Thursday, January 14, 2010


The other day, a fine teacher at my school made a simple but instructive suggestion concerning calming student restlessness during class: give a definite stopping time for each activity. As I thought about her suggestion later, it occurred to me that some of my students’ restiveness might stem from their sense that English class has no definable boundary lines – that it’s a sort of a formless ocean of grammar rules and essay topics and novels and poems, a 48-minute period where nothing ever really starts or ends, but activities sort of swirl around in an incessant and fairly directionless manner. I do try very hard to present an orderly lesson plan each day, but I wonder if my plans sometimes appear to my students to be more like blurred overviews than precise, step-by-step diagrams. I wonder if they feel lost in a haze of general English goings-on, rather than clear-headed and fully alert on a marked path to a specific goal. My colleague’s suggestion makes some sense. If I tell the students, for instance, that we will discuss a certain poem for precisely 14 minutes, ending at 10:22, at which time we will have a 2-minute summary of the discussion and a 2-minute period for silent reflection and note-taking, perhaps this would help them feel more oriented, more purposeful. If they knew, in other words, that there was a specific moment when an activity would stop, they might possibly give themselves more heartily to the activity. Of course, I have to remain flexible in my work as a teacher, but flexibility can too easily dwindle away into mere sluggishness and puzzlement, where an activity doesn’t really end but just sort of drifts off into side streams and disappears (as often happens, to my frustration, in our faculty meetings). Instead of allowing the discussion to be extended and then possibly fade away among the worn-out students, a better way to employ flexibility might be to say, at 10:22, “We clearly need more time to discuss this poem. Let’s continue with our discussion tomorrow. Now let’s do our 2-minute summary, as scheduled.” Perhaps giving my fidgety students specific stopping points would make school seem less like an endless ocean of perplexity and disorder, and more like a series of informative journeys to precise targets: e.g., 20 minutes to review the story, 14 minutes to practice using appositives, 2 minutes to breathe deeply and daydream.

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