Thursday, 18 December 2014

More Observations on Observation–Refreshed and Refreshing

It has been two-and-a-half years now since I blog-ranted about some of my experiences with observations: the standard criticisms, the almost nit-picking insistence on finding something ‘wrong’ with the lesson (even when the observer wasn’t paying full attention!), the going through the motions of being observed just to say you have been observed…

My negative viewpoint was obviously not helped by my initial experiences as a language teacher. It was also not helped by a closer-to-that-time experience (omitted as I was still working at that institution at the time of writing the post) in which I got a ‘surprise’ observation from my head of department. She entered the classroom all smiles but when I said we were doing a spelling test my would-be observer left the room in a huff complaining that I hadn’t informed anyone I was doing a test (why would I if it was a surprise observation?) I was promised a future surprise visit but it never came to pass…

That original post kicked off quite a discussion of what observations could and should be like. In the comments (and in a couple of other posts around the ELT blogosphere), teachers bemoaned their similar experiences, expressed sympathy for the busy and at times stressed observers, and talked about how constructive, focused observations would be of more use for all parties.

Looks refreshing! Image by Lulu Polar via #eltpics

Well, I am happy to say that my new job has given me a refreshing new experience with observations that has changed my outlook considerably. Last month, we were informed that it was time to begin the annual ‘performance review’ process. We had a meeting explaining the steps and how they would work. The steps were as follows: 

  1. Assignment of each member of academic staff to a supervisor. As an EAL teacher, mine would be the Head of Foreign Languages. 
  2. Arrangement of a meeting time to make an action plan. Crucially, this would take place before any observation and I was asked to come prepared having thought about strengths and in my teaching and areas I wanted to improve. 
  3. Meeting to decide on areas of focus for the observation. These would be decided in consultation with the supervisor, who would also go through the observation feedback form in detail.  
  4. The observation itself. The class, day, and time were all arranged in advance. 
  5. Post-observation feedback meeting. There would be a chance for self-assessment on the teacher’s part, a comparison with the thoughts of the supervisor, and discussion about the areas of focus, whether or not targets had been met, and what could be done to improve and/or sustain standards in the future.  
  6. A repeat of the process from step 2 onwards. A chance to show feedback had been taken on board.
Where had this process been all my teaching life? Not only having a pre-observation meeting but also having the time to reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses prior to it was invaluable. In the days leading up to that initial meeting, I analysed my own teaching very closely, deciding that I was letting a class of seven students work in the same groups too often (4 girls and 3 boys). I was also still struggling with timing, often having to abruptly stop lessons mid-activity as time was up.

We discussed these points in the meeting and also talked about potential solutions. I was also shown the observation sheet and got to see that the lesson in general would be evaluated in terms of student engagement, level of challenge, production, and classroom/activity management.

This all gave me plenty to think about ahead of the observed lesson, which would be with my Year 8 & 9 intermediate EAL group. I prepared a series of activities (of course, all the pre-observation steps gave me time to get a lesson I was confident in doing ready) and paid particular attention to how I would group the students at different stages and for what purpose.

And so it was that the day of my first official observation in 12 years (!) began (I was only ever observed by new teachers in my previous job not counting the spelling test!) My observer arrived on time and alert (and stayed alert for the whole lesson unlike observers past) and willingly got involved in a stage of the lesson I had planned as a whole class activity to replace the student who was absent. I started with a homework review (done with the partners they had sat with when coming into class).

We then moved onto a jigsaw reading based on a text entitled ‘how to learn new words’. They completed this in groups of three, sticking the different paragraphs on the board in the order of importance. A spontaneous discussion then began about the differences between their lists.

We then had a whole class activity with a different instructional ‘how to’ text which they had to out in order. Once they had done that, we applied some of the strategies from the first text to discover the meanings of unknown words.

Finally, I randomly handed each student half of a title for a ‘how to’ writing activity. They had to find the person with the matching half and then write a relevant ‘how to’ guide. The final stage was to be error correction and presentation of the guides but we were running out of time so I called everyone’s attention, reviewed what we had done, and informed them we would continue with the task next lesson.

The next day, I met with my supervisor for feedback. We started with “how do you think the lesson went?” and filling in the self-assessment form. The observer’s comments were then made and, for the first time in my ELT career, it was mainly positive. The stages of the lesson were clear, the students were engaged, it all flowed well, the dıfferent groupings worked and served the purpose of each part of the lesson. “I can’t really say you could have done this or that better,” my observer said. “I can only say I may have approached certain parts of the lesson in a different way.” She even added that she had picked up some ideas to try out in her classes.

Now, this is an observation process that makes sense to me. It’s not that on this occasion it all went well but rather it’s the fact that I was given time to think of my own areas of weakness to work on (and time to work on them!) and the feedback was framed in a positive but constructive way with an open-minded observer. I also left with a few ideas of what I could do differently (or at least try) and a very strong feeling that I had come out of the process as an improved, refreshed teacher.

No surprises, no generic or unjustified criticism, and no stress to be had here. Instead, time to reflect, discuss, develop and enact a plan, and then reflect some more. That is what observations should be. They are part of our professional development after all.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

5 Lessons in 5 Minutes

Or in my case, it was almost eight o’clock. It was Monday – the busiest day of the week with 5 lessons, lunchtime duty and an after school club.

The weekend had been a busy one and the Monday morning briefing, usually a 5 minute affair, had overran. For those reasons (plus the fact that I had never got round to thinking ahead the previous Friday), I found myself with 5 minutes to go before my first lesson began needing to plan out a whole day of teaching.

In my old job, this would have been no problem as I was teaching different classes in the same level and I would choose a single starting point before seeing how each lesson developed. However, as I now work in a smaller school, the five lessons were with five different year groups and included an IGCSE class, primary classes, and secondary classes covering both second language and first language groups!

There was no choice but to use what little time I had to the full and five minutes later, just as my ever-punctual first student was walking through the door, this is what I had planned to do:

The first lesson was easy enough. It was an IGCSE English Language B class and we had spent the previous week working on structuring an essay and writing effective introductions and conclusions. My student (just one student in this class!) had been set a homework task to write an introduction and conclusion for a given topic so a review of the that was the obvious place to start. We would refer back to a “dos and don’ts” checklist we had drawn up for opening and closing essays and check the homework against it before making any necessary changes. We would then work on the main body of the essay and finish with a focus on any errors of grammar, register, vocabulary, and style. Lesson #1 done – next!

The next lesson would be quite a contrast – a primary school group of Year 3 and 4 kids who have grown up in a bilingual environment but until now have only been schooled in French. That means they communicate quite easily but struggle a little when it comes to reading and writing in English. I knew the Year 3 kids had been studying dinosaurs with their class teacher and Year 4 had been looking at describing people and the clothes they wear so that led me to monsters! I would introduce them to a classic drawing lesson I featured on my blog a few years ago – Mike Harrison’s Mixed-Up Monsters. Requiring no more than a few pieces of blank paper, we would create monsters, describe them, invent profiles for them and then write up a detailed description of them, all to be followed up by error correction activities based on their own work. 2 minutes gone, 3 lessons left to get ready for….

Something slightly different next as a Year 6 group would come with two kids who are fully bilingual and have French first language lessons and English first language lessons (English with me obviously!) That means we work on literature, writing skills, and ‘language awareness’ rather than trying to improve their language knowledge and accuracy. As a general topic, they had been looking at globalisation, commercialisation, and had focused on famous explorers in history. So how about bringing that all together with a desert island inspired lesson? Using a favourite idea from Teaching Unplugged  as my starting point, I devised a warmer activity to ask students to describe some possessions they couldn’t live without leading into an explanation of the ‘Desert Island’ concept. They would then imagine they were being sent to a desert island to live for a year with a few survival and luxury items allowed. Diary entries narrating their time on the island would then  be written. Great, but time was running short. Onto lesson…

Familiar ground – an intermediate ESL level group of early teens. We had been looking at short stories with a grammar focus of narrative tenses so back to another Teaching Unplugged idea it was with a news story. I would dictate the first line of a news story with a key phrase missing. They would speculate as to what that phrase was. I would then give them a list of numbers form the text before reading it aloud and ask them to listen for what the numbers meant. Using that info, they would then do a dictogloss-style reconstruction activity with a final stage of the lesson focusing on refining and correcting their texts.

Time was ticking away so what about Lesson 5, the final one? This was another bilingual/first language group. We were nearing the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream so the first part of the lesson was straightforward to think of – guided reading/acting of a scene from the play. It would be the scene in which Lysander was released from the spell that had made him forsake his true love Hermia for a mad obsession with Helena. In the play, he seems to get off rather lightly so I decided to inform the students that off stage, Hermia was livid. Their task? To write a grovelling letter of apology trying to explain the unexplainable and ask for forgiveness.

And that was the point when my Year 10 student entered the room asking “So, what will we do today?”

Some caveats

#1 – What I thought I planned v. what I planned

Of course, what you see above is an elongated verbalisation of my thought process. What I actually had in front of me was something more like this:
Lesson 1 (Year 10) – Review hw re. checklist; write main body; error correction
Lesson 2 (Year 3/4) – Mixed-up monsters (draw, describe, create profile, write)
Lesson 3 (Year 6) – Desert Island Dıscs! Choose must-have items, write diaries
Lesson 4 (Year 8/9) – News story (dictation, number listening, dictogloss)
Lesson 5 (Year 7) – Finish Act IV, write letter of apology from Lysander
(Yes, I did just use Comic Sans. What ya gonna do ‘bout it? ;-) )

These kind of moments serve to remind me of the fallacy that is ‘think in English’ as a piece of advice to learners. We don’t really think in language. We think in ideas, images, and flashes of inspiration. We speak in English and write notes in English but the thought behind it all goes much deeper.

#2 Was that really all on Monday morning?

Yes and no. I will admit that even at the weekend, lessons are often on my mind and I had wondered a couple of times on Sunday what I would do the next day, especially as I knew it would be a busy one. And of course, I was mindful of what each class had done in the previous week and I was also aware of what they were doing in their other lessons, all of which helped inform my on the spot decisions. In my opinion, that knowledge is a huge part of ‘being prepared’.

#3 That was never 5 minutes!

And there is the fact that that 5 minutes of Monday morning ‘planning’ has nearly 15 years of language teaching experience backing it up. I have helped many students write argumentative essays, drawing imaginative pictures and building lessons around them is another favourite activity of mine, the inspiration from Teaching Unplugged has been drawn on and adapted before, leaving the letter writing idea as the only one that came to me at that very moment.

I have plans for a more detailed post on my general approach to preparing for class (as part of this must-read/must-join-in blog challenge!) but in brief, I am usually on the lookout for a catalyst, something that will get a discussion started or provide the impetus for a productive piece of work. My experience then kicks in as I adapt to the input and suggestions of the students and get them to review, revise and refine their output. The students’ own ideas together with their own mistakes and weaknesses are what make my lessons (check out this video from the TeachingEnglish Associates for a clearer idea of what I mean).

That also holds true for my first language literature and language arts classes. My EFL/ESL background serves me well as, even though they make hardly any grammatical errors, they still need feedback on content, register, and structure (and spelling and punctuation as well!).

Now, of course, I will not get complacent and think I can come up with 5-minute daily plans on a regular basis. However, as a result of experience, a willingness to adapt, an inclination (if not a full adherence) to dogme ELT, and being aware of what my students are doing in their other classes, I can quickly prepare a lesson to suit their needs. Just gimme five!

All images taken from #eltpics

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A Hand in Language Learning

There is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a baby start to communicate: looking around when their name is called, waving, pointing, and the big one – clapping hands.

I have tried not to do over-analyse with my sons as they have grown up and developed their language skills but sometimes drawing comparisons between first and second language exposure and development is hard to resist! Our youngest is just a little past 18 months now and he’s not talking yet but he’s getting there. This post centres around some thoughts that started to fly around my head as he began to show understanding of the word hands.

Not my kid’s hands… nor mine! Image by @HanaTicha via #eltpics 

(I should point out here that these thoughts have been flying round for a few months and my son’s understanding has been growing through that time but the post fell into a kind of ‘development hell’ over the summer and then the new job settling in period. It is finally seeing the light of your computer screen thanks to a similar line of questioning posed by Kevin Stein on his excellent The Other Things Matter blog entitled “The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year” . An honourable mention also to the final paragraph of a recent post by Hana Ticha on the equally excellent How I See it Now blog called “My Attempt to Square the Circle” (I say final paragraph as that really resonated but the whole post is worth your time of course!)

So, one day a few months back while we were still in Turkey slowly packing our things up and preparing for a new life in Gabon, I asked my older son to hand me some duct tape. When I said the word ‘hand’, my little one immediately held out his own hands – a very exciting early sign of understanding. Over the following weeks, I kept looking for similar responses from him. Over that time, I noticed the following things:

Building backwards*

His understanding began with just the word hands. Any utterance involving that word caused him to show his hands. Slowly, he started to distinguish between the different words that preceded hands. First came the enthusiastic response to clap your hands and then wave your hands. Other hand-related commands soon started to follow (show me your hands, put it in my hand, hold my hand, and so on). In short, the basic word was acquired first and the rest of the language that accompanied it came later.

(*I’m sure there is a more academic term for this but I couldn’t recall it or be bothered to look it up in my MA notes. If anyone wants to enlighten me, please share!)

Repetition Required

And lots of it! Once he had grasped the meaning of this word and all the other language that came with it, we made sure it was all recycled regularly. We must have used those terms hundreds of times over the space of a couple of weeks. The responses were not always consistent either. Sometimes, he would blissfully ignore me and continue with whatever else he was doing but gradually, he started to show his understanding and respond on a more frequent basis.

Songs of Praise

The classic nursery rhyme to go with all this of course is If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands. It soon became a favourite tune. At first, hands were clapped for every line whether instructed to or not but slowly, my little one started to pick up the other actions in the song too and extend his learning even further. As he picked up on a different body part and associated command, we rolled with it and went through the same cycle of reinforcement and repetition as with hands. This was all backed up by plenty of encouragement of course with lots of excited faces, noises, and applauding of efforts all round!

Classroom Contrasts

This all got me thinking about how my students learned and developed their English in class.

(Now, before going any further, a little aside to say that I am of course fully aware that what I have described above and what happens in a classroom are not the same thing. I have outlined the linguistic development of a baby in a first-language home environment and now I am going to talk about a large group of kids in a formal school setting having lessons, but bear with me. I will try to make a point eventually!)

One day, back in my old school in Turkey, I was mindlessly flicking through professionally evaluating potential new course books for the primary school when I thought why not follow up all this learning-centred excitement from home with a critical analysis of how new language is presented in these books.

I looked through 5 different titles from 4 different publishers (again, I know it is by no means a comprehensive number but, hey, this is a blog, not an academic journal, and that’s why I am also writing up these reflections from memory several months later rather than from meticulously prepared notes). Predictably enough, hands was introduced through the topic of the body in all bar one of the books, which bizarrely had no reference to hands at all (even though gloves was one of the key words in the clothing unit!)

So far, so what? Well, I next looked at the context in which the word was introduced and practiced. In all cases, it was part of a unit introducing have/have got. There were examples of people’s faces and relevant descriptions. Fine, but of course describing body parts is a bit unnecessary as all the children featured in the book were in possession of the right number of everything! A couple of the books used animals to practice things like it has got 4 legs  and it has got a long mouth (or even a beak  but that was not ‘target’) and a couple more went for the monsters/aliens route with cartoony pictures and Xyrex has got 7 hands!! examples.

And that was about it. One of the books featured Put your hands up please for classroom language but I couldn’t find any other use of hands or any other body words in the rest of the book.

Of course, first and second language learning are not the same but repetition is said to be a key feature of both. Where was the repetition in these books? Context is also very important in language acquisition. What context does The monster has only one hand provide?

Clap your hands  was nowhere to be seen. Wave showed up in one book as wave goodbye but with no mention of hands. Shake hands, hand it in, give me a hand – these are all potentially useful language items in the classroom but they are not presented in the books.

So why not present these words and the actions that go with them? Why is it (almost) always body parts and has (got)? Why is it grammar practice over meaningful and practical use? I don’t have beginner or elementary classes at the moment but next time I do, I will take that approach – body vocabulary and collocations that go with the different words. I will of course report back on it when/if I try it here.

But for now, what do you think? Is a meaningful context not important at primary level? Should we simply focus on presenting grammar and let the appropriate use of vocabulary come later? I would be interested in hearing different perspectives on this!