At least once a semester, around a major holiday or near the end of a term, a student usually proposes, “Let’s have a party!“ I used to cringe inwardly, change the subject, and hope students would forget about the proposal by the next class session.
They rarely did, so this wasn’t an effective strategy for avoiding class parties.
Why did I want to avoid them in the first place? Well, face it; they are a hassle, to the instructor, mostly, who may have to bring most of the refreshments herself-- and then clean up herself as students duck out the door at the end. More importantly, class parties rarely resemble parties in most other settings, where participant interaction is what makes it a “party.” Often students sit at their desks eating and not talking to anyone or only talking to members of their own language group—in that language, so no one else can join in. More and more it struck me these “parties” were just not a good use of instructional time, which we can sorely spare in any case, with cuts in class hours due to budget concerns in many parts of the country. Still, students want their end-of-term or holiday parties. Is there anything an ESL instructor can do to avoid making it a complete waste of time—and perhaps even a positive learning experience?
How to Facilite Productive Parties in Your Classroom
Don’t do it all yourself. Post or pass around a sign-up sheet for food, drink, and utensils. Make sure everyone signs up and every category is covered. Also have students volunteer to provide entertainment or help with clean-up. So not only do you have help with the party, but also students begin to take ownership. If a student volunteers to bring enchiladas, and perhaps makes them himself, he is somewhat motivated to stay around through the party as the dish gets eaten (I always feel some pride watching food I made disappear at an event.) He might even share the recipe with other students, and some interaction takes place.
Some students may not have attended an American or Western-style party and may not know what to expect. Explain that parties are about socializing and that students will be expected to speak in English. Give them a chance to practice by introducing some common party topics—family, friends, vacations, movies, and TV are a few. Put the topic on cards, and have students practice before the party by sitting in pairs or groups, drawing a card, and discussing the topic on it.
The big day is here! The teacher should come equipped with a few essentials (not that students would ever forget). I always bring at least one dish of food most students will like, something traditionally “American,” like pumpkin pie, some soda, paper plates, and some forks. I put all of this in an extra large garbage bag, which I later use for disposing of the party waste rather than throwing it in the tiny class wastebasket. (Not leaving an overflowing wastebasket earns some gold stars from the janitorial staff.)
Be a good host, and just as a good host would, walk around and encourage party goers to talk to each other, introduce a topic of interest, make sure everyone is comfortable, and so forth. Ask students what their plans are for the next term or for vacation. Encourage use of English as necessary.
Your role of teacher is still in place even though it is a “party.” Raise something topical, in the news, such as the national election, and discuss something about the political process while remaining neutral about the candidates: e.g., “We elect a president every four years. Do you think that is the correct amount of time?” Or discuss a recent movie/book: “Has anyone seen ‘The Help’? What do you think?”
If this is the end-of-term party, this is a perfect time to talk to students about their future academic plans. Often ESL students are not getting serious academic advice from their advisors, who might know little about their students’ academic needs beyond how they relate to engineering or pharmacy, or so forth. The ESL instructor, however, is more likely to take a more holistic approach to their students’ education: e.g., “You really should take the next developmental writing class before attempting freshman composition, and you should also reconsider taking sixteen units in one semester.” This might open a dialogue, and some students might come to your office for further guidance as they often are feeling a little lost about the next steps.
Play a Party Game
Play a traditional party game like charades: have the selected student think of a word or concept in English and then act out that word without speaking. The other players must guess the word, using English. The one who guesses first then acts out a new word or concept. As a variation, the instructor might write out the words on cards beforehand for students to draw rather than coming up with something themselves.
As the party winds down, the term does, too (if it is an end-of-semester party). Students begin to realize this toward the end of the party and grow a little somber. I, at this point, ask students to share one great thing about the term, one awful thing, and any advice for future students. This allows the students to process their feelings about the end of the semester and recall what they learned. It also helps me with revising the syllabus, noting what students liked and didn’t like about the term.
So now, instead of cringing and running when your students mention “party!” you can have a plan in place that will make parties, rather than a hassle and dull waste of time, productive and fun.
Do you think class parties are a pain? Do you have any ideas to make them fun rather than painful?