Monday, 28 February 2011

“Come in No. 55 - Your time is up!” - Blogathon Review

The end of February means the end of the Teaching English Blogathon, a blogging contest for English teachers in Turkey. It was a nice change to get ‘out and about’ from this blog space and interact with some different teachers, especially as they are also in the Turkish world of ELT. It was also a challenge to keep the posts short as there was a limit of 250 words per entry!


Keeping the pace was tough and I have to admit to flagging a bit towards the end, not due to lack of inspiration but due to the classic teacher excuse of lack of time. I learned a little lesson about taking too much on as a couple of extra work assignments, a busier than expected start to the new semester of my MA and non-work related stuff left me with little time to write. However, the best posts always find time to write themselves!

Overall, I enjoyed the experience and I’m glad I did it. As well as some familiar faces, I got to connect with new names like Osman Solmaz and Nesrin Eren, both of whom are on Twitter and have now started their own blogs - Osman’s A Journey to the Center of Teaching and Nesrin’s Blog.

If you’d like to take a look at the archive of my posts from the event, you can find it here. And let’s not forget, despite the collaborative, sharing nature of blogs, a winner must be chosen - please take a look at the voting list and make your choice - may the most-voted for blogger win!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Student (de)generated dialogue

My attempts to include more drama and more ‘unplugged moments’ in my lessons have continued in the new semester and so last week I decided to try some ‘unplugged drama’ with a twist on the classic ‘disappearing dialogue’.

Once again, I got the ‘inspiration’ from a rather flat course book dialogue. The scripted conversation featured two friends talking about their day with instructions for the students to simply act it out. I decided that instead of using Jack and Sally, I would get the students to come up with a dialogue themselves.


What a bunch of degenerates (not my students though!) Image by

It simply started with “Hello _____. How are you?” written on the board and I asked the class to add lines to the conversation from there. Obviously, each class came up with something different but this time I was impressed with the diversity (unlike the regurgitated vocabulary from a previous lesson). In one class, one of the speakers was stressed about forgetting to do his/her homework, in another he/she had crashed his car and in another  he/she had lost his pet snake! Interestingly, they all followed the same pattern of establishing a problem, offering a solution and evaluating that response despite the differing content (any of my MA colleagues will see the parallel with Julian Edge’s SFRE (Situation, Focus, Response, Evaluation) framework but that’s something for another post on another day).

I then had the students practise the dialogue in pairs and encouraged them to keep going, swopping roles when they had finished. After a minute, I changed the pairings and removed one word from each line of the conversation, again asking them to rotate roles and keep going until I told them to change. We did this several times, each time removing more and more text from the board until we were left with a completely degenerated text of just punctuation marks and a few prepositions.

The students then came to the front in pairs and acted out the whole script from memory. As ever with these disappearing dialogues, it was amusing to see them still looking to the board for reminders, even though hardly any of the script remained! I was impressed by their ability to recall it all, aided no doubt by the fact that they had generated the dialogue in the first place. It was also pleasing to see them putting effort into the acting side with their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language all in use.

And as a final dictogloss-esque twist, I had a few classes who had finished early work in groups to rewrite the script in their notebooks. Now, I just need to decide whether to name that final phase ‘dialogloss’ or ‘dictologue’!

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Unplugging Exam Prep

Despite being on holiday from work for the last two weeks, I’ve found it difficult to make time to write on my blog. You would think the break would give me plenty of time for blogging and study but it doesn’t. The main reason is that my son is home as well. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining! It’s just that those gaps during the day when I would usually blog or do some MA work have been instead filled with trips to the park and gaming sessions on the Wii! The time I have had for my ‘teacher stuff’ has been taken up by study, the 30 Goals Challenge (see the previous three posts for my responses so far) and the blogathon so I’m only just getting round to telling you about a lesson I did almost 4 weeks ago - it’s a good thing I take notes!

You come to this place to learn irrelevant information for regurgitation purposes.

One of the dominant sections of my teaching programme this year is preparation for the Cambridge Young Learners exams, specifically Movers. We have a book for this, Fun For Movers, but it’s a bit of a slog. One period (40 minutes) a week is supposed to be dedicated to it and we are expected to cover 3 units every fortnight. In the teacher’s book, it says each double page unit is designed for ‘60 to 90 minutes of classroom time’ so we are basically being asked to each unit in a third of the recommended time!
It would be easy to fall into the trap of just trying to plough through the book and merely cover the ground but I can’t bring myself to do that. As one of my colleagues said, it’s better to do one activity for each unit well than cover all of them in a rush. I’m always looking for ways to make the lessons more engaging and ‘unplug’ from the book and I’d like to share one of those ideas with you now.

A common type of question in the Movers test is to give a sentence describing something for which the student has to write the word (the words together with 1 or 2 extras are given with pictures above the questions). So, for example, there might be a sentence like: “This is a place where you can buy food and other things for you home” to which the student will respond “supermarket”.

Anyway, there was a unit on ‘Places to Go’ so I decided to take an unplugged approach and cover it without using the book. I first asked the students where they go at the weekend or during the school holidays and what they do there. I then got them to write one place each up on the board and we would use this vocabulary for the next stage of the lesson.

Next, I put the class into groups of 4 and asked them all to choose a different place from the board and write a sentence to describe it, in the style of the exam questions. They then checked each other’s sentences for errors and clarity while I went round monitoring and helping out when necessary. The next stage was for each group to read their sentences out for the other groups to try and answer. Some classes wanted it to be a game with points awarded for right answers and I was happy to go along with that. The main thing was that they generated both the vocabulary and the sentences and in this way, we covered most of the content of the unit in a much more student-centred and engaging way.

However, there was an issue during the vocabulary stage, which shows the problems over-using the coursebook can have. I repeated this lesson with all 5 of my classes, each time anticipating that the student-generated content would be different. In the first class, some places I didn’t expect came up like internet café (with computers and broadband common at home, have these kids even been inside a place like that?), snack bar (we haven’t got one at school and when questioned, they seemed a little unsure of what it was exactly) and amusement arcade (unexpected as they usually just use the Turkish term luna park).
Nevertheless, we continued with the lesson - after all, the whole point was that they came up with the words without me interfering, right? However, in the next class, what happened? Again internet café, snack bar and amusement park came up. And in the next class. And the one after that. And… you get the idea.

By the third class, I knew something was up and questioned the kids about why they chose these words. “Do you go to internet cafés?” I asked. “What’s your favourite snack bar? What do you eat there?” and “What kind of games do you play at the amusement arcade? Do you go on any rides?” were next. For all questions, they either said no or couldn’t answer. All was revealed when one boy pulled the book they use with their ‘grammar’ teacher out of his bag and showed me a page of vocabulary for ‘places to go’. They had been taught those words, learnt them by heart and were now regurgitating them without actually responding to the original question of “Where do YOU go at the weekend?”  They actually seemed surprised when I said I was interested in the places they really go to and what they do there.

As the new semester starts tomorrow, as a joke I’ll be asking who went to an internet café before grabbing a bite to eat at a snack bar and then we'll get into what they really did. Hopefully, they will have some real answers ready for me this time!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Let's Play! (Goal 7 of the #30Goals Challenge)

Goal 7: Play and have fun! invites us to observe children at play and think about how we can incorporate more fun and less paper in our lessons. My initial idea was to record something with my 4 year-old son talking about play and his favourite games. Alas, I couldn't get him to stay within range of the mic for long enough and telling him to sit down and stay still would have been against the spirit of the challenge!

So, you'll have to make do with just me. I thought I'd play around with something different this time so my response comes to you as a voice recording done via Vocaroo:

And one thing I forgot to add: as Shelly mentions, adding more fun can mean using less paper. This is of course a good thing but teachers often worry about running out of ideas. However, we should not forget another way to save paper: recycle. Don't be afraid of doing activities again. It doesn't have to be exactly the same lesson, just the same activity for a different topic. Our kids will often enjoy it more the second time around!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

3 for the price of 1! 30 Goals Challenge, Nos 4, 5 & 6

A busy weekend left no time to catch up on the 30 Goals Challenge and now Shelly has posted Goal 6 so yet again, I present you with 3 responses at once! This time, I save you from video me as, just to mix things up a bit, I’m going to type this one (or three!)

Goal 4 - Leave it behind, let it be

For this goal, Shelly challenges us to think of and try out ways we can ‘leave stress behind and not carry it into the classroom’. Now, I’m not one for meditation or relaxation techniques. I generally try to stay cool, calm and collected whatever the situation and focus on the task at hand rather than anything else that is going on. Some may call it escapism but I enjoy my job and see it as a way to take my mind off other stressful activities like my MA studies.

crawling babies

Stop! Don’t crawl over there! Image by Artshooter

But I’d like to continue this post from the perspective of a parent. Watching my son grow up is a constant joy and I enjoy every minute of it. Sure, sometimes there are stressful moments like when he gets ill or hurts himself but these are far outweighed by those moments of joy. However, I’ve seen many parents who get hung up on the stressful things. When their baby starts to crawl, their delight is almost instantly taken over by fear as they worry about electrical outlets, sharp corners on coffee tables and low cupboard doors. And so, they start to chase the baby round the house, picking her/him up whenever within a metre of ‘danger’ and moving him/her away.

Come to my house and you’ll see no protectors on the tables, no child locks on the cupboards and no covered up sockets. Is this because my wife and I don’t care? Of course not! We just decided to let it be. As our son started to crawl and then walk, we warned him about the possible dangers and they have never been a problem. He has never been curious about what is in cupboards or attracted by the wall sockets. I believe this is precisely because we never made them off-limits so he was never curious in finding out why…

I think there is a lesson for our teaching here. Why do we react to certain behaviour from students and get stressed about it? I see teachers yelling at kids about running around inside, writing on the board in breaktime, making jokes in class, sitting in the window… Maybe if we don’t react and get stressed about these things they won’t be such an issue.

Goal 5 - Reflect, step back, act

The short-term goal this time is to reflect on the best and worst lessons of the week. As I’m on holiday at the moment, I will pick out a pair of recent lessons from before the mid-year break began. Reflecting on lessons is one of my main reasons for writing a blog and recently, I’ve been calling for more reflection on lessons that went wrong from the blogosphere so this goal is a welcome one for me. And just to show how each class is different, the worst and best lessons I’m about to describe were (in the planning stage) exactly  the same!


A pair of reflections. Image by lrargerich

In the last week of the semester, the students at my school really switch off. They have little interest in lessons or doing any work and constantly ask for games or videos. I don’t blame them really as they have two very long semesters with hardly any breaks - a lot for primary school kids to take. I decided to bridge the gap between their desire for games and my desire to review a book we’d just finished studying by making a quiz. I used a quiz generator called ‘Fling the Teacher’, which works in the style of Who wants to be a millionaire? only instead of winning money, if all 15 questions are answered correctly, a teacher on screen gets flung from a catapult!

The worst lesson was a perfect example of all that we are told is wrong with introducing teams and competition into class. I divided the class into 4 teams and said we would see how many questions each team could answer right. They got angry with each other and started dishing out blame in the vent of wrong answers, they deliberately tried to put the other teams off, they were on the verge of tears when losing and there was far too much gloating when they were winning. And this class is usually such a lovely group! Obviously, the end of term ‘holiday’ feeling combined with a competitive quiz-show style game was too much for them.

The best lesson came when I did the quiz with another class (I go into 5 different classes each week). After the previous experience, I considered not bothering at all as this class is difficult to manage at the best of times. However, I had promised them a game the day before so I didn’t want to disappoint them. I reminded them beforehand that they should not get over-competitive as it was just a game and, much to my surprise, they paid attention to that. Usually, they fight in class and behave disrespectfully towards each other all the time but in this lesson, they worked in teams really well. The consulted each other before answering a question and they didn’t laugh or mock the other teams when they gave wrong answers neither did they get angry with each other when they got wrong answers. Usually, I avoid using teams and games with this class because I know they can be a handful but perhaps I should use them more often.

Goal 6 - Invite them in & leave the door open

Goals 6 is a call for transparency, to share what goes on in our class with parents and other teachers. Unfortunately, video recording of my classes is not allowed and there is little chance of that changing in the near future. We are also waiting for permission to get class blogs or wikis set up so for now the options are limited.

open doors

Not my classroom door but an open one nonetheless. Image by *Fede*

One thing I will say about my classes though is that the door is quite literally always open. I only ever close the door when we are going to be doing something that needs quiet, like a listening activity, or something that may be loud enough to disturb other classes in the corridor. I invite the main class teacher and other English teachers to come by a take a look inside. Of course, this doesn’t happen very often but I think it’s good for the students and other teacher to know the option is there.

It’s a sad fact of life that people remember and retell negative experiences more than positive ones, as shown my Shelly’s example in the video. I always encourage kids and their parents to talk about what has happened at school at the end of each day. If done on a regular basis, more of the positive things will be discussed and problems that maybe the student is reluctant to bring up at school can be discovered and addressed as well.

When the new semester starts, I would like to make my classroom more open. I am planning to discuss with some colleagues the possibility of observing each others classes and team-teaching on a regular basis (at present, it happens very rarely - perhaps once or twice a year). These kind of activities are a great way to learn from our peers and offer support to each other, kind of like being a beam… or an axle. Winking smile

See you tomorrow for Goal No. 7!

Friday, 4 February 2011

Dave Posts a Hat-trick! - 3 goals in one for the 30 Goals Challenge

Here I am again with another video blog, this time in response to Shelly Terrell’s 30 Goals Challenge. Once again, time was a factor as it is quicker for me to record myself than type. However, the time I save is taken from you as, of course, it takes longer to listen than to read (assuming you bother to listen to it all that is)! Anyway, I’ve uploaded my response to each challenge as a separate video so you can pick and choose.

(Sorry about the lighting by the way but I had to record late after my son had gone to bed - I really should get a lamp! Also, the start may be a bit quiet so I recommend headphones).

And an extra challenge for you - let’s see more video posts from you ELT bloggers out there!