The teacher in me

20160123_083112People go to foreign countries for various reasons – to experience different cultures, taste regional cuisines, learn about ancient traditions, enjoy beautiful sceneries and admire unusual architectures.

As soon as I find myself in a foreign country, particularly a non-English speaking one, my attention is immediately drawn to its linguistic landscapes. By linguistic landscapes, I mean everything related to the language or languages used on the spot.

For example, it gives me great pleasure to decode the street signs and graffiti I bump into and to look for similarities and differences with languages I already know.

I thoroughly enjoy eavesdropping people’s conversations on trains or buses, even if I have no idea what they’re saying. I absolutely love watching people’s gestures and I’m totally thrilled when I finally catch a familiar word or two. At that moment, I realise how exciting it must be to learn a foreign language outside the classroom, in natural surroundings.

If only I could wander the streets and listen for as long as it takes to learn to 20160122_143214communicate in the new language. I don’t know how much time I’d really need, but I know I’d finally make it – all on my own. What a great feeling it would be to know that I’ve learnt a language the way a child learns their mother tongue – slowly, step by step, just by watching, listening, imitating and interacting.

I also like to zoom in on how people relate to English. I notice how difficult or easy it is to approach somebody in the street when I’m speaking English. Will the people be willing to respond to a foreigner or will they be reluctant to communicate? If so, what’s the reason for their reluctance? Is it their patriotism or the lack of confidence to speak a language other than their own? How proficient are they? Is the respondent’s age important, i.e. is it safer to address a youngster or an elderly person if you need help? And in which professions are you likely to find somebody reasonably proficient in English?

I also like to see people’s reactions when I start using my mother tongue. Do they become suspicious? Does it make them friendly or hostile? Some tend to confuse Czech with Russian, others are totally puzzled. Some of them are curious enough to ask, others remain oblivious.

Finally, how do the people address me if they hear me speak an unidentifiable language? Do they ask in their mother tongue, hoping I speak it too, or do they automatically try English?

20160122_114022One way or another, the teacher in me is always alert and never stops asking questions: How could I make use of my observations in the classroom? Should I stop focusing on grammar? How should I sequence the vocabulary I teach? What do my students really need to learn first? Is listening more important than speaking or reading? What makes people confident to use a foreign language? How can I increase my students’ motivation to learn English? What methods could I use to make learning more authentic?

 

 

Intermittent writing

20160110_171521Some of you might have come across the term Intermittent Fasting. It’s a special pattern of eating that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. I should add that it’s somewhat controversial, mainly because it challenges the widespread assumption that people should eat little and often.

Whether it’s beneficial or harmful to health is up to you to consider, but what would you think of Intermittent Writing?

The idea occurred to me while I was listening to a presentation by Alice Keeler on YouTube. She asks:

Why is doing an essay in a Google Doc better than doing it on a piece of paper?

She argues that the main advantage is that the teacher can insert a comment while the student is working on the document. She adds that research shows that many students don’t take traditional feedback on a writing assignment as a learning opportunity. What is more, it damages their self-esteem in some ways. So giving students continuous feedback during the actual process of writing shows them that your aim is to help, not only to assess them.

Well, I still like my students to write their assignments on paper, but I thought it may be a good idea to try something like an ‘intermittent writing’ procedure.

20160110_171606This method works best with classes that you meet regularly and frequently. I, for example, see most of my classes four times a week for 45-min periods.

While the approach may not be perfectly suitable for creative writing classes, it’s definitely good for producing structured written assignments, such as an opinion essay. I’ll shortly explain why I think so.

The structure of an opinion is relative fixed and it usually consists of several parts:

  • an introductory paragraph in which you state the topic and your opinion
  • a main body which consists of several paragraphs, each presenting a separate viewpoint supported by reasons

Note: I usually ask my students to write two middle paragraphs, i.e. one paragraph where they come up with the pros/ advantages/ positives and one paragraph in which they contrast the previous one by stating the possible cons/ disadvantages/ flaws/ negatives, etc..

  • a conclusion in which you restate your opinion using different words

So, let’s say your students are required to write an opinion essay about the topic Environment (200-250 words). You give them the following prompt:

‘Scientific progress does more harm than good to the environment.’ Do you agree?

Spoiler: Your students are not going to write all the essay at one go.

In Lesson 1, you ask them to consider the topic, plan the outline of the essay and brainstorm the basic points and arguments. They will only be allowed to write the introductory paragraph (about 50-60 words) before they hand in the assignments.

20160110_171543In Lesson 2, they look at your feedback and tips you offered, and they rewrite the introductory paragraph. They can make any additional changes they wish. Then they produce the next paragraph. They should stick to the word limit 50-60 words. Again, they finally hand in the product. This time, you will only concentrate on the second paragraph, but you’ll certainly want to see what changes each student made in the first paragraph (so keep all the drafts!). Still, try to resist the temptation to comment on the first one again, with the exception of cohesion, for example, i.e. consider if the first and the second paragraphs are logically connected.

In Lesson 3, Ss rewrite the second paragraph and produce paragraph 3. And so on …

Finally, they rewrite the whole essay, including any changes they find appropriate, and hand in the final product, this time for summative assessment.

During the ‘fasting’ period, i.e. the period between the two lessons, students will get an opportunity to ‘digest’ what they previously produced. They will be able to think forward and plan their next steps. By taking into account the teacher’s feedback, they will be able to make changes they would otherwise never consider. In addition, they’ll get a chance to get a much better grade since the whole process was broken down into very small, manageable steps. Finally, you slow down those sloppy writers, whose only aim is to get the thing done as quickly as possible.

I’m not saying that the approach is suitable for all teaching contexts, but I believe that grading the writing task this way can be helpful when you are introducing a new stylistic form, for instance. Finally, and most importantly, it’s a process-oriented approach rather than a product-based one.

That Feeling When …

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I don’t know about  you, but for me, it’s not always easy to resume teaching on Mondays or after a holiday, especially if the break was longer than usual. I normally start the first class by asking students what they’ve experienced since our last lesson. However, even though it’s probably one of the most natural ways of starting a genuine conversation, How was your weekend/ holiday? has become a somewhat hackneyed question over time. So I’m constantly on the lookout for new, creative ways of getting started after a longer break.

Let me digress a little now. The other day, I was about to start making lunch for my family, when I discovered that I can’t find the peeler. As this was not the first time such an unfortunate situation had occurred, I immediately suspected that I had unintentionally thrown the peeler out with the potato peels. I don’t know why, but what spontaneously sprang to mind was the phrase: “… that feeling when (… you discover that you probably threw the peeler out with the potato peels the last time you peeled potatoes.)”.

So, despite my bitter frustration, a new idea for a lesson activity instantly came into existence. As I have a Twitter as well as a Facebook account, I know that the phrase that feeling when is a real fad these days. When you search the Internet, you’ll see that it’s become a popular verbal meme for sharing funny, inspirational or awkward moments people have experienced. You can check this article about its origins.

Anyway, let’s have a look at some possible ways of exploiting this phenomenon in the classroom:

  1. There are loads of That Feeling quotes all around the Internet. There’s even a Twitter account of the same name. By the way, see my post on how to use quotes in an L2 classroom.
  2. It is often used as an abbreviation, i.e. TFW, which can either mean That Feeling When or That Feel When. This may come in handy if you want to play with some slang in the lesson.
  3. Although you can google loads of images of the meme,
  4. you can create your own one here.

Another meme similar to TFW is ‘I Know That Feel, Bro’. This is an Internet slang expression used to convey empathy towards (or agree with someone else’s) feeling or opinion. It may be fun to get your students to use this phrase as a reply to ‘that feeling when’.

Student A: That feeling when you discover that you have probably thrown the peeler out with the potato peels. Just imagine, I was about to start peeling potatoes when ….

Student B: I know that feel, bro. Something similar happened to me the other day. It wasn’t a peeler, though, it was scissors. I was about to ……

So at the beginning of the first lesson after holidays, you can ask your students to come up with TFW memes that would describe their experiences. It’s definitely good to show them a few examples before they start. Maybe you can create your own meme first. Something they will definitely relate to is:

That Feeling when you wake up and realize that it’s Monday.

You can also use a chain activity – Ss will rotate their memes and other students will add what comes to mind when they read them:

Student 1 (the original meme): That feeling when you mess up an important exam. >

Student 2 adds: That feeling when you mess up but you don’t really care. >

Student 3 adds: That feeling when you don’t care but your parents do. >

 

Anyway, try it and see what happens. 🙂

 

A flood of conversation

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If you need your students to practise speaking about a specific topic, here’s a simple idea you may use in class.

Let’s say you want your learners to talk about natural disasters. What a great topic to start the new year! 🙂

First, think of some words related to the topic (e.g. landslide, hurricane, tornado, flood, etc.) and write them on separate cards. Alternatively, you can elicit the words from your class.

Put Ss into pairs. It’s ideal if you have as many pairs as you have words but if you teach a really small class, you can simply give each pair more cards. By the way, you don’t even have to prepare any cards – you can simply put the words on the board and say what word each pair should work on. By having the vocabulary items on display all the time, your student will remember them better (if that’s your aim).

Now, ask each pair to copy their word vertically on a separate piece of paper. I’ve chosen the word flood to illustrate the activity. For each letter of the word, Ss have to think of a new word. It’s similar to making a crossword except that each new word has to be connected with the original word. To what degree it will be connected is totally up to the students but the less obvious the connection, the better.

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When they have finished (hopefully all at approximately the same time), Pair 1 sends their product to Pair 2, who sends theirs to Pair 3, etc. Now, each pair’s task is to guess how the new words are connected with the original word. For example, they may say this:

  1. When there is a flood, lots of things float on the surface.
  2. The land is soaked with water and it becomes muddy. 
  3. Floods happen when it rains heavily or when all the snow suddenly melts in the mountains. 
  4. The rain pours down and the rivers start rising.  
  5. An area can be flooded after a dam cracks open. 

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Later on, Pair 2 sends the crossword to Pair 3, Pair 3 sends theirs to Pair 4, etc., and the activity can go on as long as you need. Eventually, some students may want to have a few things clarified, especially if they couldn’t find any connections with the original word. Let them ask the authors of the words they had trouble with. This will generate some more discussion.

As you can see, your students will learn a lot without actually being taught. With just a few prompts, they will produce heaps of meaningful language and interesting vocabulary and grammar items will pop up along the way. The best thing is that the quality of the output will always depend on their level proficiency so you needn’t worry that it might be too easy or too difficult for a particular class.

 

 

The 30 questions and student thinking time

The other day I came across an interesting post by Nick Bilbrough about student thinking time, at the end of which the author poses the following question:

Is student thinking time as important as student talking time? If so, what’s the best way of maximising it in your classes?

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Obviously, my answer is yes! and here’s why.

I’m proud to say that most of my students love speaking activities and they jump at every opportunity to chat about practically anything. If you give them a set of thought-provoking questions to discuss in pairs or groups, they won’t even wait for the instructions – they’ll instantly start to chatter away. This is fantastic, isn’t it? This is what we English teachers want our students to do – to spontaneously communicate in the target language.

There are a few minor issues, though. First of all, prior to the lesson, you probably have certain aims in mind and chattering away freely may not be the main one; you may want your students to practise specific vocabulary or grammar items or you just want them to approach the speaking task in a particular way – for particular reasons.

Today was the first day of school after the two-week Christmas holiday. So like last year, I gave my students a set of 30 questions to answer about the previous year. The questions were originally shared by Anna Loseva here, and they have recently inspired another great blogging challenge.

Anyway, when we did the same speaking activity last year, I looked at the questions as mere prompts, which were to help the learners express their end-of-the-year reflections as clearly and easily as possible. Despite the fact that the activity went quite well, I felt that it could have been designed more meaningfully. The truth is that I had practically handed out the questions and let the students converse.

Hence, this year, I opted for a slightly different approach; I decided to give Ss some thinking time before the actual speaking. I handed out the questions (slightly edited to suit my mostly teenage classes) and asked Ss to read them and record the answers first. Before they could roll their eyes and sigh in despair (I knew this would be too time-consuming), I told them to write each answer in just one word, namely  a word that summarises or represents the whole answer. Eventually, it took them only about 10 minutes.

During this relatively short period, I observed Ss silently racking their brains, trying to come up with adequate answers. Not only that; they were looking words up in dictionaries, highlighting, taking notes and occasionally negotiating meaning with one another. In other words, lots of learning was happening prior to speaking.

This makes me believe that thinking time is important; at least as important as the production stage (if not more).

Here’s my edited version of Anna’s questions:

1. The best/ most memorable moment of 2015.
2. What/who inspired me the most in 2015?
3. What was the major news of the year?
4. What was the best song of the year?
5. What were the most important people of the year?
6. What was the most difficult task for me to do in 2015?
7. What colour was the year?
8. Which event of the year would I choose to remember forever?
9. Which word did I use most often?
10. What was my most ridiculous purchase of the year?
11. I shouldn’t have experimented with …
12. Last year was wonderful because …
13. Which problem did I solve successfully?
14. Who did I hug most?
15. Whose party did I have fun at?
16. What was my average pocket money last year?
17 Which conversation turned everything upside down in my head?
18. What new project/activity did I start in 2015?
19. If I could become a superhero for just one day, what would I do?
20. What am I dreaming about now?
21. What do I consider to be my most important achievement of 2015?
22. What would 2015 be in one sentence?
23. The latest message I’ve sent.
24. The best quote/sentence I came across in 2015.
25. Did I achieve everything I’d planned for 2015?
26. How many new friends did I make in 2015?
27. Who did I help most 2015?
28. Where did I travel?
29. Which projects/tasks am I putting off?
30. What do I want to achieve in 2016?

The past of future educators

poslední zvonění (5)A couple of days ago, before I read this post, a rather disturbing idea crossed my mind: how come that there are teachers out there who don’t give a damn about professional development, yet, their students’ learning outcomes are just fine. On the other hand, there are teachers who enthusiastically follow all the new trends in ELT, yet, their students’ results are rather average.

In the post I mention above, Steven Watson argues:

It is not through conscious thought, nor through identifying the most effective means of learning that establishes the way we teach. Teaching is a cultural act that is passed on through generations, it is characterised by routines and dialogue that ensure the class runs smoothly.

In my opinion, there are at least four factors influencing the way we teach: 1) the way we were taught, 2) the way we think we should teach, 3) how experienced/competent we are (have become) as teachers and 4) the external conditions which determine what we will actually do, i.e. what our employers actually require us to do/expect from us.

This classification would explain why it is not always fundamental what you think about the efficiency of various teaching approaches. In other words, sometimes you simply can’t apply a method because the conditions and/or your teaching context don’t allow/enable you to do so. For example, some teachers believe that grades are a hindrance to effective learning rather than a useful tool. Still, they have no choice but to use summative assessment. Many teachers believe that technology is the future of education, but they don’t even have a computer available in the classroom.

It would also explain why teachers who used to be taught/trained by very competent instructors, who have a decent amount of experience, and whose conditions enable them to do what they think is best for their students, can be successful professionals regardless of their lack of interest in an ongoing professional development or current ELT trends.

Steven Watson’s made a couple of points which made me ponder what kind of a teacher I am myself, i.e. which factors influencing my teaching I regard dominant.

Although I see myself as an experienced and competent teacher keen on professional development, I must add that I teach in a state controlled school, which, coincidentally, I used to attend 25 years ago as a student.

As for the basic teaching philosophy, I would say that not much seems to have changed since I was a student. In other words, based on what I’ve observed and experienced, the school, i.e. its administration, has not undergone any major shifts in how it looks upon education in general. And I’m not sure whether it actually can. Although there have certainly been some beneficial changes since then, there are still classrooms with a traditional seating arrangement, there are grades, tests and coursebooks.

The way I was taught is the past and the external conditions seem to be given then. What is important now is the internal factors, i.e. my experience, which nobody can take away from me, and what I believe is best for my students, which is largely influenced by my professional training and professional development.

poslední zvonění (1)However, as experience comes to me quite automatically, with years, so to speak, I have no direct control over it really. Experience simply happens through practice. So, the only factor that I can influence directly  and consciously is how much I invest in my professional development, i.e. how much I read about ELT, how often I attend conferences and how much I’m willing to learn from my colleagues and PLN.

This brings me to a conclusion that an ongoing PD is the most powerful and liberating force out of the four which shape me as a teacher. I believe it is the most important factor because it is the only thing that is fully under my control. Thus, it is the source of creativity and endless opportunities, which can ultimately make up for all the potential deficiencies or seeming imperfections. But not only that; it also has the capacity to gradually change the current external conditions in education and thus positively shape the past of the future generations of teachers.

 

The source of true happiness …

foto 008After several things-that-worked-really-well-in-class-last-year posts, I’m finally in the mood for some quiet contemplation.

Last year was not a particularly exceptional year. Lots of things happened; some of them might be labelled as successes, others seemed to be failures. However, I can’t think of any major disasters or noteworthy achievements on my part, at least in the usual sense of the words.

Still, deep inside, I feel something truly significant happened, even though not in the ‘world of forms’. By the world of forms I mean all the things that happen around us, things that happen to us, things we see and the thoughts that usually come to us.

Towards the end of 2015, I came closer to a truth that transformed my life dramatically. The message that caused the change is nothing new under the sun, though; I’m sure you have come across the words a million times in your life – in many versions and under various circumstances. I had, too. And I had thought I understand so I hadn’t paid too much attention really. Until I suddenly saw where the words point to. Until the truth hit the very core of my heart ….. until it finally reached my soul.

Be grateful for always this moment, the now, no matter what form it takes.

Because the now is the only thing you have and by refusing it for whatever reason you only make yourself suffer. Because, in effect, the past and the future don’t exist – they are just mental forms in your heads, which often turn your life into hell.

Although this sudden realization changed the way I treat each and every moment of my life, my past self still tends to creep in. It tries to convince me that it feels good to be better than others. It urges me to cry over the spilled milk. It encourages me to regret the things I did or didn’t do. It invites me to judge people, myself included. And I sometimes join in and play the game, but I do so less often and less enthusiastically.

The change that occurred may not be visible to the outer world yet. Maybe the closest ones have sensed a minor shift, but otherwise, things appear to be the same. But it’s fascinating to observe that as my perspective is changing, things around me have started to ‘change’ too. My students suddenly seem better-behaved and more motivated. My eldest son, who is a bit of a troublemaker, doesn’t get on my nerves so much anymore. I’m coming across people who are on the same wavelength and those who aren’t are now completely out of sight. I’m bumping into books, movies, articles and posts in which people share insights which resonate with me like they have never before.

This makes me believe that I’m on the right track. The only thing I need to do now is to stay in touch with that place where black is as good as white, where cold is as good as warm, and where grief is as good as joy.

The place which is the only source of creativity and true happiness in life …

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The ‘shush’ tweak and lexical priming

IMG_20150920_115047Did I tell you how much I love the define-and-guess-the-word activities with the ‘shush’ tweak? The tweak lies in the rule that whenever a student guesses the word (or an expression, idiom, picture, movie, etc.), they are never allowed to say the answer aloud.

Again, this is one of those activities which require no or very little preparation. They are highly engaging, especially due to the game-like element, but, most importantly, your students will practise speaking, listening, vocabulary and grammar – all at the same time. Oh, this is not an advert, is it? 🙂

I’ll start with the basic, no-prep alternative. I strongly recommend that you spend some time demonstrating the activity; it may look complicated at first sight, but once your students grasp the rules, it’s pretty simple.

Put Ss in groups of (ideally) 4.  Student 1 chooses a random word and defines it. Note: When I demonstrate the activity, I usually start with a very straightforward definition of a simple vocabulary item, such as cat (It’s a pet that likes drinking milk and chasing mice.). When somebody in the group guesses the word, they shout ‘Stop!’ – even in the middle of my definition. From now on, no more comments or elaborations on the definitions can be produced. Also, remember that nobody is allowed to utter the actual word.

Now, it’s the next student’s turn (Student 2)  – this doesn’t necessarily have to be the one who stopped the game, i.e. the one who first guessed the word. It is simply the student in the order given. This student’s task is to find a new word to describe, this time starting with the last letter of the previous word, i.e. ‘t’ (cat).

This is when it becomes interesting. Student 2 either knows what Student 1 (me) was talking about and continues without any major difficulties. Or, she doesn’t have a clue and can either give up or bluff. Bluffing means that she will describe something in a deliberately ambiguous way so that some players come to believe she’s actually in the know. Example: Student 2, ‘the cheater’, tries to bluff by saying something really vague: It’s something that you can find in the classroom. An impatient opponent (Student 3) thinks it must be table (cat > table) and stops the game. This saves the cheater, at least for the time being, and the game goes on uninterrupted, especially if the others swallow the bait too.

However, if one of the players suspects Student 2 was bluffing, they can immediately ask for verification by stopping the game and shouting Check. Now, they must carefully formulate the checking question they want to ask the cheater, e.g. ‘What was the word Student 1  was describing and what was your word then?’ If the cheater answers unsatisfactorily, he or she earns a ‘strike’. However, if he or she manages to justify the answer, or if the questioner gets trapped by asking a bad question, the one who asked gets a strike instead.

Alternatively, if someone feels the speaker defining the word was interrupted prematurely, i.e. that the one who stopped the game could NOT know what was being described, they can ask for a check. I’d like to stress that it makes the game more dynamic if the definitions are interrupted as soon as somebody knows the answer, but someone who intervenes all the time, without really having a clue, will sooner or later spoil the game.

So, when everything’s been successfully negotiated (preferably in English), the next student then chooses a brand new word and the game continues in the same vein. The funniest moments are those when students learn to bluff effectively or when they realise that they can even pretend to be bluffing. 🙂

The benefit of this activity is the fact that it requires a great deal of conciseness and concentration on everybody’s part. But not only do the players need to be clear and succinct and constantly pay attention to what’s being said, they also have to predict a lot.

IMG_20151004_130347What comes to mind here is lexical priming – a linguistic theory developed by Michael Hoey, which suggests that we are primed to expect words to be in the company of other words (their collocations) and also expect words to appear in certain grammatical situations (their grammatical colligations) and in certain positions in text and discourse (their textual colligations).

So it often happens that somebody starts defining the word cat: It’s a nocturnal animal which likes drinking milk and chasing ….. when somebody suddenly interrupts the player by shouting ‘Stop!’. Now, I imagine that at that very short moment, an awful lot is going on in the heads of all the players. They’re probably feverishly searching their mental lexicons as well as the schemata they have of nocturnal animals. Thus, I believe, a lot of learning is happening.

If you want to practise certain vocabulary sets, you will obviously want to limit your student’ choices of the words they describe. You can prepare cards with specific expressions (idioms, collocations), or you can use images or flashcards.

Having said that, here’s one more tip I’d like to share before I sign off: it’s quite interesting to combine this activity with Bingo. I once needed my B2 students to practise some advanced crime vocabulary. On the internet, I found 20 representative images of crimes we had learnt in the previous lesson (arson, robbery, burglary, trafficking, forgery, etc.). I printed the pictures out on small cards. First, I got each student to choose 10 words out of the 20 and write them down. Then, each student got one random image and was asked to describe the crime in detail to the rest of the class. Once somebody thought they knew what it was, they shouted Stop – regardless of whether they had previously written the word down or not. Those who had written it down (and the student who had successfully described it) could cross it off from the list. The aim of the game, as you may have predicted, was to get rid of all the 10 words.

Well, this seems to be the first 2016 post. Once again, I wish everyone a Happy New Year full of professional development opportunities. May all your plans and wishes come true. And, happy blogging to all my fellow bloggers!

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