Observing class in retrospect

A while ago I stumbled upon two intriguing blog posts on classroom observation by Mike Griffin. One of them describes the author's experience of being an observee, the other one uncovers his long-ago misfires as an observer. I really enjoyed reading the posts and so immediately an idea crossed my mind: I should give it a try and think about the topic as well. Like most teachers, I've obviously had some experience with traditional classroom observation, and I've been on both sides of the barricade, but it's not what I've decided to deal with in my post.

I've recently grown fond of making short videos of my classes. At first I saw them as nice visuals for my blog to illustrate what I do in practice, but I believe they can be more than that (and I don't mean just nice memories). As the cameraperson I use a simple device, my mobile phone, and besides my occasional remarks I'm not part of the video at all, and I don't intend to for the time being. After all, it's important what students do rather than what I do.

When watching the videos full screen I can see what I saw when I was in the classroom. But not quite, actually. Some time has passed since then so I look at what I saw then from a slightly different angle. This perspective helps me reflect on and analyze an activity or the whole lesson in a more objective way - or at least I hope so. It definitely helps me remember and recall things. This post is in effect an attempt to find out if videos like these (very short, unplanned, low quality ones) can help me spot something important, something useful for me in terms of improving my classroom management skills, for example. The fact that I only video my students for short periods of time is to the good because my activity is not so disruptive. And as the device in my hand is almost invisible, I dare say the conditions are quite natural.

Video one: my thoughts and reflections

+ Watching the first video I can see at first sight that the students are doing what they are supposed to do. This means that I demonstrated and provided clear instructions (attached below, at the very bottom of the page).

+ Ss speak English most of the time, they respond to each other and so the communication is meaningful.

+ The seating arrangement is perfect for this activity - nobody gets in the way of anybody and there's plenty of space around each student.

+ Everybody is fully engaged at each moment of the activity - either listening closely to guess the words, or trying to describe the words clearly.
!!! Some students seem lost, especially when they can't guess the word. They may be silent because they are thinking but it's more likely that they didn't get enough input to find the answer. Some Ss repeat or rephrase but this could definitely be worked on next time.

tip: Next time I should encourage the listeners/guessers to ask additional questions or ask for clarification. I might put some useful expressions on the board, such as Can you repeat it? Can you give me a synonym? Can you say it in different words?

Video two: my thoughts and reflections

+ The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Although the speakers get slightly impatient when their partners can't guess the word, they are polite and supportive. Everybody is smiling and nobody looks bored or desperate. 

 + Ss use L2 most of the time, only occasional L1 remarks can be heard, especially those expressing surprise. The use of L1 in the classroom is a much debated issue in the ELT field but with monolingual classes, it's almost impossible to avoid this. However, if you give Ss a reason to communicate in L2, they certainly will.

!!! Although some Ss do repeat their utterances to make things easier for their partners, they actually repeat the same thing, which isn't very helpful because the problem is not that the listeners can't hear but that they don't have enough information to figure out the answer.

tip: Again, Ss' attention should have been drawn to some useful functional language and the speakers should have been encouraged to rephrase, rather than repeat. Next time I might stress this problem in advance.

Video three: my thoughts and reflections


+ Students change their partners smoothly and briskly, which is hard evidence that they understood my instructions. It's very important that Ss are enabled to work with different partners during the game - this makes it fairer and more balanced because not all Ss have the same language skills and abilities (this is a mixed-age and thus mixed-ability class). This diversity can be an obstacle, especially for the stronger learners. On the other hand, the stronger Ss can help the weaker ones to succeed.

+ What I find really positive is that throughout the whole activity, I don't need to interfere.

+ Ss make some minor errors but this activity is supposed to help them practise and improve their fluency, rather that accuracy. They manage to get the message across and thus complete the task successfully.

!!! The point of the game is to define the word in such a way that the partner can guess it. It's only natural that Ss' try to find the easiest way out and sometimes they only produce a limited amount of L2. I can't blame them because the point of the game is to fill in the grid and they do their best to achieve this.

tip: It's difficult to make Ss' produce more L2 if they feel there's no need to do so. I could have pointed out that the better and more elaborate definition they provide, the faster they can actually achieve their goal and win the game.

I believe that I have come up with quite a few ideas here. The positive assessment seems to prevail and that's good, but I realize that it's important to look for flaws and imperfections as well - or rather look for improvements. Apparently, by observing videos of my lessons I could find ways to improve my teaching but more importantly, I might become a better and a more objective observer of others.

The instructions for the activity:

  • Take two blank A4 sheets and draw grids like this (I demonstrate while I speak) with 16 identical squares, 4 X 4, each square is allotted a code, for example A1, B4.
  • Fill the first grid with random vocabulary from unit X. The other grid will remain empty. (I give Ss time to complete the first grid)
  • Now, hide your grid with words under the textbook so that your partner can't see it.
  • Choose any square from your empty grid.
  • You partner starts describing the word which he or she has in that square. If you guess it, you can draw a cross/nought in the appropriate square in your empty grid. If you can't guess it, you have another chance - you can choose another word. Then you swap roles.
  • You're not going to speak to the same partner all the time. You're going to move around during the activity in the following way (I demonstrate - see video three above).
  • The aim is to fill all the squares in your empty grid, i.e. to guess 16 words altogether.