Let’s start with a little Tai Chi. No, seriously.

02 Feb

Photo by Edwin Lee

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

Group cohesion

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.


Photo by VictoriaB52

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.

Being yourself

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.


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4 responses to “Let’s start with a little Tai Chi. No, seriously.

  1. kirstindijon

    February 3, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Christina, what a great idea! I recently read Stephanie Clemons’ article on Brain-based learning ( and was particularly interested in the importance of emotion in learning. If students feel threatened or uncomfortable with their teacher or classmates, it will have a negative effect on learning. Anything that students can do as a team that makes them feel good themselves and more comfortable with each other and you can only be a good thing. It’ll be great to hear about how it goes! Best of luck.

  2. mikecorea

    February 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Just the shortest of comments to say, “That sounds great. Great post.” That sound great. It seems like it will be an interesting experience that might help to form the kinds of bonds that you are looking for. Great post also, and one that provides food for thought. One thought that occurred to me as I read it was that the experiences doing Tai Chi might be something for students to reflect upon and talk about. It also reminded me of the time we started off a training course here in Korea with Capoeira. I still believe it set the scene for a variety of learning experiences and signaled that the adventure we were going on was a bit different from participants’ previous experiences. Best of luck with everything!

  3. RebuffetBroadus

    February 16, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Hi Kristin,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you! And thanks for sharing that article–I’m very interested in getting more into online-based learning (if anything just as a supplement to my face-to-face classes) and so that article will be right up my alley–thanks so much!

    Yes, I think that emotion and the affective side is something that we can sometimes forget about between trying to cover all the things we’re supposed to cover, collecting & checking homework, trying to motivate students, and maybe even have a little fun while we’re at it. Students’ emotional state plays a big role. This also means that when a couple of students just aren’t getting into a lesson as much as we’d like them to be, we have to remember it might not be the lesson’s or the teacher’s fault. They may have other stuff going on in their lives–problems with a boyfriend/girlfriend, problems at home, a bad mark in a class earlier that day, illness, etc.–that prevents them from giving their all in our class.

    I think we as teachers tend to think that if we create a great lesson, have resources the students really take interest in, and do something fun that students will all love it. When they don’t, our first reaction tends to be “What am I doing wrong?” but sometimes we need to remember that students have emotions and feelings they bring to the lesson that impact the lesson but have nothing to do with the lesson itself.

    I just got a book called Affect in Language Learning, edited by Jane Arnold. It’s a collection of essays on the topic by various people in the field, many of whom are very prolific. I haven’t read all of it yet, but just flipping through and reading some parts, I can tell it’s going to be a good read that I’ll already recommend if you’re interested in going deeper into the subject!

    Thanks for the post, and again, sorry for the delay in getting back to you!

  4. RebuffetBroadus

    February 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the comment and the compliment! That’s kind of you!

    Capoeira sounds fun too! I guess the pre-lesson “ritual” doesn’t have to be something relaxing or meditative necessarily as long as it gets the students to physically come into the lesson as well as show them that they’re free to do things a bit differently if they want. I think that kind of thing encourages learners to be a bit more daring–they may already feel a little silly doing the tai chi/capoeira so they may feel more comfortable making mistakes and “looking silly” with the language.

    I like the idea of having the learners reflect upon and talk about the experience. I might do this in the next week or two with the learners, as I have some groups who seem to appreciate the tai chi and get into it, whereas another group seems to just be going through the motions to humor me! I’m not going to chide them, but just ask if they’re enjoying the little pre-lesson exercise and if they think it helps them. Maybe they’ll suggest something interesting that I wouldn’t have thought of!

    What did your capoeira-performing learners think about the experience?


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