IATEFL 2018 Opportunity and the unexpected in the classroom – Richard McNeff

Richard McNeff is a teacher and writer. He has worked a lot in Spain and the UK. Since 2000, for the London School of English in Holland Park. They have legal English groups and ESP groups with fixed timetables, they do Business and G.E. courses. Also do 1-1s.

His talk is about opportunities and the unexpected in the classroom.

Opportunity – working in a week cycle, no syllabus as such for longer than a week.

The unexpected – e.g. A year ago, he was teaching an south american girl and he asked if she was planning to stay here and make a life or go back to her country. She burst into tears. Her father had had a heart attack the day before and she wasn’t sure what to do.

It made him think and talk to colleagues about other unexpected things that happen in the classroom. Situations where the wires get crossed. He gives us some examples of these. E.g. giving a lecture about life in Britain and being asked to prepare a quiz for the teachers to use after the lecture? He used all his questions prompts. E.g. How many hours tv does the average Brit watch every week. The students all answered in the lecture. They had done the quiz before the lecture, which took away the element of surprise. To add to the joy of the occasion, the OHP started going off and on. So he had 100 people who knew the answer to everything he was going to ask and unreliable equipment. He somehow got through it.

He thought it would be interesting to ask colleagues about the unexpected. There was a lot about technology. One colleague was invigilating in an exam and a clock dropped on their head. Another, the whiteboard fell on them. This colleague turned it into a teaching moment, language for things going wrong. There was also talk about hostile situations. A colleague was teaching 4 students, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Czech. She had to do a business English course. She had to abandon the course and focus on helping them overcome historical hostility.

Back to the South American girl, his question was completely inadvertent. Teachers do things and sometimes a reaction is unwittingly provoked. E.g. a colleague played a clip from Fawlty Towers. Mrs Richards said “The bath isn’t big enough to drown a mouse in” and a student burst into tears as a friend had had a fatal accident in a bath.

We watched a clip with a teacher consoling a student whose family has died in a crash, focusing only on the language (a comedy). That’s called the insensitive language teacher and isn’t what you do obviously.

When he is talking about opportunity, he is talking about something different. Often things come alive when students go off on a tangent. When they move off piste/plan. You get a much more living, real world situation. Trainee teachers tend to be terrified of something unexpected cropping up because the lesson plan becomes the puppet master. But when students bring things up themselves, everything becomes more alive and interesting. When students ask questions, particularly if they think you won’t know the answer, they all sit up and get interested. He used to feel guilty and think this was digression, going off subject. It can become counter-productive but when it’s valuable or enriching, it can enrich the teaching experience. A teacher in his staffroom said no no no it’s not digression, it’s affordance. “To provide or supply an opportunity. A class can afford you opportunities. This doesn’t mean that you don’t go in prepared. But if something comes up and you think it’s valid, go with them on that journey.

E.g. vocabulary for talking about tax became a springboard for discussion about the topics. The internet comes to your aid with this as you can get the information you need as back up. In the last couple of years, Brexit has been a subject they all want to leap on. Questions about vocabulary or grammar. Queries about life in Britain (in his case). Can you give any shape to these incidences?

Routines – every so often when something comes up, you can impose some order on it by:

  • tenses
  • explaining differences in meaning
  • reference other classes you’ve taught
  • talk about origins of words, etymology (using the story of words)
  • give lots of language feedback

Getting them to use street view to show you their home can provide lots of affordance. The internet is an affordance engine.

“The objective is not to tame the chaos of language but to encourage learners to appreciate the dynamic qualities inherent in its use” (Maurice Claypole, Guardian Education)

Very time-defined ESP courses or exam courses, need to be more careful but there are still affordances there.

You don’t follow everything that comes up, you need to develop an instinct for knowing if it is worth going with/will afford something positive.

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