Reflecting on Conversation Partners

In my last post, I hoped to write a bit more about the Conversation Partners class I taught earlier this year.

It met one hour a week as an elective course for students enrolled in English instruction full-time. I had two groups of people attend my class: the ESL students enrolled in the class, and the volunteer English speakers who partnered with them to chat.

During class, I basically proposed a topic and/or activity that would encourage students to converse. I listened, conferenced with people as necessary, and tried to interject as little as possible. This is why I say I was more of a facilitator than teacher.

The syllabus was a rather terse thing of beauty. Students had two responsibilities: show up to class, and meet with their partners one hour per week for conversation time. That was it.

I still had two students who didn’t pass. One lied (flagrantly, provably, and for weeks in a row) and I had to write him up. The other had a truly incredibly amount of trouble keeping his commitments to meet with his partners (he went through three). But he kept trying even when he knew he was failing the class, and hopefully he got something out of it all.

Anyway, some tidbits on how the actual day-to-day class went:

  • Overall, the first 3/4 of the semester was mostly getting-to-know-you type topics. The last 1/4 of the semester really got into Issues – the election, philosophy, feminism, etc. Looking back, I think I should have been more bold about getting into more serious topics earlier. That said, there was value in the students knowing each other fairly well before things got intense.
  • Tactile activities were especially interesting to all of us. Two examples:
    • Jenga. My mentor had Jenga sets in which each block was numbered. I wrote a conversation question for each number. The conversation partners played Jenga as usual, but had to answer the question that corresponded to the number on their block. It was a great warm-up on the first day, actually.
    • Building Blocks. This was a great recommendation from a colleague. The conversation partners took different roles: the Designer built something that nobody else could see. The Engineer had an identical pile of blocks and wanted to replicate the Designer’s building. The Consultant walked between the Engineer and the Designer and had to convey the instructions for how to build the same structure.
  • I didn’t foresee feeling pulled between my two groups of participants. Obviously the volunteers would have different needs than the ESL students. I think I underestimated the volunteers’ needs before I began, seeing them more as helpers and less as volunteers.
  • I had a mentor assigned to me as a newly hired teacher, and it was a super helpful set-up. Just knowing who to ask first is so huge for a new teacher – the division of labor in established departments is mind-boggling to the uninitiated. She happened to also be a great mentor and a person I like, so it was a very positive experience.
  • As a person and a learner, I tend to be rather bookish. It was really great for me to be in charge of a verbal-only class, with no textbook, no formal presentations, no pronunciation drills – just verbal communication. This experience will definitely inform the (bigger) role of conversation in my future classes.

I really enjoyed facilitating this class, and I’d be teaching it again this semester if the scheduling weren’t so inconvenient. I hope the current teacher is enjoying it as much as I did!

You’re reading Reflecting on Conversation Partners, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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