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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

May 2000

Topic: "What are good strategies or techniques for developing rapport with a new class?"

Marc Helgesen

Developing rapport is one part of helping get a positive 'class culture' started.

Class culture, I think, explains why some classes will try anything while other classes don't want to experiment, take risks or try new things. The first couple class meetings are critical in getting a positive class culture going. To facilitate that, there are a few things I try to do in the first class meeting.

* I like to get everyone involved in an activity -- something personalized -- in the first five minutes. I want to communicate right from the beginning that the class is about them, that it's also about them talking with and sharing with other students, and -- especially -- that it's about activity.

* I also like to take time in the first one or two classes to have students think about things they can be doing outside of class to work on their English. Most learners just don't have enough class hours. They need to do things on their own. Our students love karaoke -- just deciding to sing a song or two in English and think about the meaning is a step.

The Internet offers wonderful opportunities. Most of my students come to school by bus or train. That's a great time to read graded readers for example. Or they can just look out the window and do a mental narration in English of what they are seeing (That guy is wearing a blue shirt, carrying a backpack and he's really cute!). There are lots of things students can do. The point is that they have to take responsibility for their own learning. I can help, but I can learn it for them. So I ask them to commit themselves.

They choose at least one out-of-class activity that they'll do before the next class. And then we follow it up during the next class. I really think that turning over of responsibility is the difference establishing class culture.
marc_helgesen.jpg Marc Helgesen, Miyagi Gakuin Women's College
Co-author of English Firsthand and Active Listening

Peter Viney

Any sales person knows the value of remembering people's names and using them in conversation.

Learn your students' names. Look before the lesson, concentrate in the first lesson, focus on the names and use them. I observed a class where a girl burst into tears because hers was the only name the teacher did not remember. You can get students to use name cards, but this doesn't show them that you're making an effort. You can make a class plan, and ask students to sit in the same places for the first few lessons. There's no substitute for your personal effort though.

Don't make notes on the register card. Students might see them. I once taught a class where the teacher had written things like 'spotty', 'thick glasses' and 'beanpole' on the card. Not acceptable!

Of course it's easier to remember names in multilingual classes. Mixed gender helps too, but in the end you have to remember even in a class of one nationality and one gender who are all wearing blue suits and have black hair. Additionally, you have to decide on which name to use, first name or family name. On my first visit to Japan twenty years ago, I kept asking the local reps to call me by my first name. One of the reps explained it beautifully. He said, "You want us to call you Peter so that we will be more relaxed. Actually, it doesn't make us relaxed. We feel more comfortable with Viney-san, and this does not indicate unfriendliness to us."

Twenty years is a long time, and most students accept the Western desire to use first names nowadays. However, if the class are more comfortable with surnames and titles, go along with them. By using their names correctly, you are showing that they are important to you as individuals.
peter_viney.jpg Peter Viney, Freelance ELT Author
Co-author of New American Streamline & Grapevine. Peter's Web site

Setsuko Toyama

The first class sets the mood for the whole semester.

If you are indecisive, the students will sense it and you will lose the initiative. On the other hand, if you are confident and in control in the first class, you can relax later.

The first thing I tell a new class is that I am a person. And, I expect students to return my greeting when I say hello. I expect students to look at me when I speak and to smile, if possible, and not to glare. This usually throws kids off their chairs. I tell them I'm going to try to learn their names during the semester and the minimum goal for them is to describe themselves and their daily lives in English.

They will be graded on the effort they put into the lessons over the whole semester. Therefore, assignments and attendance will be important. If they are late for class twice, it will be regarded as an absence. If they sleep through the lesson, or chat, it will be regarded as an absence.

Students usually ask me, at this point, how many lessons they can skip and still be eligible for the credit. I explain that university policy states that if they have a less than two-thirds attendance record, they cannot even take a test.

Then I tell them that I'm paid to teach them and they have the responsibility to make sure I do not skip classes and that I make lessons interesting. They've hardly looked at their education as something they must actively take responsibility for, having been taught that cramming for tests is enough.

At this time, I pass out a list of does and don'ts (including, please turn off cell phones), plus my email address and fax number. Students who cannot come to class for some legitimate reason can contact me and by doing an extra assignment, they can make up for the absence. I then ask students which language they wish me to teach in. Usually they ask for English with occasional tips in Japanese. The above takes 10 to 15 minute and I can see and feel the change among the students. They took this course because they needed a credit but now they'll have to watch this teacher to see if she performs as she has announced.

In the first lesson, not all of the students have bought the textbook so I pass out a worksheet for their first pair work activity. Each student fills in personal information about himself or herself (first name, family name, nickname, hometown, hobby, major, etc.) Then they ask a partner questions and fill in information about the partner.

While they are working, I walk around the classroom, taking photos with an inexpensive instant camera. I leave the pictures for the students to write their names on, and help the students with any questions. At the end of this activity, I collect the worksheets and pictures to take home. I input the data into a class file, and print out one page for each student. Attendance and assignment data goes into these pages, and the photos are attached. The photos help me learn the names and personal interests of the students, which I can incorporate into lessons. Students are aware that I try to keep track of their performance in class and they gradually start participating in the activities.
setsuko_toyama.jpg Setsuko Toyama, Toyama English House
Co-author of Journeys: Listening and Speaking & Development Editor of SuperKids

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