Planning the new school year for lower-primary classes
Being a teacher obviously means standing in front of a class and delivering a lesson; however, it also entails planning, preparing, and organising the coursework. Yet, drawing up a lesson plan is often treated as a nightmarish drudgery. At some point of our teaching career, we are forced to write a few lesson plans, or more likely the whole piles of them, all according to the same prearranged formulas. They hardly ever turn up to be stimulating or handy.
Soon, the new school year starts; and we may begin to wonder: What will it be like? How will my students learn? Will I like the coursebook? Will I successfully adapt any new activities? Will it be a refreshing year for me? Such refl ection time usually fi nishes just after the fi rst week when we get snowed under with homework assignments, formal documents which need to be completed urgently. and all other unexpected tasks. And then, before we realise, it is June again and another year has just passed. The purpose of this article is to change the despised planning into productive and stimulating thinking about the forthcoming year. It is supposed to make you refl ect on what you usually do in the classroom and to give you a few hints how to spice up your lessons.
TO PLAN OR NOT TO PLAN?
Most of us follow the coursebook or rely on the same ideas every year. Tessa Woodward, in her book Planning Lessons and Courses, mentions teachers who switch onto ‘auto-pilot’ and move automatically through the whole school year doing things similarly to the way they have done before, using their favourite activities, turning to the enjoyable techniques from previous lessons. ‘Auto-pilot’ off ers a convenient and time-saving solution. It guarantees lessons will be successful; but unfortunately, there is a high risk that the ‘auto-pilot’ will lead you to a blind alley. You may no longer be a passionate teacher full of ideas and energy but a skilled craftsman doing the same thing every single day.
I have a friend who loves driving but can’t stand going to one place and coming back using the same route. She believes it is better to make a detour in order not to get bored by the monotony of images fl ickering by. It somehow resembles the way I think about teaching. I must admit I turn to the auto-pilot most of my time, but I get really enthusiastic about my lessons when I start planning, experimenting, and looking for new possibilities. To enjoy my classes, I need to develop; as Nik Peachey said: “Teachers are like sharks. They die if they stop moving forward.”1 So, why don’t we plan the course as the greatest adventure both for us and for our students?
HOW TO START?
Planning means analysing your students, their reactions and behaviour. It also involves refl ecting on what you have done before and deciding what steps to take next or how to improve. Planning in fact is a mental process where writing things down should be limited to helping you remember, prioritise, and keep things in order. Try this: take a blank sheet of paper and answer the following question: “What do I expect my students to gain from our English lessons?” Take into account not only the language objectives but also the methods, the atmosphere on the lessons, students’ feelings and interests. It might be good to include something you haven’t done before just to make you enjoy the novelty. My private list for the new school year would be:
“MORE TECHNOLOGY SURPRISE, FUN, INVOLVEMENT EXTENDED READING PROGRAMME”
Once you have such guidelines, you can try to be more specifi c. You may elaborate on these items every Sunday evening, or you can think about them fi ve minutes before the lesson when drinking a cup of tea in the staff room or while driving a car. These guidelines will constantly remind you how not to get lost. They will keep you motivated on those days when your students run absolutely wild and all you want to do is to survive.
HOW TO PLAN THE WHOLE COURSE?
Preliminary guidelines show you the direction which you should be heading for, but you also need to focus on the details. Unfortunately, such type of long-term planning is complicated as you should take everything into account. I have tried, but I must admit it doesn’t work for me. I can’t predict what is going to happen in a month or two months’ time. I never know how my students will develop, what they will enjoy, or simply what I will fi nd out and would like to test with my students. That is why it might be a good idea to prepare a rough draft of vital aspects of the lessons. I have picked up six areas which are extremely important for me.
1. LANGUAGE AIMS
These are the basics of each lesson plan, what you intend to teach your students. A list of vocabulary, grammar structures, sentence patterns, songs, rhymes, skills and subskills which need to be practised. Coursebooks always off er their lists in the form of a handy table; but before you start each unit, take a moment to decide if anything should be added, changed, or omitted. If you wish to build up the word list, make sure you have necessary resources such as fl ashcards. You may use http://www. mes-english.com/fl ashcards.php, http://www. eslfl ashcards.com/, http://www.esl-kids.com/ fl ashcards/fl ashcards.html, or www.clipart. com for more specifi c and uncategorised items. In order not to get lost and easily come back to the material, work out a system of noting down all you have taught. The technique I use I learnt from a friend a few years ago. Take an A-4 piece of paper, divide it into suitable columns, and attach it to the front page of your coursebook. During the school year, add there relevant information:
2. EVERYDAY LANGUAGE
Classroom language rarely becomes the part of planning, but language is a form of communication and there is no better way to master it than to use it. Start with everyday classroom language which appears on the lessons but is never formally presented or taught. That is why my students often say “Can I toilet?” or “Can I have a toilet?” or any other strange sounding combination. I automatically want to correct them, but they are already on their way, so all my eff orts are pointless, and on the next lesson, the situation repeats. It would be much easier to prepare a list of phrases that always pop out. Hang it on the wall and/ or teach it in the same way you practise sentences such as “How old are you?”. The language of games, classroom instructions, frequently asked questions will quickly help your students to enhance speaking skills and overcome communication barriers. You can fi nd an example of such a list at http://www. weberberg.de/skool/essential-phrases.html or read Alex Case’s article (http://edition.tefl .net/ ideas/games/15-classroom-language-games/) with 15 ideas how to practise classroom language via games.
3. CREATING AN ENGLISH CLASSROOM
An English classroom should be a place where you speak and hear English most of the time. There is no doubt that to a great extent, children pick up the language naturally. They simply absorb it by listening, looking and physically reacting to what is said. When we want to successfully plan lessons for children we need to take it into consideration and think how to regularly provide comprehensible language input:
- Speak English most of the time. If at a certain point of the lesson, you fi nd it too complicated to give instructions in English or if your students fi nd it diffi cult to grasp the message, use the system of yellow cards. There are, let’s say, fi ve yellow cards you can use on one lessons. When you give instructions in Polish, stick one yellow card to the board. If your students need extra support, they can ask for the yellow card and it means you will explain everything in Polish. However, not more than fi ve cards can be used on one lesson altogether. Setting limits helps everyone to control themselves.
- If you have a class puppet or a mascot, engage him or her to tell short funny stories or act things out. At the beginning, you can hide your puppet and then start looking for it with the whole class by asking, e.g., Where is Otto? Otto, where are you? Is he under the table? No… Is he on the chair? No… Allow children to join in and repeat after you.
- Use gestures, repeat, and rephrase. Give children the possibility to hear everything again and again and to work out the meaning on their own.
- Take a multi-sensory approach. Diff erent sounds, things children can touch, or visuals such as posters, photos, pictures, fl ashcards help to convey the meaning without falling back on Polish.
- Introduce stories, audio stories, cartoons, or fi lms. Extended reading programme develops general comprehension skills. Get some graded readers, for young learners, I personally recommend the series which accompanies the coursebook First Friends or Classic Tales by Oxford University Press. All of them are really simple, beautifully illustrated and include some post-reading activities.
- Instead of reading the story aloud in the classroom, you can provide your students with an audio story. British Council website off ers a vast collection of short stories to listen, accompanied by a series of illustrations in the form of a clip. Check them at http:// learnenglishkids.britishcouncil.org/en/shortstories. Each story has a printable worksheet with exercises; some go with interactive online games, too. You can fi nd similar illustrated audio stories at http://www.agendaweb.org/ listening/easy_reading_listening.html or try an attractive combination of stories and games at http://pbskids.org/arthur/games/ storyscramble/index.html. Download cartoons, fairy tales, or other clips from youtube, and then make use of it in the classroom. You can discover a lot of techniques how to work with clips on Jamie Keddie’s website at www.jamiekeddie.com.
- Rely on hands-on activities as children learn things best by doing, being physically involved, experimenting with arts and crafts. A great source of ideas for young children’s arts and crafts is CBeebies show called Mister Maker (http://www.mistermaker.com). A funny presenter shows how to do amazing things using everyday useless objects, for example, a lolly stick house from an empty tea box and lolly sticks. You can download these inspiring clips and watch them during your lessons or print out a set of instructions.
Once I taught a group of 5- and 6-year-olds who whenever I changed the activity into something they enjoyed less, felt a strong need to go to the toilet. And, if you teach kindergarten children, you have probably noticed that going to the toilet is highly infectious. So, in a second, I was left in the classroom with a handful of well-behaved kids singing a song or listening to a story. The irritating toilet ritual repeated until I decided to fi nd the solution to the real problem – their motivation. Each lesson started with less loved activities and ended up with the ones they could die for. The students who were most active during the whole lesson could choose their favourite game to play at the end of the lesson.
Bearing that in mind, think of a system of points, pluses, or rewards. For example, at the beginning of the school year, each child may prepare a colourful kite with a long tail which you would display in the classroom. You also need to cut out of colour paper a lot of small bows and place them in a big jar on your desk. At the end of each lesson, award the most diligent students with these bows and allow children to fi x them to their kite’s tail. A motivation race is another type of a longer motivation project, but this time, kids work together as a class to get their prize. First, cut out and colour a paper race car. Then draw a race track with a start and fi nish line. Divide the track into sections of diff erent colour, and together with your students, establish what prize would wait for them at the fi nish line. It might be a class party with games, popcorn, and English songs or cartoons. After each lesson, decide if children worked hard enough to move their race car forward, a step closer towards the big fi nish.
Doing a task or a project regularly on every lesson or once a week creates a sense of achievement and success. Students start to enjoy what they do because it is something personal what they have done on their own. They are familiar with its form, and it is repetitive, usually unique for their class. It also provides the routine children need to feel secure.
- With the youngest students you may use the system of passwords. These are secret words which children need to remember in order to enter the classroom next time. The idea was presented in I-Spy course book by Oxford University Press. Every lesson started with the same rhyme:Password, password
What’s the password?
What’s the password today?
(Grass)Then, children could draw or write the word down in their notebook or on a small piece of paper and put it in the special envelope. In that way, you introduce a new word on every lesson, especially the one not linked to popular vocabulary categories as clothes or body parts. Then, all you need to do is to revise the words regularly by playing their favourite games. After a few lessons, children will start chanting the rhyme and demanding a new password whenever you enter the classroom.
- If you know your kids enjoy singing, hang out a top hits chart with the titles of the songs they practised on the lessons. Every week or two , introduce new songs and vote for top songs.
- Using long-term projects keeps children emotionally engaged. There are many fantastic ideas presented in the book Projects with Young Learners by Diane Phillips, Sarah Burwood, and Helen Dunford. For example, you can create an imaginary block of fl ats where the whole families live in nicely furnished rooms. They have pets, friends, and families; they meet socially and enjoy their free time. Alphabet project is a good idea with children who are able to write or are more independent. Establish an alphabet day once a week. Before best to start with A and fi nish with Z. At home, students think of all the words starting with that letter; they can make a list with pictures in their notebooks. On the lesson, check it by asking students one by one to say one word at a time. The person who knows the most gets a plus or a point. Moreover, students may prepare posters or small cards with pictures of these words; each item must be labelled. Display the posters or pictures in the classroom and encourage students to get familiar with them by organising a weekly guided gallery tour. Before the lesson, choose one or more students to be gallery guides responsible for showing others pictures and naming words. As a follow-up, prepare some quizzes or games.
Have you ever thought about the most interesting lesson from your school times? When I look back, I vividly remember only one thing from my primary school. In the fourth grade, we recorded an audio horror story. Everyone was involved, fi rst in writing the script, then some of us in reading out the parts, the others in producing scary sounds. Why was it so memorable? Because it was diff erent, funny, and exciting.
Try to surprise your students with something they would never expect to do on an English lesson, something appealing and stimulating at the same time. How about using Lego bricks? You might want to embark on a project of making a fi lm with Lego bricks2. It seems complicated, but visit the website (http:// www.brickfi lms.com/), watch examples of such movies, and have a look at tutorials which would guide you through the world of audio, lightning, special eff ects, and many others. The Internet provides the greatest source of diverse possibilities. Try some games or activities with the youngest students. There is a vast selection of activities at http://learnenglishkids. britishcouncil.org/en/language-games or at http://www.eslgamesworld.com/ ClassroomGames.html. Many educational websites are not primarily aimed at students of English, but you can easily adapt them by adding a language task. For example, http:// pbskids.org/ off ers a lot of simple and interesting games with a lot of language input. Observing my fi rst graders, especially girls, I see that they are fascinated by fashion, design, and dressing up. They spend their breaks drawing clothes and dressing up models in special notebooks with pictures of beautiful girls. Why not take advantage of that on English lessons? At http:// www.123peppy.com/, there is a vast selection of models which you endlessly dress up. Not much English? How about 5 minutes of working and then preparing a virtual fashion show – each team will describe what the model is wearing and why it is so fashionable. On the same website, you can decorate a room, manage a farm, and do plenty other things. Introducing and using toys, the Internet, arts or crafts is not enough to make a successful lesson. You also need to have clear language objectives, so plan them carefully before you start the activity.
Teaching is a lonely profession. In the classroom, you are on your own to deal with all the problems and to conduct your lessons eff ectively. But, planning lessons is diff erent. The best ideas are the ones we exchange with our colleagues as they inspire us and encourage to try out new things. Talk to your friends, begin tweeting (start by having a look at Karenne Sylvester’s teacher’s guide to Twitter at http://kalinago.blogspot.com/2009/08/englishlanguage- teachers-guide-to.html), read educational blogs s uch as http://oupeltglobalblog.com/. You will be surprised how quickly your planning skills can improve when you are surrounded by those who share the same passion – teaching English.
- Phillips, D, Burwood, S, Dunford, H. (1999) Projects with Young Learners Oxford University Press: Oxford.
- Woodward, T. (2001), Planning Lessons and Courses, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.