How Much Improvisation?
How much of the classroom activity should be planned, and how much room should we leave for improvisation?
The improvisation of which we speak here is used in reference to the idea that a language instructor, while planning for lessons should:
• intentionally leave a certain portion of the time allocated to each lesson unplanned
• allow herself to improvise or react spontaneously in response to developments that take place as the lesson unfolds
• let the students dictate, to some extent, what happens in the lesson, without compromising the integrity of the curriculum or feeling that she is falling behind
Leaving room for improvisation in response to the developing dynamics in the class can become a planned part of the curriculum as a whole. Planning for the unplanned, so to speak, is a critical component of a successful language curriculum and an excellent tool for establishing agency of both instructors and students.
How much should be left unplanned depends on a variety of factors that have to do with everything from expected learning outcomes and programmatic structure to the personality of individual instructors. One way of looking at the planning process is something like the following: Plan your curriculum as desired, then assume that you will only be able to deliver, say, 80% of it. Go back to your plan, then, identify the 20% that you will take out, revise your curriculum, and feel good about it. Another way might be to view only forty out of the fifty minutes allotted to the lesson as the time available to you, leave the rest open, and still feel good about it. Whatever approach you take, be disciplined, thoughtful, and careful not to view this strategy as a mandate for designing a loose curriculum.
What percentage of your planned curriculum do you usually deliver? If close to 100%, what is the main factor? If much less than that, what is the most common reason?
In-Class Activities, Planned and Unplanned
Now let’s take a look at classroom activities, planned and unplanned. The following segments show a beginning Hebrew class, around the middle of the first semester. Of the 12 students enrolled in the class, six were true beginners, and the others had some form of exposure to Hebrew. The class was held at 8:00 a.m. in a small classroom, with a capacity of 25 seats.
The goal for the lesson was for students to state and defend an opinion, a skill that is expected to be developed in students who are at the intermediate level of proficiency. This was an election year, and the overarching topic was, therefore, elections.
As you watch the video segments keep in mind whether the activities were planned or unplanned, and also note the shifting arrangements of the physical classroom.
This first segment of the class (greeting the camera man) was unplanned in its entirety. Note the way the class is set up, which is the default setting for classes of this type:
A panoramic of the classroom setting.
Activity: I Want to Be Class President
To begin the activity, students present their fictitious candidates for class president. The presentation was prepared at home, but students are also asked (unexpectedly) to choose letters or words that would represent the candidate’s party in the elections, which is the way it is done in Israel.
Planned presentation for fictitious class president election.
In the next segment, still in a traditional setting, two students record the voting results. The dialogue that ensues involves the two students, their classmates, and the instructor, and the focus of the activity gradually shifts to the front of the classroom.
Tallying of votes.
Activity: Responding to a Questionnaire
In this activity, students poll each other on what they like or do not like to study. The questionnaire, prepared ahead of time, has student names on it and a column for yes/no or “I don’t know.” Students are supposed to move and speak to all other students. The TA and the instructor move around to assist students if necessary.
A planned class activity (polling). Students, instructor, and TA move throughout the classroom.
While this activity was planned, it was the least predictable in terms of the length of time it would require. Indeed, in both groups the conversation developed to include comments on personal experiences and topics that were not included in the poll itself. Note that in the very small room, the two groups work without losing focus or being distracted.
Students working in two groups.
Though there were 12 students in our class, the room was is designed for 25. How, if at all, would the activity and interaction have changed with a class of 25?
What types of activities lend themselves well to planning, and which are likely to benefit from a flexible setting?
The building blocks of a traditional paper-based syllabus are expanding and transforming as instructors move toward the interactive, web-mediated syllabus. The latter assumes multiple electronic documents and directories that evolve constantly with input from both the instructor and the students.
The syllabus, one may argue, is a roadmap to success—the success of the student, the instructor, and the academic institution. Examined in the context of academic discourse, “the syllabus” can be viewed as an academic genre with specific characteristics that define both its content and the manner in which this content is delivered.
Afros and Schryer (2009:225) suggest that as a document that mediates the interactions between students and instructors and between instructors and their colleagues, a syllabus has to be “balanced so that it can appeal to students, motivate and structure their learning, while, at the same time, can convince (senior) colleagues and external evaluators of the instructor’s professionalism and the course quality.”
A Legislated Syllabus?
An amendment to the Texas Legislature House Bill 2504, which became effective in June 2009, includes instruction on the contents of a syllabus:
What was the purpose of the amendment? What challenges does it pose for institutions and individual instructors?
The Texas Legislature, claiming “the right of the public to know,” dictates to language teachers what our syllabus should include, as well as the manner in which it should be disseminated. Consider, for example, such terms used like brief, major, and general as used in the amendment.
The Legislature, so it seems, has become a party to the discussion on the length (brief), weight (major), and depth (general) of items as we envision them in our curriculum or choose to express them in communicating with our students.
If a syllabus for a language course is written in the target language, can we comply with HB 2504? Or should we write the syllabus in English? Or in both languages?
Where Does This Leave Us?
Keeping all factors in mind, here are points to consider when crafting a syllabus.
• The syllabus should be clear, concise, and effective in the way it conveys information.
• Precision and accountability will serve our students well, while diminishing our concerns about the legal ramification of what we say or fail to say.
• Excessive detail has the potential of confusing the students, and overplanning will quickly and systematically erase the spontaneity that is so essential to language instruction.
• Unless institutional policies dictate otherwise, list activities by weeks as opposed to days, and include built-in unplanned segments of time in the weekly program.
• The syllabus is often a first-impression giver, and our voice as instructors should come through it clear, knowledgeable, authoritative, excited, and, most of all, reasonable and inviting.
[Module Instructor Esther Raizen PhD]. 2010. [Classroom Management]. In Foreign Language Teaching Methods. Carl Blyth, Editor. Texas Language Technology Center, University of Texas at Austin. http://coerll.utexas.edu
The material is provided free of charge for those that wish to study it.
How ever a no obligation exam is available at the end of this module.