This semester, I’m teaching a class that meets twice a week for four hours each class period—yes, four hours! When I first found out that I’d be teaching a four-hour class, I thought it would be the worst thing ever. I imagined that my students and I would be totally dead and bored by the end of class. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that it has not been nearly as horrible as I thought.
First and foremost, I try to vary the activities we do in each class period. During class, I mainly use a combination of TPRS Story-asking, MovieTalks, and Story Listening. We also do quite a bit of PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers—basically, we talk together about what we’re interested in, what we did over the weekend, and and any other random topics that come up). I find that switching between these different activities helps to keep things interesting and keeps the students engaged.
Another trick to making it through the four-hour class is to use brain breaks. Brain breaks are very short activities (usually only a few minutes) that give students a short break from whatever they are learning and that usually require some kind of body movement. As this article explains, moving the body helps to increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, which helps people to focus better and to retain new knowledge. So brain breaks are very important, especially in a four-hour class, but even in shorter classes, too.
I think that brain breaks often get overlooked, especially in classes for adults. Most of us know that children need time to move around, but we forget that adults need it, too. When children get restless, the signs are usually more obvious, as they often start fidgeting or being disruptive. Adults, however, usually don’t show these outward signs of restlessness. When adults start getting bored or tired during class, they usually just sit quietly, though their mind might be totally zoned out. Most of the sources I’ve seen say that adults have an average attention span of about 20 minutes. So I try to remember to give my adult students brain breaks regularly, even if they aren’t showing outward signs of restlessness.
Here are a few of my brain break ideas:
- My most commonly used brain break is just simple TPR, in which I give commands to the students (e.g., “Stand up,” “Touch your left leg”) and they listen and follow the command. TPR is especially good for beginning-level students, as it helps them to acquire new words while also moving their bodies. I also occasionally use other variations on TPR, such as a game of Simon Says using the commands they already know.
- Crossing-the-Midline movements—I recently ran across this article about the importance of moving our bodies in ways that cross our body’s midline. The “midline” is the imaginary line that runs down the middle of our bodies, separating the right side from the left side. Doing these kinds of movements require the right and left sides of the brain to work together, which means they are a little more difficult and are beneficial for our brains. I’ve been trying to integrate these types of movements using TPR-style commands to my students. For example: “Touch your right elbow to your left knee…Now switch—touch your left elbow to your right knee…Switch again!…Switch again!…Now, touch your right foot with your left hand…Switch!…Switch!”
- Body Parts—This is an activity from Annabelle Allen (read about it on her blog here). In the activity, each student is paired with a partner. The teacher yells out the name of a body part, and the students need to touch that body part to their partner’s corresponding body part. For example, if the teacher says “Right foot,” the two students need to touch their right feet together. When I do this activity with my adult students, I assign my students with a partner of their same gender since—depending on their cultural background—I think some students might feel uncomfortable touching body parts with a person of the opposite gender. (Of course, there are some body parts that you will probably want to avoid no matter what, like nose and mouth!)
- Spelling It Out—For this activity, I have 26 sheets of paper, each one with a letter of the alphabet on it. (i.e., one piece of paper with “A,” one piece of paper with “B,” etc.) I hand out one letter of the alphabet to each student. If I have fewer than 26 students in the class, some students get two letters. Then, I say a word, and the students need to spell out the word using the letters on their papers. For example, if I say the word “table,” the students who have the letters T, A, B, L, and E need to stand up and come to the front of the room. The students stand and arrange themselves in the correct order so that they spell the word “table.” Then, those students sit down, and I say a different word—e.g., “mother”—and the students with the letters M, O, T, H, E, and R need to come to the front of the room and arrange themselves so they spell out the word correctly. Just remember that you will need to use words that don’t have any repeated letters (for example, the word “happy” would not work because you need two letter P’s in order to spell it). I’ve written out a list for myself of words that my students are already familiar with and that do not have any repeated letters. During the activity, I simply look at the list and call out words for my students to spell. This activity takes a little bit of prep work to print out the letters and make a list of words, but you can re-use the materials again and again. My students seem to enjoy this activity, and it often generates a lot of laughter and some talking back-and-forth as students sometimes disagree about what letter is needed in a particular word.
In addition to brain breaks, I try to use some other activities that get students moving while they are receiving comprehensible input. After doing a story (either through TPRS Story-Asking, MovieTalk, or Story Listening), I sometimes review the story in a way that makes students move, such as playing a Charades-style game in which students are each given a sentence from the story that involves some kind of physical action. Each student acts out their sentence, and the other students guess what it is. I also sometimes use “Simultaneous Acting,” as described here by Martina Bex. Running Dictation is another good idea.
Some of these activities have the added benefit that they give us teachers a little break, too. Teaching is a lot of work, especially for us comprehension-based teachers who are trying to give our students as much input as possible, which means we are standing in front of the class and talking for a lot of the time. It’s exhausting! When I’m doing my lesson planning, I try to remember to build in activities that will allow little breaks for me so I can sit down for a minute or two and drink some water—especially in these longer class periods. Taking care of yourself is important, too!
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