Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Metablognition

I’ve been thinking a lot about blogging recently for a number of reasons: first and foremost, I did some research into blogs as a platform for self-development examining the extent to which they can facilitate reflective thinking; secondly, I also passed a year since I started this blog last month (first post was made on 28th April 2010) and I’ve been ‘reflecting on my reflections’ as it were.

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Image by Mike Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com

One question I’ve been pondering is why do I blog? After much consideration, I can only say there is no definitive reason. The things that prompt or inspire me to write a post vary greatly as does the nature of the posts themselves: it may come from some general thoughts about education and language teaching, it may be a response to another post on another blog, it may be an extension of an ELTchat session or it may be some random event from the wider world that just gets me thinking.

But most of all, my inspiration for blog posts comes from the classroom: reflecting on how lessons went or how I attempted to tackle a problem encountered or a challenging situation is what really helps me as a teacher. Add to that the comments, opinions, advice and support of those who take the time to read my posts and there is a potential for a deep, critical level of reflection.

One interesting thing I discovered in my research was stages that bloggers seem to go through over time and how I could identify the ways I had experienced something similar. First of all, many new teacher-bloggers seem to start by offering descriptive accounts of lessons. There is little in the way of explicit reflection here and this is often used as a criticism of journal and blog writing from a developmental standpoint. However, this can also be seen as a good place for teachers to start as they get used to the idea of writing about lessons and using a blog before later moving into more critical reflection (see Farrell, 1998). I see this in my older posts with accounts of what I did in class stage by stage, mainly focusing on successful moments (see Introducing Myself to New Classes or Pictogloss for examples of what I mean).

One of the most important stages is that of engaging in a community of practice. Blogging is not just about writing your own posts but reading the posts of others as well. This can prompt reflection on our own beliefs and experiences as teachers (see Cecilia’s recent post and comments for a perfect example of this) even if the context is completely different. One study I came across of pre-service English teachers in Hong Kong (Deng & Yuen, 2011) identified an important aspect of critical reflection that emerged as the research took place: blog-reading. When interviewing the participants, the value these teachers attached to being able to read the blogs of others was something that kept coming up again and again even though it wasn’t immediately apparent when analysing the posts and comments themselves. I’ve certainly learned a lot from other people’s blogs reading about their experiences, relating them to my own and getting some ideas for my own blog as well. So thanks to all of you (too numerous to mention) who have provided me with some great reading over the last year or so.

By reading and commenting on others blogs, teachers start to build connections and then feel more comfortable in talking about more difficult moments. They may start by asking for help or advice with challenging classes or students or when entering new territory. My first post like this was the one where I pondered why my ‘difficult’ class were better behaved when a teacher new to the school came to teach them for a day as part of his induction (‘Outdone by the Pink Elephant’). However, I was still not at a level of critical reflection as I was asking for explanations more than offering them.

It is when we start to give our opinions, justify our ideas, diagnose problems and offer solutions and evaluate what we do - both the positive and the negative - that we reach a point of critical reflection (that’s what I at least tried to do with my recent thoughts on our drama performances). Having described some of my experiences this year here on these blog pages and having read the blogs and experiences of others, I feel as though I can go into next year much better prepared to help my students get the most out of the learning experience. This is something I could simply not have achieved by writing a private journal or discussing things in the staffroom at school. There is some suggestion that the public nature of blogs makes it more likely that the teacher will hold back and not truly engage in critical reflection. I find the opposite to be true - being able to reach an audience of like-minded individuals regardless of geographical location, benefitting from their unique perspectives and sharing with them makes me more open and able to reflect on a deeper level.

I teach.

I blog.

I engage.

I reflect.

I grow.

What about you?

References

Deng, L. & Yuen, A.H.K. 2011. Towards a framework for educational uses of blogs. Computers and Education. 56: 441-451.

Farrell, T.S.C. 1998. ESL/EFL teacher development through journal writing. RELC Journal. 29/1: 92-109.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The end of the (Yellow Brick) Road…

It has become a tradition in recent years for each year group in my school to put on a show towards the end of the year for an audience of parents. A chance for the school to show off how they have progressed in English and a chance for the parents to coo over their little darlings in costume. The 4th Grade show is the Wizard of Oz and, with each of my 5 classes divided into 2 groups, I got to prepare and watch the final show 10 times over!

Anyway, after weeks of travelling the Yellow Brick Road (practice), we finally reached the Emerald City (the school theatre) but did we have a happy ending? Read on…

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Image by Wootang01

If you’ve ever put on a drama show at any level, you’ll have probably experienced the first thing I’m going to relate. Despite nailing it in practice, putting in great performances with all the right acting skills and volume, many kids got on stage and immediately reverted to reciting the script in monotone fashion with hardly any movement and no smiles! Some of them were just so quiet as well - stage fright I guess… This is one problem with the current format - they put in all the work for weeks on end but then only get one shot at the real thing on the stage.

However, for every kid who froze like a startled rabbit, another turned in a wonderful performance with everything falling into place at the last minute. It really is amazing how drama helps some weaker students open up despite their natural shyness or struggles with English. One boy in particular ((who has attention issues in class) put in a star turn as a munchkin, speaking in a squeaky voice, jumping and dancing around and doing all sorts of things nobody expected from him.

There were some of the other mishaps associated with the theatre like bits of scenery falling over, missing props or fluffed lines but on the whole, it was a success. The parents enjoyed it, which is the main thing, and most of the kids did too.

Was it all worth it?

Since the shows finished, I’ve pondered this question a lot. As I mentioned above, they only get one shot at it and it seems an awful lot of effort (10 hours of practice with me and another 10, possibly more with their other teacher) for a performance that barely last 30 minutes. Plus, some kids only have minor roles and so all that practice time gets them ready to say 3 or 4 lines on stage. I think next year we could cut the practice time considerably - most of my groups were ready to do the show about 3 or 4 weeks before they actually did and, in some cases, by the time the show came round, boredom had set in and keeping them motivated was an issue.

Nevertheless, there were some signs that the show had an effect on them and on their use of English. As the show was scripted, I thought there would be little benefit in terms of learning language but I’ve noticed some ‘chunks’ from the play making their way into their everyday speech and/or written work.

Take, for example, the following excerpt from the play when Dorothy first encounters the Wicked Witch of the West:

Witch: You killed my sister, the Wicked Witch of the East! Everyone thinks you are a good girl but your are not!

Dorothy: Oh, I’m so very sorry. I didn’t mean to kill her, really I didn’t.

This week, my classes were writing descriptions of characters in The Wrong Trousers and a few kids, writing about The Penguin, who wears a rubber glove on his head to look like a chicken, wrote:

“Everyone thinks he is a chicken but he is not!”

And then, I had a little chat with a girl who was being a bit overly-talkative in my class and I couldn’t help but laugh when she pleaded with me:

“Oh, teacher! I’m so very sorry. I didn’t mean to talk so much, really I didn’t.”

There have been several other examples of them ‘borrowing’ from the script when speaking English both consciously and without being aware of it, which is great!

So, all signs seem to point to repeating the journey with new companions next year. I’ll be pushing for a shorter period of practice to lower the risk of boredom, especially for the kids with fewer lines, and more opportunities for rehearsal in the theatre to reduce the stage fright issue.

Also, reflecting back on the whole experience and re-reading my earlier posts about the practice period, I realised it’s not just about the final show. If the preparation is done right, the kids can get a lot out of it. There’s all the work we did on showing emotions, displaying body language, using intonation and assuming character. And on top of all that, it was fun!

I have plenty of video clips of the different groups but I’m not allowed to show you those (school policy). Photos are apparently fine though so here’s a glimpse of what they all looked like in costume:

4D Group 2

4D Group 1

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Near the end of the Yellow Brick Road - Techno notes & final rehearsals

The Wizard of Oz shows are all actually over now but this is a blog post I started a few weeks ago but never got round to finishing until today! I’ll post this now and get reflections on the actual shows up later.

Show time is nearly upon the 4th grade at my school so, in a figurative sense, we are nearing the end of our journey on the yellow brick road. Before the final performances, I thought I would mention some extra bits of ‘behind the scenes’ work we’ve done, mainly with the odd ‘technological enhancement’ here and there as well as our dress rehearsals in the theatre.

Modern Yellow Brick Road (by sanctu)

Technology meets the Yellow Brick Road - Image by Sanctu

Watch out - I’ve got a camera!

One big struggle whenever I’ve done drama shows or presentations with kids is what to do about the ones who are on stage but not speaking at that very moment. Keeping them focused on the play and the fact that it goes on even when other characters are centre stage is a challenge and you will often see the little darlings gazing around, yawning stretching, picking their noses or worse, oblivious to the fact that they are standing there in full view of everyone!

Such things can be delicate matters to bring up, especially in front of a class of 10 year-olds. One thing I’d been doing during rehearsals was recording the students (the camera adds to the sense of audience) so I found the best thing to do was to quietly play the videos back to the children concerned away from the rest of the class. Most times I didn’t even need to say anything - they just saw distracted looks on their own faces or saw the busy fingers being inserted into nostrils on the playback and that was enough! A few pointers about using facial expressions and body language to react to what other characters were saying and the problem was solved.

Recordings were also useful for highlighting pronunciation and language errors. Some kids were really struggling with words like ‘heart’ and ‘hurt’ or saying “maybe the Wizard can give to me a courage” and it seemed no matter how many times they were told, they kept on making the same errors. When I was correcting one boy, he replied ‘but that is what I said’ and then I realised what he was saying and what he thought he was saying were two different things. So, I recorded the scene the next time they did it and played it back to him. When he heard himself, he was surprised but he also finally noticed and the error started to disappear. This worked with other groups as well and it’s an idea I’ll be using earlier on next year.

PowerPoint backdrops

One issue faced in terms of the final show was what to do about the scenery, sound effects and cuing the songs in the play. The solution was simple - find a suitable backdrop image for each scene and project it onto the screen in the school theatre. If done with PowerPoint, all the songs and some sound effects could be added as well. A simple idea but even a simple idea can be poorly executed. The slideshow made for the show last year (when I was working in a different grade group I hasten to add) was terrible. It wasn’t so much ‘Death by PowerPoint’ but rather ‘Slow and Excruciatingly Painful Torture by PowerPoint’ with wildly varying images (some photos, some cartoons, some low quality animations) and pointless sound effects (like footsteps) that had to be clicked at just the right moment with the kids acting along with them - a nightmare to say the least.

This year, I got together with my colleague Joe (who you can now follow on Twitter) and we (well, mainly Joe) re-did it all with much clearer photo images, ambient background sound effects only and the songs. Having seen it now on display in the theatre when doing dress rehearsals, I think we got it right. The images and sounds provide a nice backdrop and suitable atmosphere for each scene with little need for actual scenery but the presentation is simple enough that the attention of the audience remains on the kids, who can just get on with acting out the story.

Dress Rehearsals

Ahead of the final performances, each group finally got to go to the theatre for a full dress rehearsal. All I can say is the rehearsals were not enough! It’s one thing to learn the lines and practice in the classroom, quite another to put on the costume and get on the stage. Acting wise, they are fine - the odd forgotten line here and there but no big problem. However, they have no idea how to use the full stage, which is of course much bigger than the space in front of the board we use in class. Let them have a full rehearsal or use up the time getting them to stand in and move to the right places? A tough call. Next year, we definitely need more practice time on the stage.

And one more difficulty - when we were in the theatre, we were ‘assisted’ by other teachers from the English department who had free lessons at that time. The help was of course much appreciated but it was also a classic case of ‘too many cooks’ as they would start stopping proceedings, saying ‘why are you doing that?’ and ‘why aren’t you doing it like this?’ All based of course on how their own classes were doing the play, completely ignoring the fact that other classes may be different!! Never fun to have to correct a fellow teacher in front of the kids…

And so, just like Dorothy and her friends, we may be about to arrive at the Emerald City, but I feel the journey is far from over!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Keeping myself busy

With a great feeling of relief, if not satisfaction, I submitted my final MA assignment for the 2010-11 academic year this morning. Fingers crossed I’ll get good feedback on the two papers I’ve written. Ironically (or should it be coincidentally?), the topic of these papers that kept me away from this blog and quiet online generally were about blogging and establishing social presence online!

Anyway, I now have plenty of time to get this blog back up on its feet (after all, one thing I covered in both assignments was the need to regularly post to remain ‘visible’ online). I have a half-finished post on final preparations for the Wizard of Oz show to round off, a review of the shows themselves and a few other thoughts on recent debates I’ve observed from afar.

And yet, as some of the more observant of you may have noticed, I haven’t actually been that inactive online. Guest posts, blog carnivals and reviews with my name on have popped up here and there so here’s a quick self-promotional plug with some links to follow:

Guest posts

I was delighted to get the chance to do these guest posts for the OUP Global ELT blog. Look out for Parts 3 & 4 coming soon!

Since I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve got a lot of great ideas for working with kids from Shelly Terrell so it was great to give something back by guest posting on her blog, Teacher Reboot Camp.

I always enjoy guest posts - they offer a great way to explore ideas from a different perspective for a different audience - so, if you want a guest writer for your blog or would like to be a guest here, just let me know!

Blog Carnival

Shelly hosted the 23rd Edition of the blog carnival recently with the theme of Young Learners so, of course, I contributed a post. It was a honour to be included with so many great posts from great bloggers and Shelly did a great job hosting it. Her video mash-up of the blog contributors got a lot of attention - check it out below:

You can link to each post by clicking on the video! Thanks for showing us this Shelly.

Book reviews

And finally, I’ve done a couple of reviews. The above one was a review of non-fiction readers for kids for tefl.net. I have also reviewed Nicky Hockly and Lindsay Clandfield’s Teaching Online book (well worth a read for anyone interested in online teaching) for the forthcoming Journal of Second Language Teaching & Research.

Anyway, time to write a couple of those pending blog posts! Smile