Teaching Thomas: Student Centered

I’ll admit that I have had my mild frustrations with a high emphasis on student centered teaching. In a way, my frustrations can be summarized as feeling as if teachers are too accommodating towards students when every facet of their classroom needs to have its roots in the students.

Yet, one of the core theories and practices the SFSU MATESOL program and the American Language Institute (ALI), which I am currently being trained to be a teacher for, advocate is student centered teaching. Essentially, in a classroom, this would manifest as the teacher eliciting answers from students rather than the teacher providing answers directly. It can also manifest as the kind of topics the teacher decides to discuss in class, specifically gearing them toward student needs and interests. Student centered teaching puts the emphasis on the students and let’s them take ownership of the class, often allowing the teacher take a backseat role and act more as a guide rather than an answer key.

With that being said, I’ve recently had an interesting experience working while working with Thomas. Our basic routine during our tutoring sessions is to take about 15-20 minutes doing a spelling test and spend the rest of the time reading a picture book. As you can imagine, getting a first grader to cooperate with you in terms of taking a spelling test can be characterized as a test of patience for both Thomas and me. However, in using a student centered approach, I’ve been able to make our spelling tests a fun part of our session, to the point where he has been asking me to extend our usual ten word test to twelve words. So how can that be done? Well here are some of the main steps:

1.  Don’t call it a spelling test. This is basic and maybe obvious for you, but it is important. I just say, “Thomas, we’re going to spell words again.” While framing it as a test may make him take the assignment more seriously, it seems to me that the best way to get him to concentrate on spelling is for him to want to take the test, not for him to feel like he is forced to.

2. Strike a deal. So if he doesn’t think it’s a test, what does he think it is? Well, before each test, I strike a deal with him. I ask him, “so what is your prize going to be this time?” In establishing the terms for our deal, during one of our earlier spelling tests, he proposed that if he spells all the words correctly, he would get three stickers (ten stickers = a prize), If he gets one word wrong, he would get two stickers. If he gets two words wrong, he wouldn’t get any stickers. After Thomas came up with these terms, which I approved, we pinky-sweared to make our deal official. The self-proposed deal provides internal motivation for Thomas to want to do the spelling test. In fact, he has been so eager to do the spelling tests that he asked me if we could add two more words to the list, so increasing the test from ten questions to twelve questions. Can you believe that?! Thomas proposing to make the test longer, though obviously for the sake of trying to get more stickers (though as a kid, he doesn’t understand that adding more questions actually increases his chances of getting less stickers because our deal is based on how many he gets wrong, not how many he gets right).

3. Let him choose. I take all the spelling words from the picture books we read each week. That way, they are words he can put into a larger context of a story. We end up with a whole stack of spelling word cards that he writes after we finish a book. During the spelling test, I fan out a handful of the cards and tell him to pick a word for me to read and for him to spell. Even though ultimately I’m the one picking which words to focus in on from our books, I let him choose which ten (now becoming twelve) words he has to spell.

4. Are we ready to move on? After he picks a card, hands it to me to read aloud, and writes it on his spelling test, he always looks back at me and asks if it’s right. I respond, I don’t know… you tell me! I tell him to read what word he wrote and see if it matches the word I wanted him to read. I ask him, “Thomas, is it all correct? Did you double-check to see if you wrote the write record? Okay, so does that mean we’re moving on to the next question?” Thomas decides the pace, whether or not he has written it correctly and when to move forth.

I think one quote Thomas said during that session was highly characteristic of his attitude towards the spelling test – oops, I mean the spelling game: “Ooo yeah… I told you I’m gonna win this today.”


2 thoughts on “Teaching Thomas: Student Centered

  1. Hello, Eric! This is Ryu:)
    Sometimes, when I’m free during my journey or just right before going to bed, I stop by your blog and read your article. I’m so glad that you are still studying, thinking and working hard to be a teacher. I mean, a great teacher for sure.
    How’s your life in SF going? I miss the time with you and Saori in SF.
    Hope you are doing well.


    1. haha, it’s so great to hear from you Ryu. The pictures you post on Facebook on your wild journeys are absolutely amazing. Especially when you got your beard shaved off in India… was that a random decision or something you had planned to do?

      SF is pretty good.. I’m trying to explore more of the city than I did last year.. at least one new place each week. I also started teaching an actual class with the ALI, a listening and speaking class, so that in itself is somewhat of an adventure. And definitely still practicing as much sign language as I can. I’m actually taking Prinz’s class again this semester except this class is focused on deaf education.. pretty interesting. are you finished with school? can’t wait to see more of your adventures on Facebook, haha


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