I think I know how they feel

You know those students, the ones who don’t contribute that much in class, who keep talking to the person next to them instead of listening to you? I think I’m one of them, at least sometimes.

Last week I went to a dance class (the Charleston, if you must know). Let’s just say that the class was a…little bit fast for me; no sooner had I not yet figured out the first move then we moved on to another move and then another. It was embarrassing. I was sure that everyone was watching me trip over my size-16 feet and all I wanted to do was run out the door and never come back.

I managed to stay in the room, and even to get back into the swing of things a little bit more by the end of the class, but there was a long period there when I kept checking my watch. Because what the instructor was saying built on something that I hadn’t understood, it seemed impossible to catch up and I felt myself losing focus, even making a joke to my partner while the instructor was teaching us something. I wasn’t trying to be malicious or to disrupt the class; it didn’t feel like I was entirely in control. Shutting down and ignoring the class felt like a kind of automatic defense mechanism. Partially this feeling of loss of control came from tiredness: it had been a long day and the next oldest student (after me) was probably 10 years younger than me.

Of course, none of my first-year students are less physically fit to keep up with my class because of age, but there’s certainly a wide range of abilities and probably a wide range of how rested they are (I certainly had problems ending a computer game session at their age, and the games I played weren’t nearly as carefully designed for addiction as theirs seem to be).

Most teachers know that a non-participating student is having trouble in the class, but my dance class was a good reminder to me that not participating may be a sign of a student feeling helpless in that situation, and not necessarily a sign of an inherent character flaw.

I don’t come out of this with any profound ideas for how to help students in this situation. The dance instructor working with me one-on-one for a couple of minutes did help, although it was even more embarrassing. What would have really helped was if I could see that I was contributing something to the class as a whole, even though I was having trouble. This could have been something as irrelevant to the course content as people laughing at my jokes(1), because the primary reason for my embarrassment was my feeling that I was really just a bother to the instructor and my classmates, that I had nothing to contribute. So maybe what I need to do is try to find one thing a student having trouble is good at (even if that thing isn’t directly related to course content) and foster it.

(1) Thus is born the class clown

Motivation (and lots of other stuff) by Zoltán Dörnyei

Zoltán Dörnyei is arguably the top researcher today on motivation in the language classroom and he’s made a whole lot of his papers and book chapters available for download, with nary an academic ‘firewall’ in sight.

Motivation (and lots of other stuff) by Zoltán Dörnyei