Trying out different teaching techniques

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.