This week’s post is written by Joel David Neff, who teaches English at a University in Japan. He has been a faithful reader of this newsletter, and often offers comments to my posts, which are always insightful. If you would like to write a guest post for The Chalkboard Life, please reach out! And many thanks to Joel for his terrific newsletter this week:
Over the past two years, we’ve tried hybrid classrooms and hybrid textbooks and now, for some of us, things are beginning to return to normal. But should they?
Hi! My name is Joel and I’m a regular reader of The Chalkboard Life. Over the past few weeks, as David has articulated his thoughts on hybrid classrooms and hybrid textbooks, I have been doing some thinking of my own. David has kindly allowed me this space to put those thoughts before you, the readers. I want to thank him and you for indulging me. On to the content!
A little over twenty years ago, I came to Japan on a lark between computer jobs. One year turned into two and, as they say, life happened while I was making other plans. I soon realized that I was both a better teacher than I was computer tech and that I was far more interested in languages and learning than I was in computers. Fast forward to today, I still love learning and teaching. I work at a university teaching English as a Foreign Language to (mainly) Japanese university students. It’s a good job and one that I really enjoy. But the past two years has been…trying.
After doing the first year of the pandemic entirely online, my university switched to an Alternating Hybrid model, wherein each class was divided into two large groups that would alternate weeks in the classroom with weeks online. It has garnered a lot of discussion about what has worked and what could use some improvement amongst my co-workers. Two very broad points have emerged from those discussions: conversation based ESL/EFL textbooks do not work well under pandemic conditions, and, the traditional classroom itself is not easily replicated online.
With the textbooks, it’s important to understand that, for the past two or three decades, ESL/EFL textbooks have been based around conversations. Chapters are presented with specific vocabulary and grammar patterns that students are then meant to practice in preset scenarios. It is not a bad approach and it is rooted in recent second-language acquisition theory. However, it is hard to o have conversation-based lessons when you’re not allowed to work in pairs or groups or use loud voices or go without a mask.
As for the classrooms…truthfully, the traditional classroom has never been great for language teaching. Ideally, when you learn a second or foreign language, you’d have a cafe-like setting, somewhere where you and your learning partner can sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee, and just…talk. Over the past two decades, through the invention and use of social media, we’ve been trying to replicate the cafe experience online. We’ve been finding myriad ways to just talk. And yet, when my university went online, we spent an enormous amount of time and effort trying to replicate the traditional classroom.
So you have teachers giving lesson work for a textbook designed for face-to-face communication. Only it’s being done online one week and in the classroom another week and in neither week are you really able to have a one-on-one conversation in anything resembling normal conditions. What to do?
The YouTube Intervention
For a while now, I’ve been working towards the idea that we do not really need language-teaching textbooks beyond the very basic levels. Modern life has presented us with the internet and social media, where every facet of daily life, including all the scenarios practiced in the textbooks, can be played out in real time, with real (i.e. natural) language. Time to step up and put some of my theories to the test.
Now, as a practical matter, there was only so much I could do. There were curriculum considerations, technical limitations, and even financial challenges to deal with. I knew I would not be able to fully achieve the cafe experience, or even the conversation experience. What I could do, though, was guide my students through self-directed learning exercises, the first of which I’d like to share with you now.
I asked students to find an English YouTube video and to link it in the class bulletin board. They would need to explain what they learned by watching the video and how they thought their classmates could benefit by watching it.
As a hybrid-classroom learning exercise, it was successful. As a post-classroom, post-textbook exercise, it needs work. Here are four videos chosen by my students:
The reasons they gave for choosing them came down to new (to them) vocabulary and interest in the topic itself. They also suggested that their classmates could learn the same vocabulary. So, again, as an exercise, it was good. The students did the work and there was a good discussion on the bulletin board. However. For me, it did not do quite what I had wanted it to do. In the first two videos, while English is used to explain the steps necessary, it is not spoken. In the third, there is spoken English but there is also a written Japanese explanation. Only the fourth begins to replicate the cafe-experience in that it is someone talking to you, which can be a very valuable way to learn a second language.
So. Will this lesson replace textbooks? Absolutely not, not anytime or in any way soon. However, I think it is a good first step towards the hybrid future David has written about so much recently. Finding lessons that utilize the real world (both online and off) around us, is, for language teachers, so much more effective than using the same old limited-conversation textbooks we have been using for so many years.
This is all, obviously, a work in progress. When I next run the experiment, I plan to do so with a flowchart that helps students zero in on a video like the fourth one that will replicate, in some way, the feeling of a conversation by having someone talk to you. Where it goes from there remains to be seen, but if any good has come out of the pandemic, I think it is that teachers are re-thinking how things have been done up to this point and looking for a new way forward.
Thank you so much for reading. Please feel free to leave a comment; my thoughts on all of this are still fresh and changeable, so, uh, change my mind?
In the meantime, if you like my writing, I write a SubStack newsletter called Learned, which is all about words, languages, and education in pretty much that order. Thank you again to David for providing this space, I look forward to seeing where the discussion goes.
Thank you again for the post, Joel. I mean for this space to help form and support a community, not just a megaphone for my thoughts. So please leave a comment for Joel, and let me know if you would like to write a post. And - check out Joel’s Substack on linguistics - one of my favorites: