Learning Names

How’s it going with learning all those names?!  If you’re in a single-sex school it’s even harder – 10 Jessicas in one room?!  How on earth do you distinguish between them all?  Here are a few tips to help you:

  • Tent cards  Bit of  an obvious one this one, but here goes anyway: A4 paper folded so it’s long and thin, pupils write their names on them and stand them on their desks.  Resist the temptation to smack the ones who write so small only they can read it.  I’ve never used this, incidentally, as I always suspected they’d swap name cards and I wouldn’t know, and once I make mistakes with names, that’s it for the rest of the year.  It also doesn’t make my memory work very hard.  So, some alternatives:
  • Seating Plan  You must have this anyway.  Keep it somewhere where you can see it when you really need it, and at the end of the school day look over it again and try to visualise the pupils.  If I have two pupils with the same first name, I put one on each side of the classroom, in alphabetical order of surname, so Joe Bloggs is on the left of the classroom, and Joe Smith on the right.
  • Use their names!  The more you use their names, the easier it gets and the more quickly you will establish positive relationships with your pupils.  Use them throughout the lesson, and as they come in through the door and out at the end.  If you see a pupil from one of your classes around the school, use their name then, too – it really tests your memory when you see them outside of your own room.
  • Ball game  This is my all-time favourite way of learning names which I learned from James Burch in 1995.  There were around 50 of us on the PGCE course and we learned everyone’s name in 10 minutes flat.  Here’s how it works:

You need a soft ball/toy/big ball of newspaper to throw around the room.  Bricks, bottles and nunchucks are best avoided.  A hot potato or a lit firework, however, would keep up the pace of the activity, although I have never tried either.  Everyone will have to say their first name, where they are from and something they like.  However, where they are from and the thing they like do not have to be true, but they must start with the same sound as their first name.  For example, I’m James, from Germany and I like jelly.  Actually, I’m not from Germany and it’s a pure coincidence that I’m still rather partial to a plate of jelly (with ice-cream, please, no custard), but the important thing is that they begin with the same sound, not necessarily the same letter as my first name.

For this to work well and not grind to an excruciating halt in this, one of your first lessons with a class as they think slowly and agonizingly of something to say, it is better to explain this first with an example or two and then give everyone 15 seconds to come up with something before you start launching your missile around the room.   Of course, no two people are allowed to like jelly or anything else, and the class is to have the most mixed of origins so if they hear someone else say that they are from where they wanted to be from, they have to come up with something else.  Their name, of course, does not change.  That would really not help.

And so, the bowling begins.  This is also a good opportunity to establish how a ball is to be thrown in class (to me, not at me), as I use a ball all the time.  It’s a very good way to establish who can speak at any one time (rather like the conch in Lord of the Flies, and as we all know, things can get almost as wild in the classroom as they did in the book).  I start it off.  I’m Mr Stubbs from Stevenage and I like stick insects.  The ball is thrown to a pupil on my left and they do the same with their own chosen bits of information.  Do everything you can to keep the pace up.  They throw the ball back to me and I continue round the classroom.  Before too long, I change my aim and go for a pupil on my right, otherwise it’s a long time before the ball gets to them.  Every so often I stop and go through everyone I’ve launched a ball at so far.  If I can’t remember their name, they tell me where they are from and what they like and that usually triggers it for me.  Once everyone has had the ball, we go round the room again very quickly with them telling me what they told me before and then I go around again and tell the whole class what their names are.  Before the end of the lesson I have another go at telling them their names.  When they come in for their next lesson I have another go and again at the end.  Between lessons I have another look at the seating plan, and when I take their books in for their first homework to be marked, again I try to visualise the pupil whose book I’m looking at.  If you take the books in in order, that’s much easier (and quicker to give back as well).  The whole thing from start to finish for a class of 30 need take no longer than 7 minutes, providing you’ve got them all to do the thinking before you start throwing the ball.

This is an amazingly effective memory technique, and I’ve always used it every year with every class.  Pupils are usually quite impressed by it, and I use it as an opportunity to tell them about how we will use different memory techniques as we learn new language which might seem unusual to them at first, but by the end they will see how effective the strategy was.  Therefore they need to trust me and pitch in with the lesson.

Of course, I do this in English before I get as far as the first lesson in the target language.  It’s usually in my second lesson (the first lesson is taken up with expectations and equipment and the first half of the second lesson usually involves finishing all that off, learning names and going through coping strategies.  The first target language lesson is lesson number 3 for me.  I know it feels like a long time to get there, but it’s worth it.  I’ve never regretted it).

Try it! See how you get on!  Even though this is fun, I’m still quite formal in my manner in this activity and I’m strict about how the ball is to be used.  I do this activity for my own benefit really, but pupils also appreciate it as an opportunity to learn their classmates’ names, particularly if they are new to the school.

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To Get You Started… NQT Day #4

Things you need to find out today:

  • Homework  How is homework to be marked?  And how is that marking to be recorded?  One of the things that you will be assessed on as part of your NQT programme is that you keep proper records and that you can use that assessment information in your planning and teaching.  You will also need this information for parents’ evenings and for writing reports. It will also help you to keep an accurate picture of what each pupil can do – it’s amazing how skewed our perception of them can become without something concrete to base it on with so many new pupils to get to know.  You probably don’t have to “level” every piece of work, but check.
  • Assessment activities If you haven’t been told already, or it’s not clear in your scheme of work, make sure you know where your current unit of work for each class is heading.  Is there a specific assessment activity that pupils will have to do in 3 or 6 weeks’ time?  If you have that clear in your mind now, it will help you work out which direction you need to go in with your teaching in the meantime.  But be careful!  Focusing only on the assessment activity can encourage you to forget to develop pupils’ linguistic competence in other areas, such as coping with the unexpected, using classroom language, or writing skills if it’s an oral assessment, or speaking skills if they need to write.  Maintain balance!

Things you need to do today:

  • To do Start the habit of writing “to do” lists.  There will be so many demands on your attention during the course of the average school day, so many people asking if you received their e-mail, so many people telling you what you absolutely must not forget… that you will forget.  Although things will get added to that list as fast as you tick things off as “done”, you won’t find yourself in the stressful situation of getting half-way through your lesson and finding you haven’t got half of your materials, or the embarrassing one of someone senior ticking you off in your first week.
  • Expectations  Put it in your diary for the beginning of week 4 to be ready to restate your expectations with your classes if you need to.   Make sure you’ve got whatever you need (powerpoint / visualiser sheet, etc) to hand in order to be able to do this.  From the point of view of the class, the novelty will have worn off of the new teacher and the new term/school and it’s often when challenges to your authority will occur.  Be ready and you will respond better and you won’t be surprised.
  • Informal peer observation  Check that others are happy with this first, but if you can, go and sit in the back of a classroom in your department and observe what goes on for a while.
  • Rough plan  So, the weekend is almost here!  At last!  And what will you do with it?  The answer, probably, is work (although more on this in a moment).  Before you start, it can be very helpful, and ultimately save you a lot of time, to draw up a quick grid of your week next week and plot out very roughly what you want to have achieved with your classes by the end of it (very little detail at this stage), and work backwards through the lessons of each class to put in what needs to happen in each one.  This is much easier than starting with Monday lesson 1 and planning forwards, and it will help you to be more decisive.  Try it!

And finally…  17 years ago I started my first term as an NQT.  I’m not proud of this, but this is what happened:  On Friday night I would mark Year 10 books.  On Saturday morning I would start planning Year 8 (my first class on Monday), I would plan their first lesson making all the materials, then move on to lesson 2 (another year group).  And so it would go on, all day Saturday until a friend came to rescue me at about 8 o’clock and drag me out of the house.  Sunday afternoon, the same process continued.  The result was that by Sunday night I had all of Monday planned (although a tense quarter of an hour on the photocopier with a huffing and puffing queue behind me still to come), but it had taken me two days to do it.  So on Monday night, there was all of Tuesday to plan, but I didn’t have two days before I got there.  Every night felt like a cliff edge, and there were some very late nights.  Not surprisingly, within 4 weeks I was shattered, classes were starting to misbehave because the novelty had worn off, and I was too tired to respond well to what was happening in the classroom.  When the half-term holiday came, I remember working at least half of it, trying to catch up and trying to get ahead.  I won’t tell you how many hours I was working each week, it would be embarrassing.

One day shortly after half-term, the Head of Art and I bumped into each other in the corridor.  A kindly sort, he asked how I was settling in and getting on.  I tried to smooth over the difficulties, but he’d seen this before.  He asked me what I did on my day off at the weekend.  Day off?!  What day off?!  I insisted it was impossible to take a day off at the weekend.

I still remember his forcefulness and I thank him for it: I remember him saying it was “scandalous” not to have a day off at the weekend, not just because it wasn’t good for your long-term health not to, but “the principle of the thing!” –there was no need to work 7 days a week.

That chance conversation in the corridor freed me.  I was working very, very hard, but much of it wasn’t quite as necessary as it felt at the time.  Hopefully, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking, “of course you should have a day off, everyone should, I was going to anyway!”, but maybe you’re already overwhelmed by all there is to do.  Remember that this is the sort of job where it’s never finished.  You can always do more, but it doesn’t mean you should.  You will be much more use to your classes if you are in better shape because you had some space at the weekend to do and think about something else!  There are no prizes for keeling over exhausted by week 4.  When you’re new and you’re keen to show you’re conscientious, the temptation to overwork is considerable.  And also, to be honest, it takes some time to get the knack of managing our time and balancing it with our workload.  Or am I alone in that?!  I won’t kid you that from that moment I never struggled with work-life balance again, far from it, but that conversation was a huge turning point for me.

So, whatever else you do, have a day off.  One complete day off is better than two half-days off.  See your friends (before you lose them), go out, but have a day off when you don’t check your work e-mail or get your planner out.  And on the other day, start off by working out exactly what you need to achieve by the end of it, then break your day up into blocks and stick to your time deadlines ruthlessly, just like you did in exams.  It might mean that you don’t get to do an activity exactly as you want to this time, or that worksheet or flipchart or powerpoint isn’t quite as pretty as you wanted it.  But ultimately it’s about what pupils learn (and there are many different ways of achieving that) and keeping on top of the other bits that come with working in a team (like admin).

So well done, you’ve made it to the end of the first week!  I think that deserves a celebration…