Being a Better Teacher by Making Classes More Interesting - Pt 1

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Note: Video-version of this article embedded at the end if you’d prefer to watch it.

Just before we get started:

If you haven’t already read the Preamble to this article, I suggest you do so HERE. It doesn’t actually give you any tips for making your classroom more interesting, but it does deal with a few fundamentals worth considering before you attempt to apply what’s covered in this series of articles.

Charge ahead if you like, but it’s likely to only have a band-aid effect if you haven’t thought about the points raised in the Preamble.

Anyway, on with the show…

Also: The points in this series are not presented in any particular order, incidentally.

And… There is a video-version, downloadable MP3-version, and an A.R.R.O.W. Worksheet at the end…

Lets’ get to it!

Consider the age of your students

Different things appeal to us at different ages. And I’m not just talking about dinosaur worksheets versus, say, scantily-clad drama school grads paying the bills as EFL teachers in between coffee commercials.
Taking a moment to think about the kinds of generic topics that different age-groups are drawn to will, of course, help in appealing to the interests of your specific set of students.

So, if you have a listening task about Sport that lacks a lead in, then you can make one fairly easily. Done correctly, this will generate interest in the topic and personally engage the students with the topic.

Let’s take a group of adult learners first. In this case, you might ask them to discuss whether they play/used to play sport, what they like/liked most about it, and if they won any trophies or competitions.

For third year junior high school kids, you could ask them “Who’s your favourite sports star and why? If you met him/her, what would you say or do?”

For 6th graders it might be: “Tell your group which of these three sports is more fun and why?” (Note: Ideally, you would encourage them to do it in L2, but L1 is actually (a) much more likely, and (b) perfectly okay at this stage because the purpose here is primarily to motivate and engage.)

What would you say the three broad topics/approaches are here? Think for a moment and then click the link below to reveal what I think.

:!: Don’t just click! Take, like, 10 seconds to think about it! :!:


Click to reveal answer

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What effect does the context have?

Do you teach at a primary school? Junior high? High school? After-school “cram school”? Weekend or evening conversation class? Private full-time language college for adults? Business school? In companies? University? University foundation program? Government-supported migrant language program? Et cetera.

What I’m getting at is that your context (not only the age of your students, as above) will give you some clues as to the students’ existing intrinsic motivation for being there… if any.

And that last bit is important: Is there actually any intrinsic motivation that you can tap into?

Sometimes it appears that there isn’t. And sometimes there REALLY isn’t! But mostly, if you look hard enough and – regardless of their age – “relate to and interact with your student as real people instead of objects to be taught”, as I’m prone to say to trainee teachers, you’ll usually discover something you can “leverage” to spark the interest in your students just that wee bit more.

It’s unrealistic to expect a dramatic turnaround in your students’ response if things haven’t been interesting for a long time. It’s much more likely that the students will “warm up” to your efforts to incorporate topics and approaches that are of genuine interest to them.

Once you notice that happening, you’re on your way to “winning over” that class and even though things may never be spectacularly, mind-blowingly interesting , you’re likely to get a significant improvement.

Sidenote: Regarding dramatic turnarounds for the better… Who knows? There are plenty of success cases where that’s exactly what has happened and I hope you experience it many times, too!

 

Okay, time for some examples…

Let’s start, again, by imagining that you’re teaching adults. As we saw in the first point, something that often motivates us as adults is to talk about our life experience, achievements, etc.

And truth be told, the generic example above would probably work in any adult context reasonably well.

But if you can focus it more specifically to the context that (you and) the students are in, you’ll get more “buy in” than a generic question like the one above.

For instance, if you’re teaching a bunch of executives, it’s unlikely that the coursebook material is about sport as a general topic. It’s more likely to be about accomplishments and goals and the kind of mindset that you need to be a winner (i.e. business themes).

So, if the book is lacking a lead-in (or some other “bridging” activity), you can still use a basic version of the one above, just put a “business spin” on it:

  • Do you play and/or watch sport?
  • What do you play/watch and why?
  • Have you always played/watched this sport?
  • What keeps you going back to it?
  • Have you ever won a big competition?
  • What do you remember most about that experience?
  • What was driving you to win?
  • Who are the greats in your sport?
  • What makes them great?
  • Do you think there are any parallels between what makes those men/women great and what it takes to be a great manager?
  • Is sport always about winning?

You can just list these on the board as bullet-points as you go through them in the instructions stage of the activity.

There’s no need to write the whole thing out; the students will remember what each bullet point is about (and if they don’t, they’ll ask you while you’re monitoring).

Similarly, if you’re on a university foundation program (where the topic is likely to be sport, generally, with the focus more on vocab-building and/or grammar from the text, or skills-work such as note-taking), you just “spin” it to make it more engaging for uni students:

  • What’s your favourite sport? Why?
  • Do you prefer to play or watch it?
  • Which sport(s) is this university famous for?
  • Have you ever been to a game?
  • If so, what was it like?
  • Do you think sport is good for university students or is it a distraction to their studies?

This stuff is clearly not brain-surgery and many of the teachers who read this will have heard much of the theoretical elements before. Some of our newer colleagues may not have, though.

What I’m really hoping you take away from this is the examples of how to do it because I think we often assume things like “Of course I’m taking the context into consideration!”

And especially if we’ve read the theoretical stuff a few times, we assume we’ve “got a handle on it” whereas, in fact, we may not be able to do it in practice.

And that leads us to the final point…

 


 

Now it’s your turn to take this and do something with it!

targetDownload your A.R.R.O.W. Worksheet here.

And please leave your comments and questions below…

 


 

Here is the video version:

rainbow lorikeet
Listen for the rainbow lorikeets in the background! I recorded this Saturday afternoon following a storm and they were in the trees outside my window enjoying a terrific feast of insects that the rain had brought out.

 


Download the MP3 version of the video here.

All the best,
Leslie

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5 Responses to “Being a Better Teacher by Making Classes More Interesting - Pt 1”

  1. Jennifer K Jennifer K says:

    Thanks for the article! I teach elementary students, middle school students, and adults, and am excited to use this method on some of the more difficult (boring) units!

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  2. Natalie Natalie says:

    Heya Leslie,

    I just wanted to say thanks for the great article, it really got me thinking. Actually…I think I had a bit of an "Ah-ha" moment with your examples about context and considering the age of the learners.

    I have to admit, that as I was reading your article I was thinking "yeah, yeah, I know. Think of the learners and what is likely to be of interest to them. How many times have I heard that before?" and I was starting to dismiss it as something I already knew. But…reading your examples made me realise how to actually put this principle into practice!

    I can see now how I was only just scratching the surface of the context or the interests of my learners. It makes so much more sense now why I've had minimal success with "targeting lessons to suit the learners" - I didn't really delve very deep into what would be of interest to them. I just thought "oh, they're all adults. Mostly from South America, mostly on a student visa…what else is there to say!" So thank you for giving me a more well-rounded view of context. Very interesting stuff. I love all the PRACTICAL examples too, keep 'em coming!

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, Natalie

      Thanks very much for your kind comments. I really appreciate your thoughtful, honest, and reflexive input.

      I said when I started this series of "Make Your Class More Interesting" articles that I was unsure just how far back to basics to go. One consideration was that there are lots of people who read this site at quite varied stages of their careers, with differing amounts of experience in a wide array of contexts… so I want to be able to cater to the new (and newer) teachers without boring those with more experience.

      What didn't occur to me until you made this comment is the "Yeah, yeah, I know that already! Sheesh, everyone knows about [topic] don't they?" phenomenon. Of course, I've seen it many times (and been guilty of it, too!): Some topic comes up, you assume that just because you read a chapter about it in a book once or listened to a lecture on it at some point that you know how to do it… until you go to do it, that is.

      Then you discover that, uh, actually you don't have quite the handle on it that you thought you did.

      We've all done it.

      I'm glad the article was able to give you insight into — and hopefully help you in overcoming — the particular issue you mentioned.

      I'll give some thought to how to better overcome the ole "Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know that" inertia in future. And I'll endeavour to keep the practical examples coming. I can't always promise that, however, because some things are just more abstract. But I certainly agree that it's incredibly important to have a way to apply the theory. Hopefully, even with the more abstract stuff, the A.R.R.O.W. Worksheets will go some way to achieving that.

      Best,
      Leslie

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  3. Hamidah Hamidah says:

    Thank you for the depth and detail you put into this article. It's always tempting to write something off as "been there, done that"… But I never dismiss what appears to be even the most basic discussion/suggestion on the surface because no two perceptions are alike and NO MATTER WHAT the topic-I never walk away empty handed. This time the gem I discovered (well, in addition to the 1,2,3… make-me-do-it worksheet) was the (final-heh, heh) suggestion of the ARROW to start building a mind-map of "lessons learned" and "great ideas" to which I will continue to 'add to' as the weeks go by… Brilliant! Perhaps at a later date all mind-mappers can unite and share! Much obliged.

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