TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Archive for the tag “ELT”

Noticing and Naming

Disclaimer: This post represents my views and not those of my employer. If you’ve read my blog posts before, you’ll notice that this is not my usual tone. However, I’ve been letting many thoughts accumulate in my head over the past few months and this rant was born out of those bottled up reflections. Posting in hopes of engaging in a constructive dialogue for change.

Lately, I have been noticing a strange reoccurrence in my everyday life. About a month ago, a friend was driving behind me, and I noticed that one of her headlights was out. Since then, every day I notice at least a couple cars driving around with a broken headlight. I swear I had never noticed this before. What’s happening then? It can’t possibly be that all of the sudden there are more drivers out there with broken headlights. Can it? Most likely what’s happening is that all of the sudden, a personal experience has made a common occurrence more salient in my every day life. You might be wondering how this relates to teaching, so let me explain in what will be my first rant on this blog, which is also turning 2 years old this month.

Image from blog.unum.co.uk

Image from blog.unum.co.uk

I’m fed-up with teachers of ESOL who teach as a last resort and despise their job or do the minimum amount possible, photocopying old worksheets and reenacting the same lesson plans for the past X amount of years. These are the same folks that are usually complaining about everything the administration does and everything students don’t do. I wish these teachers would finally write their great novel and leave teaching for those who actually enjoy doing it. At the very least, I wish I didn’t encounter coworkers with this mentality as often as I have.

I’m fed-up with the lack of recognition and low wages most ELT teachers make around the world. I’ve heard colleagues say before, “I’m just an ESL teacher” to colleagues in other fields. Why do we belittle our work? It sure doesn’t help create a better work environment, recognition, and pay when many jobs around the world only require teachers to be “native-speakers” and/or white. But what we do matters and we’re the ones in charge of making it so. We don’t “just” teach ESOL. And if we’re in this field because we care about what we do, perhaps it’s time to start standing up for ourselves.

I’m fed-up with comments by fellow “experienced” teachers who seem to think that wanting to try something different is just a naive attitude by a less seasoned teacher. Last October, I remember mentioning to someone that I would love to implement project-based learning in my classroom to deal with what I thought was a very demotivating context in which we use different textbooks for everything we do in class. Her response was, “I remember feeling that way when I started teaching. Things change.” Can’t think of a more condescending way of talking to a colleague. I might have had a bit of an indigestion that day because I’ve been chewing on those words for a while. Experience or age is not what drives our desire to change the world around us, and I believe we start doing that by implementing small changes to our immediate environment. This fellow teacher’s comment has reinforced my desire to flow and be in a constant state of exploration. I will not let years of teaching experience make me turn into a predictable teacher, delivering worksheets and exercises from a book in lieu of spontaneous conversations and lessons based around topics which are relevant to the lives of those in my classroom.

I’m also fed-up with professors in the academia who write or speak from their “radical” pedestal and tell us all how superficial most ELT blogs are, how “the man” is exploiting us by selling us textbooks and training courses for teachers, and how we should just ditch everything, and start a name-calling contest on all the famous ELT professionals out there. How about embracing doable and small ways in which we can make big changes to the way we develop as professionals? How about focusing on ways in which we can subvert the publishing industry and use what they’ve put out there for our advantage? As much as I’d like to see this happen, not all of us can run and create teaching cooperatives and ditch our textbooks tomorrow. How can we work on a less alienating alternative?

I’m fed up with administrators and marketers not listening to teachers or conducting the necessary research before selling courses that will not deliver what has been promised.  If we all know it’s highly unlikely that students can go from knowing zero English to being ready for academic classes in 4 semesters, how did marketing get its way to sell these expectations to students and their parents? We’ve set ourselves to failure by having unrealistic goals from the get go, and then we wonder why our students and teachers are demotivated.

And finally, I’m fed-up with the lack of collaboration and collegiality in my ELT world. I know this sounds judgmental, but honestly, if you are resistant to learning and to change, perhaps teaching is not the place to be for you. How can we motivate our students to learn if we are not motivated to learn from them and make changes to our teaching approach? In my utopic world, teachers would always have a built in space to reflect and discuss what’s happening with their students, share their insights, and grow together professionally. Unfortunately, this is hard to get in face-to-face interactions at workplaces. But why? Is it just me who feels this way?

As I keep noticing all these metaphorical broken headlights each day, I want to now move to action and do something about it. Perhaps some of the drivers I see going around with broken headlights don’t know their light needs to be replaced. Maybe they know it and don’t care. Regardless, I can’t stop each one to tell them. Fortunately, in teaching, I can try a small daily action to help myself and those around me have bright lights and drive along roads that encourage learning. To be precise, in my world this means I commit to speaking my truth, to following my words, and to putting myself in uncomfortable new situations if this means my students, colleagues, and I can grow and  be part of the change and learning environment we wish to see. Sometimes noticing patterns and feeling fed-up is the first step to change. What are you fed-up with?

May 2015 be a great year of change for all of you!

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Enhancing Writing Feedback through Digital Technologies

Feedback is an essential part of any writing class. We learn not only from writing itself and the explicit instruction we might receive, but also (or perhaps mainly?) from using the feedback we get from both our peers and our instructors. I believe that we need to try different approaches to improve the kind of feedback we give to our students in order to make it more effective.

Often we complain about students not making changes or reading our comments, so what can we do about it? A starting point is to think about our challenges and look for alternatives and different ways to approach the feedback process. We need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and give feedback that is clear and meaningful to students. Of course, most teachers also face time limitations, so how can this be done?

The following link is copy of a presentation I gave on this topic at the WAESOL conference at Highline Comunity College on October 25, 2014. Below you’ll also find three links to short tutorials I’ve made on how to use some of the digital tools mentioned. Please feel free to share some of your strategies, questions, and comments. This is a topic I am passionate about and I would love to continue the conversation online!

Click to hear an 18-min version of my presentation:

Narrated Presentation

Link to tutorials:

Kaizena

Google Drive

Quizlet

Online or Face-to-Face? Questions in Course Design

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @AnaMariaMenezes, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/"

Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @AnaMariaMenezes, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/”

 

This was the last week of Blended Learning course I started 6 weeks ago. The facilitators of this course did a fantastic job at creating different ways for participants to stay engaged throughout the course, reminding us that we could choose to join in as little or as much as we wanted. I listened to their weekly webinars, read the corresponding chapters, and even though I could not meet my weekly blogging goal, I’d like to share some thoughts that resonated with me.

These past three weeks, BlendKit14 addressed issues related to assessment in a blended learning environment, content and assignments, and quality assurance. It was interesting for me to note that most of the considerations in curriculum design for a blended course dealt with aspects we also take into account in a F2F (face to face) environment. And I suppose that makes sense. Regardless of whether we are planning a course to take place in a super high tech classroom, one with minimal resources and no classroom, or fully online, designing a course requires us to think about student needs, objectives, content, assignments, and the way it can all come together. However, what stands out to me as a difference between planning to teach a blended course and preparing for a F2F course is that designing a blended course has a built in need to make decisions about which type of activities students will benefit the most from. Perhaps one could argue that F2F classes are no different in this regard, but when I was thinking of how I would teach my current composition class if it were a blended course, I often wondered “which lessons would work better if we have a F2F class?” or “could students learn how to do X or Y by working online with other students?”. In short, because a blended course gives the option of asynchronous work and the use of many more resources online, there’s also the need for us to go deeper into the reasons why we choose any particular type of activity e.g., conducting a group discussion in the classroom vs on an online forum, reading at home vs. engaging in a reading activity in class. Even though I will not teach a blended course next fall, I will continue to have access to a LMS (Moodle) and since I do tend to integrate technology quite often in the classroom, I’ll be revising my course objectives to see if any of them could be better met by working on them asynchronously.

When thinking about blended content and assignments (week 4) #BlendKit14 started with a section titled “questions to ponder”, and again, I find all of these questions relevant and valuable to my F2F teaching context.

  • In what experiences (direct or vicarious) will you have students participate during your blended learning course? In what ways do you see these experiences as part of the assessment process? Which experiences will result in student work that you score?

  • How will you present content to students in the blended learning course you are designing? Will students encounter content only in one modality (e.g., face-to-face only), or will you devise an approach in which content is introduced in one modality and elaborated upon in the other? What will this look like?

  • Will there be a consistent pattern to the presentation of content, introduction of learning activities, student submission of assignments, and instructor feedback (formal and informal) in your blended learning course? How can you ensure that students experience your course as one consistent whole rather than as two loosely connected learning environments?

  • How can specific technologies help you present content, provide meaningful experiences, and pitch integration to students in your blended course? With your planned technology use, are you stretching yourself, biting off more than you can chew, or just maintaining the status quo?

Learning about how to design a blended or hybrid course has taught me that there are lots of important questions we need to ask ourselves when thinking about the mode in which our courses take place. Sounds a bit obvious to state, but I think questioning even those teaching decisions which we think are so clear could make a big difference when it comes to student participation and learning. Each week during the BlendKit14 course I got to hear about the experiences of two faculty members teaching different courses and if something stood out from  what they shared, it was that teaching the same content using new tools will involve lots of reflecting about what we are doing, how the students respond to it, and which changes need to take place. I know many teachers who strive to do this in their F2F classes already, but as more and more schools move towards integrating blended courses, we will need to start taking a deeper look into why and how we integrate web 2.0 tools into our courses.

So, in the spirit of questioning our current practices and use of technology in teaching, I’d like to ask the following question:

Which learning objectives in your current class could be met by conducting asynchronous online activities? which ones require a F2F class, and why?

Blended Interactions in ELT

This post is my reading response to last week’s BlendKit chapter, “Blended Interactions”. Even though I have not taught a blended or hybrid course (yet), I am interested in exploring the possibilities of mixing face-to-face and online components in a composition class for English Speakers of Other Languages in the future, hence my participation in the BlendKit MOOC offered by the University of Central Florida.

This week’s reading explored the value of interactions occurring in both face-to-face (F2F) and online settings. Some questions that came up for me were, “how do I determine which objectives can be met via online interactions?” and “which learning activities would be more effective in F2F meetings?” My first instinct is to start listing all the objectives and activities I have arranged for my current course, which again, is completely F2F. If I were to teach this same course following a blended approach, could I expect my students to successfully participate in seminars online? Like many English teachers, I have often struggled to find ways to encourage class discussions, especially if students come unprepared to class. Could allowing them to read at home and take their time for asynchronous discussions yield richer discussions?

The authors of this week’s text claim that

“asynchronous activities allow students to enter more deeply into the material or an idea. There is time to look up facts, to draft an outline of what to say, and to revise mistakes before others respond. For students who speak English as a second, third, or fourth language, asynchronous activities give them time to translate instructions or other students’ ideas and to refer to other resources before they communicate their own thoughts” (Thompson). 

While I have had a similar experience as a learner, I realize that the issue is not just deciding which activities would work better online or F2F. This might be more of a practical question, but deep down, what I need to understand is what my role as a writing instructor would be in a blended course, and perhaps more importantly, what the role of students, including the interaction among themselves, should be in a blended course.

Thompson et al encourage teachers to think about the role of educators and the process of learning in a networked world by highlighting four different models brought forward by other educators. Those models, as listed in this 2nd Chapter, are: 

  • John Seely Brown’s notion of studio or atelier learning;
  • Clarence Fischer’s notion of educator as network administrator
  • Curtis Bonk’s notion of educator as concierge
  • George Siemens’ notion of educator as curator
modern art....fancy a taste? @fionamau

“modern art….fancy a taste?”
photo by @fionamau (ELTPics)

While I had never heard of these models before, Brown’s and Siemen’s models caught my attention because they describe processes that are (or could be) part of my writing classes. Brown’s Atelier Learning, for example, is about students showcasing their work in progress to a larger audience, perhaps via a blog or online page where students could write for a larger audience. Although my students do not currently write online, I would like to try creating an environment where learners would be free to read and comment on each other’s work online without some of the pressure that giving feedback can have in a F2F environment. My role then would be that of organizing our “writing studio” and creating an online place where students are aware of their audience and care for the feedback they’ll get from everyone who will be able to appreciate their work, not just their teacher.

The other model described by Thompson et al is Siemen’s Curatorial learning. In this model the teacher is described as an “expert learner” and one who “creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected” (qtd. in Thompson). This definition reminded me of those times when I’ve thought of giving student guided access to different resources (e.g., corpus-based tools for vocabulary, writing guides online) or when I’ve offered choices to students when it comes to topics to explore in their writing. Being a curator is perhaps not that different to being a facilitator, but what I appreciate about Siemen’s model is that it brings up this image of a carefully planned space that could stay for students to use as a resource long after the actual course is over.

But back to the value of our interactions in a blended course as it applies to teaching writing and/or ESOL, I have to wonder. In this day and age, how vital is it for students to be in a F2F setting in order to communicate in English? Thompson et al seem to encourage us to think of ways we can foster a sense of community and belonging in a blended course through the F2F component. Can students come together in the process of expressing themselves in a new language if they don’t see and hear each other in the same room? It is not uncommon to hear of many people around the world nowadays who have learned English because of their need to communicate with people they have not met in other parts of the world. Could it be then that we can transfer a sense of community and belonging to a blended classroom of English Language Learners? I don’t have an answer at this point, but I do have a deep curiosity and desire to give it a try in the future. In the meantime, I’d love to continue learning from your experiences or thoughts on blended learning in ELT!

“See you” all next week…

Sources:

Thompson, K. (n.d.). BlendKit Course: BlendKit Reader: Chapter 2. Blended Learning Toolkit. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from https://blended.online.ucf.edu/blendkit-course-blendkit-reader-chapter-2/

Thinking About Blended Learning in EAP

Image

Photo from ELTPics “Huayhuash Lake in Peru” by @VictoriaB52

 

 

This post is part of my reading response to the first unit of a Blended Learning course (#BlendKit14) that I am currently taking online (offered by the University of Central Florida and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities). I will continue posting on the topic of blended learning over the next four weeks.

Although I am not planning on designing a blended course for ELT at the moment, I am curious about the possibility of teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) online in the future. I would love to find out from teachers (or learners reading this blog!) if you think there could be advantages combining online and onsite learning activities in EAP. Also, what should we be mindful of when designing blended courses? I teach an English writing class to first year university students in non-English speaking country, and I am often looking for ways in which students will be encouraged to collaborate with each other in their writing and/or while reading and analyzing texts in class. What if students came to class for presentations and debates, but also had time offline to write their reading responses and interact with each other via forums and blog posts? Is blended learning a better alternative to traditional face-to-face courses or could it be mainly a beneficial option to some learners?

Hybrid or blended-courses are becoming more and more common at many higher education institutions nowadays. Some of the subjects taught range from accounting to marine biology classes. This is not surprising since the appeal of being able to learn through both onsite and online interactions is huge, especially when we consider that blended courses allow more flexibility for learners who need to complete work asynchronously due to their own work or personal schedules. But blended-learning works well for many learners not only because of the asynchronous nature of the learning activities in the online component. Blended courses allow participants to connect with each other in ways in which a traditional classroom does not often encourage (e.g., via blogs, sharing sources). Also, students get to participate in class by using different skills than those required in traditional face-to-face education only. Think of reading seminars and group work; discussions in online forums allow participants more time to think and polish their responses -a luxury we often don’t have when participating in a live class discussion. Additionally, in a face-to-face class we do not have the option of ‘skimming’ replies from participants who are speaking and focus our attention on replying to comments that caught our attention. I speak from personal experience here. Having completed an MA in TESOL (online) at the New School with the chance of taking some courses onsite during the summer, I have to say that quite often I enjoyed the online discussions more since I could browse different responses and think more about the replies I gave to others’ posts. I enjoy face-to-face discussions, but from my experience I’ve come to believe that online discussions can be deeper and more challenging at times.

By designing a course in which web 2.0 technologies are incorporated in addition to more common methods, learners are given the chance to explore online resources that they’ll be able to use and refer to in the future. BlendKit2014 facilitator Kelvin Thomson explains in his first chapter of the Blendkit Reader that “blended learning lends itself to learner-centered, teacher-guided (as opposed to teacher-directed), interactive, and student-collaborative learning.” As a teacher (and learner) who is drawn to the use of technology when exploring new content and connecting to others, I find myself wondering how a hybrid or blended course would work for English language learners in an academic context. What exactly about having an online component could benefit students in EAP? What are the limitations to keep in mind? I would love to see peer reviews conducted online, hoping that perhaps some of the insecurities of giving peer feedback in person would be lessened. But would they?

I’ll probably have more questions (and perhaps some answers?) as I keep reading and interacting with others in the BlendKit course. For now, I hope to hear from other teachers interested in blended learning. Please share some of your thoughts!

My Experience at TESOL 2014 and My New-Found Love for Presentations

TESOL 2014 Logo

Last month I got to participate at the TESOL Convention in Portland, and what an enriching experience that was! First of all, I had not presented at an international conference before, and even though I just gave a poster presentation there, it was such a great opportunity to focus on learning more about a topic that has interested me these past few years: vocabulary acquisition and using corpus-based tools for language learning. I want to do more poster presentations now; it’s such a fun way to learn more about an area that you care about while also meeting other teachers with similar interests.

And well, all of this got me thinking: why is it that many of us teachers of ESOL shy away from presenting, and why is attending conferences so energizing and motivating?

Two big questions, I know, but worth exploring because of what it can mean for our every day practices.

At the conference, I had a chance to participate in a few Electronic Village events organized by the Computer Assisted Language Learning Interest Section (CALL-IS). They definitely put out some great workshops, and I know that from now on, I’ll always attend at least a couple at each conference. I love the collaborative spirit of all people involved, the hands-on nature of the work shared, and of course, the geekiness of it all.  One of the workshops in the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) category, was about using www.wordandphrase.info to learn vocabulary and explore words in depth. So useful! I was there with 2 or 3 other attendees who got to share their own experiences or ideas using the site. Getting to hear what works well (or not so well) for teachers in other contexts is such a great added benefit of these sessions. What’s best, it was right before that session that I met @avafruin, ELT twitter friend from California. How exciting to finally connect in person! At another session, I accidentally ran into @citoyennemondia, an insightful teacher I first met because of her participation in the ELT Paper Club. What a great coincidence! Meeting “old” Twitter friends and making new ones, like Autumn @TESOLatRennert and @Dan_Ferreira_jp l is definitely one of the most exciting parts of ELT conferences.

But back to the first question: Why do we shy away from presenting at conferences? I think we don’t realize how much we have to share with others, and ironically, I think many of us English teachers are a bit intimidated by the academic community and research. Of course, a great number of teachers of ESOL are overworked and underpaid, so thinking about conducting research or exploring teaching-related topics in depth might seem to be too much work, but what I have learned is that it all pays off. Exploring a challenging aspect of ELT brings the gratification of finding out that others may go through your same struggle, that there are solutions you had not thought about before, and that perhaps some of what you had been doing and were not so sure about is actually grounded in theory. Or perhaps you’ll learn, like I did during Penny Ur’s  and Eli Finkel’s presentation on vocabulary acquisition, that some of your ideas about learning are not necessarily the most efficient. Case in point, learning vocabulary by guessing from context. At their presentation I found out that apparently students could benefit more from getting a brief explanation of the word or hearing examples of it used in context rather than being asked to guess meaning from context, especially when there are too many unknown words in the text.

Now, what is it about connecting to others that is so motivating?

Teaching can be a pretty solitary act. We often don’t have the time to talk to our colleagues and learn what they are doing. I know sometimes I’ve felt like I’m the only one struggling with a particular issue in class, and I’ve also often had second-thoughts about my approach to learning different skills or language items. Well, connecting with other teachers at conferences and online (though blogs or social media) brings this new energy and confidence that a) other teachers have experienced your same struggles and can offer useful tips or help you think of new ways or approaching old dilemmas, b) our learners share a lot more in common than we think, and there’s a lot for us to learn from each other.

There’s about a month and a half left to apply for next year’s TESOL Convention in Toronto, and although I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it, I want to apply and try my hardest to make that happen. Of course, TESOL is not the only place to present and I think it’s a great opportunity for any ELT professional to plan a presentation. In fact, it might even be better to consider presenting at local conferences, to colleagues, at an online event (like the RSCON), or at a regional conference. There are so many outstanding teachers out there with so much to share. I encourage you all to participate and connect to teachers in our profession -we’re so privileged to be in a field that keeps reinventing itself and growing more each day. Let’s embrace it!

2013 ELT Resolutions Met PLN

At the beginning of last year, I set two very specific goals related to ELT:

1)    to start a blog and write reflections on my teaching at least once a month.

2)    to write a few lines about each lesson taught and look back at how it went, how I felt, and if possible, to write what I would do differently next time.

I did not write a blog post every month (missed August and October), and occasionally I wrote very short notes on lessons taught, or skipped reflecting all together. However, I did manage to at least accomplish my goal to write most of the time, and for that I am thankful. Last year helped me to begin letting go of that perfectionism that has sometimes prevented me from continuing to work on a goal once I get slightly off track. Looking back, it is clear to me how my Personal Learning Network on Twitter, as well as the blogs I read, played a key role in keeping me motivated -giving me reasons to continue reflecting, brainstorming new ways to do things, and to reach out and get some creative energy at those times of the semester when we feel like we are “done”.

Last November, I learned about the #FlashmobELT movement through Ann Loseva’s blog post (thanks to @michaelegriffin). What a wonderful example of sharing ideas and learning from my PLN! Ann’s post came just as I had reached a point in the semester where I was struggling to come up with an engaging activity to get started reading one of the last academic texts for the semester. Although it’s been well over a month since I did this activity in class, I’d like to share some thoughts on how it went and what I learned. It’s a good thing I journaled a bit after teaching because now that I read it, I realize that I would not have remembered as much had I not kept notes.

Instead of selecting an activity from the linoit page in which FlashmobELT is collecting a growing amount of teaching ideas, I chose the 10 words activity that Ann mentions in her blog post. My students were about to begin reading a dense text (to be discussed in class) and I had not explicitly taught vocabulary in a while. The “10 words” activity (it doesn’t really have a name, but I’ll just call it that for now) requires students to choose 10 words they’ll have a partner guess from context and clues –giving students an opportunity to practice their listening and speaking abilities as well.

Activity

I took the first two paragraphs (A and B) from our reading and divided students into two groups. To model the activity for students, I chose a quote related to our topic and took out a few words. Then, I read the quote out loud (skipping the words I had selected) and asked students to guess what the missing words were. The words I chose were too easy and students guessed them right away –I think I would prefer to make this a bit more challenging next time since some of my students ended up also choosing easy words when they selected their 10 from the paragraphs.

Afterwards, I asked students to chose 10 words (from their paragraph) that they did not understand or thought would be useful throughout the text. I took about 5 minutes to go around, helping students understand the words they did not know. Students could not really ask each other what the words meant since I already had put them put into pairs and I had asked them not to show their paragraphs to each other. In the future, I might group all A and all B students together so they could help each other in this first stage of the activity.

Student A began reading the paragraph to student B, skipping the target words and giving clues instead. After student B got it or came close to guessing the words, they switched. This part of the activity took about 15-20 minutes.

Conclusion

I enjoyed seeing how engaged students were throughout the activity, even if I’m not sure they learned a lot of new vocabulary words. I teach a monolingual class, so it was definitely unusual to see most of them speaking in English during the whole time. Students did not appear distracted or sidetracked, which was also refreshing, especially considering we were approaching that time of the semester where it is hard to stay focused. I liked having chosen the introduction of the text because it gave us a starting point to begin discussing some pre-reading questions later on in this lesson, but I think in the future I may look for some excerpts containing more useful vocabulary since the paragraphs I chose were a bit too easy.

Image

Talking by Claire Jones from The Noun Project

This year I hope to add some activities of my own to the FlashmobELT group. I am thankful to my PLN for all the motivation and encouragement I get from reading blog posts from other teachers and articles shared on Twitter. Since most bloggers I follow use WordPress, I’ve decided to make it easier on myself and move my blog here. This year, I hope to post twice a month and to increase my participation online.

Thanks to everyone who has taught me so much these past 12 months –looking forward to another enriching year in ELT!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Reflective Journal: Three Weeks in China

This is my third week teaching in Hefei, China. I’m journaling a lot these days -reflecting on the rationale behind my lesson plans and their implementation and trying to understand the way I perceive students are participating and learning from our time together in class. I think I needed these initial three weeks to feel more grounded in my view of this curriculum I’ve created and I’m fine-tuning as I go. 

During those 7 weeks I had to prepare to come here, I was really worried I wouldn’t have enough materials and I’d be stuck without the ‘comfort’ of an office stocked with books and resources. Not having a textbook as the backbone for these classes was scary at first! I’m glad to say that in reality, not having a textbook to follow has been a blessing in disguise. I am able to be creative, think about what really suits my students and my teaching style, adapt materials around me, and set our own agenda! Having a textbook would not allow me to do this. Of course, I’m not coming up with everything from scratch. I use 4 different books from the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers and I also use some books for speaking (and listening) activities. In addition, I’ve been starting to adapt articles from the web and create my own materials by using Ted Talks or texts from NPR and the BBC. Again, the challenge here is the fact that these are multi-level groups and I need to learn how to work with students who are beginners and others at an advanced level all in the same classroom. One strategy I’ve used so far is assigning different types of questions to check for comprehension. I’m also trying to be very deliberate about the way group work is conducted in class.

Anyhow, here are some thoughts about what has not worked as I expected, what has worked well, and what I still need to improve or figure out. I’m hoping that by comparing my expectations to what’s actually happening, I might be able to learn more about my teaching and the needs of a program such as the one I am working with right now. Any suggestions or comments on these reflections will be greatly appreciated! Teaching in a new scenario can be a pretty lonely act and I do much better when able to socialize ideas and teaching plans.

Original curriculum includes:

-Weekly themes or topics so that all materials and activities are connected by a common thread.  

-Daily routines to aid classroom management, which I anticipated would be an issue in these large multilevel classes (22 and 35 students ranging from A1 to B2 under the CEFR*)

-Project-Based Learning to motivate students to be autonomous learners, creative, and practice expressing their own opinions. 

-Task-based learning with differentiated tasks according to the students’ level.

-Self-evaluations in the form of individual learning contracts for students to set their own learning goals and take responsibility for their learning.

How has it worked so far?

-The weekly topic worked well the first two weeks. For Week 1 we did “Getting to Know Each Other and Asking Questions.” Week 2 was “Learning Styles and Diversity.” This week, however, I felt as if I still had work pending from last week and I couldn’t figure out what the theme should be. The students are still practicing how to ask questions, and revising learning contracts. I’ve also had 3 periods less than usual. In addition, today I spent a whole period showing students how to navigate through our class websites and how to check their grades on Engrade. This was my test day to learn how to use their computer lab. In conclusion, there is no theme for this week. I worried at first, but it’s not really an issue since I’m learning what works best. I’m still planning on having a theme next week (family matters? food? spending habits?) but what matters the most to me now is that students have a clear understanding of what the expectations are of them as students in an academic setting in the U.S.

-The daily routines have been a great help to save time in class and help students become more organized. Since here in China they use lots of workbooks in class, students are not used to taking notes or having a dedicated notebook for class work.

I have not done the ‘exit tickets’ I envisioned at first (not enough time!), but I do write new vocabulary each day and keep a log for myself so I’ll remember to recycle it in future lessons. I need to find a good way to briefly review what we’ve done in class each day. Currently, students are keeping a vocabulary log and writing sentences to practice using these words. I still need to incorporate them in larger tasks, but it’s hard to tie it all together in something coherent. For now, this is their default homework if I don’t assign anything else. I will continue to evaluate this vocabulary log strategy, but for now at least provides a way to practice the language we’ve used in class and it is a set routine we have. Each day I take 10 index cards with the students’ names each day and check those notebooks only. That helps manage my time with these large groups. Another routine I have been very consistent about is writing objectives and activities on the board each day. I ask students questions about the objectives and hope this is a reminder for them about the rationale behind class activities. I’d like for them to realize that there is always an immediate purpose for everything we do in class.

-I have not been able to start our projects, but plan to introduce them next week. Again, I think I needed these first three weeks to get a good understanding of who I’m working with and what resources are available. This week I finally got a computer room for both groups. That will make a big difference in terms of having time to do research and conduct Project-Based Learning (PBL) in school.

-We have done lots of task-based learning (TBL) and very little language without a communicative purpose. However, I need to plan more authentic tasks.  

-I don’t know if the self-evaluations are really working, but students have written down specific things they think they should do in order to make improvements in their English language skills and study skills. We revised these today with my younger students and will be writing new learning contracts and doing a more formal self-evaluation in two weeks. More about whether this is working or not then!

All right, this is a long blog post. If you are still reading, please know that I really, really value all and any feedback I can get!

Will be checking in again soon…

Laura Adele.

1. CEFR = Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/elp/elp-reg/cefr_EN.asp

Planning to Create and Consume

 

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For the past 7 weeks I’ve been preparing as much as possible for these upcoming months teaching in China. It’s a strange feeling to say the least, but I think I may be able to share what preparing to teach in a new environment feels like by comparing it to something else I love doing, cooking.

Imagine you were told you had 7 weeks to come up with a plan to cook daily meals for 66 people that you have never met. You know their previous cooks, but their cooking style and even ingredients are different to yours and well, the idea is not to repeat exactly what was done before. You’ve cooked many different kinds of meals before, but you’ve never had to leave your kitchen and cook in someone else’s space, without all your trusted regular ingredients at hand, and to such a large group!

But back to these unknown (lovely) people you are about to cook for –or actually, with– for 4 months. You wonder, “What do they eat? How many will have special dietary needs? How many meals can they share so I don’t have to cook so many different dishes in one day? How much should I involve them in the kitchen? Will they like what I come up with?”

If you like planning meals and cooking, then you are probably following my analogy. I like thinking of teaching English as being similar to cooking. Food, like language, is not only an enjoyable aspect of our lives; it’s essential to living!

Everyone has their own preferences (both cooking and eating), but even then, most of us tend to mix a lot of different flavors and types of dishes together. To me, teaching efficiently requires being able to incorporate enough of what your students enjoy doing (learning styles, topics, activities, tasks), as well as taking the lead and bringing new plans they may feel apprehensive about but come to love, or at least appreciate later —like trying a new type of food or dish we wouldn’t have tried if someone hadn’t motivated us to do.

My biggest worry right now (and for the past 7 weeks) has been having enough materials out in China. I am not talking about textbooks necessarily, but certainly not having a main textbook to follow has made me more aware of all the resources I generally use to supplement, like texts for listening and speaking and ideas for communicative and collaborative practice of vocabulary and grammar. The challenge here has not been so much pulling materials together but rather wondering, “how will I do this with a large mixed-level group?  How do I (or should I) incorporate Project-Based learning (PBL) without knowing how the students will interpret my ‘inviting them into the kitchen to cook their own meals’? If PBL is all about learning by doing, then certainly I need to do a good job at guiding these students, helping them discover a passion for learning, and organizing our shared learning space (guidelines, feedback, etc.).

I’m excited about living temporarily in another part of the world and learning about the preferences and views of many young people who will probably move to this side of the world in the near future.  I have two more full days to prepare before I finally get on that plane to China and take my tools and ideas to a place that many people have described to me, but I have yet to experience on my own. I wonder about how the mix of my style and theirs will make this learning experience look like for all of us involved.  All I know for now is that I am taking my best tools and heading with all the desire to be flexible, to adapt, to listen, and to ultimately learn as much as I intend to teach. 

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