Nina MK, Ph.D.
This is a nice topic; indeed, it made me sit up and think really hard! On the one hand, the whole idea of negotiating any syllabus with students seems a little absurd. After all, we are Teachers, the adults who “know it all”, who follow the rules and regulations, who have to stick to the national curriculum, the lesson plans, the examination requirements and generally impart Words of Wisdom in little daily or weekly parcels. Students of any age are supposed to listen to us with bated breath, to absorb the new knowledge, to produce good results, and generally regard us with the feeling of wonder and awe. In reality of course the situation is totally different. We know that there is no such thing as an average student; nor is there an average teacher. But there definitely is a syllabus for any course which is oriented towards exactly those mythical creatures. An average teacher must impart a certain volume of knowledge, and an average student must imbibe it by the end of a course or term.
• My experience shows that young learners of English would happily munch and swallow anything we plop into their mouths, figuratively speaking, and wait for more. Their minds are uncluttered, they are open for suggestion, and anything new is enticing for them. Though there are no discussions per se, it is good to pay attention to their inclinations and interests. I first came to teach at school after being a university lecturer for ten years. That was quite a change! After dealing with young people aged 18-22, I was given three second forms, age 8, 36 children each; three fourth forms, age 10, again 36 children each; and three tenth forms, age 16-17, 25 adolescents each.
The youngest pupils were beginners, so we started with the alphabet and proceeded along the well-established lines. The ten-year-olds were another matter. Their previous teacher seemed to have just one method of teaching: she made them memorize some fifty words a week and a few grammar rules. Then they would write a test, regurgitating the words and the rules. They often had no idea what the words meant; the rules, for them, had no connection to speech at all. The mere mention of grammar made the whole class groan. We talked with them, I explained what and how we could do to make this subject fascinating (they did not believe me). And we started. I found plenty of supplementary materials, brought in books, audios and videos to the classroom. We discussed the situation with parents, and we all chipped in to buy very good grammar books. By the end of the first term, my pupils began to sing and dance, to read and write. After the autumn school break, they all rushed into the classroom with their new textbooks, shouting: “Hello Teacher! Let’s do Grammar!” No, it was not plain sailing, but we spoke the same language in more ways than one.
• Teenagers may either be quite disillusioned or rebellious; or they may be open to discussion and suggestion. Depending on their own experience with their previous teacher(s), they may be quite fluent, or they may be rather behind the expected level. They may also think that they “already know” English yet they may have no idea of the English sounds or grammar. Some of them may be really talented and clearly be way ahead of their classmates while others may have trouble reading or writing or both. By law, we are required to teach all children; the syllabus is the same for the geniuses and for those who have some learning problems.
• I believe it is possible to cater for all our students’ needs, meaning both ALL STUDENTS and ALL NEEDS. It takes a lot of time, patience, perseverance and even love. If you love what you do, if you love children, then you are in the right profession. It is important to understand that you cannot teach everybody everything. Someone would seem to have no problem remembering the new vocabulary. Indeed, I was nicknamed “Miss Dictionary” at school, at university and at various teacher refresher courses, for my ability to reproduce whole dictionary entries when required to explain a word’s meaning. A student of mine, a young extremely talented mathematician, was called “Mr. Test” for his amazing ability to perform any test in any subject in a few minutes instead of the usual academic hour. In one very talented class, I had one girl who would finish doing the whole unit, any unit, in twenty minutes flat. We discussed the situation with her, and whenever we had a lesson at the school internet room, she would present her exercises to me, then click all over the web doing projects which I suggested. We negotiated with the class when they remonstrated, and I explained that everybody could have the same privileges (as they saw it) if they performed at the same level. This produced an atmosphere of healthy competition. By the end of the term, one more student rose to almost the same level, while all the others managed to do the tasks really well in less than 40 minutes instead of 45. I understood that it was important for them to have even five minutes flexible time.
• Once students reach their final year, they are facing final exams and thus need a lot of training. This is the time when the teacher needs to negotiate carefully. When teenagers complain that a topic is boring, we don’t need to give them lengthy explanations and justifications; all we need to do is remind them that it is one of the examination themes. Actually if it really is unappealing to the whole class and it is not an examination requirement, we can skip it, once, or help students choose a few really important exercises and skip the rest. Quite often, when we offer them freedom of choice, they end up doing all the tasks!
• Again, both the strongest and the weakest students may need individually designed exercises with different degrees of complexity.