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The First Fifteen Minutes
by Steve Schackne

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The Problem

Scheduling is an important part of pre-semester work at most schools. Teachers, of course, like favorable hours, not too early and not too late. And never, if it can be avoided, a split shift. Few teachers want a nine o’clock followed by a three o’clock.

In the rush for favorable time slots and course assignments, the plight of students is often overlooked. Almost every scheduled class time carries possible disadvantages for students. Early in the morning and they are often not fully awake—active social lives and onerous homework burdens often contribute to sleep deprivation. A class before the lunch hour and student minds may wander to the meal break approaching. The class just after lunch may find students logy and a bit sleepy as the blood courses from brain to stomach to digest their recent meal. A class late in the afternoon, like the early morning class, carries the risk of fatigue, as students have already put in several hours at school and are looking forward to the bell. These problems can be compounded in younger students—high school and junior high—who often have shorter attention spans than university students.

The First Fifteen Minutes

I feel the first fifteen minutes of any class is crucial. Classes need to be both useful and interesting, but you can’t deliver quality unless students are actively engaged at the very beginning.

Authentic language is most often spontaneous and unpredictable; much of the Natural Approach is predicated on this. The first fifteen minutes of my classes are often unplanned—it could revolve around a linguistic irony that intrigues me and that begs student input; it could be a cultural phenomenon that is of interest to my students; it could also be a piece of my life that I want to share with my students.

Example 1: The names of colors in both Chinese and English often double as family names. This jumped into my head one day on the way to work at my Chinese university.
I asked the students to look at a long list of colors on the board, and decide which were common last names in English. This was reversed to look at colors in Chinese, citing comparisons and contrasts—Brown can serve as a family name in English, but not in Chinese, while the character for yellow is a common surname in Chinese, but not in English. White can serve as a family name in both languages. This simple, some would say pointless, cross-language exercise was spontaneously presented to my students one morning to solicit their input. It aroused the curiosity of both students and teacher, and satisfying that curiosity generated fifteen minutes of “real” language exchange.

Example 2: The Walt Disney brand has long exercised an intense interest for Asians.
And none of the Disney characters is more iconic than Mickey Mouse. He adorns tee shirts, coffee cups, automobile dashboards, you name it. Exactly how this obsession developed is unclear, but an example of its depth was seen in the opening of the Hong Kong Disneyland a few years ago. For weeks before the opening, the local press ran stories on almost every aspect of this theme park from size, layout, and cost to employment qualifications and labor relations. The coverage all but pushed the major global issues of the day off the front pages.

On a whim a friend sent me a You Tube clip featuring the old Mickey Mouse Club television series. The Mickey Mouse Club was a 1950s tv show which featured music, skits, and chat all designed to tie in and promote the Disney brand. The cast consisted of a dozen or so young attractive “mousketeers” who danced, sang, and acted on the show every week.

I showed my students a couple of the program introductions which featured music and dancing combined with Disney animation, ending with the Mousketeer Roll Call, in which the regular performers would introduce themselves by name to the television audience. The students were fascinated; it was the first time they had seen American generated Disney memorabilia, and it prompted a lively far-ranging discussion on the show and its cast members. When did the show air? How were the cast members chosen? What careers did the kids pursue as adults? As with example 1, this presentation, on the surface, could be viewed as a pointless distraction or, if addressed at the end of class, as filler material. But the Mickey Mouse Club generated authentic language; because of Disney’s cultural adoption in Asia; it created multiple information gaps which required real communication to fill. In short, it created what I call an E-S-T progression. It engaged the students because of the cultural foothold Disney has established in Asia. It stimulated them in that their familiarity and interest in the subject created information gaps that needed to be filled—they wanted to find out information they didn’t have. If students are engaged and stimulated, they are psychologically and motivationally ready to have me teach.

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