Conversation Clubs at Language ETC: Casual, Comfy, Creative!

Susan Joseph started out tutoring at Language ETC in the fall of 2010. She has since taught levels 1A and 2B, finally settling in Advanced and advanced conversation as a member of the daytime teaching team. Thanks to Susan for writing this and for taking the wonderful pictures of her conversation class.

By Susan Joseph

The opportunity to lead a one-hour conversation club at LETC was alluring. Spontaneous conversation was always my favorite part of the regular textbook-based classes. I used to devote the first part of each class, when students would straggle in, and the last part, when some might have to leave early, to open discussions of current events and ideas for exploring Washington, DC. I welcomed the opportunity to lead students in conversation for a whole hour without knowing quite what that would demand.

Language ETC offers conversation clubs for students at three levels: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. Students currently enrolled in regular classes can attend on a drop-in basis, and the sessions are free. For weekday students, the conversation clubs meet after regular classes, from 1 to 2 p.m. For evening students, they meet just before regular classes, from 6 to 7 p.m. And on weekends, they’re offered on Saturdays from 12 to 1 p.m. and again from 1 to 2 p.m, and on Sundays from 1 to 2 p.m. Any student from any program can attend any conversation club. For example, a daytime or evening student could come on Saturday.

Divided into small groups, with teachers circulating to listen and help, the class discussed their travel experiences and preferences.  Afterwards, several students presented to the class.  This was a great subject, since of course all the students are travelers.

Susan’s daytime conversation class on June 6, 2013. Divided into small groups, with teachers circulating to listen and help, the class discussed their travel experiences and preferences. Afterwards, several students presented to the class. Susan writes, “This was a great subject, since of course all the students are travelers.”

Over the last two terms my approach to leading the advanced conversation club has changed. It’s become focused less on “teaching” and more on stimulating conversation. In the past I had been presenting a newspaper article at the beginning of each class, such as Sally Quinn’s Washington Post article last January arguing in favor of big inauguration festivities. The class was then divided into small groups to practice new vocabulary and idioms, with the goal of having the students teach their material to the class. This was too formal. Now I try to have four 15-minute activities: news (sometimes led by volunteer Gabby Geier), presentation of a controversial topic, small groups to discuss the topic or apply it to their home culture, and then finally coming together for student presentations to the whole class.

Two recent lessons worked particularly well. An exhibit popularly called “Jew in a Box,” at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, opened the door to new vocabulary, concepts such as anti-Semitism and scapegoating, and twentieth-century European history. I encouraged students to learn more about these topics by independently visiting the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian here in DC.

On another occasion, inspired by Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview of Stephen King on National Public Radio, first my class and then Fran Butler’s follow-up explored the guilty pleasure of being frightened, as students told each other scary stories from their childhoods. My class ended by reading aloud and then unpacking Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt LETC teaching is a group activity, and that holds for the conversation clubs as well. Although the clubs are taught on a rotating basis by different teachers each day (sometimes with the helpful Gabby assisting), our group of seven teachers operates as a team. There is overlap between the intermediate and advanced levels, while the beginning level under Linda Alprin and Sally von Summer offers its own challenges. By circulating our class logs we learn techniques from each other and expand on each other’s topics.

Using small-group and large-group activities as well as copious handouts, my fellow teachers and I have provided activities for students to learn about US cultural topics such as Memorial Day, including the massive motorcycle rally known as Rolling Thunder. We’ve had students take turns being teachers while referencing specific teaching points such as wait time, teacher talk, and questioning. We’ve explored such dicey subjects as domestic violence (Stephen Schor) and the worst problems students have encountered in the US and how they managed these problems (Fran Butler).

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There is some carryover from week to week, with homework like preparing a favorite recipe to teach to the class, and teachers follow up on each other’s classes. Stephen Schor always plays graphic word games (cycle cycle cycle = tricycle) and has had students practice techniques for a job interview. Michele McNamara fielded questions about many funny superstitions and also helped students with filling prescriptions and formulating questions they might ask a doctor. Stephanie Lawson, who explored happiness and favorite activities in DC, is pulling everything together as she prepares a student questionnaire. All of us give our students lists of free activities in DC.

What may the future hold for the conversation clubs? Ideas include making the clubs more social by introducing book groups, a student listserv (which is working well in the regular Advanced Plus evening class), a Twitter account, or a blog. Excursion groups could move the conversation beyond the four walls of Language ETC. Any way you look at it, conversation groups help build the LETC community of teachers and students by expanding students’ familiarity with American culture generally and life in DC specifically. And as teachers, we benefit from learning more about our students in the comfortable and casual atmosphere of our new conversation clubs.

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