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 ‘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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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 lion or a squirrel?

IMG_20150920_183610When I think of dogme, what first springs to mind is the type of teaching where, ideally, all the resources and the content of the lesson are provided by the students. Although I’m by no means a pure Dogmetist, I regularly love to indulge myself in teaching Unplugged.

Handing it over to the class can result in an enormous wave of creativity and genuine, meaningful conversation, not only in the actual lesson but later on with other classes too. The key is to let yourself inspired by your students.

The other day, a 13-year-old Jane was eager to share a personality test she had come across on the internet. We had a couple of minutes left of the lesson and it was before Christmas anyway, so I thought it may be a great way to wind up. So she enthusiastically marched to the front of the class and told the following story:

Imagine a very tall banana tree. Under the tree, there are four animals: a lion, a giraffe, a chimpanzee and a squirrel. The animals decide to compete to see who can get a banana from the tree first. Who do you think will win? 

If you’re curious to see the results, you can watch this video, which I’ve just found on YouTube. Or you may well think about the answer yourself and wait till the end of the post. 🙂 To cut it short, each answer, i.e. animal, equals a different personality trait. Anyway, Jane elicited some answers from the class and after a short discussion, she revealed the results.

It was fun and everybody loved it, but I immediately realized the activity had a much greater potential. So the next day, I shared it with other classes. By the way, I’m not a great storyteller but I did quite well with this one (it’s very short after all). Needless to say, each and every time, the story provoked different reactions and different language points emerged, depending on the students’ age and level of proficiency.

However, the trick is not to reveal the results immediately. Obviously, there is no correct answer, even though at first sight, some alternatives appear more logical than others. So, let your students tell you what they think and see what happens. Remember that you’ll keep them in suspense and fully engaged as long as you keep the answers a secret. But even later on, once your students are familiar with the results of the test, you will definitely hear some interesting ideas. Most likely, there’ll be words of disagreement or doubt, which is highly desirable and beneficial at this stage. Based on my experience, with advanced classes, you’ll probably end up having a serious, deeply philosophical debate while with younger learners, it’ll be just a light-hearted chat.

Here are some of the questions you might want to ask after you elicit the answers (before you reveal the results, which you can see below the image):

  1. Why did you choose this particular answer?
  2. Why did you dismiss the other options?
  3. What do you think your answer will reveal about your personality?
  4. What will the other answers reveal about people in the class?
  5. In the other class most people chose ‘answer 1’ but here most of you agreed on ‘answer 2’? What do you think this might mean?

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  • If your answer was the lion, you are a fighter. 
  • If your answer was the giraffe, you are a logical thinker. 
  • If your answer was the squirrel, you are an optimist. 
  • If your answer was the chimpanzee, you are a deep thinker. 

Now, I have lots of follow-up activities up my sleeve, but that would be another longish post. So, until next time ….

C’mon, let’s speak

IMG_20150619_111735In this post, I’d like to share a couple of speaking activities I recently tried out with some of my classes. I believe that the activities are worth sharing because they generated a lot of genuine conversation as well as some useful language. As most of the language input was produced by students themselves (not the coursebook or the teacher), the content was highly personalized and thus motivating. In fact, I was just a mediator & moderator while the students were responsible for all the language & content emerging along the way. This enabled me to use the activities with any level and age group I currently work with (from a fairly low-level classes up to C1 level). Also, I needed next to no prep time or materials – just paper and pen (and a coin for Activity 1).

Activity 1:

IMG_20150819_123933Give each student a blank card. Ask them to write a question they’d like to ask their peers. Ideally, the questions should generate some controversy/disagreement/interest. They should neither be too personal nor addressed to one specific student. Examples of how your students can start the questions: Do you believe… What do you think about… What’s your viewpoint/attitude/opinion…. Your students are totally responsible for the content of the questions, but you should keep an eye on what they come up with, just to make sure it’s not going to be embarrassing or inappropriate. This is a great time for working on PARSNIP topics.

Collect all the questions and shuffle the cards. Ask Student X to come to the front of the class and pick a random card. He reads the question and tries to answer it in 4-5 sentences. Then he flips a coin (a real one or a virtual one). If it’s heads, other students will have to find arguments to support Student X’s opinion. If it’s tails, they will have to disagree/find arguments to oppose his original opinion. This is much more interesting than if you just let everybody say what they think. Some students noted that they didn’t like the fact that they had to pretend disagreement or agreement, but I explained to them that they can circumvent this by saying something along these lines: I personally don’t agree but I imagine some people might argue that (for agreeing) … I agree but my friends often say that (for disagreeing)  ….. 

Activity 2:

Ask your students to help you generate a list of pairs from certain lexical sets. They can be opposites such as day/night, black/white, or just similar items, i.e. smartphone/tablet. Ideally, they should always be nouns or gerunds. Prompt Ss with categories, such as sports, food, colours, electronic gadgets, school subjects, seasons, etc. Record the students’ ideas on a sheet of paper. When you end up with a list of about 20 pairs, ask Ss to take a piece of paper and a pen. Tell them that you are going to read the pairs one by one and that they quickly have to decide which item they prefer, i.e. day or night? fishing or golf? English or maths? Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? movies or books? etc. They always have to choose and record one option. If they aren’t sure, they still have to make a quick decision. Based on my experience, at this point, even the most demotivated and lazy Ss will liven up. So, each student will eventually end up with a slightly different list of words. Now, put Ss into pairs/groups and ask them to glance at their lists first to see if they are ‘on the same wavelength’, i.e. if they have the same preferences. Then, get them to discuss their answers one by one. My students came up with interesting ideas and lots of useful language which we then worked on as a class, such as: I prefer night because everything’s quieter and more peaceful (comparatives). I prefer black to (preposition) white because it goes with every clothing item (countable vs. uncountable nouns).

As a follow-up activity, you can ask Ss to come up with five more pairs each (crazy ideas allowed here) and during a mingling activity, they can ask people in the class about their preferences. This can be done as a survey, for example, which can later be presented in front of the whole class: Question: What surprised you most? Answer: That most girls prefer wearing pants to skirts. 

I hope these activities will work as well as they did for my classes. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Mindfulness Blog Challenge

IMG_20151028_182534I’m proud to announce that I’ve recently taken part in The Mindfulness Summit, a not-for-profit project with a mission to make mindfulness mainstream.

Now, what is mindfulness and why am I writing about it on an ELT blog? In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Mindfulness is a near synonym of awareness, i.e. knowing and understanding what is happening in the world or around you.

There are two reasons why I’m about to devote a whole blog post to mindfulness. For one, I believe that being mindful (or aware) is synonymous with being a good teacher. In other words, understanding what is happening in the world around you (read: classroom) is fundamental to good teaching practice. Noticing and knowing that a problem or a situation exists is a prerequisite to finding solutions. But most importantly, being mindful is a straight way to happiness.

The other reason why I’m writing this post is the blog challenge I came across earlier today, written by Micaela Carey. In her post, Micaela describes the ways she uses Mindfulness in the classroom and why and she challenges fellow bloggers to do the same:

Whether you’re just starting to practice Mindfulness or you’ve been doing it for years, write a post about it.  Tell us about how you practice, share an anecdote or simply write about why you would like to practice Mindfulness.

So here’s my take on mindfulness.

My regular readers may know that I’ve always been a believer in dogme teaching. To my mind, dogme, a communicative approach to language teaching that encourages teaching without published textbooks and focuses on conversational communication among learners and teacher, closely relates to what mindfulness is about. From my point of view, the relation lies in the fact that both zoom in on the present moment.

As SLA research implies, there’s no point in a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching English; the sequence of acquisition is not identical with the order language items are presented in coursebooks anyway. Thus, it makes more sense to build on what each and every student already knows and can do, and the only way to find out what our students know is to be mindful, i.e. to pay attention to the language they produce at each given moment.

There are many ways of practicing mindfulness with your students. Needless to say, they don’t even need to know about the concept to benefit from the practice. To an outsider, your mindfulness practice will probably look like a cool activity or an effective warmer.

So, here’s what I did with my 13-year-old students the other day. The idea came to me unexpectedly, as most creative ideas do, and that might be one of the reasons why it eventually went so well.

I handed out post-it notes and asked each student to write one thing that was on their mind at that moment. Then I got them to put the post-it note on somebody’s back without revealing the word. Each student had to find out what the word was by asking appropriate yes/no questions.

When everybody finished, I collected all the post-it notes and stuck them on the board. We put them into categories, such as people, pets, problems, the future, the past, the present, etc. Then I, in a deliberately jovial and triumphant manner, gradually removed all the cards with things which didn’t relate to the present moment. For example, most students had thought of their upcoming tests. This, as they admitted, was a rather worrying thought. I said there was no point in worrying about the future – the only thing that mattered was the precious moments we were having together. I told them that from then on we would only enjoy the lesson – every single moment of it.

They nodded in agreement, smiling ….

So, what are your ways of practicing mindfulness? Although this may be the first time you’re pondering this question, give it a try 🙂

Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.

The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?