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 :-)

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

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

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.

Why do we take it so personally?

Scene: While walking in the hallway of the school where I work and am approached by the mother of a former student of mine. He was my student for 3 semesters in a period of 3 years.

Mother: Cecilia! It’s great to run into you! I’ve been meaning to tell you something. My son took the TOEFL to apply for a university abroad and he got the score he needed. Thank you!

Me: That’s great! But it’s all his merit. He’s always been such a great student!

Does this ring a bell with you? (image by Daeveb - Flickr)

The scene I described above didn’t happen, not this one exactly. But similar scenes have happened to me more than I could possibly count. Situations where I learn about a student’s achievement thanks to his/her English skills. I’m not saying I am a great teacher – we all have been through these situations. that’s not the intention of the anecdote.

Well, recently I had the opposite experience – and not for the first time of course – I could clearly see that one of my groups is not doing as well as expected. As a whole. And that realization crushed me…

Why do we see our students’ failure as our fault, and on the other hand their success as something they’ve achieved all on their own rather than something we’ve helped them achieve? I ask myself that at the same time I do that…

Why do we take it so personally – and only on a negative side for us??

Well, I can only think and reflect about my own experience, my own practice. I truly believe myself to be a committed teacher. I work hard, I plan my classes. I assess each student individually, I give them personal feedback. I care about them. I make every effort to adapt my classes to the students’ needs, to their individualities. I spend countless hours researching, preparing, crafting, worrying… So why do I feel it’s my fault? Why do I feel a student’s failure to learn is a result of MY shortcomings??

Who is responsible for your students' learning: you or them? (image from #eltpics - students)

The worst thing is, the more I think and reflect about it, the more I contradict myself. When I consider the students’ progress and development in the language I feel they’re the ones who are responsible for their own learning because I see my role in the classroom the one of a facilitator. I am someone with more knowledge as far as English is concerned, who is there to help them, pointing them in the right direction, guiding them by the hand when needed, cheering them forward when their motivation runs low. I am there to find ways that associate things they like, things that are more effective in getting them to learn. That’s how I see it.

BUT…

When I think about students not learning as they are supposed to I see my role in the classroom differently. I am the teacher, I am the one who decides how to present things, how they should practice the language being taught to better learn it. Therefore, who else if there to blame if the way I choose to teach doesn’t work?

When it comes to your students’ learning – or lack of – who’s responsible?

Can anyone help me figure this out? Please? Pretty please?

Sharing a Lesson on the 5 Senses


I was browsing through Jamie Keddie’s (@cheimi10) fantastic site for video lessons, just looking at what was new and came across something that wasn’t so new, but it called my attention nonetheless…a lesson based on the McGurk effect. I watched it a couple of times and came up with a lesson / Powerpoint presentation for my Advanced Conversation group. It worked really well…Here is the Powerpoint I came up with: The Five Senses . If you can’t open the video on the PPT, you can see it here.

Hope you enjoy it!


P.S. I need to thank Sue Lyon-Jones (@esolcourses) for helping me sort out my linking issues and giving me excellent advice to make this post and the files work. You rock Sue!