Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?
Sandra Piai is a freelance teacher trainer and EFL examiner. She has over 30 years’ experience in EFL and has held academic positions such as PG Coordinator on Master’s programmes in ELT at the University of Sussex and the University of St Andrews. Prior to this, Sandra worked for the British Council. She has presented at many conferences, including IATEFL, and has given EFL workshops in countries in Africa, Asia and Europe and has published in professional journals, including HLT. She was also a Moderator for the Trinity College London Cert TESOL from 2005 to 2020. Email: email@example.com
Reflecting on 30 years of working in ELT, as a teacher, trainer, examiner and presenter at conferences and workshops, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on and write about some of the more moving and entertaining events over this period. One of the conclusions I came to is forget about Feedback Forms at the end of the course, the best feedback is what you receive both directly and indirectly from your students.
A highlight from a few years ago still which sticks in my mind is the Romeo quotation in the title. I’d finished my morning’s teaching at a large state school in Milan and was walking towards the metro in the pouring rain, when I heard someone in front of me reciting those very words. It was a young, 15-year-old boy, dressed completely in black, under a large black umbrella, also making his way with friends towards the metro station. One of these friends must have nudged him and said I was just behind, because he turned round to ask me if he had remembered the quotation correctly. That picture will always remain with me of this most unlikely looking Shakespeare enthusiast reciting something from his English class under his huge, black umbrella in the pouring rain. I was really moved that this student had taken so much away from such a small pronunciation activity.
Another episode, which I also found moving, was when I received an email from a 12-year-old Dutch pupil. His teacher had been on a Language and Methodology course at Pilgrims during the Easter holidays. The email went something like this: ‘My teacher Linda went to Canterbury in the holidays and did an English course with you. She came back with lots of activities, but my favourite is Constantinople.’ Can you get better feedback than that?
After another training course at Pilgrims, Creative Teaching rather than YL Methodology this time, I received an email from one of the teachers from Rome. It had been a very mixed-level course with teachers from all parts of Europe, but everyone had gelled and we had worked well as a group. This teacher changed her teaching style to some extent when she got back to her Middle School in Rome, always starting lessons with a warmer, encouraging her students to take more responsibility for their learning. In her email she said she had prepared a reading comprehension for her class, where they worked collaboratively to complete the tasks, but what was so rewarding was she had written: ‘I felt it was really important that this lesson worked well as the students seemed to feel that it was a turning-point in their English learning. They knew we were doing something special.’ Again what better feedback could you ask for?
Arnaldo came to the after-school English classes I used to teach at the local primary school near where I live in Italy. He never showed much interest in English or the lessons, although he was never disruptive, just not part of the class... until we made a big poster of the days of the weeks and the months of the year. Each child had a day or a month for which they drew a small picture, which would then be stuck on the poster. Arnaldo really came into his own with this, he drew pictures for more than one month and stayed behind at the end of the lesson to finish them. From that day on, he became really engaged in the English lessons and his class teacher told me he improved in all his other lessons too. Showing interest in him, encouraging his interest in drawing and making him feel special changed his life in primary school. Unfortunately, I lost contact after he went on to middle school, but I hope his motivation and enthusiasm accompanied him. I can still see his eager, smiley face when we stuck his pictures onto the poster.
One year I gave a week of YL workshops in Sri Lanka, and one of the themes was storytelling. I based the session on The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and prepared lots of flashcards, art and craft activities, as well as rhymes and songs to scaffold the language in the story. First we changed some of the fruit in the story to bananas, coconuts, mangos, pineapples, etc, which the children could relate to more. Then we made masks, which we stuck onto wooden spoons, so the children could hold them in front of their faces and act out the story. The next day one of the teachers said her 4-year-old had woken her up at 5am with wooden spoons from the kitchen wanting to make masks for her favourite book. More indirect positive feedback – the teacher had obviously gone home and related to her small daughter what she had done in the storytelling session with such enthusiasm, that her daughter also wanted to get involved.
Teaching a beginner adult class at evening classes in Italy, I did something I had never done before and used Simon Says with adults. I did hesitate slightly before doing so, but then I went for it. Most of the students were early 20s and university students, so they really enjoyed it. However, there was also a businessman in his business suit in his 40s, and it was he I was worried about. What a mistake! He enjoyed the movement, the standing up and sitting down and turning around more than all the others, and when we stopped the activity he told us that he could tap dance and promptly demonstrated. Warmers from then on consisted of him teaching us new steps in tap dancing, the young athlete teaching us pre-race warm-up exercises, and the other students taking it in turns to lead Simon Says. One of my colleagues said ‘There was a lot of noise coming from your room earlier, were you really doing Simon Says with adults?’ And I had to confess that I was and not only did they love it, but we had a tap dancing businessman in our midst. As with my Shakespeare-quoting 15-year-old in the first paragraph, never judge a book by looking at its cover. And never forget that teaching/learning is a two-way process, and we can often learn as much from our students as they can from us.
I have a really big collection of puppets made from envelopes, paper bags, paper plates, felt, and wooden spoons. Wooden spoons are so versatile as you can draw faces on them and stick on wool to make hair and make them clothes from coloured card. You can make families, a teenage pop group, characters from stories and songs, etc. You can also use them, as mentioned above, for face masks, as they save having to use elastic and making eye-holes and they avoid the feeling of claustrophobia some young people get when encased in a mask. A few years ago I was invited to do an evening workshop at Pilgrims, so I displayed different examples of my puppets and demonstrated some activities. At the end, a teacher approached me and told me she taught adults in Spain who had never had the chance to learn to read and write properly. She thought the wooden spoons would be a great idea to encourage them to communicate orally before doing so in written form, as the spoons can have adult faces and thus are not patronising. Moreover, the same philosophy works with young children, it is not them speaking but the puppet and hiding behind the puppet loosens tongues in both children and adults. That too was positive feedback, realising I was indirectly helping adults to improve their literacy skills.
Working on an English for Tourism course in Edinburgh one summer, I had a group of upper elementary Italian students. The end of course project was to make a 10-minute video of Edinburgh with, obviously, an English commentary. My group were not at all confident in their speaking ability, although they were very enthusiastic. Consequently after visiting various tourist attractions in Edinburgh, but not having any real inspiration, they suddenly came up with the idea of role-playing the murder of David Rizzio at Holyrood Palace. They based it on the painting in the National Gallery, and together we wrote a very short, elementary script. They improvised costumes and made a crown for Mary Queen of Scots and swords and knives for the soldiers and assassins (from cardboard boxes acquired at the local supermarket), decided who would play which part and, sensibly, had a prompter and a scene director as well as a cameraman. They also added a couple of ladies to the supper table, and some extra soldiers, so that everyone had a part, but those less confident in speaking were the soldiers, the prompter and the scene director. Ten minutes is just the right amount of time to film a quiet supper scene interrupted by soldiers rushing in, Rizzio being stabbed and taking a couple of minutes to die in agony and a heavily pregnant Mary collapsing and being comforted by her women. They won the “Oscar” for the most original video and the motivation and increase in confidence to speak English, which came from this short project, was not only amazing, but also extremely rewarding.
Always have a “carrot” when teaching YLs. It works with the little ones, but also teenagers, too. I write the ‘menu of the day’ on the left of the board, be it a traditional board or an interactive whiteboard. At the end of the menu is the carrot: singing a favourite song or playing a favourite game for the primary pupils, watching a film clip, or playing a computer game for teenagers. If we don’t get to that part of the lesson, it is obviously never the teacher’s fault, but because the class was restless, one pupil kept interrupting, they weren’t paying attention, etc. Gradually, it dawns on the class that if they behave and work well, they will get their reward, the carrot. It works wonders for self-discipline.
The favourite game for a large class of 6-year olds in an international school where I used to teach was Fruit Salad, but it takes a bit of organisation and can be quite noisy, so I didn’t use it as a carrot very often. The children sit in a circle on the floor with one child in the middle. The teacher goes round the circle giving each child the name of a lexical item from a set they want to revise, eg apple, pear, orange, banana; or hat, coat, gloves, shoes; book, pencil, rubber, ruler, etc. The teacher calls out apples and all the apples have to stand up and change places, whilst the child in the centre tries to occupy one of the empty spaces. The child who cannot find an empty space to sit in remains in the centre whilst the teacher calls out, eg bananas, and the same thing happens again. If the teacher calls Fruit Salad, then everyone changes places. One morning walking along the corridor to the classroom, I met the class teacher, who said “Sandra, what have you promised them?” When I asked why, she said they were all sitting at their desks with their arms crossed and were absolutely silent – unheard of for a class of 30 six-year-olds. I suddenly remembered I had promised them to play Fruit Salad if they were sitting quietly when I entered the room. There is nothing like a bit of bribery in a YL classroom.
One Easter teaching mixed-nationality teachers in Wales, I introduced them to an activity I had learnt from a colleague, in which, in pairs, they write simple Yes/No questions to travel brochures under a time limit. The brochure with its questions is then passed on to a different pair to answer. It is good fun and practises speed reading. The next day, the local tourist information office had completely run out of its brochures on local sites of interest: my teachers had been there and taken as many as they could. More indirect feedback on a successful training session.
Finally, a moving and quite difficult experience, for me, was a little girl in China when I was on an exams tour. This particular exam was in Hubei province, so off the beaten track for tourists, and I was probably the first white person this little girl had ever seen. She was five years old and pirouetted into the room and stopped at my desk, where she just sat with her chin on her hand and gazed at me for the full five minutes of the exam. I could not get her to say a word, not even her name. She was quite happy just sitting there, looking at me, but not speaking. At the end of five minutes I said goodbye and waved at her at least three times, then I just had to stand up take her hand and lead her, skipping, out the room. I would like to emphasise that she was quite happy and not traumatised, but I was, as it was the first time I had failed a five-year-old, which is not a pleasant thing to do. I explained to the teachers there was no way I could pass silence, but to tell her parents I didn’t doubt she knew some English, but she had to reply with her name, and point to things or stand up when asked, to show that she understood. It is just not possible to sit and stare and pass a language exam. I also suggested to the teachers they showed the young candidates pictures of western people, practised the exam more by, for example, playing Simon Says with them so even the very little ones, would state their name when asked and respond to instructions like stand up, sit down, etc. But I still felt awful for days after, and even now when I think about it.
To sum up, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, direct or indirect personal feedback reinforced through student behaviour is far more rewarding than end of course feedback forms. Also the lessons I have learnt over the years, and which I hope I have demonstrated in this article, are that we should listen more to our students. They don’t necessarily answer questions incorrectly, but differently. The class teacher I mentioned in the Fruit Salad paragraph had a child who had coloured in the stalks of his flowers blue – the rest of the class had coloured theirs the more usual green. When she asked him why his were blue, he said they were thirsty. In other words, they were drinking water, hence the blue stalks. Appearances, and behaviour, can be deceptive. Very often disruptive behaviour is a cry for help. Show interest in all your students, give them the opportunity to express themselves in different ways and, again, always listen.
In these difficult days of the Covid pandemic and teaching moving online, it is still possible to create a positive, supportive, learning environment. A training course I recently moderated was delivered totally online, including teaching practice. Participants were mainly living in the same region, only one was in a different country, but at the virtual celebration held after the successful end of the course, participants still felt emotional. As the course director pointed out a quality collective experience is still possible, even if there is physical distance. Something to remember in our classrooms whether they are online or face-to-face.
Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo?
Sandra Piai, UK