Strategies for large classes – Barbara Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins SakamotoThree questions for large classes

When I first started teaching large classes, one of my biggest challenges was to keep students speaking English during activities. I liked to have students work in pairs or groups so they’d have more chances to speak. I’d move around the classroom while they were working, so I could hear which language students had mastered and which language still needed practice. No matter how much I tried to enforce an “English Only” policy in class, I still heard students using a lot of Japanese. I wondered why my students didn’t want to use English in English class.

As my Japanese improved, I finally realized that sometimes, my students were simply trying to figure out what I wanted them to do: Do you understand what she wants? How do you say this in English? What did she say? I realized that in some cases my instructions were unclear, and in other cases activities actually required students to use language that they hadn’t yet learned.

I became more careful when preparing activities. I tried to do them myself to see what language would actually be needed. I kept instructions simple, and tried to repeat activity types so that they would be familiar. I began to model activities with the class before asking students do them.

Most importantly, I asked students three questions before every activity:

Do you understand the language?

Do you know what to do?

Is there any reason you need to speak Japanese?

It worked as a kind of contract between us. I promised to take time before an activity to explain and demonstrate so that students were not responsible for being my translators. They promised to do the activity in English. After that, whenever I did hear Japanese, I simply asked the questions again. Students generally laughed and switched back to English. I even heard students “being me” and asking each other the questions as a way to monitor Japanese use in class.

These were simple changes, but they made a huge difference. I made myself responsible for being clear and fair in my expectations. Students made themselves responsible for speaking English in class.

Strategies for large classes – Chiew Pang

Managing the large classroom

First of all, how large is a large classroom? 30 students? 50? 3,269? It’s all somewhat relative, isn’t it? For someone who’s used to a 100-student classroom, having 30 students will have him gleaming with joy! So, the real difficulty may not be the number itself but rather the consequences of having such numbers.

One of the most nagging complaints you hear from teachers is the number of students in their classroom. But, what is the real problem? Not enough air? Not enough chairs? Unlikely. Too noisy? Too impersonal? Perhaps.

The most common practice in the large classroom is, undoubtedly, group work. Set a task and the groups get to work while the teacher moves around, monitoring. Any emergent language issues can be dealt with the whole classroom later. To avoid valuable class time in forming into groups, pre-arrange them. Set a fortnightly or monthly group list and ensure that everyone knows to which group they belong. Stick it up on the classroom wall.

There are various criteria you can follow for forming groups and they all have their own advantages and disadvantages. You can form groups of similar levels so they can work at the same pace, or you can mix stronger and weaker students together so that the former can help the latter.

An extension of group work is to set up work stations where each station caters for specific skills and tasks. Students decide on the stations they wish to work on and when they complete the task, they move on to another on a different station.

If you are fortunate enough to have a computer lab, this is a great environment to use for large classes, too. I like setups, such as a horseshoe formation, where the teacher can see at a glance what the students are doing and can dart in and out to help and direct whoever needs it. I have created interactive quizzes, games, etc, on my personal blog, which I have used to great effect in the past. I’ve created activities where I can receive the results of the students’ attempts so I can check their progress. Have several links pre-prepared, or you can use a Google Doc and put the links there. Students do the tasks at their own pace, and repeat as many times as necessary.

Discipline is often an issue in big classes. Set up rules from the first day and abide by them. Better still, have the students themselves decide on the rules! They’re more likely to follow them. Elect a few “assistants” to help you with management. Know the school rules regarding disciplinary action. Know what you’re allowed or not allowed to do. Can you reflect good/bad behaviour in the grades, for example?

Noise is often an important issue in these classes. How do you get the students’ attention? Shouting isn’t the solution, nor is banging the table. Perhaps you’d need a microphone if your class is that big! Perhaps a whistle – I have been told that the sound of whistles affects teenagers more than adults. Have a sign – again, establish this in the first class – for example, raising of the arm (or the sign of the llama) means that the whole class has to repeat the sign themselves and become silent.  You wait for silence to be restored before putting your arm down and speaking again.

(I’d like to thank @michaelegriffin, @phil3wade, @Roselink, @kevchanwow and @cherrymp for their contribution to my crowd-sourcing document. – Chiew )

Strategies for large classes – Chuck Sandy

Chuck SandyInvisible Structures

In my bag there’s always a small fabric ball. As I begin working with a new class, I take it out and casually toss it from hand to hand. Then, as I ask a question, I make eye contact with someone, toss the ball to him or her, and softly clap my hands. It’s obvious to everyone in the room that the person with the ball is meant to say something. Of course I encourage that something and help as needed. Then, I respond to what’s been said and depending on what’s been said, clap my hands softly again and either gesture that I’d like the ball back or that I’d like it passed on to someone else.

When I take the ball back myself it means that I’d like to clarify something or build on what’s been said.  If I then set the ball down, walk over to the board and begin to write something, it means we’re going to do a little language work that I want people to take note of and build into their responses. If after tossing the ball back, I move to the back of the room, it means they’re on their own and need to direct their own flow for a while. If I walk to the front of the room and ask for the ball back, it means we’re changing activities. It doesn’t take long for everyone to get into the rhythm of this. The ball, the handclap, the way I move and the rather dramatic way I use my eyes make it seem like some kind of game. It’s not. It’s a playful structure.

Along the way, I model little strategies like saying the name of the person I’m going to toss the ball to with rising intonation; like saying uh huh when someone says Chuck? before tossing me the ball;  like saying hmmm, let me think about that a moment before replying.  All the while, my movements in class become a pattern everyone understands.

By the second or third class meeting, the ball becomes an unnecessary prop and all I need is the eye contact and the handclap.  By the fourth class, the handclap becomes unnecessary and then all that’s needed is the eye contact.  By the fifth class, I can let go of my ritualized movement. The structure is still there, though, but it’s now invisible.

My eyes say it all and it’s at this point that I can then step back.

Still, if things ever get out of hand, I can pull the ball out, clap my hands, and use my movements again to remind people of the structure without ever saying a word about it.  If things get really out of hand, someone in the room is likely to get the Chuck look which by this time everyone knows means “you’d better get back on task and stop doing what it is you’re doing.”  I never need to verbally chastise anyone. My eyes do it, but then of course, the Chuck look is followed by my smile to let everyone know that it’s all really okay and it always is.

While you may feel uncomfortable with the ball, the handclap, the dramatic looks and the ritualized movement that I use, what I recommend is that you find a structure that works for you, build it up and then dismantle it step-by-step until only the memory of it remains.  Whether it’s a class of 20 or a class of 100, doing this before you unplug and step back to just let learning happen will help tremendously.

Strategies for large classes – Nour Alkhalidy

Teaching a large class can be challenging. The important thing is to provide a learning environment where each student is engaged in the learning process. One of the most useful strategies for effectively doing this is through cooperative learning using one of my favorite strategies, Kagan Structures. What’s special about Kagan Structures is that they are built around principals that develop individual and group learning at the same. The skills that they help develop include class building, teambuilding, communication skills, thinking skills, information sharing skills, and mastery skills. They are also designed to work with all of the multiple intelligences while improving time management skills and therefore are a really great solution for large classes.

One example of a Kagan Structure is Think–Pair–Share in which students have individual time to think about a question related to the topic of study before pairing up with a partner to share their thoughts and then working with their partner to select one idea to share with the entire class. This structure helps teachers organize group work and improves many different skills at the same time in a very simple and easy way. Working on their own to solve a problem or answer a question helps students develop thinking and mastery skills. Sharing ideas with a partner develops team building and information sharing skills. Deciding what to share with the class and then presenting that develops class-building skills as well. For further information and examples of Kagan Structures please check out this guide.

In addition to Kagan Structures some of the other strategies I use include:

–       Creating detailed plans for lessons, group tasks, and tools ahead of time.

–       Making guidelines for groups that explain rules, tasks, time limits, and expected outputs.

–       Using smile/sad face and agree/disagree cards to make it easy for students to respond.

–       Repeating the lesson’s most important points throughout the class in a variety of ways.

–       Integrating academic and team-building skills into my assignments.

–       Making use of technology but always having a plan B in case there’s no Internet.

–       Putting materials online and letting students ask questions after class by email.

Undoubtedly, technology can greatly increase student engagement and participation in a large class. The following tools and techniques are really useful:

Backchannels provide a rich environment for group discussions in real time. A backchannel is a great way to give each student a voice. Tools like TodaysMeet, Twitter streams, Googledocs, and NeatChat are some cool ways to do this.

Social media tools like Pinterest, Youtube, Facebook, Flickr, Voicethreads and Wikis will engage students and groups with different learning styles.

Note Taking apps like Wallwisher and Linoit can be used for writing important notes or giving feedback on individual and group work. They can also foster creativity in brainstorming sessions.

Nour Alkhalidy (@MissNoor28)

Strategies for large classes – Steven Herder

The largest class I have ever taught was about 15 years ago. It was an Oral Communication high school class of 52 students held in the Language Lab (LL), which incidentally only had 48 desks with headsets. Now that was an interesting challenge. I usually had 4 students sitting near the front of the room huddled around a cassette tape player while others listened through the sound system on their headsets. I had to substitute students into the main area like players in a football match. The biggest problem in super-size classes is that I couldn’t connect with all of the students, and I began to lose the students who needed personal attention but didn’t get any or didn’t get nearly enough.

Teaching next to a furry poster

My other “large” Oral Communication classes were university classes of 35 students. In these classes, I tried many strategies from the standard to the sometimes silly in order to connect with more students:

  1. Use a bigger voice, greater intonation, more gestures and animated expressions to reach students in the back of the class.
  2. Keep a class seating/name chart in front of me at all times. It looks like a big BINGO sheet with student names and any unique tidbits of information I pick up about students from their homework or conversations in class. I might write, “dog- “Puffy” or PT job – Starbucks. Whenever I worked little bits of their real lives into my examples or explanations, everyone would notice, and I could feel the energy pick up in class.
  3. Move around a lot more throughout the room. I would cruise around a lot, or plant myself at the back of the room or near the “low concentration zones” (chatty students) in order to try to keep a connection with the outliers.
  4. Warn them at the beginning of the year (when they are most open to new ideas) that they will be moving around in my class. This meant keeping aisles and desks somewhat free of clutter (“leave your coats or big bags in the back or on the side of the room”). I have 90 minutes classes and so beyond the regular check with a partner next to you or behind you, I also try to make 2 or 3 “Stand up and move” changes per lesson to give them new partners to work with.
  5. Take advantage of large groups by doing group surveys, group discussions and group reports. Having students put their heads down and hands up to vote always resulted in honest answers. Having groups choose a leader, a secretary and a reporter created motivational expectations.
  6. Play team games. Three groups of 12 was fun for most people if I could inspire their teams’ competitive nature, and even more fun if I could (secretly) make the teams somewhat even.

In a nutshell, with bigger classes, I try to make everything bigger, while at the same time trying to connect with as many individuals as possible. What strategies work for you?