Spooky globalization

Any communist regime is, at best, a controversial form of social order. It has a lot of drawbacks such as drabness and uniformity. However, it’s hard to deny that there are some positives related to this political system which ultimately compensate for deficiencies such as the lack of freedom of travel, speech, religion, political expression and other such ‘trifles’. The thing is that life in a communist country is pretty safe; it protects all souls from evil and dangerous ideas. It protects them from confusing diversity and complicated variety. 
Back in my teenage years, when I was thriving happily under a mild version of the communist regime, I had no idea what Halloween was. You couldn’t see any images of pumpkins in English coursebooks (there weren’t many visuals anyway – just the black and white pictures of the ideal Prokop’s family), you couldn’t buy scary masks and bloody costumes in the supermarkets (there weren’t any supermarkets – only shops that sold stuff in fifty shades of grey), and you couldn’t watch loads of American horror movies where people die of fright when they see a ghost (ghosts and life after death weren’t supposed to exist). At that time, anything imported from or related to America (or developed western countries) was considered filthy. 
A quarter of a century later I can claim that things have changed. What I can’t claim is that it’s 100% to the good. We can travel wherever we want and we have glossy, colourful English coursebooks with images of plump pumpkins. We can spend a fortune on a Halloween costume or scary decorations if we can afford it. That’s fine. Every school kid knows what Halloween is but few of them know why we have a public holiday on the 28th of October, for example (Independent Czechoslovak State Day). That’s less fine. There are lots of spectacular events taking place on the last October day while very little actually happens three days earlier. We barely mention this day in English lessons and apart from national flags hanging wearily from schools and bureaux, one will notice nothing out of the ordinary outside the school building.  
Personally, I don’t really care about Halloween very much. If it weren’t for the huge promotional event we do for other schools each year to attract potential students, I wouldn’t probably do anything at all. However, the media massage is irresistible so I sporadically incorporate some Halloween-related stuff into my lessons provided I come across something I find useful from a language point of view (This Halloween lyric is an example of a great activity aimed at pronunciation practice). The question that bothers me is why we let ourselves massaged so willingly by the surroundings. I’m convinced that some people over here genuinely like Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day, or Christmas with Santa Clause and I don’t blame them. I also understand why English teachers mention these holidays in their lessons – they are fragments of English speaking countries’ cultures after all. But I sometimes feel resistant to doing something just because others do it. 
In the past we were an enclosed country isolated from the wonderful, colourful western world. Nowadays we’ve reached another extreme – we are exposed to so much variety that we sometimes find it difficult to distinguish the good from the crap. It seems there’s no way to stop globalization but it’s up to us educators to see what is worth passing on to our students and what to throw in the imaginary trash can. 

 PS.: This post was inspired and prompted by Mike Griffin’s ideas on a hot issue

On (in)tangible results of my learning

Every day I immerse myself in loads of English. I do so because I want to and also because I have to. I simply need to keep up. Judging by the hundreds of hours I’ve spent doing something in English (reading, writing, listening, speaking, singing, teaching), one might think that I should be a highly proficient and a native-like user of English. Why do I feel I’m not? Why do I feel there are areas in which I still grope in the dark?
For me, a person having been out of school for quite some time, it’s really difficult to see some progress – some tangible results of my learning. Yes, I feel I have improved, I have a hunch that my English is getting better and I have an inkling that I know more vocabulary than some time before. However, I can’t anchor my feelings, hunches and inklings to something firm and concrete. In other words, I can’t say in comparison to what and when my English has improved. I can’t say that my English has improved, say, by 12% since 2012. 
I’m not someone who believes all things are measurable. But I’m someone who, from time to time, desperately wants to measure, count and compare. Sometimes I’d really like to know how much I’ve improved. I’d like to know how many new vocabulary items I’ve learnt since 2000, for example. However, not being a student anymore, there’s no point in taking progress or proficiency tests. I’m not convinced they’d say much about my improvement, anyway. 

I remember that three years ago, before I started studying at university again, I struggled with lots of areas of the English language. I remember having serious problems when reading longer stretches of texts. The most plausible explanation is that I simply hadn’t read very much in English before. Since then I’ve done a lot of reading – online, offline, fiction, specialized literature, etc. But again, I can’t say how much my reading skills have improved. The improvement must have been gradual and almost imperceptible – no big, noticeable leaps as one might imagine. But that’s just another inkling. Since the dark period I’ve also written lots of text in English – back between 2011 and 2013 as part of my MA studies, and later on here on my blog. I can’t see whether my writing has improved because there’s nobody to tell me. It’s just me and my hunches again. I do get feedback from my readers but not the type which you expect from a language teacher. Mind you, this is not a way of asking for language feedback!! Yes, writing doesn’t seem such a toil now. Yet, I can’t say it’s easy to produce a text, even after so many hours of practice. Am I more demanding? Is it why I can never be satisfied with the current level of my writing proficiency? 
To reduce my feelings of vagueness I decided to take some concrete steps. I started recording new vocabulary and consciously learn them. I describe some of my learning experiences here and here. However, recently I’ve come to realize that what I need is to work on advanced collocations, rather than separate vocabulary items. Let me show you what I do. At the moment I’m reading a crime novel. The suspense makes me stay awake when I’m exhausted after a long day at work, and from a language point of view, the fact that it’s set in modern times is a bonus for me as an L2 learner (there are more useful, everyday expressions, slang, lots of grammatical elision, no literary embellishments, etc.). I read a chapter or two before I go to sleep and I just enjoy what I read without looking up any expression whatsoever. The following day, when I’m alert and fully conscious, I scan through the same chapter again and concentrate on interesting collocations I encountered the previous night. Here’s an example. A little warning in advance; it’s pretty graphic. 
lurched to his feet
stooped to find his centre of gravity
staggered forwards
used his head as a navigation aid and battering ram
the fountain of vomit gushed from his mouth
with legs akimbo
a low croak coming from the far end
groped between his feet
put the phone to his ear
All the chunks are taken from the same section of the chapter. I deliberately chose this one because I believe it’s rich in useful language and the scene is described vividly. Each of the chunks somehow connects to the previous or the subsequent expression, which helps me remember the context and thus the collocations. If I’m forced to visualize the scene, it helps me remember more than if it was just a boring bit. It sometimes helps to Google pictures to visualize the meaning of a word. If you look up lurch, for example, you get lots of images of zombies. I conclude that this is what zombies (and drunkards) do – they lurch when walking. I do the same with other words if necessary. 
This technique has proved to be pretty handy for me as an L2 learner. I learn new words but more importantly, I learn the whole chunks – chunks which I know I would never choose to produce in my own writing, for example. Not that I don’t know the separate words but some of the combinations are unique to me – I’ve heard them for the first time so they’re not part of my active collocations inventory. Although I may be able to say legs wide apart or fumble for something, I may not have other synonymous expressions at my disposal, which is crucial for me as an occasional writer or for someone who constantly wants to work on their language. I should stress that, obviously, without practice and repetition this technique wouldn’t work at all. I need to go back to what I’ve written and visualize the scene again and again while, at the same time, adding new items into my notebook. Once I’m able to reproduce some of the expressions naturally, in a different context, I know this is a real sign of progress in a particular area of my language learning.

My teacher self PS.: I notice that students usually find recording collocations, especially those consisting of words they already know, a waste of time. It needs a lot of convincing and persuasion to make them believe that this is a terribly useful technique. Whenever I tell my students: Well, let’s go through what you have highlighted in this text? They shrug their shoulders and say: Not much, really. We know all the words. And then comes the testing which shows how little they actually knew. I can’t blame them though; if I hadn’t gone through all the hardships of an L2 learner myself, I might find this technique useless as well ...

The never-ending story of L2 learning

A lot of discussion is going on among EFL teachers on how to help language learners to reach a certain level; how to help them improve, go up to a higher plateau, walk further, dig deeper, etc. It’s as though we assumed that the learners are never good enough; never satisfied with what they’ve achieved. However, it recently struck me that maybe, some learners have already achieved their desired level and they want to maintain it and stabilize it. This is just as difficult as the way up. In some cases it’s even harder. 
This can happen, for example, when learners suddenly and unintentionally find themselves among peers who are far below their level. This is the case of some of my students who passed the FCE exam last year, for which they had worked very hard and intensely, but later on when everything was over they quit attending various extra courses and now they only live on their previously gained knowledge.
I imagine that the fall is immediate and quite painful. The feeling that you suddenly don’t have to work so hard may be intoxicating at first; we all know how heady success may feel. But it’s also terribly easy, in a matter of a couple of months or even weeks of inactivity, to forget many of the things one once learned so laboriously. The feeling of despair when one realizes that all of a sudden they can’t recall phrases and words they once knew so well must be frustrating. I reckon it may even make one feel angry – angry with oneself, with the peers, with the teacher, with the whole world… 
Human being is a strange creature. Laziness is hiding and lurking ready to strike when one is vulnerable and unprepared. But it’s hardly surprising. It’s extremely difficult not to be lazy if there is no motivation not to be. So slowly and unexpectedly, the one who used to be high above the level of their peers suddenly starts losing points. They fail a simple vocabulary test, for example, because they had expected it to be too easy to give it a damn. Meanwhile their weaker peers get straight As because they’re used to working hard all the time.
The problem is obvious – we (read: the whole society) sometimes indirectly and implicitly encourage our students to believe that once they pass an important exam or obtain a prestigious certificate, it’s over for good. However, if we don’t encourage them to get used to setting goals permanently, they’ll often experience a feeling of bitter disappointment. So the question should be: OK. When I pass the FCE exam, what will my next step be? The document itself is worthless if it’s not backed up by a new plan or goal. 
At the beginning I talked about maintaining and stabilizing a level. But now I think it’s quite impossible to maintain a level unless one wants to permanently get better at something. To put it simply, it’s either rise or fall. If one does little or nothing, it’ll ultimately mean deterioration. If one constantly works hard and sets oneself challenging goals, it will inevitably lead to stabilization or even improvement. 
I think that the habit of working for material results and outcomes has become a disease. Those who work because they simply love what they do will finally achieve perfection anyway. Or they may not but that doesn’t matter to them. Those who work for perfection itself may never reach it; even worse, even if they reach it, it’ll be difficult or impossible to keep it up and their unfulfilled wishes and dreams will be slowly killing their desire to go on. I believe that true perfection is infinite and it’s always born out of love and passion. This means that my job is to inspire and motivate; my job is to plant seeds of passion and love for the language. My job is to show the direction, while the students’ job is to get there. And once they get there, they should set off for another journey, equipped with all the useful life skills and learning strategies that the education system offered them.

My attempt to square the circle

Earlier today I asked my A1-A2 students to complete a short fun quiz. The questions were pretty basic but, from a language point of view, the activity was suitably challenging for their level of proficiency. Thus I’d handed out dictionaries so that anybody could find any unknown vocabulary if necessary. I monitored during the activity and observed which words they were looking up. They were doing fine until they got to a simple question: How many sides does a square have? Almost simultaneously, they all started flicking through their dictionaries.
It was a couple of years back when, for the first time ever, I asked my students to take the Nation’s Vocabulary Level Test. It was a group of pre-intermediate learners (A2-B1) and my intention was to find out how large their vocabulary was. I remember I was pretty surprised that although they were familiar with lots of academic vocabulary items, they didn’t know the word square. They knew one of the meanings – a large open area in the centre of a town – but they were genuinely amazed that it also refers to a geometrical shape (they obviously got it that there was a relation between the two meanings as soon as they’d learnt the new meaning). According to the Longman Communication 3000, the word is one of the 2000 most common words in spoken English and one of the 3000 most common words in written English. 
I wondered why my pre-intermediate weren’t familiar with such a common word but they knew, for example, what persuade means – a word that is less common in spoken English than the word square. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Czech students are familiar with the word circle or round at fairly early stages of learning English. These words are present in most coursebook instructions, as in circle the correct word, or put a circle round the correct word. This is usually demonstrated visually. I tried to go through all the coursebooks my students had used up to that moment but I couldn’t find or remember a context in which we had talked about squares.
What I find interesting is that in most proficiency listening tests, the word square is included at very early stages, i.e. in the KET exam or at A1 level. As if the test designers knew that this is a general problem. Thus my students invariably fail to answer the corresponding question whenever they sit a mock test, and I always realize that I forgot to teach this word – again! I think I forget because the coursebook authors don’t remind me. But why don’t I actually need the word in the classroom context at all? Why does it rarely emerge during the lessons if it’s so frequent and common in everyday life?
Maybe I’m wrong and maybe we use the wrong coursebooks. Maybe the word can already be found in elementary coursebooks, but at the school where I teach we usually start with higher levels so it’s so easy to miss it. Nevertheless, even if the students had been told earlier, by somebody else, say, their primary school English teacher, I can claim that the word is not even part of their passive vocabulary because the low-level tests are designed using lots of visuals and the question is usually something along these lines: Look at the picture and circle the correct answer. Do they want the round table or the square one?
Why is the word so elusive? In my view, the problem is the discrepancy between the visual and the verbal aspect. The truth is that kids learn to distinguish basic shapes at very early stages of their cognitive development, so they definitely are familiar with the concept. However, in L2 learning, we must also consider the verbal aspect. To put it simply, the word square is not easy to pronounce and thus it’s not easy to remember. Moreover, the spelling of the word is rather confusing for a beginner, and there seems to be little relation between the written form and the actual sound. If you compare it to other words introduced in early stages such as cat, dog, pen, desk, red, swim, walk or book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Is it the reason why coursebook writers avoid this word early on? And why do test designers like to include it in proficiency tests then? I’d say that it’s because they know the word is pretty frequent and quite useful – not only does it describe a common shape but one can use it to define nouns, especially everyday objects.
We teach what’s in the coursebook because we trust the coursebook writers. We believe they know what is frequent and useful. But I’m not convinced all coursebooks are written according to this philosophy. Thus we’re sometimes made to teach things which are easy to learn but which are pretty useless in a larger context. I understand that it’s good to teach words that represent objects which the learners can see and touch on the spot, but we easily forget other, more important ones. Why teach a long list of animals when it’d be much handier to present, for example, lots of adjectives and actions to describe two or three most common/popular pets? Am I trying to square the circle? 

Petty details or vital issues?

Being able to observe other teachers in action opens up new horizons for me. It makes me reflect on my own teaching, mainly because it helps me understand things which I wasn’t even aware of before. I encourages me to think about small details, but it also gives me a general picture of what good teaching means to me.

It was already before this particular lesson that some disturbing ideas had been swirling in my head. Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m aware of the fact that there are some important issues the observer is bound to focus on during an observation, such as interaction patterns, collaboration, eliciting, TTT, timing, error correction, feedback, assessment, classroom management, seating arrangement, etc. What I’m not really sure about and what slightly worries me is what the observer should actually ignore. 
Let’s say one observes quite an experienced teacher. By experienced I mean that the teacher has been in the profession for some time now and thus she knows what pitfalls and dangers await her in the classroom. She knows how to manage the class, how to deal with discipline problems, her command of English is pretty good, and she’s very confident about her teaching skills. 
Let’s say that during that lesson (a class of intermediate young adults), I notice some minor issues, listed below in no particular order:
1) T makes minor errors such as, troubles instead of trouble, or wrong word order in indirect speech. 
2) T doesn’t finish her sentences.
3) Apart from giving clear instructions, T uses lots of redundant, barely audible language.
4) T asks Ss to complete a gap-fill during a video projection but switches the lights off so that it’s completely dark in the room. 
5) T openly ignores a S’s open reluctance to complete a task. 
6) T overuses one particular word in order to praise or motivate. 
It’s crystal clear that the above issues don’t tremendously affect the quality of the lesson, or more precisely, the quality of Ss’ learning. So my question is, if I should mention them to my colleague at all (provided she is willing to listen). Why am I not so sure? I suppose it’s because each of the points may have more than one scenario. 
ad 1) 
Scenario 1: T obviously realizes that this is not correct and this particular error was just a slip of the tongue. She is unlikely to say it again even if you keep it to yourself. 
!Scenario 2: T does not know that troubles is not the plural of trouble in the sense of problems. Nobody knows everything after all. However, some Ss may be familiar with this tricky vocabulary item and they may feel their T is not competent enough, even though they won’t say it explicitly. 
ad 2) and 3)
Scenario 1: T is only nervous and this is a way of easing the tension. Normally, she speaks fluently, without redundancies or other embellishments. 
Scenario 2: T is/is not aware of this irritating habit but apart from the observer, nobody really cares. 
!Scenario 3: T is not aware of this irritating habit but Ss are, and if the observer told her, she might think about it and finally try to fix it.
ad 4) 
Scenario 1: T didn’t realize this but this situation is unlikely to happen again. It actually happened on a very cloudy day. Normally it’s not so dark in the room so Ss can see the handouts clearly even when the lights are off. 
Scenario 2: T realized it but didn’t want to change the course of the activity/flow of the lesson because she was being observed. The chances are that this won’t happen again under normal circumstances. 
!Scenario 3: T knew that it was too dark but didn’t think it was a problem and will allow this to happen again. 
ad 5)
Scenario 1: T didn’t find this incident important. This was just sporadic. Normally the student works well; today he’s showing off though. 
Scenario 2: This happens regularly and T normally deals with the problem. However, she didn’t want to make fuss about it because she was under time pressure (and being observed). 
!Scenario: 3: This happens regularly but T doesn’t want to deal with it because it keeps her from doing more important stuff. 
ad 6)
Scenario 1: The observer is a nutter. Nobody else cares or even notices. 
!Scenario 2: T doesn’t realize this but Ss find it irritating and ridiculous. 
When observing a lesson, one never knows which option (scenario) is relevant and worth mentioning and elaborating on. I put exclamation marks next to those options which I think should be dealt with during the feedback session, even though at first sight these issues seem unimportant. I’m a perfectionist and I tend to record every petty detail. However, this can turn out to be really irritating and frustrating for the observee, so I tend to be really cautious before bringing the issues up. As with language learners, it’s better to elicit first and then present, i.e. to ask about the context and circumstances and then draw conclusions. 

Formal assessment – no place for compassion?

It never ceases to amaze me how everyday experiences outside the classroom make me reflect on my teaching; how things totally unrelated to the teaching context invariably point to what I do and what I’m like as an educator.
Earlier today I went shopping to the local supermarket. I’m a regular customer there and I tend to open my wallet willingly because they offer lots of discounts and enticements for kids. Currently, they’re giving out Smurf stickers for every purchase equalling or exceeding 200,- Kč (Czech crowns). As logic suggests, a purchase worth 400,- Kč means two stickers, etc. And for 6 stickers the kid gets a plastic Smurf figure. So when I came up to the checkout and the cashier announced “200, -Kč”, I rejoiced because I thought I had done a smaller shopping and that I’d leave empty-handed. I paid by my credit card and waited eagerly (my little son actually did) for the highlight of our little shopping ‘spree’. Nothing happened though. So I asked. The cashier, a middle-aged, stern-looking woman replied that the receipt showed ‘no sticker’. I, slightly bewildered, opposed. She grabbed the paper receipt and pointed to the sum reading 199.50, – Kč. “But you originally asked me for 200, – Kč”, I retorted. She said: “But the receipt says 199.50. The cash register rounds off the sum”. No “sorry”, no “OK, here’s a sticker so that your little son is happy”, no “I know this is a silly rule but that’s the way it is, but here you are”, etc. I was shocked.
I really hate making a scene in public and I’m often more assertive than I should be but this time I did let some steam off. I didn’t argue because there was no point, the rules are crystal clear, but I couldn’t help grumbling and ranting on my way from the cashier’s desk to the exit, so that everybody could hear me clearly. I wasn’t angry about the rules; I was angry with the woman who didn’t bother to show compassion. Yes, I expected her to circumvent the rules because I knew that other cashiers do this regularly – when they see a kid with the parent, they even give out more stickers than they should because they know many people don’t care about Smurfs and they leave the stickers on the counter.
How is this incident related to teaching, you may wonder? Well, on my way home I thought of the assessment system and the way we evaluate learners. I’m a soft teacher, and whenever a kid gets a score just below the limit, e.g. when down to 90% it is still the highest grade but the kid gets say, 89.5 %, I invariably do what’s in my power to give the kid the highest grade. I either check the whole test again trying to find half a point here or there, or I simply give the kid the highest grade (or an A- instead of an A+). Nobody gets hurt and the kid is happy and motivated to do better next time.
I’m convinced that this is what distinguishes me from a machine or a software program. Without trying to celebrate my super character or something, I really believe that this human touch means a lot in education. Grading is not always fair; in fact it’s terribly unfair in most cases and for many students, so why not make it more merciful if need be. Nobody has ever complained that I’m being unfair. My students know that this narrow escape can happen to anybody in the class and the students who get 88% accept a B without further ado, even though they could grumble.
A final note: I’m well-aware of the fact that cashiers are terribly under-paid so they can’t be bothered to do more than what’s expected from them. I know I’m criticizing somebody for petty reasons. And I do fully realize that the fact that I got angry for such a trivial reason will ultimately make me regret it. I suppose I wouldn’t get a high grade for this kind of behaviour. But I’ll try to do better next time …. 

A yet to be piloted lesson plan

Before, throughout and after the most recent #eltchat, many burning questions emerged in my mind. The topic of the chat was How to teach writing. Based on my experience, teaching writing is not exactly popular with most EFL teachers. I don’t think that it’s primarily because teachers find it off-putting to correct written assignments; I suspect the reason may be that most teachers really don’t know how to teach writing effectively. Personally, I have no problem with speaking, listening or reading. I think I can prepare a meaningful lesson focusing on any of the three skills. When it comes down to writing though, I don’t feel so confident. Is it because in real life,  I do more speaking, listening and reading and so I find it easier and more natural to teach these skills in L2? 
I wouldn’t say I’m a totally inexperienced writer, though; I’ve been writing this blog for some time now, and I think I have some idea of how difficult it is to produce a cohesive and coherent piece of text. I have a huge advantage, however. I can write whatever I want and whenever I wish. The problem is that at school, students are permanently asked to write about topics prescribed by the teachers or the curricula. Write an opinion essay about technology and how it can affect people’s lives, write a report about an accident you’ve recently had, etc. Sometimes we let our students choose the topic, but I dare say that it doesn’t happen very often. And they definitely have to write when the teacher tells them.
Although I too struggle with teaching writing, I think I’ve done a couple of simple activities which proved quite effective, especially when done repeatedly and frequently. For example, I ask Ss to describe and compare random pictures in pairs and later on, when they’ve had plenty of time to prepare, I get them to do the same in writing. Over time, I’ve seen some great improvements in my students’ basic written production. My students have improved their grammar tremendously (verb agreement, plural, the present continuous, prepositions, there is/are, articles, stative verbs), vocabulary (clothes, colours, verbs for actions, adverbs of place, linking devices), but they’ve also polished their style (for example, they know it’s best to start with the general and continue towards the more specific). By asking Ss to write their descriptions down, I encourage them to recycle vocabulary and focus on the language they use in speaking naturally and fluently, but in which they often tend to make mistakes. This activity is something between controlled practice and free practice; Ss are free to write about anything they like but obviously, they’re restricted by the content of the prompts – the images.
To be completely honest, I don’t think L2 learners should be given too much freedom in writing up to a certain level of proficiency, say intermediate. It’s great when Ss can express their ideas and get their message across. The trouble is that they are fond of using their self-invented idioms and collocations, usually directly translated from L1, and when these fossilize, it’s difficult to get rid of them. That’s why I think learners should practise using ready-made chunks and fixed phrases, rather than let their fantasy unwind too much at the early stages of learning the language. I think it’s best the teach Ss paraphrase and summarize (or, alternatively, elaborate) first, and only later let them create their own, unique pieces of writing. 
There’s one thing I’ve recently got really excited about; it’s the News In Levels website. I’ve been peeking in there for some time now but I’ve never actually tried out any of the audios in class, even though I believe it’s a fabulous resource. While reading Ceri Jones’s post Writing to Learn, where she mentions the concept of dictogloss, I couldn’t help visiting the website again and immediately an idea occurred to me. Obviously, the three-level audios are great for practising listening and they are a great source of useful vocabulary, but I believe they’re also highly suitable for teaching writing. This is what I’m planning to do:

A) Gradual elaboration: 1) Ask Ss to listen to the easiest (simplified) version of the authentic news item, i.e. Level 1. This is very short so I’ll use it as a dictation. 2) Play the more difficult version, including more details and more advanced vocabulary, which may be pre-taught if necessary. 3) Ask Ss to re-write the first version, i.e. they elaborate on it from memory, using more detail and more advanced vocabulary. 4) Play the Level 3 version – the original one – just the video, no sound. Allow Ss to make any changes again. 5) Play the video with the sound on. Let Ss add more information to their texts. 6) Ask Ss to write up and submit the final draft. 
B) The backward alternative of the activity; summarizing and paraphrasing: 1) Show the original video, sound off. Ss guess what happened. 2) Show the video again, this time with sound on. Ss try to get a grasp of the general meaning of the news item. 3) Play level 2 and finally level 1 (just audio, no video available). Thus I’ll make sure that even the weakest students know what the news item is about. 4) Ask Ss to write a summary of the news item. I hope that the overlap of visual and verbal memory with their previous knowledge will help Ss to produce the text, but they will probably produce different texts, based on their level of proficiency and writing skills. The weakest students will come up with some basic vocabulary and grammar, while more advanced learners, having caught more advanced structures, will write up a more elaborate summary. This may be perfect for mixed-ability classes. Subsequently, I’ll definitely include some vocabulary practice, because I believe it’s primarily extensive vocabulary that makes good writers. 
I’m going to try this out sometime next week. I think I’ll write a postscript, maybe a brand new post, to let you know how it worked. I’m not yet aware of potential drawbacks and dangers but unless technology fails, I believe everything should work well. I’m convinced this type of activity will be beneficial for many reasons: the videos are interesting, authentic and relatively up-to-date. They are short enough to keep Ss’ attention. The task to write the text is manageable. Ss will learn lots of useful, high-frequency vocabulary. Ss will practise listening, as well as writing, namely spelling (during the dictation), word order (when summarizing and elaborating). I hope the videos will incite interesting discussion. And students can even write an opinion essay in the end! 🙂

My first formal observations

This week I’ve done a couple of observations (precisely three with the one I described in my previous post). I really enjoyed the opportunity to see some decent lessons. I’m supposed to see every English teacher employed at our school once in the term; i.e. twice in the academic year. There are five English teachers, which then makes ten observations per year. This is my new duty which I was assigned when I became the head of the English department, and it’s the duty I was most looking forward to because I believe this is the most interesting and meaningful part of my job. 
I must admit that a year ago my observation feedback would have looked totally different. Not that I wasn’t competent or something – I had just finished my tough teacher training after all and I knew what to expect and say – but I saw things from a slightly different angle than I do now. One year ago I would have looked for flaws and improvements. I mean, not that I wouldn’t have told the teacher what is good, but I would have felt my duty is to help them become better teachers and that meant, at that time, fixing the flaws. Well, not that I don’t want to help my colleagues fix what I think is wrong with their teaching, I just doubt that I have the right to preach what’s wrong. The only thing that matters is whether the students learn. 
When observing the first lesson in question, I thought: Well, to my taste it’s a bit too quiet and calm in here; just some regular coursebook stuff. But then I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to concentrate on things which would otherwise remain unnoticed; either behind the glamour of the lesson, i.e. the teacher’s fantastic performance including the mastery of various gadgets and cool tools, or the noise the students usually make when having fun during super cool activities. There were no cool tools and no showing off on the teacher’s part though; the students worked quietly, but they did work all the time. The teacher spoke a little; she only spoke when asking questions, giving instructions and eliciting language from the students. The students produced most of the language. What I loved most was the eliciting part. It was when I realized how important and valuable it is to ask before you provide the answer, if you need to provide it at all. This information gap invariably attracts the students’ attention. I loved it when the teacher zoomed in on small words which were crucial to the overall meaning and successful completion of the task. From time to time I stopped observing and for a while I only kept listening with my eyes fixed down on the feedback form. It was when I could hear that the students were learning something. I knew; I could hear it.
Then I looked up again and saw the fantastic board work the teacher had produced throughout the lesson. My eyes could see and thus my brain could absorb and process. I suppose that’s how the students felt as well. Learners learn when they listen, but the spoken word is fleeting if not recorded in some form, at least the most salient parts. Putting things on the board and asking the students to copy them results in making these things permanent. Making a vocabulary or a grammar item permanent results in helping it find its way into the student’s memory. And thus learning occurs again. And this is what happened in this lesson.
Based on the lessons I’ve observed this week I’ve come to believe a couple of things. First, I truly believe that the best teachers spend most of the time drawing attention to language features. They make students notice what’s important. Good teachers then make the learners produce what they have noticed, either in writing or speaking. They recycle the language in a well-thought way. Secondly, when you observe a good lesson, you stop focusing on the teacher at some point – the teacher simply recedes into the background, even though you’re still aware of their presence. The students are in the spotlight of your observation, even though you actually came to see the teacher. Thirdly, there’s a huge difference between an effective and an impressive activity. An effective activity can be but doesn’t have to be impressive. And vice versa, an impressive activity may turn out totally ineffective. 
Finally, the question the observer or the observee (or any teacher in general) should ask at the end of each lesson is: What have the students learnt and how do I know? Both parts of the question are hard to answer. Every student is different and not all students pay attention all the time; some of them are unmotivated and they even hate being there. Thus it’s better to ask: What valuable learning opportunities have I offered and how do I know? I mean, sometimes the teacher does her best but the students don’t care. You cannot force people to learn things; they can only learn out of their own will. Hence the second question makes more sense. So when I’m sitting there as the observer, paying attention, I think I can judge whether the observee is offering learning opportunities. Alongside with the students, I’m the most objective subjective judge at the moment. And this should be the core of the subsequent feedback.
What do you think the students learnt and how do you know? This is the only thing I’m entitled to do: to ask this obvious yet challenging question. I’m not there to tell the observee that I do/would have done things differently – there’s no point. I’m not there to say that what the teacher did was wrong. No method is wrong if it helps people learn. So the only thing I can doubt question is whether learning occurred. If no learning happened, it wasn’t a good lesson. It was a waste of time and the kids may well have stayed at home watching an English movie or play a PC game instead. If learning did occur, the next question could be: Could I help them learn even more? This is the kind of reflection we should do together – the observee and I. This is the kind of reflection that will help us both, but it’s the students who’ll finally benefit most. 

Observation: the cross-curricular approach

Earlier today I observed a trainee teacher in action. It wasn’t actually proper observation; I ended up in the class incidentally. First of all, it wasn’t an English lesson at all; it was a biology lesson. I had been asked to sit in the class more as a ‘guard’ than an observer because the regular supervisor, a qualified biology teacher, was missing. I didn’t mind; I had lots of tests and essays to correct after all. So my initial intention was to sit there quietly, doing my stuff and paying no attention to what was happening. I wasn’t supposed to provide feedback or even talk to the teacher anyway, thus it was none of my business, so to speak
However, I didn’t have my earplugs on me so I did listen and I did pay attention in the end. I think I had never observed a lesson other than an EFL one, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter what subject teacher you observe; teaching principles are similar across the whole education spectrum. I guess it’s even to the good to go and see a lesson totally unrelated to the subject you teach. 
The first accidental observation was that the young teacher in front of me was pretty confident. To be more precise, she looked pretty confident. She spoke in a clear, pleasant and expressive manner – her voice was loud enough to be heard at the back of the classroom where I was sitting, but not irritatingly loud, shrieking or intrusive. The first thing that occurred to me was that some day she might become a fantastic teacher. She had the so-called innate qualities of a good professional – I admired the air of confidence surrounding her, I was in awe of her commanding presence, and I appreciated the proper level of strictness, which will undoubtedly bring her respect and authority once she manages to control what’s going on in the classroom. But it seemed to me that she was also caring. She asked questions to make sure that the students understood. She encouraged the students to ask whenever they had a problem. Later on, when she started speaking about the cranial bones and the best way to commit a suicide (oh yes, that’s what she did!), the students flooded her with curious questions. It was evident that she didn’t know all the answers but by no means did this make her feel nervous – she said she would find out and tell them the next time. This is something experienced teachers sometimes struggle with – the feeling that they must know all the answers at all costs. 
Unfortunately, sometimes she let the students ask too many questions, especially during the test. Inevitably, the students seized the opportunity to gain extra time for completing the quiz but also time to copy each other’s answers. I didn’t want to interrupt and undermine the teacher’s authority so I didn’t intervene, but I could see that the students were cheating, no matter how threatening my expression was. The thing is that I wasn’t sure what kind of test this was supposed to be – a mock test or a real test? One thing was certain; the test had been prepared by the regular biology teacher so the trainee could only guess the requirements and expected answers. The students haggled and squabbled, perhaps in the attempt to divert the teacher’s attention, but she always patiently answered their questions. 
While observing this part of the lesson, I came to a conclusion that one of the advantages of being a teacher with some experience is the fact that you can concentrate on two things happening at different corners of the room – over time, you simply improve your peripheral vision and your approach becomes more holistic in the physical sense of the word.
I must admit that I truly regretted that I wasn’t supposed to talk to the teacher and that I couldn’t tell her about all the positives. However, I also felt the urge to tell her that her board was a real mess; that I couldn’t make out any of the Latin terms she had written on the badly cleaned board. I desperately wanted to tell her that she had spoken when she was supposed to be silent and let the students work. 
I was genuinely surprised at how much one can notice without really paying attention. It also occurred to me that it might be a great idea to stop by in other teachers’ lessons from time to time just to get a general idea of how other subjects are taught. I think there are loads of things I could learn from a maths teacher, for example. One also gets an idea of how much the students actually know in other subjects; we invariably tend to judge them based on how well they can express themselves in L2 but there are students who are excellent at biology, for example, but struggle with English. Also, it’s not bad to see what is actually taught in other subjects so that we can naturally link what we do to other fields of education. 

The Board – my enemy?

Like any other teacher I have some favourite activities. I’m not talking about what we do in class as part of the learning process but specifically about what I do. I love cleaning the board with a wet sponge, for example. I love the moment of handing out corrected tests. I also enjoy recording marks into my grade book. I love it when I manage everything I have planned and the bell rings just after I say: Ok. That’s all for today.

There are things, though, that I don’t like very much. First of all, I hate taking attendance. The thing is that the class book always arrives at the most inappropriate moment – in the middle of someone’s sentence, midst a listening exercise, when I’m opening a file on my PC, etc. So I usually put off this somewhat mundane chore, and as a result I always forget about it completely in the end. Class teachers then chase me in the corridor asking me, with a more or less accusing look, to do what I should have done long ago.

There’s one thing that I hate even more than taking attendance. I hate board work. Not that I hate the board itself, I actually like it, especially when it’s newly painted, and I like the traditional chalk too, no matter how obsolete it may seem to some nowadays. What I hate is the act of doing something with my back to the class. I think this must be a psychological issue and perhaps it has something to do with control. I suspect I hate being observed without being able to see. This makes me spend as little time writing on the board as possible; I even tend to avoid it completely, which is reprehensible, of course. And when I do write on the board, I’m usually in a hurry, my style of writing is hasty and my handwriting sloppy. The other day I wrote something on the board and found out I had made 6 mistakes in just a couple of sentences. For example, I left out letter ‘t’ in ‘slightly’ – not only once but twice! I even invented a new word; instead of  ‘homework’ and came up with ‘homewsode’. I have no idea how this nonsense came to existence; I suppose I simply started thinking of something else in the middle of the word. Unfortunately, it was the students who’d noticed, not me. We all laughed at my incompetence, but I think it was a shame. I sometimes think I must suffer from some type of board dysgraphia – the specific angle and the distance from which I write on the board, as well as the size of the writing space, somehow prevent me from taking full control over my writing.

Anyway, this incident made me stop and think about my problem. Let me stress that I believe that decent board work is one of the aspects of a good lesson; it’s part of successful classroom management. I truly believe that the board should be well-organized and clear and I know that at the end of the lesson my board should ideally be full of useful vocabulary and grammar and I rejoice when I occasionally manage to produce it. Obviously, one thing that might help is planning. I’m not sure whether it would really solve my psychological problem, i.e. my reluctance to stand in a somewhat vulnerable position and let students watch my flabby biceps flapping while I’m writing – but it may definitely help me calm down and focus.

What I don’t mind at all, on the other hand, is sitting at the computer, typing on the keyboard, facing the class, the class facing me and the larger screen in front of them. From a psychological viewpoint, I feel I have more control over what I’m doing, and with just a slight shift of my eyes I can address the class and then immediately zoom in on my writing again. From a practical point of view, I can change and enlarge the font within a matter of seconds, I can insert pictures, graphs and tables, I can delete, copy and paste quickly without whirling dust that makes people in the room cough and choke. I also believe it helps students concentrate better because the teacher is not flying around, blocking their view. Finally, a digital record is always more legible and looks more organized, and it can be stored and referred to later. So I’m wondering if maybe, for my students’ sake, I should simply abandon traditional board work for good and do what I like doing and don’t struggle with….