Recently, teachers at the Oak Grove School were asked to conduct ‘action research’ as part of the annual teacher evaluation cycle. In this article, High School ESL teacher Kristy Lee describes and thoughtfully reflects on an intervention she made in her classes, raising questions of order and freedom, and questioning conditioning on both sides.

Knowing how young children find stability and benefit from order and structure, how will increased structure and predictability of work in class affect the quality of the attention and engagement of older students? This question came about from my interactions with my young son. I observed over time what looked to me as his need for structure and routine. For example, evening preparation for bed had developed a set rhythm and order. I began to notice that my son really preferred knowing what would happen and sticking to a pattern. He would even take the initiative to remind me if I went off course or forgot something. It seemed that the predictability gave him a sense of ease and control. If we went off schedule too often he would become agitated and grumpy. On the other hand he thrived when he was able to rely on his routines. I have heard other parents sharing similar observations of their children and there are numerous studies and research papers that discuss the positive effects of order and structure on very young children.

In the classroom I try to teach in a style that I feel would be the most beneficial to the students. However, I also realize how my teaching is influenced by how I would like to be taught and how I learn best. Therefore, though I have a plan for my classes, I am happy to change or redirect the focus if something interesting comes up. I wondered though if I was taking up too many of these teaching opportunities, and if this was having a disruptive effect on the overall rhythm, expectations and materials covered in the class.

Laying down a structure

In preparing for my action research, I wrote a general plan of all the things I wanted to cover with the grades 9, 10 and 11 for the whole time period of this project. Additionally, I created a very detailed weekly schedule that included all the things we would cover, the length of time each activity would take and homework assignments. The following table, for example, was the plan for one Monday during the project.

My objective was to stay true to everything I had written down and in the order it was written down. Another objective was to repeat activities on set days, week after week. For example, journal writing and homework correction were everyday activities. Idioms and grammar sheets were covered three times a week on Monday, Thursday and Friday.

Settling into the structure

Initially I could see the students struggling with the enforced order, especially when I insisted on keeping them on topic much more than I used to. They did not all respond with enthusiasm to this change, as it was quickly implemented without any warning. Each class reacted differently to this. The ninth graders really did not like the reduction in the freedom of their vocal expression. The tenth graders pretty much went along with it. It has two new students, which I believe was part of the reason. The eleventh graders were my hardest bunch. This class was hard to read at times. They were easy-going and talkative as individuals, but as a class they tended to be more reserved and uncommunicative. They went along with it but with a definite unvoiced reserve.

In the beginning I was doing much more monitoring and reminding to make sure they stayed on topic and focused. Interestingly enough, the number of times I would intervene in any given class began to decrease. In the ninth grade class it was quite a noticeable decrease. Near the end of this project my students would remind me or bring up things they had gotten used to covering during class, for example, idioms, if I had forgotten. Of course idioms were something they had fun with, so this was a popular activity. The students also began to know what we would be covering and as a result were more prepared and focused. One thing I found useful with the repetition was that they became faster with certain classroom tasks. For instance, grammar sheet corrections went quickly as they all had the format down and knew what to do without me prompting them. This was the same with ‘in-class’ editing. The ninth graders especially were getting faster and better at spotting mistakes. There was a heavy focus on editing during this time so improvements with timed ‘in-class’ writing and rewriting were noticeable.

Observing my own responses

What I found really interesting, more than these small behavioural changes in the students, was what came up for me. I noticed right away that I had over planned and had misjudged timings of some activities. Thus, I found myself getting frustrated at not being able to cover everything planned for the day. I also noticed that I felt more mechanical and less spontaneous when I kept referring back to the plan during class to make sure I was covering everything I needed. My feeling is that this might get better with time, but I also recognize that too rigid an attention to the plan blocks spontaneity. On days I did not look at the plan and worry about finishing everything, I felt freer and more engaged with the students.

One of the things I did before the experiment was to organize my binder with copies of all the material I wanted to cover for each class. This way I always had everything with me and could find things easily. As I had to move from one room to another, this actually was needed as I did sometimes forget a book in another class. This turned out to be a good model for the students. I also insisted on the students having their binder in order early on in the experiment and this helped them to stay more organized as well. I also noticed that I became more organized in getting work handed back early and having printouts ready and easily added to their folder. I found it was better if I hole-punched everything, though a part of me thinks these students, especially the older ones, should be able to organize their work and not lose it just because I forgot to hole punch a handout. But I have to admit that it made for less shuffling of papers and searching on the part of the students.

I realized that with the ninth grade class I had been going off topic more than I realized was helpful for them. In one sense it was good for their speaking practice and on the spot thinking, but on the other hand we ended up not covering as much new material, which they do need, especially with their grammar and writing. This showed me that I actually needed to focus on that class more. My objective was to empower them to self-directthemselves rather than wait for me. So I continually and strongly asked them to focus their energy during the first couple of weeks of this project. I figured once they got used to this expectation, they would do it more naturally unprompted.

Finding the balance between structure and spontaneity

My biggest struggle was with knowing what the right balance was between asking for order and focus and their freedom to influence the speed and movement of the class. I know that for many of them the ‘ESL class’ is where they feel most comfortable to engage and speak out. I wanted them to retain this and yet stay focused on the topic at hand. Another aspect I came to realize more strongly was that Oak Grove, and this class in particular, allows most of them to engage with teachers and their education in a radically different way from a style of learning where they are just asked to listen and obey. They had earlier been well initiated into this style of learning, so I wondered if there is much value to layering in more control, since this is a system they already know well and perform well in. I also wondered if there would be the danger of them slipping into a mechanical way of doing things, without even realizing it, if the class structure was similar to what they had been used to.

It was just getting interesting when the project came to an end just before Spring break. I did not arrive at anything conclusive. My feeling though is that these changes are helpful and will benefit the students; but it needs to be tempered with spontaneity and freedom for both the students and myself. It shouldn’t really be strongly one way or the other. But what is the best ratio? I realize that many factors play into this and it changes with each new class every year. These factors include the dynamics between the individuals, their comfort and familiarity with the place and the teachers, their social and cultural background; whether they had enough sleep the previous night, whether they are struggling with relationship issues. I really needed more time, a whole year ideally, to gather more information. I think this would be quite an interesting experiment to begin the next school year with.