This semester, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before with students. Tai Chi. Yes, that slow-motion exercise that makes most people think of older Chinese people in a park. Now before the rants of “you’re the English teacher, that’s not your role” start flying, let’s consider a few things. (And for a pertinent discussion of just what are our roles as TEFL teachers, see Chia Suan Chong’s post on ELTknowledge.com)
Have you ever participated in one of those professional team-building seminars? You know, the ones where you have to do things like build spaghetti-and-marshmallow towers with your colleagues? It’s kind of ridiculous and you feel a bit silly but it’s fun. And you all do it together. That’s kind of the idea I had.
The idea of group cohesion in the classroom is nothing new. Help students feel like they belong, that there’s a common identity, and that everyone is pulling in the same direction and you’ll get better work out of the group. Evans and Dion did a study of this back in 1991 and found a direct relationship between group cohesion and group performance and found that cohesive groups tended to be more productive than non-cohesive groups.
After having a few groups last semester that just didn’t seem to “gel” quite right, I figured maybe creating a little classroom ritual would help. A secret handshake would have been too cult-like and we can’t exactly sacrifice chickens, so before the start and at the end of each lesson, we do a few minutes of Tai Chi. Together. I’m in front of the class feeling just as silly as they are. We have a few giggles at the start, but soon try really hard to focus. That’s next…
Tai Chi is one of the martial arts which “foster preparedness, control, and symmetry” (Donnelly, Hollenbeck, and Eburne, 2000: 85). The slow movement of the forms forces the practitioner to really concentrate on the movement of the body, breathing, and balance.
In my own experience, it helps clear your head of whatever is rattling your brain because you move all your focus to the movements and the breathing. Afterwards, the problems haven’t gone away, but they have been moved away from the front-and-center place in your brain (I’ve got no fancy brain scans to illustrate this but that’s how it feels).
For students, especially early morning groups, taking a few minutes to transition into the classroom helps them to mentally and physically make the connection with coming into English class—the tried-and-true ‘warm-up activity.’ Hopefully (because classes just started this week), doing so before the beginning of every lesson will lead to better concentration during the lesson. We’ll see over the course of the semester.
The first movement we do is called “opening the door” (I didn’t make that up!) which seems appropriate because it’s like we’re opening the door to the language classroom. After the lesson, we do “closing the door” (again, not my invention) to clearly mark the end of the lesson. Just before we “close the door,” the students get a few minutes of quiet time to reflect on what they learned from the lesson and write it in their notebook. Maybe it’s a grammar point or some vocabulary.
They know that if we haven’t done reflection and closing the door, there’s no point in packing up just yet.
At the 2012 TESOL France colloquium, Luke Meddings and Chuck Sandy did a talk on being yourself in the classroom. It really got me thinking. What if I shared something I enjoy with my students? Not just a TV series or some music I like, but something that I feel influences the way I am. Scary stuff.
Then I thought back on some teachers I liked during my own education. The ones that stood out were those who had their own unique personalities that set them apart from the rest. One teacher who always encouraged us to see ourselves as scholars, seeking learning. Another (recently passed away) who demonstrated the same drive and discipline he expected of us. And yet another who made philosophy seem like a course that was actually relevant. Oh, and who did Tai Chi in class. They were themselves with us, unafraid of what we might think of them.
It’s not easy to expose yourself like that with a group of students. After our initial tai chi sessions, I could feel the sweat drops literally rolling down my back. But the students were going along with it, concentrating, occasionally giggling, but doing it. And I was being me, trying something new.
So is it my role as just the English teacher to be doing Tai Chi in English class? I don’t know, I have to admit. I’m not there to teach them tai chi (and I’m certainly not claiming to—we’re simply using the movements as a tool) nor to encourage some sort of meditative introspection. But given the benefits that could potentially come from it, maybe it is worth trying. We’ll find out in a semester…
Evans, Charles R. and Dion, Kenneth L. (1991). “Group cohesion and performance: A meta-analysis.” Small Group Research, 22. 175-186.
Donnelly, Joseph, Eburne, Norm and Hollenbeck, Wendy. (2000). “Redefining Classroom Management Through Tai Chi: It’s All About Fluidity and Balance.” The International Electronic Journal of Health Education. 3(2): 84-88.