TEACHERS AND LEARNING: SHARING THE TALK
Eva Yerende is a Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University. She holds a doctorate from the University of Arizona at Tucson, and her research focuses on issues related to language education, primarily in Guinea-Conakry. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Through the use of examples of classroom discourse from three different classrooms in rural Eastern Cape schools, this paper highlights the difference between a teacher who uses students’ talk as an ‘instructional resource’ and two teachers who dominate the classroom discourse by themselves for the most part of the instructional time (55 minutes). The snapshots used in this discussion form part of a series of classroom observations done in the course of teacher training activities organized by the ISEA at Rhodes University. All three teachers are affiliated with the ISEA as current or former students on an innovative ACE program delivered over the course of two years through on-site and off-campus courses. Also, all three teachers work in the same school district but at different campuses (Cases 1 and 2 in Senior Secondary Schools and Case 3 in a Junior Secondary School).
Case 1: Leading a discussion
In a lesson that introduces for the first time Maya Angelou’s poem On Aging, the teacher uses one particular line from the poem ‘Don’t pity me!’ to engage students in a discussion about intergenerational differences and relationships.
-T. says: ‘ Don’t pity me!’ and every time at the end of this statement, she asks the students: ‘What does it mean? What does this phrase mean?’
-Students mumble possible answers among themselves in their groups but nobody volunteers to speak up to the whole class
-T. answers the question herself: ‘She doesn’t need anyone’s pity or sympathy.’
Just before the instructional time comes to an end as the teacher starts talking about homework, a student raises his hand and says: You are telling us that we should not pity our elders but then how should I feel when my grandma cannot go to the bathroom by herself and asks me for help? Shouldn’t I pity her?’
The teacher welcomes the comment and responds to it on her own reiterating some of the information she has already presented. Then she moves on to discuss the homework for next time.
Case 2: Presenting Information
In the course of a poetry lesson that uses Sandile Dikeni’s Love poem for my country, the teacher asks the students to pay attention to the figurative language of the poem. The teacher reads with emphasis the following line from Dikeni’s poem ‘… deep under the bowels of soil’ and the following exchange with the whole class ensues:
-T. asks: ‘Which place is the bowel of the soil? I want to see a hand! Where are the bowels of the soil? ‘
-Students giggle and mumble
-T. answers: ‘They are under the soil; when you go down; but the soil does not have bowel; it is a figurative speech; what is figurative speech? It is a meta _____?’ Teacher raises her voice but does not complete the question; she waits for the students to do that.
-Students don’t respond
-T. completes her phrase and writes the word ‘metaphor’ on the board.
-T. asks: ‘We say that alliteration is if the author has used the same ______?’
-Students wait for her to complete her phrase
-T. says: ‘… the same consonants’; then she proceeds to identify examples of alliteration from the text.
-T. asks: ‘If we look at rhythm, this poem doesn’t have a clear ___________?’
-Students wait for her to complete her phrase
-Teacher says ‘rhythm’.
Case 3: Facilitating Interpersonal Communication
The excerpts that follow are part of a poetry lesson on Shakespeare’s sonnet, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’. The teacher uses handouts with copies of Shakespeare’s sonnet that include the title of the sonnet but not Shakespeare’s name. Students have been asked to work in groups to discuss the difference between ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ love. At the end of the group discussion, the teacher calls each group to share with the whole class their understanding of the two terms:
-The speaker of one of the groups stands up and says: ‘Ma’m, according to my understanding, ….’
-T. interrupts her to say: ‘Yes! I like that!’
-And the student goes on to finish her sentence by saying ‘… love when is conditional comes with limits!’
The teacher has asked students to work in groups to decide if the sonnet they are studying is an Elizabethan or an Italian sonnet using information already presented in previous lessons. At the end of the group discussions, the speaker of each group reports to the whole class the outcome of their discussion.
-The speaker of one of the groups stands up and says: ‘We, in the Achievers Group, have decided that this sonnet is Elizabethan…,’ and he proceeds to say how his group arrived at this conclusion.
Leading a Discussion
In the first Case, the teacher uses a relatively easy text and a series of provocative questions along with body language and an emphatic recitation style to engage students into a discussion about old age. Prior to that, pre-reading activities had been used with this group of 12th-graders to brainstorm words related to aging, compassion, pity, and different ways of caring for old people in the cities and in the rural areas. Then the lesson moved into a reading aloud activity as a precursor to a class discussion that took almost one third of the instructional time. This was a well-organized lesson plan that failed to ‘take off.’ What the teacher has planned as a discussion plays out as a monologue in which the teacher answers her own questions and prompts. It is only at the end of the instructional time that finally one of the students takes the stand to challenge the teacher with a question that reveals a communicative competency that exceeds the expectations of the teacher. Ironically, the student succeeds in engaging the teacher in a discussion on the paradoxes of old age but the teacher fails to ‘share the talk’ and use the student’s question to meet the language objectives of her lesson plan. By answering the question herself, she compromises the last opportunity that she has to open up the floor and let the students do the talking.
Intonation and Student Participation
The teacher in Case 2 models an intonation style often used in classrooms where the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) is an additional language. This intonation style functions more like an ‘accommodation’ technique to enhance student understanding of what the teacher says and less as a learning strategy to enable students’ talk in authentic and substantive interactions. Specifically, the teacher uses what appear to be pseudo-questions as prompts to elicit student participation. The teacher raises her voice as she forms the first part of the question and then waits for the students to complete the second part. Her expectation is that the students will use the clues provided in the first part of the question to predict plausible answers. But as we see, in all three examples in Case 2, the teacher answers her own prompts either because the students (10th-graders) are not challenged enough to participate in this teacher-centered activity, or because they expect the teacher to give them the right answer based on their prior experiences as students in classrooms where pseudo-questions instead of authentic questions dominate the classroom discourse. As in Case 1, the classroom discourse is dominated by the teacher’s voice and prompts. Questions and answers form the backbone of a lesson plan that places the teacher in the front stage of the class, converting her into a human magnet to attract the students’ attention with various rates of success in the span of the instructional time (55 minutes).
Code-Switching and Student Participation
In Case 3, instead of using pseudo-questions, the teacher is using project-related questions that the students address in small group discussions capitalizing upon their combined expertise: linguistic, cultural, and subject-related knowledge built incrementally from one lesson to the next. This is not the first time that these students (9th-graders) have worked on this particular text and certainly it is not the first time that they have rehearsed in front of the class expressions such as ‘According to my understanding…’ and ‘We, in the Achievers Group, have decided that …’. What exactly enables this teacher to achieve this type of student’s talk and use it to foster interpersonal communication and substantive engagement with a demanding text that is far more difficult than the texts used in the other two cases?
A close examination of the teacher’s interventions in Case 3 reveals additional linguistic resources that the teacher is able to use to establish a ‘community of practice’ where learning tasks are completed in stages, building upon the input of ‘achieving’ and ‘less achieving’ students. Through the use of ‘strategic code-switching’ in small group discussions, students are able to work out plausible answers to their queries and rehearse them, in a non-threatening environment, before sharing them with the whole class. All along, during group work, the teacher uses expressions of ‘endearment’ that communicate love and encouragement, as illustrated by use of the phrase ‘my smallnyane ones’ that can be translated as ‘my tiny little ones.’ Mixing English and Sotho to create an expression that reaches deep into the ‘bowels’ of the students’ hearts allows students to imagine themselves as ‘legitimate participants’ in linguistic communities that transcend the boundaries of their classroom and speak to their personal and collective aspirations – as achievers – in the world at large.
The examples used in this discussion come from classroom teachers who share not only similar professional realities (their schools are within walking distance) but also similar academic experiences as participants in the same teacher training program offered by the ISEA. All three of them are accomplished and well-respected teachers in their communities and yet there is a significant difference in the way that they ‘share’ talking time in class. An important difference between the teachers in the first two cases (Cases 1 and 2) and the teacher in Case 3 is the ability of the teacher in Case 3 to orchestrate learning events that maximize the value of every single resource available to her from the most tangible ones (e.g. books and visual aids) to the less tangible ones (e.g. strategic code-switching and expressions of endearment and rebuke in English and Sotho). Like a film director, she places the students at the front of the stage and exposes herself only as needed to redirect and reward students in their efforts to learn.
Special thanks to the teachers and learners who welcomed me into their classrooms, and my colleagues at the ISEA for extending their networking facilities to me.
[This paper was delivered at the Networking Conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University, 9 – 11 April 2010.]
TEACHERS AND LEARNING: SHARING THE TALK
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