Evaluation and measuring progress in reflective practice #eltchat

I am very grateful for the opportunity to write this summary (my second one) because it gives me a whole new perspective on an issue I am currently delving into. Before I begin, I’d like to thank Michael Stout for suggesting Reflective Practice (RP) as the topic for the 26/2/2014 #eltchat. As RP had already been touched upon before, Marisa Constantinides started the chat by drawing our attention to the corresponding #eltchat summary. The chat started slowly – I suspect that it was due to the fact that many participants (including me) were refreshing their memory by studying the summary mining for information they might find useful during the upcoming discussion. Nevertheless, it quickly got as lively as usual. Looking at the transcript, I’m surprised by how much I missed during the live chat, even though I tried to fully concentrate on every tweet in the heavy stream.

Marisa Constantinides had a good idea and suggested that we briefly recapitulate the concept of RP. A few definitions popped up immediately. Shaun Wilden, for example, started off with a nice metaphor: It is using a mirror so you can see yourself teach? and Hada Litim reminded us that RP is mulling over what worked, what didn’t, why and how to improve it. For Wiktor Kostrzewski the best question he had ever heard from a coach was: What happened there? And for him, in effect, this sums up RP. For Greg Curran RP means trying to see what happened through another’s eyes. Later on he expanded the definition by adding that RP is asking curly questions, i.e. questions that really push us out of our comfort zones.

The next part of the chat revolved around various forms of RP. Creative Newbie CELTA Trainer suggested that RP might as well be a sketch pad – why not draw a picture that reflects some aspect of the lesson? This could be interesting for more impressionist types. Hada Litim mentioned blogging as one of the effective ways of reflecting on one’s teaching. Naomi Epstein revealed that her three year old blog had had an extremely powerful impact on her reflective practices. Steve Brown had also found blogging as a really good form of reflective practice. Newbie CELTA Trainer tried to bring up ELC – Experiential Learning Cycle – but this was, unfortunately, not elaborated on. For those who are not familiar with this concept, I am attaching this link to an interesting post on ELC by @ZhenyaDnipro.

Some participants considered making videos and recordings of their classes as a possible way to do RP. This proved to be an interesting subject for many of us, even though some expressed doubts regarding effectiveness of such a method. Wiktor Kostrzewski pointed out that video always brings the observer effect to mind and raised a question: would students behave differently if the camera wasn’t there? Shaun Wilden stressed that teachers can only make videos with permission. Maria Colussa expressed her worries saying that her adult students would panic at the idea of getting recorded but Marisa Constantinides reassured everybody that when it becomes an everyday thing, the students eventually forget that they are being recorded. Eily Murphy seconded this by adding that students and we can get used to being observed; teaching in rooms with glass helps. As I missed the repeated request from the #eltchat participants to share a link to my post regarding video snippets and classroom observation, I’m doing so now. Accept my apologies for the delay. Marisa Constantinides then revealed her ‘secret’ tip – Evernote – a suite of software and services initially designed for note-taking and archiving, which does great voice recordings and can be accessed anywhere. Greg Curran shared his observation that Evernote is a great tool to capture quick thoughts or realizations, as well as a time saver. I’d like to conclude this paragraph with Marisa Constantinides’s words: Although recording lessons is a good first step, what we do with the data is even more important.

This brings me to the next part of the evening chat. What should RP actually look like? Most participants agreed with the statement that RP must be systematic. Michael Stout believes that teachers need to problematise, investigate and share. Marisa Constantinides confirmed this by saying that some of our reflections are intuitive and not fully articulated, but structured reflection has different demands. She later added that detail is important to base our action plan. Steve Brown used different words to express the same idea: reflection involves looking ahead as well.

A few chatters, for example Marjorie Rosenberg, pointed out that when reflecting, it is good to focus on the positive and disassociate from the negative. Greg Curran had a similar view; it is important to train our eyes and ears to what we do well. We often focus on what went wrong but by fixating on something that went awry we may miss the myriads of positives passing by. Malefaki Joanna also felt that it’s easier to find the weaknesses than the strength of a lesson, and I couldn’t agree more when Marisa Constantinides said that much self-flagellation is not always desirable, since it can ruin the good stuff as well. However, Newbie CELTA Trainer pointed out that reflection can sometimes become self-indulgent and that it should be seen more as social interaction.

A great part of the chat was devoted to self-evaluation checklists and their place in RP. According to Marisa Constantinides, a strong proponent of checklists, these needn’t necessarily be official; they can be self-created or created with a colleague. They can serve as a form of assessment based on which one can make an action plan. One thing Marisa does is training teachers to create individual checklists, e.g. on vocabulary teaching or reading. A conclusion that emerged from this part of the discussion was that checklists must be narrowed down and focused, otherwise they would become too overwhelming.

The participants agreed on the need to respect various formats of RP – the format must follow the teacher and we have to find what works best for us. While some teachers will reflect individually, using their videos or recordings, others will prefer reflective buddies. Steve Brown paraphrased John Dewey, an American educational reformer, saying that RP needs to be interactive (Marisa provided a link to an interesting article outlining Dewey’s ideas). Some of the participants then shared their favourite formats of RP. For example Wiktor Kostrzewski’s favourite would be a coffee-fuelled podcast, whereas Naomi Epstein needs to write things down in order to organize her thoughts; for her spoken word is too quick. Hada Litim concluded that a video followed by a chat with a colleague is more instant than blogging, which is probably more effective in the long term.

Towards the end of the chat Vedrana Vojkovic came up with an interesting question regarding tertiary education. She asked if anybody would agree with her observation that those teaching at tertiary level can be a little reluctant to reflect on or question their teaching. She supported her assumption by telling us about a colleague at university who she once wanted to observe but who finally found an excuse. Marjorie Rosenberg, also a teacher at tertiary level, replied saying that she constantly reflects and changes if need be. Marisa argued that the problem Vedrana had mentioned may be true locally and especially for state-employed teachers. Vedrana’s explanation of the situation would be inertia, long-term job security, and the fact that the teachers are overworked in Croatia.

Another burning question was posed by Wiktor Kostrzewski : How to sell RP to those who don’t want it done to them – those who probably need it most? Anthony Gaughan wondered how we can do reflective practice to someone else. Greg Curran added that he would be wary of suggesting what people need. According to him, RP has to come from the people and from what is important to them.

Although the chat went on till almost quarter past eleven (Prague time zone), I’d like to conclude my summary with what Marisa Constantinides said about RP at 23:01:

“Reflective Practice requires a teacher who is observant, attends to detail, knows about learning and teaching and can speculate critically.”
 

Through the lens of communicativeness

I can’t do much about the fact that some things stick in my mind and others don’t. Blog posts by Kevin Stein fall into the former category. It seems like ages but it was only yesterday when I came across his post called Are these communicative language teaching activities? I love bloggers who explicitly ask for comments. The thing is that I can’t help wanting to comment on everything I like, which sometimes makes me feel I’m pushing in too much, so I don’t consider myself to be such a nuisance when I’m (though not directly) asked to air my views. Thus after reading Kevin’s post, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to participate in the discussion on communicativeness (because I’m truly communicative). When I look back at my comment, I think it appears a little immature but I was so excited by the activities Kevin had described that I had to react spontaneously. For example, one of the things I realized while reading was the fact that I’m a fan of communicative drills (during these activities students respond to a prompt using the grammar point under consideration, but providing their own content). Not that I use them often but I enjoyed them as a student and I remember they worked fine for me.

Anyway, I was happy to see that I was not the only one who enjoyed Kevin’s post and felt the need to leave a reply. Guess what! Just a few lines below my comment, Scott Thornbury summarizes the criteria for communicativeness. I think I won’t belabour a point if I mention them here again. I’d like to keep them somewhere safe so that I can refer to them later if need be:

A communicative task is:
purposeful: Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake.
 • reciprocal: To achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak.
 • negotiated: Following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other.
 • synchronous: The exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time.
 • unpredictable: Neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable.
 • heterogeneous: Participants can use any communicative means at their disposal. In other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.
 • contingent: The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc.) in which they are uttered.
 • engaging: The speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

At first I was shocked by the length of the list of criteria which are supposed to characterize a communicative activity. But I decided to follow Kevin’s example and look at a popular activity we do in class through the lens of ‘communicativeness’. I usually judge activities based on their purposefulness and effectiveness. Honestly, I take it for granted that my activities are communicative, but are they really? Here’s one of my favourite techniques called ‘running dictation’, which I find motivating, enjoyable and meaningful. I’m attaching a short video to demonstrate what we actually do (I’m publishing it here with written consent from the students’ parents). I’m going to try to analyze it to see how communicative the whole thing is, keeping Scott’s criteria in mind.

Aims of the activity:

By the end of the activity, the students will have practised chunking language I need them to focus on (a bit of, a slice of, a lot of …)
They will have revised some ‘food’ vocabulary they came across in the previous lesson (lettuce, cucumber..).
They will have practised spelling and pronunciation of vocabulary related to food.

Instructions:

Ss work in pairs. Student A is located opposite Student B. They are about 5 metres apart. I select a paragraph from the coursebook. Student A memorizes as much as s/he can and then runs to Student B to dictate what s/he has remembered. Student B writes the sentences down on a piece of paper.

Stage 1: dictation
Student A tries to remember a chunk of the text, runs to Student B and dictates what s/he’s memorized. Student B writes down exactly what s/he hears, but s/he can adjust the sentence if necessary, i.e if it sounds grammatically incorrect or if it doesn’t make sense.

Stage 2: reversing roles
When Student A has dictated the whole paragraph to Student B, they reverse roles. But now Student B reads what s/he has written (chunk by chunk) and runs back to Student A, who compares what s/he hears against the text in the book. Any corrections are allowed at this stage.

Stage 2: checking answers
The texts (the original and the written one) are placed next to each other and compared by both students collaboratively. The ultimate goal of the game: the fastest pair with the fewest errors wins.

How communicative is the activity?

The activity is definitely
+ purposeful: Speakers are motivated by a communicative goal: they need to transform the written word into its spoken form and ‘carry it over’ to their partners.
+ reciprocal: The speakers need to pronounce the language clearly to be understood. The writers need to listen carefully. The video shows that some writers occasionally finish the chunks for the speakers – they virtually predict the ending. This is something we do naturally in communication if have enough context or remember a fact from the past.
+ negotiated: The listeners need to make adjustments if they feel they misunderstood or if the speaker didn’t say the sentence correctly.
+ engaging: The speakers need to speak clearly to make the job easier for the writers, who then have to write as quickly as possible in order to win the game. Watching the video, I can tell from the students’ expressions that they are fully engaged in the activity and eager to complete the task.

I’m not quite sure if the activity is
? synchronous: The exchange is a little delayed (it takes some time to memorize a chunk and take it over to the partner). However, this is desirable in terms of language learning. The delayed output forces the speakers to concentrate on what they say.
? contingent: The speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another (the text is coherent and cohesive), but as the students are not creating their own content, this argument sounds somewhat irrelevant.

The activity isn’t
unpredictable: The process may not be entirely predictable but the outcome and the language used in the exchange are given.
heterogeneous: Participants are definitely restricted to the use of pre-specified grammar and lexical items. In effect, they are just repeating a pre-selected piece of text.

Judging by the list above, I can see that although the activity is not entirely communicative, the communicative aspects prevail. However, the video reveals a few drawbacks related to methodology, such as the fact that by dictating the same text, the speakers are forced to whisper because they don’t want to help the other pairs (I’m not convinced that students practise pronunciation properly if they whisper). Next time I may distribute different texts, for example.

To conclude, I believe that running dictation has its place in communicative ELT, for the benefits I described above, even though it might not be considered a pure communicative activity.

RP3 – The Description Phase

Today I’ll try to be a blunt talker and a straight shooter. There’s no time for alliterations, clichés, generalizations, redundancies, exaggerations, or rhetorical questions from now on. John Pfordresher has just called us to arms. These are the instructions:

  • Think about a negative interaction you have had in your classroom –  a single interaction that occurred between you and someone else (a student, another teacher, a parent, etc).
  • Take this negative interaction and describe it.
  • Pay particular attention to the feelings of all those involved.
  • Do not analyze why you think they felt one way or another.

    More details here.

    The incident description:

    I enter the classroom at 12:30 pm. I’m a bit hungry but I’m looking forward to this class – my 19-year-old B1 students are challenging but the work is rewarding. I hand out the corrected film reviews. I feel pleased with myself because I managed to correct them overnight. It’s time for questions. Most of the students nod and shake their heads to indicate that everything is clear. All of a sudden a hand shoots up and the girl snaps at me in Czech: “I have a question: Why did you correct one thing in my review and but hadn’t corrected the same thing in my previous writing?” I’m puzzled so I ask for clarification dispassionately. I feel a little alert, though. This girl usually asks tricky questions and she tends to be critical. She’s one of the most conscientious and diligent students, and she’s an attentive listener. However, she seems to be eager to catch people in the act. ”I have two identical sentences in two different essays and you left the first one unnoticed but corrected the other one. How on earth should I know which version is correct?” she raps out again. My pulse and blood pressure go up. I strike the defensive pose. “Could you read the sentences for me so that I know what you mean?” I ask calmly but I feel my nerves vibrating. I’m already red in the face and that’s a bad sign. The other students have noticed by now and quiet down so that they can watch the bull fight. The girl is ready – she’s got both essays in front of her and starts reading the sentences, in a triumphal manner. Just before she finishes the second one, she pauses and realizes that the sentences are not identical. She immediately withdraws her ‘accusation’ (yes I feel unfairly accused and thus offended). She doesn’t apologize verbally (as I would expect) but waves her hands to imply that she understands now. But at this point my eyes are glowing with suppressed fury, even though I feel relieved that I wasn’t caught in the act this time. The class is quiet; I can feel their eyes aimed at the two protagonists. “Next time think twice before you ask in such a rude way”, I say, aggrieved. She remains silent. We can go on with the lesson but the oppressive atmosphere lingers for a while. I feel guilty and unprofessional.

    To be continued….

    On human interconnectedness

     

    I’m happy to announce that I’ve finally found hard evidence that being a connected educator helps me become a better teacher. Mind you, for me hard evidence doesn’t always mean something material – in this case it is some kind of subjective conviction and strong belief.

    There’s been a lot of debate about the advantages of connecting with other professionals; I’ve read a plethora of posts and articles about communities, PLNs and stuff and I’ve never doubted their relevance. And this is not the first time I’m touching upon the topic, so by writing this post I’m only adding another drop into the immense ocean of knowledge and experience. But as every fingerprint is unique, so is my perspective. And every time I address the same issue, my vision zooms in.

    Enough of excuses. I’ve always had this hunch that becoming part of the wider teaching community is a step in the right direction. At first I thought that it was because I could learn from others. This is still very true but it’s not the whole story. It is the fact that I can share my experience that finally helps me grow and become more confident. In order to learn something we need some background knowledge, plenty of comprehensible input, and a little bit of experience to be able to finally come up with some sort of output. But this output (everything I learned from others reshaped into something new) means nothing if there’s nobody to listen or look. It becomes more or less fossilized. We simply need each other, desperately, and this process we take part in shapes itself into a circle, or rather a spiral, because each time things come full circle, we get to higher ground.

    Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been delving into the issue of observation. The other day it suddenly occurred to me that as part of a community I’m constantly being ‘observed’. In other words, I’m under scrutiny whenever I enter the classroom or plan a lesson because my community is always there with me, either because I remember something interesting somebody shared on Twitter or Facebook and I’d like to try it myself, or because I think: ‘Oh, this activity has turned out to be great. I could share it on my blog.’ I can’t help feeling some strange kind of responsibility to my virtual community (mind you, these are people I’ve never met in person). I mean, I certainly do my best to be a good teacher for my students, and that is my priority, but I sometimes feel that I’m also being gently, unintentionally pushed by my community towards further professional development. The funny thing is that this push is only going on in my head – at first sight there’s no evidence or proof that I’m being pushed, at least at the moment when the change is taking place. The evidence is latent, emergent and it doesn’t materialize until I reflect on what I did, share my reflections, get some feedback and finally take action again. What’s more, those who push me haven’t a clue about their role in my life!

    We don’t live in a vacuum and this sense of human interconnectedness is fascinating. And this is what my students should hear from me every day: that whenever they work on something – an essay, a project, a presentation, a comic, a poster – they do it for somebody out there. And most of all, I should teach them to be grateful for their potential audience because what would be a great singer without listeners and an amazing short story writer without readers? But in order to turn our students into confident authors and a thankful audience, it’s important to create an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion in the classroom, right from the beginning. Students should be taught to appreciate, praise, provide constructive feedback and look for the positive.

    So this is what I’ve learned as a connected educator. This is the hard evidence I talked about at the beginning of my post. I realize that this piece of evidence can’t be accepted as concrete if it’s experienced vicariously – it can only be understood and internalized if it’s lived. But you can take my word for it – I am a reliable witness ….

    Observing class in retrospect

    A while ago I stumbled upon two intriguing blog posts on classroom observation by Mike Griffin. One of them describes the author’s experience of being an observee, the other one uncovers his long-ago misfires as an observer. I really enjoyed reading the posts and so immediately an idea crossed my mind: I should give it a try and think about the topic as well. Like most teachers, I’ve obviously had some experience with traditional classroom observation, and I’ve been on both sides of the barricade, but it’s not what I’ve decided to deal with in my post.

    I’ve recently grown fond of making short videos of my classes. At first I saw them as nice visuals for my blog to illustrate what I do in practice, but I believe they can be more than that (and I don’t mean just nice memories). As the cameraperson I use a simple device, my mobile phone, and besides my occasional remarks I’m not part of the video at all, and I don’t intend to for the time being. After all, it’s important what students do rather than what I do.

    When watching the videos full screen I can see what I saw when I was in the classroom. But not quite, actually. Some time has passed since then so I look at what I saw then from a slightly different angle. This perspective helps me reflect on and analyze an activity or the whole lesson in a more objective way – or at least I hope so. It definitely helps me remember and recall things. This post is in effect an attempt to find out if videos like these (very short, unplanned, low quality ones) can help me spot something important, something useful for me in terms of improving my classroom management skills, for example. The fact that I only video my students for short periods of time is to the good because my activity is not so disruptive. And as the device in my hand is almost invisible, I dare say the conditions are quite natural.

    Video one: my thoughts and reflections

     

    + Watching the first video I can see at first sight that the students are doing what they are supposed to do. This means that I demonstrated and provided clear instructions (attached below, at the very bottom of the page).

    + Ss speak English most of the time, they respond to each other and so the communication is meaningful.

    + The seating arrangement is perfect for this activity – nobody gets in the way of anybody and there’s plenty of space around each student.

    + Everybody is fully engaged at each moment of the activity – either listening closely to guess the words, or trying to describe the words clearly.
     
    !!! Some students seem lost, especially when they can’t guess the word. They may be silent because they are thinking but it’s more likely that they didn’t get enough input to find the answer. Some Ss repeat or rephrase but this could definitely be worked on next time.

    tip: Next time I should encourage the listeners/guessers to ask additional questions or ask for clarification. I might put some useful expressions on the board, such as Can you repeat it? Can you give me a synonym? Can you say it in different words?

     
     
    Video two: my thoughts and reflections

     

    + The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Although the speakers get slightly impatient when their partners can’t guess the word, they are polite and supportive. Everybody is smiling and nobody looks bored or desperate. 

     + Ss use L2 most of the time, only occasional L1 remarks can be heard, especially those expressing surprise. The use of L1 in the classroom is a much debated issue in the ELT field but with monolingual classes, it’s almost impossible to avoid this. However, if you give Ss a reason to communicate in L2, they certainly will.

    !!! Although some Ss do repeat their utterances to make things easier for their partners, they actually repeat the same thing, which isn’t very helpful because the problem is not that the listeners can’t hear but that they don’t have enough information to figure out the answer.

    tip: Again, Ss’ attention should have been drawn to some useful functional language and the speakers should have been encouraged to rephrase, rather than repeat. Next time I might stress this problem in advance.

    Video three: my thoughts and reflections

     
     
    

    + Students change their partners smoothly and briskly, which is hard evidence that they understood my instructions. It’s very important that Ss are enabled to work with different partners during the game – this makes it fairer and more balanced because not all Ss have the same language skills and abilities (this is a mixed-age and thus mixed-ability class). This diversity can be an obstacle, especially for the stronger learners. On the other hand, the stronger Ss can help the weaker ones to succeed.

    + What I find really positive is that throughout the whole activity, I don’t need to interfere.

    + Ss make some minor errors but this activity is supposed to help them practise and improve their fluency, rather that accuracy. They manage to get the message across and thus complete the task successfully.

    !!! The point of the game is to define the word in such a way that the partner can guess it. It’s only natural that Ss’ try to find the easiest way out and sometimes they only produce a limited amount of L2. I can’t blame them because the point of the game is to fill in the grid and they do their best to achieve this.

    tip: It’s difficult to make Ss’ produce more L2 if they feel there’s no need to do so. I could have pointed out that the better and more elaborate definition they provide, the faster they can actually achieve their goal and win the game.

    I believe that I have come up with quite a few ideas here. The positive assessment seems to prevail and that’s good, but I realize that it’s important to look for flaws and imperfections as well – or rather look for improvements. Apparently, by observing videos of my lessons I could find ways to improve my teaching but more importantly, I might become a better and a more objective observer of others.

    The instructions for the activity:

  • Take two blank A4 sheets and draw grids like this (I demonstrate while I speak) with 16 identical squares, 4 X 4, each square is allotted a code, for example A1, B4.
  • Fill the first grid with random vocabulary from unit X. The other grid will remain empty. (I give Ss time to complete the first grid)
  • Now, hide your grid with words under the textbook so that your partner can’t see it.
  • Choose any square from your empty grid.
  • You partner starts describing the word which he or she has in that square. If you guess it, you can draw a cross/nought in the appropriate square in your empty grid. If you can’t guess it, you have another chance – you can choose another word. Then you swap roles.
  • You’re not going to speak to the same partner all the time. You’re going to move around during the activity in the following way (I demonstrate – see video three above).
  • The aim is to fill all the squares in your empty grid, i.e. to guess 16 words altogether.
  • Changing the scenario – a tribute to my #RPPLN

    It often happens that I’m on my way to the classroom, excited and eager to teach, because I have prepared an amazing activity and I can’t wait to present it to my students. I automatically assume that my students will get infected by my enthusiasm. But as soon as I open the door I feel disappointed. All I can see is students sitting on radiators, playing with their mobile phones, some reluctantly shuffling to their seats when they spot me. It’s like hitting a wall, a wall of opposition to whatever comes next. My expectations are shattered. I get slightly irritated even before the lesson starts.

    It sometimes happens that I’m on my way to the classroom, tired and unmotivated, because I’ve had a long day or something went wrong in the previous lesson and I can’t wait for the end of the day. But as soon as I enter the classroom I forget about all my worries, strife and fatigue and I start smiling for no particular reason. The students are sitting at their desks, preparing for the lesson, looking eager to learn.

    The fact is that our students (or rather classes) are independent entities who live their own lives so our overwhelming eagerness or doldrums may remain totally unnoticed. But we do influence each other, of course – our emotions blend and a lot of chemistry is going on between us and our students. But, if we let ourselves get infected by our students’ bad mood, we can’t achieve our goals. Nor can we when we inadvertently or intentionally pass our ennui on to the students.

    A couple of days ago, I felt exhausted after a long day at school and I was headed to my private lesson that takes place twice a week after lunch. I assumed that the second scenario would happen, but to my surprise, something worse happened; I was tired and the students looked reluctant to do anything at all. I told them they looked like zombies and that we should get down to work immediately, even though this was an optional lesson. That didn’t help very much. At that moment I realized it was not their fault that they felt unmotivated. So I changed my plan and decided to introduce a game. Luckily, I always have my teacher survival kit at my disposal, for example a pile of blank A4 sheets, a bunch of sticky post-it notes, a set of dice, various images, etc.

    At first I handed out the A4 sheets – one per each student. I asked the students to make a question starting with What…. When they finished I asked them to make another question starting with When….. Then I let Ss come up with their own examples of interrogative words for their questions. We went on till they had about 8 questions. Then I crumpled my A4 sheet into a ball and asked the students to do the same with their sheets. The snowball fight could start (see the pictures above). After some time I stopped the fight and got each student to pick up a ball closest to them and unfold it. I made sure everybody had somebody else’s set of questions. They went back to their seats and discussed the questions in pairs. This was an unplanned activity and another idea sprang to mind while I went round the class monitoring. I thought it would be a good idea to draw Ss’ attention to grammar – in a playful, competitive way. So after the speaking activity, I asked each student to look at the first question on the sheet and try to spot any grammatical errors. If they thought it was correct, they stood up. Then we quickly went through the correct questions one by one and providing we agreed that the question was correct, the student recorded a point. If not, we tried to figure out the correct version together. Finally, the sheets were returned to their authors, who could see the number of points they had received. The activity was a huge success and I felt it was meaningful and useful, as well as entertaining.

    Another kinaesthetic activity which helped me cheer the students up and liven up the atmosphere in the class was this one. I’m sure most EFL teachers know it; it has many variations and you can expand on it, depending on the matter you are teaching. You simply place sticky post-it notes with various words on your students’ backs. Naturally, the students can’t see their words. Their task is to guess the word by asking appropriate questions. This is a mingling activity and everyone can only ask one question (or a limited number of questions) at a time before going on to the next partner. If the activity seems to be going on for too long, you can stop it, even before Ss guess their words, and ask them to continue in pairs, now their partners helping them by giving definitions or various clues. Again, this game got the students off their seats and as it was an information-gap sort of activity, it encouraged them to communicate meaningfully (though with a limited amount of L2 at the beginning and with ocassional L1 remarks).

     
     
    I’d like to conclude my half-reflective-half-practical contribution with a couple of references. I highly recommend that you read a beautifully written post by Kevin Stein, which revolves around the same topic. I was amazed by what Kevin says about the teaching profession: ‘Teaching is, “knowing what to do” within a very specific context, a context which is changing all the time.  It’s like an orchestra conductor whose musicians are all playing instruments tuned to their own emotional pitch’. Another must read related to this issue is a post by Kate Nonesuch If they come, they care. Kate starts her reflection: ‘I expected it to be an interesting activity. I was sure people would take part, and hoped they would enjoy it. But they didn’t seem to care’ and in the end she optimistically declares that ‘If they come, they care’.
     
    But these are not the only posts that inspired me. Yesterday I came across another lovely post by Anne Hendler called Colorful Lesson, which reminded me, again, that teachers need to refine and alter their lesson plans on the spot if they want real learning to take place. 
     
    The wonderful thing about having a #RPPLN (Reflection Practice PLN, a term coined by John Pfordresher) is that, apart from gaining the opportunity to learn something new from others, one is in touch with blogging teachers who experience the same, though in totally different environments. The benefits of a community for one’s reflective practice are nicely described in a post by Josette LeBlanc Reflective Practice Mission Statement: Community and Self. 
     
    I would never have met all those wonderful people if I hadn’t had technology at my disposal. Technology in education is a hot, but somewhat controversial topic. But how could I read about all the experiences without an access to the internet? How could I put up a video on YouTube to show you what I do in the classroom? Our students should learn that collaborative learning is what works best. Speaking of technology and collaboration, I really enjoyed reading David Harbinson‘s post on using Wikipedia in class. And as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, John Pfordresher skilfully contemplates the use of technology in ELT in one his posts saying that ‘technology is a resource. Teachers need to understand how students use technology to communicate if we want to better aid them in navigating the world of today and tomorrow’. But still, what is the latest technology without a cordial heads-up from the teacher? What’s a perfectly equipped classroom without laughter, joy and involvement? Just a cold place, I argue.
     
    This brings me to another subject; it was Rose Bard who got me thinking more deeply about the affective aspect of teaching and my teaching objectives. Do our goals overlap with our students’ objectives? Should they? Read this post to learn more about Rose’s thoughts.
     
    Finally, I mustn’t forget to mention lovely Anna Loseva who was one of the first educators to kick off this Reflective Practice Mission Statement challenge. Anna’s reflections, for example the one called Feedback just happened, are so close to my heart that I sometimes wonder if I’m sane or I’m just imagining things.
     
    Well, the conclusion has got longer than I expected. So that’s it for now…. Keep in touch, whoever you are.
     
    

    The physical aspects of my classroom

     

     
    After reading Adam Simpson’s post Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom, I decided to follow his example and think about my own classroom. On this blog, I’ve reflected on many aspects of the teaching profession; I have described what I do in the classroom, I have analyzed my students’ motives, actions and deeds, and I have written about the importance of PLNs and communities. I have done all the reflection without even mentioning the most obvious and commonplace – the place where I spend most of the time on week days. 

    Luckily, a while ago I made a video of my classroom that I can share now. The room in the video is not empty, though – it’s full of students moving around, crawling, running, falling down and jumping, which I think is to the good because classroom is not a static place after all. Classroom is, and should be, full of life and motion (and emotion). As I was the cameraperson, things are seen through my eyes – the way they are every day (unless we write a test or do a boring grammar exercise :-). So you can see my classroom in a ‘natural setting’ – with chairs and things scattered all around, children having fun.

     
     
    The positives:
     
    As you can see, the room is not very big – it can accommodate up to 18 students and that’s the way I like it. I can easily check on all the students while they work without having to run a marathon. 
     
    There are two large windows which let plenty of daylight in. However, when it’s cloudy outside, I have to switch on all the lights.
     
    There are no obstructions or columns and the ceiling is high enough.
     
    There are no carpets but the linoleum is new and smooth. It imitates the appearance of parquets, thus it adds a cosy touch to the whole interior.
     
    There are coloured walls – painted bright orange (which some colleagues find too striking but I consider it invigorating and energizing).
     
    There are plenty of posters, postcards and maps to make the room look more colourful.
     
    There are plants on the window ledge and on the floor.
     
    Most of the furniture is movable so I can change the seating arrangement whenever I need to.
     
    What you cannot see in the video is the traditional blackboard with traditional chalk and sponge (I don’t mind them), projector, movable screen, computer, speakers and other essentials.
     
     
    The negatives:
     
    Most of the drawbacks are related to technology, not the room itself. But as technology is a vital part of the learning environment, I’ll mention them briefly.
     
    The computer is not the fastest in the world but I can cope with it if I get ready for the lesson in time.
     
    The speakers don’t work properly and I hope to get a new set soon. I consider appropriate audio equipment to be one of the most important things in the EFL classroom (especially for a non-native English teacher). That’s why I always have a portable CD player at my disposal.
     
    There are no window blinds so it’s better to watch videos on cloudy and foggy days.
     
    The central heating is difficult to control – we freeze or sweat, nothing in between.
     

    All in all, I love my classroom, even with all the flaws and imperfections. Anyway, it’s my students and I who make it a special place, aren’t we? What is a perfect but empty classroom with all the latest technology and perfect learning conditions? It’s just a cold place. It needs to be brought to life by creativity, innovation, play, laughter, engagement, ….. and happy people. By the way, I believe that, in a way, every classroom reflects the teacher’s soul. So what is your classroom like?

    On Linguistic Rebellion

    After having read Josette LeBlanc’ post Linguistic Rebellion, I gathered I had nothing to share related to the topic. I’m not a rebel after all; I’ve never done anything truly rebellious. Well, my mother says that I once (I was just coming of age) seriously rebelled against her authority, but that’s all I can think of. But this challenge seemed too interesting not to take it up. I’m not a rebel but when something captures my attention, I’m bound and determined to go for it, no matter the effort. So I there must be something I can recall ………………. Damn it! No, there’s nothing I can come up with. Sorry.

    Nonetheless, I’m a witness to a serious type of rebellion on a daily basis and that is when L2 learners rebel against important authority figures (English teachers) and the authority of English grammar. Luckily for me, they use various non-violent methods of rebellion; such as refusing to follow the rules I’ve taught them (so laboriously). Here are a few examples: on purpose and repeatedly, they omit the -s ending in the third person singular verbs. They purposely forget to use the auxiliaries do, does and did in questions. They deliberately use the past tense where the present perfect is appropriate. What’s more, they intentionally add -ed to verbs which are clearly irregular. They keep using totally inappropriate prepositions, such as look on the picture. Why on earth do they do it? Out of spite? For a cause? Is it the need for independence and a separate identity? Are they just testing authority? Are they showing off? Is it part of their growing up?

    It’s no secret that all of them go through similar phases and the truth is that they soon become fed up with this kind of ‘rebellion’. By now the reader has undoubtedly discovered that I’m just teasing them (as you might have noticed, I’ve just put the word rebellion in inverted commas for the first time in this post, just in case .. I don’t want to discredit my reputation). Anyway, I have no doubt that we all are familiar with the term interlanguage. However, there are still teachers who truly believe that learners make mistakes on purpose, intentionally, deliberately, out of spite … or simply because they are not paying attention (at best) or because they are not clever enough (at worst).

    To conclude, I’m utterly convinced that any kind of non-violent rebellion (conscious or inadvertent) is desirable at some stage of development. It’s even inevitable. In language learning or acquisition it’s even more obvious – we need to do things in a wrong way in order to realize what the right way is. So, let’s be tolerant and patient with our little rebels; they’ll grow out of it. 🙂

    Reflective Practice Mission Statement 2

    In my previous post, I tried to analyze the concept of so-called Reflective Practice Mission Statement (RPMS). After having read another post of John Pfordresher’s, my outlook on the issue has narrowed down. The author was so kind and this time he offered a practical example, possibly to make things easier for anyone eager to take up the challenge:

    This is a fun ice breaker I use in class. It’s also a great way to get an RP meeting started.


    strongly disagree               disagree                      agree                   strongly agree

    1) Teachers must teach grammar explicitly if learners are to acquire language effectively.
    2) Teachers who don’t utilize technology in class are doing a disservice to their students.
    3) Teachers have to understand the correlation between student emotions and student needs to be effective.

    I have no clue if the author wants us to ponder about the statements and elaborate on them in our posts, or whether he plans to discuss them on his own. It may be a coincidence but the second statement is actually expanded on in his subsequent post, which, at first sight, has nothing to do with the RPMS challenge (at least it is not stated explicitly). By the way, I can’t agree more with the following quote:

    “The job of a modern English language teacher is to help students navigate their world through the medium of English. It isn’t about using technology to teach students, it’s about teaching students how to understand, decipher and decode English when using technology”.

    Anyway, back to my case. It often happens that ideas and solutions suddenly dawn on me. Well, I admit that this is often a result of a previous analysis and contemplation. This ‘awakening’ usually occurs when I concentrate on something unrelated to the initial problem. Yesterday I was watching the Downton Abbey series, which a friend of mine had kindly recommended to me a while ago, when a new Reflective Practice Mission Statement sprang to mind.

    Being a non-native English teacher has a lot of drawbacks, but it can also give me an advantage.
     
    This may sound like an attempt to find an excuse but I’m about to explain it. As a non-native speaker of English I am constantly learning – both consciously and systematically in order to keep up with whatever I need to, and unintentionally (learning is just a side effect). Mind you, I’m not saying that native speakers aren’t learning and refining their mother tongue all their lives. But my bonus is that I’ve gone through all the phases of getting a grasp of the foreign language (as opposed to acquiring it). What is more, I’ve tried various learning styles and I was a witness to a plethora of teaching methods when I was a student myself. I strongly believe in learner autonomy and my contention is that if a student acquires the right approach to learning, he or she can achieve almost anything. The method is the key.
     
    What on earth then does Downton Abbey have to do with my RPMP? It’s simple; when watching the first episode, I found it somewhat difficult to understand some of the British accents. However, as the series went on, I felt more and more comfortable. Was it because I got accustomed to the accents? Maybe. But more importantly, I got more and more context as the plot and characters developed. With more context comes a better understanding. This applies to listening and reading in general.
     
    This insight is something quite obvious for me as a teacher but it can be truly valuable for my students. I’m not implying that a native speaker can’t provide the learner with the same piece of advice, but having experienced something, one undoubtedly sounds more authentic.

     That’s it for the time being – I’m passing the baton…

    

    My Reflective Practice Mission Statement

    This post was inspired by a couple of people: Ann Loseva, Anne Hendler and John Pfordresher. To cut a long story short, everything is nicely summarized in this blog post by Anne Hendler. Now, let’s get down to work.

    As I initially had no idea what this was all about (I thought the people were speaking a new language I’d never heard of) and I’m still not sure I got it, I have to proceed slowly, thoroughly and with caution. I love untangling things. I love all sorts of riddles and puzzles, and I’m happy to figure things out on my own. I’m a holistic type of person but sometimes it’s necessary to analyze. So let me think aloud. Let me dissect the whole chunk Reflective Practice Mission Statement, step by step. I’m doing it for me and those who’ve never heard of the term.

    1) As I understand it, a mission statement is supposed to help me set forth my goals. It’s here to show others what to expect from me. In other words, by providing a mission statement, I’m making my purposes clear. It should be designed to clearly communicate what I do in such a way that people can remember it and communicate this to others. So good mission statements should be clear, memorable and concise. Mission statements can be quite lengthy, or they can be a simple sentence or two. The shortest mission statements are only two words long, such as this one: Spreading Ideas (by TED). A personal mission statement can start very simply:

    I plan to …
    I pledge to …..
    My goal is to …
    I will …..
    My mission is to …
    I’d like to focus my attention ….
    I’m dedicated to …

    2) Now what about the expression reflective practice? Reflective can be defined as ‘of, relating to, produced by, or resulting from reflection’. Reflective practice then refers to reflection throughout your practice. It means that individuals learn from their own professional experiences, rather than from formal teaching or knowledge transfer.

    After this analytical workout, I can carry on to synthesize, evaluate and finally create my actual reflective practice mission statement. This is going to be tough, I can feel it in my bones….

    So, I’ll choose a phrase to start with. I like the one ‘I pledge to’ because it sounds quite poetic to me, and a little bit archaic too.

    I pledge to continuously share my successes as well as my failures in teaching and education in general. My goal is to listen closely to my intuition and common sense, as well as to the voices of other educators and professionals in the field of education and to hear what they have to say. My mission is to reflect on what I maintain is right or wrong but also to take into consideration what others contend based on their personal experience.
     
     
    I suppose that’s it. Conclusion. Full stop. It was rather painful but enjoyable in the end.