Thursday, 31 October 2013

How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson (or How to Increase Student Creativity)

How NOT to Teach a Great Lesson - in Ten Easy Steps

  1. Walk into class and greet the students with the question “How are you?”
  2. Await a chorused “Fine thanks, and you?” response.
  3. If there was a homework assignment, go through the answers one by one on the board, allowing whichever students put their hands up to answer.
  4. Check which page in the coursebook you had completed the previous lesson and then instruct the students to open their books at the next page.
  5. Go through all the tasks on the page in order.
  6. Check the answers (see point 3 about homework for details).
  7. Interrupt students to correct their pronunciation and grammar errors.
  8. Spend more time on language that is likely to come up on the next test.
  9. If you are unable to finish the page, set the remaining activities for homework.
  10. Go to your next class and repeat.

As you may have guessed, I have been working on some ‘How to’ instructions with my 5th graders recently.

And as you also may have guessed, much like my ‘Taking the Pics Out of Coursebooks’ post from a while back, we did not take the activities very seriously!

Our poor coursebook, which tries very hard but does falter from time to time, presented a very dry sample text about how a boy looks after his dog (in brief, he takes it for a walk, feeds it and, er…, takes it for a walk again). Students were then expected to write their own ‘How to take care of a pet’ list.

The sample text left a lot to be desired added such as ‘brush it’, ‘clean it’, ‘take it to the vet’, ‘play with it’ and even ‘give it water’! Therefore, we began quite calmly by brainstorming the other things that could be done to look after a pet.

But then, the inevitable comment came: “I haven’t got a pet, teacher!” Younger brothers or sisters were suggested as were plants but once again the cry was heard: “I haven’t got a pet OR a brother or sister OR a plant at home!”

“Do you have teeth?” I asked.

Cue a short ‘huh?’ accompanied pause followed by lots of laughter. “Hair could work as well,” I added. “Shoes, school books, smartphones…” and by this point the students had taken over coming up with more and more ideas of personal possessions, gadgets, and things that they ‘take care of’.

And so they started writing with a pleasant buzz going round the class that was very much absent in the first phase of the lesson when we were looking at the sample text.

When they were done, they took turns to read their lists out (with a few extra creative ones thrown in such as the boy who listed ways he looked after his shoes - cleaning them, not playing football in them and so on - before finishing with “and I take them our for a walk every day!”) and we went over some language points on the board.

At this point, we could have moved on to the next set of activities on the page but I had suspected that my students might enjoy a different approach to the ‘how to…’ lists, and so I showed them the following ‘How NOT to…’ list:

How NOT to look after your fish

I then directed the students to write the ‘How NOT to…’ version of whatever that had written earlier in the lesson. Normally, two writing tasks in one lesson would lead to mutiny but this was taken on with much gusto, even by the students who are usually reluctant to write. Best of all, even without me mentioning it, they did not simply convert their previous sentences to negative forms. Instead, they came up with original ideas with a lot of language flying around the classroom.

Alas, there was no time to listen to everyone’s new list so I asked the class to post their writing on our blog when they got home. Again, a writing lesson followed by a written homework task would usually be greeted with complaints but this was met with a wave on enthusiasm and by 6pm this evening, more than three-quarters of the class had submitted their posts (and that was with me telling them they had until Monday to post it).

So, let’s summarise with another list:

How to Increase Student Creativity

  1. Don’t follow the coursebook in detail. Instead, use what is there as an inspiration for your lesson… Or just ditch the thing altogether and see what your students come up with.
  2. Dig deeper than the language presented on the page.
  3. Give a task an unusual and/or humorous twist.
  4. Encourage student input as much as possible.
  5. Let the language flow - see what your students produce and help them with what they want to say.
  6. Go over any errors or things you want to draw attention to at a suitable break in the lesson.
  7. Make your students forget about specific tasks and language points and let them ENJOY learning!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Class Management with Class Dojo

As I have mentioned in previous posts, last year was a struggle in the classroom, especially when it came to discipline. However, I was able to turn things around to an extent, getting several students to make a positive change in their behaviour and also getting one entire class to turn from a nightmare to a perfectly fine class.

As I have also mentioned previously, this year has started off much better with my classes and individual students attentive, respectful of the rules and working hard.

How? Well, it would be too simplistic to attribute such changes to just one factor but a recent addition to my teaching routine that has made a noticeable difference is Class Dojo. 
Image taken from

What is Class Dojo?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Class Dojo is in short an online version of a points reward system. It allows the teacher to reward examples of positive behaviour and hard work with a +1 and there is also the option to flag instances of undesirable behaviour (or things that 'need work' as the site itself states). All you need is an in-class internet connection and a teacher account for the website.

"But why do this online?" you may ask. Well, if you have kept a paper-based points system in class before, you know how much work that can be - constantly producing charts, posters, cards and other ways to track points that need updating and replacing at regular intervals... With Class Dojo, you just need to enter your students' names into the system and your class is ready to go. Each student also gets a cute little alien/monster avatar (there are also 'critters' if you have older students who might find these babyish), which can be edited if they have a student code, this making the whole process more personalised.

The categories for which you award points are also fully customisable so if, like me, you are a language teacher, you can create a positive reward for using the target language or if you have a class blog, a category for commenting on the blog can be added. Additionally, you can react to situations that arise in class so if you notice that some students are not especially patient or supportive of their classmates, a positive reward to encourage more cooperation could be created (or a negative one to dissuade them from such beahviour). The points you award are all archived as well so at any time in the year, you can look back at how your students were behaving on a specific date or during a set time period.

In addition to the above mentioned students codes, there are also parent codes which allow the child's family to log on to the website at home and see their points. A weekly email report can also be automatically generated and sent to parents providing an instant home-school connection.

One other point worth mentioning about Class Dojo is that new features are being tested and added all the time. Those other features are too numerous to go into here but the people behind Class Dojo actively seek out feedback from teachers and are open to suggestions for future improvements. Indeed, their customer service is excellent (and that's for a website that is comepletely free to use), even going so far as to email me in early Septembver offering to set up my new classes on my behalf!

Avatar customisation

How do I use it?

After experimenting with Class Dojo last year, I am now using it with all my classes. Initially, I show them the 'demo class' so they can see how it works and ask them if it is something they would like to use (there is always a choice for my students). Then, I set up my classes and let the website choose the avatars, only altering them if they may be seen as too girlish for the boys (or vice versa).

I have a few standard behaviours that I use in all classes tied into my class rules so there is, for example, a positive reward for being ready on time for the lesson and a negative point for ridiculing mistakes. Some behaviours change from class to class depending on the rules they have chosen for themselves or things that I have noticed about the class. One of my classes this year set a rule that they must be polite to each other so that is reinforced with points for 'asking nicely' and 'being kind/helpful'. Last year, I had a class where 'colourful' language (in both Turkish and English) was an issue so I created a negative point, not only to discourage it but also to provide a record of exactly when and how frequently such incidents took place, which was useful when I was talking to parents about the problem.

To offer my students incentives to collect more ponts, I do two things. First of all, I withhold their students account codes until they have accumulated 50 points. Once this milestone has been reached, they 'unlock' their code and can then create their account and customise their avatar. I also offer class incentives such as the chance to play a game or watch a YouTube video at the end of the week if the class has more than 95% positive points for they week.

Time for a video!

Does it actually work?

I can't say it has had a universally positive effect, (but then again, what does?) I had some difficult students last year who continued to act much the same after Class Dojo was introduced to our daily lesson routine. However, these were a minority and in many more cases, using Class Dojo helped bring about a positive change. 

One class stands out in my mind. Early in the year, there were behaviour issues with some students but the main issue was a lack of engagement in the lessons from many students who constantly complained that English was too hard ( this was reflected in their test scores and project work). Introducing Class Dojo not only helped reduce the behaviour problems but it also helped increase participation and use of English. In the beginning, I will admit that the students were in pursuit of points rather than taking a real interest in the lesson itself but as they started to become more actively involved in the lessons, they started to realise that they were more capable than they had previously assumed and learning English could be an enjoyable experience after all. I am sure (or at least I hope!) that we would have got to the same point eventually without Class Dojo but it certainly helped accelerate the process.

There were also individual students who showed a positive improvement in their behaviour after we stared to use Class Dojo, especially once those weekly email reports started arriving in their parents' inboxes! In general, they all showed some kind of 'ownership' of their avatars and were very keen to customise them and avoid 'tainting', them with negatives. Such was the love for the avatars, that they started to appear as characters on stories that we wrote in class or projects that the students did!

The behaviour categories from one of my classes

What are the drawbacks?

Of course, no system is perfect and there have been a couple of issues with using Class Dojo. Certainly, in a small but noticeable minority of cases, the pursuit of points becomes more important than actively participating in the lesson or following the rules to the extent that some students answer a question and then immediately ask 'teacher, point?' or push each other out of the way in an attempt to clean the board and get a 'classroom helper' reward. Objections are another issue as a handful of students contest the decision to give negative points or not give positive ones. There have also been other instances of students interupting the lesson to demand a negative point for a classmate who is not listening or hasn't got his/her books.

As ever, this is only a problem if the teacher neglects to manage the situation. I make it clear whenever issues like these start to arise that the students cannot ask for points. If they do, I warn them and if it happens repeatedly, they get a negative. I also explain that, like football matches, the referee's decision is final. Any protests will be heard but the student must accept what I decide or, again, risk a negative point. As for trying to get classmates into trouble, that immediately gets the student a negative along with a reminder that it is the teacher who will give points, positive and negative, when appropriate.

The only other issue is that the constant stream of points can lead to the teacher being 'tied to the computer desk' rather than circulating and monitoring while the studentare on task. Again, it is all a matter of how your approach it. I tend to give the majority of points at the start and end of the lesson with a few more points given while the students are working. I still monitor and circulate but make a mental note of who is on task and working hard while doing so and thenI award the points just before I call time on the activity. A colleague of mine who has started using Class Dojo this year uses the smartphone app to award points on the spot, which apparently syncs with the class computer points display almost instantly.

So, is it worth it?

I would most definitely say 'YES!' It has all the advanatges of a points reward system with the ease of being online so you don't have to worry about keeping records. The customisaiton opitons for each class and each student add to the appeal and the ability to directly connect with parents is fantastic and really raises students' awareness of their own behaviour in class.

However, it must be remebered that this is a tool and nothing more. Its effectiveness depends very much on how it is used. I have found it works best when the teacher is clear about its use in class from the start, involves students in the process of choosing positive and negative behaviours, and anticipates any issues that may arise.

And a final anecdote to show the effectiveness of Class Dojo. One day last year with the class I mentioned earlier in this post, I turned up for my lesson only to see a gap where the computer should have been. It turned out the computer had died and we would be without it for a few days at least. My first thought was 'oh no! What will we do without Class Dojo?' but, to my surprise, the class continued to behave well and join the lessons enthusiastically. That for me shows that they had learned self-discipline and this class resource had definitely played a part in that.

Monday, 7 October 2013

ELT Sandbox - A new blog about gaming and language learning

As you may or may not be aware, I have recently started a new blogging project about combining a long standing free-time passion of mine - computer games - with my professional passion - teaching the English language - and this post is a shameless attempt to plug this other blog!

I have named the blog ELT Sandbox after the gaming term ‘sandbox’, which refers to a mode of play allowing for experimentation with the game and the digital environment it is situated in. I aim to explore ways in which gaming, whether that means actually playing games with our learners or just using the topic of games in class, can motivate our learners and help them develop their language skills.


Image by @acliltoclimb via eltpics

Gaming often has a stigma attached to it as a ‘waste of time’ activity for young kids but the truth is, games are played by almost everyone in the developed world whether it be on a PC, a dedicated games console or a smartphone. They are engaging, motivating and addictive - all things we would like to see in our classrooms! I have found that connecting the topic of gaming to my lessons is a great way to encourage my learners to use English more and this website will show that when used in a considered and structured way, games (just like film clips and other media) can be an effective tool in the language classroom.

So ,if you are interested in exploring this topic with me, check out (and subscribe to!) the blog:

In the true spirit of social media, you can also find ELT Sandbox on Twitter and like the Facebook page:

Also, next weekend (October 11th-13th), I will be presenting a session on this topic at the Reform Symposium Online Conference (a.k.a. #RSCON4) entitled ’ELT Sandbox - Promoting language learning through gaming’ in which I will present a few of my ideas from the blog along with a couple that haven’t been posted there yet!

This is to be followed by a webinar in December for Teaching English called Using games to engage, motivate and educate language learners’.

I hope to get the chance to share and discuss some ideas about gaming and language learning/education on the blog, through social media channels and at the webinars!