This is part 2/6 of a series on Surviving Summer School. To read the other parts check here.
Congratulations are in order first of all: if you’ve made it this far you’ve survived both day zero and day one. At most summer schools the order of the day tends to be for the staff to arrive and be talked at for a day (Day Zero), followed by a day of relatively organised chaos (Day One) as the staff of each summer school try to receive their students, not receive anyone else’s students, deal with the inevitable lost bags/forgotten items/lost students, persuade teenagers to call home, and then somehow get everyone into allocated bedrooms and sorted into what are (hopefully) the right classes. For management staff, day one is a living hell that you then want a holiday to recover from, but for teachers and activity leaders it’s mostly a day of listening carefully, being flexible, and doing what you’re told.
So now it’s Day Two, the day when lessons actually start. You already feel as if you’ve been here for about a year, the ‘real world’ is starting to seem like a figment of your imagination, and you’re slightly worried that you’ve forgotten how to actually teach. As with Day Zero, Day One, and actually almost every other day of summer school, don’t panic. Your first lesson(s) at summer school have three real aims. 1. Get to know the students, and let them get to know you, 2. Lay down some ground rules, 3. Figure out what you’re dealing with.
1. Get to know the students, and let them get to know you.
Summer school is quite a different environment to where you’re likely to be working for the rest of the year, simply because the students are going to be there all the time. This can be a blessing or a curse. It does however mean that rapport is crucial.
I usually start my first lesson with a simple ‘getting to know you’ type activity. This can be something like ‘3 Truths and a Lie’ (write 4 sentences about you on the board, 1 of which is not true, students must guess the lie, ss. then repeat in pairs or small groups with their own sentences), ‘Find Someone Who’ (the inevitable worksheet of the same name) or my personal favourite, ‘Question the Teacher’ (elicit what information ss. want to know about a person they’ve just met, ie. name, age, favourite colour, favourite food, hobbies…, then ask them to work in small groups and guess your answers, give feedback on what they got right or wrong, ss. can then repeat the guessing or simply ask each other the questions). The main aim however is that it introduces the students to each other (they will have doubtless made some friends at the airport/in the dining hall/in their room already, but they are unlikely to have already spoken to everyone in their class), and also makes you seem more human.
2. Lay the ground rules.
Once everyone has got to know each other a little, the first lesson is time to lay down some ground rules. I used to ‘wait and see’ what students were like during their first class, and then use that to decide what rules to enforce from my second lesson on. Then I learnt that a combination of nerves and novelty tends to mean that students are always nicer in the first lesson than they will be in any subsequent lessons. Start as you mean to go on.
So as not to be too ‘school like’ – these students are on their summer holiday as well, I normally tend to ensure they are pretty involved in the decision process. Students can work in groups to decide what is acceptable and unacceptable classroom behaviour, then propose what they feel the rules should be. The class can vote for the most important rules which can then be displayed on a poster, signed by all the class. Good luck if they try arguing later down the line – because they wrote and chose those rules themselves. For teen classes I often encourage them to think what the penalties should be if the rules are broken. I have found forfeits for speaking L1 particularly effective when the forfeits are chosen by their peers!
3. Figure out what you’re dealing with.
My favourite ‘getting to know you’ and ‘class rules’ activities contain three specific elements: they require the students to work in a group, they require the students to speak in English, and they require the students to write. Some students take a ‘placement test’ before arriving at the summer school, some take a placement test on their first day, and others simply are taken on the word of their Dad/English teacher/Auntie that they ‘really are pre-intermediate, honest!’. Hopefully they are in a class of students who are roughly all the same level, but there are no guarantees of this.
It’s important to mention that ‘first day nerves’ can very much play a part here. The students may be nervous, they may be homesick, they may be jet-lagged or they may simply be very determined to be in the same class as their best friend from home/that cute French guy they met on the coach. As a result, I’d always recommend waiting a day or so before deciding that a student is definitely in the wrong group. These first lesson activities do however give the teacher an opportunity to get some idea of the class dynamics – are there any students who are very dominant or very quiet? Are there any students who you want to ‘keep an eye on’ as first impressions at least say that they might be in the wrong level?
After a busy couple of days, the first few hours spent teaching can feel very long. If it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, don’t worry. One of the great things about teaching at summer school is the sheer amount of time you get to spend with the students – it means that any mistakes, problems or ill-feeling are quickly forgotten. Tomorrow is another day.