Monday, 7 May 2012

Go Forth and Spread the Word of CPD - Your Help Needed!

Busy but exciting times ahead as this weekend (Saturday, May 12th to be precise), I will lead a ‘professional development day’ for English teachers from state schools in the Turkish city of Karab√ľk. The day will consist of 4 sessions, 2 in the morning and 2 after lunch. In the morning, I will be focusing on ‘exploring the space’ as opposed to ‘filling the gap’ and I thought I would use the afternoon to show the how the attendees can take their professional development into their own hands by entering the world of social networking.

Help me bridge the CPD gap… (yes, that was a groan-worthy pun in the title) - Image by @aelloway via eltpics

I did a session like this last year at the 4th TED Conference in Samsun in which I played a few videos and voice recordings contributed by my Twitter PLN and, as it went down very well, I thought I would do the same again. Last time, I focused purely on Twitter and the benefits of building a network there but this time, as the session will be spread over two hours instead of one, I am planning to include a look at blogs, Facebook groups, online conferences and ELTchat.

And that’s where you come in, my dear PLN. Again, I would like to include some ‘Voices from my PLN’ about the benefits of pursuing your own CPD online. This could take the form of a short (1 minute maximum!) video (uploaded to YouTube) or a voice recording (via Audio Boo or Vocaroo for example) explaining what your PLN means to you. Ideally, one contribution for each of the following things I will be focusing on in the talk would be great:

  • Twitter
  • ELTchat
  • Facebook groups
  • Blogs
  • Online conferences

If you can spare the time to help me out, please get in touch via the comments section or send a direct message on Twitter and help me get some more teachers online!

Thank you Smile

Friday, 4 May 2012

Cut the App!

As summer draws near, keeping my students engaged and enthusiastic about lessons has become increasingly difficult. However, I do like a challenge and I’M trying to stay positive about it so I thought I would share a lesson we did this week that went down really well with classes across the board.

Having recently had some productive fun with a video in class, I prepared a lesson combining two things I knew my students would enjoy - a funny video clip and some computer games! Most of the students I teach have access to a smartphone or a tablet, either because they have their own or they use their parents’. Although they can’t use them in class (school rules, not mine), they are always talking about their favourite new apps and games and the latest craze seems to be a game called ‘Cut the Rope’.

My son is also a fan and regularly plays on my wife’s phone or my tablet. The other day, he showed me a funny video he found on YouTube with the character from the game Om Nom coming out of the iPad and having an adventure in the house. My bad habit kicked in again and I immediately got lesson signs in my eyes and the result was as follows...

Name that logo
If you are familiar with this blog, you will know that I do have dogme leanings. However, every once in a while, I end up doing a planned lesson and this was one such case. In fact, it even had a warmer! As many apps have instantly recognisable square logos, I decided to create a slideshow using some of the most popular game apps on the Turkish iTunes store, which you can see below:

I first checked that the students were familiar with each of the logos (in every single class, they were!). We then played a memory game. If you advance the slides above, you’ll see that one logo has been covered up in each slide. The first task was to name the logo that was hidden* (if you download the slideshow, the logos can be revealed as part of the animation sequence). This was a great way to get them engaged in the general topic of the lesson.

We then had a chat about their favourite games. I asked them to describe the aim of each game and how it was played. It was amazing how keen each student was to talk about these apps. Ask them to tell you how basketball is played and they don’t know what to say but ask them to describe Where’s my Water? and the language just comes flowing out!

Om Nom Stories
I then told them that my current favourite app is Cut the Rope and asked them what they knew about the game.


They were able to describe the aim of getting the candy into the creature’s mouth and the touch controls for doing so. They also knew that the main character’s name was Om Nom and that was enough to take us onto the next stage involving this video:

I asked the students what they thought Om Nom would do if he came out of the iPad (they universally said he would look for candy) and what they thought the cat was doing in the preview still. We then watched the video with the instruction given to pay attention carefully.

Once the video had finished, I tested their powers of observation with a few questions. We started with easy ones like ‘What colour was the iPad?’ but we then moved onto some harder ones like ‘What was the bag made of?’ (paper grocery bags are not common here in Turkey) ‘What food items were in the video?
We then watched the video again but this time the students’ task was to write observation questions to ask the other groups. They came up with some good ones like ‘How many stars did the girl get when she was playing the game?’ and ‘Where was the umbrella?’ (watch it again if you didn’t see it!)

I then listed some events from the story on the board and gave the students the task of putting them into order with a final viewing of the video taking place to confirm their answers. The final task varied from class to class depending on the amount of time left. Some groups wrote a description of what happened in the video, some wrote an account from Om Nom’s point of view and others from the cat’s point of view and in one class, they came up with commentaries and delivered them while the video played.

As a final follow-up, I used some of the observation questions the students had come up with to make an activity page on our school wiki as a digital homework task (available here if you want to make use of it). They were also invited to describe their favourite games on the wiki as well. Considering the lack of motivation and engagement that has come as we enter the final stretch of Primary School I was very happy with the way the lesson panned out!

  • How would you make use of this video or something similar in class?
*I originally saw this idea of a memory game using well-known logos in a webinar presentation by Paul Braddock at last year’s Virtual Round Table Conference, the archive of which can be found here.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Loss of Momentum

Ideally, our classrooms throughout the year would resemble this:


Image by Carlos 90

Alas, in truth, as we near the end of the second semester, they are probably more like this:


Image by Monosnaps

This year started out so well: we established a set of ground rules for the classroom which really worked and helped create a positive atmosphere for learning; the lessons were student-centred with lots of creative ideas coming from the students; the kids were really active on the school wiki and also started blogging; and there were plenty of projects that really got everyone engaged.

But, as we draw closer to the end of the school year in Turkey (a ridiculously early June 8th!!), keeping that level of interest and engagement has been getting harder and harder. The momentum that built up so quickly at the start of the year has started to slow drastically. Our Lessons on the Fly helped a little impetus return but the other lessons in which we are supposed to focus on skills really feel like an uphill struggle (ironic in a way that the exam prep classes are the ones in which students are really engaged instead of the creative writing or conversation ones!)

The ground rules are now increasingly forgotten or ignored. Classes that were ready to start the lesson as soon as the bell rang are now wasting 5 minutes at the start of each class as they slowly get their materials out. Students who were on task most (if not all) of the time are now often doodling or chatting to their friends. Homework is no longer given in on time and classwork is often not finished before the lesson ends. Interaction on the wiki and posts on the blog have slowed down to a trickle…

And it’s not just one class - most of them are like this!!

I understand where a lot of this is coming from. Throughout April and May, the kids seem to have exams every other day, which outs them under a lot of stress. This is especially true for the 5th graders, who are in their last year of primary school. That is also a factor - after 5 years with the same teacher and same friends in class every day, it must play on their minds a little that next year everything will be different - new building, new class mates, new teachers… and many more exams. Then, there is the rapid transition from spring to summer. The sunny weather seems to be even more of a distraction than the snow was a couple of months ago and the classes now get quite stuffy, especially in the afternoons.

I’ve tried a few different things to keep the students on track. I’ve pointed out that the rules they negotiated were for the whole year and are still as valid now as they were back in September. I’ve also reminded them that they still have assessed project work to do and there are still ‘classroom grades’ to be given (even though their grade for my classes are weighted more heavily towards project work and class work, some students still seem to only value the tests we do). As for the lessons themselves, I’ve been trying to keep them entertaining with video clips, funny stories and songs. Alas, it seems that while those things can keep them focused for half a lesson, then they lose momentum all over again.

In an effort to reinvigorate my students before I start to lose momentum as well, I turn to you, my PLN, for support with a couple of questions:

  • Have you experienced a ‘loss of momentum’ like this towards the end of a school year?
  • What can be done to keep the momentum going (or get it started again)?
  • How do you engage young learners whose heads seem to be on holiday already?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Just Read!

5th Grader - “Sorry teacher, I don’t understand.”
Me - “Read the chapter - that’s all.”
5th Grader - “Er… teacher… CD?”
Me - “What do you mean?”
5th Grader - “Will we listen to the story?”
Me - “No, we’re reading now.”
5th Grader - “Take turns?”
Me - “Sorry?”
5th Grader - “Will we take turns to read?”
Me - “No, just…”
5th Grader - “So you will read it?”
Me - “No, you will read.”
5th Grader - “By myself?”
Me - “Yes!” (thinking “finally!”)
5th Grader - “Oh… OK…” (looking slightly puzzled)

Books… but where are the audio CDs and supplementary materials? - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

As a ‘conversation’ teacher in the 5th Grade at my school, one of my duties, naturally, is to improve my students’ reading skills. To this end, we have three graded readers included in our syllabus. The stories themselves are great - two of them are original stories (which I always prefer to adaptations of classic novels or films) and the other contains two short Sherlock Holmes stories. There is also a plethora of materials to go with each book. Some of them are useful, such as the digitised version of the book which allows me to show specific pages on the projector, zoom in on the illustrations and highlight particular words or sections of text. However, I find a lot of the other materials to be superfluous - the ‘interactive’ CD-ROM which is actually just a series of gap fill and matching exercises, the non-fiction extra reading sections which are often only thinly connected to something in the book, and the post-reading ‘KET style activities’ to name but a few (isn’t it a bit over the top when the story itself takes up less than half of the space in the book?)

I also include the audio recording of the story in the ‘superfluous’ category. I have used them in the past but I no longer do so for a couple of reasons - first of all, the pace of the recording is slower than the rate at which someone, even a second language learner, can read. If we are aiming to improve reading skills (which should also include reading speed), then having our students following along as the story is heard from a CD player is detrimental rather than helpful. Secondly, I have witnessed far too many students switch off when the CD is switched on. Some of them just stare into space, not even reading the book, not even looking at it!

These days, I aim to get the students to actually read the stories. Now, that doesn’t mean I just say “here’s the book - start reading” of course! We spend time doing pre-reading activities such as predicting what might happen based on the title, the illustrations and the events of the previous chapter or other awareness raising and schema activating activities. Once the chapter has been read, we talk about how the plot advanced, what new things we learned about the characters and go over any unknown vocabulary that came up. However, in between all that, I want my students to get used to just reading… normally.

Think about it - once we are past a particular age of early childhood development, how do we read? With an audio recording of the story playing at the same time? Sat in a circle with some other people taking turns to read a page? Of course not! Reading is a solitary and quiet activity. We will often curl up in an armchair with a drink and a few biscuits and spend some quality time with a book. So why is this not the case in the EFL classroom? It amazes me how many times I have an exchange with one of my students like the one at the start of this post - some of them are simply not used to reading stories by themselves. The whole idea of sitting quietly and reading a chapter of a book seems alien to them!

But, once they are used to it, they start to see the benefit. Having actually read the story instead of half listening to it from a CD or struggling to follow a class mate reading it aloud, they have a better understanding of the book and comprehension activities become easier. They are also more willing to return to the chapter and fish out some specific information (being also more aware of where to find it).

Of course, pressing ‘play’ is easy. It’s easy for the kids to just sit and daydream, it’s easy for the teacher to be sure everyone is at the same place at the same time and it’s easy to say the chapters have been covered. But, teaching is not an easy job and neither is learning a language. For me, the flood of supplementary activities that come with readers is indicative of one of the biggest problems in the ELT profession today - the over-reliance on materials designed to keep the students busy (but not the teachers!)

There’s no magic trick to getting a class to read. It’s just a matter of establishing good habits. It may make classroom life more difficult initially but, like many other ‘difficult’ things, it works out for the best in the long run and keeps the focus where it should be - on reading and learning to simply enjoy a good story.

That’s what I think but (in a blatant act of copying from Phil Wade’s excellent blog posts), I’ll finish with some Questions
  • Should we encourage young learners to read ‘normally’ or do they need more support such as audio recordings?
  • Are there any other ways the recordings could be put to use?
  • Do EFL teachers (and, to an extent, students) over-rely on supplementary materials?