Monthly Archives: February 2017

Another Textbook Issue

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If you are reading this post and my blog in general, you are likely a teacher. Odds are English is not your first language. The chances that you are a Russian English teacher, or have experienced learning English within the Russian education system, are slimmer but still exist. But if you can imagine two English textbooks – one written by your country’s ELT authors and published in your country’s publishing house, and any coursebook by a big ELT industry name – you will understand what the discussion below is about.

I stumbled on this discussion in the comments section under one of my friend’s Instagram posts, was excited to lurk for a while, and then decided the topic could actually be relevant to teachers in other countries. So (with these people’s permission), go ahead and read my translation of their discussion, and let us know if it resembles the situation in your country or the country you work in.

 

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DS:  … For a whole 11 years of school kids study the language and the end result is zero! Why do they have to learn about London sights for the whole third term (cultural note: the 3rd term in this case probably lasts from around January 10th till the end of March). Who can possibly need to use that in real life, and when??? And the teacher is faced with a dilemma: to teach the way that will be good or to teach what the syllabus tells us to teach. ..

AZ: And then all kids have to hire tutors because of such syllabi…

DS: Exactly!! I feel so sorry for both children and teachers!

LB: Well of course, a whole term is too much. But it’d be great if after school kids had a little idea of where the UK in fact is, which city is the capital of which country, who the queen is, and knew a few sights. I’ve been tutoring kids for about 3 years and I’m in shock from their knowledge. There’s a feeling that they are all cretinous. By the way, if a child happens to get 5 in English in school (cultural note: “5” in the Russian education system is the equivalent of an A grade) and their parents happen to have enough money to send the kid to London to a summer school, then this knowledge would be quite helpful. But these kids are one in a million…

K: One can bend the system, one can fit something else, more useful in it!

DS: @LB There’s a billion of great travel guides which show where to go and what to see… I think it’s absurd to study the history of the Tower of London while living in Moscow area or in a whatever-it’s-called small town… I agree with the idea of teaching general notions, but not the way it’s done in the idiotic ****** textbook. If this author, as one of the authors of the standard (state educational standard is implied), writes such a textbook, I don’t have anything else to say about the standard itself… As for kids’ cretinism, it’s a complicated, multifaceted question that needs to be discussed…

LB: Well that’s you going to extremes here. Will they never go to see the Tower, or want to learn more about it in the future, study language more thoroughly, even if they live in this nobody-knows-its-name town? Or, what if a child is an invalid, can’t leave home at all, and their only chance to learn is English classes at school? Should students give up learning anything at all at school since they can grow up and buy a copy of “London for Dummies”? The content of what’s being taught is not made-up or accidental, it’s borrowed from foreign textbooks, which everything is copied from. The way that ****** textbook presents the topic of London only shows that it’s her personal choice and problem as an author and an educator. As well as it is the problem of your school which chose this textbook in the first place. There are better textbooks. And in general, the standard was not designed to match the textbook, but rather the author edited “old stuff” that already existed to fit the standard requirements. And this is quite manageable. So you shouldn’t paint it all with the same brush.

DS: There are much more interesting and visual ways to see the world without leaving your apartment for an invalid, other than studying about the Tower in old English. I agree about the brush here in this case. Regarding the choice of textbooks I agree as well, but I’m ready to argue regarding the copying of topics from foreign textbooks! *** textbook, for example, is a little less of a copycat, which makes me like it more, even though even this book is not without some amazing (weird?) things. I sincerely can’t understand, having the teaching experience that I have, why a language education standard can’t be based on such mastodonte materials as ones by Cambridge, for example, on the grounds that it is their language exam certificates that are accepted worldwide. But that’s not a question to you:) In any case, I agree that it falls on a teacher’s shoulders to find ways to get out of this situation and turn flaws into advantages 🙂

K: @J I wish you best of luck! Unfortunately, syllabus can be so imperfect that a teacher has to redesign it completely. One of my acquaintances teaches Russian using one of those prescribed textbooks. And if I were a foreigner, I would hate Russian the way it’s presented through that book!… But the teacher and students are working with it, every time trying to create something new, something of their own…

 

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Three years ago in the blog post here I wrote about my personal experience with this notorious textbook issue in a school I taught in Moscow. Since I haven’t worked as a school teacher in Russia for almost ten years now, I don’t think I am the best source of an opinion to contribute here (although my feelings towards textbooks in general have been established on this blog, I believe…)

Thank you for reading. I sincerely look forward to whatever comments this discussion can spawn.

 

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Dialogic journaling. Part 2, dialogue.

If you had a lot of time on your hands and read all 2500+ words of my previous blog post, you also read this line: “That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above.”

So, here goes… (note: maybe you want to read my previous blog post to know what we’re talking about here. But maybe you can very well do without it. Your choice.) Matt’s selected questions are presented here chronologically, so they refer to my class notes from October to December. I wonder if the connection to the actual lessons is traceable OR important at all, for you as a reader.

 

***** PART 2. Q&A. *****

You said that one of your goals was to nurture a sense of community, how do you think that setting class and task expectations could reflect this?

I’m not sure. It seems at the moment they don’t have a strong sense of community/group goals. Maybe I should try setting peer goals for tasks…? I’m scared to try certain things, as I’m afraid it will (a) take time, which is even more precious in this class than in others; (b) confuse students more.

 

What is your definition of connecting on a personal level? Is there a particular time and place for it in each lesson, or should there be a sense of connection in every instruction that you give?

Interesting question, and the very first one may actually be the crucial one for me in this particular case and many others! I need to give this more time to give a thoughtful answer. Thanks for asking.

I guess I want them at least to look at me without me asking them to do so. That would be a nice start. Some do. Lisa, for example, seems to hardly ever look anyone in the eye, though (just realized that!!). She has a somewhat bored look and always at materials or her lap or nails, something. Interesting observation which I’ll check tomorrow.

Maybe during the first few classes the group sort of shocked me so I did not talk to them on a more personal level either. Like I assumed they were not following me or not interested. I fear that.

 

To what extent do you feel that your learners are also looking to connect with you?

That is another excellent question! And why should they?) I feel that some of them are ready to listen to my “teacherly” explanations, to take in what I am there to sort of give. … I don’t know how to answer this question! I guess it is another one to mull over (which is good).

 

Where do you think the problems derive? Is it their lack of motivation, their level or English, or your delivery of instructions? How do other classes respond to your instructions?

Other classes face no problems with instructions, for the most part. When there’s confusion, either partners come to rescue, or I help the pairs who struggle. When you ask “Where do the problems derive?” I wonder which problems exactly you mean, because it looks like there are plenty.

I honestly don’t think their motivation is significantly lower than that of other classes. “Motivation” is a word too vague in any case, and for each student in that class especially  often a matter of many aspects coming (or not coming) together – being late, being sleepy, partner, topic, mood, etc. Their level of English in itself maybe is not a problem either BUT their confidence is another matter. What bothers me the most is maybe oftentimes the lack of response to me. <…> And I am more relaxed in other classes. Maybe part of the problem is my tension over what their weaknesses generally are.

 

Have you considered the concept of ‘Willingness to listen’? This is closely related to willingness to communicate. Perhaps one follows the other – if they are not willing to communicate, arguably they may not be willing to listen either.

I should research that, thank you!

 

Do you feel that your sense of relaxation lead to the students asking you for more help?

I think that’s a possibility. Maybe I didn’t appear so concerned or tense as in our previous classes. But that’s honestly just a speculation. <…> On a separate yet maybe somewhat related note, I wonder (not the first time in this journal?..) if my labeling them as not interested in each other affected their communication. I could be intentionally avoiding situations that I saw as “challenging” for them – and uncomfortable for myself.

 

You mentioned that you were more comfortable with silence, and more comfortable to wait. This was an interesting observation. What role do you think more waiting time on your part could have on future classes? How long are you prepared to wait without any intervention?

It was an interesting observation and realization for myself, too. I think there are types of waiting, and I need to try the useful types. For example, in the beginning of fluency they are silent because they are looking for the ideas in the text (my fluency questions refer them to the text), getting ready. They are not the type to easily jump into speaking. Then I could wait for them to understand/clarify with each other the structure of a task. But once I see they are stuck OR clearly wasting time, I would interrupt.

My feeling is (and has been proved by previous classes) that they realize what they are supposed to do through doing it, not from me telling them (modeling helps, but not always – sometimes some of them are not following).

 

Flow is an interesting idea too. Do you think that your flow as a teacher is sometimes at a faster or slower current than that of the learners? Or a different stream altogether?

Absolutely!! That is something else I would love to find some reading about. Maybe under a different term?… Though to me flow applies perfectly. I think a case of a mismatch is potentially detrimental – to rapport in the first place, and to the learning as a consequence. Also it would add to anxiety, both learners’ and teacher’s. I believe (now) it is a teacher’s job to adjust our flow to that of the learners’. Hopefully I have been trying to do that… Nice question!

 

You made me think about the role that timers play in discussions. Are you hoping to build in a separate planning stage so that they can organize stuff before you start the timer? How could the preparation activities be used more effectively so that they can just jump straight into the discussion when the timer starts?

It is an interesting thought to include a separate step before starting the timer. Last class I just asked once again if everything is clear, but I think I should come up with better ways ensuring they are all aware of the upcoming discussion flow. Especially relevant for the review class and discussion test!! If you have any ideas,I would love to talk about them…

As for the prep activities, their content should mirror CLEARLY the discussion questions, that is one of the points that causes confusion. I think transferring ideas from a more detailed prep to rather generally worded discussion questions is something that causes the trip-over. Helpful question, thank you! They could benefit from clear options in the questions, repeating the topics they just discussed in prep.

PLUS they need a reminder of what phrases to use to start. – on the board as a gap-fill?…

 

I’d like to know how the topic of the class fits with what you learnt from Sarah Mercer’s talk and your student profiles that you created. Will this have any bearing on how the content of the class or how you organize groups?

Well the topic did not really overlap with Sarah’s ideas. However, students were surprised to hear that Ken (and Lisa) consider themselves to be introverts. I was quite surprised myself.

As for the groupings, I think it is my intentional decision to have them always mix partners. At this point I can see they are all interacting well and reacting well to each other. This is very nice to see! I see now that there is no need really to guard them against each other under the subjective  impression that they don’t match or that they would feel uncomfortable. Even if it is so, through communicating, they improve it AND thus build rapport. It would certainly have been a mistake to split some students apart!…

 

I’d like to ask something more summative. There have been a number of micro-observations in this journal, but is/has a bigger picture emerged? Are there any definitive things that you could say you’ve learnt from this experience?

Certainly I will gather the bigger picture in a clearer way when I read through all of the entries again and make sense of them. I was too overwhelmed in the beginning of the course, and then many factors I think affected the picture. As in gradually some things became less of a problem, some things (=concerns I had) seem to be less of a problem than I originally imagined. I will try to make sense of what happened through blog posts on my blog and then my paper. Can I use some of your questions?))

What I learnt, I think, among other things:

  • A classroom is more complex than we imagine or are used to thinking (especially vivid when many issues surface);
  • Emotions play a big part;
  • Teacher is the one more responsible for establishing good rapport. Students, at least here in Japan, might be happy to follow the teacher’s lead but will likely not initiate it.

And other things I guess!!

 

I want to ask, do you think this form of reflection has been constructive for you? Has your insights helped to reveal where issues lie and how to respond the them?

Absolutely! And I believe questions added to the experience. Writing it down was beneficial by itself, of course, but an extra pair of eyes probably gave other directions to my thought. In the end, I have my tendencies to think of my classes. Even when I write reflections, I do it in my own way. But your questions added different perspectives and made me consider aspects I would not have considered otherwise.

 

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I thank Matt for going through this experience with me, being open and open-minded, patient and helpful. I can say without a doubt that this kind of dialogic journaling is a great format of engaging in reflective practice. Reflection certainly comes in many different ways (and my blogging has long been the way number 1 for me), but I recently feel like I want a partner for my reflection. A group. A community. And I am lucky I have one now 🙂

Yet no one will write my article for me.

 

Thank you for reading!

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