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:

http://seltacademycts.blogspot.com.tr/2014/07/learn-to-train-train-to-learn-by-dave.html


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?

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

beach-2352_640

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:

hand-226358_640

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:

farewell-20196_640

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!

Smile

Sunday, 6 April 2014

#IATEFL 2014 – Blogging and Social Media for CPD

Another year, another IATEFL conference that I wish I could have gone to… At least there is the extensive online coverage of live and recorded sessions and interviews to dive into and the chance to once again be a registered blogger reporting from afar.

Blogger-harrogate-300x300-banner

To kick things off, I am going to give a brief summary and share a few thoughts on three interviews that focused on online professional development and, in particular, blogging. This is partly because online CPD is a personal interest of mine and partly because the interviews feature some of my favourite PLN people.

First, there was this interview with the dual driving forces behind the Teaching English Facebook page, Ann Foreman and Paul Braddock:

Social media has truly been a game changer in terms of professional development for language teachers. It is so easy to go online now and find blogs and articles, connect with other teachers on Facebook and Twitter, and attend webinars and online events. However, it was interesting to hear the work and thought that goes into running and maintaining the social media presence of a site like Teaching English. As Ann and Paul mention, for online CPD to be effective, it still needs a focus and some structure. Teaching English does a great job of this with their featured blog posts, webinars and articles and it will be interesting to see how this all evolves in the future.

Next up was this interview with two of the most prolific ELT bloggers out there, Sandy Millin and Adam Simpson:

I share Sandy and Adam’s experience of starting blogging with little direction or focus and also not much of an audience. It takes time and persistence to build an audience and make connections to get your blog going. It also helps to write posts that come naturally and are driven by the blogger’s own interests, which for me (as with Adam) usually comes from the classroom. I found I also have a common trait with Sandy in that multiple blog ideas often fly around in my head and continue to do so until they are extracted by writing them out. The chat also touched upon the paradox of blogging – it is essentially an individual activity driven by the teacher’s own desire to pursue their own professional development. And yet, it also has a much-valued element of community, which can greatly enrich the process with interactions, hits, and visiting other teachers’ blogs… A kind of collective of individual voices but with a common goal.

And then this great chat with James Taylor, Willy Cardoso and Katherine Bilsborough:

This chat focused on the audience aspect a little more. James shared yet another familiar experience as he highlighted the role people’s comments play in reshaping your thinking and helping you look at things from a different perspective. Willy also brought up something I have found to be very true, that blogging helps you initiate conversations that are not always easy to find elsewhere. This can be with other teachers or with well-known authors and presenters in the ELT world. Interacting with them can really push on a teacher’s reflective thinking. Both Katherine and Willy mentioned something that I found during my MA research – reading other teachers’ blogs and being part of their blog’s community can be just as valuable as writing your own. So, please feel free to leave comments on this or any of my other posts – not, as James says, to feed my ego but to help me engage in conversation and reassess my thinking!

You can check out each of the interviewees blogs/blog posts from these links:

Sandy Millin’s Blog

Adam Simpson’s Teach them English

James Taylor’s The Teacher James

Willy Cardoso’s Authentic Teaching

Katherine Bilsborough’s Teaching English Blog

All well worth a look!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

14 years back…

The year, 2000. The month, March.

The world was riding on the optimistic crest of the new millenium. The ‘Millenium Bug’ had turned out to be nothing to worry about, the World Trade Centre was still standing, the NASDAQ was at an all-time high, Kevin Keegan was the manager of the England national football team, mobile phones that allowed you to call AND text were revolutionising the way we communicated, and a new President of Russia by the name of Vladimir Putin had just been sworn in.

In Turkey, £1 was equivalent to just shy of 1,000,000 Turkish Lira (938,676 TL to be exact!), Galatasaray were on their way to an historic first UEFA Cup win, kids crowded into Internet cafes to play LAN battles on Quake III and Counter-Strike, an elderly Bülent Ecevit was Prime Minister of a shaky coalition, and the AK Party did not exist (and neither did Twitter!)

And in the capital Ankara, a young backpacker stepped of the plane onto the tarmac of the tiny old Esenboga airport with his recently acquired Trinity TESOL Certificate in hand ready to explore, have fun and perhaps do the odd bit of teaching to pass the time.

14years

What can I say? Air Guitar pre-dated Guitar Hero I guess!

The first 36 hours was a blur of being picked up by two gents who didn’t know much English, dropped off at my apartment, taken to the school the next day eagerly awaiting the chance to meet someone who spoke English so I could ask where to get some breakfast, and shown around the premises of the dersane in downtown Ankara that would be my TEFL training ground for the next two years.

There were many adventures in those early days but I’m going to stick to two teaching related ones for this post: the first lesson I observed and the first lesson I taught.

“Tone it down – they’ll never understand you talking like that”

After meeting the guy who had hired me despite my slightly hungover telephone interview on a Saturday morning just 2 weeks beforehand and the DoS/owner of the school, my first day was to be spent sitting in on other teachers’ classes to ‘get a feel’ for how things were done.

In the first class I went to, the teacher immediately told the students to ask me some questions, an activity that I would be very familiar with by the end of the day. It was an elementary level class and they asked me some standard basic questions about my name, where I was from, when I had arrived and so on. Then, one student pointed to the portrait hanging above the board and overlooking the room.

“Who is he?”, she asked. “Do you know?”

“Of course,” I replied. “That’s Atatürk, the man who created the Turkish Republic.”

A murmur of approval rippled around the classroom as the students seemed impressed by my answer. When it came to the teacher in class however, a burly stern-looking New Zealander, there was a stark contrast of disapproval as he tutted and shook his head.

“Dave,” he said. “You should have stopped at ‘That’s Atatürk’. These are elementary students. You start saying things like ‘the man who did this and that’ and you’re gonna lose them. They don’t, they can’t understand that yet.”

Slightly taken aback, I thanked him for the advice and started thinking about how I would go about toning down my language when teaching lower levels. But then, there was a moment of reassurance as a student sitting nearby leaned over and whispered “it’s ok teacher – I understand you.”

The following day, I was thrust into the teacher spotlight for the first time with an ‘extra lesson’. In this particular school, there were optional lessons each day offering extra practice to registered students divided into elementary/intermediate+ levels and conversation/grammar. My first class would be an elementary level grammar class. I was told that there may be as many as 40 students there but the numbers could fluctuate wildly from day to day. They could also be at anywhere from a beginner to a pre-intermediate level so I should, I was told, be prepared for anything.

As I scratched my head wondering how to be prepared for anything when I had no idea what to expect, one of my new colleagues came over. “Think of a lesson you did on your training course that went well,” he advised me “and do that.”

“Well,” I niavely stated, “there was a lesson I did on will/going to…”

Cue smirks and muffled laughter around the staffroom. “Yeah, go for it if you think that’s a good idea,” I was told.

I prepared some bland worksheets using pictures to elicit predictions (not unlike some of the worksheets featured here) as well as an overly-detailed lesson plan which I pored over again and again as I anxiously awaited for the lesson to start.

The room used for these extra lessons was next to the school cafeteria and had enough space for over 50 people. I remember standing at the closed door wondering what awaited inside. 20 students? 30? 40? More?

Taking a deep breath I opened the door and stepped inside. At first I wondered if I was in the right place, then I spotted 4 (yes, only 4!) students sat, of course, right at the back. I introduced myself and explained that I was new to the school and to Ankara.

Silence.

Just as I was starting to think about the remarks in the lesson I had observed the day before, one student put his hand up. “What are we doing today?” OK then, we went into the lesson and I figured I could save the ‘getting to know you’ part for my first regular course instead of a one off extra lesson.

That student would then proceed to dominate the lesson as the others sat somewhat passively. One thing that stuck in my mind was when I found out that he was Course 2 in the school system and all the others were from Courses 3 and 4 and yet they looked puzzled while he provided all the answers. I recall at one point banning him from answering the next 3 questions in order to encourage participation from the others which finally brought about a little laughter in response but for most of the 50 minutes, I felt like I was doing a one-to-one lesson.

Nevertheless, I was thanked by all the students when the lesson was over and asked if I would be taking a class of my own when the new courses started the following week. I had ‘survived’ the first of what would become thousands of classroom hours and that was all that mattered.

14 years later…

I have been thinking about those early days a lot recently (for reasons which I shall go into a little later) and wondering what I would do differently after all these years of experience.

If I was observing a class and asked a similar question again, I would probably tone down the language a bit but I would still try to push the learners to follow natural speech and get the meaning rather than trying to understand things word for word. I would certainly be confident and well-equipped to debate the merits of speaking ‘above the level’ of the learners with a teaching colleague.

As for the lesson, I doubt I would take such a straightforward ‘examples on the board, elicit language, and do the worksheet’ approach. Instead, I would base the lesson around me being new at the school and in the city and focus on a structure like ‘In Ankara, you can…..’ or ‘You should….’ thus covering a grammar point as demanded but also giving the lesson a personal edge at the same time.

So why am I thinking of this now? Well, I will soon find myself in a similar situation. I will be returning to teaching adults (but balanced with some YL lessons as well) in a new city and a new country…

Yes, the time has come to say goodbye to TED after 12 years and ‘görürşürüz’ to Ankara and Turkey as I embark on a new adventure with my family. Where? Sorry to be a tease but that’s for another post….

Monday, 4 November 2013

Feedback and Error Correction (with Web 2.0 Tools) - #INGED Presentation Notes

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure to lead a session on behalf of the British Council Turkey at the Annual INGED General Assembly here in Ankara. The topic was Feedback and Error Correction but with an emphasis on the use of web 2.0 tools to facilitate the process(es). This blog post is a promised brief summary together with links to some of the websites I mentioned.

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First of all, here are the slides:


And now the notes and links:
Feedback v. error correction
These are two terms I feel are often used interchangeably when perhaps they shouldn’t be. A lot of the time, teachers correct mistakes in students’ written work but call what they are doing ‘feedback’. We made a distinction in the session between teacher-led correction (such as direct correction, highlighting errors or using codes) student-led correction (self and peer editing) and feedback, which we defined as something which comments on and responds to what the student has written, making suggestions to add depth to the content or improve the style of writing. We also emphasised that feedback can and should be positive in tone, ensuring that the student feels the teacher has actually read and understood what they were trying to say.
But, of course, giving feedback in this way, encouraging redrafting and adding in error correction activities as well can be time consuming for both student and teacher both in and out of class. How can we save time but still give effective feedback and assistance to our students? Well, that’s where the web 2.0 tools come in. These are the ones I demonstrated in the session:
Google Drive
First up, I showed how to set up a document on Google Drive and then how we could see what a student writes ‘live’ on our own computer screen (big thanks to Tony Gurr for being the ‘student’ in this demo). This offers various advantages to both student and teacher such as being able to monitor a students’ work without them feeling the pressure of having you peering over their shoulder, the chance to ‘discreetly’ suggest improvements and point out errors without the whole class hearing about it, the ease of editing a digital document compared to a hand-written one, and an activity I pinched from Teaching Unplugged in which the teacher rewrites a students’ paragraph (or, in this case, copies, pastes, and edits it) and then asks the student to highlight and discuss the differences with a partner.
Screencasting
Next, I gave a quick demonstration of how easy it is to make a screencasted video by going to screencast-o-matic.com and creating an example using a sample Google Drive text from earlier in the session. Making the video was straightforward (I always used to think screencasting must be difficult and a powerful computer and/or expensive software must be needed but thanks to tools like these, it’s super easy) and it was instantly available for viewing, providing a great way to highlight the amount of oral feedback that can be given in just one minute compared to the few words that could be written in the same time.
Here are links to free sites that allow teachers to screencast videos and send the links to their students:
  • screencast-o-matic.com - free to use, allows up to 15 minutes of recording, and you can also publish the videos to YouTube or save them to your hard drive.
  • screenr.com - also free to use, the videos can be saved on the screenr site and are suitable for playback on mobile devices.
  • Jing - a downloadable programme so you can make screencasts offline, limited to 5 minutes in the free version however.
Online Notepads
The final tool I showed was TitanPad, an online note pad that allows multiple users to collaborate on a text in real time. I showed how this could be used for an error correction activity in which the teacher creates a paragraph with some deliberate mistakes taken from the students’ most recent written work (thanks once more to Tony Gurr for his help here). Groups of students then work together to find and correct the errors, discussing the language and supporting each other as they do so. One nice feature of this tool is that the changes are highlighted in a different colour so it is easy for the teacher to see what the students have done (again, this can be done remotely so as not to disturb the flow of the activity). Different groups of students at different computers could also correct the same notepad for an added layer of collaboration. The key to this is to direct your students back to their own writing once the activity is done, encouraging them to look out for any similar mistakes that they had made - if the process started on Google Drive, it will be that much easier.

Thanks to everyone who attended and contributed to the session and I hope you found these notes useful. I also hope to see you at another event like this somewhere in Turkey soon!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson (or How to Increase Student Creativity)

How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson - in Ten Easy Steps

  1. Walk into class and greet the students with the question “How are you?”
  2. Await a chorused “Fine thanks, and you?” response.
  3. If there was a homework assignment, go through the answers one by one on the board, allowing whichever students put their hands up to answer.
  4. Check which page in the coursebook you had completed the previous lesson and then instruct the students to open their books at the next page.
  5. Go through all the tasks on the page in order.
  6. Check the answers (see point 3 about homework for details).
  7. Interrupt students to correct their pronunciation and grammar errors.
  8. Spend more time on language that is likely to come up on the next test.
  9. If you are unable to finish the page, set the remaining activities for homework.
  10. Go to your next class and repeat.

As you may have guessed, I have been working on some ‘How to’ instructions with my 5th graders recently.

And as you also may have guessed, much like my ‘Taking the Pics Out of Coursebooks’ post from a while back, we did not take the activities very seriously!

Our poor coursebook, which tries very hard but does falter from time to time, presented a very dry sample text about how a boy looks after his dog (in brief, he takes it for a walk, feeds it and, er…, takes it for a walk again). Students were then expected to write their own ‘How to take care of a pet’ list.

The sample text left a lot to be desired added such as ‘brush it’, ‘clean it’, ‘take it to the vet’, ‘play with it’ and even ‘give it water’! Therefore, we began quite calmly by brainstorming the other things that could be done to look after a pet.

But then, the inevitable comment came: “I haven’t got a pet, teacher!” Younger brothers or sisters were suggested as were plants but once again the cry was heard: “I haven’t got a pet OR a brother or sister OR a plant at home!”

“Do you have teeth?” I asked.

Cue a short ‘huh?’ accompanied pause followed by lots of laughter. “Hair could work as well,” I added. “Shoes, school books, smartphones…” and by this point the students had taken over coming up with more and more ideas of personal possessions, gadgets, and things that they ‘take care of’.

And so they started writing with a pleasant buzz going round the class that was very much absent in the first phase of the lesson when we were looking at the sample text.

When they were done, they took turns to read their lists out (with a few extra creative ones thrown in such as the boy who listed ways he looked after his shoes - cleaning them, not playing football in them and so on - before finishing with “and I take them our for a walk every day!”) and we went over some language points on the board.

At this point, we could have moved on to the next set of activities on the page but I had suspected that my students might enjoy a different approach to the ‘how to…’ lists, and so I showed them the following ‘How NOT to…’ list:

How NOT to look after your fish

I then directed the students to write the ‘How NOT to…’ version of whatever that had written earlier in the lesson. Normally, two writing tasks in one lesson would lead to mutiny but this was taken on with much gusto, even by the students who are usually reluctant to write. Best of all, even without me mentioning it, they did not simply convert their previous sentences to negative forms. Instead, they came up with original ideas with a lot of language flying around the classroom.

Alas, there was no time to listen to everyone’s new list so I asked the class to post their writing on our blog when they got home. Again, a writing lesson followed by a written homework task would usually be greeted with complaints but this was met with a wave on enthusiasm and by 6pm this evening, more than three-quarters of the class had submitted their posts (and that was with me telling them they had until Monday to post it).

So, let’s summarise with another list:

How to Increase Student Creativity

  1. Don’t follow the coursebook in detail. Instead, use what is there as an inspiration for your lesson… Or just ditch the thing altogether and see what your students come up with.
  2. Dig deeper than the language presented on the page.
  3. Give a task an unusual and/or humorous twist.
  4. Encourage student input as much as possible.
  5. Let the language flow - see what your students produce and help them with what they want to say.
  6. Go over any errors or things you want to draw attention to at a suitable break in the lesson.
  7. Make your students forget about specific tasks and language points and let them ENJOY learning!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Class Management with Class Dojo

As I have mentioned in previous posts, last year was a struggle in the classroom, especially when it came to discipline. However, I was able to turn things around to an extent, getting several students to make a positive change in their behaviour and also getting one entire class to turn from a nightmare to a perfectly fine class.

As I have also mentioned previously, this year has started off much better with my classes and individual students attentive, respectful of the rules and working hard.

How? Well, it would be too simplistic to attribute such changes to just one factor but a recent addition to my teaching routine that has made a noticeable difference is Class Dojo.

http://www.classdojo.com/img/logo2.jpg 
Image taken from classdojo.com

What is Class Dojo?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Class Dojo is in short an online version of a points reward system. It allows the teacher to reward examples of positive behaviour and hard work with a +1 and there is also the option to flag instances of undesirable behaviour (or things that 'need work' as the site itself states). All you need is an in-class internet connection and a teacher account for the website.

"But why do this online?" you may ask. Well, if you have kept a paper-based points system in class before, you know how much work that can be - constantly producing charts, posters, cards and other ways to track points that need updating and replacing at regular intervals... With Class Dojo, you just need to enter your students' names into the system and your class is ready to go. Each student also gets a cute little alien/monster avatar (there are also 'critters' if you have older students who might find these babyish), which can be edited if they have a student code, this making the whole process more personalised.

The categories for which you award points are also fully customisable so if, like me, you are a language teacher, you can create a positive reward for using the target language or if you have a class blog, a category for commenting on the blog can be added. Additionally, you can react to situations that arise in class so if you notice that some students are not especially patient or supportive of their classmates, a positive reward to encourage more cooperation could be created (or a negative one to dissuade them from such beahviour). The points you award are all archived as well so at any time in the year, you can look back at how your students were behaving on a specific date or during a set time period.

In addition to the above mentioned students codes, there are also parent codes which allow the child's family to log on to the website at home and see their points. A weekly email report can also be automatically generated and sent to parents providing an instant home-school connection.

One other point worth mentioning about Class Dojo is that new features are being tested and added all the time. Those other features are too numerous to go into here but the people behind Class Dojo actively seek out feedback from teachers and are open to suggestions for future improvements. Indeed, their customer service is excellent (and that's for a website that is comepletely free to use), even going so far as to email me in early Septembver offering to set up my new classes on my behalf!

Avatar customisation

How do I use it?

After experimenting with Class Dojo last year, I am now using it with all my classes. Initially, I show them the 'demo class' so they can see how it works and ask them if it is something they would like to use (there is always a choice for my students). Then, I set up my classes and let the website choose the avatars, only altering them if they may be seen as too girlish for the boys (or vice versa).

I have a few standard behaviours that I use in all classes tied into my class rules so there is, for example, a positive reward for being ready on time for the lesson and a negative point for ridiculing mistakes. Some behaviours change from class to class depending on the rules they have chosen for themselves or things that I have noticed about the class. One of my classes this year set a rule that they must be polite to each other so that is reinforced with points for 'asking nicely' and 'being kind/helpful'. Last year, I had a class where 'colourful' language (in both Turkish and English) was an issue so I created a negative point, not only to discourage it but also to provide a record of exactly when and how frequently such incidents took place, which was useful when I was talking to parents about the problem.

To offer my students incentives to collect more ponts, I do two things. First of all, I withhold their students account codes until they have accumulated 50 points. Once this milestone has been reached, they 'unlock' their code and can then create their account and customise their avatar. I also offer class incentives such as the chance to play a game or watch a YouTube video at the end of the week if the class has more than 95% positive points for they week.

Time for a video!


Does it actually work?

I can't say it has had a universally positive effect, (but then again, what does?) I had some difficult students last year who continued to act much the same after Class Dojo was introduced to our daily lesson routine. However, these were a minority and in many more cases, using Class Dojo helped bring about a positive change. 

One class stands out in my mind. Early in the year, there were behaviour issues with some students but the main issue was a lack of engagement in the lessons from many students who constantly complained that English was too hard ( this was reflected in their test scores and project work). Introducing Class Dojo not only helped reduce the behaviour problems but it also helped increase participation and use of English. In the beginning, I will admit that the students were in pursuit of points rather than taking a real interest in the lesson itself but as they started to become more actively involved in the lessons, they started to realise that they were more capable than they had previously assumed and learning English could be an enjoyable experience after all. I am sure (or at least I hope!) that we would have got to the same point eventually without Class Dojo but it certainly helped accelerate the process.

There were also individual students who showed a positive improvement in their behaviour after we stared to use Class Dojo, especially once those weekly email reports started arriving in their parents' inboxes! In general, they all showed some kind of 'ownership' of their avatars and were very keen to customise them and avoid 'tainting', them with negatives. Such was the love for the avatars, that they started to appear as characters on stories that we wrote in class or projects that the students did!


The behaviour categories from one of my classes

What are the drawbacks?

Of course, no system is perfect and there have been a couple of issues with using Class Dojo. Certainly, in a small but noticeable minority of cases, the pursuit of points becomes more important than actively participating in the lesson or following the rules to the extent that some students answer a question and then immediately ask 'teacher, point?' or push each other out of the way in an attempt to clean the board and get a 'classroom helper' reward. Objections are another issue as a handful of students contest the decision to give negative points or not give positive ones. There have also been other instances of students interupting the lesson to demand a negative point for a classmate who is not listening or hasn't got his/her books.

As ever, this is only a problem if the teacher neglects to manage the situation. I make it clear whenever issues like these start to arise that the students cannot ask for points. If they do, I warn them and if it happens repeatedly, they get a negative. I also explain that, like football matches, the referee's decision is final. Any protests will be heard but the student must accept what I decide or, again, risk a negative point. As for trying to get classmates into trouble, that immediately gets the student a negative along with a reminder that it is the teacher who will give points, positive and negative, when appropriate.

The only other issue is that the constant stream of points can lead to the teacher being 'tied to the computer desk' rather than circulating and monitoring while the studentare on task. Again, it is all a matter of how your approach it. I tend to give the majority of points at the start and end of the lesson with a few more points given while the students are working. I still monitor and circulate but make a mental note of who is on task and working hard while doing so and thenI award the points just before I call time on the activity. A colleague of mine who has started using Class Dojo this year uses the smartphone app to award points on the spot, which apparently syncs with the class computer points display almost instantly.

So, is it worth it?

I would most definitely say 'YES!' It has all the advanatges of a points reward system with the ease of being online so you don't have to worry about keeping records. The customisaiton opitons for each class and each student add to the appeal and the ability to directly connect with parents is fantastic and really raises students' awareness of their own behaviour in class.

However, it must be remebered that this is a tool and nothing more. Its effectiveness depends very much on how it is used. I have found it works best when the teacher is clear about its use in class from the start, involves students in the process of choosing positive and negative behaviours, and anticipates any issues that may arise.

And a final anecdote to show the effectiveness of Class Dojo. One day last year with the class I mentioned earlier in this post, I turned up for my lesson only to see a gap where the computer should have been. It turned out the computer had died and we would be without it for a few days at least. My first thought was 'oh no! What will we do without Class Dojo?' but, to my surprise, the class continued to behave well and join the lessons enthusiastically. That for me shows that they had learned self-discipline and this class resource had definitely played a part in that.

Monday, 7 October 2013

ELT Sandbox - A new blog about gaming and language learning

As you may or may not be aware, I have recently started a new blogging project about combining a long standing free-time passion of mine - computer games - with my professional passion - teaching the English language - and this post is a shameless attempt to plug this other blog!

I have named the blog ELT Sandbox after the gaming term ‘sandbox’, which refers to a mode of play allowing for experimentation with the game and the digital environment it is situated in. I aim to explore ways in which gaming, whether that means actually playing games with our learners or just using the topic of games in class, can motivate our learners and help them develop their language skills.

ELTSandbox

Image by @acliltoclimb via eltpics

Gaming often has a stigma attached to it as a ‘waste of time’ activity for young kids but the truth is, games are played by almost everyone in the developed world whether it be on a PC, a dedicated games console or a smartphone. They are engaging, motivating and addictive - all things we would like to see in our classrooms! I have found that connecting the topic of gaming to my lessons is a great way to encourage my learners to use English more and this website will show that when used in a considered and structured way, games (just like film clips and other media) can be an effective tool in the language classroom.

So ,if you are interested in exploring this topic with me, check out (and subscribe to!) the blog:

eltsandbox.weebly.com/

In the true spirit of social media, you can also find ELT Sandbox on Twitter and like the Facebook page:

twitter.com/ELTSandbox

facebook.com/eltsandbox1

Also, next weekend (October 11th-13th), I will be presenting a session on this topic at the Reform Symposium Online Conference (a.k.a. #RSCON4) entitled ’ELT Sandbox - Promoting language learning through gaming’ in which I will present a few of my ideas from the blog along with a couple that haven’t been posted there yet!

This is to be followed by a webinar in December for Teaching English called Using games to engage, motivate and educate language learners’.

I hope to get the chance to share and discuss some ideas about gaming and language learning/education on the blog, through social media channels and at the webinars!