During the first lesson of English didactics for my university students, I lay out the task: for the run of the course, they were going to work on creating their own “method” for teaching English. Each student would write two lessons, including a number of activating materials and activities, a cross-curricular connection, and a simple means of assessment. The lessons were to fit the ability and interest of their class, and fit into a given didactic model.
Of course, the students stared at me, wondering what on earth half of that even meant. I continued on, explaining that the word “method”, often used by Dutch educators to mean the textbook they use, is actually a misnomer. We weren’t, therefore, going to actually make up a “method”, but create a series of lesson plans that we would publish for our own class. Heads started nodding warily, as students realized they still lacked too much information to even begin with this task.
After that, I passed out the post-its. Time for them to start thinking up their questions. As they handed in their questions, I sorted them into topic piles. The students sorted themselves into groups, and I handed each of them a pile of post-its, along with some handy search terms. They were going to find information – any information at all – that was going to help them figure out the whats and hows for the task at hand.
As I read the questions, I remembered my own beginnings as a young teacher. The kinds of questions I’d had, way back when. “How do I keep their attention?” one student asked. Another: “What is a didactic approach?” or “What is a cross-curricular connection?” Others asked “How do I know what children like?” and “What is their level of English?” These questions pulled me back from my lofty dreams and years of experience back to the nitty-gritty of the basics: these Freshmen students were ready to learn, with heads full of questions. Time to get to work!
We spent some of the next lesson discussing our position regarding the use of L1 during the English lesson. It’s easy during these discussions to think that one’s own opinion is better or more valid because most people agree on it. It was a bit of an eye-opener when we realized that just because less people have a certain opinion, doesn’t make it less valid. It just means we have to listen carefully and take everyone’s opinions into account.
It was important to help students remember what it was like to learn a new language from scratch. I decided to teach them a short, 10-minute lesson in Russian. No, I don’t really speak Russian, but I figured out just enough to teach them the words for apple, orange, and banana, and to learn how to ask and answer “What’s this?” That simple example really hit home, and we refer to it often. It was only ten minutes, but we learned so much: how to start and end a lesson, how to introduce new vocabulary, basic classroom management, how to play a simple game of pass-the-question, how to keep it fun, and most importantly, how to give the students a feeling of success in a very new and strange environment.
We have a few more lessons to go with our class, and every time we get together I put on my “back to basics” hat, looking at my material with the eyes of the inexperienced. It’s an enriching way of teaching, to say the least, and one I hope to keep going in the years to come.