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 :-)

Teacher: Talk in pairs. Student: Why? – A Guest post by Willy Cardoso

Willy and I enjoying a bit of sunshine in Brighton, during IATEFL

 

It is a great pleasure and honor to introduce my new guest blogger. I first met Willy on Twitter. Amazingly enough we had been in the same conference in São Paulo (12th Braz-Tesol National Convention) a couple of months before, and because I hadn’t joined the world of a PLN and the blogosphere, we may have passed each other there and never met. Our first face to face meeting was in December, 2010, at a great tweet-up/happy hour he helped organize while I was in London. Willy is a unique guy. He’s a thinker and a great teacher. Not to mention an amazing person, fun to be with. I can’t wait to meet him at Tesol France in a couple of weeks!

He puts some of what goes through his mind in his blog, Authentic Teaching – I highly recommend it, if you don’t know it yet.

Here Willy approaches something that has been in my mind recently, especially after reading a few blog posts and lurking at some exchanges on Twitter… So, with you: Willy Cardoso!

This is a short series of blogposts on what I understand to be classroom management issue (although I don’t like that the two words collocate). I’m doing this as the usual warm-up before presenting at a conference, in this case the TESOL France Colloquium. Cecilia is going to be there too and since I greatly admire her this seemed like a good opportunity for my first ever guest post.
…….

Last week, I had the pleasure to teach one of the most bright-eyed students I’ve ever had. She was incredibly, and constantly, in a very good mood; interested and interesting – a natural match for a conversation-driven course, which is what we did.

In one of our lessons the conversation unintentionally moved to the topic of classroom interaction and how she saw that in her morning lessons with other teachers (she was taking three hours in a group and 1,5 with me after lunch). So, at some point in this conversation she says:

I don’t know why, every time, the teachers want us to speak in pairs. There’s only one person in my group that has a similar level of English to mine, all others are below, and I don’t learn from them. There’s one boy that never says anything, he’s like furniture and it’s horrible when the teacher asks me to discuss something with him because he never has anything to say, I don’t know what he’s doing there.

Earlier this month, in a different course with different students, there was something like this:

Teacher, I think it is better when we talk to you and not when we have to talk with each other.

Really? Why is that?

All the students speak wrong and I don’t want to speak wrong, I prefer to listen you, is good English, I don’t think I improve with the others.

And I’ve heard similar reports in the staff room as well. What I can think about this is:

  • Aren’t they partially right? If you want to learn a language won’t you prefer to speak to those who speak it well?
  • Aren’t the teachers missing something there? For instance, to make clear to students why they do so many ‘talk-in-pairs’ moments – whatever reason it is.

So, for you reading this, if you’re a teacher:

What do you say to the student who sees no point in talking to classmates? And more, what is the effect of what you say or do?

Thank you,
Willy Cardoso
http://authenticteaching.wordpress.com

Here’s The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth

Which fact about my life goes where? (photo by xtrarant on Flickr- CC license)

 

One of my last posts here was my contribution to Dave Dodgson’s PLN Challenge, where we had to tell 5 things about our lives – 2 of them being lies. We should then invite the PLN to guess which things were the truth, which were the lies. If you haven’t seen my post on it, you can check it here.

I have been overwhelmed with work – hence my absence from Twitter and blogging – but I thought I had to “let the cat out of the bag”.

#1 – Taking up a Touch Typing Course – LIE!!!

It is true that I’ve always envied people who can touch type… I can type fairly fast, but I still have to look at the keys as I do it. I have tried a few websites (such as Touch Typing ) that help you improve your typing – and hopefully teach you how to touch type. But I have to admit to never being resilient enough to get through any of them.

#2 – Teaching at a University – TRUE!!!

Despite what many people from the PLN thought (and said as much in their comments) about the timing not being right (I’ve been teaching English for 18 years – it just wouldn’t add up), it is true. Right after I got my BA in Graphic Design, there was a selection for teachers at the same university where I had studied (and the only one with a graphic design course at the time), because so many teachers were abroad getting their post-graduate studies done. I got the job (I have to admit that I believe what got me the job was the “class” I had to teach to the team of professors who were in the selection committee - I was fresh out of college, but had been teaching – English – for a few years, so I think it gave me an upperhand). I taught the history classes: art history (focusing on design), Design History, Typography History (1 and 2) and Science and Technology History. I had that job for 2 years, before I got fed up with politics and people pressuring me to teach in a more traditional way. Then I quit. but my love for art never changed :-)

But during those two years I still kept my job as an English teacher at a private language course. I only taught English on Saturdays. That is how I was able to do both things, and that’s what makes the timing work.

#3 – At my Wedding, the Groom Fainted – TRUE!!!

Yes, my (now ex) husband fainted, twice, during our wedding. It was a combination of nerves, heat – we got married in January, which is high summer here – not having eaten well during the day… He fainted twice. After the second time, I said I’d only go on if we were given chairs and they found fans to place right next to us. My requests were met and the ceremony went on… for another hour!!!! It was truly an unforgettable wedding, and an experience I have no desire to live again. Later that night he even asked me to tell him about the wedding – he had no recollection :-P

#4 – I am as Fluent in Spanish as I am in English – LIE!!!

I have formally studied both French and Spanish, but have not mastered any of them. Although I can get around on my Spanish – I got to the advanced level and the similarity between Portuguese and Spanish helps – I am (by far) not fluent on it. I won’t even comment about my French!

#5 – I Was a Successful Javelin Athlete – TRUE!!!

While I went to high school in the US, I had the chance of being more active and practicing many sports. When track season came, the school’s coach made me try all sports, since I had no idea if I was any good at anything. Surprisingly enough, I was really good at javelin throw. I won a few medals in competitions among schools – even a few big meetings! And if I have failed to remember what was my best mark, it’s only because it has been so long (20 years!!!). I guess I had a good arm ;-)

 

So, there you have it. The truth. And if I learned something with this challenge it is that I am a good liar (thankfully I don’t do it often enough to have realized that before!) and that my PLN has sooooo little faith in my physical abilities! ;-) Shame on you!!!

So Alfonso, you were the only one who caught my lies!!! Good one!

 

Hot off the Press!!! An Activity about Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs before Apple became THE Apple

I have an adult conversation class every Tuesday and Thursday. They’re very advanced speakers, most having had lived abroad in English-speaking countries, many already have proficiency certificates. We meet these two times a week to chat in English, about various topics so that they can maintain their English fluency. There isn’t a syllabus. They prefer not to have homework, no writing tasks. So we mostly focus on actual conversation, with the eventual work with vocabulary and student-emergent language work (meaning me going unplugged whenever I see a teaching moment, prompted by a sentence or comment by one of the students). When that happens, sometimes I bring the language in a more structured way the following class, sometimes I work with it immediately, using the board or coming up with ideas on the spot.

With this group I very often use a text (taken – and sometimes adapted) from a newspaper or news website from an English-speaking country, and I love to use things that are hot off the press. So after hearing the sad news about Steve Jobs passing away, I came up with this worksheet. It’s very basic: some vocabulary work, the reading and some discussion questions. I will probably not limit myself to the questions I wrote on the worksheet. I usually guide the discussions on a student/conversation-emergent basis – depending on how and where the discussion goes.

To begin the class I will have the image of an apple projected on the board, and ask learners to say the first thing that comes to mind. I expect at least one of them will mention the company and Steve Jobs. I’ll see how much conversation I can draw from there (let them share what they know/think about the company and its founder). then I’ll give them the worksheet and go with the flow ;-)

It’s nothing special. But I thought it was worth sharing, so here it is.

TALKAEN Steve Jobs SHARE

If you have any other ideas, use this activity in any way, I’d love to hear how it went and which adaptations/changes/extra activities you did :-)

How good a liar am I? Taking up a PLN challenge

No, I can’t resist a challenge. And even though I am completely overwhelmed with the arrival of midterm, with grading, assessing efolios and report card writing, I made time to take up Dave Dodgson’s Challenge. On his post, he talks about an acitivity many of us have done in the first day of class, which is saying things about ourselves and slipping a lie in the middle, to have students speculate which one is a lie. Dave recorded himself doing it and invited readers of his blog to guess among the five things he said which two were lies, which were true. Here’s the challenge:

  • Post a video, audio recording or just a regular post on your blog in which you state 5 facts about yourself – 3 truths and 2 lies.
  • Invite your PLN to quiz you and speculate on what the lies are!

So here’s my recording, and I invite you to guess which 2 things are lies. I have always wondered how good a liar I am.;-)

Can you tell which two things are not true???

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! ;-)