The 30 Goals Challenge, no 6: Invite them In!

After a prolonged absence from the world of blogging and from #eltchat discussions on Twitter, it’s time to make a trip into back into the blogosphere. Unfortunately my schedule currently prevents me from joining the Wednesday #eltchat discussions, which take place at 7pm and 4 am Indonesian time. However, I shall have a new schedule after the Christmas break, so here’s hoping I will be able to contribute and benefit again then!

“Invite them in”: Ways to invite a teacher, parent or administrator to see the learning taking place in your classroom.

Is this an important thing to do? Why? The stakeholders in question here are all very different and the benefits of greater transparency of the classroom process would, I believe, vary accordingly. For a parent, the desire to know what their son or daughter get up to for the x hours a week they are entrusted to your care would be the driving factor. Especially in a private language school, as a substantial sum of money is given in exchange for classes, so parents are likely to seek reassurance that they are in fact getting value for money. For a fellow teacher, perhaps the desire to learn would be the primary motivator. Being given a window onto other teachers in action can be a valuable learning tool, if it generates curiosity, reflection and experimentation. Ideas can be discussed and shared. For an administrator, perhaps it depends on the role of that person. Are they primarily involved with the business side of things or marketing? Or is their main focus customer service? Greater awareness of the classroom process, while perhaps not essential, may be helpful, to varying degrees, in dealing with client enquiries or planning a marketing campaign or making a business plan. Of course, this is from a private language school slant. This post will focus on the private language school slant, as my experience in EFL has thus far been entirely in this type of environment.

From the perspective of an EFL teacher in a private language school, I would like to explore the value of developing a school magazine/newsletter, as a method of creating greater transparency of the learning process. This is a project I have piloted, in conjunction with the then-school manager of my current school, but that certain untenable events, which occurred at this school, prevented from materialising. However, there are plans in place for this project to be started anew, hopefully working alongside the same manager but at a different school.

A magazine/newsletter is an effective means of communicating what takes place in the classroom to all interested stake-holders with a minimum of disruption. This is achieved by using the magazine to showcase student work, to present interviews with staff, students and administrators, to report on past events and increase awareness of events planned for the future. In addition to being an effective communication tool, it may also foster a sense of community amongst stakeholders.

Students will feel proud to see their work or their voice (in the case of interview) in the magazine, as well as giving them something extra to strive for, as not everybody can feature in every magazine.

Parents will appreciate the chance to see work that has been produced in the classroom, by their son/daughter or his/her colleagues as well as enjoying the perception that they are getting something “extra” from the school.

Administrators can use it as a marketing tool and as a convenient way to show prospective clients tangible evidence of what the school has to offer. We plan to bring out the magazine every two months, as that seems frequent enough to maintain evidence while spaced enough to allow time for production.

Enabling the production of student work for a magazine gives teachers an added opportunity for collaboration and sharing of ideas, as they will regularly have the common goal of producing content for the magazine. Classes can be brought together, shared themes can be generated and a variety of methods for reaching the common goal can be shared and explored.

Finally everybody is regularly given a physical reminder of what the school, and the learning that goes on its classrooms, is all about. Such a physical reminder will engender further discussion between various stakeholders in a variety of settings. For example, students may have discussions with teachers or parents. Parents may have discussions with teachers or administrators. Teachers may have discussions with other teachers, students, parents or administrators. These discussions may of course take a wide variety of paths, depending on which stakeholders are having the discussion.

Thus, as well as being a tool of communication itself, the magazine can bring about further communication, inviting all stakeholders to engage with the school and the learning process that takes place there. This would hopefully help lead to higher quality teaching, greater student numbers and a healthier learning environment.

Watch this space for an update on the effect that starting a school magazine/newsletter will have on a small franchise private language school! Here’s hoping the reality bears out my theory…

Advertisements

30 Goals Challenge, Goal 5: Reflect, Step Back, Act

Reflection is a key element of the teaching and learning process. Teachers reflect on their own and other teachers’ practice, making changes and adjustments as they progress. If we did not reflect on the lessons we teach, each lesson would be the same as those preceding it. The grammar point might change but the methods for sharing knowledge would gradually become fixed, with the result of a teacher stagnating or stuck in a rut. Teaching is not something you can learn in its entirety by doing a course. This is because the world of education and its sub-worlds, such as that of EFL/ESOL/EAL (delete as appropriate for your context), is always growing and changing. It is not a fixed body of knowledge that we are dealing with. Methodologies are coined, debated and adapted all the time. Ideas are born every day. And, of course, the development of technology brings its own ream of changes into this equation. If we are blinkered to the changing world around us, how can we grow as teachers?

For my final two weeks at my current school (we will call it LC – Language Centre!), I have been cast as the institutional clown-come-white-skinned-marketing-device. This is due to a new cycle of classes starting too soon before I’m due to leave LC, to merit giving me my own classes. I have managed to turn this into a learning opportunity by using my new-found freedom from the course book to experiment with various ideas and approaches that I have picked up via twitter, and the wealth of links it has led me to. In order for this to have value, of course, it has been most necessary that I reflect on my practice and identify areas for improvement as well as successful elements.

For the first two of these lessons, each one hour in length, one of younger teenagers and one of older teenagers, I used two articles (taken from the Macmillan Spotlight series for teenagers, on Onestopenglish.com) as the base from which to build. The warm-up consisted of the students brainstorming in pairs about what we usually find in newspapers and in magazines. Next, I put the two articles on opposite sides of the room and had the students gist read each and decide which they thought to be the more interesting of the two. They then used the article of their choice to fill in a speaking game rubric, taken from Kalinagoenglish’s blog, in pairs. (http://bit.ly/j8oMJRg)

Each pair then used their notes to describe their article to the rest of the class. This was followed by some vocabulary work (students were invited to identify language they had not met before, which we analysed together. I tried to guide their understanding of it by drawing attention to prefixes and suffixes, parts of speech, position of the word in the article’s example sentence and so on.). Finally, the students shared words in the article that they liked, which I wrote on the board in a spider diagram with “words we like” in the centre, and I gave them the challenge of using all of these words in a short story.

Something I discovered was that my prolonged period of being chained to the course book initially had a negative effect on my ability to respond to emergent language. (Being used to the course book defining the target language and structures in advance, in those first two lessons I was too slow to latch on to students’ structures, sticking instead to a comfort zone at word level). I was also not satisfied with the warmer, it seemed rather too abrupt of a start. However, it did succeed in engaging the learners so was not a complete failure.

The second two of these lessons (both for younger teenagers and different from the previous day’s lot) took place the following day (the remainder of the above day was spent teaching a class of mine that is still running and doing games with another group, as specially requested by the teacher) and so I was able to reflect on the first lessons and adapt them for use the following day. My goals were to improve upon the warmer and make a better go of capturing and dealing with emergent language structures. I chose some new articles, which I took from a great little website of “quirky” news articles (http://web.orange.co.uk/p/news/quirkies), and, having read a few links about using images and context, or lack thereof, in the classroom, decided to lift the photo out of each article and blow it up to A4 size. These provided the stimulus for a new warmer.

So, on day two, I opened the first class by showing the students these now A4-sized photos and encouraging discussion around what they were of, what was unusual about them and what kind of news story they could have been taken from. There were some excellent suggestions! This set the stage for bringing out the articles, with the photos embedded in their respective article and letting the students see what the news actually was. Again, they were encouraged to choose which article most interested them and the speaking rubric was used. This time, though, I was able to pick up on emergent language more easily and ended up with a board full of it, which we went through, drilled and then manipulated for some practice. Following this was the vocabulary work and the short story challenge. This class went one up on this, though: they attempted (and succeeded!) to use all the vocabulary in a single sentence!! The results were an amusing way to round off the lesson. The second class unfolded in a similar fashion.

This exercise in experimentation and reflection would have been of little value without the reflection component. What we learn every day in the classroom is as important as what we teach and should feed into our teaching process via reflection. Perhaps this truth feeds the old adage, “when one teaches, two learn.” For my next lot of classes, I plan to try something new and go through the same process of reflection and growth that I have used for those discussed above. Hopefully by the end of this two weeks, I will come away having grown as a teacher rather than simply having become more adept at putting on a red nose.

30 Goals Challenge, Goal 4: Leave it behind.

Do you remember when you were at primary school and, when you got to school in the morning, your teacher was always there in the classroom waiting for you? I don’t know about you, but there was a time when this simple fact of life made me believe that teachers lived in classrooms. This is quite strange, because my mum was a teacher and she, of course, did not have to live in her classroom! Anyway, the point of all this is, teachers do not live in classrooms. There is more to a teacher’s life than verb plus infinitive versus verb plus gerund or the square root of sixteen. Ok, before you offer me a first class degree in “stating the bleeding obvious” from the university of “No S***, Sherlock”, I will try to expand upon this…

Teachers, as we are all too painfully aware, are as flawed as everybody else. We can oversleep, get stressed and get fed up, with the best of them! However, once we are inside the classroom, our students expect us to perform as though our lives were limited to the scope of those four walls (except with all the knowledge gained from without, naturally!!). And why not? Students (or their parents) are paying for the privilege of spending one, one and a half or two hours in a room with us, and the learning of which they expect to partake. Besides, who knows, maybe some of the younger ones believe, as I did for a while in my infant years, that your whole life purpose is to be their teacher in that classroom with them for whatever length of time their lesson is!

It is funny how so far the timing of my acknowledging each of these goals seems to coincide with a real life example with which to connect them. In this case, the challenge to “leave it behind” was put to me in spades on Friday. During my two-hour break between classes, I received a skype-call to tell me that my grandfather had passed away in the early hours of Friday morning. He was based in England, I am in Indonesia. Thus, as well as taking on board the news that I am never going to see him again, I was, and still am, also faced with the question of what to do regarding the funeral. Despite such world-changing (for me and others who knew him) news, life goes on, and most persistently at that. After completing that skype call and then skyping a friend, because I did not quite know what else to do, I had approximately half an hour before I was due back in the classroom.

So there we are, the scene was set for goal number four, and no mistake. And what did I learn? That you can’t make life go away, but you can bring things in and out of focus, if you really try. I think this is the trick to keeping life from interfering with classroom time. By focussing extra hard on your students, you can increase the amount of space they take up in your mind, thereby decreasing the amount of space available for other distractions. I have noticed this before though, when faced with more minor stresses and annoyances.

For me it works like this: At the beginning of the class, I make myself notice the colours of my students’ clothing, their hairstyles, what kind of pens or pencils they are using, what type of shoes they are wearing, and I make small talk about some of it. I remind myself how lucky I am to be in the classroom with this group of people. Doing this drags my mind away from whatever is bothering me and helps refocus it on my students, letting them fill the space in my brain that was previously chewing over what the boss said, or the reports that still need writing before tomorrow, or as in the case of last Friday evening, that my grandfather has passed away.

Inside the classroom, the students are the most important thing. When life outside the classroom is being particularly bothersome, it has a habit of trying to detract from that, which means we need to make extra effort to maintain the level of focus that in ordinary circumstances is natural.

Of course, outside the classroom, it is essential to learn to deal with whatever issues are plaguing us, rather than keeping them suppressed indefinitely. One such stress management skill I have been developing over the last couple of months is yoga. I do twenty minutes sometime before I go to work and twenty minutes after work, before I go to bed. As a teacher, you spend a lot of time focussing on the wants and needs of your students, colleagues and the management. I find that yoga helps me take the time I need for me, making it easier for the rest of the time when everybody else has to take priority.

In conclusion, then, we teachers are only human but we need to learn some crafty tricks, to give us the super powers we need to keep our lives from invading our classrooms in a negative way. We also need to develop stress management skills that work for us outside of the classroom, as this can minimise the effort needed to contain the stress when the time comes to start teaching.

Now, I do believe it is time for some yoga…

30 Goals Challenge, Goal 3: What do you believe about learning?

“Make a bullet list of what you believe regarding how you and others learn.”

1.) Learning is forever.

We don’t stop learning, from the day we are born until the day we die. As teachers, we are only a small element of this, but an important one nonetheless. Everybody remembers teachers from their school-days and beyond, for good or bad reasons. (I can remember the total cow of a teacher we had at primary school for our extension English classes. We used to wish we were bad at English so that we would not have to have that session with her!! The class was after break time and we would sit outside near the classroom, talking gloomily to one another and dreading the bell going. Conversely, I can remember, with great fondness, any number of inspirational teachers and tutors that I have had the joy of being taught by!) As teachers, this is worth remembering!!

2) Learning is power.

Learning empowers us, because through it we build up a tool kit that enables us to deal more effectively with what we encounter on the path of our life. As teachers, we should guide our students as they build up their tool kits in their own individual ways.

3) Learning is fun! (Except when it happens via cruel experiences!! 😉 )

Other than the above, learning is a satisfying way of interacting with the world around us and questioning these interactions, in order to increase our understanding. As teachers, we should encourage students to engage in these interactions and help them maximise what they gain from them.

4) Learning is alive.

There is no limit to how much we can learn. Knowledge and understanding are dynamic, there is always a new direction to be taken and explored, new things to be discovered. As teachers, we need to be dynamic too and stay open to continual learning, so that we can keep up with our students!

5) Learning is infinite ways of skinning a cat!
(Poor sod that it is… :-p)

There are so many ways in which people can, and do, learn. As teachers, we need to be aware of this and remain open to trying new ways of doing things as well as continually adapting and experimenting with the ways already familiar to us.

6) Learning is a buzz!

Hopefully everyone is familiar with the head-rush of achievement, satisfaction and pride that goes with learning. The “Eureka!” moment when you see something in a new light, the “I *can* do it!” when you master something you have been struggling with. As teachers, we should be creating an environment that opens up the opportunity to experience such moments to our students on a regular basis.

7) Learning is adaptation.

A bit like the car whose gear stick you learn to handle just *so*, in order to get it into second gear, learning is about recognising what works for you so that you can maximise your potential. As teachers, we need to help our students recognise how they learn, not only focus on what they learn.

8) Learning is a big question mark …?

Learning is seeing the world as a series of questions to explore rather than a series of answers to accept. Children are inquisitive by nature: as teachers we should nurture that inquisitiveness, so that, as the children who pass through our hands grow into teenagers and adults, their minds retain that ability to question the world around them, throwing new light on to it in the process.

9) Learning is a journey.

Sometimes we travel alone (inevitably getting our butts kicked by experience along the way!), sometimes we have a guide. This guide can be, for example, a parent, a friend or a teacher. As teachers, we need to be the sort of person that we ourselves would not mind sharing a journey with! If we are the sort of guide that we would avoid like the plague, then chances are, our students also will not want us in the car with them as they journey along a particular section of their road of life…

10) Learning is sharing.

Learning is sharing knowledge, opportunities, journeys, as well as a myriad of other things. Learning happens in interaction with other people and other things on our planet, a continual process of giving out and taking in. As teachers, we need to be empathic, able to share our students’ highs of achievement and lows of confusion and struggling. We need to learn from our students as well as share our knowledge with them. Remember the old adage, “when one teaches, two learn”…

“Think about how being part of online professional development has redefined the way you learn.”

I have only recently discovered the world of online professional development. Somebody recommended I use Twitter as a professional tool. Until that moment, I had avoided Twitter like the plague! (And still cringe at the thought of having it full of “friends” who tell me every time they brush their teeth, scratch their elbow and other such minutiae!) However, I have been absolutely blown away by what it has opened up to me in the few weeks that I have had it. I’ve read blogs, participated in discussions via #eltchat, interacted with other teachers world-wide, watched presentations, attempted to participate in a webinar (thwarted by my net connection!) and through it all opened up worlds of information for my brain to play with. This 30 Goals challenge is another result of signing up for Twitter. Through Twitter, I found @Vickylora’s blog, with some of her reflections on these goals in it, which inspired me to have a go myself. All this interaction with people and their thoughts has given me massive food for thought and broadened my contact with the world of EFL. I no longer feel stuck in a vacuum, cut off from everything outside of this little city where I will be for only a few weeks more.

Prior to discovering Twitter, and the wealth of sites it has led me to, my interactions were limited to my methodology books (which I have read and re-read, bringing new reflections to them each time) and English Teaching Professional magazine, for which I have a digital subscription. So being part of online professional development has redefined the way I learn because it has no less than opened up a whole new world of resources and people for me and my restless mind to interact with.

Isn’t learning fantastic?!

Goal 2: Re-evaluate Value

I’ll start by quoting the terms of Goal Number 2…

“Short-term- Change the way you assess one assignment or project and try to assess in a way that doesn’t add a numerical value but has the student seek value in the progress made, the learning achieved, or the work put into it. For the teachers on holiday, like in Argentina, just reflect on how you will change the assessment process of a project. Alternatively, think about a way to help students re-evaluate how they value themselves. Is it only through a number?

Long-term- In what ways can we help our students re-evaluate the way they value themselves? What changes to assessment can we make to have students reflect more on the learning journey instead of being programmed to place value only on the score?”

Now, before I launch into interpretation (of the goal), narration (of my attempt) and reflection (of both), first let me give a little background on my current working situation, so as to put all the above into context.

I work at a little language centre, that is part of a large franchise, in a minor city. I will refer to my school as LC (Language Centre!). LC is very entrenched in traditional methods of disseminating and testing knowledge, despite the supposed modern and communicative aims of the franchise as a whole (which seem to be belied by the materials they provide to attain these!). LC is very resistant to change. Staff at LC don’t get a lot of exposure to the teaching world outside of LC, as training and professional development do not seem to be a high priority. The general structure of courses at LC is this: Student buys course book and pays for tuition. Student attends sixteen two-hour meetings. Only twelve of these are used for studying. Of the remaining four, one is used for watching a movie, one is used for handing out certificates or progress reports and two are used for testing. There is one written test and one oral test. The written test consists of several pages of grammar/listening/reading exercises (gap fill etc) and the spoken test is an interview where the student is asked questions about the content of the course book or a presentation.

So, back to discussing Goal two, then. “Change the way you assess” moving the emphasis away from the score. I tend to think that if a student can do more in English at the end of the lesson than he or she could at the beginning of the lesson, then that is progress, regardless of the score he or she might attain on any one assignment or test. I think one of the problems with testing is that students all have different speeds at which they become able to recognise, manipulate and eventually internalise a piece of language. If a student is tested too soon in this process, and the score is low, the student may become demotivated and not persevere; deciding instead that this area of language, whatever it may be, is too difficult for them. Of course, we need to “test” students regularly to see what they have and haven’t understood. There are plenty of ways to achieve this without individual scores being given. Team games for vocabulary and structure testing, for example. Even concept checking for understanding is part of tracking students’ progress in a lesson or over a course of lessons. We, as teachers, need to build up a bank of these methods of assessing progress and understanding without fixating the students’ minds on scores and the success or failure element that naturally attaches to these.

Yesterday, one of my classes (a group of young teenagers) was due for their speaking tests, this cycle of classes being nearly at an end. Traditionally, in this programme, students’ speaking is tested by the teacher taking a student aside and asking them a list of questions (photocopied from a book of these tests) about course book content. The students get very worked up, anxious, about these tests and the scores they will get from them. I decided to take a different approach yesterday. Although I didn’t consciously link it to this goal, subconsciously, I’m sure, my reflection on it will have had something to do with my decision! I turned the traditional individual interview into a team game show. First I divided the students up into teams. Then I had each team look through the course book and between them come up with four questions from each unit. Once they had completed this, the students, in their teams, took turns to ask and answer questions and score points for their team. It seems “succeeding” or “failing” as a team is a lot less daunting and difficult for them to handle than individually. The end result was: They had a bit of fun, they reviewed the work we’ve done this cycle and I got to see them handling both sides of the conversation, questions as well as answers. The best thing was, none of them asked about scores at the end of the lesson! They all left, instead, with a sense of achievement at preparing and participating in a game show and having done a lot more speaking, both in preparation and during the quiz, than they would have done if I’d used the more traditional method as generally prescribed.

Why the ” ” marks around succeeding and failing, in the above paragraph? Because these two less-than-useful polar opposites were not relevant to this activity but are lodged in the students’ minds alongside “speaking test” and “final test”. The students achieved something with the language that they would not have been able to at the beginning of the course of lessons, showing an ability to use a range of the vocabulary and grammar structures (they made questions about both without being prompted! I wanted them to have autonomy in making the questions so I didn’t enforce any parameters) that we have met in the duration of the course. I consider that to be a great achievement on their part, even if it isn’t an achievement out of 100.

Traditional school exams are very score-driven, success and failure cut and dried. For teachers to prepare students for these exams, they inevitably have to score students work according to the parameters laid out by these exams, in order to train the students to face these exams. I wonder when we will see a trend away from exams being the purpose of learning rather than learning itself. Perhaps if we can begin to put students and learning at the centre rather than exams and final tests, students will stop worrying about succeeding or failing and be able to focus on the value of learning itself rather than the value of their scores. In terms of ELT, it would be nice if the goal of learning language was using that language, exploring it and the culture around it, and using it to connect with the world at large rather than getting x out of 20 or x % in a test at the end of the course.

In conclusion, then, I feel that re-evaluating value is something that a teacher needs to keep doing, in order to avoid becoming entrenched in the score-driven success vs failure ideology that currently dominates testing and assessment. Hopefully this will lead to a more learning-focussed rather than exam-focussed way of teaching, which for ELT would put using and exploring the language above being able to get 10/10 on a gap-fill grammar exercise. Perhaps this should be Goal 2.2!!

Thank you for reading and I look forward to seeing your comments. Knowledge can’t exist in a vacuum AND neither can teachers!! 🙂

The 30 Goals Challenge, Goal 1: Be a Beam

I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from a sun’s worth of beams since becoming a teeny part of the big, wide world of EFL. From my CELTA tutors to my colleagues, to all the wonderful students I’ve had the privilege of working with, to all the lovely people I’ve interacted with via Twitter in the short time since I discovered that wonderful tool. Indeed, it’s Twitter that has led me to the 30 Goals Challenge, via Vickylora’s blog entry on Goal 9, which led me to the website of Shelley Terrell, whose brainchild it is.

Sharing is, I think, one of the most important aspects of teaching: Knowledge in a vacuum is useless. But knowledge is not the only thing we share, either with our colleagues or with our students.

What else do we share and why is it important?

Perhaps, as teachers, one of the most important things we need to share, with both colleagues and students alike, is our love of learning. (If we don’t love to learn, perhaps we shouldn’t be teachers!)

For the students, we can create, or nurture, in them the desire to face the world around us with inquisitive, open minds and hearts. If the desire is there, everything else will follow. How do we do this? By making our classrooms an environment that challenges strengths but supports weaknesses. A place where students are encouraged to think about how they can solve problems not if they can. Somewhere where it’s ok for students to be themselves: to share their ideas, their backgrounds, their cultures, their dreams, their hopes, their fears, their achievements and indeed their mistakes. A place where knowledge isn’t painful, where mistakes aren’t an embarrassment. Where their world and their acquisition of knowledge isn’t confined to textbooks but instead opened up beyond the four walls of the classroom, welcoming all the riches that the world has to offer. It sounds a tall order for a teacher!! But in reality, it’s as simple as treating the students as people rather than vessels to be filled with tenses and vocabulary. Responding to their frequently-changing needs, by adapting your plans to what happens in your classroom, instead of blindly forcing them into a rigid framework. Believing in your students and helping them believe in themselves. Letting your classroom be a place where students have the confidence to speak up, to share, to make mistakes and to learn, and enjoy the process. And not being afraid to have fun with them!

For colleagues, sharing our love of learning comes through sharing ideas, experiences and theories, as well as support, smiles and cups of tea. Imagine how many ideas we’d have to play with if everybody was sharing their ideas regularly. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine: just look at Twitter! What a world of ideas has been opened up to us. I’ve tried to share this with my colleagues, none of whom use Twitter in this way, yet, and I  hope they will give it a go.

Let’s keep sharing and supporting each other as we share. And let’s do the same with our students: share more than just knowledge with them. Share the love of knowledge, the importance of being listened to, the security of being supported and encouraged in pursuit of dreams, the joy of being part of a group where every voice counts. And let the English flow.

Thank you for reading, if you got this far, and I hope you will visit again as I fill these pages with more entries, on the 30 goals and any other element of learning, teaching and EFL that I want to explore and share.