Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Reflecting on a Bright Start

It was 3.15pm. The dreaded Friday Lesson 8 was about to start. I stood in the corridor bracing myself for a room of impatient young learners, unable to sit down, focus or stay on task as the end of a long first week back at school was finally in sight. As the bell rang, I drew a deep breath and opened the door...

The usual cry of "öğretmen geldi!!!" ("the teacher's here!") went up as I walked in and then... everyone stood behind their desks and waited quietly...

"Good afternoon," I said.

"Good afternoon, Mr Dodgson," came the reply.

"Ok, today you will need your notebooks and a pencil," I informed them, expecting a rush of children to start squashing each other against the lockers at the back of the class.

Nobody moved.

"Where are your notebooks?" I asked.

"Here, teacher," said one girl pointing to her desk. "Of course," she added "because you said we need our notebooks every lesson."


A completely flipped experience compared to last year... Image by @pacogascon via eltpics

For a second or two I wondered where I was. Last year (as you may know from my recent post), it would have taken 10 minutes just to get most of the class's attention with threats of extra homework or promises of games and/or videos at the end of the lesson offered along the way to get anything done on Friday afternoon. And yet, here were my new class, ready to start a lesson just like any other.

We then proceeded to do the lesson I had in mind with hardly a student off task or any hint of the madness I had come to expect last year along the way.

In truth, I shouldn't have been so surprised as this rounded off quite a calm first week in which I got to know my new classes well - we had discussed class rules, expectations for the course, introduced the class blogs and Class Dojo, and generally set up a positive tone which I hope will continue throughout the year.

There was only one 'moment' in the entire week that tested my class discipline skills. That came on Thursday when I entered one class and the students were all over the place, talking, shouting, screaming, throwing paper planes and, in a couple of cases, assuming I didn't know Turkish and greeting me in a manner not really appropriate for students addressing a teacher. I just told myself to remain calm and waited for the students to settle down. When that didn't happen, I went to the teacher's desk and told everyone to take thier seats.

"But wait - not you," I said to one girl who had just addressed me as abi (a very much informal Turkish term meaning 'big brother' used when addressing men outside the family but not really acceptable when talking to a teacher). "And not you," I said to a boy who had been literally crawling all over the floor as I waited to start the class. This was repeated until I had singled out 8 students who had not been ready. I asked them to recite the class rules we had agreed upon the previous day and reminded them they should show me the same respect that they would to any other teacher. I then awarded all the other students a point on Class Dojo but informed those students that they couldn't have one - all done without any shouting or even a raised voice (not just from me - last year, it was my students who would have been shouting and complaining at this stage). I then noted their names and informed them I wouyld be watching their behaviour for the rest of the week closely.

The rest of the lesson passed without incident and the next day, the whole class was ready before the bell even rang. That lesson also passed pleasantly and at the end of it, I queitly called those students whose names I had taken the previous day and let them see that I was erasing their names from my list. There was relief and thanks all round and, for now at least, all is well.

If I can solve every 'issue' in a similar way this year, I will be a very happy teacher.

And Friday evening was a treat. I relaxed at home with my family. No stress, no headache, no despair, no complaints to subject everyone to at the dinner table. I hadn't had a post-school Friday like that for quite some time. Here's hoping it's the first of many. :)

Monday, 16 September 2013

An open letter to my new students

Dear new student,*

Hello and welcome to my class. I will be your English Skills teacher this year and I hope we will have a productive and fun year together. We will work on not only your ability to communicate in English but also reflect on how you learn and learn a lot about the world around us and life in general too.

I’m writing this because there are a few things I want to draw your attention to before we begin - about me, about you and about our lessons. If we can discuss and think about these things now, I’m sure everything will go smoothly and we will have a positive shared learning experience.

Hoping for a golden year… Image by @purple_steph via eltpics

  • I’m not your old teacher

Maybe your English teacher last year, or another English teacher before that, was an insufferable bore or an angry cruel fire-breathing dragon. Perhaps your previous teachers were soft like a big fluffy teddy bear and every lesson was playtime with optional work. Or maybe, your old teacher was highly energetic and entertaining or really kind and loveable. Well, whatever your old teacher was like, I am not her/him. I may seem nicer, or perhaps stricter. I may demand more from you in the classes or I may give you a lighter workload. Perhaps I will appear funnier than your old teacher or you will sigh and miss the in-jokes you used to have with whoever was there before. Please, don’t judge me by your old teacher. All of that doesn’t matter. If you give me a chance, you’ll see that my lessons are different and that I will give you a voice in my class as much as possible.

  • I am your teacher

I have worked at this school for over ten years now. It’s quite possible that I may have taught your elder brother or sister in the past, or your cousin, or your neighbour or your friend from the school bus. They may have said my lessons are great, fun, interesting, boring or awful. That’s all in the past. I don’t teach them anymore. I teach you and every class I teach is different. I change what I do depending on what you and your classmates respond to. I don’t go seeking out your old teacher’s opinions about you and, even if they do tell me something good or bad, I give you a chance to show me who you are with an open mind. I just ask that you do the same.

  • We can have fun and work hard at the same time!

We will read stories in my class. These stories are exciting and enjoyable but you will still need to work hard to understand the plot and complete the tasks I set you. We will discuss things and speak a lot in my class. These discussions may be interesting and/or funny but they are also important for improving your ability to communicate and express yourself and that requires more hard work. We will write in my class. You may think ‘oh no!’ but writing can be fun too! We will also watch videos and play games but not just for fun. We will do these things because they can help you learn better. All of these things go hand-in-hand. When we have fun, we also need to work hard and when we are working hard, we can still have fun, as long as you have a positive attitude.

  • My lesson is assessed, just like all the others

My lesson might be different to your other ones. Perhaps your other teachers will lecture more and give you more notes to copy and worksheets to complete. I will try to get you involved in presentations and discussions as much as possible, I will not ask you to write reams of notes in your books every lesson and I will give you some different tasks to do such as projects, posters and videos. However, this doesn’t mean my lesson is in some way less serious. You will still have exams based on my classes and assessed projects to complete. I will also be assessing your speaking skills as that is one of the main things we focus on. And all of this goes on your report card with the exact same weighting as grades for your other lessons. So please make sure you study for the tests and work hard for the projects and speaking tasks.

  • A little effort goes a long way

Maybe that all sounds quite tough but it is never as difficult as it seems. You may worry that I speak English much more than any other teacher you have had before or that I always ask you questions with no clear cut right or wrong answers… but there is no need to worry. With a little effort, you will realise that you can converse with me and express your own ideas in what is for you a foreign language. Just be patient, give it time and don’t worry about being able to do and understand everything the first time we try it. Life isn’t like that, so my lessons won’t be like that either.

Our journey is just beginning. Let’s get started together. Smile


Your new teacher,

Mr Dodgson

*Of course, I won’t actually be handing my students this letter to read but it provided a good outlet for what I am thinking at the new teaching year begins!

**And, in case you had forgotten, I should point out that these students are 11-12 years old in the 5th Grade of the Turkish schooling system.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Some things to look forward to…

Having finally done some reflective thinking regarding last year’s teaching experiences (Part I here and Part II here), I have now turned my thoughts to the year that lies ahead. There will be the usual round of changes and things that stay the same so here’s a quick list of what I’m looking forward to:

Looking up… - Image by @acliltoclimb via eltpics

  • A streamlined programme - last year we were somewhat overloaded with teaching materials and things to ‘cover’. Thankfully, my colleagues and I successfully made our case that ‘less is more’ and so we will use the same course book (Cornerstone) but without the activity book and the 100+ page Fun for Flyers has been replaced by a book with four sample tests allowing us to revert to a more unplugged, Lessons of the Fly approach.
  • An official exam - no more ‘quizzes’ or mini-tests. We will now have one full-on exam each semester and a corresponding official grade on the report card, all of which we help add a bit of weight to our ‘English Skills’ classes.
  • More project work - in addition to the test, there will be assigned project work to do, which will also be used as part of the students’ formative assessment, something I’ve been pushing for for a while.
  • Student blogs - these were well-received last year and the programme will be expanded with more classes this year.
  • A projection screen that students can see! - The projectors in class have been shifted to point into the middle of the board, viewable by all students, rather than projecting onto a screen in the corner of the class next to the window.
  • Online projects - I will be active online a lot this year. As well as expanding the class blogging programme and doing online classes with students in other branches of my school, I have webinars coming up and a new blog project about gaming in ELT. Watch this space!

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Longview II - Back on track & moving forward

Having laid out the trials and tribulations of the last academic year in my previous post, it’s time to continue the reflective journey. Thinking about what happened in class is all well and good, thinking about why things happened the way they did is even better but to truly gain any benefit from such a thought process, it is necessary to use those reflections to better prepare for future classroom encounters…

The journey continues… - Image by @sandymillin via eltpics

So, based on last year’s experiences, I have identified the following things to change, improve and/or think about for the year ahead:

  • The crucial first week

    This year, I aim to get my lesson programme off to the best start possible. That may sound incredibly obvious but I think that last year I spent a bit too much time on personal introductions and class rules and not enough time on going over course objectives and expectations. I will have four hours with each class in that first week (barring any first week interruptions of course) so in addition to the usual ‘getting to know each other’ activities and negotiating class rules, I have prepared an overview of the course covering what we will do in our regular lessons, how my lessons will be assessed and what the expectations are regarding homework, class blogs and project work. I guess I always considered my 11 year-old students a bit young for this kind of thing in the past but I think it will be useful to do this and have a Q&A about the course rather than adding in extra elements later on.

  • Going beyond simply setting rules

    Somewhat ironically considering the problems I would ultimately have, I gave a webinar on behalf of the British Council’s TeachingEnglish website last year on classroom management. As I explained how I set some simple rules for the class and then have them set some additional rules of their own, there was a very good suggestion from one of the teachers in attendance - why not get the class to discuss and decide on consequences as well? If a student consistently breaks the rules, they should be aware of what will happen and that should be something the class agrees on. Also, they can decide on consequences for positive behaviour such as a game, a short video or a little free time. Obviously, careful moderation would be needed to avoid ridiculous punishments or exaggerated rewards but this should add to the students’ feelings of being involved in the learning process and an awareness of the consequences of their actions, good and bad,may cause them to think twice before they do or say something out of turn.

  • Expect the unexpected

    A big headache last year came with all the chopping and changing that went on in the first few weeks as the curricular changes at both a national and school level, combined with regular timetable adjustments, meant chaos reigned. There are further changes to be implemented this year so it is best to be aware of them, to be prepared for anything over the opening period of the semester and to ensure that my students are ready to expect the unexpected as well.

  • Bringing a few things in earlier

    Last year, I tried to bring in different elements of the English skills programme slowly, first starting with regular lessons, then introducing the online component and adding some extra elements later on. Alas, this seemed to have the effect of (for some students at least) some elements of the course not being taken seriously: when class blogs were introduced, some students never even registered for them; some students took project work too lightly even though it was assessed; some were taken aback when they realised they had an exam for my class; and some simply didn’t respond to any attempts to reinforce class rules and classroom management strategies… So, this year, I will set a class blog task in the first week, making it clear that this is a compulsory component of the course and will be used as a vehicle for homework assignments. The exam dates and assessed project topics have been set and will be shared with the students in the first week. And finally, a discovery I made midway through the last academic year that helped in at least some classes will be put to use from the moment the class rules, consequences and rewards have been decided upon: Class Dojo.

  • Prevention is the best cure

    This year, I am determined and ready to prevent problems before they begin. The activities for the first week and the discussion about class rules and consequences I have set out above will be part of that. I will also be seeking out the students’ teachers from previous years so I can be aware of any serious behaviour issues, making an effort to ensure the conversation stays focused on how to deal with issues when they arise and what best works for keeping the student engaged rather than giving anyone the chance for a good old moaning session! I will also be demanding contact details for parents (especially email as I can then make sure they are connected to their child’s Class Dojo account) so I can contact directly them in the event of any problems or issues that they should be aware of.

  • Being better informed
    In addition to knowing about potential behaviour issues with my new students, I will also be making an effort to keep track of any events that occur during the year that may affect the way my classes act. An awareness of things like exam dates and assignment deadlines for other lessons will help me ensure I don’t overload them with other tasks and also allow me to do some ‘lighter’ activities around those times. Also (although these can be sensitive issues) being in the loop regarding changes affecting individual students can help - such as last year when a little sensitivity shown towards one girl whose parents were away on business for an extended period went a long way towards improving her attitude towards me and my lessons in general.

Hopefully, the above ideas, coupled with a bit of flexibility and the ability to react to the individual nature of each class/student, will make this year better than the last one. Of course, there will be a healthy dose of reflection on how well these ideas worked along the way as well… Winking smile

Friday, 6 September 2013

The Longview I - Reflecting on the last year…

It’s been a while… A while since I last blogged, a while since the last academic year finished and a while since I last engaged in some external reflection. As a look around this blog will reveal, I am a teacher who places great value on reflecting on experiences in the classroom, identifying what worked well, what didn’t and why, and where to go from there. However, those reflections don’t always need to be made in the immediate aftermath of the lesson itself. Sometimes, taking a little time (or, as some may say in this case, a lot of time!) to reflect on events is very much a worthwhile task, which allows us to focus on the bigger picture….

The longview… Image by @hoprea via eltpics

Last year was a strange one for me, very much a year of ups and downs, achievements and struggles. Away from work, it was a fantastic year as my wife and I welcomed a new baby boy to the family and celebrated our tenth anniversary. I also successfully passed my MA course and the Turkish driving test, both with flying colours. At work but outside the classroom, it was a good year too. In addition to the MA, I received a special award for ten years’ service at my school and was officially placed in charge of the English programme in my year group and the student blogging programme in the whole department.

Alas, when we come to the main focus of any teacher’s job, what went on in the classroom, it was a very different story… A year of struggles, problems, headaches a frustrations… A huge part of the problem was behaviour as I was faced with several students with little or no regard for school rules, little or no respect for each other and their teachers and seemingly no care or fear of any consequences. As a result, I found myself constantly dealing with fights, bullying, physical and verbal abuse (I now have an extensive knowledge of Turkish swear words!) and students who were either unwilling or unable to accept that what they were doing was wrong.

I have had ‘difficult’ students before and ‘challenging’ classes but they were limited in number, perhaps one or two students in class who, with time and patience, were able to show improvement, or a class which I was eventually able to inject with some enthusiasm for learning. Last year’s classes were something else though…Of the six classes I had, there were major difficulties with five of them at some point in the year (and throughout the year with two of them). The one or two students per class I mentioned above became six or seven students in these groups and I can honestly say four of the most challenging students I have ever met, I met last year.

I’m not just talking about kids who couldn’t sit still or were loud attention seekers either. I can’t go into too many specifics without breaching my school policy but these were kids who were at times violent, often reused to join any tasks, deliberately disruptive and completely unaware/ disrespectful of any boundaries.

Over the course of the year, it all took its toll. I found there were some classes I really didn’t look forward to walking into and hoping that we could get through the 40 minutes without any major incidents started to take precedence over learning objectives. After work, I just wanted to forget about it (hence the lack of blog posts over recent times) and it’s only now that I have started to look back and see what I can learn from the whole experience.

Looking back… - Image by Giselle Santos via eltpics

My starting point what to go beyond what went wrong and think about why the year passed the way it did. I identified numerous factors, some of which were (or should have been) under my control and some of which were not. Of the factors beyond my control, there was the fact that last year saw a shake up of the education system in Turkey, with 5th grade (the grade I work in) changing from the final year of primary school to the first year of middle school. In order to minimise the impact on the kids, it was decided that they should remain in the same classes (they usually get placed into new classes when they enter middle school). However, under the new system, they no longer had a ‘class teacher’, that is one teacher who taught them core subjects like Turkish, Match and Social Studies and was also responsible for the class. Instead, they had individual teachers for each lesson with no single teacher being in charge.

The class teachers have always been the first port of call when a branch teacher is having difficulties with a class or a particular student and in most cases, working together, the problem can be solved. However, last year, that support suddenly disappeared. There was no ‘authority figure’ that the students respected above all others and that made dealing with in-class incidents very difficult.

Also, the changes in the education system meant there were lots of other changes and teething problems at the start of the school year. Lesson schedules, allocation of hours to each subject and classrooms were constantly being changed and took a couple of months to sort out, which created a lot of uncertainty for teachers and students alike.

As for what I could have done differently, well, there is the thing I tell myself every year, that I should consistently apply class rules and my classroom management strategies from the start. At the start of the year, I was guilty of not taking immediate action over certain incidents, partly due to the changes and uncertainty explained above, but also because I thought I could try to contain and solve the problem by myself. As a result, I called parents in to explain the problems we were having in class perhaps too late.

There was also an element of unpreparedness. I told my colleagues who had taught these classes previously that I didn’t want too many details about potential problems and things to look out for as I didn’t want to be prejudiced in any way before even entering the class. However, with hindsight I can see there were some serious pre-existing issues with certain students and it may have served me better to have advanced knowledge of them and be prepared.

Finally, I may have taken a few things for granted. In the past, I have always striven to catch students’ interest by personalising topics and making the lessons engaging for them and I have always waited to reap the classroom management benefits of having enthusiastic students. Alas, that alone is not always enough. While focusing on engaging the students early in the year, I neglected to establish class routines and realistic expectations for my lessons. Expectations wise, I suffered as students thought my skills-based lessons would just be ‘fun’ and then reacted adversely to hard work. I also had to battle against pre-conceptions based on their previous teachers who it would seem were more willing to use Turkish in class than I am and were less demanding in terms of in-class activities, project work and class blogging. If I had shown more awareness of this, I could have made life in the classroom much easier.

Looking on the bright side - Image by @pysproblem81 via eltpics

And, it always pays to look on for the positives and remind myself that it was not all a year of doom and gloom. One important factor to remember is that is was not just me. The other teachers who went to these classrooms all experienced similar problems with the same students. Their teachers from the previous years were the same. Also, while five of my classes caused problems at some point, the other class was great. The students worked hard, were keen to learn and we had great lessons together.

I also should focus on the individual successes. One of those five classes did improve greatly in the second semester and became much more engaged in and enthusiastic about learning. I also mentioned four of the most challenging students I have ever met… Well, that number could easily have been higher but I did manage to succeed in making progress with some other students.

One girl springs to mind who was causing all sorts of problems early in the year, insulting me in Turkish, refusing to do any work and bullying other students. With time, patience, attention and regular communication with her parents, she calmed down, started to show an interest in class and I was able to instil some confidence in her, which was seemingly the root of her problems in English classes at least. In another class, one boy demonstrated almost a complete turn around after I started to use Class Dojo. He loved his avatar, valued the points he earned and was always keen for a glowing weekly report to be emailed to his parents.

There were also other students who had previously felt intimidated by their classmates’ behaviour and lacked confidence in English whom I was able to successfully bring into the lessons more and make them feel a valued part of the class. This took lots of one-to-one pep talking, praise for showing effort and simply giving them the chance to show themselves through free-choice project work. I felt this was time better spent than trying to get the challenging ones back on task.

Phew, that was quite an experience to reflect on and quite a post to write! It does feel good to put it into words and externalise it in some way. The next step is to think forward about what I can take from this and apply to the forthcoming year but I’ll leave that for the next post…