Making up for the sobriety of my youth

 

Don’t be put off right from the beginning – this is ELT-related stuff. In effect this post alludes to a whole bunch of posts describing the experience of attending conferences floating all around the blogosphere these days. I first came across this subject a couple of days ago, and I think it was on Michael Griffin’s blog, where you can find his own contribution, as well as a list of possibly related links.

Unlike many of my friends, I’ve never been a keen pop concert goer. I’ve actually been to very few events of that sort; the only one I can recall now is a Jedro Tull concert in Prague, almost 20 years ago, where I actually turned up by mere chance (my boyfriend and his mob were going and they talked me into it as well). It was an unforgettable experience, but it didn’t even cross my mind that I should go backstage after the concert and get the band’s autographs. I think it was partly because I was too proud and shy. Unlike my peers, I never collected pop star souvenirs or the like (with one exception: there was a Pet Shop Boys poster on my bedroom wall). However, I’m convinced that by skipping this natural stage of a teenage girl’s development, I must have created a gap in my life – a gap I’m now trying to fill in.

Not that I’ve finally started going to pop concerts; instead I’ve started attending conferences. Although I’ve never experienced what it feels like to manage to get my favourite rock star’s autograph or catch his sweat-drenched T-shirt thrown into the audience, I think I can clearly imagine the excitement the fan feels.

I suppose that people go to conferences for similar reasons why they go to pop concerts; they want to hear their favourite presenters (pop stars), listen to their favourite topics (music) and be there with other like-minded people (the audience). The truth is that conference presenters are a bit like pop stars and like pop stars, some of them are bigger stars than others. The biggest stars often start conferences with plenary speeches and they also wind the events up. So you can imagine my elation after my name had been announced during the final raffle drawing the other day. I won a special prize – a book with the inscription of Jamie Keddie, who had just closed the conference with his amazing plenary speech. At that moment I wanted to scream and faint like a Beatles fan.

 
I would never describe myself as a crazy, eccentric daredevil. On the contrary, I’m a discreet, inconspicuous and unobtrusive person who avoids any kind of embarrassment. So it’s hard to believe (even for me) that in addition to my luck with the raffle, I virtually ‘stole’ my favourite presenter’s conference name badge (with his permission, I must confess) to keep it as a souvenir which I’m planning to display in the staffroom for all my colleagues to see. I can’t wait to see their envious expressions – because they all know he’s a real star in the ELT field. Here’s the hard evidence if you think I’m inventing things.
 
 
As I said, either I’m making up for the sobriety of my youth or I’m totally crazy. But this is the real power of conferences – apart from learning all the amazing knowledge, I can turn back time and relive my teenage years. But I can do so in disguise, with some dignity and without damaging my eardrums or discrediting my reputation (at least I hope so) because what I do is actually professional development, right? So there’s nothing to be ashamed of, is there?

Speaking of speaking …

 

Most of the learners I teach love the ‘define and guess’ type of activities and speaking activities in general. I’ve never actually asked them explicitly but I can tell from their reactions I observe right on the spot or later when I reflect on my lessons; they seem motivated, relaxed and 100% engaged. I confess that I’m fond of speaking activities myself, even though I’m aware of the danger I may be overlooking: the fact that I like something doesn’t necessarily mean that all students are keen on too (Laura Patsko’s post on introverted students explains why). Nevertheless, I truly believe that L2 learners benefit from conversation activities, particularly those based on information gap and negotiating meaning. That’s why I include them in my lessons regularly, especially in the afternoon courses with young learners. To disguise the fact that I include the same activities over and over again I invent numerous variations and modifications, and I usually manage to deceive the students by convincing them that each time they do something it’s better and cooler than before – an upgraded version, to speak their language.

The reason why I’m writing this post is because I sometimes feel a little guilty that many of my lessons are based on the i+0 equation. They say that L2 learners should be provided with the i+1 input. This is so called Krashen’s Input Hypothesis stating that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. What makes me feel even more disgraceful is Krashen’s conviction that speaking in the target language does not result in language acquisition and that comprehensible output is the result of learning acquisition. That’s where my bad conscience comes from.

I feel a little less shameful when I remember Merrill Swain’s output hypothesis which, on the other hand, states that learning takes place when a learner encounters a gap in his or her linguistic knowledge of the second language (L2). One way or another, balance is important. Czech students often get overwhelmed by the enormous amount of input they get in their regular English classes, e.g. long vocabulary lists and grammar tables, and I feel they need to blow off steam a little. My afternoon classes are not compulsory so they must be enjoyable and fun, otherwise the students won’t want to come back. In other words, if I manage to drop the students’ affective filters, I needn’t be afraid of what Stephen Krashen feared – that pushing students to speak in a second language may be uncomfortable for them and thus hampering acquisition. On the contrary, many of the students who started attending this course had come with almost impermeable affective filters, which they slowly and gradually disposed of thanks to activities mentioned above.

If you listen to a student trying to define the word ‘sun’, for instance, you can’t but feel amazed by what’s happening – in his/her mind and between him/her and his/her partner. This is a short transcript of a dialogue I overheard in today’s lesson:

S1) It’s in sky.
S2) Sun?
S1) No, not in day but in night.
S2) Star?
S1) No, it’s bigger and only one.
S2) Moon?
S1) Yes!

As the reader might have noticed, this simple, authentic exchange contains a few minor mistakes. However, that’s not terribly important. What I find amazing that S1 adds a new piece of information after S2’s incorrect guess, quite naturally, by contrasting or contradicting – simply by reacting to what S2 has just said. It may sound trivial and obvious but isn’t this exactly what happens in a genuine conversation outside the classroom? I can’t accept the speculation that students don’t acquire L2 by speaking and that output is only the result of acquisition. Of course, a learner can’t say much in the very first lesson of English because they need some input at first, but already in the second class, acquisition may result in output and vice versa.

Below is an example of a lively activity we did today in class: the learners are describing pictures (each for one minute before swapping the pictures and their partners). While speaking, their partners have to listen carefully and watch the time. Naturally, the listeners aren’t just passive participants. On the contrary, they are acquiring the language and in their minds they’re already shaping their own speech. When it’s their turn to speak, apart from creating their own language, they also copy their partner’s previous utterances. They sometimes copy the mistakes as well, or they don’t because they spotted them and try to avoid them (noticing is the essential starting point for acquisition, according to Richard Schmidt). Each time they speak to a different partner, and due to the fact that this is a mixed ability group, they learn a lot from others, either on the accuracy or the fluency level. I should stress that in monolingual classes, the teacher’s interference is often inevitable. Some mistakes, especially those made owing to language transfer, would remain unnoticed by students who share L1. But I believe that students can learn an amazing amount of L2 when left to their own devices.

To conclude, in this post I wanted to express my conviction that theory may be helpful but practice is what really matters. I don’t deny that we need some theoretical background to be able to design our activities meaningfully, but relying on theory and research without noticing what’s really happening in the classroom is too narrow-minded.

In low spirits but not complaining

It’s always difficult to find a suitable opening sentence for a blog post, especially if I need to pour out my heart. Although the title usually unveils my plans and the topic in advance, I can’t simply get to the point straight away. So these are my introductory words for today’s post:

I passionately love my job.
 

I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I confess I’ve never done anything else (apart from a few temporary or part-time jobs ages ago). It won’t be a surprise if I say that I don’t dream of doing something different than teaching English – neither in the near nor the distant future. I suppose that’s how many EFL teachers feel, at least those I’ve had the opportunity to encounter online or offline.

The thing is that presently the situation in the Czech Republic is not ideal as far as ELT jobs (or any teaching jobs) are concerned. I should stress that I don’t live in a rural village but in a town with a population of about 17,000 people. There are three primary schools locally. The secondary school where I work is currently educating about 400 students. There are seven English teachers employed full-time, one English teacher who can’t teach English, even though she would love to (there are no more lessons available). One of the seven teachers is (luckily) planning to start her maternity leave soon, which means more lessons for the rest of us next year. Yet, two more teachers will be made redundant due to the lack of students (hopefully not any English teachers). This is a worrying situation, in spite of the fact that there are some freelance job opportunities. But even these are becoming rarer.

Some days, when in low spirits, my close friend and colleague (female, single, childless, now in her 30s) seriously contemplates going abroad some day and she hopes she could teach English there. I’ve had to warn her, though. Even before reading Vedrana Vojkovic’s or Ana Elisa Miranda’s posts I was aware of the fact that being a fully qualified English teacher here in the Czech Republic doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be regarded qualified abroad. What is worse, non-native speakers have a minuscule chance to do the job they’ve been trained to do outside their native country, even if they have a vast experience in teaching – their applications won’t even be considered in most cases.

Another misfortune affecting teachers all over the country is the fact that many of them are considered unqualified, even though several years ago their qualification was fully sufficient. This is due to some recent education law changes. I find it really unfair that now, with the surplus of teachers, we are treated almost dismissively. I can still remember the days (about 10-15 years ago) when school principals were stopping me in the street offering me a job, which I had to keep refusing. I wasn’t fully qualified back then but apparently it didn’t matter – they desperately needed someone with some knowledge of English. At that time a lot of under-qualified English teachers were hired and cherished, to be later sternly asked to leave due to their insufficient qualification. Some argue that since then those teachers have undoubtedly had plenty of time to complete their education, but in effect many of them have meanwhile become busy parents who have to support their families. And while they might have had plenty of time, they might not have had plenty of opportunities – not all universities offer the right courses one needs to complete the qualification.

I was lucky; I got my MA degree two years ago, just in the nick of time – right before the proposed legal changes were about to get into motion. But even then I had to self fund my studies and beg and plead for days off work to be able to sit my exams (even our students normally get a day off when they are preparing for a regional competition, for example). Not to mention that I had to commute 100 km every week to attend the lessons, which obviously cost me a fortune. But I’m not complaining. It was worth it and I learnt a lot.

Nowadays I attend conferences, which I self fund as well, and I do everything in my power to become a better teacher. I listen to teachers from all over the world and hear that they face similar problems and joys (this is a post by @swanDOS, for example).

Finally, on a more materialistic note. They say I should never speak about the money I earn (because some might feel envious). Nonetheless, a teacher’s average salary over here is 650 euros a month (this is not an official statistic; it’s reality). I’m not complaining – I passionately love my job and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there in the classroom every day. But I think at least I deserve some respect for what I do and for what I’ve been through. 

Integrate Technology Effectively (for The 40th ELT Blog Carnival)

 

I often hear teachers stubbornly claim that they are no techies and that they have no intention to mess with technology at all. But the same teachers have long been using technology without even realizing it. The truth is that some things have become commonplaces and thus it’s not surprising that we (teachers) keep forgetting the fact that there are the computers, overhead projectors, printers, and DVD players in our classrooms which we use skilfully on a daily basis. It’s almost as if the term ‘technology’ itself inspired inexplicable fear, dread, and uneasiness. Personally, I can no longer imagine not having those ‘shiny’ objects at my disposal. But yes, sometimes I can’t help but complain that technology is unreliable. And there are times when I tend to avoid it completely fearing that if technology fails, my carefully planned activities may go wrong as well. 

From my experience, there is one thing that almost never fails to work: the cell phone. Fabiana Casella wrote an excellent blog post on using cell phones in the classroom and her post published on Teaching Village was shortlisted for The Teaching English Blog Award for Innovative Teaching Ideas.

 

Like Fabiana, I had also asked myself the question: Why not turn these commonplace mobile devices into powerful learning tools? I use my own cell phone for at least two purposes related to my professional development; I sometimes take a photo of the board at the end of the class to be able to later revise and/or analyse the language input discussed throughout the class, and to improve my teaching skills in general. I also find it useful to make video snippets of my lessons, which I later watch and reflect on. I’m amazed at how much I can learn from the moments I captured with my camera. You can read more about this in my two recent posts: Through the Lens of Communicativeness and Observing Class in Retrospect.

 

The best thing about cell phones is that almost every student has one, at least here in the Czech Republic. And even the cheapest, low-tech phones can be used effectively in the classroom because apart from cameras, they have recorders, calculators, calendars, and stopwatches embedded in them (not to mention dictionaries and various cool applications available with smartphones).

 

I’d like to share an activity I’ve recently piloted with my classes across several levels of proficiency. I like this activity because it combines the traditional and the modern approaches. In addition, it promotes imagination, creativity and collaborative learning. As I wrote in one of my posts, there are a couple of items I always have in my survival kit. One of them is my Rory’s Story Cubes box – a so-called creative story generator. The rules of this game are simple; one player rolls all the nine cubes and the story telling based on the images on the uppermost faces of the cubes can start. The symbols can represent almost anything. Based on my observations, students tend to stick to the literal meaning, which restrains their imagination, so I encourage them to go beyond the physical and material – towards the metaphorical meaning (a pair of scales can represent something heavy, light, or even unjust). This game can be played solitaire or with others – in pairs, groups or even as the whole class. I prefer it when my students play it in small groups (of three or four), so that everybody gets plenty of opportunities to speak and, at the same time, the students are encouraged to collaborate, share ideas, and finally come to an agreement. Here’s a description of a lesson in which I used this activity in the ‘traditional’ way.

 

And now technology comes in handy. As I only have one set of cubes, I ask each group to use a phone and take a photo of the cubes after they have been rolled by one of the group members. The image becomes virtually immortal if not deleted, and it can be stored and used later if necessary. The students can work on the story in the following lesson, at home, they can share the photos and/or attach them to their stories, upload them, compare them, etc. But with technology, you don’t need to buy Rory’s Story Cubes at all because there’re also a Rory’s Story Cubes application available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, iPad mini and for Android phones.

 

Now sceptics may object that kids (or young learners) would rather play with the cubes than use the app and only touch the screen. But let’s face reality; today’s students, even the youngest ones, are different from those we taught ten or twenty years ago – technology is now an essential part of their everyday life and integrating it effectively into ELT will only make learning more attractive and relevant. Furthermore, technology and creativity – two concepts that I tried to place side by side in this post – are not mutually exclusive, as some maintain. On the contrary, they go hand in hand and one promotes the other.

#30GoalsEdu: Get Rid of the Unnecessary Weight

 

I’m truly honored to be the inspire leader for one of the #30GoalsEdu goals of the 2014 Cycle. Last  year I followed in the footsteps of the amazing, diligent Shelly Terrell and other wonderful educators, and enthusiastically accomplished some of the goals they had put forward and agreed on collaboratively. I should stress in this place that I’d never have had the courage to start blogging hadn’t it been for Shelly and the support of The 30 Goals Challenge for Educators Facebook group, which is now made up of more than 800 members! You can achieve a lot on your own, but you can achieve much more with others.

In this post I’m going to share a goal I proposed myself. By writing these words, I hope to inspire others to join in and reflect. And because the Spring Blog Festival is going on at the moment, why not take the opportunity and start a blog if you haven’t got one? And if you’ve got one, why not encourage others to start blogging?

Back to my original goal. Every day, we work hard to achieve success – we want to become better educators, better parents, better friends, better people … We enjoy our small victories which keep spurring us to go on. The more successful we become, however, the more responsibility is required from us. And the more we offer, the more is expected from us. This can become overwhelming and stressful. Thus it’s necessary to pause, breathe in, reevaluate and reconsider from time to time. In other words, we need to get rid of the unnecessary weight to be able to go on.

Enough of metaphors. You’ve experienced the following situations yourself, haven’t you?
1) Your desk in the staff room is neat and clean after the holidays but with the passage of time it becomes a real mess, and it takes you longer and longer to find the things you’re looking for. You can say to yourself a million times that you’ll always try to keep your desk tidy but it’s just impossible – the breaks are so short!
2) By postponing seemingly unimportant tasks you finally get to the inevitable point when you don’t know what to do first to keep up. But you HAD to postpone the things because there was always something more important: A student broke down in tears and you had to comfort her and discuss the problem. A parent phoned and you didn’t have the heart to interrupt him in the middle of the sentence.
3) You have loads of fantastic learning material but you can never find what you need, so some of your amazing resources suddenly become useless. Yes, you have files and drawers and you are very organized, but your office is not inflatable (neither is your PC hard disc).

Those were just a few examples of everyday issues a teacher has to handle. Let’s zoom in a little and move on to a more theoretical ground. As an EFL teacher I also have to cope with burdens related to the subject I teach.
At our school we use coursebooks and materials that mostly present the standard variety of English. My colleagues often discuss the right ways of pronouncing certain words and the conclusion is always something like this: ‘OK. It is correct but we are teaching them British English so they should pronounce it in the British way.’ I don’t agree. Being a non-native speaker, I undoubtedly speak with a specific, unique accent and the same can be said about my students. Moreover, not all my students will necessarily need to speak the standard variety in the future. For some it will suffice to be able to ‘just’ use English – be it orally, in writing, receptively or productively. It will be sufficient if they speak intelligibly. We don’t need to turn our students into robots and parrots – they’ll probably never speak the same way as a person born in Britain (or the USA, Australia, Canada, etc.) and has lived there all their life. And we shouldn’t force them to speak one particular accent, although they ought to have the choice to do so if they wish.

Moreover, there are lots of wonderful examples of alternative pronunciations or missteps that have become standard usage. Read this article and you’ll see for yourself that error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm. So our EFL/ESL learners can actually become pioneers – they can inadvertently open up new areas of thought and development.

I’d also like to recommend that you watch this interesting seminar by Laura Patsko and Katy Davies on teaching English pronunciation in an English as a lingua franca context. Laura and Katy offer some great practical ideas on teaching pronunciation, but what I find even more useful is the message they are sending. I had had a sneaking suspicion concerning the issue of pronunciation for some time but after watching the videos, I completely got rid of the ubiquitous, burdensome feeling that all my students must always speak the standard variety to actually succeed in mastering the language and that I am obliged to do my best to bring them as close to the ‘ideal’ as possible.

 

I’ve got rid of some of the unnecessary weight…. and you? To accomplish this goal I’d like you to answer (one of/some of) the following questions:
1) What is your burden you wish to dispose of at the moment?
2) What’s the biggest burden you’ve ever had to get rid of? How did you go about it? Was it a painful process?
3) How do you usually get rid of the unnecessary weight that makes you walk more slowly – in your personal and/or professional life?

Thanks for having stayed with me till the end. Finally, I’m going to take you on a short virtual trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world – the Czech Republic.

 
 

The healing power of painful truth …

 

How often do you ask yourself this question: What kind of teacher do I really want to be? If you were supposed to come up with a list of adjectives that would describe the ideal you = teacher, what would it include? And then, if you were to choose just one adjective that would describe the kind of teacher you want to be now, what would it be? Mind you, I don’t want to hear any clichés or evasions, such as a ‘perfect’ or ‘great’ teacher. I want to know what your priority is at this present moment. I’m deliberately zooming in on the present moment because as we change, our priorities do as well. My cline expressing the gradual change in the way I have viewed my ideal teacher-self might look something like this: popular/entertaining/passionate > nice > creative > knowledgeable/resourceful > organized/systematic > ???  I believed that at each point of my development I focused on something specific; I tried to work on a limited set of aims. When I became that kind of teacher, I realized (or something made me realize) that it wasn’t the whole story and I moved on. Where am I now? I can more or less definitely say that I’ve become a popular/ entertaining/ passionate/ nice/ creative/ knowledgeable/ resourceful/ sort of teacher. Presently I’m becoming an organized/ systematic teacher. But where do I go now?

Yesterday I escorted Ann to the regional competition in English conversation. Ann, 17-years-old, is a lovely person and she’s brilliant at English. I don’t teach her now, but I used to be her English teacher two years ago, for about six months. She was already outstanding back then. I remember I felt a little guilty because I knew she was well ahead of her peers and I suspected the lessons were not challenging enough for her. However, being a nice person, she did her best to keep herself busy by helping her friends with English whenever she could. She was sometimes a little dominant in the class, but I didn’t want to restrict her in any way and feel even more quilty.

Anyway, she did very well at the competition yesterday and I was proud of her. As we were chatting happily, she suddenly mentioned her current English teacher saying that she really appreciates her approach to teaching Ann’s class (demanding, strict, firm and consistent). She added: Nothing against you but you know, back then, when you taught us, it was far below my level.

It hurt. She meant well but it hurt my popular/ entertaining/ passionate/ nice/ creative/ knowledgeable/ resourceful/ organized/ systematic self. I know I can never please all my students but still, it suddenly dawned on me that it was time to redefine and reshape my beliefs in terms of good ELT practice. I need to demand more from students. Of course I don’t have to dispose of my hard-attained popular/ entertaining/ passionate/ nice/ creative/ knowledgeable/ resourceful/ organized/ systematic attributes but I need to add one more ingredient in order to feel I’m doing the right thing for my students.

Although I’ve been familiar with the Demand High approach to teaching for some time, it was what Ann said that made the idea finally sink in. I don’t want to be nice and popular at all costs any more. On the contrary, I’m ready and willing to sacrifice some of my popularity for the sake of my students’ learning and wellbeing.

Ann Loseva, Chuck Sandy and others have written wonderful posts on ‘the whole teacher’ on the iTDi.pro blog. I’ve read them all with enthusiasm. However, I don’t think we can become whole teachers at once. We need to work hard, pick up the bits and pieces all along the way, and put them together gradually, one by one, as we grow. We will probabaly never become perfect teachers but we can feel at peace with what we’ve become and work on what we want to become in the future.

Monday – you can fall apart ….

It’s Monday and this post is going to be about Mondays. At this moment I can’t say whether I’ll manage to finish the post today but it doesn’t really matter; there will be more Mondays anyway. I originally planned to send a short message on Facebook or Twitter to get this off my chest but I’ve eventually changed my mind. This deserves to be more that 140 characters or so; I simply want this to be more permanent than a tweet. I want to come back to what I’ve written later on to see if things have changed.

I’ll start with a little bit of contradiction. Although Mondays are my longest work days in the week, I love them. However, the most frustrating moments in the classroom happen on Mondays. Why is it so? Having had plenty of rest over the weekend I usually feel energized and enthusiastic to start over. I do need a few minutes to force myself out of bed on a Monday morning but once I’m on my feet, I’m fine. So far so good. ‘Where’s the story?’, you may ask. The trouble is that most of my students don’t feel the same way. Metaphorically speaking, every Monday is about me running into a stone wall; when I enter the classroom any Monday lesson I see a crowd of tired faces only craving more weekend days, some of them virtually catching up on sleep. Those who’re awake and present can feel the potential danger; they rightly suspect I will want them to work hard. What is more, I expect those exhausted creatures to have worked hard over the weekend. Over and over again, I fail to accept the fact that they are not as fresh as daisies? Why on earth do they feel so jaded? They had the whole weekend to recharge batteries! Besides working hard to get ready for school, they must have had a lot of fun. But only the latter is true. All I can see at the beginning of any Monday lesson is every other person standing, ready to apologize for not having done their homework. Falling into the same hole, I always get slightly irritated at this point. I have so many objectives to accomplish after all. I have so many useful ideas to share with the students. But some people haven’t done their homework, so I can’t go on as fast as I imagined; we have to revise and repeat what they were supposed to go through over the weekend. But because they haven’t done what they were supposed to do, they can’t even recall the things we’d done before. They seem to have forgotten everything (I can’t believe that a weekend is long enough for them to forget). So in an attempt to save their pride and glory, they try to convince me that they didn’t understand the instructions, for example. By claiming this, they inadvertently and implicitly place a little bit of the blame on me as well. I imagine this may be their train of thought:

I haven’t done my homework and I feel a little guilty, so the only way I can get out of this is by blaming someone else. And here’s the teacher who hasn’t explained the matter properly. She may well buy it and forgive me.

I know that if I don’t stop the first person doing this, I can wrap the lesson up immediately. So what I usually do is that I let those who haven’t done the work struggle and suffer a little. I ask them more questions and require answers. I don’t accept ‘I don’t know’ as a response. But this takes time and meanwhile my plans are falling through. So in effect, this doesn’t really work either.

One more thing I’ve learned about Mondays is that giving tests on the first weekday is a risky business – for all the reasons described above. Students get bad marks and they feel unhappy and demotivated. As a result, I’m miserable too. What is more important, they haven’t learned what I needed them to learn. Just another vicious circle.

So what’s the easiest way out of this mess? This is some advice I’m giving to my future self:

Give your students the luxury of free weekends. Tell them on Fridays that they will write a test next Tuesday and remind them on Monday beforehand (this works provided the students have more lessons a week but this schedule can be adjusted). The other piece of advice would be: don’t base your Monday lesson on the homework you assigned on Friday because you may well feel disappointed and frustrated. Exploit your Monday classes in a different way: set the mood, motivate, incite interest in what’s about to come next, talk/write about the weekend, play games, revise vocabulary, and sing……

And because it’s Monday, instead of feeling frustrated I’m going to listen to my favourite song by The Cure: Friday……

RP3 – the story goes on …

I believe it’s high time to roll up my sleeves and start analyzing the negative classroom interaction I described in my previous Reflective Practice post. If you’re a newcomer, I recommend that you read the full story first.

I decided to chunk the story and then put the chunks into two separate categories: facts and feelings. I did so to unveil the true nature of the whole incident. However, it was not as easy as I thought it would be. Not all facts are mere facts.

Facts:

  • I enter the classroom at 12:30 pm.
  • I hand out the corrected film reviews.
  • Most of the students nod and shake their heads to indicate that everything is clear (my assumption, not a fact really, that’s why I’m deleting it).
  • All of a sudden a hand shoots up (I used this verb to indicate the rude manner = subjective, I’m replacing it with a girl puts up her hand) and the girl snaps at me in Czech (snaps = a subjective feeling, I’m replacing it with ‘asks’).
  • I ask for clarification dispassionately (not really sure about the adjective now, I’m deleting it).
  • How on earth should I know which version is correct?” she raps out again (a subjective feeling, I’m replacing it with ‘responds’).
  • “Could you read the sentences for me so that I know what you mean?” I ask calmly (not sure about this adjective at all).
  • The other students have noticed by now and quiet down so that they can watch the bull fight (my assumption, exaggeration, hyperbole).
  • The girl is ready – she’s got both essays in front of her and starts reading the sentences, in a triumphant manner (my assumption).
  • Just before she finishes the second one, she pauses and realizes that the sentences are not identical.
  • She immediately withdraws her ‘accusation’ (she actually does nothing of that sort, I’m replacing it with she indicates that she understands now).
  • She doesn’t apologize verbally but waves her hands to imply that she understands now (my assumption, maybe she just wants to end the discussion). 
  • The class is quiet.
  • “Next time think twice before you ask in such a rude way”, I say.
  • She remains silent.
  • We go on with the lesson.


My feelings:

  • I’m a bit hungry.
  • I’m looking forward to this class.
  • I feel pleased with myself because I managed to correct the film reviews overnight.
  • I’m puzzled (when the girl asks).
  • I feel a little alert.
  • I strike the defensive pose (because the girl tends to ask tricky questions).
  • I feel my nerves vibrating.
  • My pulse and blood pressure go up (I didn’t have a heart rate monitor, of course, that’s why the feeling category).
  • I’m already red in the face (I didn’t have a mirror to check)…
  • … and that’s a bad sign (a bad sign for whom?).
  • I feel unfairly accused and thus offended (what was I actually accused of?).
  • I expect her to apologize verbally.
  • My eyes are glowing with suppressed fury (again, no evidence to prove it was visible),
  • even though I feel relieved that I wasn’t caught in the act this time.
  • I can feel the everybody’s eyes aimed at the two protagonists.
  • I feel aggrieved.
  • The oppressive atmosphere lingers for a while.
  • I feel guilty and unprofessional.

At first sight, there are too many emotions involved – mostly my negative emotions, I should stress. Some of the emotions emerged unexpectedly, but I suspect they were based on my previous experience with the class (I knew the class was challenging and I was aware of the fact that some students, perhaps unintentionally, occasionally threatened my authority by asking tricky questions). Other feelings fall into the ‘self-indulgent’ category, e.g. I looked forward to the class or I felt pleased with myself. Unsurprisingly and inevitably, I felt disappointed when things suddenly changed their course. I simply expected everything to be perfect.

Based on the foregoing analysis, I decided to rewrite the story, but this time only using the facts. In other words, I ditched all the subjective emotions and I’m serving the interaction in its pure form as it might have been seen by somebody totally uninvolved, and maybe the students themselves.

I enter the classroom at 12:30 pm. I hand out the corrected film reviews. Most of the students nod and shake their heads. All of a sudden a girl puts up her hand and asks: “Why did you correct this sentence in my film review and left the same thing uncorrected in my previous writing assignment?” I don’t understand and so I ask for clarification. “How on earth should I know which version is correct?” she responds. “Could you read the sentences for me so that I know what you mean?” I ask. The other students have noticed by now and they are quiet, listening. The girl has got both essays in front of her and starts reading the sentences. Just before she finishes the second one, she pauses and realizes that the sentences are not identical. She indicates that she understands now. The class is quiet. “Next time think twice before you ask in such a rude way”, I say. She remains silent. We go on with the lesson.

If I could turn back time, I would definitely do things in a different way – I’d try to be attentive but unemotional and calm. Maybe I’d talk to the girl after the class rather than try to solve the situation in front of the whole class. But to be able to act impartially and have a detached view in the future, I need to stop doing several things now:

  • I need to stop having all those expectations.
  • I need to stop feeling that I’m the one who must always be perfect.
  • I need to stop thinking that things will always go the way I’ve planned them.  

In other words, I need to be kind to myself, no matter what happens. Thank you Josette 🙂

Dogme just happened

In my previous post I gave a detailed description of my platonic relationship with Dogme. Today I can confidently claim that it happened; I’m almost certain that I’ve taught unplugged and I can pretentiously announce that it was a brilliant lesson. The lesson I’m talking about was materials light (I had only brought a set of Rory’s Story Cubes), it was conversation driven and the language which emerged during the lesson had not been planned in advance. We didn’t focus on any particular structure and I didn’t restrict the students in any other way as far as language was concerned. I did have a few lesson objectives in mind, though. My students were supposed:

  • to practise creative writing
  • to practise peer feedback by reading each other’s mini stories and commenting on them
  • to discover for themselves what areas of writing and language in general they needed to work on

However, I had no idea what the stories would eventually look like. In other words, I couldn’t foresee what language and content the students would come up with.

I entered the classroom with one set of Rory’s Story Cubes. I showed my students the brand-new orange box, which immediately captured their attention. I opened it and took out the nine cubes, which I held in my hands so that the Ss couldn’t see them. I went on to ask several question in order to incite more interest in the classroom (occasionally rattling the cubes to evoke the Ss’ imagination and curiosity). I elicited the following answers:

What’s in in my hands? – Cubes
How many cubes are there? – Nine.
What do you do with the cubes? – Throw. Roll.
What’s on each of the cubes? – Pictures.
How many pictures are there on each cube? In other words, how many sides does each cube have? – Six.
There’s a different picture on each side of a cube and there are no two identical pictures in the box. How many pictures are there if each cube has six sides and there are nine cubes in the box? – 54

I praised the Ss for being smart and good at maths 🙂

I gave Ss a piece of paper per pair. I asked them to predict what pictures there might be on the cubes. They were supposed to come up with six words.

Then I gave each pair one cube. Their task was to look at all the sides and tick any words in their list that they found on the cube. Then they sent the cube to the pair on the left and got one from the pair on the right. This went on till all the Ss had seen all the cubes. I didn’t insist on precise answers – I let them see what they wanted to see (some saw an alien while others considered the same picture to be a boy or a mask). Most Ss guessed 4 or 5 out of six words. At this stage I provided all the vocabulary they wanted to know, i.e. unknown words for images on the cubes, such as magnifying glass, lock, electric bulb, etc. plus vocabulary they knew passively but couldn’t recall (tent, lightning, alien…).

I asked each pair (there were 7 pairs altogether) to grab one cube and roll it at least six times to get six different pictures. They wrote all the words down. Their task was to tell a mini story using the words in no particular order. The next step was to write the story. There was plenty of space on the board so I asked them to write the stories there. This proved to be handy for the follow-up activity – peer feedback – because everybody could see all the stories in one place.

The first pair read their story aloud. When they finished, we applauded to show our appreciation. We tried to come up with some positive feedback first. Then I asked all the class to spot any mistakes in the story and correct them. I didn’t point out any more mistakes myself; I left it exclusively up to the Ss.

Finally I asked them to look at the corrected pieces of writing and tell me what areas of grammar or vocabulary they think they need to work on in the future. The main problems seemed to be missing articles and the -s ending in third person singular verbs.

We finished just when the bell rang. What a perfect timing for a Dogme lesson!

Will I ever have the guts to teach unplugged?

I think I’ve already confessed that I’m fatally attracted to the so-called Dogme approach. For those who are not familiar with the term, it is a communicative approach to language teaching that encourages teaching without published textbooks and focuses on conversational communication among learners and teacher. Not that I teach ‘unplugged’, i.e. in a dogmetic way; as a matter of fact, my affection is purely platonic – most of the time I use traditional coursebooks and although I try to be creative and innovative, I teach in a more or less traditional way. The trouble is that one never knows what happens with a relationship when platonic love becomes physical. If I started teaching unplugged, would/could this become a long-term, stable and satisfying relationship under the given circumstances, i.e. within the current system of Czech education? I can’t think of a colleague who likes teaching without coursebooks, and those ‘coursebookless‘ daredevils I hear legends of have always been viewed with suspicion and, as far as I can remember, they were all eventually made jobless. Although this happened a long time ago, right after the fall of communism (when anybody who had legs and arms could teach English), I’d rather not take the risk. As they say it’s better to feel safe than sorry, I only dream about Dogme and keep telling myself: maybe some day my dreams will come true ….. Meanwhile I’m not lazing about, though; I’m getting ready for the day. I read about Dogme, I think about it, and I seize every opportunity to discuss it with anybody who’s interested. Oh dear, I’ve always found it ridiculous to theorize about something one doesn’t have the guts to implement.

Nevertheless, it will make sense now when I say that I was pleased to learn that The Approaches Conference 2014 organized by IH ILC Brno had a Dogme workshop on its programme. There were other interesting sessions running at the same time but I didn’t hesitate; I virtually dragged my friend into Room 1 (luckily she didn’t really protest). There were only nine participants and I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me was that at the beginning of the session only three out of nine teachers (me and my friend included) had actually heard about Dogme before. Why on earth had the others decided to attend the workshop? I must admit that the programme poster looked inviting:

Over the last 10 years Dogme, a ‘new’, ‘modern’ ‘radical‘ approach to ELT, has aroused more emotion – both for and against – than almost any other approach to teaching. ‘It challenges not only the way we view teaching, but also the way we view being a teacher.’
(Meddings and Thornbury)

This session will introduce the core ideas behind the approach and how they apply to everyday teaching, ‘Emergent language’, ‘materials light’ and ‘text driven’ are all terms that will become familiar. Find out why it’s nothing to be afraid of; indeed you probably already use Dogme approaches in your teaching. As this session will be conducted largely using a Dogme approach attendees should be prepared to participate fully.
 
 
It occurred to me that maybe the words ‘new’, ‘modern’ ‘radical ’emotion’ ‘for and against’ were the best lure for the attendees who had no idea what Dogme meant.

Anyway, it was a great workshop. Hats off to the presenter Charles Du Parc, who kept his word and conducted the session using the Dogme approach. It would obviously be hypocritical to lecture about the Dogme approach in a non-dogmetic way. At first we were given a little background and we were introduced to the three basic pillars of the Dogme approach – conversation/text driven, material light and emergent language. We were given a large piece of paper and markers per group and we ended up with myriads of ideas that had come from us, the participants. In other words, most of the content of the lesson sort of emerged along the line and it was a truly enjoyable process.

Now, the important question is: What made it so enjoyable, productive, memorable and thus effective? What makes me want to write about it? Is it just my interest and my passion for the topic? Is it the presenter’s personality that’s stuck in my mind? Is it the methodology he used? Probably a bit of everything – a kind of magical mixture; something we need if we want to teach unplugged successfully.

There are many questions and no definite answers. But there’s one thing I know for sure; throughout the session, I felt that I was the one who was important and responsible for the my learning – my colleagues and I were actually creating the content and the input of the ‘lesson’. There were no wrong ideas and, surprisingly, we eventually arrived at the right conclusions. How come? I believe it was because we had some background knowledge and experience, and because we negotiated and shared ideas. Of course, the presenter must have had some objectives in mind and he had certainly anticipated a few concrete outcomes, e.g. By the end of the session the participants will have discovered themselves what Dogme is about. The will have created posters with the positives as well as the drawbacks of the approach. But he could have never predicted the actual process of ‘getting there’. We might have been uninterested and slow. We might have found the topic too unfamiliar. We might have had no background knowledge to build on.

And this is why I find the Dogme approach so attractive and why it is such a controversial issue – because the process is unpredictable and the outcomes are uncertain (and more difficult to test). But at the same time it can be an enormously creative journey – exactly what life is like… So once creativity in education gains more importance than predictability, the Dogme approach may be tolerated and accepted by the majority.