Tag Archives: Problem Solving

Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities

This week was the penultimate week of classes for 2013 and, with all the material for the exam covered, I now have the flexibility to teach every group of students differently and thus experiment with my classes a bit more. Normally this is frowned upon in my school as the belief is that, if all students are taking the same exam, they should all do exactly (and I mean exactly) the same lesson. This is (supposedly) in order to prevent one group of students being given an unfair advantage (a subject for another blog another time).

Given this flexibility I decided to do some action research this week and chose to try and find out what the best way of facilitating free discussion and to encourage the sharing of opinions is for my Korean high school students. I did this by implementing four different methods for organising a discussion activity over the course of the week.

Continue reading Reflections on Four Approaches to Group Discussion Activities

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The Reflections of My Disgruntled High School Students – A Path to Success?

In March this year I transferred employers and so I also had to transfer to a different high school. The high school I moved to is one of the most prestigious in Seoul, and as such I consider myself lucky to have some of the highest level students in Korea, they are motivated, polite, respectful and active in every class. They have mostly adapted to my teaching style well and seemed to have enjoyed the range of activities they have been provided with. There has, however, been one class that have not responded well, and over the eight weeks we have entered into a vicious circle of disrespect, disobedience and then punishment, which in turn has lead to more disrespect and so the circle continues. I’ve been reassured by my co-teachers that this isn’t something I should worry about, that my other 18 classes are really happy, that this particular class also has problems with all their other subjects and that their Korean English teacher had to change last year due to the stress of teaching them. I still, however, found myself leaving school every Tuesday with the feeling that not only was I failing the students, but I was failing them more and more every week as the cycle continued.

I decided this week I had to try and break this cycle, for my sake as much as the students. So I started thinking of how I could do this. My co-teachers had made some great suggestions, such as trying to bond with them more and develop rapport by either playing games for a class or taking them in a treat, but this just didn’t sit well with me as I strongly believe these are things that need to be earned, and I wanted to get beyond the carrot and stick approach. I eventually decided to have an intervention reflection style meeting with the students, I was going to ask them to reflect on the class and, in doing so, I hoped they would realise that despite how it seemed, they are just as important to me as all my other students. By treating them like the young adults they are (2nd grade high school) and giving them the respect that comes with this I was optimistic we could come together to reach a respectful agreement as to how we can move forwards as a class. I decided that no matter what complaints they made about the class and myself, I would respect them and neither disagree nor argue. If they told me, for example, they cannot complete activities as my instructions are not clear enough, I would not point out that much lower level 1st grade classes are able to understand the instructions and complete the activities, so why can’t they?! The questions I posed to the students were:

1) Respect – How can I respect them more? How can they respect me more? What would the result be?

2) Problems and Issues – What problems do they have, what are the solutions? What problems do they think I have, what are the solutions?

3) Moving Forwards – What can they achieve? How can we help each other to achieve it?

I removed all the tables and created a circle of chairs (see pic below) in order to encourage the students to get involved. I started off by asking them why they thought they were sat in a circle like this. The students very quickly figured out it was something to do with the problems we had been having in class.

We then moved onto respect, I asked them to think of two ways they thought I had been disrespectful to them and vice-versa. They came up with some interesting answers, from themselves they identified sleeping, not listening to instructions, being late for class, not doing homework and not taking the class seriously, from myself they felt I had not listened to them enough, that I take the class too seriously and that my classes were too ‘tight’. I was reasonably happy about this response, although I consider myself an extremely friendly and approachable teacher I think that in my attempts to correct the behaviour of this class I have become a bit more cold and stern towards them than I am in my than other classes. Regarding the ‘tight’ issue, I feel this is due to cultural expectations in the Korean education system of the role of the native English speaking ‘teacher’ as an entertainer, not an educator that takes their students learning very seriously. Something I try very strongly to disprove!
We then moved onto problems and issues. To begin with this descended into exactly what I didn’t want; the highlighting of problems (or more like excuses) that didn’t explain why they are the only class in the school that do not participate in lessons, such as not being able to understand instructions, that conversation class should just be for playing games and gaining their interest in English (this was what they meant by too ‘tight’), that they have to do too much writing and that the class is too hard. At this point I couldn’t keep to the rules I had set myself as I couldn’t resist pointing out that much lower level 1st grade boy classes complete the same lessons without any issues at all, and that by looking through the worksheets they actually contain hardly any writing at all. This was, however, the catalyst I needed, as once I said this one very brave young adult put his hand up and told me that the problem is none of the above, but that there are 7 or 8 trouble makers in the class that ruin the classes for everyone else, not only in English class, but in every subject, and that if we could deal with them, there would be no problems.  He told me that the other students were tired of being punished because of the trouble makers and it was frustrating that my punishments focused on the class rather than the culprits themselves. He was absolutely right, in the class of 38 students a large minority were forcing me to lose my focus on the class as a whole, and this minority was big enough that class dynamics didn’t allow the others to put peer pressure on the trouble makers due to intimidation, and so punishing the whole class was completely ineffective. I then asked the class how they would like me to deal with this and suddenly 7 or 8 students became very quiet, while 30 others became very vocal. Unfortunately, their solutions mainly revolved around removing the 7 or 8 from the class or giving them physical punishments and, as far as I am concerned, if my students are not in class they are not learning and therefore I am failing them, and, well, physical punishment I certainly don’t agree with, so I had to reject their solutions. I did, however, promise the class that I would deal with this problem.

Was this intervention reflection style approach a success? I think that thanks to this one very brave student it was. Those 7 or 8 students that are ruining the experience for others now know that not only am I tired of their behaviour, but their class mates are too. If dealt with correctly, it will allow myself and the majority of the class to work together to produce a more positive learning atmosphere in the class, which in itself could help to focus those 7 or 8 students. It has allowed me to reflect on this vicious circle that resulted in me becoming more and more stern, and the effect this can have on students, it also allowed my students to reflect on why I may have become more and more stern. Most importantly the students can come into class next week knowing that I care about them and I can enter the class knowing the majority of them care about learning English.

This leaves me with one problem, what am I going to do about those 7 or 8 students? Any suggestions would be extremely welcome indeed! It has certainly left me with something to reflect upon for the next 7 days!

Please leave any suggestions/comments below, and don’t forget you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

 
 

Comments

08/05/2012 05:18

Kudos on a very brave and seemingly very valuable intervention. And now the really hard work begins 🙂

I don’t have too much experience with stuff like this from my high school days, my kids were always reasonably polite (thankfully).

I think the first thing to say is that the reflection session has probably helped more than you think it has. I would imagine that being named and shamed by their classmates has probably led to a few of the troublemakers considering their behaviour, and might lead to some better behaviour for a few weeks at least. Vocalising their feelings may also have given the rest of the class the confidence to police behaviour themselves too. After all, 30 united against 7 gives a lot more collective will than thinking you’re on your own. I think you might see a very different group dynamic in next week’s class. One thing I would recommend is talking to the whole class at the start of the next lesson, and saying how much you valued the session and how you’re looking forward to moving on positively. Hell, you could even show them this post – they might be flattered to know you care enough to write about them.

If the bad behaviour does continue, I’d suggest dealing with it out of class. I presume you know who the troublemakers are. Get them alone and talk to them reasonably. Tell them what you expect, and what they can expect if they don’t live up to that.

In terms of punishment, while I think you’re absolutely right not to exclude them from class completely, I wouldn’t be scared of sending them out of class for one lesson if they’re being disruptive. I think sometimes you have to make a pedagogic call about how many people you’re letting down, 1 or 39. It doesn’t have do be done with drama either. Just calmly tell them that they can go.

As a final tip, think very carefully about your seating arrangement 🙂

I think that’s enough waffle for now. Best of luck,

A

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08/05/2012 05:32

Thanks for your support and advice Alex, it’s always appreciated. I certainly hope you’re right about the group dynamics next week. I think you’re suggestion of a quick reminder at the beginning of next class is a great idea, it could act as a warning to the 7 or 8 subtly disguised as a compliment to the class for their honesty.

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Billy
08/05/2012 05:26

mate this happens in primary as well, trust me! I know from being a dick at school myself that the only thing that ever got me to shut up and not be a dick was a teacher I liked and respected and didn’t want to upset. Losing their cool and punishing / shouting always lost that respect, I’d say you’re wise to move away from pushing and threatening them. If you can identify the bad ones, you could rearrange the class (the entire class, not just them). Is levelled learning cool in your school? Give them a choice between a hard worksheet and an easy one? Motivation might go up if they get something they can do, I’ve seen it work (but thats primary again). Same goes for game time, lower level kids do a simpler game with the Korean teacher while higher kids do a hard one with me, works wonders for both groups. But that’s assuming you co-teach. Anyway good luck with it mate sounds like a dream job apart from that!

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08/05/2012 05:40

Hi Billy,

I totally know what you’re saying about being a dick at school, it’s fair to say I was one of the worst, and just as you say the only thing that could make me behave was a teacher I liked and respected.

Unfortunately leveled learning isn’t an option. To be honest the level of the work is not the problem, the students causing the trouble aren’t actually the lowest level students, there are much lower level students in the first grade who are respectful, listen and attempt to do every single activity, which is why this has got me kind of stumped! In fact one of the students that causes problems in this class will happily speak almost fluently with me outside of the classroom, but once inside the classroom………. The problem is only with this one class.

I would love to hear any more suggestions you’ve got mate! Also I really appreciate the time you took to read/comment 🙂

Alex

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08/05/2012 06:13

Hey,

I don’t think I really have any suggestions (or anything much new to say since Alex G shared a lot of good stuff). I just wanted to say that it is great that you shared this experience and post with the world. I am very hopeful that today’s events will be a catalyst for positive changes in the coming weeks. My prediction is that things might be a bit rocky but that you are all going in a good direction. Thanks so much for your bravery and honesty in sharing this and positive image that you are spreading of “alien teachers.”

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08/05/2012 17:42

Hi Mike,

I really hope so too, I got a really nice comment from my main co-teacher today (whom I consider a role model as she is fantastic) that she thinks I may have done every teacher in the school a favour by giving the students a chance to express their feelings, if so that would be really great. I will definitely be posting updates as to the results and changes in the class over the next couple of months.

Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and your really nice comments, it’s really appreciated 🙂

Alex W

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Anne
08/05/2012 07:43

Hey Alex,

Thanks for sharing the experience. I think your idea for getting your students out in the open and talking was a good one. I’m glad it worked to any degree. Remember that this isn’t the end. It’s a great start and I hope you see a dramatic shift, but if the class doesn’t improve, you can always bring them back to the reflective process and try again. You could even do that anyway periodically just to get an idea of how things are going and remind them that they need to meet you halfway.

I don’t know what to do about your 7 or 8. If they’re a problem as a group, I’d talk to them as a group and find out where they’re coming from. After being singled out by the class, they might need their own chance to be heard by you before you can convince them to meet you halfway. Thanks again for sharing the story and good luck.

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08/05/2012 17:47

Hi Anne!

It’s my pleasure sharing the experience as I knew the amazing community we have would provide me with some really great ideas in dealing with the issue. I definitely like your idea of bringing them back the reflective process, especially if their is an improvement in behaviour the asking them to reflect upon how the changes have improved their experiences could prevent them slipping back into bad habits!

I’m going to speak to my co-teacher today, she’s extremely supportive and so I’m sure she would support speaking to that group of 7 or 8 students with me to try and reach an understanding.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

Alex W

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scott carpenter
08/05/2012 16:42

Alex, I think that intervention was a great idea. I agree that through the results of that, you will see better behavior from the problem Ss. Good luck and keep up the good blogging.

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08/05/2012 17:49

Hi Scott!

Thanks for taking the time to read it, I appreciate your really positive comments and I really hope you’re right!

Thanks again!

Alex W

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08/05/2012 18:19

Alex,

Just wanted to join the others in thanking you for this post. It’s great how you reach out to your students as adults and learners to be respected.

When I was a social worker, we did a lot of stuff around group building and group dynamics. All groups experience conflict. It’s one of the ways they develop and grow. But conflict can be internal or external. The goal of any group was always to move them from conflict into a place of productivity. And one way to do that was to force them to externalize their conflict, usually through some kind of challenge so that sense of conflict seemed to be coming from the outside. I know this is kind of airy-theory, but I wonder if there’s some kind of mini-challenge that you can place on the class which seems to be coming from outside (a request from the administration or something) that would require all the students working together at the beginning of the class? If the 7/8 problem students can’t be integrated into the class, the students won’t be able to reach their highest levels of productivity. Sorry, this isn’t much of a help I’m afraid.

Thanks again for the read. And I’m really happy to have your blog on my radar.

Kevin

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08/05/2012 18:56

Hi Kevin!

Thanks so much for your kind words. Also, I have to disagree with you, what you wrote is a really big help! I think giving the class some kind of challenge where they all have to work together, and I love the idea of it coming from an outside source, perhaps it could even be some kind of challenge that includes myself so we all have to work together, definitely a very interesting idea, thanks!

I’m really happy to be on your radar Kevin!

Thanks again for your advice!

Alex W

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pterolaur
08/05/2012 19:08

I’m afraid I don’t have any helpful suggestions, but just wanted to say what a great post this is.

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08/05/2012 22:19

Hi! Just wanted to let you know I appreciate you taking the time to read it and your positive comments 🙂

Alex W

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Leonie Overbeek
08/05/2012 20:54

I can totally relate – only in my case the problem is exacerbated by a Korean co-teacher who is with me in every class and is the biggest instigator of the whole cycle – as we walk through the door he shouts and screams. Yesterday I got him to try something – we asked one of the leaders of the rebellion (use the force, Luke!) to lead the class. After ten futile minutes of screaming and shouting at them to ‘be quiet’ the student gave up and sat down, which allowed me to step in and ask the others why they did not listen? The excuses came thick and fast – ‘not teacher, no leader, no know English’ – while the student listened. I then asked the vocal ones if they could do it – if they could lead the class? The chorus of noes came thick and fast. So who has to lead the class and teach? To give them credit, quite a few saw the trap and shut up, but a large number yelled that teacher must teach. Including our former rebel. And then I could say but how can I teach when no one listens, or works? And how can my co-teacher teach?
Maybe you could try this ‘walk in my shoes’ with them – they don’t even have to teach English, they can teach whatever they want to. Ten minutes of classtime for them to lead. And learn, hopefully!

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08/05/2012 22:27

Hi Leonie!

Wow, having a co-teacher adding to the problems must make it really tough to deal with the situation! There’s definately a lot to be said to trying to get students to realise that lessons can be fun, but not while there is negative behaviour in the room. I like the having them plan and conduct a lesson idea. I doubt my school would let me do it during term time, but after their final exams I have two weeks when I might be able to try something like this. If my school will let me do it I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!

Thanks so much for reading and for your comments and suggestions, it’s really appreciated!

Alex W

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Thomas Topham
08/05/2012 21:46

Here is my first gut feeling about how I would move forward.

Next class, those 7 or 8 are put at a special table at the back. Thank the group for their honest and productive talk last time, “I now know that it isn’t just me who wants to have a proper, fun, involving lesson, but many of you do as well”.

You are re-affirming that special moment in which group dynamics are being reset.

The special table at the back cannot disrupt the class. They are free to quietly use phones, do homework, read, or participate in the lesson. So long as they are non-disruptive they are free.

Then you do a really fun and involving English lesson.

My guess is that within a few lessons, the majority of the special table people will change their minds and start to join in normally.

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08/05/2012 22:34

Hi Thomas!

First of all thanks for taking the time to comment and make your suggestions. I actually had a meeting with my co-teachers today, and our idea is very similar to the one you suggest. At the beginning of the class I will thank the class for their honesty last lesson, tell them I’m looking forward to use having some great lessons moving forwards etc. We are going to place 7 tables well spread apart along the back wall facing the wall. If the 7 or 8 students who are disruptive continue to be so, they will be asked to move to one of those tables, where they will be provided with work sheets that involve not much more than copying out the hey expressions from that class over and over. They can then decide at the beginning of the next class whether they would like to participate or go back to the tables against the back wall. So ye, this is very similar to the solution you’ve suggested above!!!

And yep, a special effort is going to be made to make the next few lessons as fun as possible, especially for the last 15 minutes of them!

Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

Alex W

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09/05/2012 00:17

Hi Alex – I can totally sympathise with your situation having been there myself, and I agree with other comments that having a sit-down with the class can only have helped matters. I was going to make a similar suggestion to Leonie, ie you hand some of the learning over to the students, and all try to learn lessons from the successes or failures of that venture. I did the same with a really difficult class last year (13/14 year olds) and I blogged my way through it – if you want to know what I did, here’s the introduction: http://reesiepielangs.wordpress.com/2010/12/16/kobayashi-maru/
It sounds like you have supportive colleagues too, which is a great help. Looking forward to hearing how it all works out.

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Julia ( mum)
09/05/2012 10:58

I was so interested in this blog Alex and very proud of you for trying to handle it in the way you have done. You have been given some very good advice from all people and so there’s nothing I feel I can add apart from re iterating that the ‘ trouble makers’ need to be made to feel respected and giving them responsibility could work, not primary stuff but grown up responsibility. Not sure what that could be as dont know the Korean system but I’m sure you do!! Good luck xx

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Andy Clay
15/05/2012 08:02

Hello mate, great post and it’s made me think a bit about a nightmare class I have here in the UAE. Unfortunately their English level probably isn’t good enough for the intervention approach to work, but it’s a similar dynamic in terms of 6 or 7 students out of the 30 instigating the trouble; most of the rest are either trying to work or just lazy but not disruptive. Reading your blog and the posts above has made me think I’ve definitely been guilty of punishing the whole class the same instead of singling out the troublemakers. I’ll definitely give it a go and see if isolating the bad kids at the back and working with the rest has any effect.

Best of luck with your next class, and keep up the great work with the blog!

Andy