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Managing Classroom Dynamics

critical thinkingMartyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He joins us on the blog today to preview his upcoming webinar, Managing Classroom Dynamics.

What are classroom dynamics?

I suspect that for the great majority of teachers around the world the most important characteristic of a ‘good’ class is not how hard the students work, but how well they work together.  If a teacher is handing over a class to another, in my experience one of the first things they say is something like “they are a really nice group”, or “there’s a really friendly atmosphere in there”. Of course, it’s not always good news, and comments such as “it’s like teaching a wall” or “they’re just really difficult” are also common. The truth is the atmosphere in each class is hugely important to our job satisfaction.

This is classroom dynamics. It’s about the ways the people within a class interact with each other. It’s how they talk and how they act; it’s how they show their feelings and opinions; and it’s how they behave as a group.

Why are classroom dynamics important?

Managing classroom dynamics is also something that takes up significant lesson time. We all do things in class that are not directly related to learning English, but rather are focused on the social aspects of the group, such as managing behaviours, reacting to tensions, and generating interest, for example. But so much of what we do is instinctive and happens ‘in the moment’.  It might be useful however to take a moment and look at the issues in a more structured way.

In other words, in addition to our competences of content knowledge (grammar, lexis, etc.), and teaching skills, what skills, attitudes and strategies exist that can help us to ‘generate a psychological climate conducive to high quality learning’ (Underhill 1999: 130)?

There are good reasons for focusing on this:

  1. The cooperative skills and attitudes that we encourage in our students are among those most frequently demanded by today’s employers.
  2. A supportive, warm atmosphere helps people take the risks they need to in order to learn.
  3. Working with and in a more comfortable setting is simply more enjoyable for everyone. Life is a little better.

What can we do about classroom dynamics?

There is no one size that fits all. To a large extent, a classroom dynamic is a product of its own context as defined both internally with the uniqueness of its members, and externally in the cultural settings of the institution, and the society in which it is located.

Nevertheless we can identify certain features and characterise useful classroom dynamics across most, if not all contexts – even if these are represented by different behaviours according to the setting. For example, the visible behaviours of cooperation in a Brazilian high-school classroom might be different to those in a Dutch university or private evening class in Thailand, but cooperation remains key. Here are some aspects of classroom dynamics that a teacher may work to influence the chemistry of the group, and make it more ‘bonded’ (Senior 1997).

  1. a) The cohesiveness of the class.

Groups of people are very much brought together when they are aware of what they have in common. Shared experiences, values, and objectives lie at the heart of successful communities.  As teachers we can foster this awareness with activities that identify such commonalities, and then use them to enhance learning. In the webinar we will look at practical language learning activities and teaching techniques that can develop a sense of community within a class.

  1. b) The variety of interaction within a class.

A class that has a flexible approach to how its members talk to each other is likely to have a more inclusive, and therefore participative climate. In the seminar we will identify different modes of classroom talk, what each brings to learning, and how we can create variety.

  1. c) The amount of empathy class members have for each other.

Successful group activities involve members compromising in order to support each other. In the webinar we will look at activities and practices that encourage peer support and greater sharing of learning within the group.

How can I find out about the dynamics in my classroom?

As we have already said, classroom dynamics are local. What works in one class might not work in another. So we also need to know how to find out what is happening in our classes, so we can take the most appropriate actions. In the webinar we will also look at ways we can examine the realities of our classrooms by using:

  • Peer observations
  • Recordings
  • Student research activities

Finally…. when we teach all spend time on the social aspects of our classes. This webinar will provide a framework of analysis that can help us make more principled decisions when considering how we manage classroom dynamics. Hope to see you there!

webinar_register3

Useful reading

Gil, G. (2002) Two complementary modes of foreign language classroom interaction. ELT  Journal, 56/3

Hadfield, J (1992) Classroom Dynamics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Senior, R. (1997) Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51/1.

Senior, R.  (2002) A class-centered approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 56/4 Underhill, A. (1999) Facilitation in Language Teaching. In J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wright, T. (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education, Palgrave Macmillan


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Webinar: Warmers, fillers and other quick activities

Teacher pointing at the whiteboardJon Hird, materials writer and teacher trainer, discusses the place and function of short activities in the English classroom. Jon will be hosting a practical webinar session on this topic on 12th September.

While not a requirement for every lesson, quick, simple and largely preparation- and materials-free activities such as warmers, fillers and lead-in activities can add a bit of dynamism and fun into any class. But why do them?

Warmers can wake the students (and the teacher) up and at the same time energise and stimulate. They help to focus minds and get the students in ‘English mode’. A good warmer can get the students engaged with English without them realising they are ‘doing’ English.

Fillers can serve a similar purpose to warmers. They can be used to change the pace, energy levels and dynamics between activities or whenever needed during the class. They can both help the students to relax and give a boost when things are perhaps flagging a little. They can allow a bit of ‘time out’ between more conventional classroom activities. They are flexible and can be used at almost any time. They are also especially useful for filling time at the end of a class.

Lead-in activities, as well as performing a similar function to warmers, are at the same time designed to introduce a topic, generate interest and whet the appetite. They focus minds on the topic and activate schema. Lead-ins can also be used to check, input and pre-teach any language necessary for the ensuing activity or activities.

There are also a great many preparation- and materials-free consolidation activities that can be used to give further practice and help fix new language in a fun and engaging way once the coursebook and other published materials have been completed.

In my upcoming webinar, Warmers, fillers and other quick activities we will look at a range of such warmers, fillers, lead-ins and consolidation activities, as well as activities to help you and your students get the most out of the course book. The webinar will use content from Headway Fourth edition.


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Classroom Management and Organisation: making it work.

Christina Giannikas owns a chain of private language schools in Southern Greece. Here she talks about managing your classroom at the start of the new school year.

Every start to the new school year creates stress to any teacher worth their salt. Each year entails preparation of teaching material, the new curriculum and consideration of the students’ needs. There is one thing that can make a teacher’s life a bit easier and that is Classroom Management and Organization (CMaO). For some, these words could prove to be quite intimidating, the sheer thought on trying to manage children fresh from summer vacation could be quite frightening, nonetheless it would help in the long run.

As challenging a task as it might be, CMaO can be interesting and fun for teachers and students. The key ingredients are effective teacher preparation and student involvement.

When a teacher sets up their classroom, it helps to view it as an environment where language learners are supported and can feel comfortable and content. As an educator looks around their classroom from this perspective, they should think about:

  • The written language (posters, word walls, charts)
  • A reading area-are there books that would help develop students’ reading skills?
  • The spaces for learning-are desks and other areas set up in a way that children could collaborate?

Establishing the appropriate layout for the language classroom can be a demanding task; however, it can determine the style of the lesson and subconsciously prepares the students for a logical and organised setting. Moving desks around in a circle, U-shape or group formation can open up communication and create a welcoming environment, as opposed to desks in rows. Imagine how your students would feel after enjoying a fun summer to walk into a classroom where the desks are in rows facing the teacher, without any encouragement of interaction. Desks formed in a way that insinuates teacher-student and student-student interaction can motivate language learners and even improve the teacher’s rapport with the students since children can immediately be aware that the teacher supports their need to cooperate with their peers and feel safe in the environment created for them.

After the teacher has decided on the layout of the room, the location of materials and displays the children need to be involved in the CMaO process, meaning that the teacher must introduce students to the resources and explain their use, draw their attention to the displays on the wall and the seating. This will help the language learners understand and appreciate the purpose of the specific setting and the importance of the CMaO plans. The threat of misbehaviour can be dealt with by instituting rules from the very start. Rules establish the behavioural context of the classroom by specifying what is expected, what behaviours will be reinforced and the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.

In my experience, what helped ensure positive behaviour and avoid misunderstandings was to draw up ‘Behaviour Contracts’. These contracts declared what the teacher expected of the students in the cooperative setting, the awards of positive behaviour and the consequences of negative behaviour. The award for positive behaviour would be left blank for the students to fill in which was fun and gave them a chance to be part of the CMaO planning. Once the contracts were completed, I would read what students would fill in out loud to the entire class which was anything from ‘the teacher would bring us cake’ to ‘the teacher would be very happy’. This helped lighten the mood, made children laugh and excitingly anticipate the lessons to come.

Young learners are highly aware of how their direct surroundings form their learning experience once its importance and benefits are brought to their attention. When a teacher adopts a consultative approach to the design of the classroom, it could lead to many desirable outcomes and increase. This could give the teacher the freedom to teach and the student’s the freedom to learn (Pollard, 2008). So don’t fret, manage and organise.

Pollard, A (2008) Reflective Teaching. Continuum International Publishing Group

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Your place or mine?

Teacher with students in schoolFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she talks about the impact the location of classes has on the teacher-student relationship.

Most teachers view the prospect of teaching a new class with a mixture of excitement (an opportunity to do things differently, a chance to learn new things) and a certain amount of anxiety: Will the students like me? Will they like each other? Will the class be a success?

Irrespective of whether the class is a one-off, a substitution or a class lasting a whole term or academic year, most of us worry about how the class will go. But, when preparing for the new class, how many teachers or managers reflect on how the class dynamics and the relationship between the students and the teacher are affected by where the class is actually held?

According to Charles Handy (1993, Changing Organisations, Penguin, London, p.170) the location of a meeting (or class in our case) gives out certain signals and these signals affect the way people behave and interact with each other. Take, as an example, a teacher who is called into the Director’s office. By choosing to hold a meeting with the teacher in the Director’s office, the Director is (consciously or not) reinforcing the power relationship which already exists between a director and employee.

Depending on the purpose of the meeting, this can be used to great effect. If the meeting is disciplinary, the choice of venue will effectively emphasise the authority of the director to discipline the teacher. If the meeting is for another purpose, for example to bounce ideas off a teacher, the choice of the Director’s office as the venue for the meeting will not be as conducive to an open and frank exchange of ideas or opinions as meeting in a classroom, teachers’ room or other more neutral place.

So, let’s take this theory and apply it to where classes are held. A language school territorially belongs more to the teacher than the students. So, in terms of the student – teacher relationship if a teacher gives a class in his/her language school, this naturally emphasises the teacher’s role and authority in the class in relation to the students. Consider how much easier it is for a long-established teacher to assert his/her role in a new class full of new students who do not know each other if the class is held in the teacher’s language school compared with starting a class in an unknown venue with a group of students who already know each other.

For newly-qualified teachers (NQTs) giving a class to an already established group of young learners on the students’ territory e.g. in a state school, is a tall order. More experienced teachers will be equipped with a series of strategies and the required confidence to help manage the class and compensate for this more threatening environment.  So, where possible, when dealing with classes of younger learners in which discipline can be problematic, managers would be advised to assign NQTs classes in the language school rather than sending these teachers out to off-site locations where the teachers are at more of a disadvantage.

The same is true, although different, with classes held in companies. Teachers giving classes in a company walk into an already established set of roles and power relationships between the students in a class. The teacher, as an outsider, cannot challenge these roles and much of what he or she will be able to do in the class and his/her relationship with the students will be conditioned by these pre-determined relationships.

As for online classes, although giving online classes requires a different set of teaching and management skills to face-to-face classes, if the student attends the class from his/her home and the teacher from his/her home or language school, the territorial factors which can influence the teacher-student relationship and establishment of roles are, on the whole, neutralised.

There are obviously many more factors which influence how the teacher – student relationship and roles develop. However, by being aware of these territorial issues, teachers can anticipate and try to adapt how they manage their classes according to where their classes are held. Managers in turn should take this issue into consideration when deciding which teacher to assign to each class and how the location of the class could affect the amount of support the teacher might need.

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Fun with flashcards

Ahead of her workshop at IATEFL 2012 about engaging students with flashcard games, Weronika Salandyk talks about some methods she uses to teach with flashcards in the classroom.

Flashcard games belong to my favourite classroom activities with young learners. Kids love them, I love them and they seem to help my students remember the new vocabulary. When teaching a class of six- or seven-year-olds I try to stick to a few rules: remember about classroom management (otherwise these lessons would be a mess, not fun), reduce the amount of materials I use (why should I waste time copying and cutting if I can use a pile of flashcards and a few everyday objects?) and mix new activities with my ‘tried and tested’ favourites.

When I introduce new material I show students flashcards and ask them to repeat the words a few times. To keep this activity more lively I make funny voices or ask children to speak as if… they were eating hot soup, chewing bubble gum or sitting in the dentist’s chair with their mouth open. In this way students repeat the same words many times without realising it. They practise pronunciation and begin to remember what each flashcard presents. And what’s more, they’re having great fun!

After a few revision activities we play games based on associating the word with the picture. At that point students don’t feel perfectly comfortable with the new words so I make sure they get plenty of practice in the safe and entertaining environment. Slap the card is one of the games my kids want to come back to during every lesson. I divide the class into two teams. We sit on the floor in two rows, one team opposite the other. I put flashcards face up between them, usually in a single or double line.

The games starts when I say a word and children who sit near that flashcard must quickly slap it with their hands. The first team to do it get a point. Actually the points are not important at all, the kids just love the tension the game involves. It is a very dynamic activity which wakes the sleepy ones up but also allows the over-energetic children to work off their energy surplus a bit.

Finally, we play flashcard games which make children say the word or use it in a sentence such as pass the bomb. Students sit in a circle and I give one child a bomb which is a ticking egg timer. At the same time I show him/her a flashcard and the student must say what is in the picture or build a sentence with the word according to a pattern we practise (I like…, I have got…, I can….). Then s/he passes the egg timer to the next person and I show a different flashcard. The person holding the bomb in the moment of explosion is in real trouble!

With the rest of the class we prepare a special task for this person (e.g. s/he has to name three words that come next in the pile of flashcards). Pass the bomb is a great activity as it gives you a chance to check every student’s progress – but you need to be careful not to scare anyone. With my youngest students we call it buzzer and I give them funny tasks at the end, so the result is that everyone wants to hold the timer when it buzzes!

Do you and your students like using flashcards? What are your favourite flashcard games?

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