Meet your students where they are and reason with them from their angle, or else the battle is completely lost. Like almost anything in life, you will never convince anyone to follow you unless you explain things in their perspective and make them feel they have the freedom to choose while also persuading them that what you propose will make them feel better.
Most of the students in my English class never had a problem arguing with me and telling me that I was wrong. They have ranted and raved and objected to many of the activities I gave them. Some openly requested to self-study during my class. Others were audacious enough to request to leave and play video games. There were days that students would excuse themselves to go to the bathroom and return just minutes before I ended my class. The reason, they explained, was the numbness in their legs which prevented them to walk back to the room.
When students were being rebellious, I truly had to reason at their level and be direct.
“Look, there are plenty of things that I do not want to do. I didn’t want to go to school either, but I went. I did not want to do many of the activities. I would have much rather played video games, just like you, and not have gone to school. But in life, you can’t always get what you want.” Just like the song.
Typically, it took me weeks to win them back and show that I did care about how they felt, but that a compromise was needed for all of us to move forward with our respective roles.
It was stressful and energy-draining to have to go through these and in hindsight, I could have saved myself a lot of effort by just letting them practice their English with Rosetta Stone and called it a day. That is why, these days, I don’t fight with my students over classroom policies, whenever possible. It is usually more trouble than it’s worth.
And this is the lesson that I really want to drive home for you. If your country and school community are anything like what mine was like, with this level of freedom but with the expectation that you will entertain and be conversational and have fun with your students, then provide them with choices.
Activity books definitely help. You might want to consider Penny Ur’s Discussions that Work. You will find “arranging” games where students categorise words or concepts in a sequence, almost like a puzzle game. This is one approach that will persuade them to comply with the English lessons. Compliance without the coercion feels a whole lot better, let me tell you.
Get comfortable with this phrase: “Here are some of our options!”. And don’t burden yourself whether they are enjoying your class or not. It will come. Give them the feeling of freedom they want, then they will have a good time. You might even enjoy the class too. Not feeling like a failure. The battle can be won, after all.