A designerlessons plan by Neil McMillan

First days can be painful. None more so than my first day at secondary school in smalltown Scotland, where a rickety chair collapsed under the weight of my burgeoning teenage backside, causing an outbreak of hilarity among my new classmates. One even came to thank me for ‘breaking the ice’ …. where in reality all I’d broken was the chair.

In the absence of dodgy furniture, however, what should a first class involve? My current DOS is adamant, rightly, that we should not be enquiring after the students’ summer holidays. But she then got me thinking about just what we should be doing. So I took the pulse, and I made a list.

A First Lesson Should …

a) introduce you to the students, and the students to each other and you (despite its potential corniness and lack of popularity with certain bears, this would seem essential)
b) give information to students about course content
c) get information from the students to help shape/adapt course content
d) check the level of the Ss’ English – establish student ‘profiles’ (spiky or otherwise)
e) establish what the teacher requires from the students
f) establish what the students require from the teacher & course
g) engage the students & enthuse them about attending regularly & participating fully
h) challenge the students & make them feel that they’re already learning & practising

When it comes to exam classes preparing Ss for FCE, CAE or CPE, there will also be an expectation from the group that all classwork should somehow lead towards meeting their very clear goal of passing that exam. Any first-day activities perceived to be unrelated to this objective may be regarded with suspicion or even resisted altogether.

With that in mind, here is a first-day lesson which hopefully ticks all the above boxes – while additionally attempting to:

i) facilitate practice with an aspect of the exam the class is working towards

The obvious way to do this – and I have tried this in the past – is to base the lesson around Part 1 of the speaking paper of the Cambridge FCE, CAE and CPE exams, which involves giving simple personal information. However, I find the typical questions inane, and the task itself is not at all communicative. Furthermore, practising this part tells you little about the Ss’ level or about their strengths and weaknesses across the board. So, in this case, I’m going to try to integrate one of the less sexy parts of Cambridge, and one which is often neglected by teachers until much later in the course: the written report.

1. The teacher gives a brief introduction to themselves and what their motivation is for teaching this class. T-centred this may be, but I’ve never understood the thinking behind making everyone say something about themselves if you’re not going to do it yourself. Anyway, I am always honest and mention money.  This grounds the introduction in reality – we are not going to be talking about the time we ate cockroaches or bungee-jumped off a melting glacier.

I also let them know I enjoy meeting and getting to know Ss (true), helping them get through the exam (true in a slightly masochistic sense) and taking/sharing pride when they pass (the Ss knowing you have a track record of passers won’t hurt). The Ss then circulate, introduce themselves to each other and describe their motivation for taking the exam. Take some feedback then ask them (as far as possible) to sit in groups with people who have a similar motivation to themselves (e.g. work, study, personal).

This ticks off item a) in our list, and starts to deal with d) if monitored closely.

2. In their groups, Ss discuss what they already know about the exam they’re taking. Some Ss may have tried a course before, or perhaps attempted and failed the exam. Put prompts on the board to help structure the discussion, e.g.

    • exam format
    • what is tested in each part
    • marks needed to pass
    • what we DON’T know about this exam

On this last point, encourage them to write questions. Monitor and be ready to feed back both on the content of their discussions and the accuracy of what they say and ask.

This stage continues ticking a) and d) starts to deal with b), c) & h).

3. During feedback, invite questions from each group about the exam. Ask other Ss to clarify if they can; if not, clarify yourself. Begin sketching out an outline of the exam on the board, and/or direct Ss to the Cambridge website for further info, or to whatever information your school provides. Finally, feedback on any issues with accuracy during their discussions.

This continues ticking off b), d) & h). With any luck, g) will also start to be addressed as the Ss relax a bit and realise that their main doubts and worries are being dealt with on day one.

4. Next, either whip out a pre-prepared survey form or construct the following survey with your class. They need to find out from each student:

i) Which parts of the exam they are most worried about

ii) Which parts they are least concerned about

iii) Which types of teaching or activities help them learn better

iv) Which types of teaching or activity turn them off

v) What they will do personally to prepare for the exam inside and outside of class

They mingle and do this, following any necessary focus on Q-formation and pronunciation.

This should continue dealing with a), c) and d), and hopefully h) too. Most importantly, however, it starts getting them thinking about e) and f).

5. I now put the Ss into 3-4 new groups, mixing up Ss with different motivations for doing the exam. We are going to compare our  findings and prepare a report. The report is to answer the question:

What are the best ways to prepare this class to pass the exam, both from the teacher’s and students’ perspectives?

Elicit a possible structure; this would depend on the exam and requirements of the report task in each case. For FCE, it might be

  • Intro: outline of the class (who are you, motivation etc) and what the aim of the report is.
  • Para 1: Parts of the exam the class need more and less focus on, and why.
  • Para 2: Activities and teaching styles liked & disliked by the group
  • Para 3: Variety of self-study activities/techniques found more or less useful by the group
  • Conclusion: Summary of recommendations for the teacher and students

The introduction can be written on the board as a whole class activity, recalling information given by the Ss earlier on. Then, each group can be assigned a paragraph to get on with. The text produced will not only serve as a first draft of a report format which can later (perhaps in the next class) be analysed for overall structure and typical phrases & style, including passive voice and exponents of the function of recommending; it will also give you a group needs analysis which should help you shape the course to come. Furthermore, if done correctly, the Ss will be giving serious thought to their future classes, and having their expectations raised about what these classes will involve.

In other words, report-writing may not exactly enthuse, but, on this topic, it should create some sense of positive anticipation.

This activity should thus tick off a), c), d), f), g)h) – and finally i).

6. Ss should now read over the completed report and make any necessary changes. I’d recommend stalling any extended language focus until the next lesson, before which you’ll have the chance to read the report more carefully and pull out language points to work on. For now, I’d focus on the conclusions. What recommendations have they come out with? Does everyone agree? What is it they want from the class? Here you can promise to do your best to meet their expectations. However, this activity also gives you the opportunity to give them a very clear idea of your expectations. These can be negotiated by examining the Ss’ claims about what they will do inside and outside class time. You can suggest further resources, tasks and study tips, and outline the homework schedule. You can make clear your policy regarding use of L1, dictionaries, note-taking and so on.

Hopefully, most of this will have come from them – it’s just a case of making it concrete, perhaps getting it on the board or typing it up. If you wish, Ss and teacher could even sign off on an agreement. This needn’t be without humour:

  • The teacher promises never to ask what you did at the weekend or on your last holiday.
  • The students promise never to make claims about homework ending up in dog’s stomachs

Anyway, this should finally and definitively tick off e).

With any luck, the class furniture should still be intact. And your students may even be able to state: