Wednesday, 28 September 2011

This is My Truth (or is it?), Tell Me Yours - A Blog Challenge

One of my favourite posts from this month of September is Extending Conversations from Dale Coulter’s languagemoments blog. I always enjoy Dale’s accounts of ‘dogme in action’ and this was no exception with a plethora of ideas for moving beyond/building on the conversation part of the lesson.

One activity he mentioned is a regular favourite of mine: “Telling lies, telling the truth”. The premise is simple - students write a few sentences on a given topic including a lie or two. The rest of the class then discuss which one(s) they think is the lie.

As the conversation on Dale’s post extended through the comments section, I mentioned how I use this as an introductory activity with a new class (I call it “5 things about me”). In my version, I ask the students to write 5 personal statements, 3 of which should be true and 2 of which should be lies. The class then try to deduce what the lies are.

To add a bit of fun, I encourage the students to put each other ‘on the spot’ with a few questions. If, for example, someone says “My favourite football team is Chelsea”, I get my students to ask “Who’s your favourite player?” or “Who did they play against last weekend?” in order to see if there’s any hesitation or contradiction. It’s a good light-hearted way for students to get to know each other and can lead to some funny moments such as I had in my new 6th grade class last week as one boy tried to feign hesitation when being interrogated to throw his classmates off!

It’s not just a ‘getting to know you activity’ though - it’s also a great way for students who have been in the same class for a long time to find out things they didn’t already know about each other and I’m also planning to bring it up with my 5th grade groups, even though they have been together in the same class since 1st grade and I was their teacher last year.

I’m planning to do it as an introductory activity on the 5th grade website I am currently working on and was thinking about recording my 5 facts as a video. After viewing, the students will have a week to ask me questions and discuss their opinions via the comments section before I reveal the answers (they will then make a page or a recording on the site in the same manner).

But I thought I should test it out first and that’s where my PLN comes in. I’ve interacted with many of you through this blog, other blogs, Twitter and even in person at conferences in the past year but how well do you really know me? Can you work out what they two lies are? I invite your questions, discussion and speculation in the comments box!


And then I saw Brad Patterson’s recent post in which he mentioned a lack of blog challenges recently so I thought ‘why not?’ Here’s the challenge:
  • Post a video, audio recording or just a regular post on your blog in which you state 5 facts about yourself - 3 truths and 2 lies.
  • Invite your PLN to quiz you and speculate on what the lies are!
Any takers? Oh, yes! There were! The following fine folks have been cheeky enough to tell us a couple of lies: ;)
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I have now revealed all in this post. Scroll to the bottom and you'll find links to the 'confessional' posts of all of the abıve as well. ;)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Democracy in Action…. in Primary School English

Prior to the start of the new school year, I blogged about some classroom management strategies I had found around the ELT blogosphere and my plans to draw on them once classes were underway. One of the strategies I wanted to implement was that of a ‘class contract’ negotiated between myself and the students. After much hard bargaining over the first couple of days of term, I made individual agreements with all of my classes, the details of which I will give in this post.

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Just about sums up what I expect from my students :) - Image by JoeGray

I decided everything would be up for negotiation and told the kids as much. I started with a proposal that I could make 4 simple rules for them and they could then make 4 rules for me. Every class agreed it sounded like a fair deal and off we went. Each of my rules had to be ratified by the whole group and (luckily!) they were all accepted in each of my 6 classes. They were:

  • Be ready at the start of the lesson.
  • Listen when somebody (teacher or fellow student) is talking.
  • Mistakes are an important part of learning, not a funny one so don’t laugh at them.
  • Wait for the teacher to dismiss the class at the end of the lesson.

As far as I’m concerned, those rules cover most bases: The first and last ones are in response to issues last year when we on occasion lost over 5 minutes of class time due to students not being prepared for the lesson to begin or packing up when there were a couple of minutes still to go; the rule about listening covers interrupting and idle chit-chat at the back of the class; and hopefully the rule about reacting to mistakes will help create an environment where the kids feel secure enough to express themselves.

And then the fun began! I put them into groups (of 3 as per Mr Wilson’s post ;)) and ask them to come up with some rules for me. All of these rules were put on the board and discussed before they chose four of them to keep. During the discussions, negotiations and modifications could be made. I must admit to a bit of manipulation here as I pointed out that, for example, a rule saying no homework at all would mean I couldn’t allow them full access to the website I’m currently setting up as that would include homework tasks (clever, eh?)

It also served as a good language learning exercise as they were able to see the difference a single word could make in the meaning or emphasis of a sentence. For instance, they learned that “The teacher can only give us homework once a week” carried more weight than “the teacher can give us homework once a week”. They were also exposed to some useful if-clauses such as “we can play word games at the end of the lesson if we finish everything early” and “we can eat in class if we are careful not to make a mess”.

There were some more bizarre rules of course. In one class, by unanimous decision, I have to reward the best 3 students of the week with chocolate (I will keep a list of who I have rewarded to make sure everyone gets a treat at some point). And, apparently, in one class if the class average is above 95% on an English test, I have to sing to them (now I really dislike exams! I should be safe though - that particular class averaged around 85% on their tests last year)!

I’ve already seen early signs that it has had an effect on some classes. Several kids thanked me afterwards for letting them have some input and were happy to see that I returned the next day with the rules printed up on a poster for display in class. I also made sure that those classes who requested games (and chocolate!) got them at some point last week so they could see I intended to keep my part of the bargain. However, one class (the ‘pink elephant class’ - who else?) seemed to view the choosing of rules as just another in-class activity. They seemed surprised when I stuck up the poster with both my rules and their rules on it the next day and, to be honest, they haven’t done a good job so far of sticking to them - still work to be done there.

On the whole, it was a good way to start the year as the kids immediately got a say in the way the class will be run. It was all summed up for me perfectly by one boy in particular who, as we were negotiating the rules and discussing the importance of having a few rules in class, said:

“Good students, happy teacher, great lesson”

That was added to the bottom of all the class posters!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Back to School and Ready to Leap into the Unknown

In less than 12 hours, I will (probably) be back in class for the first time in too long ready to start a new school year. It will be a different challenge this year as I teach 5th grade for the first time ever and also 6th grade for the first time in seven years!

Beyond that, I know nothing - yes, less than 12 hours to go and I don’t know which class I will be in at 8.30am tomorrow (or even if I have a class at that time at all)! The problem stems from the fact that 5th grade is part of Primary school and 6th grade is part of Middle school - the two buildings are at opposite ends of the campus and as of yet, a schedule that allows me enough time to move between classes has not been devised.

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Taking a brave leap or acting like lemmings? Image by Roo Reynolds

And yet I feel strangely calm. A few years ago, I would have been stressing about it, wondering how I could be sufficiently prepared when I didn’t even know which class I would be in at what time. That would have been even worse if it was in a grade I hadn’t taught before.

If I’m honest, the night before school started used to be stressful even when I knew exactly what my timetable was. I would go over my lesson plan again and again, running through each stage of the lesson in my head. I would think about exactly what I would write on the board, even what colours I would use! I would check all my materials, books, photocopies, etc. several times. In short, I would be over-prepared and yet still stressed about it….

So, what has changed? Greater experience? More self-confidence as a teacher? Not really caring anymore? (Only joking about that last one, of course, but keep it in mind - we’ll return there momentarily.) Having sat on it for the last couple of hours, I think it is another of the benefits to come from embracing the principles of dogme. I now realise that I’m not helping anyone by being so prepared. Knowing exactly how my first day back at work will pan out to the minute detail of what will be said, written, handed out and when limits learning rather than facilitating it. Instead, I embrace the unknown and go to class ready to learn about my students and explore whichever of the infinite paths our first day journey could take comes up (the ‘space’ I was exploring earlier today). I know we will focus on rules and classroom management at some point but even that will be as student-centred as possible.

All of which brought me back to one of the things that bugs me about ELT and education in general. Many of us as teachers feel the need to be busy, to be prepared and to plan ahead without ever questioning why. We spent the period before school opens revising the syllabus, reviewing the materials, making new hand-outs, decorating classrooms and finding out who the ‘problem’ students are from the previous teacher. Part of this (in my opinion at least) stems from fear of ‘losing control’ of the class on day one and part of it stems from the desire to be seen to be a hard-working, committed, caring teacher. Many teachers feel, as I used to, that we should be doing something in order to be ready (perhaps a lingering feeling that I should be doing something is what has driven me to write this post….)

But, as I set out above, not filling my days in the run up to school opening with ‘busy work’ does not mean I care any less. Rather, it means that I go into class with an open mind ready to involve the students as much as possible. They will help me make a list of simple class rules and any decorating will be done by them. All the while, I’ll be getting to know the new kids and catching up with the ones who’ve been in my classes before.

So, whatever 8.30am tomorrow brings, I feel ready. Ready but not over-prepared….

Don’t just fill the gaps - try leaving some space…

“5 years almost exclusively with native speakers and our students can not speak English well enough!”

This was the central focus of a meeting at work the other day - why are our students reluctant/unable to speak? They have an extensive English programme starting in kindergarten and continuing throughout their time in Primary school with native speakers either as their sole teacher or their ‘conversation’ teacher. However, when it comes to middle school and high school with oral proficiency exams, debate clubs etc., they are found wanting in their communicative skills.

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Gaps - waiting to be filled or best left to grow? Image by Cr4nberry

Now, of course, there is a whole other debate about whether starting to learn a foreign language at pre-school age is beneficial in the long-run, not to mention the whole native/non-native speaker arguments. There are also unrealistic expectations from the parents to deal with (such as when I see one of my students out and about during the weekend and their mother and father say “Go on then - say something in English” and then frown as the child clams up). It should also not be forgotten that there are many success stories - many times over the last few years, I have engaged in conversations lasting 20-30 minutes with 3rd graders with no communication problems whatsoever.

However, I have also wondered many times why that success rate is not higher and what holds some kids back from developing their speaking skills and fluency. Various explanations were offered in the meeting - large class sizes, mixed-ability groups, lack of discipline, too much focus on written exams - along with suggestions of how to engage students more - drama activities, poster projects, lunchtime cross-curricular clubs - but the over-riding factor seemed to be lack of time. “Our syllabus is jam-packed already” and “we have so much material to cover” were phrases said repeatedly.

I had two thoughts during the meeting - first that the obvious solution to an over-loaded syllabus was to remove a couple of components, thus allowing for more time to be devoted to creative use of English and speaking practice, and secondly that ‘conversation’ will always be limited as long as the syllabus dictates that past simple can’t be learnt until these kids are nearing the end of 4th grade - over 5 years after most of them began learning English!

That evening, I decided to walk the last part of my journey home instead of the usual taxi-share and I was still pondering the problem. The walk and the air (I won’t say ‘fresh’ as I was walking along a busy road at the start of rush hour!) helped clear my head and get me thinking straight. A huge part of the problem stems from the over-reliance on materials, whether published or produced in-house: Whenever English hours are increased in a particular grade, the automatic reaction seems to be “let’s choose another book or reader then”; hand-outs are rolled out production-line style for ‘conversation’ classes; grammar and vocabulary practice activities fill up the English website. These kids are spending their English learning time filling gaps on worksheets and then we act surprised when they can’t speak very fluently!

Then I remembered a point Luke Meddings made in his ‘Six Sketches’ talk at ISTEK last April (I never take notes during talks as I believe that a really useful or profound idea will stick in my head and this was one of those). He showed us a painting of a coastal scene (I forget the title and the artist - a consequence of not taking notes I guess!) and told us the artist had used only a few tones of brown and blue (I think) and yet there was a white house visible near the sea. Luke told us the artist had created that part of the image by using no colours at all - he had just left some space on the canvas. However, without that space, the painting would not have been that striking at all.

And so it came to me - instead of trying to ‘fill gaps’ (whether on a worksheet or in our learners’ knowledge) all the time, we should be leaving some space, space in which our learners can explore, grow and develop. With no space, we run the risk that they feel pressured, closed in, claustrophobic even. And this is where dogme ELT has its great strength - instead of cramming the gaps with paper, it opens the space and lets the learners loose in it.

So let me finish with an example of one of the ways I let the learners explore the space rather than fill the gap. Take the classic information gap activity - students are divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ and given incomplete sets of information. They have to pair up and ask each other questions to complete their copy of the worksheet. This may be information about a person, a place or a product but usually it’s all set our for them. They just think of the questions and write down the answers. This is called ‘communicative’ as there is a purpose to the activity but ask my students and they will tell you it’s just boring. The activity is quickly forgotten and the ‘A’ and ‘B’ worksheets may be found under the desk, on the floor or in the bin at the end of class.

After being introduced to teaching unplugged, my approach changed. My students instead start with a blank page in their notebook. They draw a person (or monster, alien, whatever character they wish) and then create a profile for him/her/it. I then put them into small groups and they ask each other about the characters they created and recreate their partners’ profiles in their own notebooks. We may even recreate the pictures as well by listening to a description and trying to draw it as accurately as possible. Essentially the activity is the same but the content is entirely student-generated, the level or personalisation is high and the student engagement is through the roof! The activity is a lot less controlled but a lot more language (spoken and written) is produced.

So I think the answer to the communication problem I described at the start of the post is simple - leave some space…. and watch our students grow!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Inspired by my PLN, No. 3 - Classroom Management

As the new school year draws closer here in Turkey, I find myself in an unusual situation: for the first time, I will teach in the 5th grade (along with one 6th grade class but more on that in another post) and, also for the first time, I will be teaching classes I have worked with before.

On the one hand, this is a good thing as it means I can start the year in a different way. As there will be no need for ‘getting to know you’ activities and we can instead focus on catching up after the summer holiday and discussing expectations for the forthcoming year. On the other hand, it presents me with a problem as I will be working again with some ‘difficult’ students and classes (who you may remember me referring to previously in posts like this, this and this).

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Looking for peace and quiet in class this year… - Image by kaneda99

I decided I would need to review my classroom management strategies in order to start the year on a positive and so I have revisited a number of blog posts written by wonderful members of my PLN which have really given me some great ideas:

Establishing the ground rules - written by Jo Budden on the Teaching English website. I will lay down a few ground rules on the first day and also give the students the chance to contribute some rules of their own in a form of ‘class contract’. All I will ask of them is that they are ready when the lesson begins, they don’t interrupt when somebody (teacher or student) is talking and they wait until I dismiss class before packing up and leaving. The rest is up to them!

When a “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (and Back to “Good” Again!) - this post by Larry Ferlazzo is one of my favourite ones and I especially like the ideas of having a secret sign agreed with an individual student to let them know when they are trying my patience and telling a student I will not call their parents immediately but rather after a week, in which time they have the chance to show me an improvement.

Ten ways to motivate the unmotivated… - a super heavyweight of a post from Ken Wilson packed with great ideas. I started to use more groups of three towards the end of last year and it worked well so this time I will be using more threesomes from the beginning. I’m sure my students will also enjoy the responsibility of presenting different units of material and I will also make a concerted effort to get them out of rows more often.

10 Classroom Management Ideas that Worked in my Classes - most of the ideas form Burcu Akyol’s blog are more suitable for kids younger than the ones I will teach but I intend to make use of student helpers, both to do some tasks during the class and to ensure the rules we have agreed on are followed, especially with regards to being ready for class on time. To do this, I will name 4 ‘captains’ per class with the names changing on a regular basis. I will also make use of the school wiki to praise good behaviour and work, hopefully motivating them to contribute more (see Part 2 of Burcu’s post).

Let’s see what the magic bag thinks - Aside from behaviour issues and kids lacking motivation, another classroom management issue I constantly have to deal with is those highly enthusiastic students who want to answer every question and help with every task. Although they are well-intentioned, they often end up dominating the class and/or getting frustrated when the teacher does not call on them. This year, I’m going to pinch Richard Whiteside’s idea of having all the students’ names on cards in a bag or box and drawing them out at random when reviewing answers or carrying out tasks- this way the ‘quiet’ ones get involved more, the ‘naughty’ ones don’t feel that they are being deliberately excluded and the ‘enthusiastic’ ones don’t get to dominate so much.

I’ll be posting again later in the year to let you know how it all went!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Voicethread: How do you use it with your students?

Just a quick post - how do you use VoiceThread with your classes? Please leave your suggestions and help me demonstrate to my colleagues how this web 2.0 resource works. :)

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Teachers in Turkey, No. 7 - “Why Do What We Do?” by Angela Collins

After hosting six teachers so far we have something of a first in the Teachers in Turkey series as this teacher, Angela Collins is the first contributor who is NOT based in Istanbul. Instead, she works in the same city as me, Ankara. However, in that funny way the world works, while I have met four of my six guests from Istanbul in person, I have only ever interacted with Angela virtually.
In the post, she tells us why she works as an ‘international teacher’ and how that is distinct from being an ‘English teacher’.
 
I’m sitting in the London-Heathrow Airport in transit on my way back “home” and I wonder why I am doing this? I don’t have a husband to follow on a job somewhere. I don’t get paid a ton of money to do what I do (in fact, I often pay for my holiday flights out of my own pocket). I don’t get looked at as a high member of society. So why do I choose to go to a different country to do my job?

Perhaps I should have started by saying that my name is Angela Collins and I’m an international educator (sounds a little like alcoholics anonymous though, doesn’t it?). What that means is that I am a teacher who chooses to do her (or his, there are men who do this job too… rare breeds but they do exist) teaching in another country. I don’t choose to do it because I hate my own country (on the contrary, I am a fiercely proud Canadian). I choose to do it because I get to put the two things I LOVE to do together: travel and teach. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of teaching in several countries (including my own): South Korea, Oman, U.S.A. and now I am working and living in Turkey.

Now, I know what most of you are thinking. And the only reason I know this is because it’s what people always say to me when I tell them that I am an international teacher: “Oh, so you teach English….” Nope. I do teach IN English, but I am a fully certified, professional teacher who is capable of (and has) taught Kindergarten through to grade 12. I am currently teaching grade one in an international school that works of a very cool and unique bilingual system. I know some of my TESL and TEFL (those English teachers) might be irritated at my distinction from what they do, but I like to be recognized for what it is that I actually do. And I like them to be recognized for what it is that they do - which I did for one year and realized that I didn’t have the chops for… if you are a true professional in that position, it is VERY taxing on your time and brain, I have mad respect for TESL and TEFL teachers.

Paris 070
Angela Collins lives and works full time in Ankara, Turkey as a grade one teacher at Bilkent Laboratory and International School. She is now in her fourteenth year of full time teaching and has taught just about every age (Pre-K to Grade 12) and a myriad of subjects (PE, Art, English, Science and regular classroom instruction). She comes from an international background herself and seeks to continually grow personally and professionally through her international teaching experiences.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A wiki for 5th graders - your ideas please!

Having just posted about the failure of one pbworks project, I’m set to start work on another! However, this time there is one big difference - rather than making a site for teachers to use, I’ve been asked to prepare one for the 5th grade students at my school. There is very little in the way of opportunities to bring technology into the classroom at my school so I’m keen to make sure the wiki is a success. The purpose of this post, therefore, is to sound out some ideas and hopefully get some more from you, the wonderful members of my PLN!

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Reach for the sky - Image by Blue-Interface

But first, some background on the programme and what is expected….

What they (the school) want

A wiki set up on pbworks has been used over the last couple of years in the 5th grades. From what I gather (I haven’t worked with this grade group before), some activities (such as reading passages, true/false statements, quizzes etc.) were uploaded to the site every couple of weeks and set as ‘e-homework’. There was also a cross-curricular ‘Computers with English’ lesson once a month in which students could add work to the wiki. However, this had to be checked and approved before being added and the lesson itself would be given by a computer teacher rather than an English one. Beyond that, links were also posted to other sites the kids might like to look at in their own time.

There have been some problems though - only about half of the students were actually doing the homework tasks and even then, due to the sheer volume of kids we have (over 420 in the 5th grade alone so even half of them means more than 200), nobody wants to be lumbered with checking the answers!

So, I have been asked to make something ‘exciting and enticing’ so more students will be willing to do it but also something that does not put much pressure on the teachers to check and mark it. It should also complement the readers used and the preparation for the Flyers exam.

A few of my ideas

First of all, I think a change of attitude is needed from the school’s side. The belief that work can only be uploaded to the wiki after it has been checked defeats the whole point of a wiki, doesn’t it? If students are allowed to write directly to the wiki and then edit their work, it would allow for greater self-awareness of language errors and input from teachers and peers as well. That would also reduce the need for the teacher to ‘mark’ the work as the emphasis changes from product to process. If I can achieve that (big if!), the possibility for writing projects such as short stories would be created and could be used to increase motivation to write.

At the start of the school year, I thought an orientation-style activity getting each student to navigate the site and leave some comments on their class page or create their own personal page would be good. I might try using a screencasted video to demo this and then give them some instructions to follow.

As for the readers, I’m thinking of adding some quizzes, vocabulary exercises and summaries of the story so far (using Hot Potatoes for example) as well as creating some tasks similar to the reading/writing questions from the Flyers exam for practice.

I’d also like to go beyond just answering questions and writing tasks so I would like to include some web 2.0 tools such as Voicethread to get the students speaking and video embeds to create listening exercises. These could of course be thematically linked to the main content of the in-class syllabus such as the readers.

Some caveats

There are some limitations and issues to consider though. First and foremost, the options for working in class are limited to one computer and a projector. This means I can demonstrate new features on the site and show the activities I want them to do but there will be little chance of allowing students to work on their pages in class. They must do most of the work on their own at home.

We do have computer labs at school but these are very much the domain of the computer department and it would be difficult to get permission to enter the labs beyond the once-monthly ‘Computers with English’ class.

As for using pbworks, I have little choice in the matter. For whatever reason, all English departments in different branches of the school are required to use it so there’s no option to use Moodle, Kidsblog or anything else like that.

Also, the school wants a system in place to check not only who has logged on but also what they have done on the site. This may create a problem with embedded activities from other sites or servers. Would it be possible to implement some kind of tracker to record all that information automatically.

So, over to you. What would you do in my situation? What kind of activities that can be done from home would engage the kids and help them develop their language skills? All suggestions welcome!

If you want to see what the current site looks like, check it out here: www.tak5.pbworks.com

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Why my PD wiki failed

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while may remember me posting about a professional development wiki for the teachers at my school that I was trying to get off the ground this time last year. The idea initially came to me after last summer’s RSCON event as I was thinking how to share what I had learned. I thought a wiki would be an ideal way to introduce new web 2.0 tools to my colleagues whilst also creating an archive of lesson ideas and screencasted presentations to be accessed and viewed in the teacher’s own time.

Alas, one year on the website (The TED Teachers’ Network) is unused and hasn’t been added to or accessed for a long time. To be honest, I had forgotten about it until I saw a post on Martin Warter’s blog about a similar problem he had had with his school’s wiki for teachers. That got me thinking about why my attempt had failed - I think reflection of this kind is just as valuable as reflecting on what worked well, if not more so - and here’s what I came up with:

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A broken network is no network at all - Image by evershedm

  • Miscommunication and misunderstanding

My first barrier came early on as I tried to explain the concept to fellow teachers and heads of department. It is easy to forget sometimes that not everybody is ‘computer literate’, both in the sense of not being familiar with various programmes and websites and also in the sense of not being familiar with the terminology. Some people had obviously never heard of a wiki before (even though one is used as part of the English programme in the 5th grades) and found the concept of editing pages and adding content difficult to get to grips with.

There was also some confusion over the distinction between a wiki and a blog, with many colleagues thinking the wiki page was a blog. Even after I had explained the distinction, the director of the school also informed me that such a website was unnecessary because a school blog already existed. Investigation revealed it did indeed exist but that was it and nobody knew about it - what’s the point of that?

  • Delays and red-tape

Once the misunderstandings were cleared up, the idea then suffered from a series of delays as ‘permission’ was required from various people in the school administration. At each stage, it would have to be explained all over again and it took months to get the official thumbs up when I expected it would take days.

In the meantime, everybody else forgot about it and my ideas to have a couple of workshop sessions to introduce the wiki and how it works fell to the wayside. By the time permission came, it felt like I was back to the beginning in terms of explaining the concept to my colleagues and trying to get them on-board.

  • Lack of interest

This was the real killer. We were into November by the time the green light was finally given and,  with everyone into the full swing of Semester 1, nobody was really keen on attending any introductory sessions. Instead, I just set up accounts for everyone and screencasted a video on how to use the wiki. However, I soon noticed that several people never even confirmed their accounts or logged on once but never bothered again.

I continued to add new content for a while knowing that an email notification would go to everyone when edits were made or new pages were created, thinking that would get their attention. Unbelievably, I actually started to get complaints from my colleagues that the pbworks updates were flooding their inboxes. Particularly disheartening was when somebody asked me for help editing the settings on their account - it turned out they were only interested in disabling the email notifications…..

A few colleagues did view the wiki and a couple even added content but it was not working as I expected. One teacher came to me and asked where the downloadable materials were. When I explained the point of the wiki was to share lesson ideas and pool our collective resources, I was greeted with a funny look. “You mean we are supposed to add content?” was the puzzled question.

And that’s when I gave up…. I guess the truth is that rather than an alternative to weekend seminar days, some people would rather just not have any professional development. Perhaps my idea was too big and ambitious as well. Next time, I’ll go for something smaller…

Still, it was a good experience in that I got to learn how to use pbworks, make screencasts and embed various objects. My pages on Wordle and Quiz Generators are worth keeping online and I may reuse them in some other future project.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Google+: What does it add?

Having been on Google+ for a couple of months now, I decided it was time to take stock of what, if anything, it has added to my online personal learning network and professional development experience. I’ve never been a fan of Facebook (although it has an annoying habit of popping up and joining the dots in all aspects of my personal, social and professional life) and Twitter seems to have become a bit ‘routine’ (and more difficult to manage) after the initial PD explosion so I approached Google+ with an open mind ready to see what it could add. The short answer is… not much.

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About what my Google+ experience has amounted too - image by hgc

It all started out well…

At first, I was attracted by the idea of circles. Facebook had become a bit messy with a mix of family, friends and acquaintances (I know there are lists but I could never be bothered with setting them up) and my Twitter stream had become quite difficult to manage as the number of people I followed increased (and I again never got round to updating any lists. Google+’s circles seemed to offer an ideal situation - different circles for family, friends, colleagues etc. and even circles within those circles for people closer to me or people in different sectors of education.

However, that was just the ideal and it didn’t really work out that way. First of all, hardly any family or friends were using Google+ so there was nobody I could add to those circles. The people I connected to were just members of my PLN from Twitter. I then tried putting them into circles but it felt too much like labelling. ‘Should I put this person in EdTech or general ELT? Or both? Do I need to make a dogme circle?’ - these were all questions I started to ask myself until I decided just not to bother. One of the great things about connecting to educators through Twitter is that I’ve learned a lot from sharing and discussing with people from all walks of ELT and education. Break them down into separate groups and it feels as though something is lost….

And so, I ended up with just a couple of circles for ELT and Education. That was fine at first but then I started to get déja vu - I was seeing the same blog posts and website links appearing on Twitter, Facebook and then Google+ as well (with many of those also appearing in my RSS reader)! My own posts there were being +1’ed by the same people who were re-tweeting or pressing the ‘like’ button on Facebook. That’s why I gave up - Google+ may have a different look, a different feel and a different approach but it didn’t offer me anything different content-wise or contact-wise. Just like we say thinking ‘wow! That looks cool!’ or ‘this is new!’ isn’t enough when it comes to technology in the classroom, we also need to look a little deeper when it comes to our PLNs and social networking.

So, for now, Twitter (and I guess FB) are enough. Perhaps if (and it’s a big if) more people start to use Google+, then I could really make use of it as a way to bring all different aspects of my online life together while also keeping them apart. Until that happens, it will remain at +0.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

All part of the (yearly) plan, more or less…

Although it’s still a couple of weeks until kids in Turkey are sent back to school (for the first time in 3 months!!), I will be back to work on Monday as our preparation period for the year ahead begins. That preparation will (in theory at least) be centered around a new yearly plan that was drafted back in June at the end of the last school year. I, together with my 4th grade ‘conversation’ colleagues, was asked to do the drafting - an experience which from my point of view highlighted many of the failings of the pre-prepared textbook-based syllabus.

Hannibal

“I love it when a plan comes together…”

We were informed that a new ‘standardised plan’ would have to be used as a template, a standardised plan to be adopted by all the different year groups in every English department of every branch of the school I work for up and down the country. Any such sweeping standardisation is likely to be full of standard problems and difficulties and this was no exception. The school I work for has over 20 branches in different cities across the country and each one offers varying contact hours in the different year groups, depending on the number of English teachers and the size of the school, which also means very different programmes. Whereas one school may have a few hours a week with one coursebook used, another (mine for example) may have triple the hours with more than one coursebook and supplementary materials such as readers and project work. And yet, no matter if we teach 4 hours a week or 12, use one book or several, it all had to be fitted into the same template…

And so, we were handed a sample plan from another school to look at and a blank version to fill in. The whole thing was of course constructed around the idea of a book being used for the entire year with the first column titled ‘Topic’ in which we were instructed to write the title of the relevant unit. So far, so simple (if not particularly in line with my ‘emergent’ thoughts about what teaching and learning should be) but then the confusion began… The next column was named ‘aims’ followed by one labelled ‘objectives’. OK, now perhaps I’m not that well-versed in exploring subtle differences between synonyms but don’t those two words mean the same thing? The ‘objectives’ were broken down into the classic 4 skills (because of course, we should have regulated practice of each in every unit, shouldn’t we?) but for some reason the aims were not…. (I’m conscious of the fact that I’m ending lots of sentences with …. here but …. well, you know …. Winking smile )

And then for the parts to really make the collective skin of all the dogmeists out there crawl - sections for ‘structures’ and ‘vocabulary’ to be covered in each unit. Even if I place a project not featured in the coursebook into a ‘slot’ in the syllabus, target structures and vocab have to be identified and written down… That really got me thinking about the nature of emergent language - how can we decide months in advance what the language used is to be? How can we predict/dictate the words that are to be used? More than ever, I believe that this has to come from the learner and the class, nowhere else.

Next up, my favourite column - ‘Methods & Techniques’. Yep, that’s right…. We are also to decide in advance which methods and techniques all of the teachers in that particular year group are to use. To make it even better, this part was already filled in and we were advised to leave it as it was. For each ‘topic’, the following was written:

Eclectic Method, Communicative approach, Ask&Answer, Repetition, Dictation, Pair work, Group work

Let’s start with ‘Eclectic Method’ (not even principled!) Is ‘eclectic’ even a method? Well, I suppose it at least allows for teachers to pretty much use whichever method they wish - “just being eclectic” is all we need to say!

And how exactly do ‘repetition’ and ‘dictation' fit in with a ‘communicative approach’? Are we really expected to do dictation every unit as well?

In the end, we just stormed through, got the columns filled in and the stamp of approval. That was the only way I could see to make it work - do what is officially required for the files and those fine folks in admin but when the classroom door is closed, forget about and let the real learning emerge….

One small victory - the programme I work on is now no longer called ‘conversation’ (which it really isn’t what with the prep for Cambridge exams, readers and writing practice). It shall now be known as the ‘language skills development’ programme and will complement the ‘grammar’ programme (which retains its old name….)

So, anyway, if somebody asks what’s going on, I’ll say I’m being eclectic…. And I’ll hope they haven’t read this particular post!