Formal observation observations

IMG_20150622_152041Like every semester, I have just started a round of classroom observations. I’m required to see each English teacher in our department at least once in six months, which has been part of my job since Septemeber 2014. The main purpose of the observations is to help my colleagues to improve their teaching. However, officially, the observations are also conducted for the purposes of job-performance evaluation.

One of the problems related to both aforementioned purposes is that some of my colleagues have been teaching for a longer period of time than I have. In effect, there’s only one teacher who’s got less teaching experience than me. This, obviously, makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I mean, it’s ok when you do peer observation; the amount of experience doesn’t really matter because you’re both in equal positions. However, once you’re in a situation when the observee feels they must perform well because their performance will later be reflected in the overall evaluation, such a type of observation will never be seen as a genuine tool for professional development.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to diminish the impact of the inequality inherent to every formal observation. When observing a lesson, I take a lot of notes on a separate sheet of paper, but eventually, I have to summarize, and, to a certain extent, depersonalize, the feedback by transferring it onto a prescribed template. There’s lots of ticking there, which, to my mind, is a chore and doesn’t really say much about the actual lesson, and there are boxes where I’m supposed to record the amount of TTT as opposed to STT. This is noted down in the form of a percentage. But how could I possibly measure this accurately? Needless to say, I don’t bring along a stopwatch, which, by the way, might be a great idea, except that it would scare the teacher as well as the students, plus it would probably cast doubt upon my sanity.

Anyway, most of my colleagues already know that the ‘ideal’ ratio of TTT to STT is around 30% to 70 %. In other words, students should be engaged in plenty of speaking activities (if it’s not a writing lesson, for example). So, if there’s a decent amount of meaningful pair/group work, the observee will get the ideal ratio. Once I feel there’s space for improvement in this area, I leave the box empty.

Another thing that makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable is the two boxes titled POSITIVES and NEGATIVES. For one, they are too small. If I could design a new template, I’d definitely make them much larger and I’d rename the NEGATIVES one. I was thinking of something like THINGS TO CONSIDER instead. This sounds much better, but most importantly, it’s more acceptable for the observee, who might otherwise feel as if being criticized or even reprimanded.

When sharing feedback with the observee after the lesson, I take advantage of the separate piece of paper where there are all the ‘negatives’ (not called negatives). Eventually, I only copy the conclusions into the POSITIVES box and I leave the other one empty.

There’s also one more thing that bothers me and that is the final ‘grade’ the observee is supposed to get from me. The range is from outstanding to poor. I believe grading the observee’s performance in this way is not the best thing an observer can do. Not only is such a simplified conclusion very subjective and says nothing about the lesson, but anything except outstanding will always be somewhat discouraging for a professional, let alone a highly experienced one. So I also leave this box empty. Sue me.

How languages should be taught

20151017_122011When I was registering for another ILC IH Brno conference earlier in October, I noticed that they were offering two workshops for teachers of German. This tweak immediately caught my attention, mainly because this was the first time the organizers had included another foreign language in the conference programme (at least as far as I know).

Despite my rather limited knowledge of German, I worked out that both presentations were aimed at helping teachers find ways of motivating students to learn the rather unpopular language. Although I’ve never taught German and I’m not planning to, I eventually decided to go and listen to two talks done in a language I understand but can’t speak. I knew that it was a big step out of my comfort zone, but for some reason, I simply couldn’t resist. Needless to say, I gained some really valuable experience during this ‘experiment’ and made a couple of interesting observations, as a learner as well as an EFL teacher.

The first presenter was a non-native speaker of German. She spoke fast but quite clearly, so I could understand most of what she was saying. My success was partly influenced by the fact that she spoke about something I was familiar with. i.e. language teaching. I estimate my receptive knowledge of German to be somewhere around the B2 level (my bold guess), which means that I can understand discussions about some topics (and some German dialects) without major difficulties. My productive knowledge, though, is less satisfactory – currently around A1-A2 level. This means that I can only produce simple sentences, but I believe that if I was given plenty of speaking opportunities and time to practise, my speaking skills would probably improve quickly.

Anyway, due to the above discrepancy, I felt rather frustrated during both presentations. I’d describe the way I felt as a sort of paralysis, and I imagine this is how innocent victims of devious villains respond when administered a dose of curare – they can sense everything, but they can’t move a single muscle. My frustration wouldn’t have been a big deal really, but when we were asked to work in groups or pairs, I was sad that I couldn’t contribute to the discussion sufficiently. I’m afraid this often happens to our students too and we teachers often misjudge this as a lack of enthusiasm. Luckily, the teacher and the other participants were endlessly patient with me (plus they could speak Czech or English), which made me feel relatively safe. So my first observation is that the gap between the passive and active knowledge of a  foreign language can be enormous and that the Silent Period is a theory that should be respected.

The other speaker was a native speaker of German and although I had already tuned in a bit during the first presentation, I had real trouble to follow this one. Thus, I infer that non-native speaking language teacher can sometimes be advantageous, especially for less confident or less proficient students. Fortunately, the native speaking teacher was very expressive, using plenty of facial expressions and pantomime, which often helped me to finally get the meaning of what she was saying. Again, the topic was familiar to me, which definitely eased the burden of the enormous language load constantly thrown at me. By the way, when I got home, I noticed that my neck was somewhat stiff, probably from all the nodding which, on a very subconscious level, was to make up for the lack of productive skills on my part. What now comes to mind is the indisputable merit of Total Physical Response.

Some other things that helped me a lot were the visuals, board work, lots of repetition and occasional translation – from German to Czech or English. The fact that I wasn’t forbidden to use my mother tongue (or a language I speak fluently) made a huge difference to my experience. What springs to mind now is the ongoing debate regarding the use of L1 in an L2 classroom.

While listening to both presenters, I suddenly got a very clear idea of how foreign languages should be taught. Not that I hadn’t had a firm opinion before. I mean, I myself have been a language teacher for more than two decades, which has definitely made me an experienced professional in my own field of expertise. However, the fact that I’m familiar with all sorts of teaching methods doesn’t necessarily make me aware of all the problems a foreign language learner faces on a daily basis. It is experience that is often the best teacher.

My ambivalent view on grammar and tests

20151010_113033_4_bestshotEvery student will probably say that tests suck. I’d add that a badly designed grammar test is a nightmare – not just for the students but for the teacher as well. If it is you who designed the test (thus you can’t blame the bloody coursebook), you’re in for a bit of self-flagellation.

The reason why a grammar test can turn into a nightmare is because English grammar is really tricky and your knowledge of it will never be completely satisfactory. I mean, if you pay attention to all the renowned educators who criticize the way we teach English, especially the grammar, you can end up pretty confused. The good news is that if you have a problem, you can always turn to your PLN. This is fantastic except that it only make things worse at times. Who should you be actually listening to – the native speakers, the non-native speakers, the Americans or the Australians?

I think I’m very flexible and always open to new ideas. But I also know that at some point, my students will expect a definite answer from me. Sure, I can always say that things are not clear-cut and that it’s more important how people actually use the language rather than what’s in the book, but not all students are ready to accept a vague or an equivocal explanation. I don’t really want to pretend I have all the answers up my sleeve, but I’m sometimes fed up with the there-is-really-no-correct-answer cliché. If you tell your students that there is no correct answer, what’s the point in testing them at all?

Anyway, the other day I created one of those darned tests. It was a regular grammar gap fill, and I hoped it would be quick to complete and correct. It was not too difficult but challenging enough to show me if my B1/B2 students still struggle with past tenses. One of the sentences was

John …………………. (revise) for a test while Anne ……………………………. (listen) to music. 

I automatically assumed that the students will come up with John was revising for a test while Anne was listening to music since that was the structure they were familiar with. I should mention that when correcting tests, I always start with those students who are likely to get a good result. If one of them comes up with an unexpected answer, I always sit up and take notice. However, if a weaker student produces the same unexpected answer, things become even more complicated.

If a good student comes up with something unusual, yet correct, you may automatically come to believe that he or she must have seen it somewhere, presumably in some kind of authentic context, e.g. in an English book, magazine, movie, on the internet, etc. And you probably feel very proud that your students do some extra work outside of the regular lessons. Alternatively, you may assume that your students expressed a higher level of understanding and produced something very logical, which you forgot to take into consideration when designing the test.

However, if a weak student comes up with the same, unusual, grammatical structure, you presume (and, let’s be honest, you’re often right) that he or she chose the option due to a lack of knowledge. So, you know that two different students produced identical answers, which, however, doesn’t prove they both have the same knowledge of the subject matter. You would probably agree that your subjective feeling is totally worthless in such a case; you can’t subtract or add points just because of your assumptions.

So, here are a few examples of what my students (both proficient and the less proficient ones) came up with during the test:

  1. John was revising for a test while Anne was listening to music.
  2. John revised for a test while Anne listened to music.
  3. John revised for a test while Anne was listening to music.
  4. John was revising for a test while Anne listened to music.

20151010_112939If you check a grammar book, you’ll see that #1 is a classic example of how the past continuous is taught and, as I said, this is what I expected my students to produce. Number 2 is correct too, but I  had never told my students about this particular option. I found an example of #2 in Advanced Grammar in Use, which makes me conclude that that it’s considered a ‘more advanced’ structure for expressing the past. Number 3 looks OK to me, and the students probably meant to emphasize that one of the activities (listening) was in progress whereas the other one was a completed activity. I have a problem with number 4, though, despite the fact that there’s no reason to dismiss the sentence as grammatically incorrect.

The trouble is that #4 was produced by a rather weak student, who, overall, got a very low score. This, to me, is an implication that he isn’t very confident in using past tenses, or, in more ‘communicative’ terms, he’s not very good at talking about the past.

To conclude my post, I’d say that grammar tests like the one I just described do suck and I’ll be very careful when designing something similar next time. Anyway, my students will probably consider me a schizophrenic once I hand out the corrected tests on Monday because they’ll see how many times I’d changed my mind before I came up with the final score. 🙂

On trust and other virtues

IMG_20151007_204405Some see life as a string of lessons. When I think about it, it’s interesting that we call the moments of insight ‘lessons’. Taking into consideration traditional education, I quite understand why we use the idiom to teach someone a lesson when talking about punishment. But if you learn your lesson, the kind of experience we mean doesn’t really have much in common with those lessons we usually take at school.

First of all, there’s no teacher who judges us or assesses us. These lessons are never planned in advance and as there’s no teacher, there are no objectives or expected learning outcomes. In fact, there’s nobody (but you) to expect learning to take place. When you learn your lesson, things just happen and oftentimes, you realize with a little delay that learning actually happened.

Anyway, back to my lesson. I’d say that I’ve always known what my weaknesses are. For example, I’m aware of the fact that I jump to conclusions too quickly and that I can be easily deceived by the things I see and hear. I believe in intuition, but I admit that my vision is often blurred by prejudice. I tend to use my previous experience to judge the present, thus a stimulus can often create a totally wrong response on my part. However, I’m proud to announce that I recently learned my lesson and finally managed to save the day by widening the space between a stimulus and my response.

But first things first. A few days ago, the following incident happened. Towards the end of a class, I asked a couple of students (14-year-olds) to clean the board. The rest of the group, including myself, left the room before they finished the job. When I came back to the same room 10 minutes later to teach another class (19-year-olds), I noticed a potentially abusive symbol materializing itself on the board (somebody had scribbled it down with a finger and it took the doodle some time to show up on the drying board). It was not a big deal but it was somewhat embarrassing and unexpected so I asked the 19-year-olds if they had done it. They said they hadn’t. So I went and asked the two younger students if they had done it. Obviously, they said they hadn’t. I really don’t know why I wanted to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I suddenly couldn’t step back anymore.

IMG_20151007_185235The problem is that I automatically trusted the older students and accused the younger ones with no evidence whatsoever. I just supposed that the younger kids would be more inclined to do such a thing. I should stress that the younger boys (let’s call them John and Peter) are no angels. Nevertheless, they felt pretty aggrieved that I didn’t trust them and they expressed their attitude quite openly (read: in a somewhat rude manner). Anyway, they came to me voluntarily the next day and we clarified things a bit. I apologized for my prejudice and they apologized for having been rude. I’ll conclude this story saying that I’ll probably never find out if they did it or not and that it’s actually not important in relation to what I’m about to say now.

The next week, another incident happened. I found out that a boy from my class had created a website. I was happy when I incidentally learned about it and as their homeroom teacher, I was obviously curious to see what my students were up to. I checked the website a couple of times and everything seemed ok at first. However, a few days later somebody tampered with the cover photo adding some ambiguous (religious and political) symbols. To cut a long story short, I automatically assumed that it was John who had done it because of my previous experience and because he was one of the administrators of the website. I thought I had enough clues to believe he was the culprit. Again, it was not a big deal but I got a bit angry with John because he seemed to be mocking all the effort the other boy put in the website.

In retrospect, I must say that luckily, I didn’t take action, such as informing the parents, immediately. The next day I talked to a couple of kids from the class and finally learned that John was not guilty of tampering with the cover photo, even though he had allegedly posted some inappropriate content, which the creator of the website decided to delete (and which I have never seen). Ironically, the person responsible for adding the symbols was someone I trusted unconditionally.

The morals of the story:

  1. Things are not always what they seem to be.
  2. Stick to the presumption of innocence rule.
  3. If you don’t have hard evidence proving someone’s guilt, you’d better trust them.
  4. Trust is very fragile. Try not to break it.

The precious language outcome

IMG_20151002_220221Like every weekend this school year, I’m busy correcting a set of my students’ written assignments right now. When planning the senior class course back in August, I thought it would be a good idea to have the students write a lot and often. Based on my experience, students tend to grumble when they are required to produce something longer now and then. However, once the writing practice becomes regular, they get used to it and they finally start to like it (and, believe it or not, ultimately, you may even start enjoying all the correcting too).

Each Monday, before handing out the corrected essays, I give my students collected feedback. I put a couple of the recurrent errors on the board and provide quick explanations. Most of the time, they nod in agreement: “This is so obvious! Why on earth is she telling us? I’d never make such a silly mistake, would I?” But sometimes, I can spot a sign of surprise in their eyes: “Oh dear, she must be talking about my essay now!”.

Every Monday, when sharing the collected feedback, I say something along the lines: “Remember? Last Monday we talked about the difference between other and another. Yet, some of you got it wrong again. We also discussed the difference between it’s and its, still, many of you used these words incorrectly again.” I try not to be harsh. I hope I always say the words with an understanding smile. I want my students to know that I don’t judge them; I want to reassure them that these things just happen. But I also want to let them know that there’s still a lot to learn and refine, especially through writing and language production in general.

One would think that the above examples are the easiest things for your students to grasp and internalize. One would suppose that B1/B2 students can’t possibly get the possessive its wrong. But they do. Over and over again. No matter how often I tell my students that they should keep articles in mind, they will rarely use them correctly if they are not ready yet. It’s a never-ending story; I correct their essays, give them extensive feedback, revise the rules for using articles but whack! – next time they make the same mistakes or invent even more bizzare examples of language use.

But I don’t despair because it’s their mistakes and their language outcome – something I try to value despite all the imperfections. I will gently keep reminding them of the little flaws as long as they need it. And I believe that they’ll finally get it. Some of them will get it tomorrow, others will need more time. Anyway, I can see they get a little better with each new essay. They are more confident and more eager to get it right this time. I know new problems will always come up along the way, but I would never be able to find out about the potential problems without having them constantly produce something genuine, something of their own.