Friday, 15 November 2013

Conversation Contest 3

Part Three - Execution

This is where we got to last time. The key thing to remember is that we’re trying to place as few constraints on the students as possible. Everything we give them ourselves is something they don’t have to work out for themselves and real communication can't be atomised like that. There is no such thing as ‘context-free’; if it looks like something really doesn’t have context, than you just need to work harder at finding it.

The students do a ‘free talk’ exercise at the start of each class, where they choose from a list of ten topics and have to say as much about it as they can in 30 seconds. Their partner listens and counts how many words they say. It’s a pretty blunt tool, but it’s an effective marker at the start of class. It also means that they’ve had a bit of practice with those topics, so if we use those we can focus on delivery, not content.

Groups of three. Two to talk, one to judge. Might have to make a group of four or get the JTE to sit in on one if the numbers don’t add up.

Points awarded as follows –

          Asking an open question           +1
          Nice idea!                                  +1
          Killing the conversation              -1
          Saving the conversation            +1

Hideously subjective, all of them. But crucially they are all easy to demonstrate, reward good practice/behavior, and leave room for the students (both contestants and judges) to impose their own interpretations, which is kind of the point of conversation.

If you’re wondering how to demonstrate ‘killing the conversation’, it would go something like this –

1.    Write all point on board
2.    Demonstrate points 1 and 2.
3.    Point at point three. “Killing the conversation. Understand? No? OK. For example…”
4.    Whisper “Do you like fish?” to Maki sitting in the front row. Whisper “Ask me.” With associated gestures.
5.    Maki – “Do you like fish?”
You – “No.”
Maki – “…”
You – Hold the pause and eye contact just long enough for it to be awkward. Look up at class, “That’s killing the conversation. The conversation is finished. Minus one. But…” look back at Maki, “No, I don’t like fish, but I do like chicken, what food do you like?” Look up, “That’s OK. OK?” It’s not rocket science now, is it?

Rinse, repeat. Also think about material design. Could ask the judges to keep score in their notebooks, but probably better to knock up a handout. Design it right and it should help both demonstration and execution. More of which later.


But not really. I’m not infallible and neither are you. Of course you’ll learn as you do it and there’ll inevitably be room for improvement, but let’s try and reduce that right from the off, shall we? What we need now is a second opinion. So get a colleague who’s opinion you trust (remember them?) and, more to the point, you can trust to give you an honest opinion, and run your plans past them. I recognize that second requirement can be fairly hard to meet in many Japanese workplaces. If you’re lucky enough to know more than one person who fits the bill, ask them all. All that matters is the lesson’s effectiveness in the classroom. 

In this instance we have two major and one minor points to integrate:
1.    Groups of four. Frankly just simpler for classroom management. Also, keeping score for all four points might be a bit much for a single judge, so split it 2 and 2, and swap later.
2.    Japanese conceptions of a ‘conversation’ might vary from what we expect. JTE recounted that when she first went abroad most conversations ended up as her getting grilled by the locals. She didn’t want to be presumptuous and ask questions of people. Of course they thought she was slightly up herself because she showed no interest in them or their lives and just kept talking about herself. Might be a bit much to explain this at the start. Maybe save it for the ‘level up’ in between Rounds 1 and 2. Explain that it’s a conversation, not an interview.
3.    Japanese Use. There should be none. The kids know this, but will still lapse. You could add an extra minus score for using Japanese, I suppose, but I want the rewards to significantly outweigh the prohibitions. Might introduce this after Round 1 as well, and say that using Japanese counts as killing the conversation. Which it does, of course.

I also take the opportunity to confirm what they call the ‘play-offs’ in that ridiculously contrived and complicated system they have for baseball over here. The ‘post season’ in America, perhaps? Whatever it is where you get the top teams in a league playing a mini-knock out tournament against each other to decide the final winner. I want to know this because if there’s time at the end of class (and I think there will be) I want the four students with the highest points totals to have semi-finals and a final in front of everyone, and I want to explain it as swiftly as possible. It’s called the ‘Climax Series’, by the way (which leads to the ‘Nippon Series’, but let’s not get bogged down in nomenclature. It’s meant to simplify things, remember?).

So we integrate those ideas and end up with a handout that looks like this (I will be the first to admit that the aesthetic of my handouts tends towards the functional):

All that’s left to do is, well, do it.

Again, not really, because you’d be an idiot if you didn’t learn from your experience, and you be failing your students if you didn’t try to improve on every lesson you give. So you take notes about what worked and what didn’t and think of ways to make it better next time around. I’m slightly constrained by my circumstances in that I have to teach the ‘same’ lesson to every class in the grade which means once I’ve done it for the first time I can’t simply bin it and start again from scratch, but you shouldn’t let your ego get in the way of doing that if it’s both necessary and an option for you.

So what did I learn? I tried letting the students pick a topic at random, but it seemed to go more smoothly if I had the contestants janken and let the winner pick from the list. It also helped when I specified that if they picked, they had to make the first move, otherwise we got a few pairs sitting in silence for thirty seconds before one of them got round to speaking.

Likewise, in a group of four, you’re looking at six possible parings; if they sat in a square you’ve got the two horizontal pairs (front and back), the two vertical (left and right) and two diagonal (NW/SE and NE/SW). Specifying which pair spoke for each round also kept things ticking over. The less the students have to think about the organization, the more they can think about their communication.

I kind of had those points figured out beforehand, I just needed to get a feel for them in practice. But one –  in retrospect obvious – point I missed was that it doesn’t really matter how long each pair talks for. If you’re going to have a play off at the end then each round (horizontal, vertical, diagonal) of two contests should ideally be the same length, but not all six. 2½-3 minutes seems to be the sweet spot, but if it’s going well you can let it carry on for as long as you like, within reason.

It also bears fruit if, after the first round, you specify that ‘Nice Idea!’ also includes adding extra information, so not just ‘I like salmon,’ but ‘I like salmon, especially in sushi.’

Tallying up the points for the play-offs takes a fair bit of time. You could adjust the worksheet accordingly, I guess, but I only actually got that far in a couple of classes (I needed to hand tests back in the others, which ate into things). For the sake of a couple of minutes’ performance I’m not sure it’s worth the time, though.

I like this. I really like this. I think as a one-off class it’s a nice looser, more communicative lesson to drop in to the schedule to break up a run of more traditional, structured lessons. I’m also seriously considering the prospect for next year of doing it very early in the year and then using single ‘battles’ as a warm-up for the following classes. There’s also the prospect of returning to in this year with a more ambitions topic list or more specific rules. It’s also work well as a review activity.

Now, at this point you may well be thinking something along the lines of ‘That’s it? Four rules and a worksheet that clearly took five minutes to make? Most of which were obviously spent lifting the first two clipart images that came up for ‘conversation’ on google? That’s a hell of a lot of verbiage for not much output.”

If that’s you then first, I told you I overthink things and then have to whittle, and second, if you really do think that, then you need to re-examine exactly what you understand by ‘output’.

Overthinking, overexpressing, overcompensating, these are the biggest consistent flaws I see in ALTs across the board. You have to supply just enough for the students to achieve what you want; if you give them any more than that then it’s not them doing the work, it’s you. And that, I must reiterate, defeats the entire fucking point of the thing.

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