Adapting to new surroundings

The demographic situation in the Czech Republic has recently become rather worrying. The resulting equation is simple; there are more qualified teachers than jobs. It is not so dramatic in rural regions, of course, but things are changing everywhere. School administrators do everything in their power to save the day but what they do is not always the best - neither for the teachers, nor the students. In order to tighten the budget, for example, they often need to take unpopular, risky steps. One of these dicey decisions is an attempt to save money by not dividing classes into smaller groups for English lessons, which is a common practice here. The thing is that once the class drops down to a number of 22 students, the administrator may decide to hire one English teacher instead of two. As an EFL teacher working in the state sector I normally teach a class of up to 16 students (lucky me), so over time, I have adjusted all my techniques to the given situation; I teach in a room with a horseshoe seating arrangement which can accommodate up to 16 students, I have collected flashcard sets for 16 students, I have a corresponding number of dictionaries, etc. To put it simply, I have psychologically adjusted to this magic number. So when I learnt the other day that next academic year I will teach two large classes, my heart sank for a while. In addition, probably in order to show sympathy and concern, my colleague pointed out innocently - "Oh dear! You will have to correct 22 essays instead of 16 - times two." Nevertheless, this remark got me thinking and I started creating an action plan....

One of the strategies which, I believe, may help me prevent grey hair is the one of peer correction. The activity I'd like to share here was primarily born out of necessity. It occurred to me when I felt overloaded with essays and tests waiting for my feedback and I just couldn't afford to collect another handful of written assignments.

What was I supposed to do? I needed my students to practise a grammar structure we had learned (used to live vs. be used to living) in a meaningful way - in a cohesive and coherent text. In freer practice one really learns if students are able to use what we've taught them because when producing a longer piece of text learners are distracted by various things they have to take into consideration. Although it is practice that makes perfect, learners also need to get feedback which draws attention to their errors.

I handed out A5 pieces of paper and gave my students ten minutes to write a short essay (60 -70 words) on what their life used to be like in the past. When they finished, I asked them to send their work to the person on the right (Student 1), who read the text and added a short comment at the very bottom of the page (see picture 1). Then s/he folded the bottom of the paper back so that the next person (Student 2) could not see what S1 has written (see picture 2). Thus each comment was unique and it wasn't influenced by other people in the class. Student 2 then did the same and handed the essay over to Student 3. This went on until everybody had read and commented on everybody's work (there were only twelve Ss in the class so this was feasible, but with larger classes one essay can be read by a limited amount of Ss). Finally the author of the original essay could unfold the paper and see all the comments. At the end of the lesson I posed a few questions:
  1. Why do you think we did this activity?
  2. Do you think it was helpful? Why/not?
  3. What did you learn?
  4. Do you think it would make a difference if I corrected your work?
  5. Why is it important to be able to give feedback?
The most interesting finding for me was the fact that the students enjoyed writing comments more than producing the essay or reading the feedback. At the beginning of the activity they were a bit reluctant and not very confident. 'We don't know what to write', some of them said. However, in the end they appreciated the opportunity to provide constructive criticism and help their peers to learn. They also admitted that they had learned from other people's mistakes.

I realize this method is just one life saving straw and I hope I'll discover more effective strategies which will help me successfully cope with this challenging situation I'll find myself in next year. So if anyone reading this has experienced teaching large classes, I'd love to hear what they think and how they handled it.