It is getting colder. We even got the first snow here in the Black Forest in Germany. Days are getting shorter with darkness setting in around 4:40 p.m., and so Christmas lights have started to appear everywhere. Christmas in Germany 1
Last year shortly before Christmas, I was at Savannakhet University (SKU) in Laos. The time before Christmas definitely felt different there. To at least feel some of the Christmas spirit and also to get into an intercultural dialogue, I decided to teach Christmas-themed lessons. They took place in the week before Christmas in my class at SKU.
We did not only read about Christmas traditions in different countries, but also discussed how cultural topics can be dealt with in English classes. We also talked about activities that can be used to make learning about culture in different countries interesting and fun 2. The English teachers who joined my class had many questions about the traditions. However, they also shared information about the religious festivals they celebrate. This exchange of knowledge and experience was a crucial part of the course I taught at SKU.
Setting up a class for the English staff
In addition to the research for my PhD at SKU, I agreed to give a class for the English-teaching staff. In 2018, David Schrep was the first volunteer from the University of Education Karlsruhe (KUE) at SKU. He established and taught an “English & teaching methodology” class for SKU staff. I volunteered to continue the class during my own time in Savannakhet. The previous participants of the class wished for the class to focus on teaching methodology this time, and less on the English language itself.
With the help of Ms Phetsavanh Somsivilay I set up a “English Teaching Methods and Activities course” for the English-teaching staff of SKU. In addition, I had two helpers for the course, Ms Souphansa Inthichak and Ms Manysone Viphakone. I could ask them for anything regarding the course and its preparation. Many of the participants from David’s class joined my class, too. The goal of this class was to improve the English teachers’ knowledge and skills in teaching methodology and to reflect on and adapt to English teaching techniques for the Lao context.
Customizing the class for the Lao lecturers’ needs
At first, I did not feel very confident about teaching this class, because I realised that I would give a class for university lecturers at SKU. In the beginning, I was concerned about what I could teach them. I brought along my experience from teaching at a primary school in Germany, my teacher training at the State Institute for Initial Teacher Training, my education at the KUE, and preparing my PhD. I also was part of Team IV and V and worked together with Lao Science teachers at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School to tandem-teach and help improve their lessons and their English language skills. However, I did not feel confident at first about teaching Lao lecturers whom I did not know before and who were all older than me. Still, I wanted to give my best and I researched and prepared a lot for the course. Since it was the first time for me to give a class like this, it was especially important for me to listen to the participants’ wishes and needs for the classes.
In his “postmethod pedagogy” (2001), Balasubramanian Kumaravadivelu examines context-sensitive language-teaching, or in my case context-sensitive teaching of methods and activities for the English language classroom. He visualises the postmethod pedagogy with three parameters: particularity, practicality, and possibility. First of all, the language pedagogy used in a context must be relevant for teaching the particular group (particularity). In my class, the lecturers had time to think about how to adapt the methods and ideas for the particular group, the students at SKU, or even reflect whether the methods would be suitable or relevant for their students at all.
Secondly, language-teaching pedagogy – theory – influences teaching practice. On the other hand, theoretical knowledge develops from practical experience. So I wanted my course to help the lecturers “to theorize from their practice and practice what they theorize” 3 (practicality). Lastly, it is necessary to regard the experiences the participants bring to the pedagogical setting and work with their experiences and the knowledge they already have (possibility). 4
In the first lesson, I let the participants suggest and prioritise topics for the course. I also wanted to see their pre-knowledge about topics I wanted to include in the class. One of the first activities we did was a self-evaluating activity where the participants drew dots on a target. The closer they drew the dot to the target in a certain section the more they thought they already knew about the topic. This and other small activities in the first lesson helped me to determine which topics were relevant for the English lecturers at SKU who took time out of their already busy schedules to attend my class.
Theory, methods, and activities
From then on, the class took place three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for 90 minutes in the morning in one of the few rooms at SKU that is equipped with air-conditioning and a permanently installed projector. The eighteen regular participants were all lecturers who teach English or courses in the English language. They work for various faculties at SKU. Most of the participants are lecturers at the Faculty of Linguistics and Humanities. However, also lecturers from the Faculty of Business and Administration, Engineering, Natural Sciences, Education, Information Technology as well as staff from the Personal and Inspection Office, the General Affair and Cooperation Office, the Quality Assurance Division, and Academic Affairs Office who additionally teach English or classes like “English for Commerce”, “English for Agriculture” or “English for Administration” for the different faculties.
The topics that the teachers asked for and that we then covered in this course included:
- teaching vocabulary,
- phases of a lesson,
- games for learning,
- teaching pronunciation and intonation,
- speaking activities for the classroom,
- giving feedback and correcting mistakes,
- teaching cultural topics,
- listening activities,
- teaching English for students who do not major in English.
The lessons often contained a presentation or some theoretical input that I prepared for the topic. However, most of the lessons challenged the participants to be active themselves, to think and reflect on their own experiences, and to try new activities themselves 5. One aspect the teachers were specifically interested in was how to get the students to speak more in their classes.
Word of the day
One of the participants favourite activity that I introduced as a ritual was “Word of the Day“. In the beginning of every lesson one of the class members introduced an English word which had been new to her or him. They read out the word with the correct pronunciation and gave a definition for the word. The participants liked this activity because they got to know new vocabulary in the classes. I introduced this activity especially to get everybody to speak English in front of the class and give a short presentation. Additionally, it was a great way to enlarge English vocabulary.
Another activity was particularly interesting and fun for the teachers to try out, to play, and to implement in their courses. The game is called “Typhoon“. “Typhoon” is a game for review questions. The teacher draws a grid on the board and defines a point value for every box in the grid beforehand. The students do not know the point value, but the rows and columns are named. The teacher then asks groups of students review questions. If the group answers a question right, they can pick a box from the grid and receive the point value.What makes the game so much fun is that instead of points there can be special actions for boxes like “t” for “typhoon”, where the group can “blow away” another group’s points that they have gained so far, “s” for “steal”, where they can steal another group’s points, “d” for “double”, they can double their current score, or “swap”, where they can swap the score with another group.
This activity is perfect for review lessons. The students are activated and become competitive. Another advantage is that the end score does not only depend on the group’s performance but also partly depends on luck. This can encourage low-level students and groups with few points to stay focussed and motivated in the game. The scores can change very quickly. We did not only play the games and test the activities, but we also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of them and how to adapt them for their classrooms.
Learning from one another
I also learned a lot through this class in the dialogue with the Lao lecturers. They shared their experience with the class and with me. I got to understand the teaching situation at SKU better. Since this was the first time for me to teach a course like this, I did a lot of research for it and prepared it thoroughly. Therefore, I also gained a lot of new knowledge, experience, and developed new ideas. Studying the Lao language before and while I taught the course helped me to understand the problems Lao learners have when learning English more and more.
One of the best things was to see that the teachers adapt methods and suggestions from the class in their own lessons. One of the teachers told me how he had used the activity “running dictation”, which he got to know in my class. He also described the problems he had in his classroom and how he already thought of ways to adapt the activity to work better next time. When I talked to students, they also mentioned that their teachers try new methods and activities in their classes. The best aspect for me is that the teachers have not only incorporated some of the ideas and activities but also have adapted them to fit their classes and the conditions at SKU.
The class also helped me to build relationships with the lecturers who then participated in interviews for my research. They brought many difficulties and characteristics of the English classes at SKU to my attention. This information helps me to understand the context of my research much better. In my research, I examine intercultural barriers that arise for the use of ‘international’ course books at SKU. These course books are not adapted for the Lao classroom and therefore often pose additional barriers to the learners’ langauge learning process. I hope that I can continue my interviews and research and my work with the Lao lecturers at SKU next year when it is possible to travel to Laos again.
Text by R. Dengler
Photos by R. Dengler & S. Inthichak
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001) “Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy”. TESOL Quarterly 35 (4), 537-560.
- Christmas is an annual Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In Germany, Christmas is celebrated on Dec, 24, 25, and 26. However, the main day of the celebrations is the 24th. ↩
- These activities included an imaginary trip, songs, reading texts and stories, and a role play of greetings around the world. ↩
- Kumaravadivelu, B. (2001), p. 541. ↩
- Editor’s note: As this theory turns out to describe exactly what we have been doing and aiming at in our German-Lao tandem-work, we will give it more attention next year. Ms Selina Stegmeier will intrododuce “postmethod methods” in her first post in the “Language Education and Global Citizenship” series soon, but first we will trace the development in English didactics over the last decades of the 20th century from Intercultural to Transcultural learning and teaching, to move on to decolonization theories and finally to postmethod method(s). ↩
- Some of the activities we tried in class were: “Outburst“, “Watermelon race“, “Find someone who …“, “Tic Tac Toe“, “Read my lips“, “Box of lies“, “What happened next?”, “Battleship“, “Running dictation“, role-play, “Reverse Charades“, “Bingo“, “Criss Cross“, “Jigsaw reading“, “Think-Pair-Share“, surveys, mind-mapping, “Placemat“, “A letter to my future self“, … ↩