Better be prepared than sorry

So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.

Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.

Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.

What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.

On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!

There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects. 

Teaching by principles

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With some extra time on my hands, I’ve been re-reading a publication I once needed for my MA studies called Teaching by Principles by Douglas Brown (3rd edition), which, as the blurb states, offers a comprehensive survey of practical language teaching options.

In Chapter 4 of his book, Brown investigates 12 foundational teaching principles, or elements, which he considers to be at the core of language pedagogy. As I write, I’ll try to make occasional references to my previous post, i.e. to Ellis’s  Principles of Instructed Language Learning, because I’d like to see how much (if at all) these two systems overlap. And, as you read, you can determine the extent to which the principles are applied in your own teaching.

Cognitive principles: 

Principle 1: Automaticity

According to Brown, it is clear that small children learn languages without thinking about them – they learn them automatically. Thus overanalyzing an L2 and thinking too much about its forms is not the best way of learning it. To the contrary, this approach tends to impede the process of graduation to automaticity in an L2 classroom.

I associate this principle with Ellis’s Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge is procedural, is held unconsciously and develops naturally out of meaning-focused communication.

Principle 2: Meaningful learning

Brown maintains that rote-learning, i.e. taking in isolated bits and pieces of information that are not connected with existing cognitive structures, has little chance of creating long-term retention. Thus, when in the classroom, it is necessary to make meaningful associations between existing knowledge and new material.

As I see it, this is in compliance with Ellis’s Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. I also see a connection with Principle 4 (see above). 

Principle 3: The anticipation of reward

Brown argues that human beings are universally driven to act by the anticipation of some sort of tangible or intangible reward. Thus an optimal degree of praise and encouragement or appropriate grades and scores are desirable.

Principle 4: Intrinsic motivation

However, the most powerful rewards are those that are intrinsically motivated within the learner. Brown adds that if all learners were intrinsically motivated to perform all classroom tasks, we might not even need teachers.

Principle 5: Strategic investment

Teaching methods, textbooks, and grammatical paradigms are no longer in the center of attention. It is the methods that the learner employs to internalize and to perform in the language that are important too. After all, successful mastery of L2 will be due to a learner’s own personal investment of time, effort, and attention to L2.

To my mind, principles 3, 4 and 5 to some extent overlap with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. 

Principle 6: Autonomy

Successful mastery of L2 will depend on learner’s autonomous ability to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher.

This principle to a large extent links to Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. As I wrote in my previous post, it’s virtually impossible to provide L2 learners with a sufficient amount of input in the classroom so students’ autonomy seems to be the only way leading to ultimate success.

Socioaffective principles: 

Principle 7: Language ego

As human beings learn to use an L2, they also develop a new mode of thinking, feeling, and acting – a second identity. Their new ‘language ego’ can feel fragile, silly and sometimes humiliated when lacking words or suitable grammar structures. Thus it is necessary to overtly display a supportive attitude to your students.

I’d link this principle to Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. I personally try to achieve this by tolerating the learners’ temporary ‘flaws’ and by giving them plenty of opportunities to succeed. Also, there’s a  similarity to  Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 8: Willingness to communicate

Successful learners are willing to communicate, which results in the generation of both output (from the learner) and input (to the learner).

What immediately comes to mind is Ellis’s Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output. As you aren’t likely to get output from stressed students, for example, you should make sure that the learning conditions and atmosphere in the classroom are favorable to spontaneous communication. Brown’s Principle 8 may also relate to  Ellis’s Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency and Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

Principle 9: The language-culture connection

Whenever you teach a language, you also teach a complex system of cultural customs, values, and ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This can be a source of valuable language input and a powerful tool for adjustment in new cultures. However, Brown advises us to be sensitive if some students appear discouraged.

Again, here I can sense a connection with Ellis’s Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input. I’d add that culture is inherently present in any language and you can’t separate language from culture if you want to communicate in the target language successfully. I think I clearly demonstrated this in one of my previous posts, where I contrasted phrases ‘I’m good’ and ‘I’m fine’. 

Linguistic principles: 

Principle 10: The Native language effect

The native language of learners strongly influences the acquisition of the target language system. Brown advises teachers to regard errors as important windows to their underlying system and provide appropriate feedback on them. What also helps students to minimalize interference errors is thinking in the L2 instead of resorting to translation as they comprehend and produce language.

Here I see a connection with Ellis’s Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners. If you teach a mixed nationality class, you’ll probably have to treat diverse types of errors. I wrote about the native language effect here and here on my blog. 

Principle 11: Interlanguage

Just as children develop their native language in gradual, systematic stages, L2 learners, go through a systematic developmental process as they progress to full competence in L2. This means, for example, that at some point, a good deal of what an L2 learner says or comprehend may be logically correct, but from the point of view of the native speaker’s competence, it’s incorrect. Teachers should allow learners to progress through such systematic stages of acquisition. Also, when giving feedback, the teacher needs to distinguish between systematic interlanguage errors (these can be tolerated to some extent) and other errors.

Principle 11 seems to overlap with Ellis’s Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’.  As a teacher, one can’t simply skip or hasten certain stages of the learner’s development, or eliminate systematic interlanguage errors completely. 

Principle 12: Communicative competence

Given that communicative competence is the goal of an L2 classroom, teachers should give attention to language use and not just usage, to fluency and not just accuracy. Give grammar some attention, but don’t neglect the other important components. Make sure that your students have opportunities to gain some fluency in English without having to be constantly wary of little mistakes.

This seems to encompass at leat five of Ellis’s principles: Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence, Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning, Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form, Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge and Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Although the authors complement one another, Brown’s perspective seems to me more general and encompasses a slightly larger spectrum of (language) pedagogy. The connections I made between the two sets of principles were based solely on intuition and others may see it differently.

 

 

The Ten Commandments of Successful Language Instruction

stock-photo-child-with-rucksack-standing-on-a-stack-of-books-64626691Throughout 2016, I’ve read a lot about how much the current ELT practice flies in the face of SLA research findings. I usually dismiss these assumptions straight away – probably because personally, I’ve never felt too guilty as an ELT practitioner. I mean, I think I know something about the contribution of the SLA research to developments in TESOL over the last five decades, and I do my best not to be blind to it. Although in my teaching context, which I would describe as standardized education (meaning standardized level, pace, and path of learning), my hands are tied to a certain extent, I don’t despair.

The other day, I came across this article by Rod Ellis called Principles of Instructed Language Learning, in which he shares a set of generalizations which, he believes, might serve as the basis for language teacher education. When reading the text, I lit up. It’s not all that bad after all given the limitations I have to deal with on a daily basis, of which the lack of time is the worst of all shortcomings. I can conclude now that there’s not a single principle I would consciously ignore.

Principle 1: Instruction needs to ensure that learners develop both a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions and a rule-based competence. 

Although I don’t avoid the focus-on-forms approach, I believe that my instruction is not exclusively directed at developing rule-based competence through the systematic teaching of pre-selected structures. My students would probably confirm (with a slight sneer on their face) that I’m moderately obsessed with grammar and totally obsessed with formulaic chunks.

Principle 2: Instruction needs to ensure that learners focus predominantly on meaning. 

I’m well aware of the fact that to meet this principle, task-based approach to language teaching is one of the prerequisites. Also, it is important that instruction provides opportunities for learners to focus on semantic meaning (meanings of lexical items or of specific grammatical structures) as well as pragmatic meaning (the highly contextualized meanings that arise in acts of communication) and, as Ellis argues, it is pragmatic meaning that is crucial to language learning. Although I do try to incorporate communicative tasks into my lessons whenever possible, I’d say that TBL approach is something I still tend to circumvent. Why? It’s a question for another post.

Principle 3: Instruction needs to ensure that learners also focus on form. 

This, among other things, involves a response to the errors each learner makes. In my context, I often practice this through collected feedback, i.e. feedback I give a group of students on selected linguistic issues I spot in their writing/speaking. I like this approach as it’s individualized and emergent.

Principle 4: Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the L2 while not neglecting explicit knowledge. 

Ellis argues that instruction needs to be directed at developing both implicit and explicit knowledge, giving priority to the former (because we don’t know how easily/if at all explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge). While the benefits of explicit knowledge are somewhat controversial, there is a consensus among researchers that learners need the opportunity to participate in communicative activities to develop implicit knowledge. Thus, communicative tasks need to play a central role in instruction directed at implicit knowledge. I can boldly claim that communicative activities have always been central to my classes. It was only recently when I started gravitating towards a slightly more focus-on-form approach as I was no longer comfortable with the zero grammar strategy.

Principle 5: Instruction needs to take into account the learner’s ‘built-in syllabus’. 

One way to do this is to ensure that learners are developmentally ready to acquire a specific target feature. Like the zero grammar approach, this is not very feasible in my teaching context. There is a national curriculum I need to follow plus I’m also required to assess my students formally. So I give those students who struggle with specific linguistic features other opportunities to succeed (little tasks, extra projects, etc.) since I know most of them will finally catch up on all the required skills and knowledge.

Principle 6: Successful instructed language learning requires extensive L2 input.

This is a real stumbling block. With three or four 45-minute lessons a week you’d have to be a magician if you wanted to help your students march out of the classroom with native-like proficiency.  So I assume it’s more about showing them how to make it on their own – about giving tips for online places to go, books to read, methods to apply, etc. Because if you are supposed to a) give them tasks, b) present lots of chunks of language and some grammar, c) provide opportunities for meaningful communication, then there’s not much time left for extensive input while in class. Fortunately, these days it is practically impossible to avoid English in everyday life so most students will probably manage quite well when left to their own devices.

Principle 7: Successful instructed language learning also requires opportunities for output.

While I’m somewhat concerned about the previous principle, I’m very confident about number 7 – simply because I know my students produce a lot of language in the classroom. As I said, my students come with bits and pieces they pick outside of school, which we can then work with and elaborate on.

Principle 8: The opportunity to interact in the L2 is central to developing L2 proficiency.

Ellis maintains that we can achieve this by a) creating contexts of language use where students have a reason to attend to language, b) providing opportunities for learners to use the language to express their own personal meanings, c) helping students to participate in language-related activities that are beyond their current level of proficiency and c) offering a full range of contexts that cater for a ‘full performance’ in the language. The last one is something I feel I need to focus on a bit more. I suspect that it is closely related to TBL, which, as stated above, I need to apply more in my teaching.

Principle 9: Instruction needs to take account of individual differences in learners.

This is a problematic one, especially in a standardized teaching context, as discussed above. However, I can still do (and I think I do) a lot as a teacher: pair/group students up in a manner that fosters cooperation, find ways to motivate weaker/slower students (especially intrinsically) and find as many opportunities leading to success as possible.

Principle 10: In assessing learners’ L2 proficiency, it is important to examine free as well as controlled production

At times it seems that it’s much easier to assess controlled production. However, I’ve recently come across many poorly designed tests, which, for example, accept one correct answer for each question when there are more appropriate alternatives. One may argue that it opens some space for discussion, but I think that at the same time, it discredits the test itself. Assessing free practice is primarily about acknowledging the fact that the student managed to get the message across. In such a case, he or she always deserves a decent grade regardless of grammatical mistakes, for example.

What about your instruction? Is it based on solid research or folksy wisdom? 🙂

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.

 

Everyone is a genius.

I must admit that the older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity and spontaneity in language teaching. It makes me very happy when a beautiful, meaningful lesson grows out of something seemingly trivial or when an impromptu action leads to something truly valuable.

20151118_122225bThe other day, in class, we read an article about Albert Einstein. It was one of those classic coursebook texts accompanied by a classic reading comprehension check. Quite boring, I should add. Nevertheless, the text contained an idea that immediately grabbed my attention. Allegedly, Einstein was a pretty bad student. However, as we all know, despite his rather poor study results, he eventually became one of the best-known scientists of all times. So, after having read the article, we talked a bit about what makes somebody perform well/badly at school, about the role of grades, motivation, concentration, intelligence, etc. The students brainstormed some really great ideas.

Anyway, in the next lesson, I felt it might be interesting to elaborate on the topic a bit more. One thing I really love working with is quotes. Quotes are everywhere and everybody loves them. In language teaching, they can turn into nice warm-ups, cool icebreakers or efficient lead-ins. You can choose any word, grammar item or topic and you’ll always find quite a few related quotes. Apart from containing useful target language, a good quote is a well of wisdom and a springboard for interesting discussions. And (off the record), if you don’t have time to prepare your lesson, find a quote. 🙂

So, …

Supposedly, Albert Einstein is the author of the following quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Bingo! That was what I needed for my 15-year-old B1 students. At the beginning of the lesson, I drew 28 lines on the board, each one representing one word of the quote. I explained that it’s a quote by Einstein, closely related to what we had discussed in the previous lesson, i.e. education. First, I revealed that it includes an animal which people typically eat for Christmas in the Czech Republic. When Ss guessed the word, I put it on the appropriate line.

1___  2___  3___  4___.  5___  6___  7___  8___  9___  10_fish__  11___    12___  13___  14___ 15___  16___  17___,  18___  19___  20___  21___  22___  23___  24___ 25___  26___  27___  28___.

VýstřižekIn a random order, I gradually defined all the nouns, i.e. fish, genius, tree, life. Whenever Ss came up with a wrong word, I drew a part of the Hangman. Then I continued with adjectives and verbs, which, like nouns, are quite easy to define. We played with different parts of speech, i.e. able > ability, judge (which is a noun as well as a verb) synonyms, and antonyms. I said that the quote includes conditional tense – something we had spoken about a couple of lessons back. I also pointed out that some verb forms need to be changed (see believing, for example). At this point, Ss had to concentrate on vocabulary as well as grammar. I love it when lexis and grammar merge and blend this way. Anyway, when I added all the content words, I left Ss to their own devices. They had to fill in all the grammatical words themselves (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, etc). This was a useful language practice too, and the fact that they were close but not quite right at times kept everybody in suspense till the very last moment.

When Ss guessed all the words, I asked them to discuss the meaning of the quote in pairs. To my surprise, it was not as easy as I had expected, but most Ss got it right in the end. I elicited some answers and put them on the board as bullet points. Then I got Ss to substitute fish with a different animal. Obviously, the rest of the quote had to be changed, as in … if you judge a parrot by its ability to swim … This helped Ss to reinforce the tricky grammar structure (if… to + verb) and some new vocabulary (judge….by, ability). Also, I made sure that each and every student was clear about the meaning of the quote. After that, as a whole class, we discussed whether we agree or disagree with the statement and why. I asked about the connection between the quote and what we had talked about in the previous lesson (Einstein’s failure as a student, education, grades, etc.).  This provoked an interesting debate too.

We also talked about Ss’ strengths and weaknesses and we mentioned that it’s important to focus on what they are good at.

Finally, as Ss liked the quote, I said it might be cool to learn it by heart. I used the erase-the-last-word technique. I erased stupid first and got a student to read the whole quote. Then I wiped off all the words one by one – each time somebody having to read the whole quote – until there was nothing left on the board. Eventually, I asked them to write the quote in their notebooks from memory.

I guess something similar can be done with practically any quote. To work with quotes, you can use various activities, such as the running dictation, Chinese Whispers, Spelling Contest, Bingo and many more.

A win-win situation

20151117_131256The other day we had a regular parent-teacher conference at our school. Normally, the collective session lasts about 30 minutes – parents sitting in one room listening to the homeroom teacher. After that, parents usually go and talk to teachers of other subjects individually. They ask about the grades and behavior of their children.

Although these meetings are very important, nothing epoch-making really happens. However, last time was different. The collective session took two hours because the parents wanted to get things off their chest. When I think about it now, I’d say they must have trusted me completely at that moment because what they were saying took a lot of courage. It was clear that the things they were sharing on the spot had probably been on their mind for long.

Unfortunately, there was not much I could do to help them directly. The only thing I could do was to listen to them. Some of the opinions expressed resonated with me, others didn’t. However, I chose not to oppose too much. I don’t think it’s not my job anyway. My job is to listen patiently and help if it’s in my power. The parents sometimes started with “What do you think about this…….”. I felt that the aim of the question was not to find out what I think. The main aim was to air their views.

There were a couple of things I realized during the session. For one, parents may be afraid to express their opinions because they think their child might get into trouble. It’s hardly conceivable, but they believe that if they honestly say what’s on their mind, some kind of revenge will happen (the teacher will have it in for the kid from now on).

For two, each parent has a different view on education. For example, some think project-based lessons are a waste of time while others think they are a great way to learn things and connect with peers and friends of all ages.

Some parents think the teacher’s job is to teach the kids. Thus, nothing that has not been taught/mentioned in the lesson should later be tested. In other words, the teacher can’t test what’s not in the book or in the student’s notebook.

Some parents are convinced that kids should not be forced to learn millions of facts. Instead, they should be able to find the information they need to solve a problem. Others believe their kids had better learn the serious stuff (read: facts) and ‘play’ after school.

However, what surprised me most was that many parents are convinced that “teachers are stressed and over-worked”. How do they know? Are we all like that? Do they see us this way?

Anyway, whatever I believe, my job is to listen to what the parents have to say. It may come in handy after all, especially when dealing with problematic students. For example, some of my students are content with rather average scores, but as their teacher, I know that they could do better if they tried. So I talk to their parents only to discover that they themselves don’t regard grades, scores and the student’s overall performance terribly important. In other words, the student and the parents are on the same wavelength on this. This is probably because the family’s priorities differ from the priorities of the system, which, I suppose, is perfectly fine, but it just makes my job tough at times.

On the other hand, there are parents who cooperate closely with all the teachers and thus the kid knows that we are not enemies but allies. It’s a pretty straightforward logic; if the loving parents’ objectives are the same as the teacher’s ones, then, inevitably, the teacher must be a loving creature, too. And this realization, I believe, is a win-win situation for all parties involved.

 

 

When the pain is finally blown away …

IMG_20151028_120203The draft of this post was written a couple of days ago. It was written in a very vulnerable and unstable state of mind. When I calmed down later on, I decided not to post it. But earlier today, something eventually made me change my mind. A friend of mine told me about something that had happened to her, which I felt was in some way similar to what I had experienced.

Both stories have something to do with the fact that you have no control over what people think and what they say about you. If they say nasty things and they share them publicly, on social media, for example, you can’t but let it be when the pain goes away.

Here’s the original story.

As you probably know, I’m a homeroom teacher to a class of 25 teenagers. One of them recently set up a class blog. Soon afterward, I incidentally learned about the blog and I immediately whooped with delight.

I promptly shared my joy with the kids so from then on they knew I was visiting the blog. Over time, I’d discovered that only a handful of students were regularly contributing to the blog. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they shared verged on inappropriate. I suspected that the web was not a perfectly safe place, so the rest of the class probably preferred avoiding it. So I told the kids that they should be careful about what they post and that they were fully responsible for the content of the blog. I reminded them that cyberspace can be a tricky place. This story is an irrefutable proof of that.

The other day, the founder of the blog posted a ranty comment in which he complained about school. He mentioned a few teachers, including me. In his comment, he said that he had enough of Mrs. T, who constantly pokes her nose in everybody’s personal stuff. Another boy joined in and actually continued in the same vein – he complained about school and how annoying it was, how disgusting the food in the school canteen was, how irritating the homeroom teacher is – nothing new under the sun. Anyway, the first boy then replied to the second boy’s comment. This time, however, his comment was intentionally and openly rude.

I know teachers get on teenagers’ nerves; I have two teenagers at home after all. At this age, adults are probably seen as enemies and students feel the need to be rebellious at all costs. Nevertheless, I did feel sad when I saw the comments. The matter was complicated by the fact that I was at home on holiday and I couldn’t talk to the students face to face to get things straight.

So my sadness slowly turned into a mixture of disappointment, fear, and anger. I had always regarded the founder of the blog a nice boy and I was surprised how much bitterness there was within him. I think I particularly didn’t like the fact that he was manipulating others, infecting them with his negativity and disgruntlement, but the worst thing about the whole incident is that he knew I’d see the comment, so I couldn’t but take it personally.

However, I tried to stay rational. I used a technique that should be helpful in situations like this; whenever I thought of the incident, I started breathing slowly. I tried to recognize the pain, feel it and then let it go. This helped a bit. I went back to the website to find evidence that I was actually being paranoid and that nothing really terrible was happening. I re-read the comments, especially the last one. The pain came back again. I dosed myself with another breathing exercise. Was I expected to respond? They boy had sent out a clear message and believed I’d receive it at some point.

After a while, for a fleeting moment, my feelings changed; I suddenly felt admiration and respect towards the student. I realized how much courage it took to write such a comment and sign beneath it.

But the disappointment came back. It was impossible to fight it. I was hopeless and desperate. I had to act. I had to do something. I kept telling myself that these things simply happen, that they help me learn and grow. This purely cognitive approach helped, for a millisecond, but then the negativity was back again. I finally became angry with myself. I ended up blaming myself for being totally irrational, impulsive and over-sensitive.

Now, this is my train of thought: I might have pretended I hadn’t seen the comment at all. Or, I might have pretended that I didn’t give a damn about their website. I might well stop visiting the blog completely to save myself from potential trouble and tears.

IMG_20151028_112554Long story short, I chose the third option. However, I should add that I did talk to the boy as well (not face to face to face, though). I wanted him to know that I knew. I wanted the other kids to know too. I don’t know if it was right, but for me, it was the only way of handling this burdensome situation. And even now, when I’m relatively calm, I don’t regret it. Now I can finally let it be and forgive the boy and myself.

My final set of (rather suggestive) questions would be this: Do I have the right to feel emotional in such a situation? Do I have the right to tell my students how much it hurts to hear the nasty things they utter. Should I teach my students about the rules of decent (online) communication? Or should I stop controlling them, i.e. should I stop poking my nose into their stuff, and let them discover things for themselves?

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.

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.