Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stuff I did on the first days of classes (of year four)

The first week is over. I've begun my fourth contract for EPIK and have started teaching at two new schools: Sincheorwon Middle School and High School. Here are some things I did in my first week of classes:
  • Greeted students with a smile and a hearty greeting. Some teachers have said "Never smile until after X time," but I disagree, simply because I am indeed happy to have the students in class and am happy to be their teacher. Also, Harry Wong strongly recommends this practice in  his book The First Days of School.
  • Set an agenda and a dedicated place for it. In the middle school, the agenda's on the right-hand side of the whiteboard. It's separated from the "main" board by a nearly-invisible vertical line. The high school classes have the agenda written on a whiteboard next to the door. In every class, I wrote the agenda either in advance or in the first minute of class if there wasn't time to do it beforehand. I also took a minute to explain what an agenda is and how it shows what we'll do in class every day. In some classes I drilled pronunciation by clapping the syllables a-gen-da.
  • Established one or two quiet signals: Clapping and flicking the lights on and off. Clapping came easily because the students have done it in their other classes. I often lighten the mood by clapping different rhythms for the students to copy. The light flicking is for the high school classes, for the students consider clapping too juvenile for their tastes.
  • Used some Korean words and phrases while addressing the class. Some teachers have debated this practice, usually because the class is English and the focus should be on speaking English. As much as I agree that the focus should be on speaking English,  I did so for the following reasons: 
    1. To catch their attention and show that I know or am learning some of the students' native tongue. 
    2. To demonstrate that I make mistakes with pronunciation and syntax. As the students learn English, I too learn Korean. Experience has shown that (1) and (2) can be powerful motivators for the students. By speaking Korean and admitting to not being perfect at it, I'm demonstrating that mistakes are okay and that practice is the only way to get better.
      1. I usually said, "We're both learning! I learn Korean, you learn English. 우리는 함께 배우자!" [Uri neun hamkke bae uja! = We learn together!]
    3. For easier explanations or for showing that I might have idea of what the students are saying when they talk to each other.
    4. My Korean is far from fluent. It's limited to words and phrases and thus doing an entire class in Korean is impossible.
    5. Asking at intervals, "What's X in Korean?" has proven a good way of focusing students' attention and for learning new words myself.
    • Furthermore, I do keep on the focus on speaking English. If students respond to a question in Korean in speech or writing, I always say, "English please" or "Use easy words." Sometimes I invite the class or group to help. If a student writes something in Korean, I usually say, "Okay, but what is it in English? Can you tell me?"
  • Moved around the room as I talked or while the students were working. Teacher textbooks call this proximity control, but moving around is what it is.
  • Held a questions and answers session. In some classes I called this KWL and in others it was simply Questions. As I'm a new teacher in a new school, but not new to Korea itself, the students had many questions to ask me. I either handed out Post-Its or asked the students to write questions in their textbooks. The students were free to discuss their questions and how to write them (in English, of course) in partners or with their neighbors. While they wrote and talked, my coteacher and I moved around the room monitoring students and assisting with questions. At times I stood back and watched. Moving around is fine and good to do, but sometimes its best to stand back and watch from a few feet away. The students should have some room to breathe at times.
    • Doing so also established that the students are expected to write in class. Speaking, reading, writing, all goes together.
    • In some classes, I wrote question stems on the board to give the students a starting point:
      • Who/what/where/when/how/why...?
      • What's your favorite...?
      • Do you like...?
  • Noted students' goals for the class and ways of learning English. This too was done in small groups. I had a little trouble here, for "Improving English" is too vague a goal; it lacks specifics like "Improve English by doing x." I usually gave students a hint by saying, "I'm learning Korean. One way I learn Korean is by listening to Korean rock songs and reading their lyrics." Saying so resulted in the following ways to learn English:
    • Reading books
    • Writing Kakao messages
    • Listening to pop songs
    • Watching movies in English
    • Drama/dialogues/role plays
  • Ended the class by asking for specific things the students remembered from our discussions.
Altogether, I'd say it was a good start. There's still room for improvement, but compared to my earlier "first days" this one established a few classroom routines and produced tangible products. I ditched my earlier introductory lecture and accompanying PowerPoint presentation in favor of letting the students ask the questions. Sure, telling them X, Y, and Z is fine, but letting the students ask questions (and reviewing question stems) put the focus on the students and gave them a voice in the class. Did strange questions arise? They did. Depending on the question, I either said "I don't know" or "No comment. Let's think of something different." I figure it's just some students wanting to test their new teacher. Teens will be teens. We'll see what questions come up in the lessons to come. So far so good though!


  1. This is a really inspiring post with lots of useful tips for any subject teacher, not just the EFL one.
    1. I totally agree that students should be greeted with a broad smile the first moment you meet them. There was a teacher at our school who, right upon entering the very first class, told her students that they were not the class she had wished for. To cut a long story short, their relationship deteriorated every day until she could no longer enter the class. I think the very first moment of the very first day may have been the key to the whole problem.
    2. I love the idea of dedicating a place on the board for the agenda. I don’t do it but it sounds clever to me.
    3. I’m sure using Korean in your classes helps to establish a good rapport with the class for all the reasons you state. I believe it’s definitely a step forward, no matter what some naysayers claim.
    4. Thanks for explaining what proximity control is. This year I teach large classes and there’s little room for me moving around but I try to do it as much as possible anyway (sometimes bumping into desks and chairs). But yes, as you say, students should have some time to breathe at times. I’m a control freak and I really need to push that button now and them and make myself disappear for a while (at least from their sight).
    All in all, I think you started very well, mainly because you established lots of useful routines. Students feel safe when they know what to do.


  2. Hi! Thanks for stopping by.

    That's too bad about the teacher you knew. What she said ranks among the worst possible things a teacher can say to a class. It's rude and sets a horrible tone for the class. Knowing about a class beforehand can be good or bad. My predecessor at my new school left behind some notes about classes, which I liked because it gave me some advance information about the group. On the other hand, I had to work at not prejudging the group. Just because the former teacher said a class was, say, "loud and crazy" doesn't necessarily mean that they are. I greeted each class with an open mind because classroom dynamics always change. They change with the seasons, the semesters, the teachers, and the students themselves. They're growing teenagers with minds of their own.

    Also, I know what you mean about being a "control freak." Some students seem like they need constant supervision to do anything, yet I'm concerned that always standing behind them hinders rather than helps their learning. It takes away from their autonomy. I'd rather not make the students dependent on my presence to do well or focus. They should understand that for many things in life, they'll be on their own and should be able to work by themselves.

    Good luck. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures with larger classes