First class of the year

You have a new group of students in front of you and all you know about them is their approximate level. What do you do? This isn’t a trick question, this is what all teachers face at the start of each academic year and whenever else in between times that they are given a new group to teach for an extended period of time.

Where I work, there are no regular lesson materials for the first two-hour lesson. “Teaching proper” begins in the second two-hour slot of the week. In the first lesson, we have the luxury of time to spend getting to know our students and introducing them to what the AES (Academic English Skills) course looks like. At this point, I have taught a fair number of “first class of the year”s (especially as in January, being a January cohort ADoS, I switch from teaching September starters to January starters so two terms in a row, I get “first class of the year”s).

In my role as teacher development coordinator, I send out regular “bulletins” with links to content to help teachers develop and change up what they do in the classroom. The first bulletin of the academic year (which I have already started working on – I started towards the end of last term and have done a bit this week too – though I don’t start back at work til Monday!) is focused on beginning of the academic year-related content and one section is dedicated to ideas for making the first class of the year a fruitful one. So it is that I have been reading a range of content around first lessons, in order to select suitable links for the bulletin, and, thus, inevitably, reflecting on my own first lessons past and to come.

My “first lesson of the year”s

To me, the most important thing that should happen in that first lesson of the year is that I learn all my students’ names and they learn one another’s names too, as I feel this is essential for a conducive environment for learning: students need to be comfortable working together, so they need to know who one other are.

The activity I always use at the start of a lesson with a new group of students who are going to be my students for a term or more is a variation on the “I went shopping” memory game. Very simple, very straightforward: Student A gives their name and something they like (E.g. My name is Lizzie and I like running), Student B introduces Student A and then themselves (E.g. Her name is Lizzie and she likes running, my name is Bobby and I like football) and so on until everybody has introduced themselves and all the students who have already had a turn introducing themselves. While this is unfolding, I am silently repeating all the names along with the students (and chipping in to help when anybody struggles) so that once everybody has introduced themselves and their classmates (and the one who went first has to then introduce everybody!), I have a go. Obviously, the larger the group the longer this activity takes but I firmly believe it is worth the time taken. Simple but reliable, and the students tend to have a bit of a laugh doing it, which also helps break the ice and relax them a bit.

Once names are in place, I want to know a bit more about them all. In this slot, I don’t always use the same activity. I’ll use any activity that will get them talking to each other, learning about each other and sharing what they learn with the rest of the class, as well as ensuring that I tell them a bit about me and let them ask any questions they might have, which I answer as long as they are within reason. For ideas of such activities, see my Back to school-related links post. I tend to be strict on timing with this one, ensuring it doesn’t run on for too long so that there is still time for everything else I want to do!

Now that I know the students a bit, and they know me, it is time to focus on the course content so that they have a picture of what to expect from their 5 hours a week of AES classes for the next three terms. Each student receives a workbook and in the workbook there is a lot of information about the course. So for this element, I tend to do a workbook quiz i.e. give students a list of questions, the answers to which are in the workbook and have them work together to find the answers. This way, as well as ensuring that they have the information they need, they have the opportunity to practise working in a group. As well as going through the answers to the questions once they have finished (eliciting answers but also giving them a bit of a chance to sit and listen while I elaborate), this then provides an opportunity to get them to reflect on the effectiveness of their group work and how to improve it for future lessons when it will often feature.

In the powerpoint for the first lessons, there are two sentence starters – something like “I am excited about studying here because…” and “I am nervous about studying here because…” Generally students discuss these in pairs or small groups. This stage helps them realise that they are not alone in their feelings and that their classmates are all human too. This time I am toying with the idea of getting them to write their completions on a whiteboard (one board or half of a board, depending on the room per sentence starter) and getting them to identify the themes. With the “nervous about” board, we could look at each theme and brainstorm suggestions to ease those nerves. This time, I would like to perhaps also use this as an opportunity to cultivate growth mindsets: reframe the “nervous about” elements in a positive growth-conducive way. Turn any “I can’t’s” into “I can’t YET” and so on. This article by Chia Suan Chong has other ideas for cultivating growth mindsets which I will be referring back to in my preparation for this lesson and beyond.

Finally, I like to use the first lesson of the term to introduce regular features of the course. So, provided the students are already streamed and good to go:

  • get them registered on the Google+ community for their class, ensuring there is some content already there for them to dabble with.
  • introduce them to Quizlet and Vocab.com, again getting them to join the classes I’ve set up
  • and this time round, introduce the idea of doing a meditation at the start of each class, and have a go at doing one so that students know what to expect at the start of the next class

I don’t want to overcook things, so something like the listening logs, which will become a regular feature, I will leave til the first listening lesson of the term.

I like to finish off the lesson with a bit of fun – “How many of your classmates names can you remember?” (also to review that information and hopefully lodge it more firmly in their minds and mine) – and a preview of what’s to come in the rest of the week (has typically been a listening-based lesson in the second two hour slot and some sentence structure in the final one hour slot, but there have been some syllabus changes so whatever it is that is there) and set any flipped learning content I want them to look at in advance of those lessons.

So, that’s my formula, refined over the terms/years. Each stage has a clear goal and the activities tend to work quite nicely to achieve those goals. I always really enjoy those first lessons, getting to know my new students and getting things set up for an effective term/year of learning for them.

What do your first lessons of the year tend to look like? What are any of your go-to activities?

Using mindfulness meditation with students

Last academic year, having discovered mindfulness myself and done a 4-week Futurelearn course (Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance – next starting on 7th October and highly recommended!), I decided to experiment with using a mindfulness meditation with my foundation class students in their second and third terms. I finished the course sometime around the end of their first term, so the beginning of term two seemed the logical time to jump in, if I was going to do it.

As it was the first time for me to try something like this with students, I was very nervous about it BUT my belief in the potential benefits for them gave me the courage to try. Just prior to the first lesson of term two, I adapted the shortest mindfulness meditation from the Futurelearn course (the “Comma” – so called as you can use it to draw breath briefly and reset throughout the day) so that linguistically it was more accessible to my students. I didn’t have to make many changes as I had a high level group, but with lower level students I would make further adaptations/simplifications. In the first lesson of term, I distributed print-outs of the meditation and asked students to look at it and discuss these questions in pairs:

  1. What is this? What is it for?

  2. Why do you think it is called “Comma”?

  3. Have you used anything like this before?

  4. What could be the benefits for using it on a regular basis?

The “Mindfulness meditation: Comma” was obviously a give-away with regards to the what, and being Chinese students the concept of meditation was familiar to them. Once they had discussed the questions in pairs, we discussed them as a whole class. The fourth question is particularly important, as by talking about the potential benefits, you create some buy-in for when you then go on to say that the plan is to use this meditation at the start of each class.

What are the benefits?

  • It allows students to “arrive” in the lesson
  • It helps them focus their minds into the present, letting go of distractions such as worries generated by the previous lesson, content of conversations with friends, worry about various assignments, arguments they might have recently with friends/family – basically anything that isn’t happening now.

However, I will let the students speak for themselves. At the end of the two terms, having been observed teaching by my line manager who was impressed by the students’ response to the meditation, I gave them a little questionnaire to complete. There were four questions – one about the meditation, one about the listening logs we used at the start of one lesson per week (after the meditation), and then one about what they thought was good about AES (Academic English Skills) classes and one about what they thought would make AES classes better.

100% of them responded positively to the question about meditation (“For terms 2 and 3 we started every AES lesson with a short (2 minute) meditation. I think this was good/not good to do because…”). Here are their sentence completions:

I think this was good to do because…

  • it helps us to relax ourselves, and get our minds back to AES class.

  • It helps to concentrate on lesson better, feels great.

  • It was able to clear the mind and get ready to start the lesson in refreshing feelings.

  • It helps me relax after climbing up 7 floors. It helps me to concentrate easily. It could take up some lesson time.

  • I can pay attention for my AES lesson.

  • It made us focus better in the class.

  • Concentration.

  • This was a very good thing to as it allowed us to focus more.

  • It can clear my mind and help me focus on the tasks and activities.

  • It could help me stop thinking other subject’s work and help me be more focus in class.

  • During this section, I can relax myself before the start of the lesson.

  • It helped me concentrate better in class. I was able to clear my mind of all the unwanted thoughts and focus better. Relax too.

One student was absent. Obviously the clear themes running through the responses are about focus/concentration and relaxation. You might be thinking “but I don’t want my students to relax in my class, I want them to work hard!”. I think though that the sense of “relax” here is in opposition to stress. The students where I work are under an immense amount of pressure, and research shows that when stress goes beyond a certain amount, performance and productivity drop. So, if my students are worrying about all the assignments and deadlines, and what they didn’t understand in the class they had before AES etc etc, they aren’t going to be receptive to what I teach them as they will be distracted by stressing and worrying. Additionally, experience shows that when they are relaxed and engaged (the two are not mutually exclusive), they perform well in class and evidence of their learning can be seen in their assignments. As for the one who said “it can take up some lesson time” – these students have hours and hours of classes a day and I saw them 4-6 (last slot) on a Monday (all three terms), 2-4 on a Wednesday (term 1+2) 3-5 on a Tuesday (term 3) and 1330-1430 on a Friday so particularly for those late afternoon slots, it’s tough on them, so it’s not surprising they welcomed the chance to breathe for a couple of minutes. The benefits yielded in terms of focus were, to my mind, well worth those minutes.

I’m really pleased with the results of my little experiment and this academic year plan to continue my use of the guided meditation at the start of each class. (Basically, I lead the meditation, which begins “Now, with your body balanced in the chair and your eyes gently closed”. The first time you do it, the students might be a bit giggly, looking at classmates with one eye etc but very soon it becomes routine and they do it very calmly.) I will also be leading a short session with my colleagues next week, to share this idea with them so that they can also have a go using it with their students if they want to. I’m planning to get them to do the meditation just as I would do it with my students so that they have a feel for what it is like. Here is a link to the unadapted version of the meditation that I used, by Dr Craig Hassad. It is the first recording in the list – One minute comma.

Do you do any kind of meditation with your students? How has it worked for you/them?

If you are interested in the science behind mindfulness and learning, I recommend this book:

Finally, for those who want to know a bit more about Mindfulness, here is a TED Talk about it by Dr Richard Chambers:

 

End of Academic year (nearly!) reflections

It’s that time of year again (already!). Actually, the term is not quite over – we still have three weeks of tutorials, mock presentations and final presentations/exam marking BUT “teaching proper” finished today (at time of starting to write! now also known as Friday 26th August!) – I had my final lesson with my lovely JFBE1a group (January Foundation Business and Economics – but I teach them AES – Academic English Skills – NOT Business and Economics, thankfully!). I’ve had them for 2.5 terms (not quite 3 as they didn’t become a group until after IELTS-based streaming in Week 4 of their first term here) and it’s been so lovely working with them. They are pre-Bachelor degree students so still youngsters really. We don’t necessarily keep our groups for all three terms – sometimes a group might have a different teacher each term, or one teacher for two terms and another for the third, or one for the first term and another for terms two and three – so I consider myself very lucky to have done so with this group! Our academic years, however, are four terms so I had two groups from the September cohort in the September term (first term of the year), who were also lovely (but seem a long time ago now!).

Aaaanyway, I know very well that I will be, shall we say, pressed for time the next few weeks (!) and then I’ll be on holiday (woohoo!) so thought I would get a head start on the old end of year reflection.

A lot seems to have happened this year!

  • My fixed term contract became open-ended (woohoo!), meaning for the first time in my life I now have job security, in as much as it is possible to in this day and age.
  • I did a full year of ADoSing this academic year (my two term ‘trial’ at the end of last academic year went well enough for me to continue in role – always good!) and have continued to thoroughly enjoy working on the ADoS team. I’m a lot more confident now than I was (it really helps having a manager who is very positive about my capabilities!) which also helps – if I recognise my strengths, I can build on them…
  • Recently I took the role of Joint Teacher Development Coordinator for our centre and so far have put out two bulletins, with another – final one for the term – due out next week – very excited about this role and what I can do to help teachers develop!
  • I completed my SFHEA application (yesterday! *also known as Thursday 25th August!) – it’s not ready to submit yet, I need to put it into the portfolio platform when they unveil the one they are changing to from Pebbledoodah, but I’ve done all the donkey work for it.
  • I received two recognition awards from the powers that be (as did the other ADoSes, of course) – one for “‘going the extra mile’ especially with the massive contribution to AES development (in February) and one, “an exceptional contribution award” (today – 26th July – may not still be today when I get round to publishing this :-p )
  • I discovered Mindfulness, and as well as transforming my own life with it, have started to experiment with it in the classroom with promising results thus far – something to build on! (But that’s another blog post, when time allows…)
  • I wrote a book chapter for Routledge Handbook of Materials Development (recently got the first draft feedback back, so it’s back on the “list of things to do” – eek!)
  • I’ve done multiple Futurelearn courses (Dyslexia and Foreign language learning, 2 x Mindfulness, Developing Professional Resilience – which is still in progress) – I love learning!

All in all, it’s been a very positive year despite the tragedy that marked the beginning of it (losing my beloved Alba horse to colic).

A couple of things I realised today (*at time of writing, possibly not at time of publishing!):

  • Some years ago now, I discovered that I didn’t get a CELTA pass A because one of my tutors thought I wasn’t resilient enough. Today I realised that I’m really glad they made that decision. Because, perhaps if success (Pass A) had come easy, I wouldn’t have been quite so determined in all my future endeavours in the profession.
  • I am as excited about the future now (and the possibilities that lie ahead with regards to teaching, ADoSing, TD coordinating) as I was at the end of my CELTA session on continuing professional development/making a career out of ELT.

Things I am looking forward to in the next academic year:

  • Using my role as TD coordinator to build up a culture that puts teacher wellbeing at the centre of teacher development (my current passion!) – already got some innovations in the pipeline (watch this space!)
  • Developing my ‘helping teachers’ skills in my ADoS role
  • Continuing to work with Mindfulness both in terms of myself and in terms of using it with students
  • Continuing to develop and grow as a teacher, try new things in my lessons and make them as beneficial as possible for my students
  • Finishing that darn book chapter! (Well, the next deadline is end of August so that might/should technically happen before the next academic year starts…)
  • Hopefully getting to IATEFL again (I’ve written a proposal but need to go through my institution’s selection process AND – if successful in that – IATEFL’s selection process.
  • Learning more!

(NB As you will have noticed, I have focused on the positive. This is because, thanks to the negativity bias, it would be all too easy to ignore the positive in favour of the negative. Being positive about what I have achieved does not mean the next step is to put my feet up and stop putting any effort in, it just means I will be starting the next chapter with a “can do, can learn” growth mindset rather than an “I’m rubbish, why bother?” fixed mindset. 🙂 )

If you have a September to August academic year, what have been your highlights? What are you looking forward to for next academic year?

Workshop: Supporting our Chinese Learners – Tim Cooper

Earlier this year, in February (I know…I only managed to attend half, then had to teach, then had to catch the rest via a recording when I finally made time to!), I attended a fascinating TD session called Supporting our Chinese Learners by Tim Cooper who works for the university and who delivered this session of his especially for the ELTC. Here are my notes from it(/the recording).

Some statistics:

  • 1 in 5 students at the University of Sheffield are Chinese (!)
  • That’s 2/3 of the international student population
  • 150 nationalities are represented at the university, with the biggest representation being Chinese, mostly from the Eastern Seaboard area of China
  • China is the second largest economy and £100 million per year comes from Chinese students

Then we moved on to some history:

  • The cultural revolution impacted students’ parents and grandparents. People were stopped from being doctors (for example) and relocated to work on the land.
  • For a period of time there was of course also the one child policy

A result of these things is that Chinese students are under a lot of pressure to succeed from parents and family.

The social system in China and how it influences Chinese students’ behaviour in the UK both in and out of class

  • The three main doctrines are Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism
  • Due to the one child policy (in a generation since 1979, most families have been affected by the one child policy, with its consequences of gender imbalance and female infanticide – with the two child policy being introduced in 2016), being an only child, they are used to getting what they want and need. Away from that support system, often they want help, they need help, but they don’t ask for help. Silence does not always mean everything is well: among male Chinese students, the self-harm/suicide rate is increasing.
  • “guanxi” –> it’s not what you know but who you know: Chinese students rarely operate in isolation, especially females. They tend towards groups of three – one who is the best at English, one who is the most confident overall and one friend. Being collectivist, they find it difficult to do things as a single person. “Friendship groups” (like described above) work better for them than 1-1 buddy systems with home students or things of that nature.
  • “Saving face” – with friends, class, family, town, is very important. It is possible to lose face forever and no one wants that! This translates into fear of making mistakes/getting it wrong.
  • Young men tend to be clueless, young women tend to be more resourceful, as, if you are a – much-coveted – boy, everything is done for you while if you are a girl, not so!

 Chinese Education.

The system looks like this:

  • Kindergarten
  • Primary School (7am – 5pm)
  • Middle School (7am – 7pm, meal, homework)
  • High School (as above)

It is geared towards acquisition of knowledge and is heavily test-based, and obviously involves very long hours (poor teachers too!)

  • Entry into higher education is by way of the Gaokao (and a big exam is taken at the end of this high school). You need a high score to get into a good university. (It is a massive thing, parents come to see their kids off on big coaches to the test centre, there are armed police guards etc!)
  • Education is test-focused not critical thinking-focused.
  • Children are tested once a week from primary school upwards, so children always know their position in the class – top, bottom, etc.
  • The final two years of Gaokao preparation = fats, facts, facts + regurgitation of said facts.
  • In some cases, parents send their kids abroad to avoid Gaokao.
  • The Chinese system (all that testing!) may seem brutal to us but it is reassuring to them because they know where they stand.
  • Critical thinking and plagiarism don’t exist. Teachers speak truth, students write down and regurgitate truth.

Impacts on how they learn here:

  • They are unsettled by a (relative) lack of exams/testing here
  • Failure is confusing – a. “How am I failing when I have paid 20k to be here?” and b. “I didn’t know I was doing badly”
  • Regular little tests can be reassuring e.g. there was a big seminar group, issues with student participation; the teacher introduced a little 5 min multiple choice test done at the start of the lesson relating to previous content and the students were happier and more engaged afterwards, having spent a bit of time in their comfort zone
  • The issue isn’t that plagiarism is complex, it just has no meaning as a concept. “It’s not your own work” is meaningless to them. The reason so many Chinese students get done for cheating and there is a lot of collusion/unfair means is that they don’t understand it. One of Tim’s colleagues said “We are also good at cheating” – a consequence of Gaokao being such a big thing is that it’s a case of any means to an end.

With all of the above in mind, given that we have so many Chinese students here, we need to gain an understanding of where we are with them – their feelings and experiences. We have a big job to do, to meet them in the middle.

In 2012, Tim and colleagues did some focus groups and surveys with little samples, with the following findings:

  • Students tend to seek advice from a friend in the first instance rather than officially.
  • A high proportion of students ignore official university/departmental email. Email never got the same kind of traction in China as it did in the West. Email confuses them with regards to levels of formality required, they are not used to using it as a media. Most students (and staff over there!) use Wechat most of the time. So, at a networking event at Nanjing university, Tim noticed there was a lack of business cards being exchanged and instead it was QR codes, connecting via touching phones and usually/often there was a dancing panda involved! (Very different from “Dear Dr Soandso, it was great to meet you…”!)
  • Wechat is very informal but is used as a means of conveying everything. Emojis are used a LOT e.g. Tim sends a message saying “Shall we meet and discuss x” and the response might be a mouse blowing kisses. That doesn’t mean the person is blowing kisses, just the mouse, the person is just saying yes, great.

What does this mean for us?

  • Emails need to be brief and get to the point as quickly as possible, and ideally include a picture where possible.
  • Use transparent language e.g. “the document you need to open a bank account” not “bank letter”
  • Think about using a Wechat group to tell them when you have sent something important. NB Wechat is monitored in China. So in communication terms, great, but increasingly problematic.

Other findings from 2012:

  • Students can be reluctant to provide undeferential feedback – will always nod and say yes to “Do you understand xyz?” or “Is everything ok?” It means “I respect your authority and am listening (but not  necessarily understanding)”. So you need to find subtle ways of checking understanding. (At least this is something we as language teachers are good at generally!)
  • They are used to being monitored/recorded but this causes worries for example if someone suggests counselling to them – they will worry that it will end up on their academic record (MSc in Engineering, with mental health issues!) so you need to explain otherwise.

2015-2016 findings:

  • 60% of a statistically valid sample experienced difficulty with the expectation of expressing their opinions in class
  • 46% experienced some difficulty in complying with university plagiarism regulations
  • 46% experienced difficulty in working with other students in groups
  • Most students were expecting a more British experience or a warmer welcome from home students

=> It’s hard for them to adjust to independent study requirements at university as vs. reliance on teachers and textbooks (there, each subject has THE textbook). However, most students within the course of their studies will have a successful journey and they will get it, and appreciate it (e.g. critical reading etc) – they just need time to understand the system.

Things to consider:

  • Need to manage expectations with regards to support: the majority come here after 4 years of undergrad in China, aged about 22. During that 4 years, they will have had 24/7 access to a “fudaoyuan” (personal tutor/coach) – these are recent graduates on the bottom rung, who are given a work phone, and told be on on call at any time and to check up on charges regularly. E.g. a student forgets the due date of an assignment, they can call their fudaoyuan up at 1am to ask them; a student who is considering suicide might tell their fudaoyuan as the first port of call; a student who thinks they are pregnant and are worried the family will disown them etc will also call their fudaoyuan. So this is very different to “not after 5pm or at weekends”  We need to explain to students how it works, tell them not to panic if we defer availability, we WILL deal with something and deferring is not personal.
  • With regards to students “always going around in groups” and “always speaking Chinese” – they are far from home, they gravitate towards people in the same boat and agents often even put them on the same flight etc (and remember how you coped when you went to work abroad, at least initially!).
  • Need to make sure students get information about contraception etc. sensitively – local NHS here worked out that a spike in number of abortions was a spike in Chinese girls and approached the university about it. There is a lack of sex education over there and when they come over here they are no longer being watched and this is a consequence of that. There was a campaign about this but it got dropped unfortunately.
  • Whatever students’ IELTS score is when they arrive, it can drop/their language level can regress through lack of use.
  • If they are doing something wrong, we need to meet them half way and help them learn how to do things appropriately here.

Focusing on adaptation and integration:

  • social activities based on drinking generally have limited appeal
  • culture shock an issue – prolonged feeling of being an outsider/visitor
  • buddying schemes can be beneficial but “friendship groups” may work better
  • need to keep in mind Chinese vs. Western views of health and the body e.g. access to warm water is paramount for female students of reproductive age (to them, losing warm fluid = must replace it with warm fluid!) and there needs to be sensitivity around health issues
  • silence does not equal all is well (as mentioned earlier)
  • students are used to being given homework, can feel lost without it
  • they are under enormous pressure to succeed, consequences of failure are enormous
  • remember, in China, teachers do learning to you, here you have to do it yourself = a big adjustment to make

You can watch a video of the students themselves speaking here.

Finally, and very interestingly, we were given a photographic tour of a Chinese university campus:

Nanjing University, a top 3 or 4 university which has recently expanded with a brand new campus and is very modern:

  • The old entrance in town has philosophical writing of a big figure of that town. You go through that entrance into a campus, a bubble, a safe place. (So students are baffled by Sheffield, they think Glossop Road/West Street is “on campus”
  • Learning takes place in lecture theatres
  • Self study areas consist of rows of desks and chairs – no sofas etc
  • In luxury residences, there are 4 girls to a room. The room has bunks and desks. A thin curtain on the bunk is the only privacy. (Non-luxury = a dorm)
  • Cooking facilities are not important, you go to the canteen which is huge and has lots of choice. HOWEVER hot water dispensers are VERY important! (Lots of machines for that)
  • It is normal/acceptable to fall asleep in the library

Tim concluded by saying that three years ago, getting a degree in the UK was “the biz”, but this is starting to decline. In the world rankings we have slipped behind Australia to third place. So, we need to do more! 75% of students said they were “satisfied” but their expectations are low, so we do need to do more to improve their experience (- or help them improve their experience?) (and our ranking!).

 

 

 

 

Scholarship Circle: Giving formative feedback on student writing (3.1)

I would say it’s the start of a new term (College term 3) and a new wave of scholarship circle sessions, but, in reality, it’s actually week 5! We had our first session for the term last week and this is me playing catch-up. The beginning of a new term is a notoriously busy time and particularly for the January cohort is a scattergun of coursework draft submission/feedback (+ for me as ADoS, in addition to doing my own feedback, providing support to teachers doing theirs) and speaking exams (+for me as ADoS double marking a portion of those with each of my teachers), so I’m actually pretty glad the scholarship circle didn’t get going ’til last week!

Our agenda was as follows:

  1. Revisit the issue of our research on Quickmarks to see where we are at and figure out our timeline.
  2. Decide on a focus for this term’s scholarship circle sessions
  3. Set ourselves some reading homework

This terms research project update

The consent forms are ready to go and will be sent to:

  • the centre manager
  • the teachers of the students we have identified as the sample who will receive the questionnaire and from which participants for the text analysis will be selected (there are a small number of us and we will only be doing a small number i.e. 1-2 of text analyses each!)
  • the students themselves. (We only need to send a consent form to those selected for text analysis as the consent form for the questionnaire will be built into the questionnaire).

We reconfirmed that we will be focusing on International Foundation Year (IFY) students rather than PMP (Pre-masters students) as PMP students’ course work tends to change dramatically between first draft feedback and final submission due to content tutor feedback, which would affect text analysis possibilities. We are aware that a range of factors influence response to feedback, e.g. age, pathway, language level, past learning experiences, educational culture in country of origin, so have picked IFY students with a particular language level (as defined by IELTS scores) and over the age of 18. This minimises the influence of age and language level factors on response, and avoiding ethical/consent/safeguarding issues that arise when minors are involved.

The text analysis will be done in the early part of next term. There won’t be time this term as once final drafts are submitted, teachers will be busy with coursework marking and then exam marking extraordinaire (biggest cohort of students ever this term). It will have to be the early part i.e. before the end of week 4, as beyond then, teachers will be busy doing first draft feedback for next term’s students. For next term’s students, if we are repeating the research cycle, we can do the analysis in the autumn term.

Focus for this term’s sessions

This term, including the current session, there will be 6 sessions. (Week 10 will be an impossibility due to above-mentioned exam marking extraordinaire!) We have decided to focus on comments, as a logical next step to the focus on Quickmarks that our current research is based on.

At the moment, we do have a generic comments bank which teachers can copy comments from in order to paste them into a student’s assignment. The aim of this is to save time and help teachers by providing them with ideas of what they can put. In practice, fast typists ignore the bank as it is quicker to type what you want to say than it is to read through a bank of comments, decide which one is the best fit and then do the copy-pasting. The comment bank also gets ignored due to it being generic rather than specific to a given student’s piece of work. It was noted that either which way, it is useful for new teachers as an extra point of support.

Going forward, we discussed the possibility of going through the bank of comments as we did with the quickmarks and making them more user-friendly (for students and teachers alike!). One idea was to have a base comment, with space to make it specific by referring to a given student example. Another idea was to refine the categorisation of the comments so that is easier to find the ones you need. We also talked about refining the bank by selecting the best comments with the widest structure and editing or culling any that seemed less useful (much as some of the quickmarks were edited or culled in a similar fashion).

Another issue that came out is the importance of familiarity – be it with the quickmarks or with the comments, the only way for these resources to be used effectively and efficiently is if teachers are familiar with them so that time isn’t wasted through not being sure about which quickmark/comment to use, if there is an appropriate quickmark/comment available etc. Familiarity is also important for students, so that they are better able to recognise what their feedback means and what they need to do. To address this, we had the idea of a “quick mark auction”. This would involve a list of sentences, each with a different mistake underlined, a set of corresponding quickmarks and a set of quickmark meanings. By the end of the activity, students (and new teachers!) would have identified what each quick mark means and which one to use with each error example. We have set up a google doc so that we can create this resource collaboratively:

Obviously no one has added anything to it yet – work in progress! It will happen…

As we did with the Quickmarks, we aim to inform what we do with what we read in relevant literature and discuss in our weekly sessions. Which brings me on to…

Homework

Our reading homework for this week (which I haven’t done yet – yikes!) is:

  • Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice in Studies in Higher Education 31(2) pp.199-218
  • Burke, D. and Pieterick, J. (2010) Giving students effective written feedback McGraw-Hill Education

I better get to it!

 

Mindfulness, work and life

On the 4th March this year, I received the following email from our TD team (thanks guys!):

On the same day, I also saw the following post from Rachael Roberts (ELT course book writer, MaW SIG coordinator a while back, Life coach/writer):

Coincidentally enough, on Saturday the2nd March I had picked up a book called Mindfulness for Worriers by Padraig O’Morain from my local library. I have since returned it and bought my own copy to reread:

I am convinced the universe was trying to tell me something!

That something being that Mindfulness was something I needed to bring into my life. So I took the hint and did the course!

It was four weeks long and had 3-4hrs of content per week. For me, it was the final two weeks of term and then my two weeks of Easter holiday. The nice thing was, that meant I could use the guided meditations extensively while I was in Sicily sitting on my hillside. Having that time and space to really get into the formal meditating really helped. It was a brilliant course, and I am so glad I did it.

Anyway, this post is not going to be a summary of the course (you should just do it!), nor a summary of Rachael’s book (you should just read it!) but more just a bit about what has stood out for me since accepting the universe’s little nudge and learning more about Mindfulness.

What do I mean by Mindfulness? Well, according to Padraig O’Morain it’s

“returning your attention, with acceptance, from your thoughts to your experience in the moment.”

This moment. This breath. Now. For an over-thinker like me, this was revolutionary in itself – the fact that I don’t have to be a hostage to what is going on in my head. I can say “yes, thoughts, I know you are there bubbling around but actually at this moment I am more interested in my breathing/how my feet feel/the weight of my hands as they rest on my legs/those daffodils that I am cycling past, those bluebells that I am running past.” I have the choice not to be dragged down endless rabbit holes of rumination (obsessing about things that have already happened) or worrying (about things that may or may not happen in the future). This doesn’t mean repressing thoughts or worries, but rather, while accepting them and acknowledging them, choosing to place the attention on something else, something in the present moment.

However, like they described it in the Futurelearn course, the mind is like a puppy – always wants to run off here, there and everywhere. It’s very easy to get caught up in thoughts. And, like the puppy, it takes gentle training for the sit and stay command to be learnt and heeded. Accepting that thinking (and overthinking!) is what the mind does, and not getting frustrated about it, is key. Instead, it’s a case of gently and repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present moment. And from there, you can identify which of the thoughts, if any, are useful to listen to and pursue, rather than just being stuck amidst a load of endless mind babble.

4th March – 22nd April… less than 2 months! So obviously, as far as I am concerned it is very much still a work in progress (and will be forever I imagine!) and I am very much a beginner, but even so, I am already noticing so many benefits:

  • Instead of waking up in the night and then being unable to get back to sleep because I am thinking too much, if I wake in the night now, I do a body-scan (focus on each part of the body in turn, from the feet upwards) and drop back off much more easily.
  • Similarly, when I go to bed each night, I use the body-scan as a falling asleep technique. I also do a 10-20 minute guided meditation just before ‘lights out’ so my mind is calmer to start with.
  • I am better able to recognise when I am getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts and take a step back.
  • Because of being better able to recognise getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts, I am less likely to go down the rabbit holes of catastrophising/awfulising (basically blowing things out of proportion and thinking about worst case scenarios for everything), taking that step back instead. Thus, one stressor (whatever triggered the anxious thoughts) doesn’t need to become one thousand stressors (all the dark imaginings that follow it and trigger a stress response in my body).
  • Instead of getting road rage as I cycle to and from work, I am better able to accept that drivers are prone to being inconsiderate, accept that I will take approximately x amount of time to get from a to b and not fret, instead focusing my attention on what’s going on around me (better for my safety) and seeing how much beauty and diversity I can notice in the process. Flowers, trees, front gardens, a smiling baby, a shop front…some of those only while at red lights, obviously! Some, if I am moving, is just a fleeting glimpse but I see them rather than being on autopilot.
  • Mindfulness has also helped me get a handle on some disordered eating/anxiety issues which were triggered by bereavement last autumn. By helping me be more aware of what my stressors are and then through that being able to recognise that they don’t actually need to be stressors and using mindfulness techniques when they arise.

As far as work is concerned, I have got into the routine of starting my classes with a very short meditation (I do the speaking, the students do the meditation). The idea is that when they come into my class, their heads are full of what’s gone before (previous lessons, catching up with friends as they walk between classes, checking their phones etc) and what lies ahead (as in beyond my class – deadlines, homework, social arrangements, what’s for dinner etc), so by doing a one minute meditation, it helps them “arrive” and become ready to concentrate on the lesson at hand. I think it has helped improve their focus, but obviously I have no science of my own to back that up. It certainly makes for a very peaceful and pleasant start to the lesson, without using up much time.

The meditation I do with them is based on one from the Futurelearn course called “The Comma” – so-called because it allows you to introduce a short pause between activities into your day. I adapted it slightly to simplify the language and grammar used, to make it more suitable for my students. I introduced it in the first lesson of this term by handing out a print-out to each student and getting them to discuss a few questions around what it is, how using it could help someone and how using it at the start of a class could be valuable for us. Then we did it (and of course being the first time there was a bit of giggling and looking at each other before they closed their eyes properly! Subsequently that hasn’t been an issue) Finally, I said we’d do it at the start of each future class. They were agreeable to that and we have done so ever since.

I also try and do a “comma” or a “full stop” [5 minute meditation, so a slightly longer pause] or a body scan myself before I’m due to go and teach. It doesn’t always happen but when I do manage it, it is a good head space from which to go and start a lesson. It helps me transition from whatever I have been doing, to focusing more fully on what I am about to do i.e. the present moment and teaching. I have all the meditations from the Futurelearn course downloaded on my laptop and loaded onto my mp3 player (yes I still have an mp3 player, isn’t that quaint :-p ) so that I can use them “on the go”.

Outside of work, I always do a guided meditation at bed time – 5-10 mins at the start of my unwinding and then 5-10 mins just before I am about to try and go to sleep. Midweek, that is all I manage as far formal mindfulness is concerned. However, in terms of “informal” practice, I am constantly trying to do all the little day-to-day life things more mindfully, bringing my awareness into the present moment rather than operating in default mode while my mind is off diving down rabbit holes. At the weekends, though, I try and do more and longer (10-20 minute) guided meditations. As that is when I have more of a chance to. Currently, my bedtime reading is the Padraig O’Morain book pictured above. I have also (re)read his book called “Kindfulness” which combines Mindfulness and self-compassion, and have got his “Mindfulness on the go” book lined up. So it’s a steady drip-feed reminder of it for me.

In one week’s time, I will be starting another Futurelearn mindfulness course, also delivered by Monash university (with the same tutors who did the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance one referred to earlier in this post) which is called Maintaining a mindful life. The former is aimed at beginners while the latter is aimed at people who have already done the former or are familiar with/already practice Mindfulness. I am very much looking forward to it!

Do you practice Mindfulness? If so, what resources do you recommend?

  • I’m aware there are various apps e.g. Headspace (I’ve used it a bit but not yet bothered paying for it as I have had enough to be going with through the Futurelearn course materials including the guided meditations and my Padraig O’Marain books. Who knows, maybe one day!) and others. Do you use any such apps?
  • Rachael Roberts’s site has some good stuff on it too (including a link to that book, downloadable as a pdf, which I mentioned at the start of this post!)
  • This site belongs to one of the course tutors from the Futurelearn course I did. “Body scan”, “Training the puppy” and “Body, breath and sound” all feature on the course. Body, breath and sound is the 10-minute one I most often do when I do 10 minutes. There are loads of others there, a wealth of experimentation possible. I have barely scratched the surface. (It is very easy to just use the ones you are familiar with repeatedly!)
  • Padraig O’Morain also has some guided practices and from this page links to another where he has even more audios! Info about his books is here. The website will prompt you to sign up for his “Daily Bell” which is an email newsletter thingy that includes a nice mindfulness-related quote as well as the usual guff about courses he is doing, resources and suchlike.
  • Here is a link to the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course on Futurelearn (running again in July in case you are interested) and here is the follow-up course, Maintaining a Mindful Life. Highly recommended.
  • For the science behind it all, Daniel Goleman and Richard J.Davidson have written “Altered Traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body

Please share any resources which you use by commenting on this post! I would really love to hear from you! 

And on that note I do believe it’s time for a guided meditation. 🙂

What does an ADoS do?

Following Sandy’s post about a busy week in her life as a DoS of IH Bydgoszcz in Poland, which I found very interesting, and attending a Learning and Teaching Professional Scheme introductory meeting and learning that to become a SFHEA one of the things I need to do is write a personal statement about who I am and what I do here at the university,  I was inspired to write a bit about what I do as an ADoS in Sheffield University ELTC’s USIC arm. So here it is! This is what an ADoS does!

(Caveat: every ADoS position is different and depends on the type and size of the institution, as well as institutional requirements – this post is just about what an ADoS does here, where I am – aka what I do! Perhaps the title should be “What does *this* ADoS do?”!)

  • I teach. (Yay!) Currently 6hrs per week plus 3-4 WAS’s (1hr Writing Advisory Service appointments), as of next week 9hrs per week plus 1 WAS. Along with that, of course, comes all the usual planning, prepping, marking and admin. Am also timetabled 6hrs of cover slots per week.
  • I write meeting notes. Well, I co-write meeting notes with my fellow January ADoS. (At this point, I should explain – I am ADoS for the January Foundation cohort of students. We currently have 4 cohorts of students  – September Foundation and Pre-Masters, and January Foundation and Pre-Masters – but will go up to 5 in April. The April lot is always smaller so though there are also a mixture of Foundation and Pre-Masters, they are counted as one cohort.) We do this using Google docs and share them with our teachers towards the end of one week, ready for the meeting at the start of the next week. This means that teachers have a written record to refer back to without having to write copious notes on a scrap of paper that then gets lost or something! We give them a print-out in the meeting, so they can write down anything extra that comes up/anything that wasn’t clear to them that they asked about etc.
  • I run…co-run…weekly module meetings (in previous terms we did the meetings independently but this term about 95% of our teachers are teaching both January cohorts so it made sense to combine it; this may revert to separate meetings next term, depends on timetables and teachers!). These meetings are about what’s got to happen in the immediate future and looking forward to next week’s lessons. (So, as ADoSes, say it’s week 5, we write meeting notes for week 6’s meeting in which we are talking about week 7 lessons!)
  • I make materials. Last term, that included materials for the workbook, as we adapted some lessons based on teacher feedback and student response from previous use of them. This involves not just creating the new materials and putting them into the workbook but also updating the powerpoints, teachers notes and student worksheets that live in our shared drive resources folder so that everything matches up to the changes that have been made. Examples this term include independent listening development materials, and self-study materials and in-class or self-study materials for using www.wordandphrase.info/academic. (Here I have linked to copies of the materials in my personal google drive so that you can see them, but the originals live on my work google drive and are set to be useable only by people with sheffield.ac.uk email addresses.)
  • Relating to the above, I seek feedback regarding the materials in order to use it to improve them for the next time around.
  • I make sure the tracker is up to date and correct. The tracker refers to an excel spreadsheet with marks and progression rating colours for all students, and there is separate tracker for each cohort. This involves inputting data (e.g. the diagnostic test results), reminding teachers when data that they are inputting needs to be done, helping teachers when they have trouble inputting data, correcting mistakes with student information e.g. when they change groups due to changing pathway and fixing it when random things happen like a student ends up with two lines that correspond to their name/number but non-identical scores (cue checking scripts to be able to work out which is the correct row and delete the other). I have learnt what a v-lookup is and what filters are. Either which way, we hate the tracker… 😉
  • I make sure all the other admin happens when it meant to. This includes transferring progression colours from the tracker to the student management system at certain points, generation of learning conversation documents (even if we don’t actually have the conversations, as this term, the data is needed so that academic success tutors can discuss it with students). This term the document generation has been mostly automated but teachers still need to select smart targets in a Google sheet and copy and paste the resultant data from Google docs to a certain spreadsheet that will then be used for a mail merge, and stuff like that. Teachers need to be told it’s coming up, taught how to do it (in the case of new teachers), supported through it (i.e. troubleshooting if/when the struggle) and we have to check everything in the end to make sure all is in order.
  • I deal with unforeseen situations that come up e.g. a teacher being off sick for longer than a day or two when there is a tight marking deadline and other admin too – between us the ADoSes have to cover that teacher’s marking and admin.
  • I make sure everything is ready for assessments. This includes sending mock tests/seminar discussion exam sheets/etc off to be printed well in advance of when the assessment will take place (printing has a two week turnaround and may take longer in busy periods), setting up Turnitin buttons on MOLE, putting coursework templates on MOLE, doing summative assessment papers myself as part of pre-standardisation etc.
  • I am first point of contact when teachers have any questions, problems, issues etc with January IFY students and teaching (and basically anything relating to anything they have to do here e.g. the admin, the tools used to do the admin etc). This is mostly done in person, in the staffroom, but also involves emails. Where relevant we then liaise with the person or people who need to be involved in resolving the issue. Otherwise, we offer support/guidance as necessary. The main skills this requires are patience, supportiveness and ability to be interrupted, provide the help needed and seamlessly pick up the thread of what you were doing when help was needed! I am currently trying to devise a way of providing more support to new teachers than what we currently do, watch this space!
  • I run…co-run…standardisation for all summative assessments. This involves us marking several samples of a given assessment, rationalising our scores (which are under the influence of the centre-level standardisation that Studygroup centres do), agreeing together what the official scores are and then getting teachers to do the same. With exam marking standardisation, we will then all be in a big room while the teachers are looking at and marking the samples and the discussion follows directly. Once complete, marking commences. With coursework, we send out the samples in advance of a given weekly meeting and in that meeting share and discuss scores. We also have to do this for the speaking exams (the seminar discussion and the presentation), which are both done by sending out recordings in advance for teachers to watch and grade, after which scores are discussed as with the written exams.
  • I double mark speaking exams. In order to increase reliability, we double-mark a a couple of groups (seminar discussion) or a few students (individual presentations) with each teacher.
  • I sign marks off and prepare module boxes. Once all marks have been inputted into spreadsheet and student management system, everything needs double-checking. Errors get picked up and changed, and then, when everything is in order, we sign off the marks for a given cohort for a given exam. The paper work goes into the module box along with some samples of high, medium and low-scoring papers and evidence of standardisation. The resultant module box is stored ready to be audited by the external examiner when s/he pays a visit, so it is important that everything is in order.
  • I randomly spot-check first draft feedback on course work to make sure we as a team are being consistent in the amount and quality of feedback that is given and advise where any changes/tweaks are necessary.
  • I do naughty student meetings. These meetings are 1-1 with the student and their teacher, and are held when students plagiarise in the first draft of their coursework. The idea is to find out what’s gone on and why, and to ensure that it will be addressed before the piece of work is submitted finally. (Otherwise, the student will have to go to a misconduct panel hearing and that makes more paperwork for us and more stress for the student!)
  • I prepare academic misconduct case paperwork. If a student’s final draft submission has high levels of plagiarism or it is clear they have received help because the work submitted is too far above their normal level, we need to prepare paperwork for academic misconduct panel hearings. This mostly involves filling in forms and providing evidence (past pieces of written work, which necessitates digitised work folders, which we also set up for teachers to use).
  • I invigilate listening exams. Mostly Studygroup provide invigilators for exams but our listening exams are complicated enough that we provide a chief invigilator per exam room. Generally that’s around 4 chief invigilators per exam. One of those things that is terrifying the first time you do it and then subsequently you wonder what all the fuss was about!
  • I send next term’s workbook off to the printers. Each term, at some point sufficiently in advance of the end of term, next term’s workbook has to be sent off to print. This involves making any changes that have been flagged up, altering or replacing lessons, proofreading, editing, checking formatting hasn’t altered, sometimes throwing in an alternative syllabus at the last minute because we have been told that due to timetabling we will have to deliver a 2hr-1hr-2hr delivery pattern as well as the default 2-2-1 delivery pattern. That kind of thing.
  • I am supposed to do 3hrs CPD a week, but often it gets relegated to the weekend other than an hr of scholarship circle most weeks (unless stuff comes up which needs dealing with pronto, in which case that takes priority!).

So that’s the kind of thing (there is more, but that is all I can think of for now!)… except rather than “I”, it’s “we”, really! Each of the five cohorts mentioned towards the start of this post (bullet point two) has an ADoS and together we are a team. Within that, some of us also operate in sub-teams: I am part of Team Jan ADoS, and the two September ADoSes work together closely too. For me, the teamwork aspect is the best part of it! We bounce off each other, we support each other, between us we have more brains to cope with remembering everything that has to be done, we commiserate with each other (when the tracker plays up, for example!), we help each other out when there’s lots to be done (e.g. the example of covering the sick teacher’s marking and admin, we all took on some of it and between us got it done) and so on.

I like my job, when it isn’t driving me crazy 😉 If you have ADoSes where you work, what similarities and differences are there between my ADoS role and those where you are?

Another and final question I want to leave you with: How do you support new teachers where you work? Will be interested to hear any replies… please comment!