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).

A Fun Lesson Reviewing Adjectives

What do you look for in a friend? In a romantic partner?

 

After I used the Valentine’s Day activities in my groups I decided it would be a good opportunity to have a follow-up lesson to review adjectives and descriptions. Since we had talked about Valentine’s Day, the people we loved, etc it would be easy to link that lesson to one where we talked about what attracted us in people – and what put us off. It worked really well with my students, so I thought I’d share it here:-). I know this lesson might not work with certain age groups or cultural backgrounds. but you can use just part of it, or adapt to your students. Feel free – and share!

 

When the class started I distributed some papers (half of a blank paper), markers and tape, and told the students to tape the paper to their backs. Then I put on some music and asked them to go around writing one adjective they thought described that person. Wait, wait! Don’t start thinking the students don’t know each other that well, this won’t work. This activity works whether they’ve just met or if they’ve been studying together for a while – different outcomes, but everything works. After they have all written on each other’s papers, before I let them take the papers down to see what their friends wrote about them I ask them to say one adjective they think describe themselves. If the students start complaining it’s hard to choose just one, tell them yes, it’s hard (“So is life!” I usually say playfully to my students), but it doesn’t mean they’re just that, but that that characteristic is a predominant one in their personality.

 

Then I tell them to take the paper off their backs and look at the words the other students used to describe them. Then, into trios I have them share their views on if they see themselves the same way others saw them, possible reasons for any differences, etc… Then a quick general accountability with the whole group, asking 2 or 3 students at random about it. I usually spend some time with them reflecting upon the image we have of ourselves and the one we project, etc…

 

After that, I ask them to share what is one characteristic that attracts them in people from the opposite sex. Since the previous activity will have gotten mostly personality adjectives (and to be honest everyone always answer this with a personality trait first, maybe to show they’re not superficial ;-)) it’s very likely that’s what you’ll get as answers. Let them talk, ask them to elaborate a bit if you have an angle (Funny? Why is that? What is a funny person to you? etc). In my group, that’s what happened, to what (after everyone had spoken) I joked by saying “Ok, I’m very proud all my students are such “evolved” people who don’t care about appearances, but let’s be a bit superficial here, because usually it’s something physical that first attracts you to someone. What catches your attention - as far as physical characteristics go? I got a lot of “the smile”, “the eyes”, “the height”… We did a little brainstorm on famous people they considered attractive, and on those they knew weren’t examples of physical beauty but still had something that made them attractive. Then I say they’ve probably talked about this (what they find attractive in people) many times before, and that today we’d take a different turn. Finally I give them the worksheet and take it from there.

 

My class (a fluent group of people between 20 and 40 years old men and women) had a great time with this lesson, laughing, making comments and asking each other questions related to the topic. This was on our 4th class, and only two of them knew each other before the term started – they’re brothers. so, I hope you enjoy it too. If you use it (and feel free to change it in any way you need to adapt to your groups) I’d love to hear how it went. We all know how receiving feedback is important ;-) Here’s the worksheet:

The Laws of UNattractiveness

Love is in… the ELT classroom!

Will you be my valentine?

 

I have to admit Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays… Call me a romantic if you want, but the fact is, despite Valentine’s Day not even existing in the Brazilian calendar, I love to celebrate it. See, the thing that makes it so appealing to me is that it is a day to celebrate love. Simple as that. Not necessarily romantic love… just love. Love for a parent, for a friend, for a child… And despite the (overly IMHO) commercial side of it I think it’s great to have a day to tell the people we love how we feel. I know we can do that every day, but having a day with that sole purpose reminds us to celebrate and acknowledge that love.

 

So I decided to share a couple of activities I’ve created and used in some of my groups around Valentine’s. I hope you enjoy them!

A warmer that’s silly and simple, but that I have used is just eliciting the word Valentine’s Day from the students, then writing it on the board and giving them 3 to 5 minutes to come up with as many words using the letters from the board as possible. They can only use a letter more than once if the letter appears more than once on the board, and words have to contain 3 letters or more. A nice competition will surely warm their hearts up!

Here are some activities (note: they were prepared for an advanced conversation group I have, and the students are quite fluent. So, depending on the level you teach, they may need some adjustments):

 

Valentines Activity 1 CNN Article

Valentines Activity 2 Reuters Article

Valentines Idioms with Heart

Taking a Walk in the Learners’ Shoes – A Guest Post by David Dodgson

 It is my greatest pleasure to introduce the first guest blogger of Box of Chocolates  in 2011. David Dodgson is a British English teacher who lives and teaches young learners in Ankara, Turkey. I was very fortunate to get to know Dave through Twitter (his handle is @davedodgson) and the blogosphere and immediately liked his views on teaching and enjoyed sharing and interacting with him. We had a great “time working on a “joint post” for one of the Dogme Challenges, where we shared our voices in a real conversation online, discussing the topic. I follow his blog Reflections of a Teacher and Learner and always enjoy his posts, be they activities / lessons he’s done or reflections on teaching and life. He is very active in online PD with his blog, twitter, #ELTChat, presenting, etc. A great educator and person who I’m proud to call a friend. 

 

With you... David Dodgson! (aka @davedodgson)

 

 

One of the blogging highlights of last year for me was sharing my voice with Cecilia for a collaborative post so what better way to start the new year than with a guest post? Now, I’d like to say this is done in the spirit of sharing ideas and cross-continental collaboration but the truth is, I foolishly entered a bet with our Brazilian friend and promptly lost so here I am. :p

 

 Anyway, onto the post: the last ELTchat of 2010 focused on the importance and benefits for English teachers of learning another language and I’d like to expand on some of the points raised in that session here. The discussion mainly focused on two strands – how being the student of a language can assist us in seeing things from the learner’s point of view and whether or not learning and knowing their L1 can be of help.

 

At first glance, it would seem my experience of learning Turkish wouldn’t help me much as a teacher. Apart from a 4 week course some 10 years ago, I’ve never had any classroom instruction. I’ve also never worked with a coursebook, done any written or oral assignments or prepared for any tests. I basically learned everything I know from a total immersion situation and it was a long process. I didn’t actually learn much in the first two years as I was surrounded by other imported teachers and all the Turks I knew were students who wanted to practice English whether meeting in or out of school. It was only after I got married and settled here that I really statred to go beyond basic functional language. In a sense I was lucky that my wife’s family didn’t know much English – I was forced to develop my Turkish to communicate better with them (and free my wife from translation duty!). Now, while not fully fluent, I’m able to understand 99% of what I hear and communicate 99% of what I want to say.

 

So, how has this learning process helped me as a teacher in the classroom? Although I wasn’t‘formally’ taught, I believe the experience has been beneficial. I appreciate the feelings of doubt, confusion and panic that can arise when faced with lots of new language. Conversely, I also know how far you can get with just a little language (as well as lots of scaffolding and gesturing!) and this helps in encouraging my students to open up and give them the belief that they can communicate whatever thier level. There are also some personal learning strategies that I can highlight for my students. For example, upon learning (or ‘noticing’) a new word, I always look out for further examples of it in use, try to use it myself, and ask questions if I see it used in a different or unexpected way. And so, I always encourage my students to be on the look out for new words, find examples of their use and run their self-formed hypotheses by me.

 

While I fully agree that learning a language has generic benefits in this way, I found myself very much disagreeing with the notion that knowing your students’ L1 helps during the chat session. Before I explain why I should clear something up: I’m not saying that a teacher working and living in a foreign country doesn’t need to learn the local language. Far from it, I believe that anyone who stays in a foriegn country should make an effort to learn the language. I just find the claim that knowing their L1 makes the teaching and learning process easier debatable. After all, as I mentioned above, in the first two years I was here, I didn’t know much Turkish, certainly not at the level my students were learning English at. I never in anyway felt disadvantaged by not knowing their language.

 

Some people argue it’s useful to know where the L1 transfer issues come from, especially for vocabulary and pronunciation. However, I find such issues to be minor and easily highlighted. For instance, Turkish people often confuse open/switch on and close/switch off when speaking English as there is only one word for each in their own language. I’ve always found with time and repeated exposure, this kind of problem sorts itself out. Another often quoted example is “there are no perfect tenses in my students’ L1 so they find present perfect difficult”.While that may be true, it is also true that many learners of English around the world find perfect tenses difficult, even those who have an equivalent in their L1. (This discussion reminds me of natural order hypothesis, a theory which posits that language learners acquire and automise grammatical structures in more or less the same order regardless of their linguistic background).

 

So, when a language teacher is also a language learner, it helps in the sense that we can empathise with our students more. We can understand better their struggles, needs and feelings and give them the benefit of our experience. While knowing our learners’ L1 may offer some immediate benefits for quick translation or clarification, I don’t think it makes a huge difference. As long as you are a dedicated teacher with your students’ best interest at heart, you’ll be fine. ;)

Should I Just Let It Go?

 

This week during the second session of #ELTChat we discussed whether there were advantages to being a non-native-speaking teacher. It was a great discussion  as usual – lots of insights from all the participating teachers. During the chat the issue of pronunciation was brought up as expected. It had also come up at another #ELTChat, about what is fluency. Much was said about it on both chats, but it seems to be believed by many teachers that the aim of working with pronunciation should be on making the students’ speaking intelligible - not on making them a replica of a native speaker’s pronunciation (I’ll refrain from getting into the whole what is a native speaker’s pronunciation – we can have a whole post on that alone).

 

 

And that discussion triggered some reflection on my part (ok, maybe it was going around my mind already…), on how I approach pronunciation in my classes, what I expect from students and especially if I am letting my experience as a learner/speaker influence my teaching. That’s what this post is about.

 

 

photo by (cup)cake_eater - CC

Is it time I let go?

 

Let me explain better… I learned English here, in Recife (Brazil), through the audiolingual method. Most of the teachers I had were Brazilian, and I believe few of them had had an experience abroad. I think it’s relevant for me to mention this here because we are talking about life and language learning prior to the technology revolution we have gone through and now live in. Resources of authentic language were scarce, traveling was expensive and hard… Bottom line: in my opinion it wasn’t as easy at that time to become a fluent English speaker, with a so-called native-like pronunciation.

 

So, when I was taught the past, I learned the pronunciation of the -ED ending of regular verbs in the simple past with lots of drilling. And there were no different pronunciations of said -ED ending. You just pronounced the verb followed by an (equally thoroughly pronounced) -ED ending. When I went to live as an exchange student in northwestern Kansas (Yes, I spoke with a southern drawl… It – I hope – got lost after the many years of teaching and being exposed to more neutral pronunciation) that ending caused one of the biggest traumas I have of that time (the biggest involves my absolute inability to play basketball).

 

I had two advanced classes in my schedule:  Advanced Chemistry and Advanced Math. And let me just say that after the first day, when another student (an American one) asked me about my schedule, after hearing me mention those two classes, I spent the next 11 months being mocked about my AdvancED classes. I even have a message on my yearbook to prove it! If bullying was discussed at that time, I’m sure that was bullying. Of course I changed my pronunciation to the appropriate /t/ sound right away. No use… that ED haunted me for the duration of my year in Kansas. And I hated that! Who likes being mocked and get that kind of attention?

 

I share this story to justify my great care and attention to teaching, reviewing, drilling, endless practicing and correcting I do of that specific pronunciation bit with my students. For me it is essential that my students nail the three different pronunciations of that -ED ending. And I know I’m in part (Really? Am I being too kind with myself?) doing that because it’s something that left a mark in me. A scar maybe?

 

There’s no way we can leave our experiences as learners of a language behind us when we become teachers. Our experiences are what shape us, and there are wonderful things we can draw from them, strategies we developed that we can teach our students, the predicting of problems, the understanding of insecurities the students have… But we have to be careful not to let these experiences – especially the negative ones – take over our teaching, prevent us from being reasonable and rational about how to do things, how far to take things, how much to enforce something.

 

That’s the reflection I’ve made this week. Maybe it’s time I forgot that year of -ED bullying and started demanding a less perfect pronunciation of regular verbs in the past from my students. After all, they just need to be understood, right?

 

I’d love to hear your stories of how your experiences as a learner have shaped or interfered in your teaching! :-)