Friday, 25 January 2013

Driving Mr David - The Triple Teaching Engine

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the theory part of my driving school experience has come to an end. It was a pretty intensive few weeks (hence the lack of recent posts on the blog) with 2 hours of class after work and plenty of home study to do. The course was divided into three parts (trafik, first aid, and motor), each with a different teacher. As  a teacher myself, I couldn’t help but cast a critical eye over how they did things and that’s what I will share in this post.

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Motorised learning - Image by Julien Bertrand via Wikimedia commons

Each teacher, of course, had a different approach. There was, however, one trait they shared - they all started by explaining why their particular lesson was the most important part of the course… The traffic teacher pointed out that recognising traffic signs was the driving equivalent of being literate and also that knowing and following the rules of the road would keep us safe. The first aid teacher emphasised that what she would teach us could save lives and not only in the vent of a traffic accident but in other daily life situations as well. The motor teacher took a more immediate practical stance reminding us that the section of the written test he would prepare us for was the most difficult so we should pay careful attention.

In a way, they all had a point but, sitting on the student side of the classroom, it all seemed a little over-stated. As a ‘conversation and skills’ teacher, I have on occasion lectured my students on how important my lessons are, how they offer a chance to really use the language and express themselves… Having had a student’s reaction to that kind of teacher talk, I now think I will refrain in the future!

Onto individual analysis: I have already shared some thoughts on the first teacher, who went over the rules of the road, traffic signs and road safety. In short, he did a good job of presenting the topics and reviewing them but there was a severe lack of interaction of any kind, not even any introductions on the first day.

The first aid teacher somehow managed to be even less interactive. Despite her claims about how important her lesson was, she whipped through the topics very quickly and each day, we finished the lessons (scheduled for two hours) anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes early (and that was with late starts and over-long tea breaks as well). All of this led to students not really taking the lesson seriously and it was no surprise that this was the most sparsely attended part of the course with only 4 or 5 students out of 12 present most days. The only practical part of the course came when we were asked one by one to perform CPR on a dummy. “You’re pushing on the chest too hard” was the only feedback given, ignoring the fact that the dummy was on a soft stretcher positioned at waist height rather than on a hard ground surface as would be the case should this skill ever be needed. No practical examples meant a lot of the explanations about stopping bleeding and treating broken bones went over my head and the heads of the other students as well.

After that experience, I expected the motor lessons to be even worse - most likely, out-of-date examples of engines from older cars and lots of technical questions that serve little practical use I though. I was right too!However, there was a crucial difference that made this part of the course better than the others - the teacher.

First of all, he asked us about ourselves at the start of the first lesson - our names, occupations, where we were from and why we wanted to learn to drive. After two weeks, my course mates were surprised to learn that I was not Turkish but foreign (shocking that we hadn’t learned basic things about each other but also reassuring that when I had spoken up in class in previous weeks my use of my second language hadn’t obviously marked me out as a yabancı). I also found out that one of the younger people in the class was training to be an English teacher, which opened up a whole avenue of tea break chats that hadn’t been there before (of course, we could have found this out ourselves but, with little to no interaction in the previous weeks, most people had spent the breaks looking at their phones).

Learning about how a car engine works was also quite complicated and a lot of the students, myself included, were apprehensive about it. The teacher did his best to put our minds at ease by giving us plenty of hints and strategies for the test, pointing out that the multi-choice answer was often obvious as long as you know the basic parts of an engine. He also used some very good daily life metaphors such as comparing the fuel ignition to a stove or the fuel filter to a coffee filter, which facilitated easier understanding.

This teacher was also the only one to give us work to do in class. This provided a nice way to break up the lesson and also to give immediate feedback about what we had understood both to ourselves and the teacher.

One more thing I liked was his willingness to seek feedback. During tea breaks, he would ask me, as an educator, what I thought of his teaching style. He also had a survey ready on the final day about the course and himself as a teacher. I told him that whatever I felt I would do differently was not that important but the fact that he was interested in asking students’ opinions and improving himself was. His colleagues could do with following his lead…

Friday, 11 January 2013

How I Did Test

There have been a few changes at my workplace this year and one of them is that I am now in charge of the ‘conversation and skills’ programme in the 5th grade, meaning I oversee things like the class blogs, project assignments and testing.

This is something quite new for me as I had never written a ‘proper’ test in my twelve years as a language teacher (I say ‘proper’ as I have made short tests for things like vocabulary and spelling before and I have also had my students make their own mini tests but this is the first time I have been asked to prepare a test that all students in the year group will take). As long-term readers of my blog may remember, I had some issues with the assessment that was done last year, particularly the listening tests which were not relevant to the course and ended up demotivating some students. Having also recently read and enjoyed James Taylor’s (aka @theteacherjames) post How I Would Test, I though I should use the opportunity to do something different.


If life is an open book, why not assessment as well? Image by muffin9101985

Now, I did not do anything radically different like having the students do the test in groups or rip pages/questions out of the test paper as any such sudden shift would be too extreme (and I also had to take the fact that other teachers would administer this test with their classes and might not be willing to go along with a turn-it-upside-down approach). I did, however, use the chance to make a few changes in the preparation and administration of the test to make it a less stressful and more productive experience for my learners.

First of all, as it had been suggested by those higher up that we do a reading test, I decided to base it on two texts we had read in class this semester and then insisted it be in open book format. Granted, that might not seem very radical but for the school I work in it is! Students, especially in the middle school, are regularly tested on passages from their coursebooks and also entire readers without being allowed to refer to the book during the exam. The have to memorise the content/plot, information about the protagonists/characters and all the vocabulary as well. I have always thought this is asking too much.

The were some voices against the idea. “It will be too easy for them,” was one. “They will just copy answers from the book,” was another. Also heard were “they won’t bother to study”, “that defeats the point of having a test” and “they might fill their books with cheat notes”.

As ever, I had a few answers for those. First of all, when did tests become something that should be difficult? Surely, they should be aimed at the right level depending on the age and language ability of the students.

As for copying answers, making cheat notes and not bothering to study, I emphasised that this test would not be one that asked the students to produce facts and direct quotes from the book. Instead, it would be one that required them to make inferences, offer opinions and generally process the information from the text. In that case, an open book format is the only fair option.

And if we want to talk about the ‘point’ of testing, I guess it depends what the ‘point’ is. One of my duties in class this year has been to improve the students’ abilities to think critically and creatively and to explore deeper issues in texts rather than just scraping basic information off the surface. An open book test with appropriate questions offered the best way to assess their development in those areas.

I also included a section on vocabulary that had come up in the texts (the book presents between 4 and 6 ‘key words’ with each text). Here, I brought the students in and asked them to write their own vocab questions for the test. They worked in groups to do this, producing various questions such as gap-fills, multi-choice and definitions. We then edited and revised them, rejecting ones that were too easy or too hard and then making a decision together on which ones might be included. I didn’t use all of them, instead saying I would choose 10 questions from the list of about 20 we had drawn up so they still wouldn’t know exactly what was coming (in the interests of fairness, I supplied the same list to my colleagues so they could use them for revision in their own classes).

I firmly believe that getting students to write questions is a powerful way to get them engaged and learning. They went through the vocabulary in fine detail in order to write the questions and got a lot out of the editing and revision process too. And shouldn’t tests and test prep be part of the learning process, something that helps the students consolidate and expand what they know? Activities such as this really help them do that.

And so, the test day came and the students were ready with their books (well, most of them - there were a few in each class who, either because of conditioning or the fact that they really don’t listen, had left their books in their lockers or, even worse, at home). But I wasn’t finished there. I told each of my classes as I gave them the test that each student had the right to ask three questions. They could ask for the answer to one difficult question they were stuck on, the meaning of one ‘key word’ they were unsure about and they could ask me whether or not one answer they were unsure about was right.

Why did I do this? First of all, to reduce stress. It’s happened to all of us at some point I’m sure that we get hung up on one difficult question or word in a test and then hit a brick wall. By offering the students the chance to ask me for help, they could jump over that brick wall and get on with the rest of the test. It also encouraged them to look at the questions carefully and critically assess their suitability and difficulty. There was no point asking me for the answer to an opinion quest,on, for example, and, as they could only ask each question once, they had to choose carefully making sure there wasn’t another more difficult question or word they might need to ask about. As it turned out, many of the students didn’t ask me anything at all, saying they didn’t feel the need to!

By doing everything this way, I feel that the students were more involved in the test and less stressed about it. We were also able to stay true to our yearly objectives of going beyond mere comprehension and improving the students’ critical thinking skills, while at the same time satisfying the expectation/demand of a sit-down pencil-and-paper test. Changing those expectations is something to slowly tackle in the future.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Driving Mr David - First Lessons

We sat in the classroom waiting. Apart from a few muttered ‘good evenings’ as people came in, nobody was talking much. We were all there for the same purpose, learning to drive, but we were all very different - young university students, older retired ladies, bikers looking to get the ‘B’ licence for automobiles… and me, a 34 year-old foreigner with no idea what to expect.

The room itself was fairly small with about 15 chairs, a small whiteboard and a somewhat obtrusive overhead projector in the middle of the floor. There was writing on the board detailing the programme over the next three weeks of the course (one week of trafik, one week of first aid, and one week of mötor) and the written exam date with a message reading ‘write this down’ next to it all. Some of us started to write as soon as we sat down, others chose not to.


Looks good but it’s still old school & traditional - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

At 6 o’clock on the dot, the teacher came in. He was an older man of about 50 and his entrance to the room had an air of authority about it. He then introduced himself, revealing that he was a former school teacher who had retrained as a driving instructor after retiring. The TEFL part of me then anticipated him asking us to introduce ourselves in some way so I started to formulate what I would say in my head, not wanting my second language to come stumbling over my tongue.

Ah, but of course, this was not a TEFL classroom, was it? Following his introduction, our teacher launched into his first topic, ‘What is traffic?’ Before long, we were onto the next topic, definitions of various kinds of vehicles and transport. As I listened, I couldn’t help but look around the room and wonder who the other people were, the people I would share a classroom space with every evening for the next three weeks. Over the years, I have become accustomed to the language learning environment, which is (or at least should be) a communicative social space. I guess driving, by contrast, is a much more anti-social activity (any observation of the way different drivers interact with each other is more than enough to confirm that!)

Also, by this point, the exam had already been mentioned several times with references to ‘this topic regularly comes up on the test’ and ‘you might be asked a question like this’. Much as my experiences in getting all the paperwork together taught me, this whole ‘learning experience’ is to a great extent about going through the motions and getting things done just to show that they have been done.

Having said all that, it wasn’t all bad. I was surprised at the ease with which I was able to follow the lesson with only a few words coming up that I didn’t previously know and was unable to work out from context (applying some of those strategies I try to train my students in definitely helped). The teacher in me couldn’t help but make some observations about my own teacher though and I shall wrap up this post with those:

Things I would do differently

  • Introductions - ok, this is not a language course and getting to know each other does not help with passing the exam in anyway but I still feel that it would have helped establish a more relaxed atmosphere in the class.
  • More interaction - most of the lessons so far have been lecture format but there have been a few questions thrown our way. Nobody seems particularly keen to answer, however. Again, this comes back to the above point. Had we talked a little at the start of the first class, we may have felt more at ease in answering and asking questions later on. Likewise, had we been asked more frequently, we might have been more responsive rather than being caught off guard.
  • Coloured board markers - that may sound like nit-picking but I think red and green are pretty important colours to use in a traffic lesson and blue could be useful for some signs too. As it was, everything was in black with the teacher commenting on what colour it should be.
  • Better equipment - ok, so this one has little to do with the teacher and more to do with the school but the use of an OHP was problematic as the projected image was too large for the board and, in our small room, much of the information was obscured anyway by the projector itself. A computer and a ceiling or table mounted projector would be much less obtrusive.

Things I would keep the same

  • Reviewing and previewing - the teacher has started each lesson so far by summarising the previous day’s topics and explaining the objectives for the current class. I have found this incredibly useful, especially in my situation as a non-native speaker of Turkish.
  • Explanations - again, this has been very helpful for me but the teacher explains a lot of the vocabulary that comes up. He does this because we need to know the exact definitions of, for example, various types of transport and different kinds of road in case such a question comes up in the exam. For the other students, it may seem like he is stating the obvious but this has been invaluable to me.
  • Concept checking - the majority of questions he asks (though rarely so) are designed to ensure we have understood correctly. Again, this on the spot review has helped me even if I haven’t provided a response myself.

Next time - a few reflections on what I have noticed about myself so far both as a learner and a teacher.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Driving Mr David - Red Tape, White Paper & Rubber Stamps

The first lesson of my driving course started this week but the whole process actually began a couple of months ago as I experienced one of Turkey’s favourite ‘old school’ things - bureaucracy. Official paperwork and plenty of it is required for all sorts of things here that we often take for granted in the UK and elsewhere such as getting for a passport (foreign embassies even get in on the act with all the stuff they make Turkish nationals produce for visas), applying for a job or starting a driving course. And just producing the paperwork is not enough - the notary office is alive and well here and so everything needs to be checked, signed, counter-signed and rubber stamped. Throw in being a foreign national to the mix and you’ve got quite a lot of red tape to deal with!

You’ll need these for the first stage of learning to drive, Turkish style! Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

The easiest item to get hold of was six passport size photos. As they are needed for almost everything and anything official here, it’s easy to find a place that can give you tens or even hundreds of photos in about 20 minutes. Alas, that was as easy as it got.

Next up, I had to undergo a medical to prove I was physically fit to drive. This involved an orthopaedic examination, nose and throat inspection (I have no idea why!), and a vision and hearing test (makes more sense). This gave me my first glimpse into how the ‘system’ works. The orthopaedic exam involved the doctor asking me whether or not I had any limbs or digits missing, after which he signed the form. The other doctors actually shone lights inside my head and had me respond to visual and audio stimuli but all in a very quick manner. While having my eyes tested, it became clear that I desperately needed new contact lenses as I could barely make out even the second row of letters. That worried me for a second but then the doctor said it was all fine and approved my report! So it seemed this medical assessment, much like the assessment we see in schools all too often, was just done to say it had been done. Any problems were ignored and no recommendations were made (like getting a new lens prescription, something I have since sorted out myself).

The other paperwork required was a copy of my ID (in this case my passport and residence permit) and a copy my highest level educational qualification. Normally, that would be easy enough but there was a catch. As my passport and university certificate are in English, I had to get them translated, and not just any translation job either. I had to go to a yeminli tercuman (literal translation: a ‘sworn’ translator), that being someone who is officially authorised to swear that the translation is accurate before taking it to the notary office to be rubber stamped. What made this especially perplexing in that way that only bureaucracy can be was the fact that I have to submit my passport and university certificate every year for my residence permit to be renewed and I have never been asked for translated versions. Yet, for some unknown reason, it was a requirement here.

And so, after paying for an official sworn translation (during which I had to help the translator do his job…) I went to the noter. That was like stepping back in time - an office filled wall-to-wall with filing cabinets and old paper dossiers. After asking several times, a grumpy old man begrudgingly took my papers, signed them without really looking at them and gave me the all important rubber stamp.

One last item remained - the sabıka kaydı, meaning an official document obtained from the Ankara Adalet Sarayı (‘Palace of Justice’ - love that literal translation!) to prove I have no criminal record (in Turkey at least). That was a day-long adventure in itself requiring me to write an official request stating for what purpose I wanted my background checked (in an equally ridiculous and helpful way, there is whole mini industry that sprouts around these things meaning you can purchase a standard copy of this letter from a guy on the street nearby, fill in your name and the date and then hand it in). Luckily, this is one place where computers do exist and it only took a quick search of the police database to prove I was squeaky clean (it seems my first six months of working here illegally back in 2000 was not recorded). Unfortunately the quickness of this phase of the paper trail was somewhat negated by the fact that I had to wait in a queue for two hours beforehand. But wait! Not done yet! I then had to go and see an official looking gentleman who needed to double check and rubber stamp my paper. That was an experience in itself as I witnessed his luxury leather arm pad, fine gold-plated pen and possibly one of the most beautiful signatures I have ever seen - impressive dedication considering he was to produce that signature thousands of times a day (personally, my signature quickly degenerates to a squiggle when I have to apply it many times in succession such as with end of term reports).

And finally, after using several Wednesday afternoons (when I could have been joining #ELTchat), it was done and I took it all to one of the many Ministry of Education approved driving schools (yes, this is all done under official auspices). I had to hand it all in 4 weeks before the course began. Why? Well, because all those rubber stamps and signatures had to be checked and double-checked of course! Only once that was done could I officially begin. After that, learning to drive will be a piece of cake!

So, paper is very much alive and well here as are official rules and regulations. This all serves to give me the impression that my learning experience will be somewhat rigid and a case of ‘covering the syllabus’ more than anything else. But how else could it be? A dogme approach to driving might be taking it a step too far!

Next time - the first theory lesson. How does it compare to the ELT classroom? What will we do as an introductory ‘warmer’? All that and more in the next post…

Returning to Learning - Driving Mr David

Between the summers of 2009 and 2012, I was doubling up as both a teacher in the language classrooms of TED Ankara College and a distance MA student at the University of Manchester. During that time, I started this blog, hence the title which sits at the top of the page.

Having completed my studies last August, receiving my results (pass with distinction!) last November and graduating (albeit in absentia) last December, I was starting to wonder if the ‘Learner’ part of the title was a bit redundant (‘lifelong learner’ has never sat easy with me - it’s just one of those catchy terms that seems to be used as a blanket cover for things that are a normal part of life from improving professionally to making changes to acquiring new skills). However, fate or, perhaps more truthfully, time has thrown me a fresh opportunity to learn, a new chance to occupy the student’s role and view education from the other side… But, no, this is not a ‘language teacher learning a foreign language’ kind of thing (although I do find such posts interesting). My new learning experience will involve me acquiring an important everyday skill and doing something I should have done a long time ago…

I’m going to learn to drive…. and I’m going to be doing it in Turkish!!!

I shall resist the temptation to insert a ‘crash course’ pun here - Image by @senicko via eltpics

Why now?

Well, my wife is currently pregnant with the baby due in late March. After that, someone will need to run our (soon to be) eldest son to school and run other four-wheeled errands. Plus, at 34 years old, telling people I can’t drive is getting a bit embarrassing…

Why not before?

I have all my excuses lined up (they’ve become second nature over the years!) When I turned 17 (the legal age for driving in the UK) my final year of high school was just starting and I wanted to concentrate on my exams. I figured I wouldn’t get the chance to actually use or own a vehicle until after university so why bother? Then, of course, I got the TEFL bug after graduating and figured I would learn when I returned home after a few years teaching abroad. I never returned home, as you know, and it remained on my things to do list for a long time (too long you might say).

Why blog about it?

Good question (even if I did pose it myself!) What relevance to teaching does me sitting behind the wheel of a specially designed car with an instructor next to me and finally doing something I should have done long ago have to what I do professionally?

Well, I could just say “it’s my blog” but that wouldn’t entice many to read now, would it? The truth is there are several reasons why I want to blog about this. First of all, I’m going to be utilising my second language skills in order to learn how to drive as the entire course, all the driving instruction and the tests will be done in Turkish, making this like the ultimate CLIL course! Not only will I be taking in all this new information but I’ll be processing it and formulating my responses and questions in Turkish. I am hoping this will lead to increased concentration on my part, somewhat like those crazy chess-boxer guys (click here if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Secondly, I am, for the first time ever, going to experience the Turkish education system from the student’s perspective. Sure, I’ve taught here for a long time but I like to think my lessons are a little bit different to the accepted norm. Now I will be in the student’s seat. The thing is, learning to drive here is a not the same as the the UK (and I dare say, a few other countries as well). Over the next 4 weeks, I will spend all my ‘learning’ time in the classroom as I take a theoretical course. We will learn about the rules of the road, traffic signs, parts of an engine, first aid and all that kind of stuff. There will then be a written test after which I can finally get behind the wheel of a car and do some ‘practical’ learning. The more astute of you can maybe see parallels with more traditional approaches to language learning i.e. grammar first and worry about the ‘useful’ stuff later.

Thirdly, I think this makes an interesting twist on the whole ‘teacher as learner’ post series we see in the ELT blogosphere every so often. As we all know, teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life and there is always something useful to observe and reflect on in any situation. And finally, it’s my blog so… ;-)

Wish me luck!