The Day a Bunch of Kisses Turned into Magic

It has been a long, looong while since I’ve last written here, in my blog. And before the last time it had also been a long while. I could use this post to explain the reason for the hiatus (which initially I attributed to too much work – which is true – and later I reflected it could have another, a more philosophical one. But that’s a topic for a whole other post, I hope.) But that would make this post too long (and too boring??!?). And I can’t let that happen. Something pushed me to go back to writing today, and I feel if I don’t write about it today the moment will be lost.

Today I had THAT lesson.

How many of you have once (or more than once, or maybe even more often than you’re willing to admit) felt beat? I mean… Feeling demotivated and tired. I wouldn’t go as far as say I felt burned out, but it’s been quite a demanding semester (classes, courses, projects, work-related trips and presentations… all very exciting but also strenuous). Right now we’re just after midterms and we have a shorter semester due to the Football World Cup that’s taking place in less than two months. I had a long day today, full of work, marking, meetings, rushing around, preparing material. Sounds like a lot? Now picture I did all that after having pinched a nerve on my back a couple of days ago. You could say I was wishing for the time of the day where I could go home. I’m not proud of it, but it happens to all of us eventually (especially after 20+ years as a teacher, I suppose.

And then I went into the classroom to teach a group of teens (13-14 years old, about A2 level). It was “report card day”, and I’m pretty strict with grades, so I wasn’t expecting a great class. In their midterms a good portion of the learners had showed some difficulty with the past participle form of the verbs, so I had planned a simple warmer. A tic-tac-toe.

Standard procedure: 11 learners split into two groups. Each number corresponded to the base form of a verb, each group (taking turns) called a number and wrote the past participle form of the verb under it (using a different color – I’m very visual!). After confirmation (by me) that the form was written correctly learners had to (orally) use the verb in a sentence. They got the space if the sentence was correct. I had planned the activity to last about 15 minutes. Nothing much to it, really. Certainly nothing new or exciting.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. The winning team would win chocolate kisses (Easter surplus).

Image

Give way to a moment? Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Dace Parualins, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

What followed was just magic. I have never seen that group of learners so engaged, excited or – most importantly – speaking as much English as I did. I have no idea why today (maybe a sign from God, wonders the Catholic girl in me?). But they went wild. Groups really interacted at each turn. They negotiated and voiced their opinions, they contested other learner’s suggestions, they ran to stop each other from speaking to then bring the group to confer again. Opposing teams kept talking and discussing spelling and possible sentences while the other was taking its turn. They were on their feet and cheering (in English!) when they were right, they were mumbling and taking guesses at what was wrong when they made a mistake (expecting the other team to make a mistake as well).

Bottom line? The activity lasted 45 minutes. I just let it go. I didn’t get half of my lesson plan done (please do keep in mind I’m on a tight schedule, thanks to football!). Learners didn’t feel time pass. They spoke English naturally and because they had a need they wanted to fill. I even took the time to do a meta-cognitive feedback after it, to elicit from learners what skills (other than English) they had practiced during the activity (e.g. collaboration, negotiation, flexibility, critical thinking, etc…) and share the reason why I had let an activity planned for 15 minutes last for 45 (more, considering the meta-cognitive feedback – and our lessons only last 75 minutes.)

I left the classroom feeling like a million dollars. I was renewed. THAT is the reason I’ve become a teacher. For lessons like this. For seeing learning take place naturally and willingly. For seeing language being needed and found. For helping my learners develop other skills other than the target language (though through it.)

The great feeling did not prevent me from wondering (and these are the questions I post to any of my readers for I’d love to see other outtakes on it):

  • Was I right to dismiss my initial plan with very specific teaching goals (and new language) in favor of fluency development?
  • How much of the past participles and their use will learners retain?
  • One of the 11 learners did not really join in and was mostly just listening to his group. Would he have benefited more from a “normal” lesson?
  • What “language gain” did the learners have?
  • Why is it that within 5 minutes into the activity I decided I would let it go for as long as it took, as opposed to following my carefully planned, pedagogically-based lesson plan? Was it experience or feeling that gave me that intuition / gut-feeling? How do we know when to stick to the plan and when it’s more beneficial (?!?) to learners to “go with the flow”?

 

Last thought? Learners didn’t even remember the kisses – even though they were glad to get them! And those chocolate kisses gave me a super sweet, unexpected and yet much needed, teaching moment. Who would have guessed?

 

By the way: During the hiatus I’ve become a regular blogger – once a month – at Richmond Brazil’s Teacher Share blog. These are the posts I’ve written, if you’re interested:

- Intelligi…What? (about dicovering ELF pronunciation at IATEFL)

- Mind the Gap (about the gap between theory and action in ELT teaching)

- The Invisibility of Being a Teacher (about the depreciation of being a(n ELT teacher)

Answers to 11 Questions from the 11 Blog Challenge

 

So, here are my answers to the questions the people who have tagged me in the “11 Blog Challenge”. Since I was tagged by Carol Goodey, Adam Simpson, Divya Madhavan, Sophia Mavridi and Juan Alberto Lopez Uribe, I thought I’d be better off choosing 11 of the questions they asked and answered those.

1 – What would you do if you were not an educator? (by Juan)

As I thought about this question I was surprised to see the difficulty I had in considering another profession. I’ve done many different things in my life, while I was in college. But I can’t really see myself doing anything not related to education. The best I could come up with was owning a book store, restoring books (like really old books and manuscripts, which would put my love for art, books and history together) or a museum tour guide.

2 –  Do you exercise much? (by Juan)

You mean besides carrying a bag filled with books everywhere? :-) I am not crazy about exercising and sweating… I do love walking and I’ve been taking pilates lessons twice a week (3 times when I can) for the past 10 years. I have taken yoga off and on too. But that’s as much exercising as I can handle.

3 – What is the next language you’d like to learn? (by Divya)

When I was much younger I set as a life plan to be fluent in 5 languages by the time I turned 35. Well, 35 have come and passed and I’m afraid I’m only fluent in Portuguese and English. I can get by in Spanish and I understand the basics of French but I never really got fluent. It just feels so much more comfortable, so much easier to fall back into English when things get a bit more complicated…

So I guess the next one would be French.

4 – Do you have a preferred variety of house pet? (by Divya)

I have always been a dog person, for the interaction you can have, for being able to go out for walks or a run together and play. I was never much of a cat lover. But I’ve had a recent experience of living in a house with 3 cats and taking care of them for a while and I have to say that has changed. I’m a cat lover now too :-)

5 – Do you prefer reading on screen or on paper? (by Sophia)

For me nothing beats the smell of a book, the feeling of the paper, the weight in your hands. I’m still crazy about paper books. I’m especially crazy about old paper books, for the stories that they bring with them. I’m also still stuck to printing texts when I am studying, for my need to highlight and write notes on things. But I’ve succumbed to digital books more than I thought I would, for their practicality and price. I have quite a few titles in their digital form now, especially books that I plan to read while traveling, to avoid the extra weight!

6 – Have you ever lived in another country other than you live now? Where was it? (by Sophia)

I lived in Kansas as a teenager. In a little town in Northwestern Kansas, USA, called Morland. It had a bit over 300 inhabitants when I lived there and the whole high school had 43 students! It was the best year of my life, and I learned a lot. People were beyond friendly, caring and supportive. Things were simpler, people were closer.

7 – What do you most enjoy about blogging? (by Carol)

There are a few things I enjoy about blogging. When I sit down to write, it’s almost as if I’m having a conversation with myself, or with a real interlocutor. And as I write and reflect I think about the issue, I consider different aspects. I also love the fact that by blogging whatever I write becomes available to anybody with an internet connection, it completely ignores borders and distance. But most of all, I love the connectedness that blogging brings me. I love the interaction in the comments, hearing how people read what I wrote, their reactions and experiences, their opinions.

8 – What do you enjoy most about the work that you do? (by Carol)

It’s going to sound super cheesy, but what I love about education is connecting to people and being able to make someone’s life better by giving them a skill they didn’t have. A skill that’s going to empower them, to give them a better job, broader perspectives, the chance to live in another country with dignity. And every once in a while I’m rewarded with the extra bonus of helping a student find (or boost) their self-confidence, overcome a difficult thing they are going through. When that happens it really makes my day – or term!

9 – What month next year are you most looking forward to? Why? (by Carol)

There are two months I am really looking forward to. The first is January and the week off from work I’m taking, which I’m spending in Rio, seeing friends and family or just spending the whole day on the beach with a good book. The second month is May, when the Braz-Tesol national conference is taking place in the neighboring state, and when I’ll be able to see friends and learn some!

10 – Go to You Tube and basically surf around until you find a song you’ve never heard before. Share that song with us here. (by Adam)

I chose this question because I loved the idea of searching for something new :-) Here’s what I found (and I liked it!):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcoycKSU01k&feature=c4-overview&list=UU5w_8_Z7I-VPXpzBiEVB07Q

11 – Would you prefer to be the guy from ‘Memento’ who wakes up and can’t remember the previous day, or the guy from ‘Groundhog Day’ who wakes up to exactly the same day over and over again? (by Adam)

I’d much rather not remember the previous day, than reliving the same day over and over. Not remembering makes it new in a way.

This has been such a fun challenge! Getting to know more about bloggers I read and respect and also letting a bit of the person I am show. Thanks for including me in this, guys! Looking forward to reading what the people I’ve tagged say. Happy Christmas to everyone!

The 11 Challenge – The person behind the blog

Hello blog! Long (long, long, long) time no see!!!

It’s been quite a year, which will be a blog on its own. And I’m not sure the readers of this blog will be impressed by this “come-back” post. But it’s a challenge, and those of you who know me it’s really hard for me to turn down a challenge. :-) And I’ve been tagged by a few people: Carol Goodey, Adam Simpson and Divya Madhavan.

So if you are tagged, here is what you need to do:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

So, you’ll get two posts: one with my eleven random facts and one with the answers to the 33 questions :)

Eleven random facts about me:

1 – I love to cook. Unlike most of my friends. I love to cook for myself, when I don’t have the kids with me or a schedule, I’ll spend hours cooking my own dinner.

2 – I have a BA in graphic design and used to teach art history at the federal university.

3 – I cried at Musee Rodin in Paris. It’s still my favorite museum in the world so far.

4 – I am extremely flexible. I have a “condition” in which the joints are “loose”, so I can touch the floor with my hands without thinking about it. It also means the bonesxjoints get out of place more often than not.

5 – I am terrified of flying insects, no matter how small or threatening they are. I got treated in therapy for it.

6 – I live in the same apartment building as 3 of my brothers (one is still not here) and my mother. I live on the 5th floor, my mother on the 7th, a brother on the 10th, 2 brothers on the 14th.

7 – I make the best brownies you’ll ever taste. (And am extremely humble about it!)

8 – I once won a competition online and went somewhere else to meet the actors of a TV show called “Scrubs”.

9 – I can’t play any musical instrument, which is frustration for me. I dream of playing the cello.

10 – I take the filling out of all the cookies with fillings I eat (oreos included!).

11 – I can’t drink whisky. It makes me immediately sick.

 

The eleven bloggers I nominate:

@eltbakery

@harmerj

@llea_dias

@barbsaka

@brad2earth

@willycard

@kenwilsonlondon

@lauraahaha

@TEFLPet

@sandymillin

@theteacherjames

 

And here are my eleven questions:

1 – If you were to lose one of the main five senses, which would you part with?

2 – What’s your favorite comfort food, the one you long for after a bad day?

3 – What kind of music do you listen to when you have to work?

4 – What would be your last meal?

5 – What is the one book you’ d recommend to people?

6 – What are the three things you’d take to a desert island for a year?

7 – What’s your favorite board game?

8 – What’s the funniest situation you’ve been in?

9 – What are you currently reading?

10 – What’s your dream purchase?

11 – What keeps you blogging?

A New Mantra

Last Friday I delivered a talk to a fantastic audience of English teachers in Brasília, Brazil. It was the final session after a full day of lots of interesting sessions, filled with practical ideas, reflections and research on English teaching promoted by the Brasilia chapter of Braz-Tesol.

The topic of the seminar was “From Strength to Strength“, and it made me think some before deciding what I should talk about… This semester has been a incredibly busy one – and hard as well. Many classes to teach, new challenges (going back to teaching beginner adults for one), leading projects, keeping up with life… Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw myself thinking: “Is it worth it?”. Is all the time, effort, sweat, blood, tears and heart we put into teaching worth it?

A little background information may be needed at this time… In Brazil, education seems to be the least of priorities. Teachers are underpaid (big time), so many time they have to keep more than one job, teaching at different schools, with endless contact hours, to make ends meet. On top of that add the fact that English teachers are at the bottom of the ladder. That (IMHO) is related to the belief that all you need in order to be an English teacher around here is being able to speak English at a decent (suuuuuuuch a subjective aspect!) level.

Is that what it takes to be a language teacher? To be able to speak the language you are teaching?

No!

(big resounding NO at this point, mind you!)

I am a mentor this semester. Someone who observes each and every class of a certain group (a beginner Adult 1) and prepares classes with me. And when we meet to prepare classes I ask her why for every activity and decision (peer correction or whole class? Pair work or Whole class? Predicting difficulties and questions… It has made me realise how much thinking goes into each and every class we do. (She’s a fantastic person to mentor, though. She picks up the reasons and inferences, the rationale behind the activities).

One day we were preparing classes and she said: “Students have no idea the amount of thinking and effort it goes in each class, do they?” No they don’t. Should they?

 That’s a good question… No and Yes at the same time. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be told of how much effort, expertise, study and hard work goes into each lesson…. But in the end they do. They feel the teacher is more or less prepared.

Anyways… I was thinking about the talk and then one day it hit me during a chat. I was chattng to Barbara Sakamoto on Facebook one night and we were talking about how much a teacher has to do. She was telling me the enormous amount of things she has been involved with and I was just about to voice my opinion and then type ” But what do I know? I am JUST a teacher.”  And then I stopped myself.

I have said “I’m just an English teacher.” (or just a teacher for that matter) countless times. Why do we do that? Why do we undermine our own profession? When we say “JUST” a  teacher we’re saying teachers are not that important. We’re saying we (and our opinions) don`t matter that much,

Now, that is a contradiction. We ARE teachers. We influence people. We make people get better jobs, better education, travel better…and we are JUST teachers?

My point is: If we think of ourselves as JUST teachers, how can we expect anyone to see us as more than that? How can we expect people to see us as educators, people who have a very active role in changing people’s lives and realities.

Some changing of concept is in order, methinks. Me included.

We are ENGLISH TEACHERS. We give people a (much needed) skill. We help students develop and grow as people and members of a global community.

We are certainly NOT just teachers. And we have to be proud of what we are. We have to be proud of the long hours, sweat, love and tears… We have to build on our strengths and not be afraid of our weaknesses.

I am NOT just a teacher – THAT is my new mantra. And I am VERY proud of what I am.

The Worst Class I have Ever Taught… So What?

Today I taught what I (now) feel might have been the worst class I have ever taught in nearly 20 years of ELT.

To add to it (or just because Murphy loves me…) I was being observed by my school’s pedagogical coordinator. I was observed because it is part of our routine, to be formally observed. But first and foremost I was being observed because I had asked to. It has been a while since I have last taught beginner adults and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.

It was all fine in the beginning. I got the students to stand in a circle, talk about how they were feeling, practice new chunks of language…

And then…. Booom!!!! Disaster hits! The Power Point I had prepared as an activity to last 20 minutes – and be the lead for the rest of the class – didn’t work.  What??!?!

What do you do when something like this happens? You improvise, you tap from the pool of activities and knowledge you have built over the last (nearly) 20 years, right? Right!!!

What if your mind goes blank?

Because that’s what happened to me. Despite having taught the present simple countless times, and this being a revision, I panicked.  I couldn’t think of what to do. Frustration took over for a minute or two and I didn’t know what to do next. Within a few minutes I managed something, let go of the PowerPoint which had taken me an hour to do, and moved on. I drew a smiley face and a sad face on the board and wrote things I liked / didn’t like to do. And I moved on from there, got students talking, monitored… But still I feel like I fell short. And you know what?

I did. I feel I fell short and I know I could have done better. And that makes all the difference,

We all have bad days, don’t we? Maybe it was the frustration of having  thing go wrong, maybe it was the fact I was being observed that made me nervous… I just wasn’t myself. But it worked. And I feel the students learned. So why am I writing about this?

Because most teachers are terrified of being observed. They feel their job (or life) depends on every move they make, every activity they do – especially when being observed. But surprisingly enough, I didn’t.

I was upset (to say the least) the class hadn’t work the way as planned. I knew it wasn’t the kind of class I’m used to teaching. But it was all fine. No nervousness, no anxiety. I just want her (the coordinator) to observe me again in the same class.

Now… a few years ago, being observed in such a lesson would have devastated me. It would have made me crumble and question my abilities as a teacher. But tonight, it didn’t. And I left the room feeling ok, and analizing the lesson so as to think of what could I have done differently / better? I didn’t feel I was a bad teacher, or incapable. I was frustrated, yes, but that was not as important.

So what has changed? Is it me or the classroom? Is it my self-confidence as a teacher? Does having 20 years under my belt make a difference? Should it? Is experience in the classroom THAT important? Or is confidence more important? Or, even more complicated, are experience and self-confidence  so tightly related?

I’d really like to know what you think, and hear about your worst classes.

A Valentine’s Activity Talking About Gestures

Just a quick post in honor of Valentine’s Day (or “Dia dos Namorados”) in Brazil, which takes place on June 12th.

I have always been fascinated by the video clip for Paul McCartney’s “My Valentine” song, featuring Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp. Her gracious movements, how movements related to words…. So I decided to use that clip as the essence of a Valentine’s Day activity. One that should raise students’ awareness to the importance of gestures and body language, as well as sign language and those who can’t hear.

This is how I did it…

First, I played some love song (in my case “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” performed by UB40) in the sound system as the students came in and offered them whiteboard markers to write any words that came to mind when they thought of Valentine’s Day.

Then, after they had settled down, we talked about what they had written and the meaning of Valentine’s Day in different countries, the different dates. Then I approached whether the students demonstrated love more through words or gestures. And I asked the id they thought they could decode body gestures.They were all very confident, so I proposed a challenge: WATCH the video of a song that would be sign “languaged” and try to fill in the blanks of the lyrics. They would need to take in the context of the song as well as the gesture to try to figure out the words. So I played the clip once for them (you may play it twice if your students are at a lower level (mine are at a B1/B2 level) to try to get the words.

Most of the words are obvious valentine-related, but still… After a first run, I asked them to share among each other and discuss their word choices. I played it once more without the sound, for students to get a better idea of the gestures. Then I played once more, this time with the sound on so the students could check their previous answers. After we had all checked the answers I focused on the last question:

“Were you able to infer the words from the signs? Why/ Why not?

After (or maybe during) that, we went on to a discussion of body gestures, sign language and the effectiveness of it, how much sign language resembled feelings and so on. We talked about whether it was beneficial or not to have a person who can’t speak to learn sign language, what were the alternatives…

It was a very interesting discussion. The students enjoyed the activity. I am now looking forward to hearing how it went (or that you’d think it’d go) in your groups and why :-)

Valentines Activity – Paul McCartney ACTIVITY

Valentines Activity – Paul McCartney KEY

Hi, my name is Cecilia and I am a recovering recaster

A Recasters Anonymous Meeting… would you be in it?

Setting: RA (Recasters Anonymous) Meeting, in a dark basement somewhere we can’t mention…

Me: Hi, my name is Cecilia… and I am a recovering recaster.

Group: Hi Cecilia!

Me: I haven’t recasted in… 7 days.

(applause)

The above scene is, of course, fictional (though I fear many teachers would want it to be true). I was a recaster. A true one. I believed in the effectiveness of recasting, for all students. I did, because I was taught to. People told me it was the non-threatening way of correcting students. It’s how you should do it in the Communicative Approach. And I did it. I did so much and for so long it became part of me. And then one day (Really? Just like that?) I questioned it. Ok… maybe I’ve been questioning its effectiveness for a few years. Maybe not its effectiveness (period/full stop), but rather its effectiveness on every student. I just didn’t think most students realised I was correcting them when I recasted… And since they didn’t realise they were being corrected, they never acknowledged they had made a mistake. So, even though I had my doubts, I kept doing it – maybe not as whole-heartedly.

It all changed about a month ago, after I attended IATEFL. As I have mentioned in this blog, this year’s IATEFL Conference (and a few of the talks I attended) left me with a sense of direction. With a feeling of more freedom. Freedom of being a teacher. Freedom of doing what I think is best for my students, no matter what approach is in vogue, or is adopted by the school where I teach. (You can read more about this feeling with my post IATEFL post).

Well, ever since I came back from the conference I have noticed myself stopping my impulsive recasting more and more. Not only because of the talks I attended but even more so for the conversations I had on the topic. Better (?) yet, I have seen myself consciously pointing out the student’s mistake (not when fluency is the objective, unless fluency is prevented by accuracy – or lack of accuracy preventing proper understanding) by saying: “the correct way to say this is…” or  “That is not correct. Why don’t you say…”. And you know what? It works! After doing that for a couple of weeks a few students voiced their feeling I had been correcting them more – and their approval of it. So I asked them (even the groups who hadn’t expressed their noticing of my change in behavior) if they preferred it that way – and I explained recasting (the previous method) – and they said that most times when I recasted they didn’t notice they were being corrected. But when I pointed it out they did, and they liked it better. They felt more progress, more learning. At the same time, a few students recognise recasting and see it as a correction. But in my case, these are a minority.

My point in this post is actually a question to ELT teachers worldwide: Do you feel your students pick up recasting? Because I feel most of mine don’t. And yes, some students might be (initially at least) a bit taken aback by a blunt/on-the-spot correction. But my feeling is that at least this way they understand they did not effectively communicate, and may be more aware of the mistake on other opportunities.

I was observed by a teacher trainee (who is taking classes at the Teacher Education program we have in the school I teach) on a class recently (in an A2 group) and at the end she asked if the way I corrected the students did not embarrass or shy them away from speaking in class. Knowing where she was coming from (taking a basic Teacher training course) I asked her if she was wondering why I had done explicit correction instead of recasting with the group, because I know recasting is the oral correction tool of the communicative approach. She said I was right and asked me to justify my choice it. I asked her if she thought recast worked with everyone – a question she didn’t immediately answer, but rather just stood there, looking pensive . I said that I tried to use it with the students I sensed it worked and I used direct correction with the others. I mentioned articles and studies and conversations I’ve had. She was happy (and relieved) to hear what I said. And so were other teachers that have observed me and approached me.

It seems people are waking up to students’ individual learning styles and needs. But how feasible it is when you have a large classroom? A multilingual, multicultural classroom? Does size matter in this case? Does anything?

 

I plan on conducting an experiment. A simple one. I have two very similar classes (same level, similar number of students – around 13 years old, A2 level). This week I’ll try to only correct their oral production by recasting on the first group and only by doing direct correction on the second. Then, on the end of each last class, I’ll ask them to reflect upon whether they felt / knew they had made any mistakes while speaking in that class (this will be done in writing, on little slips of paper, so that the students feel comfortable at being honest). I’m curious to see what I get! Stay tuned for the next episode on the recasting saga! :)