Saturday, 3 January 2015

Picture This–A favourite lesson from 2014

My first post of 2015 will be a quick one reviewing one of my favourite lessons from 2014. It’s easy to show you what the result of this particular lesson was as I captured it on my phone:

What you see is a map of an island and a shared memory of a school excursion but first of all, a little context – this is a Year 7 class of two students (both girls) who are enrolled as French first language students. However, they are both advanced level in English as one has a British parent and another is French but grew up in the USA until the age of 8.

We follow a specialised ‘language arts and language development’ in which we roughly follow the mainstream English programme but pause every so often to focus on refining and developing their language output (they are at that awkward stage of being almost fluent in English but are hampered from time to time by choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, the finer points of grammar, and choosing appropriate styles of English). They can get frustrated when they can’t quite find the right word or phrase and are on occasion reluctant about speaking at length (they are not fans of the ‘presentation’ formative assessment assignments we do, for example).

One hot, sunny day in early December (one of the best things about being near the equator!) they came to class in non-uniform dress clearly excited about something. It turned out they were off on a trip to the nearby rainforest as part of a joint science/geography project immediately after my lesson and they proceeded to share the details.

From there, they started to tell me about a 4 day trip they had been on the previous school year and very soon, my plan to get them researching a festival they didn’t know much about (which later became homework as you can see on the photo) had been shelved as I decided to see where this sudden enthusiastic flow of memories and information would lead.

They were soon up at the board, illustrating as they spoke. The picture they created over the course of the lesson is a map of an island in the middle of a lake in central Gabon. The boys and girls camps are marked at opposite ends of the island along with a separate “Teacher’s Island” nearby (each group of course having a different supervisor each night after dark).

The trails above the island show their boat trips and rainforest walkabouts and I got to hear about all the weird and wonderful wildlife they encountered. The red and green dots and lists of letters in circles represent a detailed retelling of the ‘capture the flag’ games they played and I also heard tales of students falling in the lake, struggling to make their own fires, telling ghost stories, and finding huge spiders in their cabins.

All of this was done with the two seamlessly interchanging, reconstructing, and coming to a mutually agreed version of controversial events. There were many moments when I could have jumped in to direct their enthusiasm and bountiful information into an activity or to pick up on a couple of minor improvements they could make to their output but I resisted the temptation. I also held back from asking them to consolidate everything into some kind of post-production written activity.

Why? Because they had held me as a captive audience for almost 45 minutes and I didn’t want to interrupt their flow or energy of their detailed description of the trip. I also didn’t want to deflate them by turning the focus to language points and making them think they hadn’t communicated clearly or well. I might have brought in an activity based on their input if they had started to run out of things to tell me or had brought it all to an end with lesson time still left but neither of those things happened so there was no need.

I also didn’t make the point immediately that they had spoken well at great length or that I had been impressed with their ability to communicate in partnership and support each other with extra details. I simply ended the lesson by thanking them for telling me about their trip and wishing them well for that afternoon’s excursion. I also took the photo as I said it would be a shame to just wipe off what was an integral part of their lesson.

We saved the reflective part for the next lesson when I pointed out how long they had been speaking (they were surprised) and asked them to think about how they had managed to keep up that level of enthusiasm and detail for so long. They decided that interest played a key role as did the fact that the trip was a shared experience. They also said that drawing out the map help them to visualise the memories as they recounted them.

And that was my favourite lesson – one where the students took control, communicated, collaborated, and co-constructed a detailed picture (literally and verbally). More of these is an aim for 2015!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

More Observations on Observation–Refreshed and Refreshing

It has been two-and-a-half years now since I blog-ranted about some of my experiences with observations: the standard criticisms, the almost nit-picking insistence on finding something ‘wrong’ with the lesson (even when the observer wasn’t paying full attention!), the going through the motions of being observed just to say you have been observed…

My negative viewpoint was obviously not helped by my initial experiences as a language teacher. It was also not helped by a closer-to-that-time experience (omitted as I was still working at that institution at the time of writing the post) in which I got a ‘surprise’ observation from my head of department. She entered the classroom all smiles but when I said we were doing a spelling test my would-be observer left the room in a huff complaining that I hadn’t informed anyone I was doing a test (why would I if it was a surprise observation?) I was promised a future surprise visit but it never came to pass…

That original post kicked off quite a discussion of what observations could and should be like. In the comments (and in a couple of other posts around the ELT blogosphere), teachers bemoaned their similar experiences, expressed sympathy for the busy and at times stressed observers, and talked about how constructive, focused observations would be of more use for all parties.

Looks refreshing! Image by Lulu Polar via #eltpics

Well, I am happy to say that my new job has given me a refreshing new experience with observations that has changed my outlook considerably. Last month, we were informed that it was time to begin the annual ‘performance review’ process. We had a meeting explaining the steps and how they would work. The steps were as follows: 

  1. Assignment of each member of academic staff to a supervisor. As an EAL teacher, mine would be the Head of Foreign Languages. 
  2. Arrangement of a meeting time to make an action plan. Crucially, this would take place before any observation and I was asked to come prepared having thought about strengths and in my teaching and areas I wanted to improve. 
  3. Meeting to decide on areas of focus for the observation. These would be decided in consultation with the supervisor, who would also go through the observation feedback form in detail.  
  4. The observation itself. The class, day, and time were all arranged in advance. 
  5. Post-observation feedback meeting. There would be a chance for self-assessment on the teacher’s part, a comparison with the thoughts of the supervisor, and discussion about the areas of focus, whether or not targets had been met, and what could be done to improve and/or sustain standards in the future.  
  6. A repeat of the process from step 2 onwards. A chance to show feedback had been taken on board.
Where had this process been all my teaching life? Not only having a pre-observation meeting but also having the time to reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses prior to it was invaluable. In the days leading up to that initial meeting, I analysed my own teaching very closely, deciding that I was letting a class of seven students work in the same groups too often (4 girls and 3 boys). I was also still struggling with timing, often having to abruptly stop lessons mid-activity as time was up.

We discussed these points in the meeting and also talked about potential solutions. I was also shown the observation sheet and got to see that the lesson in general would be evaluated in terms of student engagement, level of challenge, production, and classroom/activity management.

This all gave me plenty to think about ahead of the observed lesson, which would be with my Year 8 & 9 intermediate EAL group. I prepared a series of activities (of course, all the pre-observation steps gave me time to get a lesson I was confident in doing ready) and paid particular attention to how I would group the students at different stages and for what purpose.

And so it was that the day of my first official observation in 12 years (!) began (I was only ever observed by new teachers in my previous job not counting the spelling test!) My observer arrived on time and alert (and stayed alert for the whole lesson unlike observers past) and willingly got involved in a stage of the lesson I had planned as a whole class activity to replace the student who was absent. I started with a homework review (done with the partners they had sat with when coming into class).

We then moved onto a jigsaw reading based on a text entitled ‘how to learn new words’. They completed this in groups of three, sticking the different paragraphs on the board in the order of importance. A spontaneous discussion then began about the differences between their lists.

We then had a whole class activity with a different instructional ‘how to’ text which they had to out in order. Once they had done that, we applied some of the strategies from the first text to discover the meanings of unknown words.

Finally, I randomly handed each student half of a title for a ‘how to’ writing activity. They had to find the person with the matching half and then write a relevant ‘how to’ guide. The final stage was to be error correction and presentation of the guides but we were running out of time so I called everyone’s attention, reviewed what we had done, and informed them we would continue with the task next lesson.

The next day, I met with my supervisor for feedback. We started with “how do you think the lesson went?” and filling in the self-assessment form. The observer’s comments were then made and, for the first time in my ELT career, it was mainly positive. The stages of the lesson were clear, the students were engaged, it all flowed well, the dıfferent groupings worked and served the purpose of each part of the lesson. “I can’t really say you could have done this or that better,” my observer said. “I can only say I may have approached certain parts of the lesson in a different way.” She even added that she had picked up some ideas to try out in her classes.

Now, this is an observation process that makes sense to me. It’s not that on this occasion it all went well but rather it’s the fact that I was given time to think of my own areas of weakness to work on (and time to work on them!) and the feedback was framed in a positive but constructive way with an open-minded observer. I also left with a few ideas of what I could do differently (or at least try) and a very strong feeling that I had come out of the process as an improved, refreshed teacher.

No surprises, no generic or unjustified criticism, and no stress to be had here. Instead, time to reflect, discuss, develop and enact a plan, and then reflect some more. That is what observations should be. They are part of our professional development after all.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

5 Lessons in 5 Minutes

Or in my case, it was almost eight o’clock. It was Monday – the busiest day of the week with 5 lessons, lunchtime duty and an after school club.

The weekend had been a busy one and the Monday morning briefing, usually a 5 minute affair, had overran. For those reasons (plus the fact that I had never got round to thinking ahead the previous Friday), I found myself with 5 minutes to go before my first lesson began needing to plan out a whole day of teaching.

In my old job, this would have been no problem as I was teaching different classes in the same level and I would choose a single starting point before seeing how each lesson developed. However, as I now work in a smaller school, the five lessons were with five different year groups and included an IGCSE class, primary classes, and secondary classes covering both second language and first language groups!

There was no choice but to use what little time I had to the full and five minutes later, just as my ever-punctual first student was walking through the door, this is what I had planned to do:

The first lesson was easy enough. It was an IGCSE English Language B class and we had spent the previous week working on structuring an essay and writing effective introductions and conclusions. My student (just one student in this class!) had been set a homework task to write an introduction and conclusion for a given topic so a review of the that was the obvious place to start. We would refer back to a “dos and don’ts” checklist we had drawn up for opening and closing essays and check the homework against it before making any necessary changes. We would then work on the main body of the essay and finish with a focus on any errors of grammar, register, vocabulary, and style. Lesson #1 done – next!

The next lesson would be quite a contrast – a primary school group of Year 3 and 4 kids who have grown up in a bilingual environment but until now have only been schooled in French. That means they communicate quite easily but struggle a little when it comes to reading and writing in English. I knew the Year 3 kids had been studying dinosaurs with their class teacher and Year 4 had been looking at describing people and the clothes they wear so that led me to monsters! I would introduce them to a classic drawing lesson I featured on my blog a few years ago – Mike Harrison’s Mixed-Up Monsters. Requiring no more than a few pieces of blank paper, we would create monsters, describe them, invent profiles for them and then write up a detailed description of them, all to be followed up by error correction activities based on their own work. 2 minutes gone, 3 lessons left to get ready for….

Something slightly different next as a Year 6 group would come with two kids who are fully bilingual and have French first language lessons and English first language lessons (English with me obviously!) That means we work on literature, writing skills, and ‘language awareness’ rather than trying to improve their language knowledge and accuracy. As a general topic, they had been looking at globalisation, commercialisation, and had focused on famous explorers in history. So how about bringing that all together with a desert island inspired lesson? Using a favourite idea from Teaching Unplugged  as my starting point, I devised a warmer activity to ask students to describe some possessions they couldn’t live without leading into an explanation of the ‘Desert Island’ concept. They would then imagine they were being sent to a desert island to live for a year with a few survival and luxury items allowed. Diary entries narrating their time on the island would then  be written. Great, but time was running short. Onto lesson…

Familiar ground – an intermediate ESL level group of early teens. We had been looking at short stories with a grammar focus of narrative tenses so back to another Teaching Unplugged idea it was with a news story. I would dictate the first line of a news story with a key phrase missing. They would speculate as to what that phrase was. I would then give them a list of numbers form the text before reading it aloud and ask them to listen for what the numbers meant. Using that info, they would then do a dictogloss-style reconstruction activity with a final stage of the lesson focusing on refining and correcting their texts.

Time was ticking away so what about Lesson 5, the final one? This was another bilingual/first language group. We were nearing the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream so the first part of the lesson was straightforward to think of – guided reading/acting of a scene from the play. It would be the scene in which Lysander was released from the spell that had made him forsake his true love Hermia for a mad obsession with Helena. In the play, he seems to get off rather lightly so I decided to inform the students that off stage, Hermia was livid. Their task? To write a grovelling letter of apology trying to explain the unexplainable and ask for forgiveness.

And that was the point when my Year 10 student entered the room asking “So, what will we do today?”

Some caveats

#1 – What I thought I planned v. what I planned

Of course, what you see above is an elongated verbalisation of my thought process. What I actually had in front of me was something more like this:
Lesson 1 (Year 10) – Review hw re. checklist; write main body; error correction
Lesson 2 (Year 3/4) – Mixed-up monsters (draw, describe, create profile, write)
Lesson 3 (Year 6) – Desert Island Dıscs! Choose must-have items, write diaries
Lesson 4 (Year 8/9) – News story (dictation, number listening, dictogloss)
Lesson 5 (Year 7) – Finish Act IV, write letter of apology from Lysander
(Yes, I did just use Comic Sans. What ya gonna do ‘bout it? ;-) )

These kind of moments serve to remind me of the fallacy that is ‘think in English’ as a piece of advice to learners. We don’t really think in language. We think in ideas, images, and flashes of inspiration. We speak in English and write notes in English but the thought behind it all goes much deeper.

#2 Was that really all on Monday morning?

Yes and no. I will admit that even at the weekend, lessons are often on my mind and I had wondered a couple of times on Sunday what I would do the next day, especially as I knew it would be a busy one. And of course, I was mindful of what each class had done in the previous week and I was also aware of what they were doing in their other lessons, all of which helped inform my on the spot decisions. In my opinion, that knowledge is a huge part of ‘being prepared’.

#3 That was never 5 minutes!

And there is the fact that that 5 minutes of Monday morning ‘planning’ has nearly 15 years of language teaching experience backing it up. I have helped many students write argumentative essays, drawing imaginative pictures and building lessons around them is another favourite activity of mine, the inspiration from Teaching Unplugged has been drawn on and adapted before, leaving the letter writing idea as the only one that came to me at that very moment.

I have plans for a more detailed post on my general approach to preparing for class (as part of this must-read/must-join-in blog challenge!) but in brief, I am usually on the lookout for a catalyst, something that will get a discussion started or provide the impetus for a productive piece of work. My experience then kicks in as I adapt to the input and suggestions of the students and get them to review, revise and refine their output. The students’ own ideas together with their own mistakes and weaknesses are what make my lessons (check out this video from the TeachingEnglish Associates for a clearer idea of what I mean).

That also holds true for my first language literature and language arts classes. My EFL/ESL background serves me well as, even though they make hardly any grammatical errors, they still need feedback on content, register, and structure (and spelling and punctuation as well!).

Now, of course, I will not get complacent and think I can come up with 5-minute daily plans on a regular basis. However, as a result of experience, a willingness to adapt, an inclination (if not a full adherence) to dogme ELT, and being aware of what my students are doing in their other classes, I can quickly prepare a lesson to suit their needs. Just gimme five!

All images taken from #eltpics

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Hand in Language Learning

There is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a baby start to communicate: looking around when their name is called, waving, pointing, and the big one – clapping hands.

I have tried not to do over-analyse with my sons as they have grown up and developed their language skills but sometimes drawing comparisons between first and second language exposure and development is hard to resist! Our youngest is just a little past 18 months now and he’s not talking yet but he’s getting there. This post centres around some thoughts that started to fly around my head as he began to show understanding of the word hands.

Not my kid’s hands… nor mine! Image by @HanaTicha via #eltpics 

(I should point out here that these thoughts have been flying round for a few months and my son’s understanding has been growing through that time but the post fell into a kind of ‘development hell’ over the summer and then the new job settling in period. It is finally seeing the light of your computer screen thanks to a similar line of questioning posed by Kevin Stein on his excellent The Other Things Matter blog entitled “The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year” . An honourable mention also to the final paragraph of a recent post by Hana Ticha on the equally excellent How I See it Now blog called “My Attempt to Square the Circle” (I say final paragraph as that really resonated but the whole post is worth your time of course!)

So, one day a few months back while we were still in Turkey slowly packing our things up and preparing for a new life in Gabon, I asked my older son to hand me some duct tape. When I said the word ‘hand’, my little one immediately held out his own hands – a very exciting early sign of understanding. Over the following weeks, I kept looking for similar responses from him. Over that time, I noticed the following things:

Building backwards*

His understanding began with just the word hands. Any utterance involving that word caused him to show his hands. Slowly, he started to distinguish between the different words that preceded hands. First came the enthusiastic response to clap your hands and then wave your hands. Other hand-related commands soon started to follow (show me your hands, put it in my hand, hold my hand, and so on). In short, the basic word was acquired first and the rest of the language that accompanied it came later.

(*I’m sure there is a more academic term for this but I couldn’t recall it or be bothered to look it up in my MA notes. If anyone wants to enlighten me, please share!)

Repetition Required

And lots of it! Once he had grasped the meaning of this word and all the other language that came with it, we made sure it was all recycled regularly. We must have used those terms hundreds of times over the space of a couple of weeks. The responses were not always consistent either. Sometimes, he would blissfully ignore me and continue with whatever else he was doing but gradually, he started to show his understanding and respond on a more frequent basis.

Songs of Praise

The classic nursery rhyme to go with all this of course is If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands. It soon became a favourite tune. At first, hands were clapped for every line whether instructed to or not but slowly, my little one started to pick up the other actions in the song too and extend his learning even further. As he picked up on a different body part and associated command, we rolled with it and went through the same cycle of reinforcement and repetition as with hands. This was all backed up by plenty of encouragement of course with lots of excited faces, noises, and applauding of efforts all round!

Classroom Contrasts

This all got me thinking about how my students learned and developed their English in class.

(Now, before going any further, a little aside to say that I am of course fully aware that what I have described above and what happens in a classroom are not the same thing. I have outlined the linguistic development of a baby in a first-language home environment and now I am going to talk about a large group of kids in a formal school setting having lessons, but bear with me. I will try to make a point eventually!)

One day, back in my old school in Turkey, I was mindlessly flicking through professionally evaluating potential new course books for the primary school when I thought why not follow up all this learning-centred excitement from home with a critical analysis of how new language is presented in these books.

I looked through 5 different titles from 4 different publishers (again, I know it is by no means a comprehensive number but, hey, this is a blog, not an academic journal, and that’s why I am also writing up these reflections from memory several months later rather than from meticulously prepared notes). Predictably enough, hands was introduced through the topic of the body in all bar one of the books, which bizarrely had no reference to hands at all (even though gloves was one of the key words in the clothing unit!)

So far, so what? Well, I next looked at the context in which the word was introduced and practiced. In all cases, it was part of a unit introducing have/have got. There were examples of people’s faces and relevant descriptions. Fine, but of course describing body parts is a bit unnecessary as all the children featured in the book were in possession of the right number of everything! A couple of the books used animals to practice things like it has got 4 legs  and it has got a long mouth (or even a beak  but that was not ‘target’) and a couple more went for the monsters/aliens route with cartoony pictures and Xyrex has got 7 hands!! examples.

And that was about it. One of the books featured Put your hands up please for classroom language but I couldn’t find any other use of hands or any other body words in the rest of the book.

Of course, first and second language learning are not the same but repetition is said to be a key feature of both. Where was the repetition in these books? Context is also very important in language acquisition. What context does The monster has only one hand provide?

Clap your hands  was nowhere to be seen. Wave showed up in one book as wave goodbye but with no mention of hands. Shake hands, hand it in, give me a hand – these are all potentially useful language items in the classroom but they are not presented in the books.

So why not present these words and the actions that go with them? Why is it (almost) always body parts and has (got)? Why is it grammar practice over meaningful and practical use? I don’t have beginner or elementary classes at the moment but next time I do, I will take that approach – body vocabulary and collocations that go with the different words. I will of course report back on it when/if I try it here.

But for now, what do you think? Is a meaningful context not important at primary level? Should we simply focus on presenting grammar and let the appropriate use of vocabulary come later? I would be interested in hearing different perspectives on this!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: English for the Zombie Apocalypse (EZA)

We do not know how it started. All that we know is that it did… And once it started there was no stopping it.

People panicked. The authorities were overwhelmed. Private homes, stores, schools, and public buildings were all overrun. Governments collapsed and society crumbled…

The world as we know it has ended. Out of the chaos of the initial outbreak, a small number of humans have emerged desperately trying to survive. However, when they encounter each other, how will they interact? Effective and clear communication will be key to survival.

And in our increasingly gloablised world, effective and clear communication in English will be key to survival.

That is where the latest publication of The Round comes in:

"When the world nears its end, the language people will be speaking will be English.”
Image courtesy of The Round

This is a short, highly-specialised ESP course containing ten units, an A-Z of Zombie Apocalypse vocabulary, and audio recordings of the dialogues and key phrases. The authors, Robert Campbell & Lindsay Clandfield, have taken the lack of ELT material that addresses how to deal with emergency situations and married it (in an unholy alliance) with the current trend in popular culture for post-apocalyptic tales of hardy bands of humans trying to survive the end of the world.

(That’s my interpretation at least – it may well be that these esteemed authors in the world of ELT know something we don’t are are trying to ensure they are well-placed when the first bite is taken...)

Units follow a similar format, beginning with ‘The Situation’, which is designed to get the class engaged in discussion (or the self-study ‘sole survivor’ engaged in deep thought) and then followed by ‘The Scene’, which presents a dialogue based on one of the choices from the opening part of the unit. There is then a focus on ‘The Phrases’, highlighting key language from the discussion in true ELT course book style, before the unit closes with ‘The Task’, designed to test the language points and get students to prepare themselves for the impending apocalypsenworst-case scenario.

‘The Situation’ lends an interactive-fiction element to the book, which immediately involves the student in the content and can help to break down the classroom walls (meant metaphorically of course as actually breaking down the walls while there are zombies roaming around outside may be disastrous!)

‘The Scene’ skilfully serves three purposes as it develops one of the options the students will have already discussed, tells the story of Alex, Brooke and Connor, and introduces the target language.. The interactive element is maintained as students are often invited to complete the scene or speculate about the actions and motives of one of the characters and the audio recording adds a dramatic touch, as well as a pronunciation model.

‘The Phrases’ provide a useful point to analyse the language used closely, and introduce different expressions and constructions relevant to the scenario. Despite it’s brief nature, the book covers a range of language points: asking for help, making suggestions, giving commands, and expressing regrets to name but a few. These areas are well-chosen (no need to be saying “The zombie has got bloodshot eyes and rotting teeth” or using the future perfect continuous when you are fighting for your life!) but quite a lot is covered in 20 pages so considerable teacher-input may be needed for the students to get the most out of the material.

‘The Task’ at the end of each unit gives an immediate opportunity for the students to put their newly-acquired language to use, usually in the form of a role-play (again, based on the fact that written tasks may be few and far between once the world has ended). In class, it would be important to put students under pressure when preparing and performing these tasks to reflect the ever-present possibility of danger there would be if the events envisaged in this book ever came to pass.

While the book is precise and well-oriented to its post-apocalyptic purpose, there are a few areas I (as an avid fan of The Walking Dead in its print, TV, and digital entertainment forms) feel have been overlooked and they are as follows…

To better serve the purposes of the book, a unit on surviving alone would be useful. Most zombie-fiction adventures start with the protagonist alone and it would be a shame if a second-language learner met an early end because of a failure to understand the ‘keep out: infected inside” signs painted on the walls.

And what of the idea often shown to us in these post-apocalyptic works of fiction of the mistrust and malice that manifests itself in humans as civilisation-as-we-know-it crumbles, and the need to scavenge and hunt grows? A unit on presenting yourself as non-threatening or becoming accepted as part of a group would help our zombie fighting EFL student a lot.

Building on that, a language focus on swearing would not be out of place here. It is not only vocabulary that is important but also appropriacy and register, both in understanding the intentions of the swearer and expressing yourself expletively.

And finally, a CLIL-style focus on survival skills such as how to build a fire, trap a rabbit, and load a crossbow quickly would not go amiss. Groups of survivors in these stories always seem to depend on one of their number being a former hunter or scout master but we know in truth it is better to be that person then be reliant on that person.

Overall, I would say this is a well-written book that has identified and reached its target clearly. There are a few additions that could be made but then again, when your life depends on it, perhaps negotiating a 20 page book for information is going to be preferable to leafing through a more densely packed one. This is an entertaining book and something your students may enjoy using for something different. However, I sincerely hope it remains a book they can enjoy and not become one they will need….


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Inspired by my PLN No. 4–Picture Stories

It has been quite a while (3 years in fact) since instalment number three in this series… It is not that I have not been inspired at all in that time, but rather that I was comfortable in my role and knew how best to approach the challenges of working with my ‘language skills’ classes in Turkey. However, with my new location, new job, and new challenges that has all changed. I am now in an unfamiliar teaching context, working with EAL students who need to develop their English skills and put them to immediate use in their other lessons.

Picking the locks of a new working environment – Image by @klizbarker via #eltpics

Recently, I have been focusing on storytelling so that my ‘high level’ learners can prepare themselves to join the ‘fluent’ English literature group later in the school year. The material to hand was fairly dry and vague – lots of ‘write a story with this title’ or ‘write a story in which a bad character turns good’ prompts and little else so I thought my students would need a little more structure and significantly more input to help build their storytelling skills and confidence.

So what did the EFL teacher in me decide to do? Make use of images as a starting point of course! A quick look through my bookmarks and a few blog posts from various #ELTpics curators later and I had plenty of great ideas to try out and adapt. These were my (and my students’) favourites:
In order to introduce the idea of using a picture to prompt ideas, I used Roseli’s first suggestion from this blog using the pictures of people’s feet. I followed the same format of showing the pictures and giving the prompt questions but I showed the images separately, starting with the ‘feet in the street’.

Images by @fionamau and  @HanaTicha via #eltpics

This got a few ideas flowing and the students had some interesting ideas about who the people were and what the rest of them looked like.

But when the second image was displayed, the lesson really took off with lots of wild ideas (the stranger the image, the more scope for imagination it would seem). I used the same question prompts but added:

How/get here?

That was a neat way to introduce the idea of a backstory of events culminating in the person lying in the pool. Suddenly, we had a basis for a story so I promptly paired the students up and had them exchange ideas and then orally tell their story behind the picture. Some said it was a dive gone wrong, others a grisly murder, and others described the aftermath of excess at a Hollywood party.
But before I got my students to write their own stories, I thought they could do with an example or two of a short-story told through words and images. Luckily, I had this gem from Jamie Keddie’s Lesson Stream site bookmarked and put it to use.

The Blob on the Bridge – Images taken from

The idea of obscuring part of a picture is an interesting one that can really help to draw students into the story that goes with it. I recall way back when on my Trinity Cert TESOL course being told about obscuring images cut from magazines and newspapers but it all seemed a bit messy (plus, there was potentially the need for enough copies for each group and an ‘unspoiled’ version to show later on) but thankfully this is one of the areas where simple computer technology has made life so much easier and made a useful idea easier to implement.

I followed the lesson plan more or less as it was set out on Lesson Stream. They had a lot of fun trying to figure out what the blob was. Most of them decided it was a human but couldn’t find an explanation as to why the rescue services left him to sleep for the night. Eventually one group came up with the idea that he was some kind of paranoid schizophrenic and they considered it too dangerous to attempt a rescue while he was so panicked. Another suggested he might be an escaped convict whom the authorities had little sympathy for.

They then did the dictogloss part of the lesson before I told them the truth, that the blob was in fact a bear. As a little extra homework task, I decided to make use of their creative ideas from earlier in the lesson and get them to rewrite the story as though the bear was in fact a deranged individual and/or prisoner on the run. This meant they had a model piece of writing to follow and was a good first step into coming up with their own work of fiction.
Similar to the above was ‘The Big Reveal’, a lesson idea shared by Sandy Millin on the Teaching English website that is as simple as it is effective (VERY on both counts!).

Locked in – image by Mike George via #eltpics

This time I followed Sandy’s idea of showing the picture a little at a time (done with a PowerPoint slideshow) and getting the students to speculate about the image, revising, changing or adding to their ideas as they saw more. This was a fantastic way to get the students hooked. By the time, the ‘big reveal’ had taken place, the board was full of language and the students were brimming with ideas of how their story would unfold. They then got into the writing part with gusto and were keen to read and compare each other’s tales.
And so, on to another great idea from Ms Millin, this time using question prompts with a number of different pictures. As we had been focusing on using the past continuous to set background to a story, this was a good way to explore those ideas as we described the setting, the weather, what people were doing and where they were going.

I followed Sandy’s ideas up to the point of choosing a picture to focus on (my group went with the parade through Disneyland as you may have guessed). I got each group to write their ‘setting the scene’ introduction and we then pooled our resources to come to an agreed introduction on the board (a great opportunity for error correction and language focus specifically centred around the target language).

Our lesson ended at that point so next lesson, I got my students into the computer lab and gave them each an individual Google Doc with the image and our collective introductory paragraph. They were then tasked with finishing the story (with guided error correction from me on the way) before being invited to view and comment on each other’s stories. We then had a nice fruitful discussion about the pros and cons of writing online and using shared documents.
    Free Hugs
And so back to the start and the first post I referred to from Roseli Serra. One of the images she showed was the below of some random guy offering random free hugs out on some random street:

Any takers? Image by Mike Kenis via #eltpics

All I did before hand was to blank out the sign. Well-prepped by this point, my students immediately started brainstorming ideas about what was on the sign, who the people were and what their story might be.

I revealed the sign and asked them why this person may be offering hugs for free and how they would feel and react if they saw him. I also got them to think about how that person might feel if he was ignored all day as he seems to be in this picture.

For a little twist, I decided to share a picture I had seen floating around on Facebook over Halloween, just to emphasise how setting and context can drastically alter the mood:

Seriously? No takers?

This had a similar impact to the feet sticking out the pool in our first picture-based lesson. The students’ divided opinions about the first picture suddenly united to ones of revulsion and horror. I then gave the option of choosing either picture and writing a story to go with it.

By this time, much of what we had been working on about structure, use of narrative tenses, self-editing and correction, peer checking and feedback and redrafting came without any prompting from me. Plus, they seemed to be making fewer errors and coming up with more ideas anyway. It all made for a less active lesson for me and a more productive one for them.

Blogs and links to explore
If you are interested in finding more inspiring ideas for making the most of images in class, check out these links: 

  • Take a Photo and… – the blog to accompany the #ELTpics community with plenty of contributions from teachers around the world. If you have a good idea, why not offer to share it as well? 
  • Sandy Millin’s Blog – one of the main curators of #ELTpics with many a good idea for using images. 
  • Lesson Stream – plenty of detailed lesson plans for using images and video from the accomplished Jamie Keddie

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Appreciating what we don’t have

One question that naturally enters a person’s mind when moving to a place like Gabon is “What will no longer be available to me?”. Rightly or wrongly, this part of the world is often associated with lacking things, whether they be luxury items and comforts like a favourite cheese or high-speed internet, or basic amenities such as a reliable electricity supply or drinkable piped water.

Mmmm… Cheese… Image credit: Pixabay

Well, I’m pleased to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. The local supermarkets are well stocked (albeit expensive), we got the Internet connected to our new home within a day of arriving (a little slow at 512 kbps but we’ll manage), we’ve only had a couple of short power-cuts so far, and water hasn’t been a problem at all.

I did also wonder before I came about my new school. I was promised a place with access to extensive resources but what would that actually mean in practice? On that score, I have been more than surprised as there is a huge stationery inventory (backed up by a ‘green initiative’ to avoid waste), a well-stocked library (full of previously untouched books), and enough computers and other digital equipment to make an EdTech junkie overdose.

My very own classroom!

However, there are also many things here we don’t have (compared to my previous schools) and I would like to take a few moments to highlight those things:
    No grades
Oh, the hours I used to spend calculating grades, agonizing over them, trying to find a balance between what was deserved and what was expected, only to be told to change them because they didn’t match the grammar teacher’s mark… There was the pain of seeing a child on the verge of tears because they had one or two low grades and the frustration of seeing a student who had failed to complete any project work and/or had a disruptive effect in class getting a high grade because somebody somewhere had demanded it.

But no more! There are no grades here. There is feedback, there are reports, and there are teacher-student/teacher-parent conferences, but there are no percentages, no letters, and no numbers that distract from the progress the student has made and the comments the teacher has to make about their learning.
    No internal examinations
Tied closely into the above, there are no written exam papers here. The students do not have their learning interrupted every few weeks to make sure they can spell new vocabulary or that they can choose the correct verb form in a gap-fill. Instead, they are asked to engage in a process of on-going self-assessment and discussion with their teachers. In order to show what they have learned, they are asked to do project work and make presentations to the class. The only ‘traditional’ exams (and therefore grades) they will face are the international ones like IGCSE and IB. Even then, the school favours assessment options that include coursework when possible. This all helps them show what they have learned rather than what they were expected to learn.
    No homework (in primary at least)
I often saw students back in Turkey struggle under the strain of a lot of homework. It was sadly not uncommon to see instructions on the board at the end of a long school day telling students to complete 10 pages of maths problems or write a 500 word essay in English by the next morning. At home, we had far too many days when my son (only seven years old!) would come home, start his homework, have dinner, finish his homework, and then it would be time for bed. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Primary school students do not get homework. At the very most, they may be asked to read a couple of chapters of a book of their choice or speak to an older relative about life in the past but there are no worksheets or page after page of exercises to be done.

Even when homework is set in the secondary school, it is limited. Each teacher has an allotted day and length of time for homework. We are encouraged to set it a few days in advance to give students some time to organise their work. We are also discouraged from giving exercises, worksheets, or written tasks. In place of those things, we should encourage the students to do some research, and find a way to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives away from school. Much more concise and much more relevant.
    No bell
This may seem like a small thing but the lack of a bell has made a huge difference so far. Teachers are trusted to keep time and start/finish classes at the right hour. That means no more ‘countdowns’ to the bell or kids rushing to the door as soon as it rings while the teacher is still trying to round off the lesson. No bell puts the teacher in control of timing and ensures that the lesson concludes calmly.

Here I also don’t have to contend with one thing that always bugged me in Turkey – having break time very 40 minutes. I often felt that this was counterproductive as the kids were often distracted by the impending opportunity to run around and would often be tired or bursting with energy when called back to class a mere ten minutes later. This was then repeated 8 times a day… In this school, lessons are 60 minutes and there is no break until the end of lesson 2. That break is 20 minutes giving the kids time to unwind and relax and come back to class refreshed instead of being dragged back halfway through a game of football. 2 more lessons then lunch, and 2 more then home time. It all seems to run much more smoothly.
    No course books
This is a big one for my and my dogme-leanings. There are no set course books in use – not for English language lessons and not for the other sections of the school curriculum either. We have targets, we have topic areas that need to be incorporated, and we have a bank of resources that can be utilised as and when needed but exactly how we meet those targets and include those topic areas is up to us as teachers. A large part of the period before school opened was devoted to stressing the need to get to know our students and to tailor our teaching to suit their needs and interests. No more need to teach past  continuous or discuss life on the American frontier just because it is in Unit 5!
    No fixed syllabus
As a consequence, there is no fixed syllabus either. We have the flexibility and the freedom to add extra elements and explore different areas, just so long as we can link what we do back to the general curriculum for that particular section of the school. Again, this offers space and time to teachers and learners alike to make the most of our lessons together.
    No Nos
We were also told before school started that the Heads of the school sections and the Directors are open to all ideas – it doesn’t matter if it is off-the-wall or something experimental, all suggestions, requests and brainwaves will be considered. I put this to the test immediately by proposing an extra-curricular game-based learning club. They said ‘yes’. I requested that the school purchase licenses for MinecraftEdu, they said ‘yes’. I am hoping this pattern continues as we move towards opening the language school over the next few months!
    No limits
All of the above add up to no limits. I think there are great possibilities here for the students to learn and learn effectively and for the teachers to develop and teach effectively as well. Career-wise, this has been a good move so far and all signs point to this promising start continuing over the next academic year. I will be keeping you updated!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Long Goodbye

As you will know from my last post, I now find myself in a new job in a new country as I take on the role of Language School Coordinator in Libreville, Gabon. Of course, leaving Turkey and my life and career there was quite hard and it wasn’t made any easier by the drawn out nature of saying goodbye.

I started my job here earlier this week but the transition from one full time position to another took a while as it followed a series of ‘goodbye steps’ including my last day of teaching at TED (mid-June), last day of actually working at TED (end of June), moving out of my apartment (mid-July), and departing for Gabon (mid-August). Scattered in between were farewells with different groups of people (students, colleagues, friends, and family).

However, as always, I kept myself busy during that period with a few projects (paid and unpaid) and it was fun to see what working as a self-employed freelancer in the world of ELT could be like.
Among the projects I was involved in, I lent my voice to a couple of ELT course book projects (those of you in Turkey, don’t be surprised if you hear a familiar voice on any tapescripts in the near future!) and I also taught a couple of short exam classes to get back into the swing of working with adults (those led to a few reflections on the state of ELT in Turkey which I will be sharing on the blog soon).

I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with Kristina Smith and the SELT Teacher Training Academy, who are doing a lot of exciting work with language teachers in Turkey and in Asia. This began with designing and creating a series of presentations as part of courses prepared specifically for the regional market with separate focuses on primary, secondary, and academic levels (distinctions a lot of TEFL courses currently lack), and ultimately led to me spending some time in Almaty, Kazahkstan, running a training course for primary teachers. This was my first time running an extended course rather than a one-off workshop and it was a great learning experience. Please visit the SELT Academy blog to read my reflections from my sadly brief stay there:

And as ever, there were webinars. I was honoured and pleased to be invitied back as a presenter for the Reform Symposium (RSCON5), where I ran a session on using Minecraft with language learners (please visit my ELT Sandbox blog to learn more about it) and I was proud and happy to be part of the iTDi Summer School MOOC. Again, I focused on game-based learning and you can expect some reflections over on ELT Sandbox soon.

Here are the links to the archived presentations: 

RSCON5 – Breaking the Learning Blocks: Minecraft and Language Learning

iTDi Summer School MOOC – Raise Your Game: GBL in the Language Classroom
Sadly, not all the projects came through. I was also scheduled to contribute to a joint Turkish Ministry of Education-British Council project training state school teachers in using class tablets and technology in general to support language learning but sadly it was postponed until the new academic year.

And that was that. My work in Turkey is done for now as I move my focus to teaching students and training teachers in Gabon. I hope I can continue with the web conferences while I am here and, who knows, maybe pop up at a couple of face-to-face events as well.

Friday, 22 August 2014

From Turkey to Gabon

The blog has been quiet recently and for good reason as my family and I prepared to move on – a change of job and a major change of location as we swapped the Mediterranean climes of Turkey for the tropical climes of Gabon in Western Central Africa.

Gabon? Gabon?

Yes, that’s right – we now live in Libreville just north of the equator, where I am preparing to take on the new challenges of working in an international school and overseeing the development of a new language school. It’s been a crazy few months of leaving the old life and getting ready for the new one and after a week or so here, it looks like there are a few more crazy (but exciting) months ahead.
I have answered many questions from colleagues, family, and friends about this move over recent times and in this post, I am going to summarise some of them.

First of all….,


Why Gabon? Why now?

The decision to leave Turkey after 14 years, the last 12 of which have been spent at the same school, took many people by surprise (including me!) Why give up a steady job in a modern European country for a leap into the unknown in a developing one? Why leave after having been in Turkey for so long, establishing contacts, learning the language, and knowing the local ELT scene so well? Why take your family (including an 18-month old) to Africa?

Taking those one at a time, there was never any plan to go to Gabon or Africa in particular (although I have often wondered why there never seem to be many positions other than voluntary ones advertised in this part of the world) but there was a plan to move on. Granted, I had been in Turkey for a long time and I had enjoyed my time there but I had a feeling that I had gone as far as I could professionally. The choice I faced had I stayed was to continue doing what I was doing without any real new challenge or to take a big risk and try to work on a freelance basis. In many ways, that would have been more risky than where I find myself now so I decided to look abroad.

My original intention when I took my Trinity TESOL course all those years ago was to see the world and work at the same time and, even after 14 years, that desire was still there (for both me and my wife). I had the chance to live abroad as a child and I wanted my sons to experience that too. They also now get the chance to experience not only a different country but also a different education system and a different language, all of which will help them as they grow older.

I also did my research. I researched the city and the country and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Gabon is a rapidly-developing and forward-looking country. They are many exciting projects going on here as wealth from the abundant natural resources is invested with a view to becoming classed as a ‘newly-developed’ nation. One of those project areas focuses on education and that is where I come in.

I now work at The International School of Gabon Ruban Vert, which opened just last year. It has been established not just to serve the expat community but also to offer an international standard of education to Gabonese students. Initially, I will be working as part of the EAL programme, offering language support to Francophone students as they integrate into the school’s bilingual (English/French) system.

But that’s not all. The project does not just cover K-12 education but also aims to go further into adult education. With an increasing number of foreign (non-French) companies investing here, there is an increased demand for ELT so during the first term, I will also be working towards establishing a language school here offering both ESP classes to local businesses and general English to the local community. As I type, very little is in place so we will be starting from scratch. Over the next few months I will be meeting with potential clients, designing courses, developing action plans, and putting everything in motion with a view to getting started in January 2015.

In short, I get to start my own language school!

At present, my mind is bursting with possibilities. I have been told that no idea will be considered too outlandish or unconventional. There is no expectation of following a certyain method of teaching or working with any particiular publishers. In fact, as we are in the heart of Africa, there is a natural predisposition to operating in a low-resource environment.

Could this be a ‘Dogme Language School’? That is something I will be seriously investigating and keeping you posted on over the coming months.

Exciting times!

Looks like a nice place to relax after work!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

An open letter to my old students

Dear students,

So, we have finally finished! School is over and now you are all on


Image credit: Pixabay

I am not on holiday yet, of course. I have a few more days of drinking coffee working hard at school to make sure everything is ready for next year. However, next year (as you know) there will be a big difference – I will not be here. I will be teaching at a new school in Gabon, Africa!! This is a very exciting opportunity and I hope it will be a lot of fun.

But, in this letter, I want to say a few things about the year of learning we have just finished. The first and most important thing I want to say is:


Image credit: Pixabay

Last September, I wrote you a letter (but never showed it to you!) about what I wanted this year to be like, what I wanted from you, and what I wanted you to learn. And you did it! You gave me a chance to be your teacher and didn’t expect me to do the same things as your old teacher.

And we had fun! I enjoyed our lessons a lot – you told me interesting and funny stories, you joined in with the drama activities and games, and you made some fantastic projects and presentations. I could understand that you enjoyed these tasks and that made me happy – we had fun but learned at the same time and that is what I always want to see in my classrooms.

And, even when the lessons were more ‘serious’, you were the same. I know some of the pages we had to read in our Cornerstone book were boring but you still tried hard and completed the tasks. The only small thing that wasn’t so good was homework – a few of you ‘forgot’ or couldn’t do the homework sometimes… But I’m not a big fan of homework anyway and I understand that you get a lot of homework from your other teachers so I tried not to give you too much. I hope you understood that.

I was also happy to see how much you changed and grew in our lessons. I know some of you were worried at the start of the year because I always spoke English in class. Some of you were very shy and quiet too. With time, you started to understand more and then you started to speak more. The worried students became relaxed. The shy students soon couldn’t stop talking! And the (sorry to say it) lazy ones started to speak more and work a little harder as well.

But it wasn’t only you speaking in English that I liked. I also liked what you said. I enjoyed listening to you and your stories about your life, your experiences, and your interests. I hope you know this and I hope you enjoyed hearing my stories too.

Now, it’s time to say goodbye and time for me to go. I am happy about my new job but I was sad on the last day when some of you asked me to stay here. It is very difficult to leave wonderful students like you but sometimes we have to make difficult decisions in our lives – you will learn this when you are older.

I hope my new students will have the same enthusiasm and energy as you. I also hope that you will show the same energy and enthusiasm with your new teachers next year and in the years after. Your new teacher will not be me and might do things in class very differently but, remember, I was not your old teacher either! Having new teachers who do things differently is good for you and your learning so make sure you give your new teachers a chance. If you listen to their lessons, follow their rules, and do the tasks, you will see that all teachers like mixing learning with fun! You don’t have to give your new teachers Toblerones though – those were just for me!

Winking smile

So, the only thing I can say now is:


Image credit: Pixabay

I will tell you all about my African Adventure through our Facebook connections. Make sure you tell me about your life in 6th Grade as well.

Our journey together has just ended but life’s journey never stops. Good luck!

Your old (and favourite!) teacher,

Mr Dodgson

P.S. The ‘goodbye’ film we made together is now on YouTube. Thanks for helping me make it!