Student Talk: “I’m thinking…”

Over the three years that I have taught EFL, I have learned that students generally enjoy finding ways to get out of doing their classwork. I believe that some students take it as a chance to act out, and interact with their instructor. As an instructor, I take these moments as opportunities to apply some creative improvisation, and help steer the students towards using the target vocabulary and grammar. Allowing students this controlled-freedom gives them a chance to express themselves in a more natural way, and often helps them overcome any apprehensions they might have about using a foreign language.

Writing is the students’ least favorite activity. No matter how little they are asked to write, they would much rather speak. However, I find that writing exercises help improve their accuracy, by forcing them to come face to face with whatever gaps they might face in their understanding of the grammar and sentence structure. Whenever I introduce a writing activity, there are always one or two students that try to get out of it. Usually, the common ploy is to pretend to “think” about the exercise. Typically an exchange between myself and such a student would unfold as follows.

Student (not writing): I’m thinking.
Teacher Menelik: I want to see your thoughts on paper. Think with your hands.
Student: Okay.

That usually works. However, during one of my final classes of the last session, I had a student who would not fall for my “think with your hands” trick. Instead, he decided to turn the tables on me by taking my instruction literally – he started to mime the answers. The entire class started laughing, and I along with them. Not to be one-upped, I decided to take my student’s lead, and started to mime that I could not understand him, and used hand gestures to suggest that he should write.

I enjoy it when my attempts to out-smart my students backfire. It helps keep the mood light, while allowing me to show my personality. I find it easier to teach students when they find me relatable. Also, I find that when students realize that I have a goofy sense of humor, they will attempt to bring that out in their writing and speaking exercises, which always lends a slightly competitive feel to the class.

So, have you ever come across a student who gave you a run for your money, or challenged you to step your game up? How did you react? Would you have handled my situation differently? Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

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4 Responses to “Student Talk: “I’m thinking…””

  1. Nessreen July 26, 2012 at 4:54 am #

    I once gave an “inspirational” speech to my struggling students (at least in my head it was inspirational) about how they should embrace making mistakes as part of the learning process.

    “Make mistakes! Make lots of mistakes!” I said. “If you have two sentences in mind that you would like to use, one of them you are sure is correct, and the other one you think is completely wrong, SAY THE WRONG SENTENCE. It is from your mistakes that you learn.”

    I forgot to add the part where they should ALSO make an effort to not make the same mistakes over and over.

    You can imagine what a disaster this was when my students started getting too comfortable with making mistakes. Fail.

    • Menelik Seth July 26, 2012 at 5:25 am #

      It’s tricky trying to help students, here in KSA, become adjusted to constructive criticism, and making mistakes as a learning process. I have had students become lazy, too, knowing that mistakes were encouraged. One way I try to keep that from happening, is to keep activities competitive. Competition always brings out the best (and worst) in people!

  2. Zainab Young July 26, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Great stories, thanks for sharing. ^__^

    I was once teaching my students how to use the expressions “somone tell someone” and “someone told someone.” I presented the expressions, and then I allowed the students to practice using them. “I won’t be coming to class tomorrow. Fatmah, tell Miss Zainab.” “Miss Zainab, Sarah told me that she won’t be coming to class tomorrow.” Later on in the lesson, I noticed a student wasn’t focusing and was instead texting on her cellphone, so I deliberately called on her to answer a question. The entire class fell silent, anticipating how the situation would unfold. I asked my student, “did you go to the drugstore last night?” Recognizing that it was a yes/no question, she replied, “no, I didn’t go to the drugstore last night.” Refusing to allow her to bluff her way out of this one I asked, “what does drugstore mean again?” She replied with complete honesty, “you tell me!” She had used what I had taught her against me. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing with the entire class who didn’t need to be fluent in English to recognize when their teacher was being owned. I gave her props, had other students use the vocabulary word so she could grasp the meaning, and then moved on. The class had a new level of energy after that and there were no more cellphones. 

    Another situation where my student turned the tables on me was during an exam. I have a strict ‘NO ARABIC’ policy that I enforce relentlessly. My instinct is to say “no Arabic!” as soon as I hear it, and I trained my students to automatically repeat what they had said in English. I also have a ‘no cheating’ policy that I thought went without saying…or so I thought. Understanding the questions is part of the exam, so I don’t allow students to use translators or to ask me (especialy when it’s a word that has been taught.) One of my weaker students (who was also the most hardworking and had progressed the most) didn’t understand a word in one of the questions on the exam. So she leaned into her classmate and asked ” ؟’transport’ ايش يعني” I looked up and said in a strict tone, “what are you doing? You know Arabic isn’t allowed in my class!” My student looked embarrassed and apologized. Then she turned back to her classmate and 
    said, “what does ‘transport’ mean?”

    From my reaction, she reasoned that I wasn’t upset that she was cheating, but that I was upset that she was cheating in ARABIC. I shook my head and smiled to myself. Oh well, she finally remembered to use “does” in the question. 

    • Menelik Seth July 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      It always makes me happy when students are able to use newly acquired language humorously. To me it shows that they have a good understanding of the lesson. Those impish students always keep us on our toes!

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