Conversation classes that don’t suck

At my school they’re called ‘free talking’ classes, but I’m sure some schools call them ‘conversation class’ or something similar. I really dreaded these when I started teaching and I sometimes still do. There’s something difficult about having too much freedom in the classroom, however it’s also very freeing. Some of my best and worst lessons have happened in free talking class, because I’ve tried out new things and they’ve either worked or gone terribly. I wanted to share a few thoughts from these classes in case anyone else teaches a similar class. This post is mostly about my middle school students but some of it will apply to other ages too.

Have a focus

I’m a big Dogme fan and I try to incorporate Dogme moments as often as possible. I still find it really useful to go with a really clear list of interesting questions centred around a grammar point or theme. Middle schoolers can be masters of the one word answer when they feel like it (I can’t say I was much different in my day), and so going in with an expectation that you’ll just elicit an interesting topic might be naive. The thing about having a plan is that you can abandon it at any moment if you have a better idea. A lot of the time you’ll still be able to pick up where you left off some other time. Personally having a plan makes me more comfortable following up something interesting: I know I can follow anything interesting and I’ve still got a safety net there.

Be human

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Anywhere in the world pupils might feel a little awkward about talking to their teacher, but this is maybe more the case in Korea than many other places (Mike Griffin writes here more about this). It seems like the expectation is that the teacher will make most of the contributions and the students will absorb them. This might be fine for lots of subjects but for conversation to happen the students need to be making contributions. It took me time to overcome these preconceptions of what should be happening in the classroom; a big part of that was letting my pupils get to know me. A few glances at my mistake ridden Korean diary and some mildly embarrassing stories managed to persuade them I’m not just not a fount of knowledge. This has broken down the teacher-student barrier a bit and made them more happy to be forthcoming with their conversation.

Be interested

“What did you do last weekend?”

“I told you on Friday I will visit my grandmother’s house”

This conversation happened a few weeks ago and made me feel really bad, I’d completely forgotten. ‘What did you do last weekend?’ is one of my go-to questions for the start of class, but I asking a question a lot doesn’t excuse not paying lots of attention. Why would students tell me things if they think I’ll forget the answer?

The flip side is that remembering little things about pupils makes them feel like their contributions are valuable. A new dog cafe opened in town recently. When I told one of my girls, who loves dogs, about it we had a really good conversation about the cafe, then dogs, then our town and then ways to spend pocket-money.

Be interesting

It’s really difficult to be interesting all of the time and some of this will be trial and error, but it’s much easier to talk about interesting things. If you’re using a list of questions, make sure the questions are interesting too. I’d recommend re-using topics that have worked before: it’s not too hard to put a different spin on things and it’s doubtful that you’ll have said everything that could be said. It’s hard to say what would work well in other classes but some topics that worked for me are:

  • Food (the mother lode of conversation topics)
  • Animals
  • Manners
  • Travel (remember your students might not be well-travelled and might be embarrassed about this, keep it local)
  • How would your life have been different if you lived ____ years ago? (especially interesting given Korea’s rapid development.)
  • Sport
  • Gaming
  • Music (dangerous because Korean kids are prone to be really mean about your favourite band if you play them something.)

Follow up questions

Finally, if pupils get good at asking follow-up questions, they’ll naturally extend conversations they have. If you get them to a place where they’re confident doing this*, they’ll need less and less in terms of lists of input for the teacher and will naturally steer the conversation onto topics they really care about.