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!

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. ;)