About a month ago, I posted about a training session on teaching unplugged that I’d done (with my boss, Ben) in which we tried to recreate the conditions of the unplugged classroom – a sort of teacher training unplugged (you can read that post here). This was to be the first of two Dogme workshops at the school and the second of these, which I did a couple of weeks ago, is the subject of this post.
What was it all about?
The aim of the session was to demonstrate how unplugged techniques could be incorporated in our teaching and how we can analyse texts for language to focus on. The idea was to use a learner-generated text to stimulate discussion about language to focus on and possible things we could do with it. We would then select an area of language to work with and, after some analysis, do some activities to focus on the form. I had no idea what language would come up, so this part would be a bit of a challenge. The first hour of the workshop would be an unplugged ‘lesson’ of sorts, with the participants taking on a dual role of learner and teacher as and when each was required.
What’s this about using a text?
Borrowing an idea from Jason Renshaw, I arrived in the class and phoned a friend of mine, Colin (as it turned out, he didn’t answer. I tried someone else and, lo and behold, he was on his way to the workshop!). The teachers had to write down as much of what I said as they could. They then checked this in pairs and constructed the half of the conversation they hadn’t heard, basically writing a dialogue in which they already had one half of it. Having done this, in groups of 4, they compared their different dialogues and selected which they liked the best to write on the board. They could choose one of the dialogues as it was, or mix and match parts from each to create a final version. As the scribe wrote on the board, the others in the group helped, offering suggestions for changes, etc. When the dialogues were on the board, we compared them to look for any differences or similarities. Here we also highlighted the role of the teacher in all this, who would be monitoring, offering suggestions, checking the texts, taking part in the conversations, etc.
We then did a disappearing text exercise in which participants had to select 2 words each to remove from the other group’s boarded text. I frantically scribbled down some notes of the texts to help me remember them and we continued until almost all the text had been deleted. The groups then had to re-write them and compare with their originals, noting any differences and the implications of these in terms of focusing on form.
Looking for language and focusing on form
With the dialogues on the board again, groups then had to analyse these for language that could be focused on in the classroom. Obviously, with a group of teachers working on these dialogues, there were no areas of language which needed work or which would lend themselves well to expansion. However, this was useful in showing how rich a text is language and highlighting that teachers can analyse learners’ texts in class. Some of the diverse suggestions that groups came up with included past tenses, tag questions, substitution, ellipsis and reference, spoken discourse features and direct vs indirect question formation. All of this from a 12-ish line dialogue.
In the end, we decided to look at tag questions and, taking examples from the text, I improvised a grammar ‘presentation’, highlighting the form itself as well as intonation and so forth. This turned out to be quite good fun, as teachers debated the how tag questions are used!
You did some practice, didn’t you?
The next part of the workshop involved doing some tag question practice activities. All the practice used language from the dialogues or suggested by the participants. Afterwards, we also brainstormed other potential activities that I didn’t think of in the moment and how these could be worked in to the lesson.
The first practice we did involved using sentence stems of the sort “you like… don’t you?” which participants had to complete about other people in the room, before walking round and saying them to each other to either check or confirm their intuition about the person. They had to try using appropriate intonation and respond appropriately too. These mini conversations could then generate other language, but here we were simply focusing on a specific practice activity.
The final practice involved going back to the text and adding tag questions wherever it was possible. Here, participants discussed how this changed the meaning, if it all, or the overall effect it had on the text (you wouldn’t believe you could turn the text into an extended sexual innuendo, but one group managed to do so, which caused great hilarity). The idea here was to highlight that if learners could successfully do this activity, they would certainly have grasped the use of tag questions and that we were again working with the same learner-generated text as before.
Recreating the lesson
After the practice activities, we were at the end of the ‘lesson’. The groups then had to recreate the class from the beginning, writing the different stages and the aim of each one. I included this part to emphasise that lesson flowed, from meaning to form, using text generated by the participants. It was also to dispel the myth that Dogme is simply ‘winging it’. The lesson had a clear, logical flow and each stage had a point to it. I didn’t know what would come up during the class, but that didn’t stop the lesson having a feel of coherence. I also encouraged participants to think critically about the stages of the class and suggest any changes they would/could have made to improve it.
And then it was time for some reflection
The final activity was reflective. First in groups, then as a class, we discussed how useful or appropriate this approach to teaching is. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with a few caveats. The two most common, more negative responses were
I don’t feel experienced enough to do this
I’m not confident enough with my language awareness
We then discussed what we could do to overcome these doubts. To address the first, we said that you could start slowly, having a short section of the class unplugged before moving on to your planned lesson (or just going with the flow if it was going well). We also said that you could write down activities which worked well and start to build up a bank of unplugged exercises which worked and which you could draw on when you needed them. And, of course, have a read of Teaching Unplugged and get thee to the internet.
For the second point, we discussed how you could have an idea of what might come up in the class from certain activities that would naturally generate certain language and could thus read up on it in advance. Craig then had the great idea of taking a break before moving onto the focus on form so that he could run to the teachers’ room and quickly go over the emergent language he was going to focus on. We also said that you could use your coursebook for practice activities if the language you are focusing appears in the book.
For me personally, this stage of the class was the most rewarding and interesting. Some of the comments about unplugged teaching were really positive and the majority of people there seemed quite taken with the idea. I’m sure my demo lesson could have been better, the presentation tighter, the activities more diverse, but that was not the point of the session.
Though not as purely ‘unplugged’ as the first session, this workshop was nevertheless in the spirit of unplugged teaching and I think that this was apparent throughout. I’m now looking forward to hearing how teachers have taken some of these ideas into their classes.