Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Learner Diaries: Reading Woe & Writing Joy Part 2

I wrote here about how I battled with a story given to me by my Portuguese teacher. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you read that first, or this post won’t make much sense.

Feedback, or Should I Say Correction?

So having expressed my displeasure at the difficulty of the story to my teacher, I was interested to see how he would react. I wasn’t too concerned about his response as while he may have flaws as a teacher, but he doesn’t seem to have too many as a human being, so I felt that he would deal with it in a positive way. Fortunately, I was correct in my assumption.

His first reaction was to reply to my email. He said he was grateful for the feedback which was very important to him (which begs the question “why doesn’t he ask for it then?!”) and that he was surprised, not just to receive an email from me, but by the length and by the quality of my writing, which I was pretty happy about as you can imagine.

Later before the lesson, he gave me a print out with my errors corrected, which I hadn't asked for but was more than happy to receive. We then discussed, as best I could within my linguistic limits, the content of my email, and how we both recognised how difficult it was to teach multi-level classes. He was completely open to my suggestions and actually seemed pretty pleased to have someone to talk about these things with. As I know, the freelance teacher’s life can be lonely... (but I have my PLN to save me!)


At the beginning of the class, he brought up the subject of my email and my suggestion. I didn’t mind this too much, but it was a little bit embarrassing. Firstly, even though most of the other students agreed that it was very difficult, I was the only student who hadn’t actually finished the story (of course, reading the story all the way through is one thing, but understanding it and then appreciating it are others). This did make me feel a bit like the least able student, which may be the truth but luckily being a teacher makes me able to deal with that fairly comfortably. However, it’s still not the most pleasant situation to be in.

In general the reaction to the idea could best be described as.... well, lukewarm. No one was offended by it, but they weren’t that thrilled by it either. I had to remember that this is a pretty unusual idea for most students, so I presume that what they see is a lot of unnecessary work when they could just be given a text by the teacher. That’s why the teacher has to really sell an idea like this to the students by being enthusiastic after having thoroughly thought the idea through. As this seemed to be a new idea for my teacher too, I don’t think he put enough into it to convince the other students.

The Long and Winding Speech

We then discussed my idea, or we at least tried to, until one of the chattier learners decided to take this opportunity to tell us all about her favourite website and why it’s so great. Unfortunately the teacher didn’t step in and curtail this particular diatribe which went on for far too long, and somewhat sidetracked the conversation. Being a teacher makes you acutely aware of how distracting these kinds of ‘speeches’ can be. Sometimes the students can be too student centred, unfortunately.

The teacher came back to the theme at the end of the lesson, and he came to a compromise. For homework, he asked us to go to that particular website (so I’ll find out just how wonderful it is for myself...), choose an article and write a paragraph explaining why we chose it. What we’ll do with those paragraphs, I’m not sure, but I’ll email mine to him in advance. It’s a pretty good activity, much better than before, and a huge step in the right direction.

Lessons Learned

So what have I learned from this experience? Quite a lot, I think...
  • Students shouldn’t be reticent about telling their teachers what they think, but also teachers should be bold enough to combine an acceptance of these ideas with a confidence in their own ability.
  • If the teacher doesn’t entirely believe in an activity, then either he/she has to work at understanding it more, or they should get rid of it completely.
  • Sometimes someone can have the potential to be a great teacher, but without the right guidance, training, mentoring and reflection, the students are only going to see glimpses of it.
  • The wrong text to the wrong student can have a catastrophic effect, one that really can’t be underestimated and I think often is.
  • Don’t let students prattle on. That’s not student centred, it’s quite the opposite because the other students are the ones who are suffering.
  • If you’re going to make changes to the class at a student’s behest, don’t ‘out’ them. Talk about it in general terms, and allow them to tell the class if they wish.
And for my own learning...
  • Speak to my teacher more about teaching. I think he’ll enjoy it, it’ll make my classes a bit better, and I’ll get to talk about my favourite subject in Portuguese.
  • Make suggestions slowly. I’m not going to overwhelm him with the last twenty years of language teaching approaches (I wish I could!), but I can hopefully make small incremental changes that will help everyone. First thing I’m going to do is ask him to give feedback on my writing by only underlining my mistakes and not correcting it for me.
  • Write more!

And finally, I hope you can see how much I get from studying a foreign language. Aside from actually acquiring an another language, I also get an immensely satisfying and fulfilling training course, which encourages self reflection and personal development. As a language teacher, I can’t understate how valuable I think it is.

Part one of Learner diaries: reading woe & writing joy

Learner diaries: Reading, stories & vocabulary.

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Friday, 25 November 2011

Minimal Materials Blog Challenge: Vocabulary Revision with Post It Notes

Richard Gresswell (@inglishteacher) has been running a minimal resources blog challenge over on his ELTbites blog. Here are his rules:

“Describe an activity that requires no more than the teacher, students, and possibly making use of the  board, pens, and paper. Describe the activity aims and procedure concisely in no more than 200 words.”

So here’s my entry, a simple vocabulary revision activity I did last week with a class of two business students...

In the previous lesson, one of the language needs that emerged was how to express an opinion. In the next class I wanted to revise the vocabulary that we had worked on.

  • I gave each student a pad of post it notes and asked them to write something that someone could have an opinion about, serious or light, on the sticky side up, without letting their partner see. I had written an example on each pad to help them (the book you’re reading, your boss).
I’m assuming post-it notes are allowed in the challenge. It seems pretty minimal to me, but I could have easily used torn up paper and shuffled them like playing cards.
  • As they wrote each note, they gave it to me and I stuck it to a small whiteboard I have.

Post it notes stuck to the board.
  • After they had written 6 notes each, I asked them to choose a note from the board. Because they had written on the sticky side up, they couldn’t see what they were choosing.
  • They then asked their partner a question based on this subject.
This was a little twist that they weren’t expecting. I like to include these kinds of twists as it keeps them on their toes, and also revealed that they need some help in formulating these kinds of questions, something I’ll come back to in the next class.
  • They took turns in answering the partner’s questions, expressing their opinion each time with the new vocabulary.

To read more entries in the challenge, head over to Richard’s blog: 

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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Learner Diaries: Reading Woe & Writing Joy

I wrote here about the importance of finding the right level of difficulty in a reading text for your students, and after trying and failing with my current Portuguese reading homework, I'm returning to the theme.

The Wall

I realised that this text was was going to be a struggle too far when, in just the third sentence I found nine words that I didn't know. That's right, nine out of twenty.  If that's not a barrier to student engagement I don't know what is. In fact, it's not just a barrier, but a mile high wall that I had no intention of climbing.

Firstly, I reacted to this sentence by typing it into Google translate and this is what I got:

"Already hardened tissue were small crusts of bread glued to it by the dribble resurfaced now in remembrance of the cradle."

As you can see, it didn't help much. Sure, I can get the general idea but that's no way to read a story, especially by one of Brazil's leading writers.

My next reaction was to throw the story to one side and forget about it. Seriously, I don't mind a bit of a challenge, in fact I expect it (as alas not enough teachers are aware of the idea of extensive reading and the level of input being -1, not +15) but this was a joke. I'm not going to wade through a text that deep and difficult in the knowledge that at the end I'm very unlikely to understand the story, and I might have picked up a couple of words of vocabulary. There are better, much less time consuming ways of achieving the same thing, and many better ways for me to spend my time.

The offending text, with all due to respect to Ms Lispector.
Clarice Lispector, ai ai ai...

My third reaction was to write an email to my teacher. I had often thought of doing this before, but this was the straw that broke the student's back. In my email, entitled "Clarice Lispector, ai ai ai..." (Clarice Lispector is the name of the author), I explained to my teacher that I really wanted to read the story but it was too difficult. I showed him the example of the sentence that put me off, and said that while I'm ready for a challenge, this was too much.

I acknowledged that maybe for the other the learners in the class the story may have been fine, but for me it was too difficult. I went on to explain, one teacher to another, an idea for how I have taught multi-level reading classes (simply, ask the students to find one text each, give them all to the students in the next class and ask them to choose one that interests them). I have avoided doing this so far because I didn't want to appear to be telling him what to do. As another language teacher I had to be sensitive, I think.

From Woe to Joy

It took me 45 minutes to write the email, and when I finished I realised something unexpectedly positive had just happened. I had sat there and written out a complete email, expressing some fairly complex ideas, without stopping, in Portuguese. I knew that it was unlikely to be perfect, but I also knew that it wasn't that bad either. I was fairly confident that I had expressed myself clearly and made the teacher understand what I was thinking. Seems like a very worthwhile homework activity to me.

And secondly, and most importantly of all (and I really can't downplay the importance of this), I had enjoyed it. I can honestly say that it is the first time I had enjoyed doing any kind of 'work' in Portuguese. There's been homework that I've tolerated, and some that I've loathed (hello grammar exercises), but I don't remember actually enjoying it before. And I can't tell you how much satisfaction I get from that because my learning of the language that I would dearly love to be fluent in has been frustrating and annoying and trying and all the things that I don't believe language learning should be. I finally enjoyed it, and I have to exploit that in the future.

So the question that remains is how my teacher reacted to my email. Watch this space...

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Monday, 21 November 2011

Teaching Business People to Tie Their Shoes


Here’s a video I’ve been using with my business students. It uses a very short TED talk by Terry Moore, all about tying shoes:

What I love about his video is how he takes something so commonplace and mundane and makes his incredibly intelligent audience realise that they are doing it wrong. He does this with great wit and flourish, before ending with the moral of his story which is the real message behind his talk.
That sometimes a small advantage someplace in life can yield tremendous results someplace else.
It’s a simple message, but can create a very fertile topic of conversation with business students. Below you can see how I’ve been using the video.

1) Give the students a shoe each (if that’s not practical, give them a piece of string which they can imagine is attached to a shoe). Ask them to tie the lace. Ask them to swap shoes and check each others knots. Get some feedback on how good they think the knot is. 

At this point you’re probably going to get some strange looks from your students. Just give them a smile and tell them to trust you!

2) Show them the video.
3) After they’ve seen the video, ask them to go back to the shoe and reevaluate their partners efforts.

4) In pairs, ask them to practice tying the shoes. Can they tie a better knot?

5) Before showing the video again, ask them to identify the main thing we can learn from this video (“That sometimes a small advantage someplace in life can yield tremendous results someplace else”)

6) Normally I prefer to get my students to write their own comprehension questions, but this time around, just as a one off, I made them for reasons I’ll explain at the end.

Give them some comprehension questions (see the attached handout):
  • How does he describe the TED audience? (intellectual, worldly, savvy, and innovative.
  • What was the problem with the shoes? (he was tying them wrong, they had round nylon laces)
  • What did he think he would have achieved by the age of 50? (the ability to tie his shoes)
  • What are the differences between the two knots? (one is tied on the weak axis, the other on the strong; the weak one goes down the long axis, the strong across the transverse axis; the bow goes in the other direction on the weaker form; it looks better)
7) Tell them you are going to play the video one last time. Ask them to make a note of the time whenever they have a language point to raise. This could be new vocabulary, interesting sentences, useful phrases etc.

I ask the students to note down the time as opposed to the language because it doesn’t seem reasonable to me to ask them to write down something they potentially don’t know. You can just go back in the video and ask them to point it out to you during feedback.

8) Get feedback and deal with any vocabulary that emerges. You can also point out any other language points that you noticed in the video that may be useful and that they missed.

9) Discuss the issue in groups. Again, I would prefer to get the students to generate their own questions, so I would begin by putting one of these questions on the board and letting them go from there:

- Can this rule be applied to anything in your life / workplace?
- Do you remember a situation where a small change made a big difference in your professional life?
- Is there anything in your current work where you think a small change could make a big difference?

This discussion is an opportunity for them to practice new language that has emerged from the video, so encourage them to try. You can make notes during the discussion in order to give some feedback after it is over.

As I said above at point 6, I decided to break my own rule and make a handout for this particular activity. This was because of Jason Renshaw’s materials design masterclasses. I have always admire his gorgeous materials, so I, along with some other people, encouraged him to give those of us who have battled with Word some tips in creating our own materials. He has more than delivered, creating a whole series of detailed instructional videos that go beyond the mere tips I was asking for.

The handout below is my effort based on his first three videos. I can’t believe how much better my materials look already. Imagine what they’ll be like after I’ve watched all twelve! Feel free to download and use the handout.

How to Tie Your Shoes

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Monday, 14 November 2011

Great city, great conference: TESOL France 2011

Last weekend was the 30th Annual Tesol France Colloquium in Paris, and as that is just a short hop over the border for me, I had to be there. And with so many of my PLN in attendance, I really didn’t have a choice!

There are so many things you get out of attending a conference like this that it’s hard to summarise. Here are some of my observations...

Luke Meddings takes us on a dogme tour of Paris
    • Luke Medding’s fascinating plenary compared the city planning of Paris with the planning of a lesson. I loved his analogy of how we explore cities and language. And in case you are wondering why we dogme fans keep banging the drum for this particular approach to teaching and learning, there are still many misunderstandings about dogme teaching that won’t go away, and I heard them repeated at the conference. It’s the usual stuff (dogme = anti-technology, it’s only for experienced teachers and so on) and it’s the reason why we have to keep making people aware of what dogme teaching really is, or indeed, isn't.

    Cecilia Lemos during her excellent presentation on writing 
    During Weronika Salandyk's extremely useful presentation on vocabulary revision. (Thanks to TESOL France for the photo) 
    • Willy Cardoso is one clever chap. His talk, which questioned the whole idea of how we organise our classrooms, both literally and figuratively, incorporated both practical ideas, and theories from outside ELT, even outside wider education. I’m still digesting it now, to be honest. He used a term, ‘enabling constraints’ which continues to fascinate me. I’m going to come back to this many times, I think.

    Dale Coulter having a well deserved breather during his great session on reflective practice.
    • Bethany Cagnol and her team were magnificent. It was a great conference, extremely well organised with a fantastic line up of speakers. Congratulations to everyone involved.
    Me with Bethany Cagnol, president of TESOL France and all round legend. (Thanks to Ania Musielak for the photo)
    • As amazing as all the presentations were, the main reason to go to a conference like this is the people. Brad Patterson has written a lovely post on this subject, as has Matt Ledding, and I couldn’t agree with them more. Something special happens when the PLN comes together and it leaves all of us changed for the better. Until next time my friends...
    Le PLN on Le Metro (l-r Dale, Ania, Me, Mike, Hieke, Shelly, Dave, Matt, Brad & Mike). (Thanks to Cecilia Lemos for the photo)

    • And finally... English teachers in Belgium need to be given an opportunity like this.
    Some other Paris posts:
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