Thursday, 21 June 2012

ELT Blogging Survey - Reflection in Open Space

After nearly three years, I'm now approaching the end of my Masters. You might call it the 'thick end' as it involves the by no means small matter of conducting research and writing a dissertation. As regular readers will know, I am researching the use of blogs by ELT teachers, focusing on how/to what extent they are used as part of reflective practice and the role the community plays in this. With that topic in mind, I have designed a survey, which I have embedded below. If you are an ELT teacher who has his/her own blog about language teaching, I would appreciate it if you could spare a few minutes to answer the questions and contribute to my research. And please, spread the word - pass the link on to any ELT bloggers you know!

If you can't see the embedded survey clearly in your browser, please click here to see the full version. Thanks to Martin Sketchley for pointing me in the direction of his post on using Google Forms for the survey - worth a look if you are planning on doing any research of your own. Thanks also to Tyson Seburn and Ceri Jones for their feedback on the questions.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly - Reflection on Another Year in Class

Another year, another set of students passed on to the next year group, another round of reflections… Overall, despite numerous challenges and obstacles along the way (as ever, mainly encountered outside of the classroom), I feel that this year went well for me. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s been one of the best years I’ve had in my teaching career to date. Of course, there were things I could/should have done differently as well so, in contrast to last year’s ‘Year in Reflection’ post, I thought this time I would not only take a look at what went well but also reflect on what didn’t.

No reflection is complete without a look at the good AND the bad… - Image by @mkofab via eltpics

The Good

  • Better Classroom Management

Last year (the 2010-11 academic year) was a struggle for me with some ‘difficult ‘students and classes. This year therefore, I was determined to establish ground rules and lay solid classroom management foundations from the very beginning. A little twist came early in the year as 5 of the 6 classes I was assigned to were classes I had taught before. With some classes, that made things easier of course but with the class I had struggled with, I was concerned that it would be even more of a challenge as they might expect lessons to continue much as they had before.

However, I persevered with my plan to set a few simple rules and then invite the students to add their own and it paid off. We also explicitly discussed what constituted acceptable behaviour for students and teachers and why such things were important in a classroom setting - of course, it helped that these students were a year older (5th Grade, aged 11) and able to think about these issues more rationally than at the start of the previous year but I also think they appreciated just being asked for their opinions.

In general, I also took a more relaxed approach. I showed the students I was willing to bend the school rules to create a better atmosphere in class. The decisions to allow eating of snacks and to play music while students were writing or doing other ‘silent work’ were especially well received and helped foster an environment in which students were relaxed and willing to learn.

  • Less Focus on Materials, More Focus on Students

I’ve always tried to personalise lessons as much as possible, adapting the topic to what my students are interested in or finding a way to make a ‘real world connection’ but, in the past, the lessons themselves were still tied very much to what particular unit of the coursebook we were in. This year, I found myself using my students’ interests and seeking their input as the starting point for lessons rather than an afterthought. This led to some interesting and lively discussions about serious issues such as students’ rights and football-related violence, something I’ve often tried to do with young learners but struggled with, and some wonderfully creative and imaginative descriptions and stories. As my brief at the start of the year was to improve the kids’ speaking and writing skills, moving away from set tasks definitely helped.

I also started to adapt my students’ work, especially their artistic efforts and stories, for use as in-class material. This really helped them see that there was a lot they could learn from each other and gave them a sense of empowerment as they directly contributed to the direction(s) the lessons went in. Of course, we still had to use the books from time-to-time but then, I encouraged them to not take that material so seriously - great for critical thinking skills!

  • More Engagement and Enthusiasm

As a direct result of the two factors mentioned above, there was a marked improvement in the enthusiasm displayed by most of the students and the level of active participation in each lesson. It’s great for any teacher to see kids excited and full of anticipation before the lessons and I experienced that on several occasions this year. I got a real sense that the kids enjoyed their lessons this year but also felt that they were learning something at the same time. Needless to say, I can’t claim that this was true for every single student and there were still discipline issues and demotivated students to deal with but there was definitely a big change compared to last year.

  • Better Building of Relationships

I also felt that I had a very good connection with most of my students this year. They were comfortable about approaching me to ask questions, ask for help, make suggestions or just talk. I always made sure I had time for them both in class and out of it. As I said in my last post, our online activities also helped in this regard as we often ended up extending conversations outside of school hours as well. The relaxed atmosphere in class and the level of personalisation in the lessons (not that we were making any lessons out of truly personal matters of course!) were also big factors in this. I hope I can make similar connections with my future students.

The Bad

  • Timekeeping

This has always been a problem in my teaching and it remains one I have yet to fully resolve. This year, I often found myself in the middle of something when the bell rang and, as I had a different class to rush off to, many activities and lessons were left unfinished or undone. Of course, this is a downside of trying an unplugged-style approach when you only have a 40 minute time slot - the initial discussion, sharing of ideas, brainstorming etc. often takes up half of that time or if the students are really getting into a particular activity and I let it run a bit, we ran the danger of not being able to move on to the next phase in which we would put new language to use or consolidate it. One thing to bear in mind for next year is to set time limits and stick to them (unless something particularly interesting comes up!) and to make sure that whatever we are doing, I use the last 5 minutes to wrap things up properly.

  • Board work

This is another long-standing issue for me. I lack an organised approach to using the board! If you were to see my board at the end of a lesson, you would usually see something that would be very difficult to understand had you not been in the class or it would be blank… That also resulted in my students’ notebooks being a little thin. They did plenty of stories and other writing tasks but they didn’t end up with much in the way of notes to remember the lesson by. There is a clear connection to the timekeeping point here I think - leaving some time to wrap the lessons up in future will also give me time to put useful language and example sentences on the board in a more organised manner for the students to copy down.

  • Feedback and Monitoring

This is always a challenge with classes of 30 students! It’s very easy to get drawn into an extended chat with one student or group while the rest of the class work on individually, wait for your help or just sit idly. Giving on the spot feedback is always problematic with large classes too as there is never enough time to help everyone. These issues really come to the fore when doing extended writing work with large groups. That’s why I am pushing for an extended blogging programme for next year in which we encourage the students to do more written work online. That will help with giving individualised feedback and help and leave more time in class for error correction and awareness-raising activities.

  • Managing the Workload

In the second semester, this started to become a big problem for me as I juggled my teaching schedule, marking, website duties and MA studies. This inevitably led to a slight slip in my own personal standards when it came to my work and also contributed to the loss of momentum I experienced in the spring. I could have made things a lot easier for myself by not leaving tasks to the last minute and saying ‘no’ to the odd extra task or two. At least next year, I won’t have an MA to worry about so that should make things a lot easier.

The Cuddly?

The end of the year was tougher than normal this time. Even though I was the ‘conversation teacher’ only in class for a few lessons a week, these kids had been my students for two years and the fact that they will move to another building in the campus to start 6th Grade next year made saying goodbye hard. As we approached the final week, I realised that it was a sad moment for the kids too as I was increasingly swamped with hugs, goodbye messages, invitations to class end of year parties and presents.

Among those presents came perhaps the most surprising and sweetest one I have ever received - a big teddy bear holding onto a huge heart! The class who gave it to me said “You are a great teacher with a big heart and we love you a lot - that’s why we got this for you”. That made me experience a strange stinging sensation in my eyes coupled with a strange kind of swelling in my throat that I’ve never experienced before in 12 years of teaching… That definitely made for a year of teaching and a great group of kids that I will never forget.


…and the Cuddly! Smile

What about you? Please share your reflections, good and bad, on your academic year.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Working on the Web with Kids - Was it really worth it?

Another teaching year has to come to an end and the corridors of TED Ankara lay silent with the kids on holiday and the teachers mulling around trying to create/avoid things to do (depending on how you look at it). It has been very much a different year for me both in the classroom and out of it and one of the biggest differences has been my involvement with the 5th and 6th Grades’ wiki sites and the introduction of class blogging.

Now is a natural time for reflection and review, especially ahead of considering changes and improvements for next year. As I reflect on how we used the website and the extent to which it helped my students develop their English skills, I can’t help but ask myself “was it all really worth it?”

What a tangled web we weave… especially when kids are involved! Image by jasoneppink

Why it was worth it

In the English department at my school, we often discuss how we can get the students to use the language they learn outside class and how to get them to realise that English is more than just a lesson. In that sense, the wiki was a great way to extend their use of English and learning beyond the classroom walls. I was mindful of avoiding GGF-style activities (glorified gap-fills) and activities that just required students to point and click or guess. Instead, I made an effort to incorporate activities that would involve discussion and sharing of ideas and opinions and interaction between the students. I was also responsive to themes and topics that had arisen in class, tailoring tasks to individual classes with content I knew they would respond to and asking what kind of tasks they would like to see on the wiki.

Video also became a common feature of the wiki, both clips I made myself and clips I made with the students in class. They really enjoyed the stories I made for them and were highly motivated by the possibility of seeing their own dramatic creations on the website too. The use of video made the site much more colourful and engaging than page after page of text-based activities as did the inclusion of student-generated content.

I also found the wiki was a great way to reach out to students and develop better relationships with them. I think this stems from the fact that the pages and tasks that were uploaded to the site were very noticeably my own creations and the students got a real sense of the fact that I was creating these resources for them. Through my videos and personal pages, they also got to know me a lot better despite the fact that they only saw me in class for three hours a week. I can say without a doubt that I had better relationships with my students this year than in previous years and I believe the wiki played a role in that.

It also made my efforts much more visible to the parents and to the senior management staff at my school. I was constantly being thanked and praised for the tasks that were set and the level of personal input from me in creating them and interacting with the students through the comments and responses. For me personally, this was a vindication of what I was doing that was much appreciated.

Why it wasn’t worth it

As ever, there are two sides to every coin and for every benefit brought about by the wiki, there were issues as well. While it is true that the kids enjoyed the personalised activities and the opportunity to contrıbute their own work to the wiki, that only applies to the kids who actually logged on. In each of the 5 classes I taught, I would say that about a third of the students were highly active on the wiki, another third were active some of the time and the rest just simply did not use it. There were various reasons given - one of the main things to look at next year is setting up student accounts as many students had problems registering with pbworks or said they had forgotten their passwords and were unable to reset them. Others just viewed the activities, even the video and discussion-based ones, as extra homework which, as there were no grades given or punishments handed out for not doing them, was not compulsory. So, while I reached a lot of students and formed connections with them, there were others who were unfortunately unreachable.

Another issue was the fact that no classes other than my own were that active on the wiki. Perhaps this is a side effect of my tailoring of activities to suit each class I taught as the other teachers were not doing this. They wanted generic tasks with right/wrong answers and automatic feedback to point their students towards. As that is not what I thought the website should be, they became less keen to work on the wiki and, as a result, so did their classes.

And, although the website earned me more recognition from parents and administrators, it also took up a lot of my time outside of class. Creating, designing and editing the resources and activities was no easy task. I also invested a lot of time in converting student-generated materials to web-based tasks (scanning, video editing etc.) and self-learning useful bits of HTML code to overcome the limitations of the pbworks system. But what did I gain as a result? Praise, recognition and a few motivated students sure but I also lost free time that I could have spent with my family or getting ahead with my studies and no extra compensation, financial or otherwise, for my late nights at the laptop screen. I seriously think this is something that needs to be addressed not just in my school but in education centres around the world in general - having a class or school website is not merely ‘something extra’ that can be knocked together in the odd free teaching hour. To do it right, it takes a lot of time and this should be recognised either with extra pay or reduced teaching hours.

So, was it worth it or not?

I’ve been contemplating this one for the last couple of weeks now and my final answer would have to be yes, it was worth it. The problems I highlighted above about lack of total student and teacher engagement are problems that can be addressed and (hopefully) solved next year (more on my ideas for next years’ changes in a future post). As for the time it takes, that will hopefully be reduced next time as I can work with the same raw materials (self-made videos, Hot Potato exercises, discussion tasks etc.) and adapt them to the needs and interests of my new classes.

And at the end of the day, I’m a sucker for reaching out to and connecting with the kids. Even if it was only some and not all of them, that was enough to have made it worth it. Smile

Sunday, 3 June 2012

A Different Day in the Life of Another ELT Conference Presenter

I emerged from my dissertation reading for a while this weekend to do a workshop session at the METU ELT Convention right here in Ankara. In a blatant rip-off of Adam Simpson's video diary of his in-out-take-no-casualties visit to the conference two days previously, here’s my thoughts on the day as it unfolded.

Thank you to the conference organisers, especially Zeynep Akşit, for a well-run and informative event (even though I only got to see a day of it) and a big geçmiş olsun to Tony Gurr, who, as I later discovered, was missing due to a broken toe.