Wednesday, June 10, 2009

$100,000 Pyramid: Hello, Lesson Plan!

Teaching in a high school in Korea doesn't have many perks compared with teaching middle or elementary school. Each class is 5-10 minutes longer (which quickly adds up - this means over the course of a week I teach 220 minutes - over 3 1/2 hours - more than an elementary teacher), we get fewer days off, we often have larger classes (36-45), and we have to develop our own lesson plans.

This last point is both a blessing and a curse. For a seasoned teacher with a lot of lesson planning under his belt, this would definitely be a perk. For the rest of us, the large majority of native english speakers who come to teach in Korea, it can be a real headache, particularly if you're not just one to kick your feet up and hit the "play" button on a season of subtitled Simpsons episodes. And I'm not. Before you run off calling me a saint, I admit I've shown Simpsons videos to a handful of classes when I was tired, hungover, or when it was exam week and the students wanted to sleep. But I do actually care - not that my students become fluent in English, or even necessarily that they learn anything. I care that my class, my job, is USEFUL, if any student chooses to pay attention. And it takes a while to develop smart, interesting, engaging, challenging-but-not-too-challenging lessons every week that all 7 of my co-teachers value and will participate in.

This week my lesson consists of a game. You may be thinking now about how I just said I'm not one to kick my feet up and a game, you're now thinking, sounds like I'm doing just that. And in some ways, you'd be right - it's an easy lesson to administer. The kids do all of the work, while my co-teacher and I live it up like game show hosts, who get paid to smile and offer words of congratulations or condolence and award prizes to a winner. But it did actually take work: 4-5 hours to develop the game - a powerpoint of 90+ slides, each with its own picture - and another hour or two spent searching for a game that would be suitable for the classroom, encourage speaking, and build lateral thinking skills.

Anyway, the game. You may remember it from the 1973 original version hosted by Dick Clark, or the more recent spinoff featuring Donny Osmond: The $100,000 Pyramid.

The classroom version is a dumbed-down copy of the game show, with vocabulary words in the place of categories, and the format is altered to accomodate 36 students. We split the class into two teams, on opposite sides of the classroom, with a single table in the middle. On either side of the table sit three chairs - six in total; three with their backs to the projector screen, the other three facing it. The three "blind" students are trying to guess the word that goes with the picture on the screen behind them; the three "seeing" students are describing it to them. (Though the original game show version didn't include pictures, they are a tremendous help to students who need to visualize something that they can't otherwise describe.) The rest of the team is standing in line, waiting for the word to be guessed. When they get the answer, the team rotates - quickly, they only have 2-3 minutes to guess all five words - until the time is up or they get all the answers. Then they switch. The five words in each round are common to a category (things that are hot, foods, animals, celebrities, things you can't see, etc).

It's been a huge hit, and even the low-level classes get hyped for it. It's fun to see the expressions or comparisons that they make in order to get the "blind" students to the correct word. I try to guide them along for particularly difficult ones (unicycle, Antarctica) but often they surprise themselves by finding their own way to the answer. The Korean educational system lacks any inclination towards lateral thinking, and this is a perfect game to introduce it to them. It's also a great way to reinforce English terms that they are used to only seeing in paper or associating with the Korean equivalent - by being forced to try to explain it without their native language, even using guestures, it maintains its Englishness. 

One thing that it has definitely highlighted, though - in EVERY class - is their ignorance of English numbers. I start the lesson by putting the title of the game on the board, and asking them what game we are playing. "Pyramid!" someone will eventually yell. Yes, I say, but what Pyramid? After a few moments of silence..."Ten million!" I write 10,000,000 on the board. "Ten thousand!" No. I write "100" on the board, and then "1,000". They guess it easily after that. It boggles my mind that they don't know their numbers - sure, the Korean number system is built in multiples of 10,000 (50,000 won is 5 man won, where man means 10,000 - it makes that initial innocent trip to the ATM very expensive). But I have only been studying Korean for a few months and I already know better than to make that mistake.

Anyway, this post wasn't intended to be a rant about how hopeless my students are. If anything, I have been impressed this week with how much my students have opened up. Normally shy students have been the stars of the game, and even the lowest level students have surprised themselves with the amount of English they know. If I could play this "game" every week I would.


  1. You had me at "90+ slide PPP". Wow. The biggest one I've done is about 20 slides.

  2. Sounds like a huge hit! I wanted to see a video of the actual competition, as well as the old tv show. Congrats on a job well done, with an effective means for teaching/reacing/touching the students.

  3. Becky8:09 AM

    You've just experienced what every teacher hopes for--excited engaged students who are learning! There is nothing wrong with games if the students are learning.

  4. @live: i know, it's definitely the longest i've made. but with 5 slides for each 3 minute round, during 45 minutes i need about 75. i made some harder categories to use with the advanced classes, so i don't use all 99 slides during a class.

    @dad: i'll try to get a video of the game in progress, and post it soon.

    @becky: i know, it's a great feeling. it feels ironic, though, that the students are MOST engaged when i'm teaching the LEAST.

  5. Anonymous2:03 AM

    Jonny, is your goal to teach- or to have the students learn? If it's to teach, then this game is a miserable failure. If it's for the students to learn, however.... If the teacher teaches and nothing is learned- how successful is that?!

  6. Sounds like a good student-centered activity to me!

    As for the blessing/curse of developing your own material, it does get easier once you’ve built up a repertoire. After that, you can just make modifications to lesson plans that you’ve already created, which is much less time consuming.

  7. of course the goal is for the students to learn, and ideally to merely help them to teach themselves. but it's tough to justify when you're working in a system of education that doesn't always value games, or "fun learning activities". although teachers in the US are often guilty of "teaching to the test", at least many of them used a variety of teaching methods to facilitate our learning - not just lecture. i'm ranting. you're right, and i agree. it's a success.

    @killdeer, i think a second year here would be infinitely easier than the first, for the reason you mention, and that will be a huge argument for sticking around when it comes time to review our contracts.


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