When the secondary meets the primary

workshop-1425446_960_720.jpgA fellow teacher from a primary school here in Sternberk recently put a lot of effort into organizing an activity swap shop for English teachers from the local schools, including ours. She sent out a leaflet inviting us to bring along activities which we’d share with others. As a lure bonus, she’d invited an OUP representative for a short update on the products they offer.

I reacted to the invitation immediately because I thought it was a brilliant idea. However, my colleague soon replied to me that she didn’t know how things would eventually pan out because at that time I was the only one who had actually shown interest in the event.

Fast forward to yesterday. The event did finally take place but only eight teachers showed up (4 teachers were from the organizing institution, 2 teachers from another primary school and 2 teachers from my school). Nevertheless, it turned out to be a very rewarding experience.

At first, the teachers were very nervous in front of their colleagues. They said that although they shared stuff with one another every day, this was different. I wasn’t that nervous because I was planning to share activities which I had already presented at a conference. And I had my PowerPoint presentation at my disposal. However, the atmosphere was so informal that I finally decided to put away my flash drive and I spoke off-the-cuff. In fact, I didn’t talk about the activities in my PowerPoint at all; instead, I chose to describe three activities I tried only recently – Half a Crossword, Music in Word Clouds and Speaking Hangman (see my previous posts). My colleagues particularly liked the first one.

Apart from sharing activities, we talked a lot. It was an opportunity to establish a good rapport with colleagues from primary education. The truth is that we sometimes see each other as competitors rather than collaborators. Also, I learned what primary English teachers actually do in their lessons. This is very useful for us working at the secondary level because we can build on what our colleagues have already achieved.

All in all, we had a  really good time and we agreed that we must do this again – maybe on a larger scale. We hope there will be many more brave teachers next time.

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You teach them grammar until they outsmart you one day

In case you haven’t read or participated in the following Facebook conversation, I’d like you to look at the comment I posted.

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Apart from some really interesting replies, I got this exhaustive explanation.

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Yet, I wasn’t convinced. It simply hadn’t sunk in and I stubbornly needed to oppose.

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When Andrew Tollet chipped in earlier today, I started to doubt my original conviction that *they*can be either used with a pronoun antecedent (as in Nobody tells their secret) or a generic noun as antecedent (as in Every mother loves their child), not with a specific person.

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Then I came across this summary on Wikipedia and it finally dawned on me.

Use for specific, known people. 

In some situations, an individual may be known but referred to using the pronoun they. This may occur because the individual’s gender is unknown to the speaker, or because the gender is non-binary or genderqueer so that they regard both masculine and feminine pronouns as inappropriate and thus prefer to be referred to as they.

Though “singular they” has long been used with antecedents like everybody or generic persons of unknown gender, this use, which may be chosen by an individual, is recent.

Voila! So my student was right after all. And I was wrong. In my defence, this shift only happened recently:

Among younger speakers, use of singular they even with definite noun-phrase antecedents finds increasing acceptance, sidestepping any presumption about the sex of the person referred to, as in “You should ask your partner what they think.”

 

 

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Music in word clouds

I have to confess that I’m not one of those teachers who love to work with songs in class. Although I do love music, I don’t often incorporate it into my lesson plans. I’m not sure what the reasons behind my reluctance are; I suspect that I simply don’t know how to go about it.

However, and here comes the expected twist, for today I had planned a music activity which turned out to be a huge success. I should say that the activity was to a great extent inspired by Fiona Mauchline, who, during her recent talk at the P.A.R.K. conference here in the Czech Republic, expressed her excitement about word clouds. Although it seems word clouds are very popular with teachers, I’d actually never worked with them myself (if I had, I’ve probably forgotten).

IMG_20171106_131538I thought it was high time to try. First, I checked out Wordle (despite the fact that Fiona had warned us about it). I found out that it indeed causes a lot of trouble and I soon gave up on it. I went to the Word Cloud Generator instead, which turned out to be working pretty well. However, I wasn’t sure what exactly I should do with word clouds in class.

Then I remembered a particular group of students, who’ve recently been rather tired on Monday afternoons. This has partly had to do with the fact that our lesson starts just after lunch and that the students have almost no time to rest and digest the food. So I thought I might try to prepare something lighter for them on Mondays. It occurred to me that I could spice things up with music, for example. But what music? What on earth do 15-year-olds listen to?

IMG_20171106_131603I was a little desperate at first but then I found this website with a list of top 200 pop songs of 2016. I chose the ones I knew and checked their suitability with my 18-year-old son. I finally picked 20 of them. Then I found a page with song lyrics and turned each of the twenty songs into a word cloud. I printed them out and I labeled them 1-20. At the bottom of the page, there was the title of the song and the name of the artist. I folded the paper back so that neither was visible.

I placed the word clouds on the desks. The students strolled around and noted down the names of the songs they could guess. After about 10 minutes, I asked them to unfold the papers and check their answers.

As a bonus, they voted for a song they wanted to listen to in that particular lesson. They almost unanimously picked Stitches by Shawn Mendes. We watched the video and then found a version with an embedded lyric. The students sang along. We talked about the video clip (which, by the way, is worth analyzing) and the meaning of the lyric itself.

IMG_20171106_141910Some observations: 

  1. The guessing stage was more difficult than I had expected. At first, the students worked individually, but once I spotted that some of them were struggling, I put them in pairs. Having the opportunity to put their heads together made the task easier for them.
  2. I deliberately chose the 2016 hits because I wanted to make sure everybody knew them. Still, some students only got 4 out of 20 – either because they couldn’t decode the word clouds or because they didn’t know the songs at all. The best score was 17.
  3. I think that the most valuable part was the stage when they could choose their own hit. And the singing, I think, was the highlight of the whole lesson.
  4. Finally, I’d like to point out that it’s interesting to look at how ‘dense’ the individual lyrics are. The word clouds clearly show the density as well as the most frequent words in the song.  This could be a good topic for discussion or an opportunity for a follow-up activity. Alternatively, the density of the text could be a useful determinant of the teacher’s choice of a specific lyric.

 

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Teaching teens – the highest level in the game?

pokemon-1543556_960_720Have you ever contemplated the reasons behind the cliché that teaching teenage classes is the most challenging job? And if so, do you think it could be the lack of maturity connected with a certain degree of unpredictability and unstableness that is so daunting for us teachers? But what is it exactly that raises a red flag whenever we hear we’ve been assigned a new group of teenagers? Let me have a look at the issue from my own experience.

I’ve been an English teacher for more than 20 years and I have experience in teaching all age groups – in the state as well as the private sector of education. In hindsight, and from a perspective of a non-native teacher of English, I’d say that teaching adults was the least challenging of all and I strongly recommend that any newbie teacher whose mother tongue is not English start their career in an adult-learner classroom (preferably with a pre-intermediate group of learners). From a certain viewpoint, teaching young learners may also appear relatively easy since it doesn’t require so much language knowledge as teaching, say, an advanced class of adult learners. However, it does require an enormous amount of patience, creativity, and enthusiasm. When teaching teenagers, you’ll need to have all the qualities above plus a really thick skin, and thus, due to and despite all the challenges you may have to overcome as a teacher, I call it the proverbial icing on the cake.

When teaching teens, you’ll always need to keep your eyes peeled plus you’ll need to watch your back, so to speak. I’m not implying that you can get physically hurt or something; I’m just saying that teenagers will simply do what they need to do whenever you look away. So while you are busy scribbling something very important on the board, a teenager will be multitasking: responding to messages on WhatsApp, liking pictures on Instagram and posting comments on Facebook. And if you happen to raise your eyebrows over their behavior, they will quickly point out, looking slightly offended, that they were just checking the time for god’s sake. These days, they’ve invented a new excuse: I’m checking the EduPage (the new electronic system my school started using recently). Needless to say, it won’t be helpful to prolong the discussion by pointing at the giant clock hanging on the wall right in front of them or telling them that there’s no need to check Edupage during the lesson. I assume that small kids don’t yet have the guts to willingly break rules or argue with you and that adults don’t see the point in wasting the precious and often expensive classroom time.

Also, while kids don’t see your weaknesses as real weaknesses and adults are willing to overlook them (or at least are considerate enough to pretend not to see them), teenagers will give you a hard time once they discover your weak spots – especially if you are the one who finds pleasure in targeting theirs. So the best strategy is to avoid all kinds of harsh criticism (this may even refer to explicit error correction in front of the class) and once you make a mistake yourself, simply admit to being wrong. In my context, if a student points to a mistake I have made, I openly appreciate their language awareness as well as their courage.

While adult learners will be happy if you devote the lesson to something they find useful, such as grammar explanations, and YLs will immediately rejoice any time you ask them to jump up and sing a song, your teenage class will in both cases award you with a slightly indifferent look. In the worst case scenario, they’ll refuse to cooperate or even boycott the activity completely. The problem with teenage classes is that it’s not easy to win their attention and/or enthusiasm and if you finally make it, it’s often a matter of luck rather than a planned strategy. In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe or manual for motivating a teenage learner. Sometimes you’re lucky and you manage to tune in. Sometimes they will even tell you what they’d like to do. Be careful, though, you may hear requests such as Let’s go home. Let’s go for an ice cream. Let’s sleep. Let’s cancel the lesson completely. You get what you ask for. While adults may feel in the same mood, they will rarely say such things out loud. And you’ll obviously wrap any kid around your finger once you suggest an engaging, fun activity.

girl-791729_960_720Every teaching manual will tell you that the best approach to teaching any subject is to create opportunities for personalized learning. Such learning is driven by learner interests and learning objectives, approaches, content, and tools are tailored and optimized for each learner. Based on my experience, people usually consider their own thoughts and experiences to be their favorite topic of conversation so we can assume that one of our students’ main interests is to talk about themselves. After all, it’s a subject in which they’re an expert. This is undoubtedly true for most teenagers, except that they are not exactly over the moon if you ask them to talk about themselves with you, let alone in front of the whole class. Mind you, their reluctance to share ideas doesn’t necessarily have to relate to their language confidence. Based on my experience, if you really want your teenage learners to practice speaking, let them work in pairs or small groups first. That’s where they feel safe.

This brings me to the topic of monitoring; do monitor pair and group work but do so very sensitively. A teenage learner may immediately change the subject or stop talking completely if you approach them and start listening closely. It’s not always a good idea to chip in either. Show your interest in a different way. No matter how friendly you are, there’ll always be this imaginary gap between the adult and the teenage world. They have their secrets. This imaginary barricade is no longer there between you and your adult learners, so although they might not be willing to talk about stuff which they consider too personal, they won’t feel the need to hide from you the things they share with each other. And young learners don’t yet feel the omnipresent threat of peer pressure and embarrassment so they are likely to express their ideas freely.

There’s one constant which you can always hold on to (and you’d better be mentally prepared). If you happen to teach the first lesson in the morning, consider yourself lucky if your teenage students show up on time (or show up at all). In any case, don’t expect them to engage in any activity whatsoever – mental or physical. Simply accept the fact that at times, it will feel like you’re the only person in the room. Contrarily, adult learners are likely to be full of beans in the morning and they’ll probably feel tired later in the day, after a busy day at work. And as most small kids still go to bed at sensible times and are practically full of energy all day long, none of the above is a likely scenario for a group of young learners.

silhouette-1209202_960_720Apart from constantly feeling exhausted from their nocturnal activities (yes, they are, in fact, nocturnal species) teenagers, unless they are super-motivated language learners, always want to be some place other than the classroom – at least most of the time. They’d rather be outside with their peers, in the corridor chatting with each other, in their room playing PC games or watching a movie, you name it. I think it is this natural and understandable inability to appreciate the present moment while in the classroom which is to blame for their overall negative attitude to school and which is so annoying for us teachers. The best we can do is acknowledge the fact but never surrender completely. We must keep in mind that there are some lighter moments and things will sooner or later change to the good.

Earlier I said that there’s no simple approach to teaching teenagers. Your meticulously planned lesson may well be a disaster or an ultimate success. You can never tell in advance. But I believe there’s one thing over which you do have control: it’s your attitude towards this somewhat infamous type of learner. The fact that you’ve been assigned a group of teenagers means you’ve moved you up to the highest level in the game. Now it’s primarily about your perspective, not just the methods, strategies and techniques you apply in the classroom (those methods you once mastered when teaching a group of well-behaved and perfectly predictable pre-intermediate adult learners and which you later refined with a bunch of boisterous but always enthusiastic young learners). Remember that teenagers can sense your attitude from miles away and they’ll always act correspondingly; negativity breeds opposition and pretense breeds contempt. In other words, they will always strike back. So it may sound like an old cliché but what they need most is a bit of freedom and respect. Good luck and enjoy the game!

 

 

 

 

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Written tests – two-way communication

You will probably agree that correcting students’ progress tests or essays is often a real pain in the neck (literally). Not only is it terribly time-consuming but it’s also extremely tedious. However, sometimes it can be quite pleasurable. I really appreciate it when my students write neatly and I don’t need dioptric glasses or a magnifying glass.

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It may sound strange, but I’ve noticed that I tend to reflect my students’ handwriting. The neater the handwriting is, the more legible my own feedback is. Some students write almost calligraphically so I do my best not to spoil the beauty. This process, I think, happens on a subconscious level.

I’ve also noticed that some students communicate with me indirectly through tests. Voluntarily, they underline and add various captions to make sure I fully understand what they meant. It’s amazing that they can predict what may cause misunderstanding.

Just look at the excerpts below. As I see it, the student decided to put on the Teacher’s hat and took the time to provide explanations for some of his choices I might dismiss. He also offered some alternative answers he suspected I might not think of (see the orange marks). This silent way of communication is incredibly useful and valuable for me. Not that I dismiss an answer just because it isn’t in the key, but it certainly takes time to get to see things from a different angle. So this particular student definitely made things easier for me. Most importantly, he impressed me; by adding the extra information he proved beyond doubt that he had fully understood the matter. To a certain extent, he also proved he knows something about the way the teacher thinks. It may or may not be flattering (depending on the perspective).

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However, not everything in the garden is rosy. Sometimes I do have to use a magnifying glass and sometimes I do a lot of guesswork.  Luckily, as long as I’m able to decode the first and last letters in the student’s words, the rest is possible to decode too. 🙂 You can try this for yourself here:

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Having said that, I’m probably an old schooler because, despite all the trouble, I still prefer to read handwritten tests. Essays typed on a computer may be easier to read but they are less personal.

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Half a Crossword

It’s been a long time since I discovered the benefits of the Half a Crossword activity. I first came across the idea in the Teacher’s Bank of the coursebook I was using. In case you don’t know what I mean, it’s an information gap type of activity where students get half a crossword each, split evenly between two students working in a pair. They have to ask each other for missing information and define the words in their crossword.

When I first tried it, I immediately fell in love with its simplicity and effectiveness. However, I’d never thought of creating my own half crosswords – I knew it would be far from simple.

Luckily, the other day, I read a post on Mura Nava’s blog where I learned about Half a Crossword creatorwhich makes it possible for me to create half crossword handouts in a matter of minutes. The author of this fantastic tool is Wiktor Jakubczyc.

 

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Student A’s crossword

 

It’s amazingly simple; in the word box on the left, you type in the words you want in the crosswords and everything else looks after itself.

When I was creating the handouts, I wasn’t sure how many words each one should contain. So I typed in 15 words altogether (which was actually by mistake; I had obviously intended to have an even number of items). Although it didn’t seem a lot at first sight, in today’s lesson, it turned out that 14, i.e 7 and 7, is actually a perfect number for a nice 15-20 minute speaking activity.

I’m a fan of speaking activities based on word prompts but this one is one of my favorites. It’s not exactly a no-prep activity but it really takes next to no time to create. And it’s worth the effort. Based on my experience, it’s a great way to revise and recycle vocabulary, especially items your students are not 100% sure of. Although I mainly used words I thought my students were familiar with, some kept peeking at their word lists to double-check the meanings, which, by the way, I had allowed and encouraged.

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Making a podcast – a nice speaking activity

In today’s post, I’d like to share an activity I did with my B2 students earlier today.  The task was to make an imaginary podcast on the topic of the burning issues of today’s world. It all took about 60 minutes.

At first, I asked my students to brainstorm some ideas related to the topic. I didn’t pre-teach them any language at this stage – I only gave them a half-blank piece of paper with the central topic (burning issues of today’s world) in the center and one branch labeled environmental issues (a topic we had covered in detail in the previous lesson). Students worked in pairs brainstorming ideas for about 5 minutes. Then they sent the maps around the class and each pair always added something the previous pair hadn’t thought of. The pairs used colored markers (each pair a different color), so that we could trace back the authors of the contributions if need be. Each pair ended up with a nice, colorful mindmap full of interesting ideas.

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This stage took about 25 minutes. Then I asked the students if they knew what a podcast was. Surprisingly, most of them didn’t. So I gave them the definition:

a radio programme that is stored in a digital form that you can download from the internet and play on a computer or on an MP3 player. It is usually part of a themed series.

I also gave them some of the characteristics of a podcast. I said that it often gives the impression of being unscripted. It sounds natural and spontaneous, and it’s often in the dialogic form. Depending on the topic, it can be pretty informal – it sometimes sounds like or is a chat between two friends or colleagues. I told them that basically anybody can create a podcast on a topic they are interested in.

So the mindmap was their guideline. This provided lots of space for spontaneity, but at the same time, the students had something to hold on to. They could talk about the issues in a totally random order and they could pick what they actually wanted to talk about and what to skip. I asked them to imagine that what they were saying was being recorded.

They did really well and I could see that they were soon fully absorbed in the discussion, occasionally peeking at the mindmap. After I stopped them (after about 10 minutes), I asked them if they were happy with the result and if they thought they could upload what they had ‘recorded’. They obviously said NO! in unison.

Anyway, as there was a reasonable number of students present (14), I told them that we were going to do a ‘collective podcast’ as well. In other words, we were all going to talk about the same topic but this time, it wasn’t to be in pairs but as a class together. I placed an imaginary microphone in the middle of the circle and we started chatting. Again, they could use their mind maps, or they could use brand new ideas if they wanted.

We finished 2 minutes before the bell rang. I was really happy with the way it all had gone.  It was actually a classic debate but it was spiced up by the imaginary background. I mainly liked the fact that the students had generated all the language themselves. However, as this was a fairly challenging topic, I occasionally helped them with vocabulary or pronunciation. I winded up the lesson encouraging the students to find some interesting podcasts and I also reminded them that extensive listening practice could help them improve their English tremendously. I also nudged them to make their own podcasts. 🙂

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