A Tale of Two Classes

IMG_0844I teach two sections of the same advanced ESL grammar class, but you’d never know it if you visited these sections separately. One class is filled with students who I know must have taken a vow of silence. When I explain something to the class, my voice goes out into space, but nothing comes back. Is it because the class begins at 8:00 in the morning? Is it that there is a majority of students from one country? Is it that we just don’t connect, that my brand of teaching doesn’t reach their style of learning? Getting students to write on the board is like pulling teeth even though I have stressed that I like to see grammatical errors in their sentences since everyone learns from such errors. “So, don’t be afraid of making mistakes.” I used to ask for volunteers, but it took up too much time. Now I take my dry erase markers and pass them out randomly to students around the room. They get up and write.

The other class is lively, engaged, and full of fun. When I ask for students to put their answers on the white board, they immediately get up to get a dry erase marker and start writing on the white board. If I ask for questions about anything they don’t understand, five hands will go up without hesitation. I will explain something to the class, for example, that the relative pronoun “that” cannot be used in non-essential adjective clauses: “Paris, which (not that) is the capital of France, is a beautiful city.”  And I will immediately get feedback from many of the students. My voice does not disappear into a void. It causes comments and questions. “Why can’t we use “that” in non-essential clauses?” “When else can’t we use ‘that’?” “I thought we could always use ‘which’ or ‘that’ with adjective clauses.”  Is it that this class starts at 10:00 a.m., and at that time, students are more awake? Is it that there is a much more cultural mix of students whereby each student gets to work with another student who doesn’t speak his/her native language? Is it that my teaching style clicks with their learning style?

The course outline is the same, but I can’t teach the classes exactly the same. I have had to make adjustments in the “silent” classroom. I realize that the students seem much shyer and almost afraid of talking to the whole class. There had to be more pair work or small group work. In these smaller groupings, students did much better in using the language and sharing their ideas. Every class discussion is prepared with a discussion done in pairs. They get to try out giving their opinion to a partner before they give it to the class. I have created more survey activities, requiring the students to walk around the classroom to get answers to a series of questions. There are seven questions, and they have to ask seven different students for the answers. I do these things also in the “lively” class, but it is not as essential as in this “silent” class. I try not to compare the two sections, but it is almost impossible not to do it. I can predict way beforehand what will work in both classes and what will work only with the “lively” students. With that in mind, I always rack my brain to come up with a solution for the “silent” ones.

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Classes

  1. This phenomena still baffles me, as well. I have always been amazed by the variation between my sections. I guess that I used to think that I was wholly responsible for whether students learned…that it all came down to how I presented a certain idea. But years of experiences like yours have proven otherwise. It seems like the best we can do is be aware of the pulse of class and respond to it, which is what it sounds like you’re doing…so good for you! The research on multiple measures for placement suggests that the standard “placement exam” is not a very good predictor of college-readiness/success in a college class. This has lead some members of the math department to sort of yearn for the opportunity to explore the correlation between a variety of factors and student success. If logic and tradition don’t do a very good job, then maybe the numbers (in the form of data) could point us in a good starting direction.


  2. I have heard that younger people need more sleep and it has been recommended that school should start later. 8 am is really early. When I was going through school I avoided early classes as much as possible! I couldn’t function until after lunch…

    Perhaps doing some deep breathing and some body movement at the start of class might help. Not a bad way to start out the day!


    1. There is a great ESL teacher named Helen Choy who teaches non-credit ESL classes in the evening at Middlefield. She starts every class with a series of exercises which energize the students who have been working all day. I will have to go back to those exercises and try them out for a morning class. Thanks for the reminder.


      1. I have known Helen for years! She is so creative. I talked with her about how she runs her classes and it is so great how she engages so many of the senses.


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