Let’s e-plan!

My school recently started using EduPage – the online class registration and management software. Like many schools in the state sector of education here in the Czech Republic, we previously had classic paper class registers. These were a real pain in the neck, especially for homeroom teachers, who had lots extra of paperwork to grapple with at the end of each month. It was an important official document so it really needed to be looked after properly. Losing a paper class register book was one of the worst nightmares we, homeroom teachers, used to have. I remember a colleague of mine spent days completing a new class register because the old one had got lost towards the end of the school year.

Apart from other cool stuff which I’m still busy exploring, the e-version includes a grade book as well as an attendance tracking tool. These make it easy for us teachers to take attendance or record grades in a matter of seconds. Students, as well as their parents, have instant access to everything the teacher uploads. I’ve also downloaded the app on my smartphone, which is an absolute treat. However, the best thing about this new software is that curriculum design and lesson planning are both a piece of cake (almost).

Before the academic year started, I uploaded detailed syllabi for each of my classes. This was quite a time-consuming phase but it’s definitely paying off now. I’m not going to need to do it next year because I can recycle or adjust the syllabi I already have. Also, I’ve made them freely accessible, so my colleagues can refer to or use the same plans if they want to. The software enables me to keep track of what I’ve covered so far and what needs to be covered in the near future. In other words, if you imagine each syllabus as a map with a route from point A to point B, at each point, I know where I stand and how much there is ahead of me (and my students). All I have to do during or prior to the lesson is to click a link and the corresponding unit/topic is automatically transferred to the class record book. I can elaborate on or tweak it if need be. I can do this easily from my home desk because I can go to EduPage anytime I like. Below is an example of a part of a syllabus – the topics which are highlighted in green have already been covered. The others have not yet been covered or are only partially covered.

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Although this is just a pilot take, I already love it so much. It’s all very systematic and transparent. Somehow, it makes me feel well-organized and more productive. Obviously, you don’t need to slavishly follow the plan but it saves you a lot of time and energy once you set it up and get used to it, and thus more space opens up for you and your students to do what you think is important. And at the end of June, I’ll be able to sit down and see what needs to be adjusted or discarded based on the previous school year.

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Exploiting linguistic differences

english-2724442_960_720During the final written exam here in the Czech Republic, students are required to produce a longer, coherent piece of writing of 120-150 words, such as a letter, e-mail, article, etc. It doesn’t really matter if they choose the British or the American English but they should be consistent throughout the text. In other words, once a student chooses the American way of spelling *traveling*, not only should they use it all the time in their writing but they should also write *color* or *favorite*. Otherwise, traveling with one ‘l’ may be considered a lack of knowledge and thus regarded a spelling mistake.

Although my spellchecker draws my attention to such issues all the time, personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal. However, I do believe it’s good to bring up the potential pitfall in class at least once.

Here’s an activity I planned for my students the other day:

Watch the following YouTube video. It’s actually a picture dictionary – a list of vocabulary pairs where one is a word mostly used in Britain and the other one is an American expression, e.g. rubber vs. eraser. Pair up your students and ask them to choose their nationality (British or American). As you play the video, the ‘British’ person only records the items below the Union Jack (on the right). The other person records the American vocabulary items (on the left). You may need to pause the video from time to time if it gets too quick. Also, you may want to tell your students in advance that there are 40 items.

So each student in the pair will end up with a different list of vocabulary items. The following task is to make dialogues like this one:

  • The Brit: What do you call the thing we use to remove the marks made by a pencil? 
  • The American: You mean ‘eraser’? 
  • The Brit: Yeah. Interesting. We call it ‘rubber’ in Britain. Let me take a note of this. (the British person then records the American version next to the British version). 
  • The American: And what do you call the device like a box that moves up and down, carrying people or goods from one floor of a building to another?
  • The Brit: You mean ‘lift’? 
  • The American: Yeah! As you probably know, we call it ‘elevator’ here in the States. (the American person then records the British version next to the American version).

To make it a bit more engaging, you can encourage your students to imitate the accents. You can bet they will have fun doing this. Anyhow, both partners should end up with a complete list of pairs of different words meaning the same things. It may take too long though so you can shorten it by asking the students to stop defining the words and simply complete the rest of the list from memory. Their partners may help whenever necessary. Some funny moments may emerge throughout the activity, e.g. the word ‘vest’, depending on the perspective, either means undershirt or waistcoat. I’m sure your students will exploit this ‘discrepancy’.

Later on, you can discuss the spelling issues I mentioned earlier. And if you are a brave teacher and your students are open-minded enough to digest it, you may delve into the issue of World Englishes, Global Englishes, ELF, and Kachru’s Three Circles of English, which I sometimes do. Good luck. 🙂

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With the benefit of hindsight

rear-view-mirror-835085_960_720Do you ever re-read your older posts? Why do you do so? How do you feel? Do you correct the typos or errors if you spot them? These are some of the questions I’d like to answer in today’s post.

When I open my WordPress site, at least here on my laptop, the first thing I can see is my Site Stats page. Before I switch to my WordPress Reader, I sometimes scan what posts and pages people have viewed recently. Surprisingly, it’s not always the most recent posts that get the most views on a particular day. And believe it or not, I sometimes end up staring at a title which, at first sight, looks totally unfamiliar to me. This usually arouses my curiosity to such an extent that I click the link to see what the post is actually about. If it’s a really old post, it sometimes feels as if it had been written by a completely different person. After some time, I do manage to recall the situation which is described in the post, but otherwise, it’s as though the reader (the current me) and the writer (the then me) were two different people. Something similar happens to me when I nostalgically flip through my reading journal from secondary school.

Anyway, sometimes I feel like patting myself on the back for what I once created but sometimes I just marvel at the weird or overly complicated phrases I used. Well, I certainly looked them up in a dictionary to impress the reader because they are not part of my working language inventory.

It goes without saying that writers can’t easily spot typos in their own writing (that’s why it’s good to have a reliable editor). So to answer my last question, yes, I do correct typos once I spot them. One may wonder what’s the point if it’s months or years after publishing and tens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people have already seen them anyways. Well, if you have the opportunity to polish your writing and learn from your mistakes, why not?

Although I don’t have an official editor, I do have two guardian angels (I’m not going to disclose their names unless they come out themselves), who sometimes PM me and kindly draw my attention to a typo or a problem in an article of mine worth correcting. This is fantastic and I really appreciate the feedback because I’ve learned so much from these discussions. How could I possibly improve my writing without having an extra pair of eyes watching over me? And how could I be a good teacher if I found it difficult to accept such feedback?

Below are four examples of what I’m talking about. I hope my guardian angles don’t mind me publishing these. Their way of addressing the issues is something we can all learn from, I think.

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What about you? How do you feel about your own writing in hindsight? Do you have an extra pair of eyes to guard you?

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Bucket list challenge #bucketlistchallenge

pansy-2173953_960_720The other day I was on the train, watching the autumn landscape pass by, feeling completely happy. My feeling of excitement was probably intensified by the fact that I had just been awarded the Bronze Blood Donor Plaque, which I was (and still am) immensely proud of.

This moment of quiet contemplation made me realize how lucky I’d been in my life. After all, I couldn’t be a blood donor if I wasn’t 100% fit, which I can’t really claim credit for. I couldn’t be a proud mother of three if, for some reason, I had been denied the opportunity to have children. And I’m exceptionally lucky that I have a job which I love so much.

The feeling of pride I was experiencing at that moment slowly turned into a feeling of immense gratitude and in my mind’s eye, I started identifying all the wonderful things I’d achieved. In fact, the word achieved sounds a bit arrogant to my ears now that I think about it. I’d rather say the wonderful things that had happened to me.

I can’t explain it in any other way but these days, everything fits in. Somehow, everything is in the right place. I cherish all my little successes but at the same time, I don’t exaggerate their importance. I bear in mind that I’ve achieved most of the goals due to the immense luck I’ve had in my life. Many of them weren’t even goals; at least not on a conscious level. If I believed in karma, I’d assume that previously, I must have led an exemplary life.

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On a seemingly unrelated note, the other day I tweeted this:

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It was this tweet which later inspired me to build an activity around the concept of bucket list. It panned out really well and my students shared their dreams and goals openly in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. I realized how much I can discover about my students just by learning about their dreams.

At the end of the lesson, a student suddenly asked me what would be on *my* bucket list. I hesitated for a while. At that point, I couldn’t come up with more than one vague answer: I’d like to travel more in the future. I think I hesitated because, currently, I’m completely content with the way my life is and thus I feel no urge to control it in any way; it’s ‘enough’ to see it unfolding in front of my eyes. Do people produce bucket lists when they are dissatisfied with their lives or when they feel they need to catch up on something?

Anyway, after a quick search on the Internet, I can conclude that people do come up with interesting bucket lists. Some of them are plain crazy, some and quite inspiring. So, to make it up to my students, I decided to create my own 10-item bucket list here on my blog, which I’m going to share in class next week. I thought it would be a good idea to invite other bloggers to do the same in a new blog challenge called #bucketlistchallenge. It occurred to me that seeing other like-minded people’s bucket lists could be inspiring for me. It would be interesting to see how much we have in common regardless of our cultural differences.

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So, here’s my bucket list. What’s yours?

  1. Watch seven sunsets and sunrises in a row.
  2. Become a vegetarian again, for good.
  3. Take a Zip Line ride/go on a big rollercoaster.
  4. Forgive everybody (including yourself) absolutely.
  5. Start a gratitude journal: list a thing you are grateful for every day for 1 month (maybe longer).
  6. Meditate at least once a day.
  7. Try oysters (before you become a vegetarian. LOL).
  8. Get hypnotized.
  9. Take martial arts or flamenco classes.
  10. Fly in a hot-air balloon.

 

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Students’ output (not only) as a diagnostic tool

people-1099804_960_720Over the past few days, we worked on a unit in our coursebook which deals with three-part phrasal verbs (verb + particle + particle). At first, I thought it would be just a short encounter and that we’d be able to move on to another subject. My B1 students were already familiar with lots of two-part phrasal verbs after all. But I soon realized that three-part phrasal verbs were more tricky for my students (and myself) than I was willing to admit.

As they are scattered higgledy-piggledy all over the unit, in various texts and contexts, the first thing I thought we should do was to put them in one place. So I asked my students to copy them into their notebooks. I thought they would appreciate a nice list to refer to whenever need be and that it would be easier for them to observe the recurring patterns and similarities with other verbs. I somewhat foolishly assumed that having them all in one place would be helpful for my students in that they would be able to deduce the meanings of the verbs from the main verb and the particles. However, when I suddenly saw them all as a bunch of unrelated vocabulary items, it only got more confusing.

Anyway, to sort the mess out a bit, we looked up the Czech translations and I also asked my students to make up some example sentences. Then we put the sentences on the board and we discussed them together. So far, so good.

I was quite happy at this point but I still had an inkling that from a communicative point of view, what we’d done wasn’t sufficient. So in the following lesson, I paired the students up and asked them to create dialogues in which they were required to use at least five three-part phrasal verbs from the list. The topic was Teenage problems. I wanted to see what they’d come up with, especially regarding phrasal verbs.

Anyway, they all worked very hard and were very creative. However, as late as during this interactive activity, it turned out that some students couldn’t use the verbs appropriately. Although they had previously seen the verbs in co-text and context, and although they had the translations and sample sentences at their disposal, it wasn’t enough. What they’d come up with sometimes made no sense at all. What was worse, sometimes, even I wasn’t sure if a particular phrasal verb fitted into the given context.

As a non-native speaker of English, I can easily put myself in my students’ shoes so I’m fully aware of the problem phrasal verbs pose in an ELT classroom. This was the first time I’d dealt with three-part phrasal verbs in such an ‘organized’ way, but honestly, I’m not sure if it was an ideal approach. Is there an ideal approach at all? I’m not sure how I’ll go about this next time, but I’ll definitely bear the potential pitfalls in mind. What I was comfortable with was the production stage. I believe that creating the dialogues was the most valuable phase of the learning process. Not only was it a good diagnostic tool but also a very useful practice.

 

 

 

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Tandem picture description

american-football-1416229_960_720This is a quick post to share an activity I tried with my students earlier today.

Normally, when students are required to practice picture description, each student gets a different image to describe. Today I tried a variation of the activity. I called it tandem picture description. I’m sharing it here on my blog because I think it had some significant benefits compared to the traditional way and I also found it a bit more engaging.

To demonstrate the activity, I asked two students facing each other to look at a picture in their coursebooks and to take short turns (see below). Student A kicked off with one sentence about the image. Student B then picked up when Student A left off.

  • A: In the picture, there are seven people.
  • B: Although I can’t see their faces, I think they are all men
  • A: The men are in the middle of a game
  • B: The sport they are playing is dangerous so they are wearing helmets with masks.
  • A: They are also wearing protective pads. 
  • B: Judging by their clothes, the sport they are playing is American football.
  • A: However, it may also be rugby. 

The lines above would normally be produced by only one student. However, based on my experience, these long turns can be challenging and stressful, especially for weaker students and especially when they are being examined. Also, during pairwork, it can get a little boring for the listener.

It seemed to me that the fact that the students had to pick up the threads of each other’s lines kept them both more attentive. They simply needed to pay attention if they wanted to avoid repeating their partner’s ideas.

What I also found helpful was that the two students gave each other little prompts, which eventually made the task easier and more fluent. Each line was, in fact, a new start but the whole thing needed to be coherent too, so the students were naturally encouraged to use various linking words. It was a great exercise to practice the use of articles (men > the men, game > the sport).

Having said that, the students sometimes ‘stole’ each other’s ideas, which made some of them a little desperate. Although these little thefts unquestionably meant some extra challenge for the students, at the same time, they turned into a source of creativity and originality. Overall, I found the activity much more spontaneous than the usual long-turn exchanges. On a more practical note, I could grade two students in one go.

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My Dolores Umbridge moments

teacher-359311_960_720The other day …

a thirteen-year-old boy yawned (very loudly) in class. I looked sharply at him and I said something about good manners. I thought it was over but he retorted, almost offendedly, that he hadn’t yawned. At this point, just as I was turning crimson, ready to start a lengthy lecture on decent behavior, another boy chipped in: Come on, it’s Friday. The compassion in his voice made me pause and calm down immediately. Although I insisted that weird noises should be kept to a minimum in class, deep down I felt a little ashamed.

The other day …

two students scored very low in a test (unfortunately, this was already the umpteen failure in a row for them). I asked what was happening but the boy was too upset to talk to me at that point. The girl remained silent too. I could see they were both really disappointed with their grades and while the girl managed to keep a poker face, the boy was on the verge of tears. I resolutely ordered them to come and see me the following day. The next day they did turn up in my office. I asked again what was the matter. The boy started apologizing; he admitted that it was all his fault because he hadn’t revised for the test(s). I asked, rather accusingly, if I gave them too much work. He replied quickly: No, no. Not at all. But there are so many tests in other subjects to revise for that there’s simply no time left for English. Again, deep down I sympathized with them. Having said that, I insist that I had to explain to them that they can’t push English away like this; that they simply need to plan their schoolwork more efficiently. Anyway, we talked for a while and I think we eventually parted ways on pretty good terms. Upon leaving, they made a promise to me (and to themselves) that they’d try their best to do better in the future.

The other day …

I asked a girl in my class why she had been missing the previous day. She said she had gone home after lunch because she hadn’t been feeling well. I reminded her starkly that she should have informed me *before she left*. In other words, I wasn’t very nice to her because I was convinced she had broken one of the school rules. To be frank, I actually wanted to appear firm in front of the class; I wanted them to see what happens if school rules are broken. Later on, I contacted the girl’s mother and inquired about her absence. She apologetically explained to me that the girl had had a rather serious accident in the PE lesson so she had gone to see the doctor. She told me that she had informed a different teacher because I (the homeroom teacher) hadn’t been there at that time. Well, I could congratulate myself on being tough, indeed. But deep down I obviously felt like an idiot. Next time, I’ll try to see the bigger picture before I jump to conclusions and act like a Dolores Umbridge.

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