Dogme with large middle school classes, good idea? Part 1

Through my first year of teaching I tried everything I could think of and then some. I was inexperienced, but full of vim and vigor and damned determined not to submit to failure and start playing hangman (which, as I’ve learned recently does not always have to be a total waste of time).

Every week I spent time mulling over activities and games I could to use when teaching the small part of the book’s chapter I was assigned. Every week I changed my approach. I wanted to be new and exciting and interesting. I thought that’s what the kids would want and they’d respond to it. I also had my heart set on doing Dogme style classes.

While learning the art of TESOL at the University of Maine I was shown the benefits of Dogme. Problem is, I learned and practiced that method with ideal class sizes and highly motivated students (who had to learn English in order to enter the University). Needless to say things are a bit different in a middle school in Korea.

I worked as valiantly as possible, but more often than not (which is generous… really it was pretty much every class) my lessons failed, I ended up doing most of the talking, and it was impossible to elicit even the most basic of answers from the class.

What can we do when we have large class sizes, unmotivated students and minimal time in class every week?!?!?! (ie. I get 45 minutes a week with a little more than 600 students)

Is Dogme a good idea? Most definitely yes! Is it the only method that can achieve the goals of interest, learning and all the good stuff? Most certainly not.

How to do it in your class

Number 1 ….CONSISTENCY!

I spent so much of my time the first year worrying about what I was going to do the next week I forgot to analyze my class and see what, if anything, actually worked, and then build on that.

Students learning language NEED consistency, especially at the lower levels of learning. When they know what to expect they can focus of what you’re actually doing and saying instead of trying to figure out what you will want from them. And you know what? It is NOT boring. My students have responded opposite to how I expected them to. They are engaged. My lowest level students will hang in there with me longer because they have a clue. Students begin to use their own creativity to spice up the activities we do.

OK, here are some specifics. I wanted to have an activity where EVERYONE had to speak, at least once in my class, every class. I realized that I had a co-teacher that could be utilized and did so. I begin my class with something of review.

Examples

-What is your favorite __________

-I get upset when ________

-What do you find __________

-If I were you I would _________

-If it were ________ then I would ________

-Over summer vacation ______________

Any chunk of language can be made to work. I spend five minutes reteaching if necessary and then brainstorm with the kids about how we could use said chunk of language. When enough answers are out there I choose a student to read aloud in front of class. This used to cause the student chosen to shake their head vigorously and sink in their chair in horror. However, with all the examples present even the lowest level student feels comfortable to read verbatim what is on the board. I’ll choose a few students this way and encourage them to change their sentence from the previous one. After a couple students read aloud I have boys get up and make a circle and the girls get up and make a circle. Then with my handy mini soccer balls (I give one to the other teacher) I join a circle. I begin by asking a question and throwing the ball. They answer. Ask. Throw. And so on until the circle is finished. Then back to their seats.

Now, what have I accomplished? I have had everyone in class speak. I have reviewed and recycled previously learned material. They have gotten up and moved around. They have had a chance to express themselves, be creative, and be heard. And I have 35 more minutes to teach students who are geared up and ready to go.

It takes about ten minutes. However, the first time I did it, it took nearly 30 minutes. Yikes! I had to teach what a circle was. I had to teach that this wasn’t play time. I had to teach that this was speaking AND listening time. But, the next week was a little better. And the next? Better. Now, students know how class will start. They know it will start with something they have already learned. They know they will HAVE to speak (and so listen just that little bit better). They know that I will lead them to the finish line and that they can do it.

Bonus? I get to know my students and their abilities just that little bit better and I get away from the teacher talks you listen atmosphere that dominates some classrooms. Also, students now know what is expected when I ask them to get up and move around. I have seen a marked improvement in participation and effort when doing other Dogme activities in class.

Now I know most of us have textbooks, and demands from our overlords at school. Every time I hear a presentation about, or tell someone about, Dogme the first thing I hear is, “that won’t work in my classroom.”

I would like you to remember one thing, consistency. With consistency I believe this method could work in almost any classroom. And think! The beauty of Dogme is it’s fantastic malleability! No computers, no worksheets, no PPT needed! Just you and students and creativity!

—- In my next post I will discuss —-

How to do it in your class

NUMBER 2 – Your students.

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16 thoughts on “Dogme with large middle school classes, good idea? Part 1

  1. Hi John, I think you’ve highlighted an extremely important process here, which is reflection and repitition. Just as you point out, when we first do an activity, especially one as creative and energetic as the one you describe above, it is more than likely it won’t go perfectly, in fact more often than not it will go terribly! I don’t think that means it’s always a bad activity, but that both ourselves and the students need time to practice and get used to it, which, when coupled with reflection will improve on it every time.

    Thanks for reminding me to persevere when new activities don’t go the way I want them to, as it’s so easy judge to scrap it after the first attempt!

    Eagerly anticipating part 2 🙂

    • Thanks for the uplifting and supportive response Alex. (and letting me know who nmonk is :D)

      It’s fantastic to know that even my newbieish realizations can serve as useful reminders to our teaching community at large. And i wholly agree with you, one strike does not a bad activity make.

  2. Nice one! I think you hit the nail on the head. I particularly liked two points: that repetition is NOT boring and is in fact necessary for lower-level students (although I didn’t realise this is also true for older lower-level students – thanks!) and that there are many effective ways to teach that will promote student learning and pounding just one of them would mean the students and teachers miss out on a lot. I also like the mini soccer ball teaching aid. One thing I have a question about is what do you do when students just refuse to participate?

    • That is a great question Josette.

      What I have done to help a student along is to 1, give him as much time as the rest of the students will allow before getting distracted 2, prompt him to read the board 3, encourage his friends to help him and 4 to read it with him. I have RARELY gotten to 4. Most students know that i will pester them until they do it, and that I don’t mind if they read straight from the board. Of all my students I have had maybe 3 or 4 like this, and after the first week or two they know what is coming, do not like the attention, and with friends help they get along just fine. In fact, some of the early stick in the muds are now responding immediately, and often even trying to think of something creative rather than readin the board! 😀

      Now, that being said, with my truly low level students who truly dislike English, this is one of the few dogme activities I can get them to do successfully, but I am working on changing that 😉

      Thanks as always for your kind words and support!

  3. Hi John,

    From my experiences with low proficiency level students, establishing certain routines are so vital. I think it helps to make those students more comfortable when they have some idea of what to expect when they enter the class. And with the infrequency in which you see your students it’s very easy for students to forget what they did in class the previous week.

    I think making students feel comfortable in the classroom is what teachers need to work on first before we can ask them to take linguistic risks. Now that your students are familiar with your routines hopefully you can get them to start taking a few more risks during class.

    Good luck with the next few weeks!

    • I hope so too Manpal!

      Lowering the affective filter is critical to student success and it was not something I learned how to do successfully for some time. In fact, the next post will deal most directly with those efforts and what I have done that has helped me along that path.

      Thanks for your comment and support!

      John

  4. Great post, I can definitely relate to the point about trying new approaches and activities every week. I think sometimes we try too hard, when really going back to basics is much more effective! Will give the ball game a try soon, I’ve done it by having students throw a ball around the class and ask questions but unlike your way it doesn’t ensure every student speaks so will try your idea and see!

    • Hi Gemma,

      It is nice to know I am not the only one who has struggled with trying too hard. 😉 As said previously, I think we all can agree that one bad go of it does not make an activity a bad activity.

      As a side note, my classes are all split into ability level. Although that is not always perfect, it does manage to group students in a smaller spectrum of ability as compared with a multi level classroom. I would be very interested to see how this activity, or any dogme activity could work within a multi level atmosphere. My first reaction would be to think that it might work even better! Mainly because the low level students will have higher level students to use as a model.

      Thanks for your comment and good luck with the dogme in your classroom!

      John

      • My class are mixed ability so I’ll let you know!

        Also, have you ever tried making this a race, i.e. which group can all ask and answer the qs quickest? Thought it might encourage them a bit but also might add extra pressure on lower level ones. May try it anyway and see!

      • I have thought about that and I have tried it. I tend to separate the class into boys and girls (at this age they are far more comfortable that way and its the easiest and quickest way to split the class) and so never really have even groups, which would be necessary for a genuine race version. I think your thought about the added stress on the lower levels is spot on, the last thing they need is to feel a push. All that being said though, I do think it is a good idea if applied in the right way and in the correct environment. I just don’t have those criterion to work with.

      • hhmm I think if I model the Q&As enough and don’t make the first time pretty easy it should be ok, plus they will be standing next to a higher level student who is used to helping them during class so have that added support.

  5. Hey John,

    Great to see you back and blogging! I think certain routines at any level are important. As you say, helping the students to feel like they’re comfortable and know what’s going on is really important. I’m currently working on getting my students to be better reflectors on what they’re doing by working with note-taking time and reflection on their achievements and important topics at the end of each week. Yesterday was the first attempt, and didn’t go so well, but I hope that as we go on they’ll get better at this.

    Also, Gemma’s point about getting back to basics is a great one, and one that I’d do well to remember. It’s not possible to revolutionize the world of ESL in every class, and sometimes established practice exists for a good reason.

    Roll on part 2!

    Alex

    • Hi Alex,

      I love the idea of having students actively reflect on what they have accomplished and learned. I think that, even though it did not go perfectly on this first go round, that is an excellent idea and will be extremely useful to them once they get the hang of it!

      Definitely let me know how it goes in the future

      John

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