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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Babbling Blackboard

This post is in response to Jason Renshaw's Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge where the students create the content for part or all of the lesson. This is a great idea if you prefer a more unplugged approach, but also works well as a stimulus for discussion if you want your students to practise their speaking skills, or for encouraging students to look for and correct their own mistakes or to use peer correction.

I am not using an unplugged approach with any of the three classes with whom I tried out the wandrous whiteboard activity. In fact, all three are "exam classes" and are or will be either using a course book or a folder full of photocopied materials. The reason for using the activity was not the same with all three groups.

The first group of students I tried it out with are a teenage CAE class. There were only three students that day, and our course book has not yet arrived. I wanted to try something that would get them speaking, since they are not exactly the most talkative bunch of students I have ever met. They usually only give fairly short answers to questions, despite having the ability to express themselves perfectly in English. They are teenagers though, and are still shy or embarrassed to spend large amounts of time airing their opinions.  So I gave each student a piece of chalk at the beginning of the lesson, told them to write anything they wanted on the board, and left the room for five minutes.

This is what they came up with:

Advanced teenagers' babbling blackboard
We went on to discuss what they had written. José told us what he had learnt about the Illuminati and how he was going to buy a strategic board game of the same name, where the players have to try to control the world (scary!), and made a great effort to explain the technical drawing problem that he had drawn in order to help revise for an exam the following day (of which I understood very little, not due to a lack of communication skills on his part, but on a lack of knowledge of maths on mine!). We discussed the subject of technical drawing and a project-based subject they have at school, and later on we talked about drug use. We ended up having a 45 minute conversation in which all three students and myself contributed interesting points. It was a nice way to have everyone talk in a relaxed situation, with nobody feeling put on the spot.

(By the way, the sentence about moles digging holes was written by a colleague of mine! It did spark off some discussion as to what he had meant though, and one of the students ended up going to ask him what it was about.)

I wanted to use the activity in a similar way with my FCE teens towards the end of the lesson, but we didn't really have enough time to talk about many of the things they had written. In any case, the activity turned out to be more of a vocabulary recycling exercise, as the girls wrote down all the new words they had come across in that lesson, and previous classes. Here is a diagram of their babbling blackboard:

The last class of the evening is a new adult group who want to prepare for the PET exam. However, their level is generally a high elementary, with a couple of exceptions. Many of them haven't studied English since they finished school, and find it difficult to express themselves. We are currently looking at lots of vocabulary, in the hope that this will reach those areas of the brain in which they stored the language from their schooldays! In any case, right at the start of last night's lesson I gave each student a piece of chalk and asked them to write anything they wanted on the board. This is what they wrote:

Plenty of error correction to work on there! I read out each sentence and asked the class if they thought it was grammatically correct. If not, what should we change? They recognised all the errors apart from one, and were able to correct them. I then started asking questions about each sentence to generate a bit of a class discussion, although they are very shy still and it ended up being a question and answer session! The only grammar point they did not know was the use of the present continuous for future plans. Without wanting to explain too much, I went on to ask questions about what the students were doing later that night, at the weekend and so on, encouraging the use of "I'm ......ing".

In each case then, and depending on the level, the babbling blackboard was used in a different way. For higher levels as a base for conversation, but with lower levels to focus on grammar or vocabulary.

How would you use this activity?

4 comments:

  1. Hi Michelle,

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience with Jason's challenge, and especially the different purposes it ended up having in each group you did the same thing with.

    Do you think we could say this is an example of emergent learning? I mean, the fact that the same activity was taken into different directions? Each class took it in the way they felt they could benefit most, or to work with what they wanted to at that moment?

    Thanks for procrastinating ;-) and writing the post. I'm planning on doing the activity on my groups tomorrow, and reading about your experience was good prep for it. I'll tell you how it goes (and if my student take it into yet other directions.
    Cheers!

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  2. Hi Cecilia,

    I think the activity could lead to endless possibilities, really. It depends on what the teacher and students want to do. You could take it as an example of emergent learning, although in my case I had already decided to use the activity as a stimulus for discussion with the higher level groups.

    Something that caught my eye though, was how the higher level students wrote individual words and the low level students wrote sentences. You may well expect the opposite to happen!

    I will try the activity again with the same groups soon, and see if they take it in the same directions as this time.

    Looking forward to hearing about your experience!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Michelle,

    Great work here, and it is really interesting to see how your Babbling Blackboard can vary across different classes and levels.

    The boards rendered by your low versus high level classes are strikingly similar to the ones produced in my own classes at comparable levels. It does appear that lower level learners focus more on sentences they've been picking up, to express some general meanings, whereas the higher levels might stick to words.

    Could this be evidence of the language acquisition process? As in, the lower level learners limit their ideas to smaller or more specific utterances whereas the upper levels -- confident in their ability to elaborate or extend -- go more for general concepts?

    I think a lot of people might expect the opposite to happen with open board work of this nature...

    Really interesting!

    I love discoveries like this... really gets you thinking and challenging your expectations of what learners can do and why.

    Cheers,

    - Jason

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  4. Hi Michelle
    I love the 3 different blackboards you ended up with! I think this is what inspires teachers who teach unplugged, and I include myself in this, that each lesson can produce radically different outcomes. Has the coursebook arrived yet??
    David

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