More ways to bring lucky chances into your classroom and lesson planning

By Alex Case

Even with all the needs analysis and tailored lessons I have done in my teaching life (and it is something of a specialty), the times when I most gave the students the information or language they personally needed were just complete flukes. One was when a student learnt what “come up for a coffee” means and so never had the same potentially disastrous misunderstanding again (!), the other was when I did my Foreign Guest Board Game with a class who were, unknown to me, going to receive a Chinese guest that time the following week. Here are 15 more ideas on how to not exclude such lucky chances by making sure you don’t over restrict the language and interactions in your classes. Like good jazz or improvisational comedy, it takes a lot of skill and practice to discover and exploit lucky chances, but you will find things that you never could have come up with however long you had sat down on your own and tried to think of them.

1. Random pellmanism
Students turn over two cards with pieces of vocabulary on them and can keep the cards if they can explain any connection between them, e.g. “‘Cattle’ and ‘toaster’ are both connected to breakfast, as cows make milk that you put on your cereal”. As well as cutting down on lesson planning time and meaning you can choose (or let them choose) the vocabulary by what most needs learning rather than what fits together neatly, there is a chance that this mirrors how our brains form connections more accurately than the neat semantic groups etc that similar techniques are usually based on.

2. Luck decides the language
Other ways of introducing luck into what language comes out include throwing the dice twice and combining the words or categories those numbers represent, getting students to expand a sentence without deciding what the final version will be, and chain writing (= consequences).

3. Introduce more imagination
Introducing chance into the classroom is one way of expanding the language that comes into it, as any carefully planned lesson almost certainly excludes lots of language that the students would be interested in and/ or need to express themselves. Another way of expanding the range and so having the chance of coming across exactly what the students need is to make sure the language the students come up with is not limited to the here and now with activities like storytelling, lying games, and roleplays with unusual roles and situations.

4. Students get language out of each other
Another involuntary restriction may be that all the ideas on what to cover in class come from just one head, being the teacher’s. If students set each other test questions, find things in common, ask questions based on minimal cues (e.g. single words or pictures) etc, the chances of hitting something that really appeals to them could be higher.

5. Improvise one more stage
E.g. if the students obviously need one more controlled practice stage before they have any hope of using the target form in free communication.

6. Keep a file of materials handy and run to the photocopier
Many schools discourage or even ban teachers from leaving the classroom during the lesson, but if you have planned a perfectly adequate lesson but suddenly realise how you can respond to something unexpected and make it a perfect lesson, I think it is a shame to suppress that lightening strike of inspiration- as long as the students are doing something that they don’t need you for at all while you are out of the room. If you have such restrictions or at least students who would respond negatively to you disappearing for a while, you can still keep a file handy and pull out worksheets that you suddenly realise would be perfect for a future lesson.

7. Cross pollination
Try to keep your mind open to unexpected connections between different things and ideas that can be taken from one field into entirely another. You can increase the chances of ideas that come up in one part of your life and turn out to be useful in another by keeping an interest in things outside TEFL (and maybe letting the connections come up naturally rather than working to transfer them), whether those things are also related to education and language or not. Teaching a wide range of different ages, levels and types of students also helps.

8. Respond to instant feedback and needs analysis
For example, if a student tells you that they have to give a presentation tomorrow, elicit from them as much about what they could say in it as possible, see how much the other students can help and then add your own improvised contribution.

9. Base the lesson on objects
This is a more “extreme” version of basing your lessons on texts or speaking tasks as suggested in the first article on this subject, as objects have no actual language directly involved in them and so what can come up is completely open. There are lots of improvisational comedy and drama activities based around using your imaginations and real or imaginary objects.

10. Base the lesson on activities
For example, get them to play a game to practice the target language as usual, but extend that to talk about cultural and personal differences in games and play, correct and expand the language they use to actually play the game, or see if they can come up with variations on the game or completely different games that practice the same language.

11. Base your lesson on where the initial chat goes
This is again freer and therefore more risky than having something substantial like a reading text to base the lesson on. Possibilities include correcting the language that comes up and improvising controlled practice of it, setting up a more serious discussion or formal debate on the issues that come, or do something similar but as a business meeting or negotiation.

12. Base your lesson on where the warmer goes
For example, many warmers can lead to discussion of group dynamics and leadership abilities.

13. Take diversions
Think of it as taking a random turn away from the tour guide’s instructions and discovering something random and fabulous. There is also the chance of ending up at the municipal rubbish dump (I have a habit of doing this!), but you should develop an instinct for good diversions eventually.

14. Have a space on your lesson plan for an extra stage
Without deciding what it will be, e.g. “let discussion develop if students are interested enough in the topic”.

15. Spot lucky chances
One thing that can determine the success or failure of any new approach such as this one is the belief of the students and (especially) the teacher in it before it is tried. Thinking about lucky chances in your own life such as discovering a job or hobby you enjoyed even though you didn’t predict that you would etc can help prepare you for bringing such lucky chances into your classroom too. Discussion of such points might also help the students accept such changes, even if you don’t make the link to what you are doing in the classroom clear.

Written by Alex Case for November 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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