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Eric18 Nov 10th, 2008 12:17 am

How Democratic is Your English Classroom?
How democratic is your ESL classroom?

Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Can YouTube be a valuable source for homework assignment? Do you want your students to become self-directed - or autotelic - in their studies?

Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a recent CATESOL workshop called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. Here are some questions to consider.

1. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
2. What are some of their personal interests?
3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
13. Will your students become self-directed learners?
14. How can you encourage that possibility?
15. How can you create a more democratic classroom?
16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?

“Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view,” wrote Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago almost a half century ago. Yet that educational philosophy remains both prophetic and rare.

Obviously, older and more self-aware students bring a larger set of life experiences and deeper interests into the classroom. Therefore, college and graduate students find it more comfortable to select their own subjects for papers and presentations than K-12 students.

Yet a more democratic classroom also allows the teacher to coordinate student work and even allow students to create course content. For example, I had intermediate university students write concise reviews of YouTube videos related to job interviews. Then I compiled and slightly edited the reviews, and created a compelling list of student’s favorite YouTube selections, and emailed the entire class the list.

Many students, eager to watch what their classmates recommended – humorous or serious – ended up watching over 2 hours of a diverse material instead of a boring 30-minute in class educational video. Students were more invested in the material, took longer to find, watch, and review videos, and enjoyed commenting on each other’s video recommendations.

By the way, these students also performed better on their 10-15 minute mock job interviews than in previous classes. English students writing, speaking, reflecting, and sharing seems, in this case, to have worked better. Choice counts!

Likewise, many adult educators and IEP instructors can - with creativity and effort - develop more democratic classrooms. Small class sizes, as ever, remain a tremendous advantage. Yet the basic premise of giving students permission to have a larger voice in classroom can work in many English language classrooms. After all, should English language students speak English in a class devoted to teaching them to speak English?

Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Feel free to let me know.

English-coach Mar 16th, 2009 04:56 am

Re: How Democratic is Your English Classroom?
What an interesting idea about using YouTube. I have never even though about using YouTube...other than just surfing for videos that people might enjoy. What a great way to get people involved and invested in the materials.

I also am a big believer in getting people to speak more in class although all of my classes have been small. (one to ones, or groups of 7) I am realizing that I have been lucky because other people are dealing with 30 people in a class. How can someone possibly learn when they only have 2 minutes of time per person in a class to speak?

Great article Eric!

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