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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

But I don't like him!

What do you do when your students complain in front of the class about being put in a group with another student? When nobody in the class likes one student because of his problematic behaviour in the past? When several parents threatened to remove their children from the school because of this one "difficult" child?

John (fictional name) is an extremely bright eight-year-old, very short for his age, but intellectually more advanced than many of the nine and ten year olds in his class. Prone to aggressive and challenging behaviour in previous years, John is, after the first two lessons, working fine. There has been no particularly conflictive behaviour on his part, except when provoked by another student.

However, nobody wants to work with John. Of course, John realises this and therefore reacts to their lack of friendliness and kindness with more of the same.

It is going to be hard to undo several years of negative experience that the other children have had with John, but hopefully not impossible. I would like to start straightaway by introducing games or activities that will help integrate John more and foster a positive and kind classroom atmosphere. However, I'm not sure how to go about it. If the children were younger, I feel it would be easier. These children are around ten years old. If you have any ideas or experience of this type of problem, I'd love to hear about how you attempted to solve it.

Thanks in advance :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Classroom Routines for Young Learners: Circle Time

Circle Time is a period of the lesson where all the learners sit in a circle with the teacher. Often this is at the beginning of the lesson, when it helps get the children focussed and attentive. When children come into school on a Monday morning or, in my case, in the afternoons, their heads are full of interesting thoughts about what they have done or seen at the weekend, what they did at school this morning, what happened on the way to school, what they are going to watch on TV after the class and so on. There are two ways of getting children to forget all this interesting stuff that is occupying their thoughts: the first is distraction - maybe showing them something unusual, saying something funny or doing something silly, although we don't really want to excite them too much - that would have the opposite effect to what we really want. The other is sitting down and allowing the children to talk about all those things that preoccupy them. Depending on the situation, both methods can be useful, but I find that having Circle Time at the beginning is a nice routine to have with young learners.

So how does Circle Time work?

Well, the first thing is to have the classroom arranged in an appropriate way before the children come in. If you have space, a rug for the children to sit on is great (those cold marble floors we have here are terribly uncomfortable) but if not you can just arrange the chairs in a circle. The children should leave any coats, bags or materials on their desks/pegs or whatever, outside the circle. If the children have brought in something to show to the class, it is best to take it off them until it is their turn to speak, otherwise they will be easily distracted by this plaything.

Once everyone is sitting down quietly, you may like to ask a question about the weekend/school/holidays to get things started, but more often than not several of the children will be bursting to tell you something, and this will lead to everyone else having something to say, whether or not this is related. Now, some rules are necessary here, to prevent everyone from interrupting each other, speaking all at once, or dominating the time you have.
The main rule is that only one person can speak at a time and everyone else must wait their turn. This is easier said than done. The younger they are, the harder it is for children to understand the concept of turn-taking, so we need to aid them in some way. One way is by having some kind of toy/ball/puppet that the speaker holds. Only the child holding this object can speak, the others have to ask for the object before they can speak. If you have a class mascot or puppet, this is ideal. Another option is to have all the children's names or photos in a bag or box, and the child whose name is taken out is the one who gets to speak. The main thing is to make sure the children know what the rules of Circle Time are and how it works. It is essential to limit this time to five or ten minutes, so that it doesn't take over the whole lesson. This is especially important when Circle Time is conducted mostly in L1. You can make sure the children are aware by holding up a toy clock which shows how much time is left.

One of the advantages of Circle Time is that it can help foment the skill of listening to others, which is something that young children find very difficult. It will often be the case that each child is thinking about what they are going to say and is sitting there with their hand up just waiting to be chosen and is paying absolutely no attention to what is being said. One way of encouraging children to listen is by rewarding any comments they make about what was said before. This could be a simple "Excellent listening!" or you could give the "best listener" a sticker at the end of Circle Time.

Show and tell can also be a fun way to start the lesson and can also be done in Circle Time. Each day a different child can bring something in. I have done this in the past and children have brought in anything from a small toy, a sticker album to a stone they found in the school playground. I usually encourage the child in question to pass around their object so that the others can see it clearly and touch it.

We can also have Circle Time at the end of the lesson. I am going to introduce this in my young learner lessons this year, and possibly with older students too (although with the adults I think "Round Up" or "Lesson Review" would be a better name!). This is what is known as a plenary or lesson review and its objective is to round up what has been covered in the lesson and clarify any problems. The teacher can make a note of any gaps in knowledge that will need to be covered again. Use the Circle Time in the last five minutes of each lesson to remind the children of what they have learnt or practised that lesson. You could play a ball game (still sitting in the circle) to review vocabulary or structures. This review stage has the extra benefit of when parents ask their children what they have learnt in class today, they should remember something!

I have focused on very young learners in this post, but something similar can be useful with all age groups. Older teens and adults can find it beneficial to ease into English at the beginning of the lesson with a simple conversation about the weekend, and it also gives the teacher the opportunity to outline the learning objectives of the lesson. In the review session, students can evaluate themselves against these learning objectives and notice the areas on which they may need more work or practice.
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