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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Troublesome and Intolerant: Part One

He would fit in well with my class!
Every teacher has one of those classes. You know the one I mean, the class that you come out of with feelings that range from slight dejection to outright depression. The class that makes you feel like a bad teacher because it doesn't go as you'd hoped. The class that makes you react in ways that you wouldn't have dreamt of doing when you were training and may have even got you thrown off the course. Now don't worry, I'm not talking about anything violent here! I mean reactions such as raising your voice, getting into useless discussions with students, sticking to your guns when you know it's best to change tactics or move on.

Every year there seems to be one of these groups to spoil your otherwise perfect timetable. And the funny thing is, that the class in question isn't a group of bad kids, their previous teacher thought they were a lovely group, but there is something invisible that prevents you from gaining their respect and trust. Maybe you started the year on the wrong foot, maybe they preferred last year's teacher, maybe they have just changed over the summer. Maybe, as teachers, we know that the year is not going to be perfect and that there will be one group that will ruin things and we unconsciously stick a label on this group in the first week. Yes, this is going to be my dreaded group this year! I would hope this wasn't the case, but it is a possibility.

For me, this class changes as time goes on. Once upon a time it was very young learners that made my life difficult. Four year olds that I couldn't keep on a chair for more than five minutes. This year it's a group of thirteen year olds. Hormones all over the place, these kids are giggly, touchy-feely (with each other!) and would be much happier if they were allowed to sit chatting in Spanish all lesson. It may not help that I am no longer a "playing games" type teacher. It certainly does not help that they are in that in-between stage of mental and emotional development. They want to  "play games" but they don't want to get up from their seats or actually do anything. They definitely don't want to "do the book"!

So, I try (I really do) to find more fun things for them to do. They have been reasonably responsive with a couple of lessons based around activities from the Timesavers Speaking Activities book of resources. They particularly enjoyed the drawing activity but get quite bored with the "opinion" type discussions. They all profess to prefer "grown up" activities like the previous type, but don't really have the maturity to do them effectively. Sometimes they come out with things they have seen on TV and show some interest, so last week I took in a simple copy of the summarised Declaration of Human Rights and the following lesson we looked at what was happening in Libya. They didn't complain as such about the content, although I could tell it went a bit over their heads. A few of the students had never heard of Libya. Only one knew where in the world it was and could easily locate it on a globe. I wasn't particularly surprised as Spanish education focuses on mainly just that: Spain. Spanish history, Spanish geography and so on. I'm sure I had never heard of Libya myself when I was thirteen, but the again it wasn't on TV twenty-four-seven. Very few had heard of Gaddafi, but when we read a short article and discussed briefly what was happening, they were at least showing some interest. Maybe this was because I had promised them a game after we had finished!

Some of the students have showed an interest in history. I'm wondering whether to try a few lessons on historical events. I'm not particularly well-read on history myself, so I would have to do some research first, but if it keeps them happy...

I am open to any ideas on how to keep this group motivated. My main concern is to get them speaking, as I can focus on vocabulary or language features that either emerge or that I can smuggle into the activity itself.
If anybody knows of any resources suitable for teenagers with an elementary productive level (but pre-intermediate receptive skills) please add a comment below.

This post is a two-parter - this is the "Troublesome" part. You can find Part Two "Intolerant" here.


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Have seen/experienced this sort of situation many times myself!

    With this age group in particular, one of the problems is that the more a teacher overtly tries to capture their interest and cater to their interests, the harder it seems to become. It becomes almost habitual or even 'cool' to respond coolly to the teacher's obvious efforts to make the content and activities fun.

    Personally, I'd back off a ways and get them to do more of the initial work. Have them produce a drama or movie script. Give them a range of project options following a short text or dialogue. Let them choose what to do and then engage them (and practice) with the emergent language that results.

    The problem is that too much of the impetus is coming from you, too much of the effort to make the class engaging. They're sitting back, lapping it up, throwing you the occasional peanut when you manage to capture a little bit of their interest.

    I'd be looking to turn that around, and task-based learning projects always seem to work best for that.

    Easy enough to toss advice from afar, eh? They're a challenging age group to cater to when things aren't flowing well, so I wish you all the best with it!


    - J

  2. Hi M,

    Thanks for the post! Oh yes, there's always one class that makes life more difficult!.

    It's intersting what Jason says about passing the responsiblity in a way to them. I think that he has a point. I remember thinking in summer school that it's a two way thing this learning/teaching business. A partnership of sorts and it can't all be one way!

    I'd be inclined to give them a list of topics that they have to tick if they're intersted in, or ask them to make up a list.

    We are the teachers but part of thing about learner training is getting them to take more responsibilty for their part in the learning process isn't it?

    I know what you mean though. I'm working in a secondary school this year and at times it's like pulling teeth!

    Good luck with them,

    See you soon,


  3. I think Jason has hit the nail on the head, really, I definitely agree with using projects and task-based lessons in this case.

    Actually, I had a weird class at a similar level last year and they loved it when I got them to create their own board games. They were quite inventive and enjoyed playing them as well.

  4. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for responding - you were very quick!
    Of course, you're right! I started off the year with all kinds of "projecty" stuff (although I didn't give them a choice) but they tended to do very little when working in groups. They would be very easily distracted by other things that are bothering them (schoolwork, friends, boys/girls etc)and not too focussed on the task itself. I tried getting them to peer teach but they are at an age where they are embarrassed to get up in front of the class. And of course, it is not cool to seem interested or enjoying the class! I'm hoping to get some ideas from both Paul Braddock and Herbert Puchta at TESOL Spain this weekend!

  5. Hi Richard!
    Thank you for your comment.
    I actually have a complete lesson plan that I wrote once about designing your own board game and I hadn't even remembered until you mentioned it! I must dig it out and adapt it to this particular group. We did modal verbs not long ago which was the language focus of my lesson, if I remember rightly (for the rules). Thanks for unkowingly reminding me :)

  6. Hi "L"
    I did a special kind of needs analysis with this group at the beginning of the course where they could write down what they would like to do in class, although they didn't come up with much! I think one problem is that they find it very difficult to use the language and many freer creative activities frighten them. They also don't handle responsibility very well - they are still children really even if they are taller than me (not hard, I have to admit).

    See you soon :)

  7. Hi again, Michelle.

    I'm going to ask you some 'tough' questions here. I recall a particular class of Korean 13 and 14 year olds that was going pear-shaped for the same essential reasons, and these were the 'tough' questions I had to ask myself at the time as well :-)

    Three of your comments there really struck me:

    - "I started off the year with all kinds of "projecty" stuff (although I didn't give them a choice)"

    If you started with them, perhaps you gave up on the idea of projects a little too soon? Because they didn't warm to them instantly? Perhaps the lack of choice played some role in that? Start off with simpler and shorter (more manageable) tasks?

    - "They would be very easily distracted by other things that are bothering them (schoolwork, friends, boys/girls etc)and not too focussed on the task itself"

    So perhaps the tasks need to cater to those 'distractions'(schoolwork, friends, boys/girls, etc.)? If they can choose their own tasks (from a list, if completely open choice just results in no response), it might help?

    - "I think one problem is that they find it very difficult to use the language and many freer creative activities frighten them"

    Is it difficulty with the language that totally accounts for their fright with freer, creative activities? And with anything to do with fright, does avoiding it ever really help in overcoming it?

    As I said, tough questions!

    I apologise if this comes across as 'besserwisser' and hope you take this just as collegial challenging.

    But like me, in you I see the potential signs that you are busting a gut in a process that is potentially making things harder (in the long term) for you - and them!

    And... this would have to be one of the most common challenges I've come across for teachers of these age groups all over the world.

    Worth exploring and crunching it!


    - Jason

  8. I have a similar group and have been experimenting with "thunks" after reading "Why Do I Need a Teacher When I've Got Google?" by Ian Gilbert. I use these questions ( to warm them up at the beginning of the lesson. I had an amazing experience with the very first one I used "Is a hole a thing?" This generated a debate in class and throughout the lesson they kept interrupting to add more ideas and opinions. For homework I had them ask their parents & teachers. A few lesson later I brougt in another thunk "Can an ant see a mountain?" and this time we went on to twitter to ask my PLN what they thougt. Another fabulous experience, with twitter buddies sending us facts about ants & even links. I sometimes bring in various questions & let them decide which ones they want to discuss or have them invent their own. A book I would reccommend that's helped me a lot is "The Big Book of Independent Thinking" - loved the first chapter on motivation!

    Good luck!

    Anna Pires

  9. Hi Anna!
    I have never heard of "thunks" before but they certainly looks interesting. I'm thinking that they might be good to use with exam classes that have difficulty talking about unusual topics - this should get them thinking! Have you tried it with lower level students? How do they manage to express what they want to say? Do you provide scaffolding? I'd love to know more... I've just tweeted you about it!

  10. Great ideas here. I'll throw in my own advice from having similar problem classes. First of all, I found that open discussion often got kids going. If you want to find out their interests, ask them. Have an open discussion lesson every now and then. I found that even the most belligerent and lazy student in my career was suddenly trying so hard to speak in English (he even opened the dictionary to look up a word) when I once suggested that Beckham wasn't all that good a football player. That came from just chit chatting about the World Cup last year.

    Also, doing needs-based evaluations might help you find their motivation. Ask them what they need English for and try to target what they want to do in English. That gives you a lever later on: Yes, I know this grammar is boring but if you want to be able to watch DVDs in English, you need to understand this...

    Hope that helps.

  11. Hi Michelle
    Maybe this wil provide some blessed relief. Puzzle in particular gets most learners' attention, and you can get tehm in teams and time them.


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