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?

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

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).

The Fluency Dichotomy: Writing X Speaking

Writing samples - Creative Commons photo by Chuni (via Flickr)

Something has been puzzling me for a while… I teach mostly more advanced groups (B2 and on) and many of them have had experiences abroad – some have lived abroad, some have taken English courses abroad, some have been exchange students in English speaking countries, etc – so they’re quite fluent orally. I mean it, they speak very well (and not only the ones who have traveled abroad). But when it comes to their writing they just don’t seem to be able to keep up the same fluency. Of course I run into the exact opposite (students who write really well but have a hard time producing orally), but these are the exception.

I started noticing that in the writing assignments they handed in. Sometimes it seemed incredible that “that” essay full of communication breakdowns, poor punctuation, incorrect spelling and L1 dependent structures had been written by that student that spoke like a native speaker during our classes.

To corroborate my perception I have the results for the Michigan Language Certificates tests we offer at our school. I am the Michigan Test Manager and what I usually see when I receive the reports is a number of our students who have taken the test achieving top marks – High Pass – in most, if not all, the other parts of the test (oral interview, listening and GVR – Grammar, Vocabulary and Reading) and a Low Pass in writing. How can that be explained???? Isn’t fluency usually supposed to beall around? When students learn something and are able to use it comfortably in their speech wouldn’t it be natural to expect the same fluency level in writing?

I started looking for an answer… or at least trying to. I looked into their previous class records and comments from previous teachers; I talked to them; I compared writing assignments done in class to the ones I sent as a homework assignment. Something was very obvious: students who liked reading usually wrote very well – not exactly surprising eh? It was also very common for me to hear a student say: “I hate writing, it’s boring”. And then I started asking students abouthow they did when writing in Portuguese, and they said the results weren’t much better. I heard Portuguese teachers, professors at the universities complaining the same thing. It seems students are losing their ability to write cohesive, well-structured, effective texts (especially teenagers I dare say) in any language, not only English.

Is it a reflection of how little they read? Of how much time they spend on computers? At using web-search for their school projects and making use of the copy/paste dynamic duo? I am afraid so… it is like any other ability we acquire or develop in life – such as bike riding – if you don’t use that for a while your brain slowly forgets how to do it properly. And then again, have they ever learned how to write compositions? I tend to blame it much on technology, since I believe this is a more recent phenomenon. When I was in school most of us knew how to write. We had to read a long list of classic literature books, we had to research in books and big encyclopedias for school projects and write things with our own words – or else everyone would have the exact same text, since everyone has the same encyclopedias at home :-D

I’ve been working hard at improving my students’ writing skills, trying to come up with creative ideas of working with it, motivating so students don’t feel it’s that boring. I give special attention to building their vocabulary (I posted about some of these ideas before, the vocabulary bank and reviewing vocabulary); I work with sentence/paragraph structure; I do process writing; I give meaningful feedback. But so far, I have to admit I’ve had far fewer success cases than otherwise.

What’s your take on this? Do you have the same problem? Do you also think technology is (even if partially) to blame? Is there something we do? Would love to hear from other teachers. :-)

P.S. This post is the result of reflections post my presentation at IATEFL this year – on this topic, and on a webinar I’ll be presenting with some of the ideas I presented in Brighton, tomorrow, filling in for Shelly Terrell while she’s traveling. So I’m doing the American TESOL Free friday Webinar tomorrow, June 3rd, at 5PM Brasilia time (GMT-4). If you’re interested in taking part it’s free and you can access it here.

About Mountains, Challenges and Teaching – My guest post for Teaching Village

 

I was very humbled and deeply honored to be invited by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto (@Barbsaka) to write a guest post for her blog, Teaching Village. Not only I admire Barb as a teacher and educator, but her blog is one I really enjoy following and is a constant source of reflection and ideas for me. Besides her own posts Barb has had a list of great guest authors, most of whom I am lucky to have in my PLN. When I was thinking what I could write about, the first thing that came to mind was sharing about a very special student I have this semester, something that is very close to my heart right now. I wanted (still want) to see what other teachers thought of the way I’m handling the situation, see if anyone has any suggestions.

 

And that’s how About Mountains, Challenges and Teaching came to be. I’d love if you stopped by Teaching Village to read it and give me your view on my story. And while you’re there, I recommend you read one of the other great posts you can find there :-)

 

 

My guest post at Teaching Village

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. ;)