Talking Points, April 2013: Alison & Chika

First Class of the Year

Alison: Now that the cherry blossom is out, it’s time to start gearing up for the start of a new academic year. I always approach the first week with mixed feelings: regret and apprehension that I haven’t had or made enough time to prepare, but also excitement about the chance to meet a new cohort of students and see them learn and grow through the semester or the year. Sometimes the apprehension I feel is more like dread and I can feel sick with nerves. But I also know that the first meeting with students always gives me a tremendous thrill. It’s one of the things that keep me in the job.

For me, the first class is vitally important for establishing the ground rules and structure around which a classroom culture can start to develop. It varies from year to year, from course to course, and from university to university as to how much I negotiate rules and structure with the students, or leave to them entirely. As an advocate of learner autonomy, I believe it’s important for learners to have control over their learning so I try to factor in ways for students to be able to have this, both as individuals and as a class group as a whole. For individual learning, I ask them to keep journals or logs for research, reading (graded readers), and vocabulary, in which they set goals for themselves, keep records (notes, lists, diagrams etc), and talk to each other about what they have done. Talking about learning in a school environment may be something that is new for many students. I find that it is something that requires trust, so students need space and time to become comfortable enough to talk about their successes and their struggles with each other, as well as to give and accept help from each other.

Chika: My favorite season has come! I like April because it is full of energy, excitement and new encounters. I have the same feeling as you on the first class. Feeling excitement and apprehension, my main “task” on the first class is to memorize all the students’ names and faces. While students engage in an activity and fill in a questionnaire, I take every chance to memorize their names and faces and check if I can remember every single student’s names and faces correctly. I believe remembering everyone’s names is crucial not only on the first class but also in any situation and I would like to send a message to students that their presence is acknowledged and valued. More importantly, I believe this is the first step to establishing a trusting relationship with students.

Alison: I admire you! I’ve always been bad at remembering names and I’m getting even worse with age. It’s one of the things I want to try and improve on this year: I’ve downloaded TeacherKit, a free app for iPhone, and plan to keep photos, notes and anecdotes of the students in each of my classes. I’d be really interested to hear about other LD SIG members’ experiences of using this or other apps for memorizing names and class management too.

What other activities do you do in your first class to establish a trusting relationship with and among your students?

Chika: Besides memorizing their names, I also introduce an activity for community building. To begin with, as a whole class we brainstorm some possible questions we might want to ask when meeting new people. Then the students walk around the classroom and ask each other those questions. However, what is unique about this activity is that students need to shake hands before asking the questions. We do not have the custom of shaking hands and students hesitate to do so at first. However, I think that this helps them break down some cultural barriers and gives them confidence. After 10-15 minutes, I nominate some students to introduce one of their new friends to the rest of the class.

As I want students to listen to their classmates’ introductions and also show that they care for their classmates just as I care for every student by memorizing their names and faces, I ask follow-up questions after every introduction. It sounds like a quiz, but I often see those who are introduced happy when their classmates answer the personal follow-up questions correctly. One of the purposes of this activity is to provide a chance for students to get to know each other, but I can find out extra information about students, such as their personalities and preferences about communication styles too.

It is natural that most students hesitate to share personal information or speak up in the class on the first day. Through my experience, however, I feel that the use of English is a key factor in enabling students to disclose something of their real selves without sticking too much to their identities as speakers of Japanese. Of course, students cannot fully express what they want to say in English and need to rely on Japanese. Code-switching isn’t always a sign of failure or lack of effort. It can be used for various different purposes, including showing solidarity or intimacy. In the classmate introduction activity, students make use of all strategies at their disposal, including circumlocution and non-verbal communication to make themselves understood. However, this “compensatory” style of communication is effective in that it makes students naturally show their desire to understand and communicate with their classmates by making use of gesture and attending to facial expression and tones. I’ve noticed that it also seems to encourage students to say more about themselves and to want to get to know each other better.

Alison: I’m also a great believer in self-disclosure as a way to establish trust among the people in the class and for individual students to build or bolster a new identity as a speaker of another language. One way I do this with a new class is through email. I start by giving the students a handout of an email in which I introduce myself to them and tell them something about myself. I ask them to read the email with a partner and to make sure they understand the content. I also encourage them to ask questions. Homework for the first class is to write me an email (using the appropriate forms of address that we discuss in class) in which they tell me something interesting about themselves (though more often than not, they tend to write something safe rather than something interesting). This helps me to get to know students individually and also gives me an idea about what they can do in English. My homework is to send them all a personal reply. I want them to know that I care about what they want to say. If their English contains basic errors, I don’t point them out directly, but try to use the same word or grammar form correctly in my own message to them. I want them to develop the habit (if they don’t have it already) of listening and looking for discrepancies between their English and mine (or someone else’s).

Chika: That’s a great idea! I would like to try this as most of the emails I receive from the students in the first few months are “anonymous” – no names of sender or addressee. I’m sure your “homework” is time-consuming but the outcome is rewarding. The first lesson is important for making an impression on students and it can determine the course of subsequent lessons. Building trust through self-disclosure activities is one way to create a positive impression that can create a powerful momentum for learning in the following weeks and months.

In the first lessons of a course, Alison and I take every chance and try to maximize our positive emotions and minimize negative ones. We’d love to hear how other LD SIG members start a new course. What do you do on this special day of the year? Please feel free to post your ideas on this blog.

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