Modern English Studies II – New and Improved for 2006!

Rick Broadaway

I have always loved discussing things with friends, with colleagues, with students. A discussion is an organic thing: it starts from the small seed of a comment or idea, and then grows as people sprinkle it with their own thoughts and perceptions. It twists upward seeking the light; it sends out feelers here and there in search of nourishment. No one really knows where it will lead or what discoveries will be made. That’s part of the excitement! And along the way, anything can happen – people may digress, tell anecdotes, play with words, make jokes, argue, show off, get excited, get upset, and so on. Compared to a speech or lecture, a discussion is a bit chaotic, often unproductive, very democratic, and sometimes life-changing. A discussion is, if nothing else, a very human activity. This is one reason I have decided to make discussion the central activity in my new way of teaching advanced language classes. Educators usually describe such a teaching style as discursive or interactive. I prefer to think of it simply as more human, and I want my classes to be precisely that – more human.

I am currently experimenting with a new course design, one with a variety of learning objectives and activities, but one which has – at its heart – the aspiration to motivate students to engage in meaningful and fruitful classroom discussions. In such a class, English (its forms and grammar) will not be the object of study, but merely the agreed upon language of discourse. Students will learn English by using it, and they will use it because they care about what is being said.

The key question then is this: how do you make students care about what is being said? Well, one must be realistic and accept that it is probably not possible to make all students care all the time. Nonetheless, I believe it is possible to get enough students engaged in the discussion to allow for a successful class. To achieve this, I believe that the students must be given more freedom, choice, and control over all aspects of the course, and especially its content.

Allow me to introduce two education keywords here: student-centered and content-based instruction. Neither of these teaching methods is new, but they have both suffered in their effectiveness due to the difficulty of implementing them. There are many problematic issues, such as classroom control, content management, acculturating students to this type of classroom environment, etc. Many of these problems end up meaning one thing: more work for the teacher. It is, then, no surprise that many teachers give up on this style of teaching, concluding that the benefits of these approaches are simply not worth the trouble.

Hence, my efforts on this project have been directed towards reducing the trouble that attends student-centered, content-based instruction. You may view the principal organizational tool (which I call a Contribution Map) for my experimental course by visiting my homepage and clicking on one of the topics at the bottom of the page under the title “ITU Project.” If you click on “Surrogacy” you will see a web page that was generated by software called Cmap Tools. It is important to understand that students do not use a computer during class as that would interfere with face-to-face discussion. Instead, the Contribution Map is used to guide students in knowing how and when to contribute something to the lesson. It also serves as an archive of all contributions on this particular topic.

In Lesson 1 students contribute simply by listening to a real-life situation and to the teacher’s explanations. (Discussion is not really possible until students have studied the situation, have a basic understanding of the topic, and have acquired relevant vocabulary.) In Lesson 2 students contribute by discussing the topic during various speaking activities. They also begin work on building a Concept Map, which is a graphic representation of the students’ current knowledge on surrogacy (can be viewed by clicking on the icon under “knowledge map”). For homework students also contribute relevant interdisciplinary resources (articles, poems, quotations, laws, etc) related to the topic, which I then add to the Contribution Map as web links. In Lesson 3 students choose one of the writing styles (summary, narrative, comparison, etc.), decide a writing topic, and begin writing a paragraph whose focus can be on the situation presented in Lesson 1 or on one of the contributed resources. In Lesson 4 students read each other’s paragraphs, receive feedback from the teacher, and discuss the topic from various interdisciplinary perspectives. The students’ papers are then collected and added to the Contribution Map for future students to refer to and learn from.

It is my hope that this course will excite students by involving them more in their own learning process and encourage them to discuss more by giving them a bigger role in choosing relevant content, constructing personal knowledge, and communicating their own thoughts and feelings on topics that are of interest to them.

This course is an advanced elective and students who choose to take the course will need to be prepared to speak only English in class.

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