Monday, June 2, 2014

[Teach Abroad Blog Carnival] Learning from my mistakes: Taming the little ones

[Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog at the beginning of every month, and the carnival is published on the 5th by its host. If you'd like to participate in next month's Blog Carnival, you can find details in the above link.]

Vanessa Long is this month's carnival host, and you can find all of the June Teach Abroad Blog Carnival posts here at her blog.

Prompt: Learn from your mistakes! What was your worst lesson? What went wrong? How did you learn from it?

The quality of my regular classes that I teach with a co-teacher during the school day (3rd - 6th grade) spans from normal to excellent.  There's not a "worst" that sticks out because they've never really been terribly bad. However, I can't say the same for my after school daycare classes.

These after school daycare classes are taught by myself, which is where I've had absolute failures. I can't remember clearly my very first after school daycare classes (first and second grade) that I taught back in September (with no guidelines or curriculum to go from), but I do remember the 40 minutes feeling very long. The activities I'd planned didn't take nearly as long as I thought, and probably weren't the right level nor exciting either. I learned as I went along, so it might be surprising to hear that my worst lessons actually took place during the new school year this past March, after I'd been teaching here in Korea for six months.

I was completely unprepared for my crazy second grade after school class. It's a big group, with maybe 28 students if everyone's there. Numerous boys with emotional and anger issues that like to cause trouble, not just one or two. The combination is recipe for disaster. Another surprising fact is that I don't think my worst class was the day that two fights broke out during class. There have been worse. (And I'd just like to point out that these classes all took place when their Korean teacher was in the room.)

A quick note on that: the Korean after school teacher is always in the room. However, she doesn't do much in terms of discipline or keeping the class focused. They're just not that scared of her, and those boys will act up for any Korean teacher, so there's always mayhem. I'd have two boys writing on the board, another boy would have just crawled under the teacher's desk to hide and scare me later, another boy would be up out of his seat chasing a friend around the room, girls would have their heads turned towards each other as they gibber jabbered in Korean, and two more boys would be shoving desks around the room. You'd walk in and think it was free play time, not that I was trying to teach a class.

I have this second grade group four times a week, so I knew things would have to change. While classes three months later are now still very much chaotic with the same behavioral issues, the classes are better than at the start of the school year. I can get most of the class's attention and I have a clearer idea of what activities/games will and won't work with this group.

It's been a series of small changes over time for me with these kids. Here are some improvements that have helped class run smoother:

Learn names

Since I would see this class four times a week, I knew it would be possible (and a good thing) to learn their names.

I don't have a class list or anything of the sort, so I strategically planned a color-by-numbers activity the week we learned colors so that I could go around one by one to each student as they colored. I asked each child "What's your name?", wrote their Korean name on a white board, and had them hold the board by their face as I took a picture with my phone. These became my new flashcards.

Not everyone was there that day I took pictures, so there are still some names I don't know. What would be ideal is if I had a seating chart with their names on it, but a different combination of students are there each day, and they seem to have new assigned seats every couple of weeks. For now, knowing most names helps a ton. The kids take me a lot more seriously when I say their name, and I use names to praise as well.

Use a call and response attention getter

Last school year my co-teacher used a chant with her fourth and sixth grade classes that I took a liking to. It's simple, has rhythm, and has actions. Here it is:

Teacher: Look, look, look at me.
Students: Look, look, look at teacher.

Rhythmically, each phrase has four beats. The teacher's first two words (look, look) are quarter notes, and "look at" are eighth notes with "me" being the final quarter note. Students respond with "look, look" as two quarter notes, and "look at teacher" are four eighth notes.

I clap my hands once with each "look", and point to myself on "me".  Students also clap three times, once with each "look" when they respond, and then point both pointer fingers at me when they say "teacher", one with each syllable of the word.

Teaching the chant to this class was a hurdle, as they were used to just repeating. So it took a bit before they caught on that they were supposed to say something different from what I said. But once they finally learned it, it's been great to have that one tool to fall back on when things are super crazy. Sometimes everyone shouts the response back really loudly, whereas recently some days they're too involved in whatever side activities they're doing and just don't care to respond. I should probably introduce a new one to liven things up these last three months, but so far this chant has been very useful.

Create a routine

We begin every class with Dream English's Hello Song, and end with the Goodbye Song. After the Hello Song I ask them "What day is today?" and then we sing that day's short minute-long song (also from Dream English). After singing, I ask the students how they are, and then "How's the weather?". This opening segment can take up to 10 minutes, and it's really helped the students to have that routine. They know what to expect, which is so important when I can't really communicate with the kids - apart from a few simple English words/phrases they've learned thus far.

Call on multiple students for one question

This is a new discovery of mine, but I'm really pleased with it. Before, when I'd ask "What day is it today?" and call on one of the excited fifteen hands that were raised, I'd hear so many groans and see upset faces from the fourteen kids I didn't call on. These kids get really upset over that. So I hated choosing a student to call on whenever I needed to, as it was always created lots of anger in the children.

For whatever reason, the other week after I got a "Wednesday" from the student I'd called on, the angry groans prompted me to call on another student. "Wednesday", he said. "Two Wednesdays" I said to the class, holding up two fingers. I called on a third student: "Wednesday." So I added a finger to my tally and announced "Three Wednesdays" to the class. Now I'll usually stop when we get up to ten of the correct day, and then sing that day's Dream English song. This way, many students get to participate, it takes up more time, and it leaves room for error. If someone says "Friday" on Thursday, I just add it to the tally: "OK, five Thursdays, one Friday", and when I keep going we can clearly see which day is correct. 

Try different activities, find what works

With my second graders, youtube songs will grab their attention best. Not any video/song, though. Some they love, and some you can play and zero heads will be looking at the TV. I rely heavily on youtube songs during these classes, but that's because it's the best material I've found that works. I experimented around with different games and activities to see what they could handle and what held (and didn't hold) their attention, and youtube videos have had the highest results.

These memory games from also work well as a 15-minute activity for this group of kids. I like this site's memory games because a voice says the word when you flip the card, so my students can listen for matches even though they can't read English words yet.

A few weeks ago I tried an Angry Birds PPT game with the class and they loved it. The only downside is that they loudly chanted "Angry birds, angry birds" every day after they first played it, not wanting to do what I'd planned for those days. We can't play Angry Birds every day, but I'm planning for one every other Friday - after we've learned new material to put in the game.

And with the encouragement from my artistic friend Abby, I've also been trying more creation projects with this group. Last month we made G/H flip books and "J is for jaguar" pictures (cutting out the letter "J" and turning it into a jaguar's body).

A conclusion, of sorts

While daycare classes with these little ones four times a week is still always chaotic, it has undoubtedly improved since March. My biggest obstacles are obviously the language barrier and disciplining the misbehaving boys, but if I keep experimenting and building on the techniques I've learned so far, we could be at an entirely new level come August.
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  1. Great post!! So many fantastic ideas. Glad you got the little ones more or less under control!

    1. Thanks! I'm still very much a work in progress with them, but we're getting there!