Wednesday, November 19, 2008

TEFL Assignment 2-Classroom Arrangement

So, I'm taking a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. The essays are the culminating assignments for each module. Each essay requires a 700 word answer to a prompt which, if the first module serves as model, is composed of a couple of questions. I'm very interested to find myself struggling to answer the questions. I have really strong feelings about most of the concepts presented in the module, and yet I feel as if I might serve myself better toning down the harshness of my responses. Here's the third one.

Why is the arrangement of desks and chairs important in the ESL/EFL classroom?Are there learning activities for which the traditional classroom seating arrangement is the most appropriate?

Choose two of the arrangements as shown in section 2.2 (eg, semicircle, rows, small groups, etc...) Explain the types of learning activities for which they would be most appropriate. Compare and contrast.

In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks discusses the tendency for teachers in higher education institutions to ignore the effect that their bodies has on their teaching. In ascribing to Descartes’ concept of dualism, these professors felt that the knowledge, which was contained in their mind, knowledge which they shared with students, was separate from their physical identities. hooks goes to describe how professors sometimes ignore the possible effect their race and gender can have on the reception of their message by the students.

While hooks’ analysis is largely abstract and informed by complex sociological ideas, her point that the physicality of the classroom is important, especially as relates to the teacher-students dynamic, is well taken. When one thinks of a classroom of second language acquisition, one imagines a learning environment in which self-affect acts as a key factor in determining the success or failure of the students and the teacher.

Because positive affect and comfort play such a huge role in setting the tone for the entire duration of a class, the teacher cannot afford to be remiss in her or his duty to take into account the physical dimensions of the space. In doing so, the classroom can take on a dynamic, variant, engaged, and responsive nature that will ensure student interest and willingness to take risks, which is such an important catalyst for learning in a classroom of second language acquisition.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all arrangements must challenge what has been the historical modus operandi; generally thought of as rows of students facing the teacher at what becomes the de facto front of the room. In fact, given the breadth of situations that exist daily in the ESL/EFL classroom, we would logically employ a similarly variant breadth of classroom arrangements in accommodation.

The traditional classroom arrangement, mentioned above, can actually fit certain situations quite well. The mood and the content of these necessitating lessons can range from very structured and regimented to quite fun and collaborative. For example, the traditional arrangement might be warranted during moments of individual work time, specifically writing exercises or during individual assessments. The arrangement serves the students well in that it can limit the distractions that might exist in a more interactive arrangement, such as a semicircle.
On the other hand, such a setup could be a great way to divide the class into teams for vocabulary relay races, or other games that involve being blind to your teammates, so to speak. For example, there could be an activity in which each person is given clues about a word or a verb tense by the person directly behind them. In this way, the guesser gets practice simply listening without the context of facial expression, while the clue-giver must practice vocal inflection and fluency in order to convey a clear message.

Personally, I love the semicircle arrangement. I actually like the full circle best, but only if the teacher becomes part of the circle, and therefore, the discourse. As far as activities that fit the semicircle arrangement and vice versa, I think it gives the impression of inclusion. Because of this, it is great for discussions. These discussions can range in complexity and content from a simple chat about favorite foods to an advanced discourse about local politics. This arrangement also lends itself to rapid-fire answering during drill-style practice.

In addition to the semicircle, I think the grouping of students, while vastly different from the former, can be very effective. While it doesn’t invite full class discussions, it can give students a chance to discuss amongst themselves, prepare for sharing, and offer a unified opinion as a group. Not only does this put the onus on the students to get the discussion flowing, but it also requires teamwork and cooperation. The students must negotiate the meaning of their collective conveyance amongst the various opinions in their group. Being able to do this independent of the teacher is very powerful.

Although I don’t think stringent competition is always a great idea in the ESL/EFL classroom, especially at the early levels, this arrangement can be very effective for lightly competitive activities, provided achievement level and experience is somewhat evenly divided.

Hi Cameron,
Clearly you have the creativity and practical understanding of spatial factors to use seating arrangement to the advantage of yourself and your students. I encourage you to use the ideas you´ve discussed here to enhance activities as well as the general dynamics of your classroom.

This is certainly a well-written essay, however I believe you will find that a more practical-personal, and less formal and academic approach will serve you better in future modules. Although teacher-student interaction is important, and arrangement can certainly enhance or degrade that function, in the spirit of this TEFL Online course as well as the contemporary trends in language teaching, the interaction between students is much more of a consideration than between teacher and students. After all, especially in large classes, how much interaction with the teacher will any one student ever have? With all due respect to Mr. Descartes, the main point that I would like you to take away from this assignment is that--from the standpoint of TEFL Online and of the mainstream trends in modern language teaching in general--classroom arrangement(s) that serve to reduce TTT and increase STT, student interaction, student engagement in learning activities are optimal and a goal worth working hard to achieve. Refer to the Teacher Talking Time (TTT) material from last module for a more detailed discussion of this interesting and important subject.


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