Wednesday, February 20, 2013

-TTT + STT = :)

Time to reach back to my list of “13 Resolutions for 2013,” also known as “Ava’s list of upcoming blog posts for times when she can’t think of anything better to write about!”

Luckily, the next item on the list is not only hugely important, but one that I have been actively practicing this month. Increasing student talking time (STT). One of those over-used and under-examined ELT buzz-words, if you ask me. What does that mean? Is it quite literally the ratio of minutes spoken by teacher to minutes spoken by students? If so, I don’t know why we pay so much attention to it. Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the quality rather than the quantity of talking time, on the part of both teacher and student? But I digress...

While I like to think that there is a healthy balance between TTT and STT in most of my classes, I do from time to time catch myself going off on little teacher rants. These usually happen when I am explaining a task, summarizing an idea after a discussion, or when I am not getting what I want out of my students and sometimes just go ahead and say it myself (oops!). What all of these situations have in common is an underlying feeling of fear. Fear that a task will not be accomplished correctly, fear that an important concept will be misunderstood, or, the worst of all, fear of silence. When there is silence in my classroom, my internal teacher goes into panic-mode, assuming that it means one of two things: either the students are bored or they do not understand. As soon as that possibility arises, I jump in and nervously over-explain. I’m a control freak, I can’t help it.

So recently, my incredibly advanced approach to increasing student talking time is.....(drumroll please).....nothing. Not saying anything, not doing anything, not over-explaining, not over-compensating. What I am doing is practicing sitting in the silence. And let me tell you, it is PAINFUL! My skin crawls and the clock ticking sounds like the loudest thing in the world (seriously, must get rid of that clock...) and the students fidget awkwardly and it feels like we will never make it out the other side. And guess what happens? We make it out the other side! Because eventually, someone will open their mouth and start talking! As long as it isn’t me, I am happy. And I am finding that, as I practice and get better at just waiting patiently, rather than rushing to fill the silence, students are getting better at speaking up. I put out the question, or the prompt, or the guide, and then I wait. Recently, students have begun to notice this and taken more initiative in speaking up, answering questions, proactively approaching a task. Hallelujah! This is what I wanted all along, and somehow thought that I could achieve it by giving just a little more explanation, a little more guidance, a little more blah blah blah! Silly me, because what I was doing was depriving students of the opportunity to speak up when they are ready, to take the initiative and produce their language without cajoling or begging, and to figure things out on their own, therefore building confidence in their own skills and abilities. By simply taking a step back, and becoming comfortable with a little silence in the classroom, not only have I decreased TTT and increased STT, I have also encouraged my students and myself to take it easy and let these things happen naturally (oops, my California is showing!). Sitting with the silence and treating it with acceptance has been a great tool, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive for everyone involved, I am happy to report.

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” Fran Lebowitz

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Daily Practice, Part 2

I struggled with a title for this post, for the simple reason that I missed two days of my daily writing practice, and decided that I was a failure. "How can I call it a daily practice if I missed a day?" I asked myself. I know that I am not alone in this kind of all-or-nothing, my-own-biggest-critic type of thinking, and yet it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly hard on myself I am. I wrote 750 words a day for 25 days, and missed two. Guess which are the days I can't stop thinking about? It reminds me of college, when I arrived at University and immediately let go of most extracurricular activities, feeling that I was not good enough at them to merit involvement in clubs and teams. If I was going to do it I wanted to be among the best, and if I wasn't doing it perfectly then there really wasn't much of a point. Sad but true. This kind of "all or nothing" thinking is so dangerous, and yet it is so pervasive. Why is it that it is our shortcomings, and never our achievements, which tend to camp out in our minds and bother us to no end? It seems especially baffling to me in this particular case. I write lesson plans, emails, tweets, status updates, and blog posts every single day, probably adding up to thousand of written words a day; however I still went out of my way to pursue the 750 words challenge of writing simply for the sake of writing, not publishing, sharing, or perfecting. It was, and still is, simply a practice. A practice! Meaning that it is not the final performance, not the big game, not the cumulative exam, but simply practice. And I still struggle to let it be just that. So today, I am logging back into "750 words" and writing an entry, a continutation of my practice, even though I missed two days. Am I struggling to convince myself that this is still a valuable exercise, even though I am no longer doing it perfectly? You bet. But here I am, writing about it. Getting it out of my mind, and onto the paper, or computer screen, or the endless abyss of cyberspace. Point is, it doesnt really matter what I did or did not do yesterday. What matters is what I am doing today, in this moment; and right now, I am practicing. I am practicing showing up and doing what I can to be just a little bit better than I was yesterday. I am practicing being the mediocre performer, and being OK with that. I am practicing showing patience and tolerance and compassion for myself the same way I would for a friend, or a stranger for that matter. And most importantly, I am practicing practicing, because that seems to be the challenge that I struggle the most with.

This is a great experience, a great exercise for me, and one that I am finding incredibly instructive in observing the way my mind reacts to these situations I come up against. And I cannot help but think of how many people are doing the same thing. How many people have given up on something before they really give it a chance? How many people have considered themselves a failure before ever really beginning? How many people apply an all-or-nothing, absolutist way of thinking to the things that they do, and therefore continue to sell themselves short and never realize that they are truly capable of? I know that I cannot be the only one, and just recognizing this tendency within myself opens my heart up to the possibility of recognizing it and having compassion for it in another. What about my students, who may struggle with some component of a language, or the entire language, and then decide that it is not for them? What about my friends who may fear trying something new but are really living in fear of failing? And what about everyone out there who just needs a little bit of encouragement to show up, give it a try, give it another try, and just practice? How can I be supportive to those around me if on some days I cannot even support myself? Change has to start from within, as we say, and yet that always seems the most difficult place to begin. Though it seems so much more difficult to encourage myself, that is where the practice must begin if I will ever be able to effectively encourage others. And what if I fall short? Who cares? Its just practice.