by Elizabeth Fontana
Elizabeth Fontana has been a TEFL professional for over ten years. She’s taught in such cities as Prague, Hanoi and Doha. I’ve been lucky enough to watch Elizabeth’s classes several times and was always amazed by what I saw. Basically, after a lot of initial hard work, she created a class that ran itself. It was a classroom where the lines of teacher and student were blurred and everyone was responsible for their own learning. Read on to learn the steps that she took to get there.
Also, for a sample of the “Sharebook” with some of the games that Elizabeth’s students made, click on the link below. These were not only games that the students made, but it will show you the format that was successful in her classroom.
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For me, autonomy started with the games. I realized at some point that all of my classrooms were following the same pattern. Review the previous lesson, always with a game, presentation, practice, production, assign homework and wrap up the lesson with another game that revised the day’s outcomes. The problem was, I could never remember enough games.
I was responsible for teaching classes of about 18 students from Grade 1 to Grade 5 in Hanoi, Vietnam for Language Link. My kids had English lessons with a Vietnamese teacher during the week and two lessons with a native speaker. We were using the “Our Discovery Island” series from Pearson. Basically, the Vietnamese teachers did all the heavy lifting- they taught grammar and assigned endless drills. The purpose of the lessons with the native speakers was to get students using the language.
All I had to do was supply the right activities to help the students apply what they had learned.
So there I was. I had 18 students who already knew the basics and there was a Vietnamese teaching assistant ready to deal with any problems in the classroom. All I had to do was supply the right activities to help the students apply what they had learned.
My lesson plan needed a game for the beginning. I started writing down the games I knew in simple English with illustrations. My partner, also an English teacher, taught me the TEFL game “Football”. Draw a football pitch (or field) on the board and get two pictures of footballers. Divide the class into two teams and whichever team gets the answer first moves closer to the goal. A colleague taught me “Win/Lose/Steal” which consists of drawing a grid on the board and labeling each square W, L or S. The team with the correct answer throws a sticky ball and either wins a point, loses a point or steals a point from the other team. Through trial and error, I tweaked these games to fit the age ranges I was teaching, and I put the variations in my games notebook.
My notebook was supplemented by a clever guide Language Link provided- the Swiss Army Knife (SAK). The SAK gave information on a huge range of topics but I was most interested in the games section. The writers had compiled ideas from various teachers who worked for Language Link. It was a treasure trove to me. I gleefully added them to my book.
Back in the classroom, I found myself asking the kids to choose which game they wanted to play for the warm-up and cooler. The kids cared passionately about the games and would yell out the games they liked the most. The instructions for the game were easy enough, why not let the kids run the game? The students started to manage the games.
After some time, they started creating their own games. A student named Quoc came to me one day with “Ninja Fight”. Two simple ninjas are drawn on the board and each one has a health meter with 5 boxes. If a team answers first, the opposing team’s ninja is injured. It loses an eye, gets a hook for a hand, a peg leg, loses the other eye and finally gets a hole in its center, dripping pink chalk. It’s ok though; the ninja goes to the hospital to recover for the next fight. Quoc’s game inspired others, and I encouraged the students to come to me with new games or games they invented.
Students must discover the language and gain confidence in using it. Ninety minutes of teacher talking time isn’t going to achieve that.
Students must discover the language and gain confidence in using it. Ninety minutes of teacher talking time isn’t going to achieve that. Through my willingness to give up control of the games, I found my students naturally interacting with confidence. Teacher talking time was a thing of the past.
In my classroom, most students were eager to take a position of power. When I asked who wanted to run the game, many of the students were excited about the challenge. A chance to control the classroom? They were thrilled by the opportunity. Supervised by the teacher, the students were happy to run “Bullseye”. In “Bullseye”, a series of concentric circles are drawn on the board. The smaller the circle, the higher the value. The team who gets the answer first or best gets to throw the sticky ball. The children who ran the game would stand in the front of the class and ask “what is this?” while slowly revealing a flashcard. The other students would rush to write the correct answer on their portable whiteboards. The student teacher would say “yes” to the first team to get the answer right and give feedback to the other teams.
The success of having students run games had me thinking. What else could students do? As I’ve said, my lesson plan was essentially the same for every lesson. I make it common practice to write the lesson steps on the board at the beginning of each lesson. This helps me remember where I’m going, and it helps the students see what is going to happen. You can deal with your boredom a lot more effectively when you can see an end in sight. Since the lesson plan only really changed to include different games, why not make the students elicit the plan and write it on the board?
So, at the beginning of every lesson, a student wrote the lesson plan on the board. Another two students were nominated to run the review game. At the same time as the review game, homework had to be checked. Usually, this was done by the teaching assistant while I monitored the game. Sometimes, we reversed roles to make it more interesting. But what is checking the homework if you have a teacher’s book with the answers?
Eventually, a student was nominated to collect the workbooks and sent to the back of the class with a red marker and a stamp. He or she, monitored by the teacher or teacher’s assistant, would mark the students’ homework. If a student did not complete their homework, the student marker would call the student out of the game and have them complete the exercise. Sometimes, the student marker even gave feedback or advice.
It’s important to note that this was made possible through repetition and high awareness of classroom language. Very little Vietnamese was used because the students had heard the appropriate English phrases multiple times.
The beginning of my class was completely student led and I began to wonder what else they could do.
The beginning of my class was completely student led, and I began to wonder what else they could do. Of course, they could use the CD player and tell students to turn to page whatever. They could ask for the correct answers from particular students (e.g. “Quan, what’s the answer to number 4?”) and then ask if the class agreed with that answer. This question was particularly important to develop students’ cognitive strategies, a key aspect of autonomous learning.
Students who are aware of cognitive and metacognitive strategies are more capable of acting independently when it comes to language acquisition. Asking for the correct answer is a narrow way to approach teaching. Asking how a student came to that answer allows them to explicitly examine cognitive strategies, like identifying keywords and scanning. Asking them why the textbook chose the topics given, or why the teacher asked them to work in pairs when answering, allows them to explore metacognitive strategies.
I became a teaching assistant to my students.
My students’ willingness to control almost every aspect of the classroom led to me taking a back seat in my own lessons. I became a teaching assistant to my students.
One day, a teacher covered my lesson. I arranged with two of the boys in advance. They prepared the lesson according to my lesson structure, and the rest of the class knew to be on their best behavior for the new teacher. When she arrived, she was told to sit in a chair. The lesson plan was up, a girl collected the workbooks and asked for the teacher’s book and stamp to check the homework. Another two boys had prepared the first game and the teacher was left wondering what to do. At one point, a tricky grammar point came up and she opened her mouth to explain. However, trained excellently by their Vietnamese teacher, they had already anticipated the problem and proceeded to explain it. When I returned, I asked my colleague how the lesson went. She replied that it was incredibly boring because there was nothing to do, but amazing because they are completely autonomous.
To sum up, for me, the necessary components of my autonomous classroom were:
- Student familiarity with classroom language
- Easy to understand, fun activities
- Clear and repetitive lesson steps
- Training in cognitive and metacognitive strategies
- Willingness on my part to give the power to my students and encourage their creativity
For a sample of the “Sharebook” with some of the games that Elizabeth’s students made, click on the link below. These were not only games that the students made, but it will show you the format that was successful in her classroom.