My goal as a teacher is to help my students fly! Woohoo!
That's it for now. This was a supremely long post! I promise that every time I teach a new lesson plan, I won't post all of my reflections on this blog. It's a good habit to reflect, and I just wanted to get as much down as I could for the first time, especially while it's still fresh. But there are many other things going on during Orientation (still four weeks to go!), and I'll begin to write more about those.