Mission Impossible

It was quite some time ago – about 5 years, to be more exact – but I remember the class like it was yesterday: the class that really, honestly, didn’t want to co-operate.  It wasn’t the easiest class, of course: at least three of the children had ADHD, another four had Dyslexia, quite a few of them had emotional disorders, there was an autistic child, and those who remained kept their heads down, out of the melee of insults and retorts constantly thrown behind the teacher’s back.  This class had worn down three teachers already, and here I stood, again, in a mad attempt to teach these children to communicate in English.

The crisis = the turning point

Nobody listened; they were too busy paying attention to each other. “Eyes on me,” I’d try, while comforting a girl who clearly had just been teased by one of her tormentors.  “Ears this way, please, no more throwing notes.”  Nothing worked.  I even raised my voice.  “Listen here, now, it’s time for English,” while setting a smart-mouthed child in the hallway.  I was getting desperate.

That night, it came to me.  These children were too busy with each other to pay attention to me, and I wasn’t going to fight for their attention any more.  From now on, they would pay attention to each other whether they liked it or not.  It was time for some group work.  Every lesson, every day.

Making the groups

I started by asking the children to write down the names of three other children in the class with whom they would like to work.  The results were astounding.  I’d made sociograms before, and found that most classes have one child that no one else wants to work with.  We all know about these children – the stinky boy, the class reject, or the bully.  The picture that emerged of this class was harsher: there wasn’t one class reject – there were four children that no one else wanted to work with.  I  was shocked.

These four children, I decided, were going to be group captains.  I made groups of four, and in each group I placed at least one of the children that the captains wanted to work with.  Further, I balanced the groups as hetergeneously as possible, with strong and weak children in each group.  That done, I turned to the book.

The children are playing a game of Lotto together.  The orange booklet is the "group booklet".

The children are playing a game of Lotto together. The orange booklet is the “group booklet”.

Structuring the assignments

It was time to create assignments that the children could do with their group.  I looked through the book and the workbook, and searched the internet for activities that met my requirements for learning activities.  For me, real learning activities must meet at least these basic requirements:

  1. contribute towards attaining the language objectives for the unit
  2. be language- and age-appropriate
  3. can be completed independently, in pairs, or in a small group
  4. must be self-checking
  5. must be varied, appealing to the children’s intelligences

After that, I set about making checklists for the class, so we could see which groups had already done which activities, and made a “group booklet”.  This booklet contained a checklist of the assignments, plus all of the worksheets and materials they would need to complete each assignment.  In short, all of the material we would need for the next four to six weeks was ready before the new unit started.

Ready, steady, go!

I decided to start each lesson with a short, classical instruction ten to fifteen minutes long.  After that,  I briefly explained what the assignments were and noted which assignment they decided to do, and the children got into their groups.  The group was allowed to check off an assignment once they proved they had completed it successfully.  Each lesson ended with a short evaluation of how everyone worked.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes taking place.

Was it an immediate success?  Most certainly not!  The first lesson went horribly!  The children were noisy, the room was a mess, and I had serious doubts about this new manner of teaching.

The rule of three

But, as with any new process, I kept to the rule of three.

According to the rule of three:

the first time is a mess,

the second time is for fine-tuning,

and the third time is the charm.  

And so it was with this class.  After the first lesson, we discussed the problems, and I explained the process again.  After the second lesson, we remembered what went better and discussed how to improve the way we worked.  After the third lesson, the children understood the process and the groups were learning to get along, whether they liked it or not.  They were learning, and I was happy.

Success factors

Structure:  the overall structure of the lesson was simple and clear.  The children knew what to expect in terms of lesson order, even though the contents would vary.

Groups:  the children didn’t always get along well in their groups, but while the groups were busy working, we were able to take time to talk out their differences and help them to get along with each other.

Activities:  these were structured so that everyone was able to experience success.  They fit into the Dalton method of working, which they were used to in their other subject areas, and were interesting and varied.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

For the units that followed, I created new groups, and was pleased to see that the new groups got along better than the ones before, as children learned to work together in positive ways.

This means of working was born of necessity, but evolved into a way of teaching that I continued to use in the years that followed.  It allowed me to use the book freely, while pulling other, more contemporary, material into the classroom as I deemed fit.

In the end, we all began to enjoy the lessons, and the children started to focus more on their learning.  Mission Impossible?  Mission accomplished!

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