Do you think of your body as an instrument for teaching?
Your physical self is so incredibly versatile and valuable that I have planned no fewer than FIVE POSTS on making the most of it and taking care of it! Here’s a little overview:
(This post is itself the third in a series on tricks and techniques that observers in my classes at this summer’s iFLT and Express Fluency conferences found especially memorable. The first post is here.)
You can accomplish a lot simply by strategically locating yourself in different parts of the classroom. This may be the easiest way to start deploying your body for teaching effects, because it doesn’t require anything except walking or rolling.*
a. Location for novelty
Just as variety in your voice can draw attention, a mere change in location can provide a mental kickstart for students–and maybe for you, too. (More on this in the “Variation” section below.) This doesn’t mean you need to move around constantly. If you tend to teach in one place, try changing locations when you sense a hint of waning attention, after any given interaction with a student, or at set intervals–you can even set an alarm to buzz in your pocket every 30-90 seconds, reminding you to move to a new spot.
b. Location for meaning & memory
In any given classroom interaction, I usually have 2-4 main locations that come to be associated with a type of meaning. For instance, I may have a word wall with questions words and function words, a space near a student about whom we are learning, a board where I write new expressions as they come up, and a space that functions as a stage where students perform or some other action takes place. This is partly a matter of classroom setup, but here I want to emphasize the ways in which placing yourself in each location supports meaning and memory.
Stock locations allow students to draw on their spatial memory (often stronger than declarative memory) as an extra anchor for the meaning of a word or phrase. A student’s ability to recall, consciously or subconsciously, that you were standing in a certain spot when you used a certain phrase or when a student said a certain phrase to you, can strengthen their memory of the phrase’s meaning. (Have you ever found yourself associating a word or quotation with the exact spot on the page where you read it?) This effect can be enhanced if there are conceptual distinctions between the language in each location, for example, with function-language in one space, one-on-one interpersonal communication in another, narrative performance in another, and “icing” words (words worth using in the moment for their interest value, but not necessarily worth spending much time repeating) in another. Your physical movement into and out of each space, as opposed to just pointing, signals a possible conceptual change, creates processing time for students, and, again, adds variety.
Important: The last thing I want is for you to think that you should be philosophizing about all the possible meanings of different locations. I’m simply sharing things I’ve noticed myself or had students and observers say contributed to their learning. The idea is to suggest things that may actually make teaching easier and more enjoyable for you!
Note that the number of spaces and movements in a classroom is actually infinite, and the divisions between spaces are fluid–more on this in the next post, on Movement & Posture. For now, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the concept of 2-4 meaningful locations!
c. Location for rapport
Placing yourself at different spots in the classroom allows for special connections with individual students, subsets of students, or the class as a whole. Standing or sitting by a student you are conversing with can demonstrate care and interest, and let you alternate between a one-on-one mode (with the rest of the class listening) and a one-and-many mode as you look up to interact with the class about your interaction with that student. Standing amidst any group of students makes you temporarily “one of them,” and you can alternate between interactions with the students nearest you and the whole class. You can exchange “secrets” with some students, celebrate the interests or accomplishments of particular students, or put on a little scene with a few students.
If I am getting information from two different students around the same time, I sometimes pick students sitting far apart from each other and walk the whole distance between the two locations every time I switch between speakers. In addition to building in processing time, this reinforces a personal connection between me and each student and even creates a sort of drama for the rest of the class. (More on this in the installment on Body and Voice Skills as a Unit.)
d. Location for classroom management
Experienced teachers know that their location in relation to a student or group of students can make a big difference in those students’ attention and behavior. Fred Jones famously emphasized the power of standing near a student, perhaps with a hand lightly resting on their desk, for refocusing the student. For management purposes (and sometimes for simple variety) I like to think in terms of (i) how near or far I am from a student, (ii) whether I am in front of, behind, or to the side of a student, and at what angle, and (iii) the relative heights of our faces: whether they are at the same level–if I have chosen to sit or crouch near them, for instance–or whether one or the other is higher. Explore variations in these dimensions for their effects on students’ attentiveness and students’ support of the general learning environment!
Any moment of shifting one’s voice or body is a change in the environment. Such a change signals to human brains that there is something to pay attention to–maybe even something crucial to survival. This means that varying location has double power: The general variety of locations can promote the effects outlined above, and each instance of shifting to a new location re-engages attention. Such a shift doesn’t have to be huge to be effective: for instance, moving from the front of the room into a corner and calling to one or more students from a distance can be enough to create attention-grabbing change (and perhaps humor!).
So, if you’re not sure where to start with using location strategically, just try making any change every once in a while: stand in the front, the middle, the back, or either side of the room; move closer to or farther from a particular student or the class as a whole, or develop two “stations” from which you like to teach. There’s no right or wrong way to use location. Experiment, and let us know what you notice!
*Your degree of mobility may make some types of location changes more useful for you than others. Just see what works for you! And know that a calm, solid presence in a single spot can be powerful, too, provided that the teacher’s voice and humanity promote connection with students: I have been in spellbinding classes in which a respected teacher never moved from a chair in the middle of the room. Your body is a powerful instrument no matter where it is!