Handing Over The Reins

by Magnus Coney

“Right, we’ve got a bit of an emergency. I was supposed to do today’s session, but we’ve just had a phone call from one of the teachers who is off sick. There is no one to cover her lesson, so Alina is going to swap sessions with me and I’ll cover the class. The problem is that the lesson starts in ten minutes and Alina’s having problems with the computer. So I need to help her with that. Since we are in the final week of the CELTA course, how about if you plan a lesson for me? The lesson is just an hour long, the students aren’t using a course book and just want to speak about something interesting and get feedback on it so no need to make any materials. Remember what we said about gaps the other day: information, experience, opinion and knowledge gaps. I just need a warmer, the main task and some kind of follow-up. You could work in pairs and I’ll pick one. Is that OK?”

This is how I started my CELTA session on materials-free teaching on a recent CELTA course (July 2013) at IH Milan. Although it sounds like throwing the trainees in at the deep end, they all immediately got down to work, and lo and behold, 10 minutes later I came back to see two different lesson plans written up on the board! I was very proud of them and felt quite guilty having to admit that it was all a hoax (although I suspect some of them had already guessed). In my defence, it showed them that they were capable of planning a lesson from scratch with very little time which is a valuable skill for their future teaching careers. I think the other reason this worked was because on the timetable that particular session was down as ‘TBC’ rather than ‘Materials-free teaching’ so the trainees were not forewarned.

How it happened:

Due to the number of trainees we had an open slot the next day. I sometimes get trainees who are not teaching to do some kind of game but this time I had decided I would do something myself instead i.e. teach a class planned by them. The open slot offered the perfect opportunity, and I decided to use the session to get them to plan the lesson for me.

Since the students in question were a lovely bunch of Italian women, I shamelessly stereotyped them and suggested that the lesson could be based around my upcoming wedding. Firstly, the trainees brainstormed activity ideas related to the topic of weddings in groups. They then regrouped to share their ideas and agree on three they liked, which I recorded on the board. Finally, they returned to their original groups and used the ideas on the board to plan the lesson. The results are below:

There are some great ideas and I’m sure anyone doing a lesson based on weddings will find something they can use.

Unfortunately, due to the length of the lesson and the level of the class I was due to teach, there wasn’t anything that could easily be done. I did use the brainstorming idea, and followed it with the ‘Paper interviews’ activity from Scott Thornbury, as I felt this would encourage them to use more of the brainstormed vocabulary. It was a fun lesson, but nonetheless I felt bad that I hadn’t been able to use more of my trainees’ ideas.

So, what would I do differently? Looking at the whole process, I think there are four main stages which I have outlined below:

The session

The session doesn’t have to be materials-free, but I felt it fitted well as they didn’t have to worry about preparing materials or analyzing a lot of language. From the plans it is clear they had recently looked at TBL so this might be another option. It was also important that this happened quite late in the course (week 3), so they already had some experience of lesson planning.

I was happy with the session itself (we moved on to Dogme and other practical ideas following the planning stage). However, next time I might introduce an actual planning strategy – they only had experience of writing very detailed plans usually based on course books with a linear approach. For this kind of activity a more global approach would work better and one approach I like is from Duncan Foord.  He suggests planning as a spider diagram where you make your main communicative task the centre and brainstorm other activities (for scaffolding or follow-up) around it. This would help them make sure that everything in the lesson contributed to the main task performance.

The other issue is how to ensure that everyone has a say in the plan. Perhaps giving each group a different part of the lesson to plan, or just accepting that it’s very difficult to have input from 12 different people on one 45 minute plan!

I also think it’s important that you teach their TP group if you can, so they know the level of the group. As most CELTAs have two TP groups, perhaps each half of the class could prepare a separate lesson, if both tutors are happy to teach.

Before the lesson

The next thing I would change would be to make sure there are a couple of days between the session and the lesson. That way you can have a look at the plan/plans, and highlight any areas you’d like them to rethink. It’s more work for them, but I think the motivation of seeing you teach a lesson they have planned would make up for it. Following their revisions you can provide them with a final copy of your plan, hopefully incorporating as many of their ideas as possible. I would keep it as just the sequence of activities, so you can keep them in suspense as to the actual techniques you will use!

During the lesson

If you wanted to give the trainees even more work, you could ask them to design their own observation task for the lesson. They could work in groups and come up with a couple of questions for each stage of the lesson, such as “What if they can’t think of any wedding vocabulary?”, “How will he give the instructions for this stage?”. Alternatively you might design your own observation task for them, based on some techniques that you will use that you want them to notice.

I also considered asking the trainees for comments/help during the lesson itself -“What checking question could I ask now?” or to monitor for errors that they or I could give feedback on. I can’t say how your trainees or the students would feel about this, but I think it could be very effective if everyone is happy with it.

After the lesson

The obvious first step would be for the trainees to give you feedback based on their observation tasks. They should also do some kind of evaluation of their plan and suggest how it could be changed. A questionnaire for the students might be revealing as well, seeing if they noticed any differences between being taught by the trainees and by the tutor.

In conclusion

As I said, this is the first time I have tried this. Although I feel that it could be really beneficial for the trainees – they have a lot more investment in observing this lesson than they do in others (We’ve all had trainees sending the occasional text message or planning their next lesson thinking we can’t see them), and hopefully they can be exposed to a variety of techniques that do not sink in so effectively when they are simply described by the tutor. The only issue for me is that of time -an intensive CELTA is exactly that. If you can get around that, then I hope you try it and let me know how it goes!

Thanks to…

Nick Baguley, my MCT, for suggesting this article.

Agnese, Azzurra, Frances, Georgia, Laura, Louise, Luisa, Matteo, Patrick and Serj for suggesting the wonderful ideas above and being a fantastic group of trainees.

Author’s Bio: Magnus is a teacher and CELTA tutor at IH Milan, where he has worked for the last 3 years. He occasionally blogs at www.learningcentredteaching.wordpress.com



Meddings & Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged (Delta Teacher Development Series 2009).