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Motivating Your Class (and Yourself) During the Holidays

Ah Christmas... that wonderful, magical, and somewhat crazy time of year. Our mailboxes are stuffed to the brim with Christmas offers and donation requests from charities. TV ads are blaring everywhere with thousands of “must-have” products, all the while reminding us of the dwindling number of days until Christmas. It’s a time of abundance and need, family and loneliness, magic and mayhem. With all the noise, excitement, and chaos, is it any wonder that both in and out of the classroom distraction reigns? In this blog post, I’m going to address reasons for lack of focus among your students this time of year and specific ways to handle it.

Christmas Vacation-a Blessing and a Curse

Let’s discuss the first and most obvious challenge of the holidays—a vacation is approaching. Any time a break is near, most students (and teachers) have trouble paying attention. Thoughts wander and most stretches of unscheduled work time become filled with day dreams, doodles, and social media posts. This type of distraction is nothing new. However, Christmas vacation provides additional obstacles.

Though the Christmas season is filled with positivity, there’s an undercurrent of sadness that goes along with it. We are often called upon to think about those in need and for some people-rather than gratitude for their own blessings-these thoughts bring forth some feelings of guilt. This is especially true of some of our students who have friends and family back in their countries in impoverished circumstances. In addition, Christmas is a holiday all about family. People who don’t have a lot of family often feel lonely and left out. It’s also hard for people who do have family back in their country-family they may never see again.

Solutions you employ to handle distraction for Christmas are unique in that they need to address both causes of students’ lack of focus—excitement as well as turbulent emotions. Below are some of the strategies I have used in my classes throughout the years.

To Help with Emotional Ups and Downs

1. Foster a sense of community within your class. One of the simplest ways to develop community is to incorporate light, fun discussion questions into your class each day, no matter what level you are teaching. Focus on things such as favorite colors, foods, TV programs, and movies—nothing too serious. These type of questions create connections between students and build their confidence. Also encourage your students to share successes. Celebrate these as a class.

2. Consider integrating journaling into class or as homework. Our students sometimes struggle with their emotions even more because it takes them time to find the words that they need in order to express themselves. Sometimes they don’t have the words at all. Allow students a short time to journal during the day or for homework. You can provide topics or allow them to write whatever they wish. It sometimes helps to give them an emotion wheel to use to help them with vocabulary. For some students, writing can help them work through the challenging emotions they are having.

3. If possible, get students involved in doing some sort of volunteer project. Sometimes helping others can keep up motivation and distract people from feelings of sadness or homesickness. My classes and those of my colleagues have adopted an angel from the Salvation Army tree, wrapped gifts for kids in need, served at a soup kitchen, and sung Christmas carols at a nursing home.

4. Allow students to do some activities alone if they choose to do so. Some students have particularly emotionally overwhelming days and don’t want others to see them cry or be distraught. Allow students who need space to work alone on an activity. Don’t draw attention to these students. Let them re-enter group work after they have had the time they need.

To Help with General Lack of Focus

5. If you don’t do this already, write all of the agenda items for the day on the board and check each one off as it is completed. Make sure to draw attention to the completed items at the end of class and review what students have learned for the day. Students need to feel like they are moving forward, and I’ve found it helps for them to have a visual record of their accomplishments for the day.

6. Do shorter, more structured activities. To the extent that you can, try to divide your class up into smaller segments each with short activities or comprehension checks. Since student attention span will be waning, it will be easier to keep them engaged in shorter time periods. If you must do a long project, then help students divide it up into manageable chunks and work on a chunk a day. Don’t allow students to start a class without a plan of action for the day.

7. Decrease teacher talk time. You can be assured that students will be less interested in what you have to say as the holiday approaches. Do your best to keep your explanation time to a minimum. Have students explore material and find rules themselves through guided discovery activities.

8. Keep everything on the clock. As the holidays approach, students will tend to slow down their pace of work as motivation decreases. Keep students on track by putting time limits on activities. If students are still struggling, have students race against each other to complete a task. Nothing gets my students going like a bit of healthy competition.

9. Provide students with specific study strategies or a study sheet if a test is approaching. In general, I’ve found the majority of my ESL students (even the adults) believe that “study for your test” means “no homework.” The holidays give them even more of a reason to blow off studying. So, I create a detailed study sheet for them with specific instructions such as “memorize vocabulary on p. 15 and 16;” or “do exercises A-C and check your answers in the back of the book.”

For extreme cases of lack of focus, consider showing your students YouTube videos of “celebration fails.” These videos show people who were close to success and lost because they gave up too early. The students will get a laugh out of these, and I find that they illustrate the point. (As a side note, you might need to edit some of them for content before showing them. People don't always have best or most appropriate reactions when losing.)

Hopefully these strategies will help keep your ESL students motivated and moving forward throughout the holiday season. Do any of you have suggestions? Please feel free to let us know.

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