Saturday, 17 October 2009

Listening From Heaven

In the relative quiet of my classroom, the jarring blast of Arabesque music makes us all jump. I wheel around, narrowing my eyes, trying to figure out where the sound is coming from.

Ahmet might have gotten away with it, but his furtive eyes betray him. So does the telltale movement of hands to pockets.

I sidle over to his desk and stick my hand out. "Hand it over!"

Ahmet cringes, the offending object he is clutching still shrilling Arabesque, the whining, wailing belly-dance music my students all love so dearly. I leave my hand where it is and bend forward a little, fingers outstretched as I drum on the table with the other hand. "Come on, give it to me."

Ahmet lets out a sigh and drops his mobile into my hand. I hold it up triumphantly for all the class to see. "Ahmet's phone is mine for the next forty-five minutes!" I crow. "Think I can sell it on e-Bay in forty-five minutes?" Everybody but Ahmet thinks this is hilarious, but he's a good kid and a good sport: he smiles weakly too.

The first day of class, I laid down the rules: No Turkish in class; come on time; do your homework; always bring a notebook and pen; make your calls during break time. I don't take mobile phones off students unless they happen to ring during class time. Ahmet isn't a first time offender and I've got to crack down.

Before I reach my desk, the phone lets out another tinny blast of Arabesque. Getting a sudden inspiration I hold it to my ear and have a pretend conversation. "Hello? Who's this? No, sorry, I don't speak Turkish. Do you speak English? İngilizce?! Do I sound like I speak Turkish? No? Well, then! Now, who is this? Ahmet's father? Mr. Ayaz, I know you want to speak to Ahmet, but he is in class now -- English class. You are spending a lot of money for him to learn English. This is his English teacher and--" I hold the phone away from me theatrically and stare at it.

The class roars as I put it back to my ear. "My name is Mary. Nice to meet you too. Now, as I was saying, you are paying a lot of money so that Ahmet can LEARN ENGLISH and I don't want to waste your money. And the entire class is waiting. So could you please call back during the break? That will be in forty-five minutes. Okay, thank you. Goodbye. Yes, I'll tell Ahmet to study very hard. Please remind him yourself when you call back."

I repeat call back half a dozen times. 'Call back' isn't on our vocabulary list this term, but one of the brighter kids used it the other day when we were discussing phrasal verbs, and I want to reinforce it.

As I put Ahmet's phone down, the entire class practically bursts into applause. They have done something unprecedented: they have listened intently, eyes wide, mouths open, clearly riveted by my pretend conversation with Ahmet's father. Forty-five minutes later Ahmet takes his phone back and I see him furtively checking his sent call list to see if I really did talk to his father. When he comes back after the break, he flashes me a conspiratorial grin.

During the next two weeks, I pocket half a dozen ringing cell phones and indulge in a minute-long conversation with the caller every single time. Usually I talk to fathers, but sometimes I talk to mothers, girlfriends or boyfriends, as the spirit moves me. Once, I actually did talk to someone's friend, who surprised me by knowing a smattering of English. The entire class hushes while I have these 'conversations' -- I don't even have to ask them to be quiet. They probably get more listening practice than they do all week this way; I have to fight the urge to quiz them afterwards on what I said.

I am happy with this discovery of mine. Quite inadvertently I have found a way to get my class to pay attention and listen. Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.

Last week, Emre's cell phone goes off right in the middle of a role play between two shy girls. I pocket Emre's phone without blinking an eye -- just snatch it right off him before he even knows I've done it. "Go on," I tell the shy girls, giving them an encouraging nod, "finish your conversation." They stare at Emre's cell phone and frown. "Come on," I prod, "we're all waiting." One of the girls bites her lip and smiles. "Talk?" she whispers, pointing to Emre's mobile. "Teacher talk?"

"Talk!" the rest of the class urges, almost in unison. "Talk to Emre father!"

I roll my eyes, but I put Emre's phone to my ear and obligingly go through with the charade. "I promise to tell him," I conclude. "Emre doesn't like studying--" (This is sadly true) "--but I'll make sure he gets your message, Mr. Yılmaz."

Emre has a funny look on his face -- as though he's barely managing to contain himself. The minute I put down his phone after pretending to turn it off, he leaps out of his seat. "No, teacher -- no talk my father! Impossible! Father is died -- ten years!"

I roll my eyes again and give him my best duh look. "I know that," I say pointing upwards. "Where do you think he called from?"

Emre's eyes flicker upwards, then down as he takes his seat again. He smiles a little wistfully. As he leaves the class, I hand him back his phone. "Emre, wherever your father is, I know he wants you to do your best. If he really could talk to you, I'll bet he'd tell you that too." Emre smiles. Thank God. Maybe he'll even study!

Sometimes teaching is all about thinking on your feet.


Anonymous said...

Of course your students may be enjoying this so much that they're starting to have friends ring them on purpose during class ;)
Still, I'm tucking this "method" away for future use.

Bish Denham said...

Now that's what teaching and being a teacher is all about; discovering that something unexpected can be used as a teaching tool and then using it.

When you write about your classroom experiences I sware I'm sitting in the backrow listening.

Library girl said...

Well done! Nice way to regain control of the situation without anyone losing face ... maybe sometimes teaching is more about bluffing :)

MG Higgins said...

Another fabulous story, Mary. Like Bish, I felt as if I was in the classroom with you. I hope you compile your memoirs into a book some day. I would definitely buy it.

FrecklesandDeb said...

What a wonderfully creative solution to a distracting problem. We have the same problem in our school, but student's texting seems to be more prevalent than actual calls. You are a genius!

Postman said...

This is engaging and fun to read. That was some nice thinking there. I'm less apt at dealing with children, I guess. Whenever I tried something like that it'd always backfire. I held myself to ransom for correct answers. If I asked a question and a kid got it wrong, I'd bang my head on something nearby (desks, walls, marker boards), hard. Normally that would cause every voice in the room to be raised in protest, but some of the more roguish boys began deliberately answering questions wrong just to see me hit myself. Not one of my better ideas.

Kit said...

Brilliant inspiration! Maybe you could try letting them answer their phones only if they speak entirely in English to whoever is calling, or would that cause chaos?!

Mary Witzl said...

Elizabeth -- I'm pretty sure that IS what is happening, but I'm okay with it: they're still getting REAL listening practice, and my 'conversations' never take longer than a minute -- one tenth of the time I usually spend hollering at them to listen. And every once in a while I DO talk to whoever is at the end just to keep everyone on their toes; actually, I think I may even have talked to someone's dad in Azerbaijan last week. Fingers crossed that it wasn't an emergency, but I'm telling myself he'd have called back if it was.

Bish -- I really wish you WERE sitting in the back row: whenever we have English-speaking visitors in class, the kids ignore me and start talking to them. They suddenly see that English is about a lot more than auxiliaries and passing exams -- it's a tool for communication. It's so wonderful to see this happen that I am always scouting for visitors.

Library Girl -- Teaching involves a huge amount of bluffing. I've been honing my skills for the past two decades, but I still have a long way to go.

MG -- Thank you for that nice compliment. I actually do have a memoir compiled, but it isn't as polished as it should be. Every time I get a compliment like yours, I am seized with the desire to shine up my memoir and send it out again.

Freckles -- Thank you for commenting!

My students love texting each other too. They are NEVER without their cell phones. It drives me wild that some of them come to class with no notebooks or pens, but invariably have their cell phones and cigarettes with them. Wish I WERE a genius. If I were, I'd figure out how to get them to bring their notebooks and pens. And stop smoking.

Postman -- Half the stuff I do backfires. This fake conversation thing may well backfire some day, but for the time being, I'm going to milk it for all it's worth.

I like the head pounding idea, actually, but the kids I teach would let me pound my head to a bloody pulp, especially considering how few of them get the right answer. When someone gets a wrong answer in my class (depending on the ego/confidence level of whoever it is), I generally make a bzzz noise with my mouth and move on.

Kit -- That would be a good idea, but getting my kids to speak only English on their phones would be like convincing Superman to eat Kryptonite. One thing's for sure: if they did agree to this, we'd have some VERY short phone conversations!

Helen said...

What a great teacher Mary! You obviously care about these kids and the fact that they are in your class to learn! I can't imagine how difficult it must be to capture the attention of a group of children and then keep it for a certain amount of time. I have trouble with just homeschooling two - and their mine!!! One day, hopefully those kids will appreciate you (perhaps as they text each other in English!!!)

Charlie said...

Excellent as ever, Mary.

A bit off-topic. The brain trust known as the Arizona Legislature can't decide on a bill to make texting illegal while driving.

Vijaya said...

You are the best, Mary! Now just show me how to get my kids to listen to me ...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Extremely creative, Mary. And it never occurred to me that teachers today would be dealing with cell phones in class!! I'll bet texting is even MORE of an issue. Wonder how long it will take for schools to have to install "jamming" devices in the school to suppress cell phones. When I was in school, all I ever had to do to lose concentration was stare out the window.

Falak said...

Ha! Wish we had teachers like that! Felt like I was in the classroom with you.

Mary Witzl said...

Helen -- Thank you, and I would love to accept that compliment, but I see myself more as a perpetual decent teacher in-the-making. (And I generally only publish my teaching successes, too...) The kids I teach are older teenagers (the youngest is 17) and young adults. The classroom atmosphere tends to be thick with hormones, unspent energy, and angst.

Home-schooling your own kids is TOUGH WORK -- you have my deep respect! We taught our girls to read and write English when we lived in Japan, then I did my best to continue their Japanese language education when we moved to the U.K. It was like pulling teeth! The thought of actually home-schooling them in all academic subjects makes me shudder.

Charlie -- How scary! I consider myself to be a better-than-average multi-tasker, but never in a thousand years would I be able to text and drive at the same time without my grammar and spelling going to hell in a hand basket and my road position veering all over the place. Let's hope the Arizona legislature wants to keep Arizona's population growing, not shrinking.

Vijaya -- I have the odd flash of inspiration and I aspire to be the best, but generally fall short. And if you ever get your kids to listen, let me know what you did and I'll try it with mine.

Robert -- Cell phones are a huge issue in all schools. Kids (and their parents) feel the kids need to have their phones on their persons at all times in order to stay in touch, but this causes all sorts of problems. Kids can use their phones to copy test papers; they text their friends during class and download stuff from the internet (including inappropriate photos, etc.) instead of listening to the teacher, and so on. Try to take their phones away and you feel like you're pulling their pacifiers out. Ah, for the days of crib sheets and note-passing!

Falak -- Thank you.

I did have a teacher who was always like this: Mr. Crum, American history, John W North High School. He was a great guy: I sometimes wish I were back in his classroom. Preferably in the back row...

Anonymous said...

I'm inspired and extremely happy for those students, and who said you had c/m issues my dear?!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mary Witzl said...

(Is that you, P?) Those kids wrap me around their fingers half the time, as you well know! I have to find ways to keep them on their toes without breaking their spirit.

(c/m issues? What are c/m issues? Whatever they are, I probably have them...)

Angela said...

I love reading your stories, Mary. How I would love to sit in on your class just for one day!

Patrick said...

Seems like you found a good way to inspire your students. A great teacher! =)

Postman said...

You're right. Buzzing helps. There were a lot of game shows in Korea that used the same tactic. After head-banging failed I resorted to merely slumping my shoulders, heaving a heart-stricken sigh, and moving on to the next kid (eliciting a round of giggles, yes, but the message was conveyed). I tried positive reinforcement, too. If a kid got a question correct, I called them "genius," an English word every Korean understood and aspired to.

Eryl Shields said...

Ha! It sounds like you've really found your feet there now.

Jacqui said...

Brilliant. It's so hard, as a teacher, to explain to non-teachers about those moments, that would never be included on your planned curriculum or schedule for the day, and how often they are the best teaching we do.

adrienne said...

What a fun story. I think it's cute that now they plead for the entertainment - you could as easily be talking about a room full of six year olds.

Anne Spollen said...

Great thinking. I wish more of teaching was like this - sort of naturally occurring. I think that's how we all learn best.

I remember so much more about what our professors told us in college as asides, anecdotes, their thoughts than the stuff we had to sit there and numbly take notes on -- I'll bet your kids will always remember what you did.

Robin said...

This story is so adorable. You are just wonderful. Perhaps I'm getting demented, but I felt teary at the end. If I'm able to call my kids from heaven, I'm going to nag the crap out of them.

kara said...

that's a fantastic story.

one thing stayed with me, though, and that's your description of the music they all seem to love. music lyrics are a fantastic way to learn a language...and it might have an impact on the annoying ringtones eventually as they get hooked on the good sh*t.

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- If you're ever in this area, you HAVE to look me up: I'd be more than happy to have you sit in on one of my classes. And it might even subdue my wild-and-crazy class, just for a quick moment or two. I've brought two visitors to my class so far and they've been huge hits -- plus the kids actually spoke ENGLISH!

Patrick -- I'm usually just an okay teacher, though sometimes I hit both sides of this. I keep aiming for better though -- that I can definitely say for myself.

Postman -- I've done the chest smacking thing too, especially when I get a really off-the-wall answer or it is obvious that the kids are just guessing and not using their brains. I did a lot of it today, sad to say. Sometimes it is effective, though it usually doesn't do much for the kids who have no desire to learn. Which seems to be 75% of my guys...

Eryl -- Sometimes I feel like I'm on top of the world here, really achieving something. Sometimes I want to bang my head on the table. Today was one of the latter days.

Jacqui -- You know what this is like, don't you? There are some classes that should be great: you've planned them down to the last millimeter, prepared all your materials, and everything you're doing has worked before -- and yet, the class flops. Then there are classes that ought to be abysmal for all the opposite reasons, but they take off like nobody's business. There's a lot of magic in teaching, it seems.

Adrienne -- Hey, they could easily BE a group of six-year-olds. Especially after their awful behavior today, sigh...

Anne -- You are so right. I can hardly remember anything about transformational grammar (if you don't know, don't bother to find out -- seriously), but I will never forget our TG professor's hairy ears. And the French I remember is as nothing compared to the interesting stories our wonderful, dynamic French teacher used to tell us.

Robin -- Wouldn't that be great, though -- being able to nag from heaven? I'd give a whole lot to have that skill! And just think of what we could do from (God forbid) the other side!

Kara -- Whenever we have the time, we do a song in class, especially one that fits in with whatever they're learning. Sadly, the curriculum is pretty tight, or I'd include a lot more. Anything to get them to stop with the DIRE Arabesque. Some of it's actually quite catchy and I'm worried I could be converted.