Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Food for Thought… and for Better Classroom Management

Last year was a bit of a tough one for me. After a few years of generally well-behaved kids and easy-to-manage classes, I had quite a few challenging students and one ‘difficult’ class (who you may remember from post such as “Outdone by the Pink Elephant” and “Like Crossing the Alps…” 

The best thing (in fact, the only thing) for any reflective teacher-blogger to do was to sit down and think about it all, what went wrong and what went right and what could be done differently next time. I blogged earlier in the year about some inspiration I had taken from other teachers’ sage advice on the web and I also wrote about the initial success of negotiating class rules with the kids but I was wary of the fact that such ideas often work out well in the beginning but fail to have a long-lasting effect so it was always my intention to return to the subject once we were well into the school year.

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Mmmm… Classroom management!!

Image by @pysproblem81 via ELTpics

I’m pleased to say that, even though I face the sheer horror wonderful challenge of teaching that ‘difficult’ class again, things are still going well (not perfectly I hasten to add but better than last year at least). Of course, the fact that I know this class (and 3 of the other 5 I teach) and they know me from last year helps as does the fact that they are a year older and now carry the responsibility that comes with being in the 5th Grade (the last year of Primary education in Turkey before they move on to Middle School) but I feel there are also other factors, things that are different this year and thought I’d share them via this post.

  • More engaging content

I know I blog about the benefits of a dogme-style approach a lot but the fact remains that, for part of my teaching programme at least, I have to use the prescribed books. Among the books we use are three readers. Last year, we did an simplified version of The Wizard of Oz, which was quite frankly boring, and a written adaptation of the Wallace and Gromit adventure The Wrong Trousers, which didn’t translate to book format that well and was only saved by the fact that we watched the short film together with reading it. This year, the kids seemed reluctant to get started with the books, even more so when they realised there was no film or video to go with it. However, once we started reading, they really got into it and I have to credit the authors for that. The first book was entitled Alien Alert in Seattle, an original story published by Black Cat and it was a huge hit! The theme of aliens and UFOs visiting Earth got the boys hooked and the masterstroke of then making the lead character a teenage girl got the girls hooked. The mystery element of it all kept them all engaged and enthusiastic.

One boy in particular showed a remarkable turnaround. Last year, he was very disruptive in class, constantly trying to distract other students or wind me up and never prepared to do any work. With this book, he was so eager to read and genuinely interested in the plot as it unfolded. Suddenly, he was engaged, on task, asking questions and making  a positive contribution to the lesson all the time. We have now moved onto another Black Cat title, Miami Police Files: The O'Neill Case, which has this boy and all his classmates gripped already.

  • Lead by example

“Don’t expect your students to do anything you’re not prepared to do yourself” - this is something I strongly believe in, whatever the teaching context. It always bugs me if teachers complain about students not doing homework while they also refuse to do any kind of professional development activity outside of school hours or if they take phone calls in the middle of the lesson but then get angry at students for chatting to each other. We can’t expect students to follow basic rules or maintain certain standards of behaviour if we are not prepared to do the same ourselves, can we?

With that in mind, I strive to ensure that I:

    • turn up for lessons and get everything ready before the bell rings;
    • have all the books and other materials I will need for the class;
    • listen carefully and don’t interrupt students when they are asking about or explaining something;
    • keep any promises I make;
    • and join in with the activities they do!

If I ask the kids to draw something, I will draw as well. If I ask them to write about their family or what they did at the weekend, I will write as well. They seem to really appreciate the fact that I am willing to do some of the tasks myself (especially writing) and it helps a great deal with giving examples to kids struggling for ideas or inspiration to those who are lacking confidence. It’s also useful as a check on the demands we place on kids sometimes - if I can’t write a paragraph in 5 minutes, I certainly shouldn’t be expecting them to!

  • Let them eat cake… literally!

When negotiating class rules at the start of the year, one class asked if they could eat and drink during the lesson. At first, I tried to talk them out of it as school rules state that no food or drink (even water!) should be consumed during class - but then I thought ‘why not?’ The fact that I was prepared to go against the general school rule went down very well with the kids and I was very impressed by the fact that it wasn’t just crisps and chocolate that they brought to class but fruit, nuts and other healthy snacks as well. I did make it clear, however, that despite the fact that they could eat in class, there would be no ‘pic n’ mix’ - in other words, if they want a rule allowing them to eat in class, they had to follow all of the other rules we decided on as well, such as “be ready at the start of the lesson” and “listen when someone is talking”. And it worked! I have this particular class for the last two hours on a Friday, usually the worst time of the week, but they are always on task and enthusiastic…. and well-nourished!

Here’s a thought…. In case of bad behaviour, I could still allow eating in class but insist they eat something like this:

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Bugs can be food too… or so says Brad Patterson via ELTpics

  • If music be the food of classroom management, rock on…

Years ago when I was fresh off the plane from native-speaker land, I played music in class when my students were writing (I was teaching adults at the time). It helped contribute to a relaxed atmosphere and could lead to interesting discussions about music in general or particular artists and songs. I never thought of doing the same thing with kids though - maybe I thought they would get over-excited and forget about the task at hand or the school would frown upon it and tell me to stop…. This year, I thought “what the heck? If they don’t say anything about ‘picnic Fridays’, they won’t say anything about a song or two. So I suggested we played music when writing in class and the kids jumped at the idea. I only insisted that the songs be in English with non-offensive lyrics. I also said I didn’t want any teen-pop music and to my surprise, one boy asked ‘can we listen to AC/DC or Queen then?’ It seems that games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have given these ten year-olds a taste for classic rock, one I am more than happy to indulge! We now write to the sound of guitar riffs, thumping bass lines and screeching vocals. And, despite their age, we still have those interesting discussion about music and a deeper level of respect for each other’s tastes. The songs are also good for time management - ‘try to finish before the end of the next song!’

As I said in the beginning, the classroom management situation is by no means perfect and we still have issues and problems from time-to-time. However, the factors listed above have made things better this year, not to mention more relaxed, more engaging, more fun… and more nourishing!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Working on the Web with Kids (1) - Wiki-waki

A major new addition to my list of responsibilities at the start of this year was to take over and revamp the 5th Graders pbworks site. It had first started a couple of years ago but hadn’t really gone anywhere with students and teachers alike seemingly unsure of exactly what to do with it. I blogged about this at the start of the year to get some of your ideas and promised an update about how it was going so here it is!

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Image by Graham Stanley via ELTpics

So far, it has very much been a case of working within the limits set by my employers. For some reason, they don’t want the students to be able to edit or create their own pages meaning I have to find ways to get the students interacting on the wiki via the comments section only. With that in mind, we have been using the wiki in the following ways:

  • To support work done in class

The first flurry of pages and activities I made for the wiki were based on the reader we used at the start of the year, a story called Alien Alert in Seattle. I found the wiki to be a great way to provide follow-up activities after each chapter that we read in class. In some cases, this took the form of general questions or asking for opinions about the chapter, which the students answered via the comments. In other cases, I embedded exercises made with Hot Potatoes such as crosswords to review vocabulary or quick quizzes. The students were especially impressed with my idea of recording sound bites using AudioBoo and embedding them into a matching activity - a great way to get them more engaged in listening! (See here for an example)

One great thing about doing this was the fact that it freed up more class time to get on with actually reading the book. I also found that more kids were willingly doing these activities online than I had ever seen in class.

  • As a virtual ‘wall display’

Kids love having their work put on display in the corridor. The only problem is that apart from the kid who actually did the work, nobody ever looks at it! You might get the odd parent who wanders down the hall and has a look but that’s about it. Even though the kids aren’t allowed to edit pages themselves, I thought the wiki would provide a much more open space in which to display their work and so I have had the kids email me copies of their written work (also useful for getting them to re-write what they did in their notebooks after some feedback) or I have scanned their hand-made posters. We even went so far as to record some TV show role-plays! This has been a great way to ‘bring it home’ as they are easily able to show their work to their parents. I have also noticed a lot of comments coming from kids in other classes, which hardly ever happens with wall displays.

  • For discussion and chat

Without any prompting, many of the kids started to use their class page as a place to chat and ask questions, something I was very pleased to see. I have also created some activities designed to encourage chat and interaction on the wiki. I recently posted a Truth or Lie: 5 Things About Me” video after piloting it here with my PLN - thanks guys!

(I now think this has been seriously misused as an introductory activity - it’s much more meaningful when you know someone enough to take an educated guess at what they might be lying about and maybe learn a new thing or two!)

This was a big hit - good authentic listening practice, lots of comments and speculation and plenty of questions. In class, that level of engagement from that many students would have been much harder to achieve.

On the whole, it has been a success so far with many kids (in my classes at least) accessing the wiki regularly and eagerly awaiting new tasks and new content. There have also been some issues and points raised by using the wiki, which are as follows:

  • The ‘digital native’ myth

I am now convinced more than ever that the whole ‘digital native’ idea is misplaced. These kids should be tech-savvy, completely at ease with registering, navigating the site and doing interactive activities, right? Wrong! So many kids had problems with registering for pbworks - many of them were thrown by the fact that they received an email inviting them to join rather than sending them a password - and many more had trouble with simple things like logging in, navigating the site and writing comments. I had to go over it several times in class and make some screencasted tutorial videos to help them along. And I’m supposed to be the ‘immigrant’ in this digital world!

  • Parent Problems

One obstacle has been the parents. Even though they signed permission forms, many kids tell me their parents won’t let them use the computer, even for school work, during the week. A few even say they aren’t allowed to use a computer at all! A couple of parents have also expressed concern about this new element to the English programme (there is no web component in the earlier grades) and have called the school to question its value and insist that it should have no bearing on the kids’ grades at the end of the year… I guess they didn’t read the letter sent with the permission form! This is only a minority of cases though - most parents seem happy to have their kids doing something ‘useful’ on the computer (or at least I assume so by their silence!)

  • “What about games teacher?”

All of the students were excited to hear about the wiki site early in the year. Most of them are still excited about it and engaged. However, there are a few who have lost their enthusiasm. I added a few games and funny videos in the beginning but it seems that is all they want - “more games please teacher!” and “more videos!” are their only comments about the wiki. The other activities such as questions about the readers or hot potato quizzes generally lead to interesting excuses: “I couldn’t do it because my computer isn’t working/ my internet connection is slow/ there was a power cut/ the dog ate my computer…” I guess the lesson to be learned is kids won’t be motivated just because something is delivered via computer or on the internet. Those who struggle to find motivation for regular classroom tasks will also have the same attitude to tasks on the wiki or in some other digital form.

Overall, it’s been a success so far. Most kids are active on the wiki and want to use it. They are starting to come to me with suggestions for things to put on the class pages and some kids are even doing extra projects and asking if I can make a page for them. There are the usual institutional restraints to wrestle with and parents/students yet to appreciate the value of what we are doing but as with many of the other issues we face in education, it’s all a matter of giving it time and trying to show them what it’s all about.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Another failure for the exam-based system

Sarah* is in many ways an ideal student: she is hard-working in class and keen to participate without trying to dominate proceedings; she makes an effort to speak English both with me and with her class mates; she is always on task; and she is very creative, producing beautiful project work, informative writing and entertaining short stories. I always let her know what a good student she is and how well she is doing and we have a good rapport.

Imagine my surprise then when her mother came to see me this morning to say how she came home upset on Friday saying that there was no point in doing her homework (which she usually does with enthusiasm as soon as she gets home) because she was never going to be any good at English. Obviously, her family were shocked to see her like this as was I when I heard about it.

Why was Sarah so upset? Because of a test score

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Image by Megan Skelly

I teach on the ‘conversation’ programme at my school. Despite the title attached to it, we actually work on their writing skills, reading comprehension and preparation for the Cambridge Young Learner Exams. One of the biggest challenges of these lessons is getting the kids to take it seriously. They often see us as their secondary English teacher (they have a non-native speaker as a ‘grammar’ teacher) and, if you let them, they can treat the lessons as ‘free time’. In order to add more weight to our lessons, it is the opinion of some (not me I should add) the we must have some tests, not a full test as we only see the students for a few hours each week but a test nonetheless.

And so, 2 weeks ago, I had to give a 25 question listening test based on questions from the KET exam, even though the students are getting ready for the Flyers test, which is one level lower! Naturally, they found it quite hard and results were mixed. Sarah got 72%, much lower than the 90%+ she gets in tests in the grammar lesson. I have spoken to her since, reminding her that the test is only a small part of the final grade I will give. Her project work is excellent as is her effort in class and her contributions to our student wiki site so her average will be much higher. That made her feel better but I still feel that I should have never had to have this talk with her in the first place. She should have never had to feel like this in the first place.
So, do these tests ‘add weight’ to my lessons? Do they make the students take them more seriously? I hardly think so. I try hard to show kids the value of my lessons through the work we do in class and the opportunities we create to use and develop our skills in English and that is what makes them value my lessons. Throw in a test and it becomes all about the grade and the stress that comes with it - a hindrance more than a help…

What’s your take on this situation? Are tests good for motivating students? Or is it the teacher’s duty to make sure the kids are motivated anyway?

*not her real name