Are We Adjusting?

Are we ready for the students we have?

Something funny happened to me this last week… In a B1 (more like a B2, really) group of teens I have (14-15 years-old students) group I have we are discussing language – with a closer focus on English, of course. And one of the first things we do is compare formal and informal language. I give the students some informal terms and they have to come up with formal synonyms to them.

After I had explained the activity one of the students asked (holding her smartphone on her hand – my school has wi-fi for the students) “Teacher, can I google it? Can I use the internet to find suitable terms?”

Pause. I am an enthusiast of technology and its power in learning. I tweet and I Facebook. I students come up with a term I don’t know I use an app to find out about the meaning and pronunciation or I google it (on my smartphone) right on the spot. I admit to making a longer pause, thinking whether my true opinion would be appropriate. And then I thought of my ultimate goal: getting students ready for life. Would they have their smartphones at hand when needed? Maybe. Maybe not, But most likely, the answer would be yes, especially after wi-fi has become so available – at least in Brazil and the last few countries I have visited lately.

So I thought: “In a real, authentic life situation, would this student be able to access (and use) google?”. And the answer was yes.

I believe students have to acquire the minimum skills to know what to look for and basic “get it from context” abilities (at least these ones have!). So why should I forbid? Isn’t “googling” what I do, when I come across a question I can’t answer on the spot? Why should I ask them to do it differently?

So I said “Yes…. look some of the answers up – after you have reached a dead end.” The student’s reaction?

“Teacher, you should talk to every single teacher I have. You’re the only one who understands the time we are living in. Can you talk to my math teacher and tell her we should be able to use calculators?”

Now…I think I am stepping on unsteady ground… My daughter ( a few months ago, when struggling with math, as she usually does – she seems to have a much more artistic intelligence) asked me why she couldn’t use a calculator in her math classes, since she would be able to use one when needed. I reasoned she needed to know the basic math operations, because she couldn’t depend on devices. But truth of the matter is: I use my iPhone’s calculator even when figuring out how much each person should pay after happy hour. It’s just easier.

Did my allowing the student to use her phone and google hinder learning? I don’t think so… but what do you think? What do you do when students try using internet/unplanned technology in your class? Can we just ignore the kind  of technology our students have at hand? does it prevent (or enhance??) learning?

On a last note: After that I completely established fantastic rapport to these students…they think I am cool. And they’re producing like crazy! :)

Do You Ever….

How I've been feeling (photo by Kalexanderson - CC through Flickr)

feel discouraged, as a teacher? I’m going to take a risk here and say you have.

As a teacher I sometimes feel like I am not doing my job. Like the students aren’t really learning, no matter how hard I work.

I have a couple of challenges this semester. For the past 6 or 7 years, I have mostly taught teens – or young adults at proficiency level. And we all know how fast most of them pick up language, especially because of the amount of exposure to English they get these days (with movies, music, games,internet, etc). But this semester I have been given (relatively) elementary groups of adults. Wow! That shook me up. Don’t get me wrong – I have taught as far as level 1 – real beginners – in my teaching career. But I guess I got too used to what I had been given lately.

I had forgotten how much more support adults at beginner levels need. How much more support, cheering up and and teaching they require. How much slower they move. I had forgotten how much they struggle at being exposed to authentic language – such as me speaking normally, without measuring my words. Their anxiety and issues had slipped off my mind.

One of the groups (that I am teaching and fit such description) I currently has has been struggling (still) with the simple present tense. I have spent the first 2 weeks of class reviewing it (2h30m a week), but I am not sure I see much improvement. I changed approaches, tried different activities… and I am not sure I have been effective.

I have created a site for the class, with extra resources and news so the ones that have to miss class (lots of them travel for work) can keep up with what we are doing. I have prepared activities. And still, I am not sure they are “getting”it. I feel somewhat frustrated.

More than anything, I feel bad, because I have been feeding them a lot of “grammar McNuggets” – grammar exercises, drills and so on. After the third class of teaching the Simple Present (which they should have learned/seen in their first year) I feel bad because that’s not how I think learning should take place, but it seems it’s the way they prefer, that they feel they are learning – even if I don’t really agree.

If my goal as a teacher (and the career I have chosen, my passion) is to help my students learn, what to do when you don’t feel learning is really taking place – or at least not at the rate you would expect? How do you know they are learning, if your classes and hard work are being effective?

Heeeelllppp!

What are Errors and How Should We Deal With Them in Our Classes?

This week I was fortunate to be invited to write about language errors and how I approach them in my classes, for the new iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) blog. Not only that, but I am honored to write about it alongside some great ELT names, such as Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Yitcha Sarwono, Chuck Sandy, Scott Thornbury and Steven Herder. It is great to see how we each talk about a different aspect, based on our own experiences and work.

If you’d like to read what I wrote about it – as well as the other bloggers, just click on the link below :-) There are some great threads on the comment too!

iTDi Blog

Before a Language Teacher… I was a Language Learner

For me, one of the best things about blogging is reading the comments after the blog ans seeing how people from different places, different contexts and experiences read and understand the same post. How they see different aspects – our view of things passes through the lenses that our experiences have given us. I love learning about how other teachers around the world see things, wonder what makes them that way. And one of the most effective ways of doing that, and getting a wide variety of teachers sharing their experiences and views on the same topic, is a blog challenge.

Brad Patterson proposed the latest challenge in my PLN with a post where he shares his story of learning a foreign language and posing a question for anyone wiling to share their story:

“I challenge you to blog a story of your language learning, be it a success or a story about what didn’t work for you OR for your students if you’d like.”

So… without further ado, here’s my story.

Curly-haired, blondish Ceci with dad and bro

My mother used to be an English teacher. I was a very curious child – always wanting to learn things and asking questions. So naturally, I was intrigued by that different language my mother spoke. I leafed through her books, looked at the images and wanted, more than anything, understand what the books said. I learned to read and write earlier than most kids I played with – at 4 to 5 years old. Books have always been my passion.

So my mother bought me English books that came with records (Yes, records!) of cute songs and had beautiful pictures and words under it. And I listened to the records and repeated the words. I listened to and sung the songs. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to communicate. So my mother tried to enroll me in a private English course when I was 6. The course wouldn’t accept me as a student, because the minimum age then was 7. My mother, after much talking, convinced them I wouldn’t fall behind or have discipline problems, so I started my formal studies of the English language.

And a whole new world opened up. It was easy for me. I could reproduce the sounds quite effortlessly, I learned without major problems, I spoke English in class all the time and progressed quickly. By the time I was 13 (with 2 hours of class a week) I had completed the whole course, including advanced conversation classes. Languages are a passion. Communication is a key aspect of my life. Nothing makes me more frustrated than not being able to talk to – or understand – someone.

The first time I really understood what it meant to be able to communicate in another language came when I was 12 – my first trip to the USA, to visit Disneyworld in Florida. I could talk to everyone, get around, order things and, most importantly I understood all the explanations, all the signs… I knew what people were talking about. More than the adults on  the trip! I could never understand how a person can visit a foreign country without being capable of fully understanding what is being said to them. How could they go on a ride (in one of the amusement parks) and not understand the story, what the guides said?

When you visit a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you don’t get the full experience. You can’t really experience the culture. You don’t get a full idea of the people and their habits. That, for me, is special.

In Kansas, on top of some bails - at 15

After that, when I was 15, I spent a year as an exchange student in rural western Kansas – a year that changed my life and gave me a much broader view of the world, the different people in it. It opened my eyes to diversity and the beauty of it. To how much we learn and grow from being exposed to different cultures, habits and beliefs. I started teaching English when I came back from the exchange program, after some training at the school I had studied at (yes, I know…too young, no real training… that’s a topic to a whole post, I’m afraid)

At about the time I got back to Brazil, I also made a decision. My first life goal. By the time I was 35 I wanted to be fluent in 5 languages. I can tell you right now I did not accomplish that (35 is passed and gone). I did, however, study Spanish – where I consider myself fairly fluent. I also started studying French after I had my second child. But the method and the lack of time didn’t help and I quit after a year. I still want to go back to it. My phonetic talent has persisted, and I still seem to be able to internalize and process foreign languages fairly easily.

But for me, the biggest consequence of my experience was my awareness of the world and to how important knowing other languages is if you want to communicate effectively while experiencing the world. Both my children study at a bilingual school, and I plan for them to be fluent at English by the age most kids go on exchange programs, so they can go to a country to perfect their third language. I speak to them in English often – for them it’s not really any difference whether I speak in English or Portuguese (though they do struggle more with English). They love it and see the benefits and reason for it, because they have been to foreign countries and were able to communicate on their own. I took my kids to visit my Kansas host family and they felt confident (and safe) enough to spend full days with people other than me. They would go on their own to ask for things and information when we went to Disneyworld. They talk to my English-speaking friends when I am on a call on Skype. They see the why, even if they can’t quite verbalize it.

After all, in the age of globalization, information and communication… being able to express yourself properly is key, isn’t it?

Does Size (in a classroom) Matter?

Big or small - a sizable conundrum

As regular people, we are constantly faced with size choices. Big cars are more spacious – but also more difficult to find a parking space for. Big houses and apartments are good, but they also give you more work – more area to clean and keep organized. However, when you think about computers, the smaller, the better. I guess some things are better when they are big and some things are better in smaller sizes.

But what about classrooms? How many students is your “magic” number?

Of course this is not the first time I have thought about this. Considering the time I have been teaching, it would be surprising if it were. But two very extreme cases, close in time, brought the issue back to my mind. So let’s establish the context: last semester (I teach at a Binational Center / Language School, where groups are with a teacher for a semester) I had a group with 4 students, about C1 (CEF) level. And it was hell. It was the one group I did not enjoy going to class for. I never knew how many students were going to show up (being in the end of their high school they have way too many extra classes and events, they have a tendency of skipping English class), or how motivated they’d be. I actually had a student in that group who kept looking at the watch all the time :-( THAT is a killer for me! What made those class difficult was that I could hardly plan any group/pair work. The discussions took much less than I expected. But at the same time, they were speaking English – just not what I had planned on, or the topic of the lesson. And in a way, I think that influenced the way I planned those classes… I have to (shamefully???) admit I relied a lot on TTT. But I didn’t like it…  didn’t feel comfortable with it After so many years immersed in the Communicative approach,high TTT just felt wrong… but even when it gets the students talking?

On the other hand I have (this semester) a 17-student class with (mostly) 12-year-olds, about A2 level. Again, it is hell. They’re noisy, and talk all the time to each other (most study in the same school). Not all the talking is done in English..but after some “reminding”, they do. Or most of them. I have other 2 groups in the same level, but whilst in the first 2 (of around 14 students each)  I can cover the necessary content – yes, we have a coursebook based content! – in this group I have a hard time. I have to ask for their cooperation more often, I have to stop the class, get their attention (I won’t share my secret on how I get their attention and silence!) and lecture on how important it is they pay attention. I love the group – they’re fun and talkative – but they make it harder for me to cover the content.

At the same time, when I question size of groups…. I think of my private (1:1) students, and how I feel comfortable and at ease with them, how classes come from (emergent) language. So, does size matter?

That brings me to the sizable conundrum: what is the key here? Size of the class (= number of students)? The linguistic level? The age? Everything? What kind of strategies you use to cope with similar problems? Should I ignore the content if the students are communicating and producing? Should we ignore the accuracy?

I would love to get some ideas – hear your ideas and experiences :-)