As much as it would probably make things easier, teachers don’t know everything.
In fact, there are many things that your students know more about than you. Why not use this to your advantage? Everyone likes to feel like an expert and there are few things that students like more than being able to show that they know more than their teacher. So how do you turn this into a teaching project with target language and vocabulary? Well, that can be pretty tough, and you might have to let go of that idea of having special target language and vocabulary, what they decide to teach will determine that, but here are a few steps in moving them along the road to expertise (and toward you learning something new).
A few notes before diving into the process. This project works best with high level classes. The students need to have a good enough grasp on English to manipulate the language outside of the rote forms that many of them learn. In addition, very quiet classes may struggle with this process. It takes a great deal of confidence to stand up as the expert in front of not only your classmates, but your teacher as well. This is a fluency based project. It is not about reading and writing, or even about perfectly structured sentences. It is about getting students speaking in English. And to that end you need the students to buy in.
Learn Something New with the Help of Your Students
Introduce the Project
Student buy-in is essential for this to be effective. They need to be excited to pass on some of their knowledge to you. Build them up. Make sure they are aware that they know more than you in some areas. This may be more difficult in some cultures than in others so it is best to go in with some examples. Is there a sport that you don’t recognize? A board game you see them playing at lunch? Are they bilingual and you are not? Point these out to the students and make sure that they are aware that they have something you actually want to learn. The second part of this step is showing yourself to be an enthusiastic student. Make sure they know you are interested in what they do and what they might be able to share with you.
Divide the students into groups. Do this carefully as each group will need at least one high level English student to help the others move through the project. Also, the number of groups has to work with the amount of time that you have for this project. You have to either set a very rigid time limit for each group, or have very few groups so you can get through them quickly. Ideally, each group will have 25-45 minutes to teach their topic. Once the groups are in place, start brainstorming topics.
This can be tricky. If the students are really reticent to speak up, ask them a series of questions. What do you like to do? What have I (the teacher) asked about in the past? What is different between your culture and mine? For the very quiet classes you may need to have suggestions ready for them. Depending on where you are teaching, there will be some go-to topics. At various times, I have learned Korean colours, the nuance of interior design, and an odd form of dodgeball. In the end they were all fun, the kids had a blast and they had a reason to try to use English.
It will be important that the skills they want to teach are compatible with the space and equipment you have available. It will be difficult to learn soccer in the dead of winter when your only available space is a 10 by 8 room. Some groups may want to use PowerPoint or other presentation media. Do you have the technology to support this and do they have access to the computers to make the presentations? All concerns like this need to be addressed early so students have enough time to prepare.
In this step, the teacher must help the students prepare their lesson. First, explain the parameters. How long will the lessons be, what are they expected to cover. Will you expect them to have presentation and practice activities, or only a presentation? Be sure the parameters are clear and understood by all the groups. Also ensure that the students understand that each member of the group must play a speaking part during the lesson.
The groups will need to have at least a full class to prepare before their presentation. During this time the teacher must circulate among the groups to make sure they are able to develop a coherent lesson. Make sure they have a solid framework, good presentation materials, and a solid grasp of the information they need to convey.
Before throwing them up in front of the class to give their lesson to the teacher, pair the groups off for practice (ie. group one with group four, group three with group two, etc.). Have each group give their lesson to a group of their peers and then have each group give feedback and ideas for improvement. As tempting as it might be to interfere with this process, it is best to stay away from these practice sessions and allow the students time to work through things themselves. After all, the teacher is the ultimate audience for this project and you don’t want to spoil it.
When presentation day(s) comes, the teacher’s job is to be a model student. Play the role as much as possible. Be coaxing when you need to be, but try and avoid correcting them in the middle of their presentation. This is an exercise in fluency more than anything else. Be sure you have a few questions with varying levels of difficulty prepared for each presentation you will listen to. And finally, genuinely try to learn something from what the students are trying to teach you. Take notes. If nothing else these will help you evaluate the various groups afterwards.
While this project is one that can be relatively stressful for students, it is a great exercise in fluency practice.
There is little reading, writing, or listening in it, but they will be forced to use the language in an authentic way. In my experience, after this exercise, students were much more likely to try to engage me in conversation outside of class time. This role reversal allowed the students to engage with me on a different level, and they became much more comfortable speaking with me in a variety of different contexts. This alone is well worth the time and effort required to complete this project.
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