My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

When I passed my first Delta Module Two assignment, I knew that I just needed to do well in the externally-assessed LSA in order to obtain the diploma. My LSA1 dealt with cleft sentences and the lesson was quite unremarkable, so I decided to do something a little bit different in LSA2. As I mentioned in my blog post with general advice for passing Module Two, it makes sense to try out new things during the course. This article describes how I approached my assignment, which was awarded a Merit grade, and explains my choices.

My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

I wasn’t very happy with my first assessed lesson. I passed it, but I felt that I had played it safe and delivered an acceptable grammar lesson without any memorable moments. Once I knew that I didn’t need to pass the next assignment, I said to myself that I should be a little more ambitious. Since I believe that it’s perfectly possible to have fun while learning English (see my review of Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington’s lesson), I chose a topic guaranteeing that even if I failed the LSA, I would do so with a smile on my face.

A) BACKGROUND ESSAY
The title of my essay was Helping higher level learners understand TV comedy sketches. It wasn’t the best Delta Module Two essay ever, and I only got a Pass due to a few issues in suggestions for teaching. Anyway, this is what I wrote about:

At first, I justified selecting the topic by saying that learners often explicitly express the wish to understand popular culture. I highlighted the role of humour and mentioned that being familiar with famous comedy acts may be helpful in terms of positive attitude towards learning a foreign language and the L2 community. Then I narrowed down the scope of the essay to television sketches because radio shows are more suited to advanced learners due to the lack of visual cues. Of course, the comprehension approach is not enough when you try to help the learners enjoy this type content, so I suggested focusing on the following elements:

1) Textual patterns
Since sketches are usually short, there isn’t enough time explain things, and that’s why they rely on content and formal schemata. Basically, they refer to the real world and people’s expected behaviour in speech events. Many sketches stray into the ridiculous by deviating from the usual script. I referred to John Cleese and Graham Chapman’s job interview sketch to demonstrate how that may work.

2) Lexical cohesion
The authors of sketches use various lexical devices to ensure that the text holds together. I used Explaining things to a woman by Viva La Dirt League to show how repetition of related lexical items can be used for comedy effect. This is a great example of a sketch based on escalation, in which the premise becomes more and more absurd as the story unfolds.

3) References
In order to enjoy comedy sketches, it’s important to be able to spot relevant references. This goes beyond anaphoric and cataphoric references because there are usually many mentions of concepts from the real world. SNL’s Papyrus contains tons of references like that.

4) Top-down processing
We don’t usually use just one type of processing, but accessing background knowledge is crucial when it comes to sketches. A simple phrase can help us activate relevant schemata and predict what may happen next. Paying attention to what we can see plays a very important role as well. I used a still image from the beginning of the Faking the Moon Landing sketch by Mitchell and Webb to illustrate how many useful clues we can see before the characters even start to speak.

5) Features of pronunciation
Sketches aren’t typically made with English learners in mind, so there’s no simplification and the actors employ a full range of phonological features: connected speech, strong accents, using intonation and sentence stress to emphasise an idea, etc. These features usually represent one of the main reasons students struggle to understand what the characters are saying.

The process of writing the essay was enjoyable because I had to watch a number of comedy sketches on YouTube for my analysis. I also did a lot of reading on a variety of processes we employ when listening. I used these references in my essay:

• Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Field, J. (1999). Key concepts in ELT. ELT Journal 53/4, 338-339.
• Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Hunt, L. (2013). Cult British TV Comedy: From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
• Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.
• McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Neale, S., & Krutnik, F. (1990). Popular Film and Television Comedy. London: Routledge.
• Richards, J. C. (2008). Teaching Listening and Speaking: From Theory to Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
• Stebbins, R. A. (1990). The Laugh-Makers: Stand-up Comedy as Art, Business and Life-Style. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
• Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
• Thornbury, S. (2006). An A–Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
• Underhill, A. (2005). Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation. Oxford: Macmillan Education
• Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Wilson, J. J. (2008). How to Teach Listening. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

B) LESSON PLAN
My lesson plan was titled Using top-down processing to understand TV comedy sketches, and it was tailor-made for my group of volunteer upper-intermediate learners based in Mexico and Peru. I focused on practising activating content and formal schemata, inferring, interpreting the meaning of visual cues, and using co-text to anticipate what may happen next in the sketch. My subsidiary aims were related to key topic-related lexis and the ability to notice them in the text. I managed to meet all the criteria, so let’s take a look at some of the sections of the plan.

In Group profile, I referred to my needs analysis, which revealed that most learners in my group enjoy watching films and TV series in English. They also expressed the wish to be able to understand them more. I knew that this was the right group for this kind of lesson since most of the students were mature learners with a really good level of world knowledge. I also pointed out in Individual learner profiles that some members of the group struggled with decoding rapid speech. In Timetable fit, I mentioned the fact that I had tested the waters in one of the unassessed lessons by using this scene from Father Ted when talking about regrets. We had a lot of fun trying to transcribe the utterance I wouldn’t have done a Chinaman impression if I’d known there was going to be a Chinaman there to see me doing a Chinaman impression.

We also had a very interesting conversation about World War II and Inglourious Basterds, so I decided to choose Mitchell and Webb’s sketch Are we the baddies? for my lesson. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching this video:

In the Analysis section of the lesson plan, I focused on top-down processing, discourse features, and lexis. My Assumptions were based on the learners’ background knowledge and their positive attitude towards authentic texts. In Anticipated problems & solutions, I predicted some issues with trying to decode the characters’ rapid speech and emphasised the importance of visual cues.

Here is an abridged version of the lesson procedures, in which T stands for the teacher and Ss for students:

1) Lead-in
Whole-class conversation about YouTube and the type of content the Ss enjoy watching.

2) Text exposure
a) T shows three questions on the screen: Who are the people? Where are they? When does the scene take place?
b) Ss watch the first 30 seconds of the sketch without sound. They then discuss their answers to the questions in pairs or small groups.
c) Ss present their ideas in a whole-class discussion.
d) T shows this screenshot from YouTube on the screen:

My Delta LSA: Are we the baddies?

e) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what the video may be about based on the screenshot.
f) Ss make their predictions in a whole-class discussion. T plays the first 20 seconds of the video with sound on and asks Ss to compare their predictions with the content of the sketch.

3) Brainstorming
a) Ss respond to a Mentimeter survey with word associations related to Germany’s role in World War II.
b) T shows the resulting word cloud on the screen and draws attention to relevant lexical items in order to activate real-world knowledge.
c) T uses photos of symbols used by the participants of WWII to elicit words such as stars, stripes, lions, hammer and sickle.

4) Anticipating and predicting
a) T displays an incomplete sentence They’ve got ______ on them and plays a short passage (0:20–0:35) of the video. Ss use the chat box and write the word they think David Mitchell’s character is going to say.
b) Ss explain what clues they based their answer on before T reveals the word skulls and asks Ss what it makes them think of.
c) Ss comment on the relationship between the two characters and how it contributes to its comedy value. T reminds the Ss that the sketch is called Are we the baddies? and asks Ss to predict which of the two characters is going to say it. T then plays a passage from the video (0:20–0:50) to check if the prediction was correct.
d) T asks the Ss about the variety of English the characters are speaking and enquires if someone has heard the word horrid before. Can it be used to describe a person?
e) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what may happen in the rest of the sketch based on the clues they have been exposed to.
f) T then shows the second act of the sketch (0:52–2:47) without any interruptions to see how the sketch ends in comparison to the predictions.

5) Consolidation of knowledge
a) Ss work on a shared Jamboard page and write down how the previous activities helped them understand sketch. There are five items:
• Looking at the title, tags, and related videos on YouTube
• Talking about Germany’s role in WWII
• Discussing the symbols used by Germany and the Allies
• Focusing on the characters’ relationship and their personalities
• Predicting what the characters will say
b) T checks the answers in a whole-class discussion and asks Ss to elaborate on how the processes were beneficial.

6) Practice
a) T tells the Ss that they are going to watch another video and shows the following screenshot from YouTube on the screen:

My Delta LSA: Faking the Moon Landing

b) T plays the Faking the Moon Landing sketch without any interruptions.
c) Ss work in pairs or small groups and discuss what helped them understand the sketch.
d) Ss share their ideas in a whole-class discussion and highlight the processes that helped them expand on what they heard or to compensate for not being able to understand 100% of the characters’ speech.

7) Wrap-up
T asks the Ss to fill out an anonymous questionnaire in order to collect data for the Professional Development Assignment.

The Commentary section of the plan was about justifying my choices. I emphasised my intention to go beyond testing what the learners already know. I hoped that the lesson would make the learners more aware of useful processes that can help them understand authentic texts. When it comes to choosing the second sketch used in the lesson, I decided to go for one made by the same comedy duo because I didn’t want to make things more difficult by asking the learners to listen someone speaking a different variety of English. In addition, I picked a sketch based on a historical event so as not to completely change the focus.

C) REFLECTION AND EVALUATION
In general, I was pleased with the lesson. The students seemed to have a good time, which is always nice to see, and I believe that they got something useful out of it. It wasn’t a typical listening lesson, so I knew that it was a risky move, but fortunately everything turned out to be perfectly fine. When I observed the students using the Jamboard to explicitly state why they found the activities helpful for understanding the sketch, I knew that I’d get a good grade. Of course, no lesson is perfect, and there were a few minor issues in timing and giving instructions, but nothing that would ruin the learners’ experience. The LSA also inspired me to teach relevant features of connected speech in my next LSA so that I could give the students a few tips for understanding fast colloquial speech.

What did I get out of this LSA?
As you can see, the 60-minute lesson was preceded by a lot of work. In fact, the three documents I’ve summarised in this blog post comprise 8,826 words (including appendices). Obviously, it’s not feasible to have such level of preparation in your daily teaching practice. The main reason I found this assignment very useful is that it showed me how many things I need to consider when planning a lesson. Even when I write down just a few notes before teaching my lessons here in Colombia, I try to ask myself how the students are going to benefit from the activities. This LSA also reminded me why I love teaching English. When you manage to build rapport with students who are on the same wavelength as you, the lessons become very enjoyable for everyone involved. Having positive experiences such as this one motivates me to stay in TEFL and to keep looking for new ways to deliver engaging lessons.

All work and no play? No, thanks!

Since I started teaching, I’ve always written down lesson plans and notes. I keep everything on my PC, and I’m pretty sure that I could find at least some basic information about every lesson I’ve taught. It helps me track my progress as a teacher and see how my views have evolved. There is some other interesting stuff too. For example, when I was going through my work records, I found this schedule from the first half of 2019. Let’s take a look:

All work and no play makes a teacher's hair turn grey

That was probably my longest week as a teacher, and I guess you can imagine that I felt completely knackered at the end of it. To be fair, not all weeks looked like that because the training session took place only once a month. On the other hand, I was occasionally asked to administer exams or substitute for a colleague, which meant a few more hours spent at work.

What we are looking at here is a fairly common schedule that you can expect in an entry-level TEFL position in Colombia. Working for a private language institute is hard work; split shifts and six-day working weeks are the norm. If you sign a full-time contract with a company that sponsors your work visa, they will inevitably want to use your services as often as possible. Also, as I mentioned in the post about Colombian cities, Bogotá is infamous for even more demanding jobs that sometimes include commuting. Living close to the place of employment and not having to travel around the city is an advantage, but spending more than 30 hours per week at work eventually takes its toll.

Non-teachers will probably look at the schedule above with a sense of bemusement since a typical Colombian working week is 48 hours long. If you are a shop assistant in a run-of-the-mill clothes store, you can expect to spend six days a week at work and earn a modest salary that won’t allow you to rent a nice apartment on your own and pay all your living expenses. That’s why it’s so common to see adults living with their parents, which isn’t really surprising when you consider these circumstances.

I think that it’s very important to say that being a teacher involves more duties than the work you do in the classroom. You’ll spend a lot of time writing all kinds of reports and marking homework, tasks, quizzes, etc. You also have to plan your lessons, which is a crucial component of the job. When teachers are tired, they start cutting corners. Simply following the coursebook without personalising the content to your learners’ needs isn’t a good idea. Giving all your students random general recommendations instead of individual feedback won’t help you build rapport with the group. Don’t get fooled by ads that paint teaching jobs as a carefree experience; you have to be prepared to work hard. Teaching online doesn’t necessarily make things easier because you need to spend a lot of time making the activities user-friendly and appropriate for the tools you use.

The main consequence of working long hours is having less time for other activities. I decided to study for my Delta Module One exam while working those 30+ hours per week, and I experienced the most exhausting four months of my life. I had to find extra time for researching new topics in addition to my work schedule, which meant studying in the afternoon between the lessons and then doing most of my reading on Sundays. Fortunately, all that work paid off and I managed to pass the exam without any negative effects on my job, but it’s not something I would like to repeat.

I believe that having a life outside the classroom is extremely important. There are so many things to do in Colombia, so it would be a shame to spend most of the time here working. Being involved in something else than teaching is good for one’s well-being. That said, it’s important to have correct expectations because teaching English in Latin America isn’t a walk in the park. If you have no experience whatsoever, your first job probably won’t be great in terms of work-life balance. You may need to settle for a position that involves working long hours both inside and outside the classroom and getting a salary that is much lower than what you could get in some Asian countries.

The good news is that it gets a little easier with time. When you get some experience under your belt, your lesson planning will become more efficient. You can also recycle materials and activities, so it’s a good idea to store them in way that makes them easy to find. With that in mind, I really don’t think that working long hours is something one should get used to. If you aim to deliver quality lessons to your students, you need to have time to prepare them. Having enough rest is crucial as well, because overworking has adverse effects on your private and social life.

What is important to emphasise is that you don’t need to stay in an entry-level position forever. Once you complete one or two years in that kind of job, you will become a more interesting option for other employers. Obviously, they are more likely to hire someone who is settled in the country rather than an inexperienced teacher who has just arrived. Speaking the local language and getting involved in professional development are things that will help you as well. I think there’s nothing wrong with getting in touch with other employers to see if they could offer you better terms.

Fortunately, I managed to escape the confines of a work visa, and my stay in Colombia doesn’t depend on an employer anymore. Switching to being an hourly-paid teacher isn’t great in terms of job security, but there is a lot more flexibility because I can decide how many hours per week I’m going to work. My usual schedule in recent months has been much more pleasant to look at:

All work and no play? No, thanks

I still work six days a week, but it’s more manageable now. While I was doing my Delta Module Two, I decided to reduce my teaching hours, which helped me pass the course. I sometimes accept extra work in the afternoon when I feel that I have enough energy for it. Having more free time is great because I have time to update this blog and do other stuff that helps me develop professionally.

Of course, it’s also necessary to completely disconnect from teaching from time to time. If I feel like reading a book or watching a movie, I can do so without a nagging feeling at the back of my mind. I absolutely love teaching English, but I don’t think this job should make me feel the way it did in 2019. Taking care of your physical and mental health is extremely important, so there have to be opportunities to take a break from all the teaching, planning, and doing administrative tasks. I’m much happier with my current schedule; I don’t need to rush anything, and I believe that this has a positive effect on the quality of my lessons.

How about you? What’s your work schedule like? Let me know in the comments section.