Thursday, August 29, 2013

'I would choose...' (Part 2: Guitar versus Ukulele)

Encouraging Children to Give Opinions

In my previous post on this topic (Part 1), I write about how I try to extract the language out of Section B, Part 2 of the UPSR English paper and then try to design classroom activities that I hope are fun as well as meaningful for language learning, while at the same time encourage creative thinking. This particular examination item requires students to make a choice and to give reasons for their choices (read more about the format for Section B, Part 2 here). To answer this item, one of the skills that the students have to master is the skill of writing an opinion paragraph. The 'reasons' that the students have to give for their choices are actually the students' opinions. I tell my students that the 'reasons' that they give must answer the question 'why?' Why do you prefer this item and not that one? Why do you think that this one is more suitable or better? The reasons that they give are their personal opinions, and there should be (supposedly) no right or wrong answers.

"I know, but I can't say why..."

In one of my lessons, I posed this question: Do you like KFC or Pizza Hut? Immediately, the class became noisy and chaotic with students raising their hands to tell me whether they like KFC or Pizza Hut. Every single child in the class was eager to let the others know where they stand on the matter.

After they made their choices, I asked the students again: Why do you like KFC? Why do you think Pizza Hut is better?

Almost as immediately, the classroom went silent.

I managed to persuade one or two students to give the reasons for their choices. It took me almost half an hour to elicit from a boy that the reason why he likes KFC better was because he likes to eat crispy chicken, and another half an hour to get a girl to finally admit that she prefers Pizza Hut because she doesn't know what it is. She had been to KFC countless times, but not Pizza Hut, so she was curious to know what it's like. Why didn't you tell us that earlier? I asked. The girl told me that she was too embarrassed to let the others know that she had never been to Pizza Hut. She was afraid that the others might think that she was stupid. She would rather say that she prefers Pizza Hut because it's healthier and good for her body. It would sound better, and make her appear smarter.

Eager to Impress?

In another lesson, I asked the students to choose between football and badminton. A student told me that he likes badminton because he adores Datuk Lee Chong Wei, the Malaysian badminton star. The student sitting next to him quickly punched his friend's shoulder, saying: Hey! That's my reason! Why are you stealing my reason!?

The students do have their opinions, and deep inside they know why they choose one item over another. The reason why they don't say it out is not because they can't, it's because they refuse to. They lack the confidence to do so. They're afraid that the answers they give might sound silly. They're afraid that their friends will laugh at them. They're afraid that teacher will punish them if they give the wrong answers. And they will only answer if they believe they have something impressive to say.

I have to let my students know that in giving opinions, there is no right or wrong answer. An opinion is something that you believe in your heart to be true, and it doesn't matter if other people disagree. And it's perfectly alright to disagree with others, we can agree to disagree. We can have different opinions about one single matter. That's a normal thing, that's how things usually work. We can look at one thing from different perspectives, and that would usually help us in making decisions and solving problems.

And yes, an opinion doesn't have to be 'impressive'.

It's teacher's birthday...

The next day I told my students that my birthday is approaching. They got all excited. "So are we going to have a party?"

"Oh, we're very busy right now, I don't think we have the time for a party. But you can buy me a present."
"But we don't have money."
"It's alright. I have some money. I'll give you the money, and you'll have to decide what you're going to get me as a birthday present."

The students giggled. They loved the idea.

I took out a guitar. "I like this guitar. I borrowed this from the music shop. Should we get this for my birthday?" I saw some nods.

Then I took out a pink ukulele. The students were beyond thrilled. "Or should we get this?" I asked with an exaggerated frown on my face.

"Teacher, teacher! How much do they cost? And how much money do we have?"
"Teacher, I think pink suits you better!"
"But you already have a lot of guitars. Let's get you an ukulele!"

I told the students that I only have RM300. The guitar costs RM250, and the ukulele RM180. I love them both, but we can afford to buy only one. More noises. Everyone was talking at the same time.

"Teacher, let's vote for it!"

Oh, that's a great idea, I told the students. Let's vote. See these yellow post-its? Anyone for the guitar take one each. Those who vote for the ukulele may take these pink post-its. Now you have to think why you choose what you choose. Give me your reasons. Tell me why. Convince me. Convince your friends. Then cast your votes by sticking your post-its on the board in front.

The students were eager to put their thoughts in writing.

More interesting and original reasons were given by the students.

The question.

Brown guitar or pink ukulele?

"Would you mind playing them both now? I would like to hear how they sound like."

I picked up the guitar and played one song. Then I played the same song on the ukulele. I remember being very impressed with how serious the students were, how hard they concentrated on the difference between the sounds of the two musical instruments. But above all, I was very impressed with how much effort the students were putting in writing their opinions and providing the reasons for their choices. I had more students coming up to me and asked: Teacher, how do you say this in English? Is this sentence correct? Do I use this word correctly? 

It was one of those rare occasions when my students were trying their very best not to write based on what they've memorised from their notes or text books. I think they really wanted to let me know their reasons for choosing the birthday present for me. They weren't writing for some random examination question, they were writing something that meant something to them. It was personal. They were trying their best to write from their hearts.

Casting their votes.

Reading others' opinions.

"I would choose the ukulele for teacher..."

The guitar was taking the lead.

Of course, due to their limited English, my students still had to rely heavily on the sentences that they had learned and memorised from their notes and text books. However, what I was very pleased about was to see how some 'original' reasons were beginning to come up in their writing. In fact, I was very excited about it. This may still be a small progress, but it's a good progress. I could see my students taking the first step towards expressing their own thoughts and opinions. I think I saw my students loosen up a bit during the lesson.

"I can buy it and still have some money left to buy a cake...the guitar is bigger, it is difficult to bring but easy to find..." P/S: This student knows me well. She knows I love cakes. ;-) She must also know how forgetful Miss Cynthia is and how often she misplaces things. ;-)

"It is so cute for Miss Cynthia...I think Miss Cynthia likes the colour...the sound is nicer..." I love how this student refers to me as 'my Miss Cynthia'. ;-)

"It is expensive...However, I have RM300 so I have enough money...My teacher wants to learn about Spain...
P/S: How did she know that? ;-) 
"The size is smaller...It is easy to carry...Miss Cynthia likes the sound..."

The first step is to let the students see the purpose

I know that I still have a lot of work to do before I can see my students being able to write their own opinions and giving their own reasons using their own words, and in English. But I believe that the day will definitely come some day. Before I can help them to master the language, I have to first let them see the purpose. When they have the purpose, they will have the reasons to learn. I believe that the key lies in making it as meaningful and as personal to them as possible.

Before training the students to answer examination questions, I should train the students to first and foremost think for themselves. I should train them to form their own opinions, and to list their own reasons. After that, then only I can give them the tool, or the language to express their thoughts - their opinions, their reasons. I should train them to do that verbally as well as in writing.

As a teacher, I believe it's my responsibility to make learning meaningful and purposeful for my students. I have to let my students know why they need to master a certain skill. The knowledge that they must gain will help them beyond passing the examination. Through this simple activity with the musical instruments, a real-life situation and some colourful post-its, my students are beginning to understand why they have to learn how to answer Section B, Part 2. They are beginning to see the usefulness of all the vocabulary, phrases and sentences that they have to learn and remember. It is no longer just a meaningless rote memorisation for them. They can now see the purpose. And I believe that makes them more excited about learning what they have to learn.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see.”
~Alexandra K. Trenfor

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery."
~Mark van Doren

Till the next post.

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