Every semester beginning, in the frantic pace of adding and dropping students, of attending faculty meetings, administering and marking student placement exams, ordering materials, and all of the other tasks of a frenetic semester start, I’ll comfort myself with the knowledge that soon we’ll all settle in and calm down.
And settle in we do. And sometime during the middle part of the semester, that time of regular assignments and tests, meeting with students about their progress, and lesson planning, I’ll reflect, “We’re into the semester now, finally. We’re into the flow.” For there is a regular flow to a semester, a definite beginning period, middle period, and end with their predictable qualities. Knowing these stages will help you plan for their predictable difficulties.
So what are the routine stages of the semester, and how does knowing them help the teacher?
The Rhythm of the Semester: What to Expect
The beginning of the semester is characterized by its busyness and chaos: students lining up for or moving between classes, many new faces and meetings, and new routines in classes.
To control the chaos, the teacher can use some tricks.
Learning students’ names is critical for classroom control. Have students make up name cards to put on their desks: the student should take a large index card, fold it in half, write his or her name on one side, and then put the card on the desk. In this way, the teacher can begin to associate names and faces.
I find also helpful to establish set routines: students know they will get a schedule of the weeks’ activities and homework on Monday, for example, so they look for that in class or on the course website and know not to ask “What are we doing?” when they enter late. In addition, students learn during this first week to look for handouts in the same place (the front of my desk) if they come in late. Finally, the teacher should establish regular groups this first week or two so that students can quickly move into them if the task calls for group work.
The instructor should also plan on administering some kind of pretest or diagnostic in the first days, so students can be advised on whether they should move up or down. This pretest can also be used to inform curriculum decisions: if your reading class, for example, mostly tested low for the level, then perhaps the schedule should include fewer short stories and essays, for example, or no novel. While the faculty certainly wants to preserve the integrity of the curriculum and syllabus, the needs of a particular class of students also should be meet.
Finally, students should at this time be counseled into planning their days, weeks, and the semester so that they are not caught with finals looming not having started their final paper.
In the middle part of the term, you and your students know each other, and you all know the routine of activities, assignments, and tests. But the routine can become a problem on its own: there is the chance of the class becoming too routine. The challenge here is to shake things up with surprise or different activities while still preserving the stability of the set routine. Possibilities include a class visitor, film, or any other activity the class hasn’t focused on much. For example, if students have been reading about the era of civil rights, having a film or speaker on that topic would engage students, such as a film featuring Linda Brown, the Brown of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated the schools.
It’s also helpful at this point to take an informal needs assessment – students can do it anonymously—to find how the class is going for students. A simple anonymous two sentences on what is going well and what could be changed should do be sufficient. Also ask what activities not highlighted students would like to see. This can give you some valuable feedback on how to make some adjustments in the class.
Congratulations, you’ve almost made it! We’re almost to the finish line, so how can the teacher leave a lasting impression?
Wrap things up. There is that moment when the teacher and students consult their schedules and panic sets in. Only three weeks to go, and so much to cover! It is here that adjustments to the schedule can take place: perhaps that optional final paper is not feasible, for example. Make the needed adjustments to reasonably cover the curriculum while not overstressing the students. It isn’t realistic to cover five major verb tenses in the last three weeks of class.
Conference with students. Give all students some feedback on how you perceive their strengths and weaknesses and how they can succeed in future classes. Often the only advising ESL students are getting is from their ESL teachers as counselors and teachers of more mainstream students are uncomfortable with this task , so it’s important not to forget this role.
Give a party. During the party, students can practice small talk, such as their future plans. The teacher can take part in the discussion and can also go back to the advisor role as students discuss their plans: that it may not be a good idea, for example, for a freshman ESL student to take sixteen units while also working. The teacher can also introduce students to some American party games, such as Pictionary or Charades, as well as some popular music, if she has music talent.
This is also a time of saying good-bye and inviting students to keep in touch with you either on campus or through email.
The semester is now over: in some ways a long haul but in other ways, much too fast.
Either way, knowing the semester’s typical ebbs and flows helps in planning so that neither students nor teachers are caught by surprise as the slow jog beginning turns into a frantic dash at the end.