Large classes - a nightmare or a challenge?

Last Monday my regular teaching schedule officially started. I couldn't wait to see the kids again after the holidays. I was full of energy and enthusiasm, but at the same time I was somewhat concerned about the two large classes I'd been assigned. I'd already confessed before that I find it challenging to teach English to a class of twenty-two students.

One of the classes in question is grade 8 (13 year olds, a mix of boys and girls). I only know half of the class well; I've been teaching them for more than two years now. The other group had a different teacher in the past but I'm familiar with most of the faces too. I memorized the names quickly. I discovered that the fact that the two groups can demonstrate their knowledge in front of each other actually spices up the lessons. Kids simply love to show off in front of their peers. My biggest concern regarding this group is the discipline. Will I be able to handle such a big group during certain phases of the lesson, such as conversation activities? When 22 kids start chatting at once, they can't hear each other clearly. Will I be able to include mingling activities at all? Is there enough space for this? Will they be meaningful under the circumstances? How will I make sure the kids don't copy each other's tests when there are so many of them squeezed in one room?

The other large group consists of students aged 17-18. Some of them are pretty boisterous, but that's not what worries me most because they generally like English. The trouble is that it's a mixed-ability class; there are students who've just obtained FCE certificates (I estimate that some of them are as high as the C1 level), while others struggle to keep up with the intermediate level coursebook. How to keep them all engaged? What activities should I include to provide valuable input without boring the stronger students to death and putting off the weak ones? Will I often have to supplement the coursebook which is too easy for the best students? Who'll pay for the huge amount of copies then? I suppose I'll need to make use of technology, such as mobile phones, laptops and projectors. How will I manage to assess each student's oral performance at least twice during the term if there are so many of them? And will I be able to judge their performances impartially when there's such a big gap between the strongest and the weakest student? Will I resist comparing the students' performances?

I thought the first lessons with these groups had gone well. Unfortunately, the way I see things is not always identical with how others see them. I felt really disappointed when I heard that some of the kids (and their parents) had already written the lessons off saying: Students: This sucks ... I don't want to be in the same class with the FCE holders - they will laugh at me and I'll be discouraged to speak in front of them. Parents: This is hopeless; the kids won't get enough opportunities to speak any more. Such a big class can't be taught effectively. These doubtful voices really make me sad, but then I think: this wasn't my decision, so it's not my fault. It's not in my power to change it. All I can do to face the challenge and do my best as a teacher. My optimistic prediction is that we'll all eventually get used to it but meanwhile I'll need to take action.

One thing is certain; these lessons will need a lot of consideration, planning and subsequent reflection. I probably won't be able to do things the way I did them with smaller classes. In other words, I'll need to step out of my comfort zone. By this change will inevitably affect the students themselves. These are some of the things I think I'll need to tweak.

1) I'll have to include even more pair and group work in the lesson plan to provide students with plenty of opportunities to speak. However, students will also need to work individually to be able to process everything thoroughly. I'm an extroverted, impatient energetic person, and I often have to remind myself that students need plenty of time to complete their task. This will become even more challenging now because the more students, the more divergence. I suppose that less S>T talk will happen, even though I hope that there will be some space for short presentations.

2) In a big class, students are more likely to be distracted by the others - their remarks, questions, movements, etc. Also, the faster students often get impatient when they have to wait for the others who haven't finished yet. I'm afraid I won't be able to avoid occasional reprimands, which I really hate. The thing is that I don't normally mind when students burst in laughter or chatter now and then. To keep a quiet and good working atmosphere though, they won't be allowed to do things they normally did before. This may make them feel less comfortable in the beginning, but I hope they'll adjust.

3) I'll definitely need to pay more attention to the seating arrangement. In such a big class, there are things which I can easily overlook. There may be pairs who don't work efficiently enough and thus they may need to change partners. Also, lazy or shy students may hide behind the hard-working and more confident ones.

4) It's difficult to keep track of every student's work and progress in such a big class. Hence new ways of assessment will have to be considered if I don't want to have piles of uncorrected tests and essays on my desk. Peer correction and assessment first spring to mind. If I still want to correct things myself, I'll need to make a schedule so that I don't get overloaded with work.

5) I'll need to select activities very carefully - not too easy but not too challenging, with extra or bonus sections for those who are fast and/or more proficient. These extra parts should be optional but motivating enough to attract the stronger students' attention. Last time, for example, I handed out lists of one liner jokes based on homophones. The language itself was not difficult but it definitely made the students stop and think. The aim of the activity was to understand the jokes but in fact it was a linguistic exercise in disguise, focusing on words with multiple meanings. In the end I felt that everybody enjoyed the activity and found it useful.

I'm convinced that the number of students in a class is important but it's not the only factor of effective language instruction and learning. There's no need to think that students can't learn in big classes. They can, of course. But it does make a different when there are 22 students instead of 10 or 12. But I'm an optimist - I believe that as soon as I adjust my teaching style to the given situation, these large groups will finally become my most favourite classes. Anyway, I promise to keep the reader of my blog posted.