by Lisa Ruschman
ESL Instructor, Terry Campus
Delaware Technical Community College
Tags: Active and Collaborative Learning

I have a counseling background and several years ago I tried a game with my then-young son.  I found that when an adult asked him a question, he would give a one-word answer and effectively shut down any chance at conversation.  Using a tennis ball, I explained that conversation is like tennis.  If you answer and ask a question, it is like hitting the ball back, but if you just reply, you catch the ball and the game is over.

We proceeded to have a conversation using the tennis ball.  I bounced the ball to him and said, “Hello!  How are you?”  I explained that saying “Fine” would not be returning the ball but a “Fine, how are you?” enabled him to toss the ball back.  We did this for a while until we had achieved a sufficient polite conversation.

Fast forward to now.  I have an exceptionally challenging ESL reading class that responds to all questions and prompts with nothing more than blank stares.  With the exception of the clock ticking and an occasional cell phone vibration, class discussions are non-existent.   So, I decided to give the tennis ball game a try.

Together, the class read an article about an Arizona law which requires teachers to speak clear and grammatically correct English.  We clarified challenging vocabulary and summarized the article so that we could work on responses.  “What is your opinion of this?”  “How would you feel if your job was in jeopardy because of your language skills?”  “Who should determine if you are understandable?”

I brought the only regular contributor to the front of the room and he and I demonstrated the game.  “Do you think a teacher has to speak perfect English in order to be effective?” I asked bouncing the ball to him.  “I don’t think his English has to be perfect, but it’s hard if you can’t understand what the teacher is saying.  Have you ever had a teacher who you can’t understand?” he asked bouncing the ball back to me.  “I have not had that experience, but I have observed teachers with poor grammar and I find it very distracting.  How about you?” I inquired returning the ball.  “I rarely understand a word you say!” he laughed.

Our demonstration over, I distributed a potently fresh can of tennis balls and the class broke into teams.  One young man refused to get out of his chair and another left to deal with one of the many cellular crises she deals with on a daily basis.  I turned my attention to a willing group and watched in utter shock as the student bounced the ball like a challenged two year old so his partner had to crawl under desks to get it.  I observed this misfiring of tennis ball no less than five times, always thinking he would adjust his bounce (just as I’ve been waiting to see this student adjust his study habits, alas to no avail).   I finally stepped in and handled the ball handling for this student so that the conversation could continue.  Unfortunately, ball handling was the least of this group’s problems.  They truly had no opinions on whether comprehensive speech mattered or not.  They seemingly had no interest in talking to each other.  They didn’t even seem to enjoy a nice game of catch with a brand new can of tennis balls.  My tail effectively tucked between my legs, I gathered up my intoxicating tennis balls and chalked up another active and collaborative flop in ESL100.

I will absolutely try this activity again with a more collaborative group of students.  Looking back, I should have known (perhaps I did know) that this activity would be a train wreck with this particular group of students.  Maybe they learned nothing, but I learned that as teachers we need to be cognizant of our class atmosphere and teach the way our students want to learn instead of the way we want to teach.

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