Wednesday, 30 November 2011

11 from ‘11 - (Almost) A Year in the Life of my Blog

Much like fellow Englishman-in-Turkey Adam Simpson (aka the oxymoronic @yearinthelifeof), I have many blog posts I want to write at the moment but for one reason or another are still the electronic equivalent of scribbled notes. And again much like dear Adam, I’m pushing those awaiting posts even further down my list of things to do by taking up his latest challenge (he gets a bit tetchy if there’s a muted response to his challenges so I thought I should…. ;-) )

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Image by c.e.b.

The premise is simple - shamelessly pat yourself on the back by selecting 11 of your favourite pieces of self-publishing from the year so far but hide the fact by claiming your are merely joining in with the fun of another blog challenge. As Adam says: “Everyone’s a winner” - that’s no lie!

And so, in no particular order, I picked:

One of my favourite posts of the year because, for me, it represented a kind of coming together of several thoughts and ideas that were floating around in my head and helped crystallise my thinking and my stance in regards to dogme and the role of pre-prepared materials in the young learner classroom. It’s also formed the basis of a recent series of workshop proposals so if you see me at a conference in 2012, I’ll most likely be expanding on some of the ideas here.

A discussion on the downside of working in a heavily exam-driven system (I say ‘discussion’ even though this post got no comments whatsoever). Nothing much has changed since, nor is likely to. Nevertheless, it needed to be said.

I waited several weeks to write this post just because it took several weeks for the cycle of lessons to come to an end. One simple drawing activity formed the basis of a really productive and creative series of lessons on the part of my students and there will be elements of this in future workshops as well.

“Dogme? Young Learners?” you may cry. “That’ll never work!” If there’s one thing I’ve grown to hate hearing during my career in the YL classroom (along with “Teacher! Mehmet is annoying me!”), it’s this phrase. It’s so often based on assumption rather than experience and it took me a long time to realise that. Thanks to Vicky Loras’ mega-blog challenge, I got to revisit the moment the realisation came about.

If you are still not convinced by the posts above, you are probably at Stage 3. ;-) This was a fun post to write and a humorous take on a PLN debate that just keeps on going. Although it was a tongue-in-cheek look at things, it has proven to be unerringly accurate as a recent textbook case (pun-intended) of Stage 2 blog post anger showed…

Another alternative look at the dogme-side of things, this time by drawing parallels with alternative forms of music. Is dogme the heavy metal of the ELT world? If so, does that make Thornbury and Meddings our answer to Page and Plant?

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. I’ve been down the ‘materials heavy’ route quite willingly. In fact, I even contributed to it on a local level at least back in the day. This post literally came out of the closet as a clear out led me to discover an old box of handmade hand-outs from the early days of my teaching career. Oh, how times change!

Times do indeed change but sometimes too much change only serves to perplex and confuse. Attempts to expand my horizons by developing a PLN, attending more conferences, giving workshops and doing an MA caused me to question the point I had come to in my career and where I was going with it all. I decided to capture it all on camera and the response from my PLN made me glad I did.

Did someone say ‘MA’? I probably wouldn’t have considered a blog if I hadn’t started my Masters. While it has been a great learning experience, distance learning is not easy, something I reflect on here. For anyone considering doing an MA, I still say ‘go for it’ but at the same time, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

One of the professional development highlights of the year was the 3rd Reform Symposium online conference. It was loved by all who attended but I noticed some feelings of awkwardness from some of the presenters who found the whole ‘webinar’ experience a bit strange. This represents my take on why webinars are actually pretty cool - much like the sea early on a summer’s morning. And much like that, “it’s lovely once you’re in!”

The whole point of all this blogging is to reflect and develop as a teacher and that is what this post explored. A blog post about blog posts (hence the title) and a nice consolidation of my thinking as a blogger and as an MA student.

This was the granddaddy of them all! One of my few ‘rant’ posts that seemed to ruffle feathers and kick up a hornet’s nest. More comments than any other post I’ve written with several post written elsewhere in reply. Got me some attention and some icy looks from conference organisers when I went to ISTEK a short time later (though not from Burcu of course!) The raging debate also drew quite a few people to my blog for the first time, such as Brad Patterson, which can only be a good thing. It was fun to be the ‘controversial one’ for a few days at least ;-)

So that’s my 11 from ‘11. What’s yours?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Edublog Awards (#eddies11) - My nominations

It’s that time of year again - the Edublog Awards 2011. Last year, as a newbie to the world of blogs and Twitter for professional development, I didn’t make any nominations (I was, however, very honoured to be shortlisted for the ‘Best New Blog’ award). This year, now that I’m more of an ‘old hand’, I thought I would try to pick out some of the best of the best. Here goes:

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Every ELT professional’s Sunday dose of thought-provoking and insightful posts!

This was probably the easiest decision to make. No Twitter educator’s PLN is complete without Shelly!

Not a ‘group blog’ in the strictest sense but Barbara’s regular guest posters from all around the world make this a must-read site for any EFL teacher/educator.

This was a tough choice as I have also enjoyed the addition of Brad Patterson’s Journée in Language and Sandy Millin’s Blog to my blog roll over the last year. However, Dale’s insightful and reflective posts on how lessons unfold in his classroom won out in the end.

Greta Sandler’s students are so lucky, not only because they have such a fantastic teacher but also because she is so committed to giving the chance to express themselves through blogging.

I’ve heard about so many web2.0 tools for the first time via Özge’s blog that this was an easy choice.

In this post, Vicky Loras told us the story of how she left build up a language school together with her sister in Greece but then was faced with the difficult decision to leave it all behind and move to a new life and new job in Switzerland. Her story is inspiring and it led to a blog challenge in which over 20 other great educators shared their stories as well.

Although I haven’t been able to join the chats much recently, ELTchat remains a great source of inspiration, not only through the weekly discussion topics but also through the blog posts shared and the teachers I have connected with.

I’ve chosen Mike’s blog here because it is so consistently good, full of useful lesson ideas and first-hand in-class experiences. Thanks Mike!

I’m a big fan of Mr Warr’s Language Garden blog and the attractive ‘language plants’ he adds to each one, which really offer a different way to look at language. Imagine my delight then when he made the Language Plant Maker available for the world to grow their own.

By the way, while I’m mentioning David Warr, I will also mention that I think there should be a ‘Best Blog Commenter’ award, in which case I would nominate him (or perhaps Tyson Seburn) again.

  • Best educational use of audio/video/visual/podcast - iasku by Chiew Pang

Chiew’s video interview blog has been a great way to get to know ‘the educator behind the tweets’ on a deeper level.

  • Best open PD/unconference/webinar series - RSCON3

This summer’s conference was a great event and one I was proud and honoured to be a part of.

For his unending commitment to his English Raven blog and resource website, his invaluable help and advice for designing educational materials and his fantastic new project World Adventure Kids.

Good luck to everyone - I hope you get the recognition you deserve!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

This is Madness! This is Distance Learning?

 

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Image from FreeWallpapersHD

Several weeks ago, I was asked if I would be interested in taking part in a pilot distance learning project organised by the foundation I work for. We have schools in over 20 different cities in Turkey and, while the college I work at is very large, others are quite small by comparison. I was told the project would aim to make up for a shortfall in English teaching staff in some of the smaller schools by having online lessons a couple of hours a week with a teacher located at another school. After a few days of constantly changing news, it was finally decided that I would work with a school in the city of Isparta (hence the title of this post and the silly image! :))

As I have taken courses about teaching online as part of my MA, I was naturally interested. I was told that my knowledge gained from my studies was one of the reasons I had been approached in the first place and my input would be appreciated. And so, even though I will be busy with the final phase of my studies this year, I agreed to do it. I promptly revisited my notes, re-read articles and got thinking about the best way to go about things. I started to envisage a blended learning approach, supplementing the regular English programme with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous activities, utilising different web and conferencing tools.

However, it seems I got a bit ahead of myself. I was then told all the online lessons would be given synchronously but not with Adobe Connect or Elluminate. Instead, I would be simply using Skype. Essentially, I would just be ‘beamed in’ to their regular classroom with my webcam feed appearing on their projection screen. This immediately set alarm bells ringing about effective interaction, how to monitor, how to offer assistance to individual students and how to avoid completely teacher-fronted lessons…

The alarm bells rang louder when I was informed that a special room was being set up at my school with a webcam aimed at a board/projection screen. When I asked why, an “isn’t it obvious?” kind of answer came back - “how else are you going to do board work?” Luckily, at this point the voice of experience I was supposed to bring to the project was finally heard as I pointed out that I could make-do with Google docs as a virtual whiteboard instead - in fact, it would be much more effective.

I should point out at this stage that I am not in any way criticising the teaching staff or students I am working with. I had the pleasure of visiting Isparta ahead of setting these classes up and I was very impressed with the English department and the school in general. The kids, as ever, were lovely and full of energy and enthusiasm and the teachers were very willing to help and contribute ideas as to how to make the situation work best. It’s just that this is not what I expected at all when I was first told about the pilot project - rather than distance learning I feel that this is distance teaching (started to sound like Tony Gurr now!) as the students are in their normal environment and I am the one who is joining the class from a distance!

Anyway, we have to make the most of the situation and so today, I taught two classes like this:

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It was a strange experience - not being able to move around affected the level of interaction I was able to achieve a great deal and, of course, monitoring was impossible (luckily, teachers were on hand in the classroom and they were a great help with such matters). There were also a few technical issues - every so often the sound quality would drop and getting kids up to the mike to speak directly to me took some time…

On the bright side, my Google doc idea worked well as they could see what I was typing and I could see what they were typing. It was also very useful for some error correction after one of our speaking activities was completed (done in the style of ‘Six of one’ from Teaching Unplugged, pp.64). In future sessions, I’ll be inviting the students to write and edit on it more.

I also had the advantage of being able to work from home - great for quick coffee refills and also for staged cameo appearances by my cat, who drew out a whole stream of unsolicited questions and real ‘want-to-know’ interactions. I did also notice that, while I was relaxed and comfortable at home, some of the students were very nervous about speaking in front of the camera! I tried my best to put them at ease with encouraging words and by mentioning a few things I remembered from when I met them face-to-face last month. I’m sure they will get used to it in time.

I hope two things will happen as a result of this pilot project: first, I hope that my employers will be open to suggestions for improving the programme either during the year or in the future - having the kids in a computer lab and using some dedicated conferencing software would be a start; and secondly, I hope the kids get a lot out of the experience. After all, it’s always all about them.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Meet Pompiskotch

In this post, I would like to introduce you to somebody, somebody important for my students. This person has helped us learn new things, practice new language, write stories, play games and generally have fun in class. He has also appeared on our class wiki pages. Despite his somewhat strange appearance and questionable habits, he has been a great influence and a motivating factor for one group of my 5th Grade students. Without further ado, allow me to introduce Pompiskotch!

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In case you’re wondering what’s going on, read on and I will explain. :)

In one of our first lessons this year, I asked my students to draw a picture of a person. I left all the details of age, appearance etc. up to them and just decided to go with what they produced. In that initial lesson, we then stuck all the pictures up on the wall and I asked each group to chose a picture, produce a description of the person (adding extra details such as name, background info, hobbies and so on as they saw fit) and then describe him/her with the other groups trying to guess which picture they had chosen.

That was a fun lesson but I thought ‘why stop there?’ The activity and the pictures created (Pompiskotch in particular) had been so well received, it seemed a shame to just consign them to a wall display before being binned. So, the next lesson, I asked the kids to write character profiles for the different pictures. During the writing session, I encouraged lots of ‘on the spot’ comments from group to group with the kids making suggestions not only for their own writing but also for what the other groups as well. There was a really nice buzz around the classroom in this lesson as the kids circulated, exchanges ideas and helped each other produce really nice pieces of writing.

Next up was an error correction session. Using their writing, I identified the most common errors and used them to create a paragraph to go with one of the class’ pictures. In groups, they proceeded to edit and correct the paragraph before we corrected it as a whole class using willyou.typewith.me on the projection screen. Following that, they were directed back to their own writing to edit it and correct some errors. These descriptions were then added to the pictures on the wall.

But again, why stop there? Next, we made audio recordings to go with their favourite pictures and put them together with scanned images on the class wiki page. this was a great way to bring what we had done in class home - in the literal and figurative sense - as the kids were able to show their parents what they had been doing at school and they were also so proud of having their work on the internet.

Meet Pompiskotch!
As these students will take the Flyers exam later this year, I then used the pictures and recordings to make a matching exercise on Hot Potatoes - good preparation for the listening questions and much more engaging to do it with student-generated content than with sample questions from a practice book.

The pictures were also recycled as part of picture dictation and Pictogloss activities, with students choosing a random picture and describing it to a partner who had to listen and draw. This led to some fun comparisons between the originals and the recreated drawings!

By this point, we were 4 weeks into the school year and still getting a lot of use out these pictures. In syllabus terms, we were well behind schedule having barely touched our book. However, in real terms, we were way ahead of schedule having covered structures and vocabulary for describing people and things, describing present actions, talking about habits and routines, using past tenses to give background information and comparative forms. We had also made great progress in terms of the writing and speaking objectives for the semester as well as fitting in some exam practice!

Eventually, we moved on to other topics and other things but Pompiskotch and his friends keep coming back! In a recent lesson, we wrote short stories about close encounters with aliens and UFOs and Pompiskotch made an appearance in several of those. He also appeared in the scary stories we wrote for Halloween and the ‘what happened next?’ role plays we did after finishing a reader.

While Pompiskotch was the favourite, he was not the only character to play an important role in the early part of our school year. Here are some of the others (see if you can spot mine! ;))

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To finish, here are links to some of the blog posts that played a direct or indirect role in the way these lessons developed:

Friday, 11 November 2011

My Story - “That’ll never work with kids”

Several weeks ago, Vicky Loras, a Greek-Canadian English teacher in Switzerland and a must for any language teacher’s PLN, set a simple yet intriguing challenge on her blog. She asked us “What’s your story?” as an invitation to give some more background about ourselves as teachers. This is a great challenge as it naturally prompts some deep reflection to identify those factors that affect who we are and what we do (and if you haven’t done so already, you should check out Vicky’s post with links to all the other contributions at the end).

I am coming to this challenge a bit late - various things have forced this post and my blog in general to slow down recently - but it is definitely a challenge worth taking up so here I am. Over the last few weeks, I have thought a lot about what to write - the story of how and why I decided to enter the world of TEFL in the first place, what me me come to and stay in Turkey, how I ended up teaching kids, when I started to see this as my career and not just a way to live abroad or pay the bills…. All of these ‘moments’ have critical incidents attached to them and all have played an important role in defining the teacher I am today. However, I also realised that all of those aspects of my story focus on me and that’s not the kind of teacher I am these days (or at least, not the kind of teacher I think I am). Over the last few years, I have come to realise teaching is not about me - it’s about them, the people in the room, the students, the kids! So that is what this post is about, what ‘My Story’ is about - realising the kids I work with don’t ‘have a lot to learn’ but rather they have a lot to offer.

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Sometimes, you just need to see things a little differently - Image by ecstaticist

“That’ll never work with kids”

During my first few years working with young learners, this phrase was one I heard over and over and often used myself as well. We would attend workshops, seminars and conferences, listen to ideas from experienced teachers, teacher trainers, ELT experts, publishers and so on but many of them would be dismissed afterwards as unsuitable for primary school children.

Common European Framework? Portfolios? Self-assessment? Critical thinking? Internet projects? Collaborative work? Authentic children’s stories? Minimising use of L1 in class? You name it, we said “that’ll never work with kids”. Even when people who were experienced primary school teachers ran workshops or gave presentations and clearly demonstrated things that would work with kids, something similar would be heard: “That’s all very well if you are working with classes of ten students in Japan but that’ll never work with our kids” (classes of 28-32 in Turkey in case you didn’t already know).

And for a long time, I believed it. I stuck to the book and made the decisions for my kids about what they would or wouldn’t be capable of. This didn’t sit easy with me however, and I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. As often seems to be the case, it was an unplanned moment in class (actually, a moment that came around due to lack of planning!) that started the change. One day in class, there was a couple of minutes left before afternoon break with one more English lesson to go. We were near the end of a unit, which meant a language review was coming and after that there was one of the kids’ favourites - a cartoon strip-style story. To fill those minutes before break time, I decided to offer a choice - after break we can do the language review or read the story. I told them to think about it and tell me their collective decision when the lesson resumed.

Of course, there was an instant cry of ‘story!!’ from most of the class. Not from two girls though - instead, they came up to me and asked what would happen with the option that was not to be chosen. I informed them that whatever we didn’t do that day, we would do the next day. They then exchanged whispers, nodded and set about talking to their classmates

“We only have one lesson left today,” they said. “If we do the story now, Mr David will finish it quickly and tomorrow we’ll do the language review.” I was eavesdropping by this point, greatly intrigued. “But,” they continued “if we do the language review now, we can do the story tomorrow and maybe spend two lessons on it” (this took place in Turkish of course and I am now giving a paraphrased translation). They went round the class repeating to this to different groups of kids and, to my amazement, it worked! After break, the class said they wanted to do the language review and leave the story for the next day. Basically, a group of 8 year-olds had collectively gone against their initial instinct to save the more enjoyable activity for another day when they could get more out of it.

Choice then became a big part of our lessons - which activity to do next, how to do a certain activity, whether to do something individually or in groups… Suggestions from the students soon started to follow - “can I do this as a poster?”, “can we act the story instead of reading it?”, “can we write about an imaginary animal instead of a real one?” - these were all things they started to add to the lessons.

I then started to challenge some of the ideas that had been left in the seminar rooms with big “that’ll never work with kids” labels on them. We started to reflect on what we had done each day, what had been learned, what they had liked and what could have been better. We did more group work, peer checking and collaborative projects. We started to have ‘story time’ on Fridays with real children’s stories like The Gruffalo - if anything, they loved the fact that all they needed to do was listen to the story! No questions, no activities to do afterwards, just a story… I stopped using Turkish in class all together and found that I didn’t have increased problems with classroom management or connecting with kids. In fact, those things were easier than before! Most importantly of all, we started to focus less on what was in the next unit of the book and more on the kids in the room.

Now, I’m not one of those whose reaction to dogme ELT is to say “I’ve been doing that all along” (Stage 2 as it is known on the pages of this blog!) but when I did finally come across the concept, I was ready to explore how it would work with in my classes rather than just say “that’ll never work with kids”.

Come to think of it, there was a time when I always thought “I will never work with kids” (two ways to interpret that!) but that’s another story…. ;)