Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How to teach young children

I'd been teaching in complete isolation at my school until March, when we hired a guy I know to teach some new classes we'd opened. He made it clear that he didn't have a lot of experience teaching such young kids, so I took it upon myself to help him in any way I could and in particular by sharing the wisdom I've accrued over my many years teaching very young children. As I put my teaching method into words, I realized that to the typical person who'd never taught children, my ways would sound like they come out of one of those "Our society functions so well but only because it has an iron grip on us and steals away our humanity" dystopian novels for teenagers. Note please that I am not a trained education professional, and that for the most part my job has been crafted for me by modern South Korean culture's propensity for finding inelegant and imperfect solutions to complex problems, in this case solving the demand for English presented by globalization by exposing their children to untrained, for the most part unmotivated foreigners. That said, I certainly take my job seriously and do the best I can at it, and I have arrived at my teaching methods through the most noble possible trial and error process, and certainly not through laziness or a desire to have docile and pliable students.
Just go with me, it'll make it all easier to digest.

How to teach young children
by Joe Mondello
Human beings are, unfortunately, animals. This is never truer than when we are children. We take to nasal hygiene with an unabashed joie de vivre that can only be described as savage in it's immediate self gratification. None of us evaded this phase of life, not even Jackie O. As children, we are animals in need of training, which we all receive to a greater or lesser degree. A teacher's first role in addressing young children is to help them 'tame the beast'. Children to some extent know that they are more or less feral adults, and that by learning to control themselves they are benefitting. This is true even of children who seem to be 'bad' or relishing misbehavior. They're the ones that most need your help in controlling their natural urges to screw around.
So rule number one is 'Help children help themselves'. Children, as little feral people, cannot handle choice. Choice is like an infinite repeating decimal to a child. Red pencil or green pencil? Sit indian-style or legs akimbo? Book in the bag or book on the table? These kinds of minutiae are very likely to distract a child to the point where they cannot study. Take away these distracting choices so the child can focus on studying.
What I eventually came up with through much trial and error are two systems for eliminating pointless choices. For kindergarten students, get a round carpet (corners are opportunity for choice!) and make the children sit indian-style, one next to the other with no gaps or wiggle room. Keep all their books and distribute/collect them as needed. Enforce a rigid seating order that carries over to line-up time etc. If it's not too complicated, consider rotating the line-up order (Monday ABCD, Tuesday BCDA, Wednesday CDAB, etc.) for extra fairness.
For elementary students have them sit at a table, with the default position being no books on the table. When class starts everyone takes out one pencil and one eraser and puts it in a basket that you keep to distribute as necessary. When you need a book everyone takes it out at the same time, with no noisy chatter. This is one of those chances for everything to get out of whack, so be careful. All the things about order apply to elementary students as well.
I am sure it all sounds incredibly stifling, but what it does is allow the children to channel all their energies into studying. Particularly older elementary students tend to be innately very concerned about fairness. If you are unfailingly fair to them, they are willing to accept a great degree of rigidity. It's like a miniature version of the social contract: children accept just rule because they see that it helps them learn, which deep down they want to do, even if their reptilian brains are telling them to play and ignore the teacher.
The next rule is 'Help the children help each other". I jokingly refer to this as 'turning them into the gestapo'. What I mean by this is you should invest in the children a vested interest in keeping the other children on point and under control. You won't have to encourage tattling, because tattling comes as natural to children as wiping their noses on their sleeves. When they tattle the first thing you must ask them is "Does it help us study for you to bring this up now?" If someone is distracting her neighbor, yes. If someone's pencil case is on the table when it shouldn't be, then no, the tattling is actually worse than the offense. This may all sound incredibly arcane, but children have legal minds for this kind of thing. Remember, their minds will draw them inexorably away from studying and towards meaningless garbage, because they, like all of us, were designed primarily to live in small social groups in which sleights and petty grievances were far more important to life than good study skills. Allow a little lateral drift as needed, but keep them moving forward at all times. By encouraging them to police each other you give them more 'external consciences' to jiminy cricket them into good behavior. Conscience comes from outside in, that's what God is all about. He's the outsourced conscience.
Rule number three is "Teach them to believe in imaginary things". This may sound like a psychological shell game, but it is certainly indispensable for human beings to be able to think of ridiculous abstract things that aren't real. I punish my children with dots on the attendance sheet and reward them with hearts or stars. I create and abolish other categories as necessary, for example circles for willfully bad pronunciation. At first the dots are always directly associated with some punishment, like extra homework or a talking to from my scary scary wife. The hearts are associated with candy, one candy per heart. Gradually decrease the reliance on the concrete punishment and reward, and increase emphasis on the dots and hearts themselves. My children behave themselves because they fear the ignominy of dots, and compare themselves to their classmates and their own past performance. Remember that the punishment is not important, their recognition of their own good and bad behavior is the primary thing they must learn. You can make the argument that I am teaching children to compare themselves to others, but the focus is always on personal improvement.
When things go wrong, rule number four is "Know when to drop the act". This one takes experience more than anything else, but in its essence you must know when to drop your little system and just be a human. Yesterday one of my best students took a test, spelled August "Ougust" and didn't get a 100 and the accompanying reward, a chocopie. He cried for 25 minutes. What was I doing? I knew he went on a school trip last Friday and figured he was tired, so I left him. I called an uncustomary break time and left some tissues next to his head buried in his arms. When everyone came back he was up and ready to go. I didn't stick with the rigid "Open your book and stop crying" thing, and the other children understood that too.
The bottom line is that children will appreciate it if you allow them to conquer their selves and study. Your job is to create an environment where children can do their best. Part of doing your best is conquering your inborn desire to do your worst.


Surprised Rach said...

Hey -
I don't you and you don't me, but when I googled How to teach young children for the sake of teaching Sunday School - Your blog was revealed. Thanks for sharing these immensely practical and obviously real thoughts!
They have helped in my quest for order in my little classroom, and was also really entertaining.

Surprised Rach said...

Um - That first sentence is meant to have 'know' in it. Sorry it looks silly :)