It’s the first day of your ESL class. Your students, some of them in jeans and others in traditional religious clothing, eye each other suspiciously.
They talk only to you and then only in monosyllables and in response to a question. Well, this seems to be the start of a terrific semester. So you implement plenty of ice-breaking activities, in which students have to talk to and get to know each other. You then introduce a lot of group work in various configurations. And guess what! It works. Students are now talking to each other, helping each other with class work, getting each other’s cell phone numbers, and coming to and leaving class together. They’re relaxed and actually seem to enjoy each other’s company. Cross-cultural friendships occur: in one of my adult ESL classes a number of years ago, three young men, all similarly quiet, intelligent, friendly, and separated only by their nationalities of Israeli, Palestinian, and Mexican, became close friends, something only likely to happen in an American ESL class, perhaps.
All of this sounds wonderful, correct? So what’s the problem? Well, maybe your students are a little too…chummy. While you’re honestly glad that they are now talking to each other, you would rather they not laugh and chat through your lectures. And while you also are happy they are now helping each other, you really don’t want them helping each other on tests.
However, you don’t want to be the killjoy who destroys the new-found classroom rapport. However, within the confines of the class, friendships are secondary and there to support the instruction; the instruction is not secondary to the friendships. However, students might not see it that way: their lives outside the class may flow to inside the class without boundaries or changes in behavior.
So what are some ways to preserve the classroom friendships while at the same time also preserving the classroom integrity?
Set the Boundaries
Students often have not reached that stage of development where they see themselves as having different “selves”: their classroom self, their dorm self, their football self. Unfortunately, American culture contributes to this lack of separation because our society is largely informal, and there is a romantic tradition within our culture that altering your behavior according to the situation is somehow inauthentic. The teacher should disabuse students of this notion: they will be expected to act according to the situation all of their lives. A lesson or series of lessons can even be given on the different behavior and language expected of a classroom situation as opposed to a party, for example.
Remind Students of Why They are Here
Students, particularly young ones, can lose track of the larger picture in their first weeks or months of school, forgetting they are here to study first and socialize second. Socializing is important, of course, but it is usually not the top priority of going to college and getting a degree, and even American students who forget this and focus on socializing over studying their first year often find themselves failing and returning home. A few class discussions on what student hope to gain from their college experience might help them refocus on their coursework.
Again, there is nothing wrong with students socializing with each other—especially if it’s in English. Those cross-cultural friendships are indeed valuable. But there is almost always “too much” of any good thing. It’s fine if students catch up with each other and chat at the beginning of class as you are taking attendance and returning papers and conducting other classroom business. But if it’s ten minutes into the hour, and students are still talking, it’s time to set a limit. “Stop talking, now” is too direct, of course, and may backfire by alienating students; I usually accomplish this by clearing my throat and announcing in a voice slightly louder than the students’ the class objective for the day: “Today we’re going to continue studying the present perfect tense; we’ll pick up where we left off on page 37.” Students usually respond by getting out their books and opening them. Rarely does it take a more direct although still pleasant prompting, “Miguel and Sophia, I need you to stop talking please and take out your books.”
Curb the Group Work
It’s hard for an instructor trained in the value of cooperative learning to accept that group work ever has disadvantages. However, group work, or cooperative learning, while yielding many benefits, is really not magical: it doesn’t solve all problems; it is not effortlessly implemented, and it carries its own distinct disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is the students can become too close to each other and focused on socializing rather than studying the course material. If this is happening in your class, and students are talking through your lectures and not paying attention to the class because they are paying more attention to their buddies, then it is time to cut back on the group work and include more individual work: more Sustained Silent Reading or more journal writing, for example. Overall, a balance between individual and group work is desirable. While students certainly need to know how to get along in groups, they need to also be able to work on their own.
Mix up the Groups
Another step the instructor can take is mixing up the groups. If students always work in the same groups each class period, there is the danger of the group becoming like a dysfunctional family: negative patterns of behavior develop, like Julio always copies off of Benjamin, or Tatiana and Juan are always cracking jokes, and so forth. If you frequently change the groups, there are fewer chances of these habits settling in.
A class is like a family in some ways—certainly you want students to feel safe in this environment to explore and make mistakes.
However, it is also not like a family and more like a job in other ways—we are all there to conduct the business of study, and bonding with each other is secondary to that.
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