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.

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 🙂

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.

Just a simple idea …

IMG_20150912_105330In one of my previous posts, I talked about a new student from Hong Kong who’d recently joined our class. He speaks next to no Czech, but he can communicate in English pretty fluently. He doesn’t get all the grammar stuff perfectly right (for example, he constantly omits the -s in the 3rd person singular verbs), but he can clearly express most of his ideas. From a perspective of an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic, there’s still a lot he can learn grammar-wise, but fluency-wise, he’s far more proficient than the rest of his peers.

The class he joined is divided into two groups for their English lessons (let’s call them Group A and Group B). When Group A has an English lesson with me, Group B has a Russian lesson. When Group B has an English lesson, Group A has a French lesson. Chi Kit’s ‘surrogate parents’ (the folks he’s currently staying with here in the Czech Republic) thought that taking up another foreign language (apart from Czech) would be too much for Chi Kit. So they asked me if he could only attend the English lessons. I asked the administrators and found out that it shouldn’t be a problem.

The only problem is that Chi Kit attends 6 lessons of English per week, three of which are just a repetition of what we already did with the other group. I don’t think it’s something I should panic about, still, I do worry a bit. As I mentioned above, Chi Kit’s English is quite good and I suspect that the lessons are not challenging enough for him, especially because he hears the same thing twice. I don’t think he really minds because all the unknown stuff he has to deal with every day is overwhelming anyway. However, I feel I could do more for him – both as his English teacher and his homeroom teacher.

Not that I don’t try to keep him engaged; when the kids are doing a coursebook exercise Chi Kit has already done, I sometimes give him English magazines or a Czech-Chinese dictionary to keep him busy. Alternatively, I give him a piece of paper and ask him to write about his feelings, insights and things he has learned so far. He’s already written a short paragraph about the differences between the Czech Republic and Hong Kong and it was a really interesting read. He also wrote about a project day we had had at our school the other day and I truly enjoyed reading about his observations.

Anyway, earlier today, I came across a post called Interview with ptec Members: Mike Griffin. For some inexplicable reason, when reading about the benefits of reflection and blogging, I suddenly thought of Chi Kit. And a simple idea occurred to me; I might well ask him to start writing a journal! Whenever he can’t work on something the others are doing (when the kids are translating something from Czech into English, for example), he can open his journal and write a paragraph or two.

I believe that to a certain extent, such a journal could reveal what he’s going through and how he’s feeling. As I don’t actually need to give him grades or provide any type of summative assessment, which, by the way, is extremely liberating, the journal could be a base for the final formative feedback.

I’m surprised that the idea didn’t come to me earlier. The only excuse could be that I wasn’t familiar with the context in advance, i.e. Chi Kit’s level of English was completely unknown to me, as well as the fact that he might wish to skip the French (or Russian) lessons.

So, I’m going to give him a notebook as soon as I see him next week and I can’t wait to read about his reflections and insights. I should stress, though, that Chi Kit comes from a culture where people don’t tend to sulk and complain too much. Moreover, he seems to be very polite and reserved, so I don’t expect him to delve into the depths of his soul. One way or another, it might keep him busy and it will certainly give him an opportunity to express what’s on his mind.

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.

Technology attacks

I had this feeling that apart from the fact that I was probably the only English teacher registered on Blogger, I was also the last person in the world who didn’t have a smartphone. The truth is that I had been thinking of getting one for ages, but at the same time, I had deliberately resisted the change. The thing is that I have a tendency to get addicted to gadgets of all sorts. I already had a laptop and an i-pad, after all, so I knew that when one of these were within easy reach, I couldn’t resist the temptation to constantly check e-mails, all the social media notifications, latest blog posts, etc. I realized all too well that having a smartphone meant having it at my disposal all the time, which, in consequence, meant I would constantly be tapping the shiny screen.

But I don’t live in a vacuum and I know I have to adjust from time to time. I remember that whenever I was about to take a picture with my good, old phone, my students would smile understandingly and they would automatically offer their phones. They didn’t want to believe that my Nokia was actually quite good at taking photos. Anyway, I always kindly refused their generosity and stubbornly used my old buddy.

But it’s not just my students who make me reconsider my attitudes. I remember an occasion when Shaun Wilden asked us participants of his workshop at IH Brno to take out our phones. I looked around and saw the embarrassed expressions on some teachers’ faces. Shaun reacted promptly, saying: “Don’t be ashamed. It doesn’t matter what type of phone you have. By the way, I know that teachers typically have the worst phones in the world”.

As I had used my phone in the lessons on a regular basis, for example, to take pictures of the board or to make videos of parts of the lessons, my students immediately noticed and appreciated the upgrade. The first picture I took with my smartphone in class was a drawing one of my students had done on the board (see above). I was so excited about the fact that a student had taken the effort to draw such a beautiful scribble that I wanted to share it. And I did. And I immediately realized the power of this cool mobile device.

Some say progress is optional, but I think it’s inevitable. It’s not about feeling concerned about the type of phone you have; it’s about keeping up with people around you – in this case, your students. Also, having a smartphone myself, I’ll be able to get familiar with all the yet unexplored ways of learning English. Take Instagram, for example; by using English hashtags and comments, your students can interact with people all around the world and practice the language in a meaningful, authentic way. The possibilities technology offers are infinite. Let’s start exploring …