One would think that after having the same conversation with 700 students, about the same topic from the same script, I would have pretty much heard every answer there is to hear.
And while yes, there is not much by the way of variety, still out of the blue some of them surprise me.
There are some kids who sit down and can’t look me in the eyes because they’re so nervous. Some walk back into the classroom and cheer because they did well, or because they’re so relieved that it’s over. And some suddenly start speaking amazing English that I never knew they were capable of. It’s been a very mixed bag.
Each grade has their own specific topic or task which has resulted in my knowing backwards and forwards how a particular conversation can go based on the level of the student.
Grade 1 has to do some small talk and describe people in two pictures which they choose at random. Grade 2 has to give some advice about one of three problems they have seen in advanced. And grade 3 has free talking about and two of four topics which they have also been given in advanced.
Each one of these in fun in it’s own way, and problematic in its own way. And I have enjoyed both aspects because it has given me a much clearer picture of where my students are actually at in terms of their English ability. Some people are MUCH higher than I realized, and some MUCH lower.
Here is how each grade basically went.
Grade 1: Describing People.
This one is fun because it’s incredibly easy so almost everyone did it without difficulty. They enjoyed getting to talk to me one-on-one, many of them for the first time. I got a lot of the typical, “they have a big nose” when describing a western looking person, and squeals when they turned over a picture to see their favorite Kpop idol.
One kid, who is my BTS (a kpop group) buddy sat down and immediately said, “Teacher where is BTS picture?” Anytime a student goes out of their way to speak any extra amount of English in an attempt to connect with me, I tend to indulge them. And he always goes out of his way. I told him there was one BTS members photo and we spent a few seconds turning over each picture until we found him.
One of my favorite grade 1 girls had even taken the time to write down this whole story that she wanted to tell me about trying to come visit me in my office, but she was too afraid because there were a lot of grade 3 girls in the office. And they’re scary because, “they have so short skirts and wear curlers in their hair.”
In her defense they are terrifying at times. No one can give an attitude quite like a 14 year old girl, but I told her she should come see me anyway. The older girls won’t bite.
Everyone did very well, and my co-teacher told me after the first test that everyone who came back into the classroom after the test had a big smile on their face. And that’s the biggest reward I could ever ask for. My end goal here is that they will feel confidant speaking English. I want them to know that making mistakes while you speak is OKAY. That the point of speaking is communication and it’s amazing how much you can communicate with very few words if you just try.
And all in all I’m very impressed with how hard they tried.
Grade 2: Give some advice
This test took me a little while to really get a feel for. But I have a very solid handle now on which problems will be easy for which type of students to answer. There are 3 problems and I ask them to give advice for one of them after a little bit of small talk.
My biggest surprise with this test was how much lower they all were than I realized. My grade 2 classes, especially the boys, are some of my best behaved and engaged classes in the entire school. They speak a lot during class and are always enthusiastic about trying the games and activities.
But when it came down to an actual conversation they were significantly lower than I anticipated.
After a while I had it worked out that if a kid seemed particularly low level or I thought that it would do them good to bond with me a little bit, I asked them the “fast food problem” question. They give some advice and then I asked them, “is fast food bad?” to which most students respond with a hesitant yes. And then I ask, “Is it delicious?” and watch as their face changes from listening intensely to laughing as they understand my question. It’s quite beautiful to watch.
Because that’s the whole point of this test. I want to break free from the “class” or “test” structure even for just a moment and get them to see how English can be useful and fun and a tool for communication.
So I make jokes about fast food and they laugh. Every. Single. Time.
Of the other two problems there is one that I save for the higher kids and one that I use for everyone.
Having middle school students give advice about anything is invariably hilarious, so I really enjoyed hearing what they thought these fictitious people should do.
Grade 3: Random Free Talking
The grade 3 students have 4 different topics that I can choose from and ask questions about to keep them talking for about 2 minutes. Two of the questions are a little more abstract, and two of them are very easy to give rote memorized answer to. I tried to pick one of each.
My favorite question was, “can you tell me about something memorable?”
The higher level students really loved this question because it gave them a chance to basically tell me anything they ever wanted to about their lives. And boy did they.
One girl student, who was incredibly tickled that I remembered her name, said with a look of genuine excitement and her hands clasped together, “Ah I was hoping for that question! I have a story that I really want to tell you!” There are few students who can match her level of fluency and general enthusiasm for life.
Her story was about meeting a kpop idol and we had a lovely time chatting about it. When we finished and I said that the test was over she complained that she wanted to keep talking. That’s just about every teachers dream.
One particularly high boy student, when asked, “do you have a motto?” replied, “The power of nations does not lie in defense but in invasion.” He laughed as he said it, like he knew how equally absurd and amazing of an answer it was, so I didn’t feel bad laughing with him. Hearing that come from the mouth of a middle schooler was definitely one of the highlights from my speaking tests. I asked him what that meant, “and he said ‘the best defense is a good offense.'”
This is the same student who once when I asked the class, “Can you recommend me something fun to do here this weekend?” said “you should stay at home and not leave your room. There’s nothing in Daejeon.”
I also got stories about climbing mountains in China and going to the beach in Japan.
The question, “do you have a motto” is pulled from a chapter about mottos in their book. And for the students who clearly had just picked one and memorized it without thinking, and didn’t have the best attitude, I consistently followed up with the question, “Oh, so what does that mean?”
I realize that’s a tad cruel, but I told them in advanced that what I care about most for this test is your attitude. If you come and try hard, even if you make mistakes you will do fine. But if you show up with a bad attitude and you clearly haven’t even looked at the study sheet, then you will have some problems.
And some people did. Luckily the nerves seemed to keep most of them in line, but still there were some who were just a little too cool to try.
There were also some who genuinely could not understand a single word I said. Those students I have some sympathy for. If they have made it this far in their education, having been in English class since 3rd grade, and still they can’t understand “how are you?” I think that might be more of a failing on the part of the public school system, not the student.
Of course some of them just didn’t study at all and don’t care one tiny bit about English. There are those students too. But I don’t feel so bad for them.
All in all though the speaking tests went really well. I have 2 more days until I have finished talking to all 700 of my students. I am really thankful for the chance to finally get to meet all of them in a one-on-one setting.
When my co-teachers told me I’d have to do the speaking exams they seemed genuinely sorry to lay that burden at my feet. But I have loved it. It’s exhausting, especially for this profound introvert. I will be sad to go back to regular classes next week, but I’m hopeful that having actually interacted with me, and seen that I’m really really not scary, they will be a little more willing to participate in class.
My goal at this school is to encourage them to be confidant while speaking English and to make them feel like they can always try to speak even if they don’t know exactly how to say something. And I got to encourage them for 2 weeks straight. It’s been a good time.
Thanks for reading!