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.

Using the Web to Motivate & Improve Students’ Writing – Last Friday’s Webinar

Last Friday I had the pleasure of being invited to fill in for Shelly Terrell in presenting the American Tesol Institute Free Friday Webinar. Shelly was busy being a keynote speaker at a special event promoted by TESL Toronto.

As many might know, something I have struggled with while teaching – especially more advanced students – is writing. The issue has been the topic of sessions I have presented at conferences and online, of many discussions and some posts. I see the quality of the students’ writing declining over the years. I see students more and more reluctant to me doing or assigning writing tasks, teaching writing classes. Some of them cringe at the mere mention of the word. So you can say writing is something that ranks high in my list of interests. So when Shelly asked me to fill in for her and do last Friday (September 23rd), I thought it would be a nice chance to follow-up on my first webinar – which was about writing – with a session sharing some tools (websites)  I have been using in class with my students in an attempt to motivate them to write, to find activities and ways of doing things so that they actually enjoy it. If I can engage them, they will hopefully write more – and more often – and with practice comes progress (or so we hope!).

Who knows, one of these ideas might even make one or two students start writing for pleasure! (A teacher is allowed to dream, isn’t she?

Of course there are students who write well and enjoy it – the exception exists to prove the rule, right? But at least where I teach – and from what I could see during the webinar, in many other corners of the world – the great majority of students don’t enjoy writing or do it well.

The webinar was great, with lots of chatting going on, sharing of resources and ideas. I’d like to thank everyone who joined me for it :-) It’s always a pleasure to share and learn with my PLN.

Here’s the recording for it (warning: I have a certain difficulty with limiting myself to the 30 minutes, so the recording is a little longer. It’s just hard to not get carried away with the chat and the sharing!)

And here are the slides for my presentation: Using the Web to Motivate & Improve Students Writing

Note: Thanks @sylviaduckworth and @sandymillin for helping me with embeding the video. I always forget how! Power to the PLN! ;-)

Learning from Teaching & Sharing and the Secret Garden – What I got from #RSCON3


Last weekend I took part in the 3rd edition of the Reform Symposium Worldwide e-Conference. (you can learn more about it, watch the recordings from sessions and see archives from the past editions if you click in the image above. In short, the conference is made by educators, with educators and for educators around the world. It’s an intense weekend filled with great sessions on an array of topics, all related to education and how it is changing, what we’re doing to follow the change, how and what we can do to be even better at what we do. It was an incredible experience. And in this post I’ll try to put into words what I learned from it, from the 3 parts I played in it.

# As a participant - I learned so much, it’s difficult to pinpoint. I heard and reflected about the changes technology has brought into the teaching practice in many aspects (speed of spreading, reach and availability of information; the dangers of exposing yourself online (and how to protect ourselves and our students, how we have to reflect before putting things online); creating online “spaces” where teachers can collaborate and share activities; I discussed assessment, about new tools, adjusting to the new reality…

This was maybe one of the topics that stuck to my mind. The fact that teachers have to face the changes the world and education have been going through. We have to change, because the students today are not the students from 10, 15 years ago. They’re not even the same as the students from 5 years ago. Learning has even more ways (and places) for taking place. So can we expect to keep teaching as we did before?

I don’t think so, and in that sense the #RSCON3 (that’s the hashtag we used for tweeting the conference) is an innovative opportunity for teachers who are already involved in online learning/teaching/Professional development to discuss the benefits and difficulties of it. But even more importantly, it is a chance for the teachers who are still taking their first steps – or have heard about it but are still a bit afraid of or uncomfortable with it to learn more about it, find ways of getting into it – and see it’s not the bogeyman. I saw many other participants who were attending their first online conference discover what can be done, find out about fantastic resources available for free online.

I could not talk about #RSCON without mentioning the thing that leaves the strongest mark in me, and I will quote Akevy Greenblatt (@Akevy613) on his post about #RSCON to say it:

“I challenge someone to find a profession with more passionate people than educators. I am truly blessed and privileged to be an educator.”

It is impressive to see how much caring, sharing and committment there. And it’s all very evident during the whole conference.

Which brings me to an image I have about my own experience in joining the world of Twitter, Educator Blogosphere, Online tools… Up until about a year ago I used Facebook mostly for chit-chatting, keeping in touch with friends & family living far… I had joined Twitter a little before, but saw little use in it, and had no interest in it to tell you the truth…. I had never read a blog written by an educator… I knew a few websites that offered lesson plans and activities. Then after Braz-Tesol 2010 I was convinced by Jeremy Harmer to join Twitter, and he told me a few educators I should start following. And my life changed. And this is where the image comes… what I found (and am still finding, every day) is such an amazing immeasurable amount of resources, meaningful discussion, interesting ideas and reflections, online conferences, webinars, like-minded people and opportunities for learning and sharing, that all I can compare it with is a Secret Garden.

When you are introduced to the web 2.0 for teachers by someone who can show you the way, that person is actually given you the key and showing you the gate to a secret garden. Something I had no idea existed and it’s unbelievable, beautiful. Conferences such as #RSCON have as a goal to give the key and show this gate to as many educators around the world as possible.

Take the keys and enter… all you need is wanting to.

 # As a Presenter - It was my first time presenting at an online conference, my second online presentation (I have done a webinar before), first time using Elluminate as a presenter/moderator. Many of my feelings regarding presenting online are also Brad Patterson’s as he discussed it in his post about #RSCON, another great post you may want to read.

It’s strange presenting to an audience you can’t see or listen to (except when they get the microphone to ask questions in the end of the presentation). You have no idea of their emotions, their expressions… in a way it’s like presenting blind. Yes, there’s all the interaction going on in the chat box, but that too represents a bit of a challenge to me as a presenter. I never knew whether to look in the box, too afraid to love my line of thought, of drifting away from my presentation.

In a way it’s also fantastic, because I literally had people from all over the world in my session. And the chat box allows for such great interaction between participants, on the spot questions, sharing of links and resources…

Being a presenter also showed me how incredibly helpful it is to have a moderator to assist you. In my case it was extra special, because I had someone from my PLN, my friend Sabrina de Vita as my moderator. the moderator keeps an eye for questions, puts up links you mention, helps participants who are having problems – usually involving the technology… I thank Sabrina for making my presentation as smooth as it could be.

All in all, presenting at #RSCON only made me enjoy presenting online even more and looking forward to doing it again :-)

 # As an Organizer - I was lucky to be invited to become one of the organizers of  this edition of the Reform Symposium. And that was a huge learning experience in itself. To be part of a group made of such inspiring, hard-working, talented people such as Shelly Terrell, Ian Chia, Mark Barnes(who also helped moderate my session :-)), Christopher Rogers, Lisa Dabbs, Melissa Tran, Clive Elsmore, Jerry Blumengarten, Kelly Tenkley and Chiew Pang is a privilege.

I learned a lot from each of them, I saw how hard everyone worked to make the conference happen (months of preparation and planning, sleepless nights, hours and hours of work) and they do it because the believe in the power of sharing, in the importance of it. They do it for their passion for education. I am honored to be part of such a team. And I had no idea it took so much work to organize an online conference. I am sure I will be able to help much more on the next #RSCON, because I have learned so much.

So, these are my reflections about the Reform Symposium. And the message I want to end this post with is only one:

DON’T MISS THE NEXT #RSCON!!!!

My (initial) two cents on Assessing students…

Photo by Shemer (on Flickr) CC

This weekend thousands of educators from all over the world will take part in The Reform Symposium, which will happen between today, July 29th and Sunday, July 31st. The Reform Symposium is an global online conference for everyone concerned with education. With more than 75 presentations and 12 keynote speakers it is sure to be an incredible event! Organised by educators for educators, it is FREE but will offer more valuable and inspiring PD than money can buy! I was delighted – having had the experience of being a participant in previous editions – to have the chance to participate as a presenter this time. I will be part of a panel about Assessment and then present about Alternative Assessment.

Assessment has always been a special area of interest for me. Education seems to be moving away from traditional testing – or at least trying to. More and more teachers discuss assessment, the different ways we can do it, effectiveness of each of them. I am a product of traditional testing (with a few rare occasions / teachers / classes). I had to memorize dates, names and formulas. I had to memorize rules when it came to language. To get into the university I had to endure a whole year preparing for the entrance examinations, taking special extra classes that reviewed what I had studied in the previous 12 years and taught me tricks to get the best score possible. Yes, unfortunately, due to the way our educational system in Brazil works and universities and college select their students tricks are what come handy in those examinations, finding easier ways to get to the result of a math problem, using mnemonic sentences to remember the elements of the periodical table of elements…*

Hold on a minute there! Was I supposed to be tested on how much information I could retain (even if temporarily – just for the test) and remember or in whether I knew how to use that information, whether I had been successful at transforming that information into knowledge?

In my (very) humble opinion that is the biggest and eventually fatal mistake of traditional assessment. It doesn’t check the right thing, it is unfair and in a certain way it side tracks students from real, meaningful learning.  I believe myself to be unbiased as far as the topic goes, especially because I was an A student all my life. But the fact that I did well in traditional testing does not mean I agree with it.

I always questioned the effectiveness (and real results) of the type of evaluation I (as well as the rest of the world) had been assessed by all my life. That questioning became even more serious – and finally active – when I started teaching. For a few years I taught the history classes for Graphic Design undergraduate students at UFPE (the Federal University in Pernambuco) and it bothered me to think about assessing my students in the same way I had been. Memorizing things isn’t learning! And what about if the student learned a lot about the Modern art movements, but not exactly about the artists and movements I decide to ask about? Not fair, right? At least I thought so. So I started experimenting. Instead of telling students what I wanted them to tell me, I would give them a number of key words and they had to use at least 70% of them in an essay telling me what they had learned on a specific subject. I tried to bring art history and its characteristics to their reality, encouraged them to find influences from those movements in their modern world. That, in my opinion, should be the main reason we study history: to understand the effect it has in our lives today, to understand the why and how. So I focused on that. I focused on trying to assess what they knew rather than what they didn’t. I hope I was successful. I enjoyed it.

I hope I was able to give you a background of my views on assessment and how I had an early start at using alternative ways of evaluating students – even if I had no idea I was doing that in the beginning, I just wanted to experiment and find better ways, ways I found more fair, effective. To avoid making this post too long – which maybe it already is, I have a tendency of getting carried away – I’ll skip about 10 years to my current reality and how I use alternative assessment today, with my English students.

The school where I teach, ABA  has recently abolished all forms of traditional testing and uses an electronic portfolio, developed by a team of IT people, graphic designers and teachers. The process took years, moving from traditional, slowly and gradually into what we have now.

I believe the portfolio (and even more, the e-folio) is a more effective, meaningful and authentic assessment tool. Why? Throughout the semester the students select samples of activities and tasks they have doneusing the four skills and post them in their electronic portfolios. It is not required that these activities posted be from the ones done in the classroom, they can be samples of anything the students have done involving English that they feel has helped them learn. For instance, the student can post the video with an interview of their favorite singer they have watched and write what he/she understood of the video.

Alternative assessment is cool! (Photo under Creative Commons by Settle.roamer on Flickr)

An important part of how we work with portfolios has to do with having students self-assess, reflect upon their own learning, therefore understanding it better so as to hopefully knowing how they learn better and what they should do to develop their target language. For that to happen, for each activity the student posts on their electronic portfolio they have to write a reflection (that is displayed by the post) explaining why he/she thinks that activity is a good example of their English learning process and what he/she has learned from it.

Using electronic portfolios as our sole tool for evaluating students has proven to be extremely effective and rewarding. The students have total freedom to choose the way they use the language and they are assessed through that, making it much more meaningful and motivating to students. It also allows the teacher to see the student’s performance in the language, by accomplishing authentic tasks, things they would actually need to use the target language to do, such as commenting on a movie they have watched or talking about current events. The principle of authenticity can be noticed in this aspect of the assessment since the tasks the students choose corresponds to situations they (would) use the language for in real life.

Throughout the whole semester the teacher visits the students’ portfolio to check on new posts and may write comments on each post. These comments may provide the students feedback on the content, choice of activity posted or on the accuracy of it, giving them specific points to work on and possible suggestions on how to do so. This is a good example of washback. Students get individualized feedback on how they are doing and what they should do to improve.

Every level in the school has a specific set of rubrics for the portfolio evaluation and all students are assessed using them. The rubrics are very thorough and presented to students in the beginning of the semester, as well as made available for reference whenever they want. All the students use the same system for creating their portfolios and receive the same training and support. This makes the portfolio assessment a reliable one.

Since the students are the only ones responsible for choosing and adding the activities they will be evaluated on, they feel it’s a fair way of being assessed. It is content-related because the students are assessed by using the skill they are being assessed in – for speaking they have to upload videos and/or audio files of themselves speaking for example. And since the objective of the course and the students is to effectively use the target language for communicating, the portfolio is the best way for students to prove they can communicate effectively in English.

All in all, portfolios – and especially electronic portfolios, for the flexibility they give students in the type of media they use to perform in the language – are proving to be a very effective and rewarding way to assess students.

If you are interested watching my presentation Alternative assessment and electronic portfolios: sharing a successful experience and ideas” on the last Reform Symposium (which took place on July 29, 30 and 31) you can see the recording here. The recording for the RSCON3 Assessment Panel can be found by clicking here.

As usual, I’d love to hear what you think? How do you think assessment should be done in the ELT classroom?

 * (for those who are not familiar with the Brazilian educational system, after the 5th year students have to study all subjects of all areas – from Physics to Biology – every year. There’s very little change from one school to the next because of the requirements of the Ministry of education).

My First Webinar

Connecting with people around the world...

 

Last Friday, June 3rd, I had the wonderful opportunity to present my first webinar. My dearest friend Shelly Terrell presents a webinar every Friday for the American Tesol Institute and since she would be traveling last friday she suggested to them that I do the webinar, and they invited me… (thanks for the vote of confidence!)

 

I was super nervous… Shelly had talked me through it but still… very nerve-wrecking, especially because I was filling in for shoes way to big for me ;-) But with the help of some fabulous friends and PLN (the line between the two gets very shady for me sometimes) I pulled through and I thought I did ok. We had educators from all over the world attending and everybody was super participative.

 

My special thanks go to Shelly for trusting me to fill in for her and for suggesting my name, to the American Tesol Institute for giving me the chance, to Mike Hogan who “held my hand” and with his webinar expertise gave me very important and useful advice and to other members of my PLN who were there supporting me. You guys are awesome and I owe you!

 

And if you’re wondering…. here’s the recording, so you can judge for yourself… please, I’d love some feedback on things I could’ve done better. I already got the suggestion of getting a new set of (better) microphones, which I will do soon :-)