07 December 2009

Switch to a communicative set-up

How is your classroom laid out? Is it conducive to communicative teaching and acquisition?
Recently my principal came back from a visit to another school and showed me a picture (on his iPhone of course) of a classroom that made him think of me. The teacher had put several tables together and then cut a giant oval piece of wood and laid it on top to create a large oval table. All his students sat around this oval table and he and they loved the setup. And this was in a primarily lecture class.
I told my principal that the standard students-in-rows-of-desks is a legacy of 150 years of education, way back in one-room schoolhouses when all grades were in one room with one teacher learning all subjects. If our education system has changed so drastically, why hasn't the setup of the classroom?
Nowhere is this more true than in language classes. Students need to be in a situation that helps them scaffold and collaborate because language is not a one-person game. You can learn and do math on your own, you can read history and answer essay questions, but language is not a solitary activity by nature. In the article Classroom Layout Preference Reflects Teaching Style authors Fernando Doménech Betoret and Amparo Gómez Artiga write that "Teachers-in-training with a specialization in languages perceived a layout with students seated in forward-facing rows as suitable for individual work (e.g., grammar and writing activities), but perceived a layout with desks in a half-square configuration as more suitable for speaking activities." My question is, since when is language "individual work"? That's part of the problem plaguing American world language teaching.
The fact is that a layout involving students sitting in groups of four or five is most useful when you have small groups working because it "encourages talk within the small groups, and exchanges with the teacher." Does that not sound like a language class?
In this small-group setup it's most helpful to "have the students sit so they're side on to you and remember to move around the classroom when you need to give instructions or change activities."

Here's my system:
I arrange tables in my room so that students are 4 to a table and are sitting facing sideways to me. They can easily turn their chairs to face the front if necessary, but mostly they are facing each other.
The first day of class my students make a "name tent" (a 5X8 card folded in half lengthwise) with their English name on one side and a Spanish name on the other (this also helps me learn their names). Each day before each class, I take about 30 seconds to randomly set out the tents. I go one on this table, one on the next, and so on. Then at the end I collect them all by table so they'll go out in a different order next time.
This way, I ensure that students are sitting with different people all the time. At least most of the time, they'll be sitting with someone who's better than they are, and someone who struggles more than they do, so there's a lot of scaffolding going on amongst themselves. This also helps one of my classroom policies to not answer as many questions as possible, rather to let students answer each other's questions.
So I challenge you to evaluate how your classroom is set up and rework it to promote communicative teaching and acquisition. You'll be surprised at the results!

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