Back to school Part Five: challenges and homework

As if to prove the point about procrastination and failing to do stuff outside class that I made in my last post reflecting on my own language learning experiences, I’m almost ashamed to begin by admitting it has been over a year since I wrote these words: I’ll talk a bit more about my appproach to self-study and homework – and how it can / can’t relate to class – in my next post. As I was sitting down to write this, I did initially want to write something about L1 and mediation, but as I did promise, I shall instead talk a bit more about my self-study today.

The first thing to say is that as I mentioned in my previous post, there have been times that I have done next to nothing during the past year, except have my actual Russian class, and in July and most of August this year, I didn’t even do that. And you know what? It’s fine! We all need a break from time to time, even if it’s only from thinking about the things you’re not doing! The point is, I am still doing classes and still trying to learn, despite my snail-like progress. I think as teachers, we should recognise this in our students. The fact they still keep going is pretty miraculous really, and as a teacher you have played a big part in that (hat’s off to my teacher Anita in this particular instance). It’s good to tell yourself and your students this.

For my part, I have from time to time tried to do a bit more by setting myself a challenge to do something every day over a certain period of time – say a week or a month. I would say that this has been a good thing to do, but there are some things that I think might be worth bearing in mind. Firstly, I think that while you might want to plant the seed in your students’ minds that doing a challenge is a good thing, it’s also important that the student chooses the challenge (how much to do each day and how long) and chooses when to do it.

Having said that, I do think it’s important that the student doing the challenge makes their decisions public. That could mean telling you, the teacher, about it, but I think it is probably better if it’s announced to a number of people. If you are in a school, perhaps you could have a noticeboard of some kind where students announce the challenges they’ve set themselves, and of course social media, much as I avoid it most of the time, is a great way of sharing more widely. Making it public in this way makes things a bit more serious and I found it did ensure that I actually did something, even if it was only a token five minutes on some days, while on other days I actually found myself doing a lot more. Obviously, people might ask you how it’s going and that is both a reminder and a bit of a spur. They may also give you some encouragement.

As teachers, I personally don’t think you want to do more than this in checking up on whether the challenge is being done or not. When I did one of my challenges, Anita set up a Padlet wall for me to fill in what I did each day. To be fair, this was partly to teach me ordinal numbers, I think, but it didn’t go anywhere. My thinking was that if I have met my challenge by doing something, why would I then want to spend extra time writing up what I did?! Maybe I have been traumatised by having to do admin at work to try and prove that I am doing a good job – it didn’t make me a better or worse teacher then and it doesn’t make me a better or worse student now! The point of a challenge shouldn’t be either guilt or shame, should it?  

Similarly, I would tell students that they don’t have to do the same thing everyday. I actually found that one of the positive things about doing a challenge is that it does lead you to do different things. Learning words with flash cards a la Duolinguo or Quizlet is convenient, but it can also be pretty dull. It’s good to mix things up with a listening or reading something in the language. It can be a bit difficult at times to find things suitable for me at my (very) low level. It can be very frustrating if you have to look up every second word so something simpler would be more encouraging – but still, even if it’s difficult, it’s something different and it’s engaging with language. My teacher would sometimes send me a short WhatsApp message or a one-minute video about what she was doing, which I really liked. That could then lead me to not only read and listen, but also to write a reply or create a text and even video myself on occasions. I also wrote short dialogues based either on simple conversations in class or sometimes I imagined how I might use a new word. I even did some Instagram posts (which I may talk about another day). Sometimes I created Quizlet cards out of this too. None of this is monitored or corrected as such – apart from the Quizlet cards (which we did in class). And really none of it needs to be either.

 Of course, people can cheat, but it would be rather pointless … there are no prizes and in the end, you’re only cheating yourself! Oh, and by the way, I really don’t think there should be any prizes in these situations. Not just because I’m a bit tight that way, but also because I think it distracts from the point of the challenge, which is to build autonomy and self-belief and truthfulness to yourself. 

And, of course, some of the language I am using will be ‘wrong’, but this is the natural state of being a beginner learner. Teachers can’t be there with their students all the time and building autonomy means allowing students to make their own mistakes. Maybe those mistakes / confusions will get ironed out as they progress, maybe they won’t – it really doesn’t matter as long as students are remaining engaged and are keeping going.

Oh and by the way … I started my challenge of doing something everyday in September with this post on instagram.

If you like this content you’ll find lots of great advice and techniques for teaching language with our online teacher development courses. Our next zoom course on Planning smarter begins on Tuesday 28th September: https://lexicallab.thinkific.com/courses/live-zoom-course-plan-smarter

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