English is a Circle

Obviously, English isn’t a circle. But, thinking about it as one has made me a bit of a better teacher, I think.

The premise

I guess you can imagine that there is a circle that accurately represents all the things you need to learn to ‘master English’ (whatever that means). In the center, you might see ‘simple present’ and, clustered around it, ‘simple past’ and ‘present progressive.’ I don’t know. I don’t exactly know what the circle looks like, yet.

A rough idea…

Your idea of how the circle is organized might be different (and more accurate!) than mine. The point is: it’s a circle and we start in the center.

I view it as an abstract thing that I build together with my students (they don’t know we’re building it, it’s more a thing that helps me think about how to best help them). We start in the center of the circle and, like an Army conquering territory, we push the front outwards and try to solidify our gains. And, of course, sometimes I do a less spectacular job and we inadvertently abandon hard-won territory.

(I genuinely didn’t mean for this to become so militaristic.)

How it works in practice

That’s the important question, right? How do I apply this to my teaching?

I guess my last view of English was as a checklist: master this, move on to that. Now, I see it as a circle that we have to expand… and which is always trying to contract. So, instead of thinking “we learned this grammar, let’s focus on the next vocabulary unit,” I think “okay, we just pushed the border of the circle a bit in this direction. What can we do to solidify our gains? How can I reinforce this while reinforcing something else, or learning something new?”

Even more, it’s important to understand that all of this connects to effort. Assuming the students (and the poor teacher, don’t forget him!) have a limited amount of energy, we want to spend that energy wisely. So, there are some things to know:

  1. In the beginning, just formin the circle is work. That is because everywhere in the circle is very near to the edge when it is so small, which connects to the next point:
  2. The closer you get to the edge of the circle the more effort you need per unit of time. This is true for time spent in my German circle (yes, German is a circle, too!) I can converse in German all day, but ask me to read or write — things much closer to my own limits — and I get tired quickly.
  3. The circle will contract if you abandon it. Maybe thinking of it as a bubble in your brain is better: if you don’t work to keep the bubble inflated, all the other bubbles will expand and push it back together.
  4. The circle expands and contracts unevenly. Mathematically speaking, it’s probably never a perfect circle. You push in one direction and cover some ground. While you’re working on it, entropy nibbles at the ground you’ve covered before.
  5. You have to respect the energy level of your students. Not just that they might be tired, but also that they might need to invest energy into other things. This is something you can talk about with them. (“Our progress here will depend on many factors. One of them is the amount of energy you have available for your English learning…”)

What a lesson looks like

More than ‘conquering territory,’ I tend to think of each lesson as a workout. When I’m structuring a lesson, I have a few goals:

  1. Let’s all get into the circle. Not just the students, but also me. I have to re-acquaint myself with these students’ current skill level. (Think of this as the light stretching before the workout.)
  2. Let’s take a few laps of the territory that is solidly within the circle, having a conversation (or other activity) that covers the things we know. (Think of this as the warm-up that gets your heart going.)
  3. Once we’re warmed up, let’s make our first push in some direction. It’s easiest, if we can deliberately use what we’ve learned already to support this. But, let’s not burn out too easily. (Think of these as individual ‘sets’ ina workout. One set isn’t enough for real growth, and you don’t want to overdo it on any one set.)
  4. After we’ve put in a solid effort, let’s back off and recoup a little. This can be taking a moment to laugh about something that happened, another review activity, checking the homework, or the teacher being willing to relax his “let’s focus people!” approach and allowing the conversation to wander. (Think of this as the break between sets.)
  5. Let’s make another push in the direction that we want to move. After we’ve caught our breath, let’s do it again. I feel like an amazing teacher if I can make three different pushes in the same direction in a lesson. The students might see it as a single block of ‘grammar,’ but I know that it was a properly structured workout.

In the greater scheme of things

For a long time, I’ve felt confident about my ability to put together well-constructed lessons. However, the lessons I’ve made didn’t always string together into much more than blocks of three or four lessons.

However, this circle metaphor — combined with the workout idea — has helped. First, because I have an idea of what territory we’ve covered (and need to defend) and what territory we want to cover (most students don’t need — or, probably, want — to speak English the way that I do).

It’s not new to me that students need review. Where I think that this has helped has been in understanding the students’ own energy levels and how hard you can expect them to work. (After all, it’s not tiring for me to focus on simple past!)

Have I re-invented the wheel?

Writing this, I’m mostly afraid that someone is going to say “These are the things that you would have learned in serious teacher training. How can you just now be learning this?” Or, perhaps worse, “this is an outdated way of thinking about the language learning process.”

I don’t know.

What do you think? Is this something that every teacher knows and I’m just playing catch-up? Or, is this way of thinking as helpful for you as it is for me?

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