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! :)

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 :-)

A Drop and a Drop Out Through the Rock

Can we break through the "toughest" students? (Photo by Marcelo A.H. Penna on Flickr - CC License)

My latest post was about new beginnings and the challenges that commonly come with them… Challenges can be so motivating! But sometimes we work and work at them and see no progress… And that is soooo frustrating! But sometimes I think teachers become frustrated because we set our expectations too high, we are too ambitious.

Don’t get me wrong… I think we should set expectations high and be ambitious (unlike many people I see ambition – within limits of course! – as a very positive thing. It drives us to be and do better.)

But this post is about celebrating little victories. It’s about not being taken down by not making progress with an entire group, but being able to reach one student. About not convincing all the students to do something, but having one of them buy the idea. I’ve had a few little victories this semester (we’ve had about 2 months of class so far, and the deadline for midterm is a week away). And I feel like sharing them, and maybe giving a few teachers who might be frustrated right now, a little hope :-).

My most challenging group this semester is a group of 10 “somewhat” beginners, the average age being 13 (currently reviewing simple past, soon to learn present perfect). Half the class is made up of excellent students who came from lower levels because of their outstanding performance. The other half is made of students who have been having a hard time with English for a long time and are currently re-taking the level. Quite an interesting group I’d say. One student in particular (from the weaker part of the class) called my attention. Bad attitude, refused to speak English, never did the homework, always trying to distract others… I initially tried the traditional techniques… Called her attention, refused to respond when spoken in L1, threatened to call the parents (which I did once), explained how her grades would suffer… all to no avail. Then something came to mind. She is a very outspoken girl, exhales self-confidence. And I know (from personal experience) that many times the ones who seem confident are actually very insecure (and the other way around). So I decided to approach it differently. I tried not to put the spotlight on her, not ask her to give answers out loud. But during the class I’d walk by her and ask questions about trivial things – her weekend, a new song, a new purse she brought to class, etc… and as she spoke Portuguese I’d try to convince her to at least mix Portuguese and English. I’d ask questions to get her to talk. I showed true interest. And I didn’t correct her – well, maybe a bit of recasting… hard not to. Well, today she spent an entire class without speaking Portuguese. And I’d like to think it’s a result from the new way of dealing her. Easing the pressure. Giving her space and showing interest. And she’s been doing homework too! I left the classroom fulfilled today because of that one little victory. Does two months seem like a long time? Maybe it does, and maybe it is. But we have to be persistent…and patient.

On another group my challenge has been to have them buy the idea of the electronic portfolio (which is our school’s tool for evaluation as you can read about here ). They’ve had bad experiences I suppose and started the semester voicing their hatred for the efolio. I reasoned, tried to show the benefits and finally (basically) said: too bad, sorry you don’t like it but it’s how we evaluate, deal with it. There was one student in particular who never missed a chance to voice her (negative) opinion about it. But, given no other option, she started doing it. And I made a personal point of checking all updates from her efolio on the same day. I left comments (our efolios greatly resemble Facebook) on every post she put up. Never correcting accuracy, but always asking questions and commenting on the content. She started responding to the comments and posting more often – maybe to see what I’d comment? All I can say is that a week before the deadline for submitting portfolios, hers is done – it’s got all the required activities and more. She’s been posting a lot about things she enjoys, things she comes across… I think I brought her to the light side of the force ;-) That made my day as well. Sometimes it pays off to forget the language a bit (even if just on the surface) and focus on the person.

The last one is a student from the same group as the girl I’ve just mentioned. As the rest of his classmates, this learner cringed at the idea of the portfolio. And he hated when I assigned a new project. In the handbook we use we have a “poster time”, where students should try to put themselves in the shoes of the opposite gender (the unit’s topic is Men X Women), and make a poster with disadvantages of being of the opposite sex (always easier to think of the advantages, isn’t it? I like to think differently). This poster was traditionally done with big white papers and markers. I transferred it to the virtual world and introduced them to Glogster. And told them to do the poster using it. This student not only did a great job – he loved the tool – but also started doing a lot of writing posts for his efolio using Glogster (he asked me if it was ok). He likes adding a song that he thinks fits the mood/topic of the writing, using decorative images, etc… We’re talking about students who were not only resistant to technology but especially, that hated writing (why is it so hard to get students motivated to write?!?!). They moan when I assign a writing – be it as homework or classwork. But this particular student was motivated to do his writing assignments in a different way. Double victory for me: got him to write more and use technology as well.

What I take from all of this? Make my way to my objectives one student at a time (which reminds me of the Starfish tale). Be happy with what you get. Sometimes focusing on the person instead of the learner is more effective. Students will write if motivated. Trust your instincts. Don’t give up.

P.S.1 – I realize I’ve been posting less regularly, but in my defense I’m taking the distance delta with IH London and it’s taking a big toll on my “free” time. i apologize and ask for sympathy from my fellow teachers. ;-) I miss blogging, but I have a goal!

P.S.2 – I have more ideas that I’ve been using to motivate students, web tools I’ve been using. If you’re interested I’ll be sharing some of them this Friday, as I fill in for Shelly Terrell on the American Tesol Institute Free Friday Webinar. Come over! 9PM GMT / 5PM Brazil time

Bonus Round – More Activities for the First Day of Class

Let's make this a colorful and resourceful ESL Carnival! (Photo by Striking Photography - CC License)

The next ESL Blog Carnival will be hosted by Eva Buyuksimkesyan (@evab2001 on Twitter) in her wonderful blog  “A Journey in TEFL“, and it will have as a theme Warmers and Fillers for the First Day of Class, since most teachers are starting a new academic term/year soon.

I shared some activities I did on my first classes for the term that I have just started on a recent post (“A Post About Firsts“), but there are so many other activities I have used over the many years I’ve been teaching, I decided I should share some of those in another post. :-) So here we are!

1) The Profile:

You start this activity by asking the students what does the word profile mean. They may come up with many definitions or just one of them.  If they don’t come up with both, the teacher can elicit or explain – it depends a lot on the students’ language level. I find 2 of them essential for this activity.

The first essential definitions is:  “An outline of something (especially a human face as seen from one side)”. The second is: “Biographical sketch” , or information about a person, to give an idea of the person’s personality and life.

After the 2 definitions have been shared, the teacher explains they will do their profiles – in more than one way. The teacher should then proceed to model what students will be expected to do. Get a big piece of blank paper (I usually use A3-sized white paper), stick it to a wall and give a volunteer student a marker. The teacher should place her face on the paper sideways and ask the student with the marker to use it to outline the teacher’s profile on the paper. The profiles always look funny!

Give each student a big piece of paper and a colored marker and have them pair up and outline each other’s profiles. When you have all the papers with profiles (including the teacher’s!) stuck to the walls around the classroom, tell students they should write questions on everybody else’s papers, around the outlined profile. These questions can be just short ones (such as School? or Hobbies?) or complete questions – it’s up to the teacher to decide. Personally I like the short ones, because it gives more space for the student to elaborate on the topic/question). I usually play some background music at this point too, to set a cheerful, happy vibe. The students then go around the classroom, writing questions on all the papers but their own.

After all the profile papers have been filled with questions, the teacher should once again serve as a model, take her own paper down and use it to talk about herself by answering the questions written in it. The, ask the students to take their papers down and introduce themselves.

I find this activity to be fun and allow students to ask whatever they would like to know about the teacher and their classmates. It also works for both groups of students who haven’t studied together before and groups who have been together for some time – they can ask things they don’t know about each other. As a follow-up the teacher can ask students to use the profile paper as basis for a written bio.

2) Getting to Know Each Other With Candy:

Colored candy in exchange for bits and pieces about the students! (Photo by Oh_Savannah - CC license)

Before the class starts, the teacher should have a bowl of candy somewhere of easy access to the students. It’s important that the candy come in different colors – at least 4. I usually use M&Ms for this, leaving a stack of plastic cups (the ones normally used for coffee) next to the bowl and a spoon in the bowl. As the students starts coming into the classroom, the teacher tells them to treat themselves to the bowl, but to wait before they eat – the students should take as much candy as they want, but should wait for the teacher’s permission before eating them.

After everybody has taken some candy and sat down, the teacher should then put up a poster with the color/information equivalence. Each color of candy (or each type of candy) corresponds to one type of information. For instance, the equivalence can be something like:

  • Green: Something about my educational background
  • Red: Something about my family
  • Blue: Something about my likes and dislikes
  • Yellow: Something about my objectives & future plans

 Then the students should take turns and say something about themselves for each piece of candy they have taken, according to the color they have. There is a variation of this activity using a roll of toilet paper, where students take as much as they want and they have to give one piece of information about themselves for each piece of toilet paper they have.

3) Fill in The (Funny) Blanks

Before the lesson, the teacher should prepare a poster (or word document if a projector is available) with a little bio about her. But the text should be funny – important, key information should be substituted by crazy things. Here’s an example:

My name is Cecilia, and I am 104 years old. I have 2 bunnies: Gabriela is 10 and Felipe is 6. I have been teaching juggling for 35 years. In my free time I like jumping off airplanes and jumping around on one foot. I don’t like eating books but I love eating butterflies. (…)

Then ask students to get together with another student (or pair them up if you prefer) and tell them they should discuss and decide which bits from the bio are not true and come up with what they think are the correct words to substitute them with.

After a few minutes the teacher asks students to share what they think and gradually give them the correct information about herself.

These are some of the first day activities I have used – and still do. I hope you enjoyed them! And as usual I’d love to hear any feedback if you use them or adapt them.

Wishing everyone great first classes and a wonderful new term! :-)

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).