By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China
In my first year in China I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities - or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.
This semester all my classes are college freshmen - many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it. I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.
During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way - even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.
This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. On reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way. I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology - and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.