Dear students, this is what your homework really means to you

I was so embarrassed… To have given a speech in front of my class. But it was a speech I had to give.

Last week, a student from my business English class complained about me giving too much homework. I have to say this is a typical issue in adult classes. I understand they have lots on their plates: work, family, spouse (husband/ wife), kids, other stuff in other places, etc. In the past, what I usually did was let them get away with it. I would usually just give in to the idea that they should not be given any homework. But not today. Not again. So, what was the homework actually about?

I asked them to do pair work to present a topic on English tenses. Each group was assigned to prepare and present one tense based on the number they got. I mentioned about this assignment on this blog a little bit here. The presentation did not have to be perfect (probably only according to my point of view). I let them find their own materials and make the presentation outside class, and they did not have to prepare any handout. The supervision was done at the presentation.

When you teach at school, it’s easier to give your students homework. However, when you teach a group of adults, they will have all the reasons not to do it. Usually the higher their position is in the company, the more reasons they have to avoid doing it. To some extent, some adult students also think (probably because they are used to other people do the work for them?), that the success of their learning relies solely on what their teacher can make of them.

For all we know, as an English teacher, this kind of mindset is a bit… misleading. I believe, just like the Chinese proverb, teachers open door but students must enter by themselves. They have to be actively involved in and responsible for their own learning. And so with a smile and a bit of wrinkles on my forehead, I replied:

“English is not a content subject where you can read a book one night and suddenly speak English the next day. One needs to constantly keep in contact with the language. We only have two times 90 minutes a week. Do you really think that your English will improve in just 3 hours a week? I personally think as an English teacher, no, it won’t. That’s why I’m giving you homework. The homework functions as a bridge. The bridge to connect the time you learn in class and outside class. So you will not forget that you are learning English when you’re not here.

This is not the first time I teach adult class, and I’ve seen many classes I taught did not give significant change in my students’ English. And I don’t want that to happen. Again. Especially to this class. I learned my lesson. Do you want this class to be effective? Do you want your learning to be successful? Well, I’m sorry that I have to break the truth: there’s no shortcut to success. You have to do the hard work. If you have a particular goal, I’m pretty certain you will somehow do anything possible to reach that goal. And I hope that’s what you do in this English class.

And so about the homework? That’s all for you, not for me.”

Do you think I am doing the right thing? Do you think that some tough love is necessary in teaching? Let me hear your thoughts. 🙂

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Using text message (sms) as homework assignment in an ESP class

Maximizing potential with minimum resource.

Around two months ago I had my first meeting for an English for Specific Purpose (ESP) class that was specifically made for cashiers and shop attendants at a supermarket in Kuta, Badung. This surely wasn’t my first ESP class. That’s why I was partly worried that I would make the same mistake I did before with my other classes. I’ve been teaching English for the past five years and ESP has been one of the most frequent types of class I teach. Before deciding in using text message as homework assignment, I’d like to share my initial thoughts on previous mistakes I made:

My ESP students are of course mostly adults with very little (if not zero) exposure to English. Part of the problem why employers send them to an English class is because of this lack of exposure, but at the same time being enrolled in the class does not solve the problem. Why? Because they are engaged with English ONLY when they are in the classroom, in which only three times a week, 90 minutes for each meeting – that, if they’re lucky. Most of the time they prefer working than being in my English class thus making it to the 90 minutes a week can be considered an achievement.

Since I’m a believer (not Belieber, mind you) in the notion that language is acquired, not learned, then if I continued this practice (to have students only learn while they are in the classroom) I would contradict my own belief. I thought I had to find a way where students can at least be aware that unless they take control over their own learning and be actively involved in it, they can achieve the expected outcome. Thus: homework, something that reminds them of the English class they are taking, at home. However, the problem with traditional homework is that oftentimes it is boring and time consuming.

My original plan was: to ‘move’ the class to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Apparently, after a very short survey, I found out that none of them were active users of both (only one is familiar with Facebook, but not an active user). It was my failure to realize that students’ social and economic background also plays an important role to this condition. Having this fact, I quickly figured out an alternative: text message, since all of them have mobile phones (these days no doubt it is more like a necessity than luxury).

So here’s how I did my text message homework assignment, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

Skills practiced through the assignment:

  1. Writing,
  2. Spelling and grammar/ accuracy,
  3. Vocabulary,
  4. Familiarity with common English expressions.

When it was done:

The homework was given on the second meeting (on Friday), coinciding with the beginning of the end of the week. I thought this would be a good reminder of the English class, at home, during the weekend. Students were free to choose to send the text message either on Saturday or Sunday. The task was checked and discussed in the next meeting, at the beginning of the next week (on Monday).

What the students were asked to do:

They were asked to send a simple text message to me (their teacher), saying “selamat berakhir pekan” (weekend greetings). I did not elicit how to say it in English nor what should they say. I only wrote the Indonesian phrase above on the board. My purpose was to let them initiate their own thoughts. They were free, tho, to ask their friends, relatives, or anyone, or find help in books or on the internet.

What the results were:

Out of total 11 students, 10 did their homework: 7 sent it to me on Saturday, 3 on Sunday. Here are the texts (with no editing):

  1. “happy lastweek mrs mino…. from ngurah”
  2. “Good Afternoon, Miss NENO. Happy last weekend for today. From KADEK SRI PURNAMA”
  3. “good afternoon ms. neno,,, it’s my homework, happy weekend ms. neno. thank’s before. from: sriwasih”
  4. “Happy weekend” [Mrs. Budani]
  5. “Hai,, good evening mrs neno, happy weekend,have a nice holiday for tomorrow.. thanks for teach me, you^re awesome, thanks so much, yulia purnamasari”
  6. “Have a nice weekend,to mrs neno,from suli.See you”
  7.  ”She you weken ms.Neno” [Tri]
  8. “happy weekend miss neno.” [Erna]
  9. “Morning miss neno. . . Happy niCe weekend. . .” [Selvi]
  10. “good morning Ms NENO,this nengah adi,have a nice weekend”

What I did in the next meeting:

The text message assignment was a good instrument to introduce them to these topics:

  1. Greetings,
  2. Titles and how to address people,
  3. How to actually say “selamat berakhir pekan” in English and other related expressions,
  4. Farewell,
  5. The correct spelling and pronunciation of all the above.

These five were the main topics, but I also touched a little on capitalization and punctuation (but didn’t over-emphasize them, since I realized their focus was more on the communicative function of the language). All the above points are useful for their everyday speaking practice at work, with both customers and coworkers. Teaching materials they can relate to is important in an ESP and/ or adult class. Please note that during the discussion of their homework, I wasn’t being judgmental in any way in order to show them they were allowed to make mistakes and obliged to learn from them.

What I learned from this activity:

This is definitely one of my favorite activities that I will continue using and modifying for my future classes. Like any other class activity, it has some advantages and disadvantages. I will start with the disadvantages.

The shortfalls:

  1. Skills practiced were limited to only writing and grammar,
  2. Text message character limit (up to only 160 characters) limited students to do longer task,
  3. Teachers should have lots of ideas for topic (repetition can lead to boredom).

The positive sides:

  1. It was a good tool to measure students’ basic knowledge,
  2. The task could fill the gap between the class and their everyday life – that learning does not take place only in the classroom,
  3. It was a good way to introduce topics that were presented in the next meeting,
  4. The task was time efficient, considerably cheap, and fun.

I could say that this assignment was a part of my experiment in making my class more engaging and effective. I would be very happy to receive any comment or input on any aspect of this experiment from you. Thank you and I hope you can find it useful.

Photo credit: mobighar.com.