A dozen students between the ages of 12 and 14 walk into my academy classroom.
Most sit down in chairs around the sides of the room. Three remain standing, hovering round the teacher’s desk. ‘Ah yes, Eloy, Carmen, Julia, it’s your turn today, isn’t it?’ I say, remembering the system we have recently set in motion. ‘I’ve just got to tell the class a couple of things, then it’s over to you.’ After I have made my announcements, they rearrange the furniture at the front, adding another table, then take their places. There is a minute or two of transitional buzz, during which I take my place amongst the rest of the class, and then for the next hour it is the three teenagers who are running the show.
Experienced teachers might be able to shape a lesson around topics that come up in open-class conversation and around the students’ emergent language needs (if those teachers have been given the opportunity and had the inclination to develop the required skills). Our teenage learners are not experienced teachers, though, and the type of lessons described here do need preparation if they are to be fruitful for, and fair upon, the students who lead them and the rest of their classmates. So one or two weeks before they start teaching, the students are put into groups of three or four and assigned a page of the book and a date:
‘Isabel, Luisa and Alex, you’ll be teaching page 48 on the 18th of this month. Alberto, Clara and Ana, your page is 49 on the 20th’, and so on.
Even though they will be teaching different pages, everyone gets the same hour of class time to prepare their respective lessons. Here, they decide which exercises from their assigned pages they will do. This hinges upon what the point of their lesson is, so, first, I ask them to look at the exercises and identify the underlying language structures and functions. Next, they need to decide who in the group will introduce each activity and what instructions and explanations they will give to the class. For this, I encourage them either to script what they will say or make supporting notes. They also need to agree upon who will operate any audio recordings and who will go round checking that their colleagues are on-task.
Of course, the student teachers need to know what the correct answers to any exercises they cover are, and they need to look over any texts they are going to teach to ensure they understand them and have identified any tricky vocabulary they might be asked about.
During their lesson preparation, the students have access to the teacher’s book for advice on staging and for the answer keys. They can also listen to any audio recordings in advance. From a certain perspective, we might say that the class they will teach can be seen as the end product of the structure provided for them and exploited by them in this key preparation stage.
One clear indication that they have made good use of their time is the production of a lesson plan. I have shifted towards giving more guidance on this in recent years. In our first round of student-led classes, which are the ones you can see in the photos in this article, I began with a freer, more hands-off approach. It was actually one of the students who produced the first, rather novel, lesson plan on her own initiative. It consisted of a collage of exercise answers, photocopied from the teacher’s manual, cut out and stuck onto coloured paper. This was overwritten with her own notes, which included scripted instructions, staging and example tables for a short presentation.
I have since made it a standard requirement that each group produce a finished lesson plan, and that each student in the group has a copy of it, so that if anybody is absent on the day, the rest can still teach. The template I currently provide is shown opposite, although the final format of the plan is up to the students – just so long as there is one.
Depending upon the class, I may also make the preparation phase itself an assessed activity, awarding each student in the group a mark out of ten, according to the following criteria: a possible two marks for starting work quickly; up to two marks for cooperating well with partners; two marks for talking in English about the lesson; two marks for assuming an active role, contributing and knowing what the group is doing at all times; and, finally, two marks for producing a finished orderly lesson plan.
This forms part of what I term rolling consequence, which involves teenage students seeing the immediate usefulness of what they are doing, or have just done, in the subsequent step of a project. Here, the quality of their lesson preparation is reflected by feedback from the teacher (you) and in the quality of the lesson they are able to give. The quality of the lesson they actually give is reflected again by feedback from you and by how comfortable they feel at the front of the class. The quality of the students’ performances whilst some of their classmates are being the teachers is reflected by those very same student-teachers’ evaluations, and by the fact that behaving well and working with the student-teachers is a reliable way to ensure that they reciprocate and cooperate as students another day, when it is your time to be the teacher.
One final word about the planning stage: students will often ask if they can include games in their lessons. My usual answer is that, provided the language content of the page(s) they have been allotted is covered, one short game is allowed. General vocabulary revision games, especially Hangman, do not always work very well, though, as they require considerable skill on the part of the moderator to keep the activity alive in terms of pace and flow.
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Whilst giving their lessons, the student-teachers are responsible for evaluating the contributions of the rest of the class.
I provide them with blank tables for this, but I let them decide upon the criteria for evaluation and whether they work with numerical entries or comments. This is a task they rise to, inventing a wide range of categories, including homework completed, participation, attitude, reading or speaking skills, pronunciation and groupwork. It is also a task that they take very seriously. When they ask how their marks will be used, my response is usually the following: ‘Your exact appraisals will not appear on the report cards of your classmates, but how well they work in your lesson, which will be reflected by the feedback you hand me at the end, will certainly play a role in their end-of-term marks.
During these lessons, I take a back seat, speaking as little as possible, if at all. The student-teachers can refer any difficult questions to me, and occasionally I may intervene to remind a student that they might be making those student-teachers’ lives more difficult than they need to be.
Beyond the language classroom, we often assume a greater responsibility for the content of what we say than we do during a language lesson, where we primarily concentrate on using the correct forms. In the ‘real world’, speaking is much closer to action, in that we have personal and practical reasons for saying what we say – and personal and practical consequences follow. In the classroom, our students operate within a reduced scope of action, as compared to when they get outside – reduced choice of when to speak, reduced levels of personalisation, reduced opportunity to decide what to speak about or to whom, reduced movement and reduced sense of ‘doing’ in general. In an English class, speaking can sometimes feel divorced from doing. Speaking is just speaking – speaking for speaking’s sake: to practise. The student-led lessons described here help restore the connection between speaking and doing.
What the student-teachers say is their lesson. In this sense, we manage to lessen the sensation of suspended reality or the feeling that our students’ lives are in some way on hold until the lesson is over.
By turning the moderation of our coursebook content into a communicative act in itself, and by highlighting and supporting student-to-student language required for the giving of instructions and explanations, based around those book exercises, we increase the students’ activity and their scope of thinking, and we allow a deeper penetration of the material. The result is calmer, more engaged students who, without exception, in the case of my own students, ask if they can lead more classes during the year.
Classes like these also constitute an exercise in how to manage power in an organised and structured way that is beneficial to everyone. Respect for the teacher figure or ‘teacher as person’, a given that is usually demanded by default, develops towards respect for the teacher role. Whoever is in the driving seat on a particular day is the one that needs to be listened to, as it is they who have done the groundwork and have knowledge to share. I would like to think this helps the students to move more flexibly between positions of lesser and greater responsibility and between the roles of helping and being helped. These are also, I believe, characteristics that would be shared by a fairer, more sustainable, society in general.
What is certain, and what I have observed very clearly, is that when freed up to manage lesson material by themselves, teenage students sometimes take the initiative and come up with explanations or turns on a task that the teachers themselves might not have done. The student featured in the last photograph,for instance, used her first language to provide her classmates with a translation of unless that was far more accurate than the translation I had been using for well over a decade. Another student-teacher from the same group told the class that they were going to do a traditional dictation and that the dictated material would be a paragraph taken from a full-page reading text in the coursebook. Before closing their books to do the dictation, the class had five minutes to look at the full text and familiarise themselves with its argument and language. The twist was that he refused to say in advance which the dictated paragraph would be, giving them a very valid reason to read all the paragraphs as closely as possible. ‘You need to look at all the paragraphs because it might be any of them,’ he explained, ‘and if you concentrate now, the dictation will be easy.’
Examples such as these serve to fuel my conviction that our students are our most powerful resource.