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It’s Science July 27, 2011

Posted by Matt Miller in Fulbright, Korea, Uncategorized, Undergraduate.
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Hypothesis: Male, Korean middle school students will participate more in class when there are tangible incentives (ie more than just pleasing Mr. Miller, impressing their classmates, and practicing English).

Middle school students in Korea

Matt Miller uses fun classroom activities to help his students learn English.

Tangible incentives: candy, American baseball cards, catching and throwing a Frisbee, catching and throwing a maize and blue University of Michigan football.

Activities: 1) identifying vocabulary words from the week’s lesson

2) playing the game Jeopardy

3) making a past or future tense sentence about the weekend

Experiment: The activities were conducted in classes of 40 students, sometimes with and sometimes without tangible incentives.

Findings: For activity 1, a good number of students raised their hands when there was no tangible incentive offered. It was often clear, however, that most students knew the answers. With incentives, many students raised their hands to participate, sometimes even ones who did not know that answers.

For activity 2, many students raised their hands both with and without incentives. Students enjoyed playing Jeopardy enough that incentives did not help. This even rang true for Jeopardy categories like “Grammar,“ “Vocabulary,” and “Name that Tense.”

For activity 3, very few students volunteered to make past or future tense sentences when incentives were offered. However, very few is a manifold improvement over the almost zero students who typically volunteer to answer the question “What will you do next weekend?”

(All that said, there is never any shortage of students willing to call out answers, both correct and incorrect, on topic and off.)

Conclusions: The hypothesis is rejected in part and accepted in part.  A little nudge, a baseball card or the chance to toss a Frisbee, is all that many students need to participate in some activities. However, even with incentives, few students want to come up with past tense sentences in front of their classmates. Furthermore, some activities are so fun that adding more to them doesn’t make participation in them anymore enticing.

Middle school students in Korea

Students eagerly raise their hands to answer questions while participating in fun classroom learning activities.

Discussion: Teaching is a lot of fun. A group of 40 middle school boys rarely fails to bring energy and excitement with them to class. Over my year in Korea, I’ve worked to channel that vigor into learning in the classroom without losing the fun that comes with it. Incentives like tossing a football or getting a baseball card can be great tools for engaging students’ energy in positive ways, especially in more difficult or less intrinsically interesting activities. In addition, these incentives can offer additional ways to share American culture. Most students that haven’t thrown a Frisbee before, describe it to each other as “a dog game.”

So, it can be a nice change of pace to use these tangible incentives. But they are far from necessary. A teacher who can meet his students’ enthusiasm with more of the same can succeed on thorough, enticing lesson plans and grit.

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Spring Thaw May 5, 2011

Posted by Matt Miller in Fulbright, Korea, Undergraduate.
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Somber. Mellow. Complacent. Quiet. Reserved. Sober. Expectant. Scholarly. The attitude that pervaded the student body here at Neungin Middle School in Daegu, Korea in the first days of the new school year was different from the fiery and energetic one that I had seen in the fall. To be sure, some students brought that familiar energy with them to school, but the norm in the new school year was more subdued.

Middle school students

Students at Neungin Middle School return for the new school year.

The first grade middle school students, newly matriculated from their elementary schools were a bit scared and adrift in this big new sea. The second graders quietly realized their niche in the middle. And the third graders, the newly minted elders of the student body, conducted themselves with unexpected dignity and grace.

This would not last.

As spring broke, so too did the dam holding back the natural excitement of twelve-hundred teenage boys. In the second week of school, on a crystal clear early spring morning, I had my first period with class 2-7. I slid open the heavy wooden door of their homeroom. After a brief pause in the between-classes excitement, bedlam descended. A few students joined their fellows who were already standing on desks and chairs. Some changed their Korean language yelling to English pleasantries: “Good morning gentleman!” “Nice to meet you!” Others hit their climbing and shouting classmates, attempting to quell the chaos so that they all could see what I had in store for them that day. One student made his way out of the tumult and gave me a hug.

It is often a great challenge to teach such enthusiastic students. But like the energy of the brilliant sun, the drive of these students can be captured and used to power our lessons. (Not to mention that hallway metal cup soccer, umbrella and shuttlecock baseball, and English word association screaming are really funny to behold.) The boys want to go, to move, to see, to do, to learn. They are often almost frantic with anticipation and excitement. When my lessons work, it’s like a baseball bat connecting with a hundred mile an hour fastball and driving it four-hundred feet to left-center for a home run.

School has changed a bit in the new school year. I have a new desk in the main teacher’s office. My schedule suffers from fewer last minute changes. But the timeless, boundless energy of these students is still here.