Thursday, 19 July 2012

Working on the Web with Kids - What does the future hold?

Although I’m not even up to the halfway point in my summer break yet and I still have a dissertation to finish, I can’t help but turn my mind towards the next academic year. This is partly due to forward-planning and also partly due to the amount of uncertainty that surrounds it all. On a local level, there is the shift in focus to ‘CLIL’ (or some illegitimate form of it) that I discussed in my last post and on a national level, there is the Turkish government’s fast-track reform of the school system, known as 4+4+4 due to the redistribution of the year groups across the three-tier system, leaving my status as a 5th grade teacher unclear (technically, 5th grade is no longer the last year of primary school - it is now the first year of middle school… Exactly what that means in terms of changes at classroom level, nobody knows… Confused? Don’t worry - pretty much everybody involved in education in this country is as well!)

Hoping to rise above the clouds - Image by ~FreeBirD®~

Anyway, whether it’s as part of middle school or primary school, I will be working in 5th grade again next year and I will be in charge of the ‘blended learning programme’. Last year, this centred around a wiki site and, with one class, a blogging experiment. I’ve already reflected on what worked and what didn’t on this very blog so I’ll just quickly list some things that need to be improved:

  • Many kids, despite their supposedly inherent teach-savviness,  had trouble registering and logging on to the pbworks site so it needs to be made more accessible.
  • Pbworks (and school policy) didn’t really allow the kids to do much more than write comments making it difficult to encourage them to write more.
  • The class blog I set up as a trial run only had a handful of regular contributors and even then posts were short and lacked substance.

To address the first problem, I insisted on a new letter to parents being drafted. Previously, they just received something a few sentences long stating that we would be using a website as part of the English programme and asking for parental permission along with an email address. Next academic year, this letter will go into a lot more detail explaining why we will be using websites and how it will benefit their child’s English learning experience. It will also include instructions on how to register and set up user accounts, which I will hopefully be allowed to put up on the main school website as well (I might even push my luck and try to get a screencast up there as well!)

As for pbworks, my plan for next year is to have it as more of a starting point. Like last year, we will still have information about the ‘conversation and skills’ programme and extra activities to go with the readers there along with samples of students’ work but this will be more for display purposes. Before we started our summer break, I got permission to expand the blogging programme so each class has their own blog. My intention is that this will be a space in which the students will be responsible for the majority of the content with the teacher merely checking, commenting and generally making sure everything run smoothly.

As I mentioned above, the class blog I had last year kind of lacked direction and there was little incentive for students to write there. As I also mentioned in my last post, we are going to have a lot of work to do come September with a very ambitious syllabus and a new book packed with many activities and projects. I had the idea of trying to kill two figurative birds with one virtual stone by using the blogs as the place for students to do the majority of their written tasks. That way, the reading (and there is a lot of reading in our ‘CLIL’ programme) and discussion activities can be done in class and the written assignments and projects can be set as digital homework. With the parents fully informed and (hopefully) fully on board, the class blogs can become a kind of electronic portfolio where the kids can share their work, comment on each other’s efforts and hopefully add some of their own posts, stories and thoughts as well.

Teacher reluctance to utilise the websites was also a problem last year but I did a good job of persuading my colleagues of the benefits (so good in fact the 4th grade teachers are also keen on setting up class blogs as well). Chief among those, when it comes to written work, are the ability to see homework as and when it is completed and posted instead of having to wait for deadline day, and the easy manner in which feedback can be given. Having written work on the blog also makes it easy to pick out common class errors and focus on them in the classroom.

(Or it could just bomb and be completely ignored but I’m trying to be optimistic!)

The only decision left to make really is which platform to use for the blogs. At the moment, I’m leaning towards either Kidblog, which we used last year, or Posterous Spaces. Both have the advantage of not requiring emails or any kind of registration from the kids. Last year’s class found Kidblog easy to use and were fine with uploading images and embedding videos even without my help. However, the customisation options are quite limited with no options for including blog rolls or different pages beyond each student’s individual blog. Posterous appears to have more options and has the big advantage of students being able to send assignments (including photos and other multimedia if they wish) by email. Through tags, we could also set up pages to collect contributions to each project or assignment together (although teaching 5th graders how to add tags to their emails could be quite a challenge!)

Have you tried to use either of these platforms with your classes before? Or any other ones? Please share any recommendations you have!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Song Remains the Same


That was the buzzword at work in the run up to the holidays. New books were being evaluated and chosen for their CLIL-oriented content, syllabi were being re-written, seminars and workshops were being held and discussions were being had all focusing on this ‘new’ idea (I know it’s been around as a concept in the ELT world for a while of course but it’s new as far as the management goes).

Behind which magic window does the key to teaching English lie? Image by loungerie

Which is all very well except I couldn’t help get the feeling that I had been through this all before: critical thinking; blended learning; Cambridge YLE tests; portfolios; Common European Framework; communicative language teaching - these were all buzzwords (or buzzphrases) in years gone past. We had gone through the same process with them of re-evaluating all the yearly plans and curricula or chucking everything out and then starting again.

But that’s not really what happened now, is it?. All of the books we have used over the years have claimed to fit right in with the latest trends from coursebooks with built-in self-assessment pages and suggested portfolio tasks, or little ‘Cambridge YLE Practice’ stars next to activities, or ‘values’ and ‘real-life connections’ boxes tagged onto the bottom of pages. However, in truth, they were all very similar following a grammar-based syllabus with units themed around fixed vocabulary. As for the classes themselves, there wasn’t much change either. Everything revolved around exams before any changes were made and it still did afterwards. Portfolios were brought in but only focused on written work and just became a way to store the project work that was done before anyway. Speaking activities were much the same standard controlled affairs before and after CLT was the buzzword. Critical thinking was simply equated to end of unit reviews and even then often ignored…

Or, to quote a different song to the one in the title of this post:

It’s all the same, only the names have changed

(Note: double-necked guitars on display in both those clips - cool!)

And I can’t help but feel CLIL will be more of the same. The books that have been chosen to help with the ‘revamped’ skills programme are from the Longman Cornerstone series. The books themselves look decent enough but we are expected to cover them in just two hours a week when the teacher’s guide recommends at least three times as much!

(As a little aside, this is where dogme ELT really does stand out as something different for me - almost every other concept or idea like all those listed above, is easily incorporated into the existing mass-produced material/coursebook-driven system, where as dogme, by its very definition, rejects that… It’ll never catch on! Smile with tongue out)

I’m gonna break my rusty cage and run - Image by bulliver

So what will happen? Instead of exploring themes arising from the book, relating it to the students’ lives and going off on those tangents that can be so rich and really bring a lesson (and learning) to life, teachers will be ‘covering the ground’ as quickly as they can. Topics to focus on and others to skip will be decided on the basis of what will be featured in the exam. Any questions, tasks and quiet moments intended for critical thinking and reflection will be glossed over with a generic ‘ok, everybody got that?’

All of which means, the problems we face now of (some) students being unable to speak beyond short broken sentences or switching off because there’s just too much being covered too quickly will continue. Teaching to the test will be more rife than ever. Most lessons, whether we like it or not, will be teacher-centred. In short, I doubt it will be much like CLIL is supposed to be at all.

There were many discussions and meetings about how to cope with the demands of the new programme but I am never satisfied with those. The things that end up being agreed on often only succeed in making the situation more restrictive as ‘policies’ and ‘standard approaches’ are enforced. Personally, I always resist such restrictions. Suffering under the weight of material to be covered and then policies and guidelines to be followed, all I can think is ‘I Want to Break Free’. After all, we all, as teachers, travel to the beat of a Different Drum.

A nice quote accompanied this photo on flckr: “We all live under the same sky, but we don't all have the same horizon” (Konrad Adenauer) - Image by Norma Desmond

In an ideal world, moments of great creativity can arise when we are placed under severe restrictions and have to improvise to get the job done. In reality, we often just try to crowbar in whatever we can (like someone trying to squeeze song titles and references into a blog post Smile with tongue out). I hope I can achieve the former rather than the latter next year.

All teachers are different, all classes are different and each individual student is different. The sooner we realise that and give the time and space for our learners to grow, the better.