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Have you prepared your course?

Recently, a colleague asked me how do I plan my lessons or my course.

Well, I try as much as possible to arrive in my classes without any set idea of what we’re going to do.

Is that set in stone? No. Does it mean I don’t prepare anything for my classes? Not at all.

Firstly, there’s the case of complete (or false) beginners. Whether I plan it or not, I already know that there are some things they should discover about the language prior to anything else. They’re going to explore the sounds of the language. They’re going to work on French prosody before an actual word has been pronounced (“bububuBU bubububuBU bububuBU” is more likely to be heard in my class than “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?”). Then during the first 20-30 hours there’s some kind of patron I find interesting, with very little vocabulary but a lot of oral production, work on syntax, word order, to get a sensibility to the language and automatise a good pronunciation. Do I need to decide before the class if they’re going to learn a specific sound before another? No, this is a decision taken moment-by-moment depending on the students, on what’s challenging for them, their level of energy, and a million of other parameters that I’m not smart enough to predict. And so is it for grammar, syntax, etc. There are some things that need to be learned before others, I know it because I know the language and its logic. And if a student needs a structure that requires many others before, I’ll show him that we need to delay that and learn a few more basic things before. But for instance sometimes they learn the possessive pronoun the same day they learned the possessive adjective, because they felt they needed it; sometimes they learn it daaaays after, because they had already other pronouns at their disposal and the possessive pronoun wasn’t useful (this is just a rough example of course).

In less words, with beginners, I know they need to go through a few important discoveries before they can go to the next ones, but that doesn’t require any planning from my side. I usually introduce new things based on moment-by-moment decisions, especially when they show me they’re comfortable with what they’ve been exposed to so far.

With intermediate and more advanced students, what I do really depends on what they’ve done before. Sometimes it feels like I’m asked to build a nice “advanced level” rooftop with jacuzzi on a building that has lost half of its walls and never had foundations. I find it problematic and I rarely comply. Without planning, I know we’re going to spend the next weeks renovating the walls, and lower levels, and that the jacuzzi will have to wait a bit. (Of course my metaphor is mostly for fun, I don’t actually consider that learning a language is similar to building a house!)

Generally speaking there’s even more freedom with non-beginner levels, since they have enough tools to go into different directions. My rule is to present them with linguistic content when they need it, which is the only way I have to make sure that it’s going to feel relevant to them. During the class, they express themselves a lot and what they say or don’t say tells me what they should work on. Please note that this is very different from letting them decide on what we’re going to work; this is my job and they really don’t have the tools to take that sort of decisions. But any mistake or any effort by a given student to venture into new territories can be the cue for new content.

My most common mistake as I started teaching was to try to set the tempo of the course. And quite a fast tempo, honestly. I wanted to show new things all the time to my students and to go on, go on, go on, whether they had made that content theirs or not. Obviously it didn’t work and gave poor results, and I was forced to admit that some basic things were still not integrated after months. In my experience it really varies how long a group will need to master something; there are slower and faster groups, but sometimes it’s not that, it’s someone that got stuck, or on the opposite a great insight that will help the whole class, and I can’t really predict if they will be comfortable with how to use subjunctive on April 24th, or before, or after.

In the end, I feel that planning the course ahead would be to organise things my way, with my criteria, regardless of how fast or slow my students progress. I’m not stating something true for all classes here, I just feel it’s not compatible with my teaching.

Now, do I prepare something for my classes? Yes I do. Usually after a class, I reflect and take some notes on what happened, what went well, what went wrong, on the students themselves. Some teachers call it “postparation”. And I always read it shortly before the next class. This gives me a sense of continuity and prepares the course to come. Apart from that, I spend a lot of time reflecting on my practice and on how I could improve it, talking with colleagues or reading stuff. This makes me much more prepared for all the decisions I will have to take during a class. And that could be my conclusion: prepare yourself instead of preparing your course!

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