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

About Words & Their Power

Before I start this post I’d just like to apologize for not posting for a long time… But I was on vacation and away from internet access. it was good to unplug, but it’s even better to be back! :-)

 

 

How do you choose your words?

 

Today I caught myself thinking about the power our words (or anybody else’s for that matter) have. Of course everyone must have considered the issue every once in a while, especially when we are on the receiving end of a more powerful set of them. Words have the power to fill hearts or break them; lift spirits or kill them. they can make you laugh, cry (even if when no one else is looking), learn or doubt yourself. I’d go as far as say that wars have started because of things that were said – or so it was claimed.

 

But I’m not going to get that philosophical or start talking about world peace here – though it is a worthy topic :-) Since the main (or only) focus of my dwellings on this blog is teaching, I’m going to focus on the power words have in the classroom, more specifically the power the words of a teacher can have. Do we have (or keep) in mind how powerful or meaningful our words can be when we direct them at our students when we say them? Oh, I’m sure many times we do. We even measure and carefully choose our words sometimes.

 

Not too long ago I wrote a guest post at Ken Wilson’s blog about Giving Meaningful Feedback to Students, about listening to them. And I believe what I’m going to say here relates to it. I think we’re not fully aware of what we say or the effect our words may have on students 100% of the time. Sometimes we go on automatic mode. When we are drilling (Yes – I DO drill – Shame on me? I don’t think so… He who does not drill may throw the first stone!) or checking students’ answers / opinions about something. And we don’t really stop to think about what (or how?) we talk to students. “Great!” “Perfect!” “Good job!” Do students take those words as real praise directed at them or just empty words indicating whether they’ve provided a proper correct answer or not? Does this change if we add a personalized comment? Something like “Great! I also like going to the beach on my holidays Julia!” or “Yes! And what was the last film you’ve watched Lucas?”.

 

I think it does – for the same reason I mentioned in my guest post for Ken. It shows students we listened to what they said. But then a question emerges: Is it humanly possible to do that, to give personalized feedback every time we give feedback to students – orally or other? It looks pretty on picture, I know. Yet, reality seems to be a little different.

 

Most teachers I know have way too many students (in each class and/or altogether) to make it feasible. Some of us (I include myself in this group!) have to do on-going, continuous evaluation, which means attributing a “grade” to students’ performance as they talk and produce in class, which makes it even harder to focus on content – rather than form – as we listen to students in class. Are we to blame? Is anyone? should we ditch form? I see that we are – at least I am – distancing myself from the focus on form slowly but surely. Would that be the answer? Is it that simple?

 

 

I wish I hadn't said that!!!

And that’s not all. Sometimes we’re are just on a bad day/moment. A specific moment always comes to mind when I think of that – one that had a happy ending for me, but could’ve had disastrous results. I had a 15-year-old student – a boy – who would mention the word “sex”every 10th word he said in class. The first few classes I (tried to) ignore it. I made a few remarks and light reprimands. “Come on, not the topic being we’re discussing…” or  “Please, you’re making other students a bit uncomfortable…” or even a direct ” Not appropriate.” But he kept on going. So you can imagine how tired of it I was after a couple of months. Then, one day as they were doing something I was sitting by each student and giving individual feedback, he started on his usual routine and I just blurted out, from across the classroom – as I was sitting beside one of his classmates: “Dear, people who actually have sex don’t talk about it.”

 

As expected, a big uproar followed, giggling… He looked absolutely taken by surprise – so was I to be honest – and shocked by my unexpected reply. He barely spoke for the rest of the lesson. And I regretted my words almost as soon as I had uttered them. What was I thinking?!?? How could I have talked to a student in that way? So, when class was over I went straight to my academic coordinator’s office and told her what had happened, saying we should not be surprised if we heard a complaint from the boy or his parents. No complaints came from it though – and he stopped his inappropriate behavior in class after that. He actually came after me and hugged me, said what a great teacher I was and how much he missed me whenever he saw me even in the semesters that followed, when he was no longer my student. However, the way things turned out do not – in my opinion – make what I did, what I said, right. I mean, it was right, but not fit for me, as his English teacher, to say.

 

I’ve had students change decisions (even one or two career path changes) after talking to me. I’ve had students quit studying English or really start taking it seriously. I’ve had ( a lot!) students who completely ignored what I said to them. As teachers, we have to remember many of our students think very highly of us and our opinions. we have to remember our words matter. And we should try to keep that in mind as often as possible. Whether in oral feedback, comments, written corrections/feedback or just an “innocent” conversation after class. what we say matters.

 

And I think (and hope) my words here were not just empty words thrown into the blogosphere. :-)

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! :-)

An ordinary wonderful day in the life of a TEFL teacher

 

 

 

Great things sometimes surprise us…

 

I haven’t had much time to tweet and especially blog – something I love doing, and like doing in a calm way, so that I can really reflect and write a post worthy of being read by so many wonderful people. But end of terms are like this, not only for me but for most people that might take the time to read this. Vacation is around the corner and I hope to make up from it. But today’s post is something I felt I had to write, if just to let it out. Because todays was an ordinary teaching day for me and in so many ways it surprised me. My teaching, my students made a day who started out on the wrong foot end in such a great note. So forgive me for a little hastiness, any typos or other things that might come out wrong. Today I write this post for me. To be thankful for my day, my students and the fantastic career I chose to pursue.

 

 

 

Mondays and Wednesdays are my busiest days. I start teaching early in the morning ( those who know of my sleeping patterns – or lack of sleep is more likely – will probably understand what an effort it is for me to teach bright and early. I am very much a night owl.) then work outside the classroom for the rest of the morning, rush home with son to eat lunch in 15 minutes and rush back to school for a full afternoon of back-to-back teaching. Then a hurried snack/supper and on to a private 1:1 student for another 2 hours. So I usually have a 14-hours shift on these days :-)

 

 

 

 

... and bring us hope.

As I woke up today, I wasn’t expecting it to be a good day. I was a bit under the weather, worried about covering the content with my morning group (only 4 more classes and 3 chapters to go), thinking about paperwork that had to be dealt with urgently… I go into twitter after  I get everything ready in my classroom and am waiting for the students to arrive, and see Gavin Dudeney’s new post. I am not getting into details, but in short it’s about being bullied online, threatened by a person who you thought was your friend, who you’ve shared personal feelings and stories. And his account of the sickening (and terrifying) experience he’s going through scared me. Scared me because I realized I had a false (and potentially dangerous) sense of security on twitter. It scared me because it made me think back about the people I consider my friends on twitter – could any of them be a bully? It scared me because it alerted (?) me that sometimes not everyone is who they appear to be. It made me feel uneasy – I truly believe (still) I have met some fabulous people on Twitter, some of them I have become closer with, many have become dear friends, people I admire and learn from. Are we really living in a world where people are that mean to each other? Where you have to be wary of everyone, every word, every gesture and measure your own even among who you believe to be friends. A place where you can’t trust anyone? I had these feelings and thoughts all over my mind (and heart) as I got into class…

 

 

 
 

And then the first wonderful ordinary thing happened. Instead of the boring, tiring, hurried class I had thought I’d have (covering the content I am late at), my students gave me a great, fun, relaxing class. They (7 students ranging from 10 to 13 years old) started out by asking if we could have class sitting on the floor today. They had never asked for that, but I thought “Why not” – I like sitting on the floor. We did all I had planned out to do, they worked hard, it went smoothly, we laughed… some students were sprawled on the floor, some leaning on chairs or the wall. Everybody felt comfortable. It was light (despite being a “full-force” grammar-nuggets-with-no-sauce-to-make-it-easier-to-swallow class)… and it lifted my spirits a little.

 

 

 Then in the afternoon…

 

more great surprises, new (and somewhat risky) ideas, change of plans… everything worked perfectly. I had an amazing (an unplanned / unplugged) discussion with my students about formal testing (they’re currently going through the many tests to get into college -the feared “vestibular” ). What a great thing having my students so engaged, making such intelligent collocations on the issue… no regrets about the forgotten plan. Totally student emergent, lots of learning, lots of using the language… I learned a lot from them – and about them. The only sad aspect of this class is that it’ll make it even harder to say goodbye in 2 weeks :-) And my final class… well, we’re currently discussing tolerance. And my students’ final task of the day, from the handbook, was to create an acrostic poem about RESPECT. And  in only 10 minutes - they worked in pairs, here’s what they came up with:

 

 

 

“Respectful is everything you have to be to be sociable and accept other people in their own way. There are differences everywhere you go. If you’re not respectful you have to change that and start being tolerant.”
 
 
 
 
 
 

“Rational behavior that you expect from someone who doesn’t have prejudice, or envy you – can be someone tolerant.”

 

 

 
 
 

“Respect each other without only seeing the differences, but also paying attention to the similarities, because everybody lives in a society so it’s common to meet people with a different opinion or lifestyle.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here is the main reason for this post, what moved me to write it. it was a big coincidence that the topic we were working in class had to do with what was on my mind during the day. Or was it? What my young students wrote made me hopeful that maybe I am making a difference by bringing these discussion to class, by fostering reflection, making them think about the world we want to live in. Maybe these few students are going to be more tolerant, respect others. They made me feel that there’s more good and good people, good things in this world, in the younger generations. So I thank my students for ending my day in a very positive and cheerful note. For helping send the negative thoughts and feelings away, replacing them with positive ones. How lucky are we to be teachers and see this, eh? Some people could surely learn something from my students today… Here’s to that!