The second semester started of like the first, with one significant difference. Instead of feeling confused by my place in the classroom, my role with most of my new teachers is now well-defined: I am charged with helping the students prepare for things, specific things. In my class of BTS, it is their certificate exam this summer. For my terminals, we are preparing orals for the Bac. In one class of seconds, I am helping them work on a project about gender discrimination. With another, we are preparing for the Cambridge certificate.
These exams are quite difficult. Students are given a document. It could be an advertisement, a text, a cartoon, a role play. They are given 10 minutes to prepare and then must talk for 10 minutes. At first, the teachers told me to “practice” with the students. They’d provide a document for the student. He or she would prepare for 10 minutes and then come with me to play it out like an exam situation. I would be the stand in for the examiner. After the 10 minutes, the student would scurry back to class and I was to provide feedback for the teacher, including the range in which I thought the student would have scored had this been the real deal.
Ideally, each student should talk alone continuously for three to four minutes, after which the examiner, or me, intervenes to ask questions and deepen the discussion. The scenario rarely plays out this way. In fact, most presentations fall flat in around two and a half minutes. This, I find, is due to lack of a plan. The students are given 10 minutes to prepare, and I am not sure they know what to do during that time.
The teachers often look to the assistant to help the students refine and reformulate what they say. My question is: how can I correct them if they do not know what to say? There are many battles that come alone with the work of a language teacher. As a language teaching assistant, one has the right to choose which of these to take on. The one I’ve chosen is strategy.
Even when the teacher asks me to “play”, I more often than not abandon my role as examiner to offer tips to the student. It’s all a formula, and that is what I want the students to see. The information they need is right there on the document, regardless of its nature. They could easily, and with no loss of credit, burn through an entire two minutes of talk time simply describing the document in detail, which, of course, is something they are expected to do.
I work well using lists – my tasks always seem less daunting when I have them laid out in front of me – so I am testing this strategy first. I give the students a list of very straight-forward questions, almost an order of operations, to help them figure out what to say. For example, when looking at an ad, they must say who is advertising the product, what product is being advertised, and for whom is it being advertised, among other things. If they answer each question as thoroughly and detailed, which they are more than capable of, they will have plenty talk about on their own until the examiner takes over.
To my surprise, this tactic is working well. First of all, they actually copied down the questions I gave them. Secondly, they asked questions as we worked! There is nothing more satisfying to me at this stage than a student who is invested enough in what we are doing to ask questions. I am thinking that I will even type up the “formula” for all of my students. I can try to tell them something about how, next time I see them and we practice, I better not have to remind them about the method, but I don’t want to push it…