Author Archives: annloseva

My Time in Japan, a guest post by Chris Mares

I find personal stories fascinating.

We can share or disagree with people’s beliefs, we can have dramatic differences in our interests and/or life priorities, we can value the same or opposite things in life – but a personal story is a story that, to my mind, will always bring us closer to understanding each other. And I think we should give each other more space to share our stories, which can largely explain who we are and why we are so.

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer based in Maine, the US. For me, a person who has never met Chris, he is a writer and a powerful storyteller. In fact, I share many of Chris’ views on teaching and on what being a teacher means. And when I asked him to write a story about his time in Japan (because I knew nothing about it and was curious to find out), he did, for which I’m grateful.

Below is Chris’s story about his time in Japan, and it’s a story well told. Enjoy.

 

***** My Time in Japan *****

Gosh. Something I have never written about. I went there, ostensibly for a year. And never came back, at least not to England. I was twenty-one. I had worked in France, lived in Israel, was idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous.

I was in Japan long enough to save money in order to do the Cambridge Certificate in TEFLA, the Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Reading University.  I was also there long enough to find a wife and co-produce three children.

I had never thought about being a teacher, despite the fact that both my parents were initially teachers. I had imagined being an author, actor, movie director, or some such – things that I never made any effort to do. I did become an author. But that’s another story.

I was in Japan long enough to become involved in the ELT writing business with my pal and best friend Steve Gershon. Some of my happiest memories involve giggling helplessly with Steve in various coffee shops along the Odakyu Line between our respective homes, laughing about faux listening scripts, when attempting to write actual listening scripts for our coursebooks.

I am a bundle of contradictions as will become apparent. I read Japanese literature passionately in English. I ate only Japanese food. I loved the rural geography, the sanctity of the temples and shrines, the chaos and order of Tokyo, the rush of the city.

I windsurfed at Enoshima and kept my board there. I would cycle 25 km to get there on my town bike. Then 25 km back. The wind always in my face.

When I left Japan, my windsurfing master, Toshiki, told me my Japanese was strange – a cross between a woman and a child. To my shame I never learned katakana or hiragana for that matter, and only recognized about four kanji. Though I had the greatest respect for my friends who studied hard and became extremely fluent. I never did.

Japan was a complex pleasure. I wrote book reviews for the Asahi Shimbum and will always be indebted to Jim Dalglish for the opportunity.

I never had a Japanese girlfriend and only slept with one Japanese girl. I never went to a love hotel. I learned to drink excessively but to use my weekends wisely, always heading for the hills or the coast or a hot spring.

The one year became many. They tumbled by. I loved to teach. To pick up my kids from the hoikuen. To chat with the hobo-san. To grocery shop. To ride past the rice paddies to the beer machine and back with all three kids on my bike.

I rode my mountain bike in the Tanzawa mountains. I would run from our little farm house to the top of the hill in Hadano and ring the temple bell, then run home, the deep tone resonating as I descended.

“We heard the bell,” Aya would say, when I returned.

I remember the smell of mosquito coils. The cicadas. Reading the series Master and Commander on the train between Hadano and Machida. Finishing all twenty one novels and then starting over.

And then I left. And here I am. In Maine. Happily teaching at the University of Maine. I’m still idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous, though slightly tempered.

My energy and enthusiasm are the same. My kids are grown and gone. I’m divorced. Jackie, my beautiful black lab, is fifteen and on her last legs, her brother Steve long gone.

I’ve been back to Japan. It felt strangely familiar. In Japan I learnt that the world is not black and white. That contradiction is the norm and that Japanese culture is profound, complex, and simple all at the same time.

My best friend Steve Gershon is still there. I miss him.

And when we get students from Hirosaki University in Maine, I’m thrilled because I get them.

I never meant to go. I never meant to stay as long as I did. But that’s what happened.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

*****

You can read more of Chris’ stories, or rather blog posts he wrote for the iTDi Blog, here.

 

Examining listening habits

I have to break it to you: our monthly Reflective Practice Tokyo group meetings are great. While the two-hour sessions are normally planned, with the expected flow of discussions and activities outlined in my notes, I just never know what will happen. From my observations, it is 84% about the people who attend and 16% about the topic (random percentage, obviously). Most of the times we only do 1 point from my original plan, and while a year ago, at the group’s onset, I did not always take this fact well but rather as a flaw in either my preparation or facilitation, I’ve grown a lot more relaxed about it. I have a feeling other RP groups might be doing things differently. Some day we’ll try a different way, too (oh this reminds me – I wish there were a way to connect different RP groups functioning around, to share the ways of holding meetings, notes, topics, maybe even record some of our meetings and share those!…. dreams, dreams… if you’re interested, please get in touch!). At the moment, I feel that ours is a “fluid” style: we go where the current takes us. And at the next meeting I promise I’ll bring this up so that other group members can have a clear say in this themselves!…

Anyway, this afternoon we held our 11th meeting.  The topic I wanted to discuss was listening habits. Since the very first meeting, we have been focusing a lot on developing our listening skills – basically, trying very hard to be “good listeners” to each other while talking about things. I can hear you asking a reasonable question, “What makes a good listener?” The answers we arrived at in our different previous meetings mostly revolved around being focused on whatever the speaker is saying and asking “good”, useful questions instead of giving advice or referring to our own experiences (unless advice is explicitly requested!). At a certain point, I think I became curious to see more to it. For example, I noticed that I often fail being a good listener in my daily life outside that meeting (which is 99% of my life!))), and that the criteria, in fact, are more complex.

While doing some research online for communication skills activities for some of my higher level students, I found an interesting task, which I brought to the group meeting and which was the springboard for a deeper discussion about listening BAD – and consequently, GOOD – habits. Unfortunately, I lost the original link for this exercise, I will include it when/if I find it…!

The activity included examining 10 bad listening habits that people might be guilty of while communicating with others. Here they are, plus two more that I added to the list based on where our discussion took us:

  • interrupting often or trying to finish the other person’s sentences;
  • jumping to conclusions;
  • being parental and offering advice even when not requested;
  • making up your mind before you have all the information;
  • being a compulsive note taker;
  • not giving any response afterward, even after promising to do so;
  • being impatient;
  • losing your temper when hearing things you don’t agree with;
  • trying to change the subject to something that relates to your own experiences;
  • thinking more about your reply while the other person is speaking than what they are saying;
  • not listening to questions but rather seeing them as a personal attack;
  • not being present while listening. 

 

Guess what? We’re all guilty.

 

When I realize I wasn’t at my best as a listener in a particular situation, it’s always either too late or there are excuses (tired, busy, grumpy, not interested, “want to help”, etc). It was really great to look at this list of habits and think about myself through the lens it offers.

And I’d like to end this post abruptly with another important take-away from today’s meeting, which is also a take-away from last weekend’s Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe. Change does not have to always be the necessary outcome of reflection, well not immediate change. A better understanding of ourselves could be a more fulfilling purpose, and with a longer lasting impact, too…

 

As ever,

Thank you for reading.

 

Dialogic reflective journaling as a way to see more

Recently, I’ve let my blog be another avenue for publishing the articles I write as part of obligatory semester projects at my workplace. Last summer the article had to do with me examining and articulating my teacher beliefs. In the winter I blogged in two installments (notes in part 1 and questions in part 2) what later transformed into a solid article on my dialogic journaling experience last fall. Here I want to leave this *slightly cropped* piece of written reflection. It is something that reads a lot more formal than the blogging me, but hopefully my voice can still be heard through the unnecessarily flowery language.

Enjoy, if you can (it’s long).

*****

Engaging in reflective practice for professional development through different means and especially by keeping a written account of my teaching has been an area of the utmost interest for me for over four years. For this reason I was enthusiastic about the prospect of continuous focused journalling during my second term as an instructor for English discussion class. The initial idea for this reflection project was threefold: (1) act on the goals I set for myself at the end of the first semester in the program; (2) experiment with a new format of reflective journaling; and (3) the primary goal of this project, i.e. observe students’ classroom behaviour and/or performance, analyze it, and initiate changes accordingly. Firstly, it is important to comment on my intention to act on my personal goals, stated at the end of the first semester corresponding to my teaching beliefs. Those goals included finding opportunities for a more reflective dialogue both with and among students, experimenting with micro-writing activities in class, giving individual students more focused attention, and above all, working to nurture a positive, friendly, and supportive classroom community. After meeting the thirteen groups of students that I was assigned to teach in the fall semester, I quickly came to identify the class that would become the subject of my journaling based on Thomas Farrell’s idea of critical incidents. According to him, one of the purposes of reflection in English language teaching is to explore and examine critical incidents, which pose “a particular anomaly for a teacher <…> and can cause teachers to perceive dissonance between their beliefs and theories and actual practice.” (Farrell 2016, p.102) One particular group of eight students from the very first lesson together posed what I perceived as multiple “issues” that would make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. The main areas of concern that I noted down after Lesson 1 of the course compiled the following list: group dynamic, low proficiency level, low motivation, lack of active response to teacher instructions (and to the teacher in general), students’ reluctance to engage in communication with each other either in Japanese or in English, etc. The class appeared to be a rare accumulation of potential critical incidents that would indeed occur repeatedly throughout the term on a regular basis, thus making it a critical case in and of itself. It seemed like a suitable occasion to meaningfully apply my goals stated above, bearing in mind the priority of nurturing a classroom community that would ensure mutual support and understanding, a community responsive to each other and to the teacher. However, after the first few classes another potential problem surfaced for me: I was overwhelmed by too many issues that I wanted to “fix.” In a sense, that meant no obvious, clearly-stated observation goal regarding lesson stages or students’ performance in specific tasks. It was important to simply thoroughly document as many interactions happening in class as possible, both among students and with me as a teacher, in order to observe closely and facilitate as possible the process of establishing the rapport.

As for the format, having had a substantial experience keeping reflective journals in both online and traditional pen-and-paper versions, I was looking for a more demanding and interactive way of reflecting. I chose to experiment with dialogic journal writing, which as a type of collaborative reflection serves a means of further challenging the teacher’s thinking and reflective enquiry (Farrell, 2007). It is worth remembering that reflective practice, as defined by Thomas Farrell, is a process in which teachers not only systematically take notes of their classroom observations, but also “while engaging in dialogue with others, use the data to make informed decisions about their practice” (Farrell, 2015, p.123). Collaborative journal writing due to its two-sided nature enhances the reflector’s experience and broadens the understanding of observed classroom situations. In addition to writing regular personal entries about my class, I invited a colleague to act as my journal companion, who would read the entries and pose questions to help analyze the practice and even trigger some insights to further impact my choices both in lesson planning and teaching. Another idea critical to my decision to have a “second pair of eyes” in this project is the research evidence that data obtained from journal entries serve mostly as a reflection of what the person journalling perceives as being important (Mercer 2005-6, p. 67). Following this idea, the involvement of third party – my colleague – could enrich the reflection by clarifying my own perspective.

The structure of my journal remained consistent through Lessons 3 to 12 of the course and was shaped by my previous experience of reflective practice using a variation of the Experiential Learning Cycle, which asks the reflecting teacher to describe the event, theorize about its causes, and make an action plan. First of all, observations of every lesson were noted in-action during class time. They were later transferred to an online document under the following sub-categories:

  • What happened in class? (factual detailed descriptions of the events in class)
  • How did we feel about it? (notes on the emotional characteristics of the lesson, speculations about students’ emotional response to critical incidents)
  • What does all that mean? (hypothesising about the reasons for certain behaviour resulting in observed critical incidents and general critical tendencies)
  • What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on the observations, interpretation and analysis of this class)

Finally, my journal partner would read the entry information and leave 3-5 questions on average, all of which would be related to the events that I described, to my emotional perception of the class, offering with his questions new angles of considering the issues.

DISCUSSION

In the second week of the course, the students’ performance coupled with the general feel of the learning environment raised a number of issues that both constituted and blurred the focus of observations. While I would like to focus this article on my attempts to remedy three major problems that the students encountered (namely, the use of Japanese, persistent confusion, and difficulties building rapport), it is worth mentioning that the initial list of challenges I found myself faced with was quite substantial. Based on the overwhelming quantity of various challenges that the class presented, in week 3 of the course I came up with a preliminary list of ways to employ in order to fix these issues: help students in discussion time as needed; reduce student speaking time for fluency activity; reduce instructional teacher talking time to a minimum; focus on the communication skills, specifically on checking understanding and negotiating the meaning; be firm about Japanese use; proceed at a slower pace than usual.

As the course progressed, at different times there arose opportunities to implement this or that measure from the list, however it proved impossible and not always necessary to do so consistently. In the next part of this article I would like to give a more detailed overview of the actions taken on the three classroom challenges that, from my perspective as a teacher, most notably affected the learning process for this group of students.

In the first classes of the term the use of Japanese presented a big problem. A few students insistently kept resorting to Japanese during most stages of the lesson, either to painlessly and quickly communicate the meaning of their ideas, or to sort out tasks, or to ease the discomfort of having to have discussions in English. My immediate response was to be openly strict about it: in the beginning of class  I wrote simple, clear class goals on the board (something I didn’t normally do), one of which stated the need to “speak 100% English.” Explicitly bringing their attention to the shared goal seemed to help minimize the use of Japanese and there was no acute need to continue this practice on a regular basis. However, as the course progressed, an interesting pattern started to emerge: when the students were instructed to speak solely in English, the atmosphere in the classroom grew increasingly tense and stifled. As soon as they felt a “permission” to discuss certain things in Japanese, they could feel visibly more relaxed and communicate more actively. Noticing that, I decided to change my attitude towards the use of the mother tongue in this particular group. If their feeling of ease and comfort, or rather a lack of such, was what consistently prevented a satisfactory learning environment, then I as a teacher should provide an opportunity for that ease and comfort to happen. With this in mind, I loosened my rules and stopped aggressively promoting an “English only” classroom. Ample time was given to negotiate the meanings and clarify tasks before beginning the speaking activities in English, because the students needed this zone of comfort and benefitted from it in the end. Interestingly, by the end of the term the few students who were usually the most frequent and energetic Japanese speakers in the class, started to “police”  each other and remind of “English” only rule without my explicit commentary on that matter.

Another recurrent issue specific of this class was their confusion over tasks and provided instructions. By confusion I mean, for instance, being silent for 30-40 seconds at the beginning of fluency practice, test phase of presentation stage, or practice activities. Although confusions would appear at the beginning or during 10 and 16-minute discussions as well (not knowing how to proceed with the discussion flow, misinterpreting discussion questions or another student’s communicative intentions, etc), most often the first 30-45 minutes of class would create most pauses and, for me,  subsequent breakdowns in the lesson plan. It was easy to observe that the factual timing for activities rarely coincided with the planned range – some activities took much longer, so I had to cut others short, every lesson looking for a compromise and being stressed about not meeting my goals. Halfway through the course I came to one simple way of dealing with this issue. The core problem was the mismatch between the standard timing of the lesson stages and this group’s own learning flow. Through trial and error a few ways of dealing with this problem were proven valuable, such as: (1) modelling activities with students as much as possible instead of providing instructions, not harbouring expectations that the students would jump into a speaking activity straight away; (2) presenting the target language and desired related interactions in a heavily scaffolded way on the whiteboard and leaving it there for the duration of the whole class, noticing that they refer to it for help. Additionally, the students in this group were given a sufficient amount of time for them to figure out by themselves in both Japanese and English how to approach a certain activity. A crucial shift in attitude happened thanks to the journalling experience, which enabled me to take a distanced look at what was happening when the students were pressed for time. I saw the benefits of not only adjusting my teaching methods but also, on a personal level, of being more patient with their uncertainties. When the partners in a speaking activity fell silent, I was more prepared to wait for them to figure out what comes next before jumping to their rescue. They needed more time to start and I was prepared to give them that time. One very important result of analysing this observation was my conclusion that starting the timer did not necessarily mean the start of discussion with that particular group of students but more of a sign to start organizing themselves.

Finally, a crucial issue that bothered me in the case of this particular class was the rapport among the students and that with the teacher. The tension regarding interpersonal interactions and relationships exhibited a tangible mismatch of personalities, reluctance to communicate and thus develop a learning community. Building the rapport with the students and among students proved to be the most challenging task aggravated also by the fact that the majority of the learners did not talk to each other even in Japanese prior to the start of the lesson, often sat in silence in between tasks during class, did not look at me when being addressed or work together when instructed to combine efforts for some review activities. This was my first encounter with such seemingly shy, disengaged, and disinterested behaviour, especially disheartening since I always seek a certain level of personal connection with learners. As my journal partner pointed out in one of his questions, it was difficult to know how much the students themselves were actually looking to connect with me. The involvement of my colleague by way of asking questions without being personally emotionally invested in this teaching experience once again triggered an important shift in attitude towards this problem. I was reminded of the true significance of a teacher’s affectivity that concerns “‘intergroup behaviour’ in the classroom, the smooth functioning of which relies on teacher empathy” (Benesch 2012, p.8). That said, subconsciously labelling this group as troublesome, challenging and “strange” forced me to see our classes through the blurred lens. I became overly confused, annoyed and frustrated when these learners couldn’t perform the way other students did. I started taking precautions against activities that would put them in the zone of discomfort (such as eliciting ideas from them or activating schemata for the class topic by asking the whole class some questions in the beginning of class). After writing (and later interpreting) detailed notes describing both interactions and emotions they brought about, I slowly came to realize that part of the reason the class instilled discomfort and fear in me was my own predisposition towards it. At some point I was ready to admit that I had become more anxious about teaching them than they probably were of having to maintain English discussions. Labelling a whole group of students as not interested in each other might have affected their communication with me, too, as I was intentionally avoiding the communicative situations that I placed as challenging for them but which were, in fact, uncomfortable for me.

CONCLUSION

Reflective journalling, especially when carried out  in collaboration with like-minded peers and on a regular basis, can offer unexpected strategies for handling the seemingly unsolvable critical incidents that arise in any teacher’s classroom. The case described in this article highlighted once again three vital truths about a language classroom that are easily forgotten in the attempts to create a perfectly functioning classroom and a “fun” learning environment:

  1. A classroom is more complex than we imagine or are used to thinking, and this becomes even more vivid when many issues surface. Teachers should always remember that a classroom is, first and foremost, the people in it – learners and a teacher, with their distinct personalities and histories, which affect a communicative learning environment greatly.
  2. In this complexity, emotions play a big part and teachers should both take them into consideration and distance themselves from their effect.
  3. Finally, it is the teacher who is responsible for establishing the rapport. Students, at least from my experience working in Japan, might be happy to follow their teacher’s lead but will likely not initiate building the connection.

In the future, I would like to keep these in mind before deciding to “fix” the issues. A way to make the learning experience work both for students and the teacher is to see students for what they are as a whole and teach people in the class, not only the target language of the course. It is important to step back and take a reflective, as well as reflexive, look at what makes the challenging classroom challenging in the first place.

REFERENCES

Benesch S. (2012). Considering emotions in critical English language teaching. Theories and Praxis. New York, NY & London: Routledge Taylor & Francis.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2016). TESOL, a profession that eats its young! The importance of reflective practice in language teacher education. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research, 4(3), 97-107.

Farrell, T.S.C (2007). Reflective Language Teaching. From Research to Practice. London: Continuum.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Mercer, S. (2005-6). Using Journals to Investigate the Learner’s Emotional Experience of the Language Classroom,  Estudios de linguistica Inglesa Aplicada (ELIA), 6, 63 – 91.

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No blog no more, I think I know why

I absolutely love it when reading academic articles takes a sudden turn, hits just the right cord – and I see in a new light what I was struggling to see or explain for a long time.

Reading Sarah Mercer’s article on the complexity of learner agency. Slowly, I get to understand that learner agency is a system of factors related to and determining  the learner’s capacity to act, language learning wise. In short, what makes me the learner that I am, at any given time, is a complicated universe of its own. Of my own parameters, that are, inconveniently for researchers, always changing. “Everything within the system is in the constant state of flux.” Mark that.

Page 52, the place of self-beliefs in the system. That’s when I am struck by the memory of a certain summer about 10 years ago, an experience I always, without failure, give to my students as an example when I want to address the importance of constant language practice.

It was too obvious but I was too young to see it coming. For the whole of the summer I did not touch a single English book (or textbook). I did not use the Internet in/for English back then so social media, movies, news was out of the question. As a result, the memory of my first class back in the university that September is still very fresh. Well, the excruciating pain of it. I could not make a sentence come out of my mouth! All the words I needed – and I knew I’d known! – were all but gone, just a faint trace left behind to tease me. I simply could not remember the vocabulary I had used in classes 2 months before. I felt humiliated, tricked by my own conscious.

Since that summer, I can safely say I made sure I’ve had English in my life every day, in this or that form.  So what, you might ask?

Here’s where this is going. Since I moved to Japan a little over 2 years ago, I have lamented my deceased blogging not once. The feeling of unfulfillment, failure to reach my own standards, inability to string myself up to WRITE… in general, being unhappy with both my writing and non-writing. These have kept me a prisoner in my own mind. And now reading the article, it struck me. The fundamental, unspoken reason why I blogged so feverishly and passionately was that it was my English practice. The practice channel that I could sustain independently. The language companion I could rely on at 2 am in the morning, my typical writing time of that life I had in Moscow. While I had a few hours of English classes to teach on most weekdays, my reality was all but English. So I unconsciously created my own self-regulated syllabus. It was an all-skills course:

  • extensive reading – always a book by my side;
  • watching movies, shows, and TED talks;
  • speaking in the classes I taught – and in the tweets, blog comments, Facebook threads;

Finally, there was the much loved writing. This blog.

So why did it all have to change in Japan? It didn’t all change, in fact, just the writing part somehow. My shallow self-analysis tells me that what would otherwise be the content of my blog posts, became topics for easily available discussions at my workplace. Suddenly, my colleagues are speaking English to me. The particular concerns of the class and the day are poured out on that same day. And then, the vessel is emptied. The mind is relieved. The hand pushes the laptop aside and takes to the coloured pens.

C’est la vie.

 

A book hoarder that I am, I keep buying the titles about writing. Books about the struggles of writers, their personal styles of managing and shaping the creative process and making it work, these fascinate and draw me in. They fill me with hope and excuses. Remember, everything is in the constant state of flux.

 

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Reflective Practice Tokyo into this academic year, Meeting #9

Thursday is the longest day. And yet, somehow today I had all the energy I needed to make it – three classes, each demanding a different focus of my awareness, different vibe to match and adjust to. Writing *semi* individual comments with feedback to each group. And then, a meeting of our Reflective Practice Tokyo group, after a three-month long break. And yet instead of being exhausted, I am typing up this post at 11 pm. Enjoy.

*****

My plan for the meeting was loosely outlined like this:

What’s important in the beginning of the term? Individual notes on pieces of paper, throw in one bag. Draw and comment, hear ideas.

Choose some, write an episode related (from recent weeks), talk to partners. LISTEN.

ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle) back to work.

As it goes, I overdid it with the plan. The first task on the list turned out to be plenty, more than enough. The group members were so amazing with their contributions, the important things so varied and yet so inter-related, the experiences and stories so vivid that we talked and talked and talked, until it was suddenly time to leave. And I would leave it at that, as I’ve done for months, but I feel this acute need to blog and I honestly don’t want to be so perfectionist about my writing and the timing and topic anymore…

So here’s the full list of important things that the six of us at this group meeting came up with. As I was typing it up, I was fascinated to see the variety of “zones” of significance for each of us, and how our current state in the similar (or completely same!) teaching context(s)  is reflected in our current priorities. I wonder if anything from that list speaks to you, too.

– balancing commitments;
– figuring out the feel/community of each of my class (what’s the culture, what’s the story);
– L1 use, comfortable atmosphere, expectations;
– thinking about how to reflect on teaching;
– getting ideas for activities;
– building routines/ learner training;
– risk, play, comfort;
– understanding the wider context of the course (not just lesson by lesson);
– rediscovering what I’m doing (a process that works, techniques vs self-conscious reflction);
– building relationships/ a connection with students;
– making students feel comfortable (in/with the course and with each other);
– see/set a goal and/or agenda for the time of the term (outside of this teaching context, for example articles, conferences, RP meetings, bigger professional goals);
– working on a strongly unified curriculum;
– getting enough sleep;
– remembering students’ names and breaking the ice;
– expectations; significance of the course beyond the classroom; philosophy;
– atmosphere.

I was quite intrigued to see that almost all of the notes were different. As I was walking home, I couldn’t help but think how important it is to listen and hear what others have to say. The thing is, if I feel strongly about a certain aspect of teaching, I feel like my vision gets blurred and many other things will be overlooked, because the focus is elsewhere. I miss out on something else that’s important. For example, I’ve recently grown very passionate about the role of relationships and connections we form in our job, as well as the crucial value and importance of a teacher (brought about and fuelled by Sarah Mercer’s work and talks, including her recent plenary at IATEFL 2017 in Glasgow). I want to talk about this, read about this, bring this view into discussions whenever there is a chance… But being so “aggressive” about one thing probably distorts my perception of the other aspects of my job…?

A Buddhist idea came to mind then, that people believe their opinions are so important and cling to them so fiercely… yet opinions change, so it really is almost a waste of mental effort. I wish I remembered this more often.

So that’s where our reflective discussion (followed by somewhat reflexive thought) is leaving me at the end of the day. This time, and almost every time – be more open. Listen and hear. Distance from my own opinion – but that’s the hardest one.

*****

Last week, as I was meeting 107 students that I am teaching this term for the first time, I said in my introduction that I like writing and one of my dreams is to write a book and/or write a column. After saying this outloud a few times to different groups, I started feeling like a hypocrite – in truth, I haven’t written in ages. There’s always a show to watch, a mandala to colour, a sketchbook page to fill, – and always a book to read. While all those have become increasingly important in my life and bring me a lot of joy, I deserted my one true passion. Writing always used to make me feel on edge, in a good sense. And caused many sleepless nights to my life, which I miss.

I know I am in a different place now. But maybe I can lower the bar and just write some.

Thanks for reading.

(and here I found the exact quote)

quote-we-cling-to-our-own-point-of-view-as-though-everything-depended-on-it-yet-our-opinions-have-no-zhuangzi-204496

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Another Textbook Issue

Image result for uchebnik angliyskogo

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.

 

*****

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…

 

*****

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.

 

*****

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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Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

I would write about why I am not blogging anymore and how guilty that makes me feel deep inside. I would write how every day I choose other, less painful and effort-demanding hobbies. I would write how I keep finding ways to escape doing writing of any sort. I would make a good case for support and understanding (“We’ve all been there, hitting that writer’s block”). I can easily picture myself writing that.

Instead, for what it’s worth, I will use this space to help me consolidate my ideas for another semester project paper. Purely practical reason, a writing I can’t delay any longer.

This past semester I had to identify “an issue” in one of my classes and keep a reflective journal registering my observations and/or any changes I brought about regarding it. I wanted to experiment with the format and try a dialogic journal. Every Friday after the lesson with the group in question I would write an entry in a Google doc. Then my colleague, co-creator of Reflective Practice Tokyo group and friend Matt Turner (known as a TEFLologist to some of you) would read my notes and leave his questions in relation to what I’d written before. Since for my article I need to make sense of the 20+ pages of that document, I will write two blog posts trying to sift through to the bottom. Mostly copy-paste from that Google doc, with a few comments from now in italics, here and there.

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

Some time in early October, the beginning of the term.

Goals for semester 2 project should be related to my teaching beliefs from the previous project (do I act on that? how?)

  • More reflective dialogue with students, among students
  • Micro-writing (for reflection and/or self/peer assessment)
  • Nurturing a community
  • Attention to individual students

Focus of my journaling will be ***** class. The class has multiple issues that make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. Group dynamics, low level, low motivation, individual students’ problematic areas, lack of active response to teacher instructions and to teacher in general, etc. It seems like a perfect chance to apply the ideas from my teaching beliefs stated above. Nurturing a community seems a priority. A community that would ensure mutual support and understanding. A community responsive to each other and to the teacher. —> I need to think of ways to reach that level through (a) attention and help to individual students; (b) dialogue with students through micro-writing? (c) class reflections. My concerns: too many concerns in that class, too many issues that I want to “fix”.

 

General issues that seemed like “issues” and prompted the journaling in the first place:

  • Slow to understand instructions for activities; sometimes have to stop Presentation stage in the middle of their “discussion” time to explain the task again or model with a student;
  • The use of Japanese in the first 2 classes was overwhelming;
  • Uneven in terms of English level;
  • In group discussions – limited interactions (very few follow-up questions, weak communication skills in general);
  • Need constant clear reminders of the goals (to use the function language, for example);
  • Need more time for practice and prep activities;
  • Don’t greet each other as enter the room, nor chat;
  • Take time to figure out tasks and even interpret discussion questions – seem lost and don’t ask me for help;
  • Don’t look at me unless I ask them to, sometimes multiple times.

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

  • Help them in discussion time as needed;
  • Short fluency (2-1.5-1 instead of 3-2-1);
  • Set simple clear goals in the beginning of class, get back to them at the end;
  • Reduce instructional TTT to a minimum – have them DO more and help in the process;
  • Increase attention to individual students;
  • Provide clear structure;
  • Work on checking understanding (communication skill we practise as part of the course);
  • Focus of the day;
  • Be firm about Japanese use;
  • Find a wake-up activity for the beginning of class (always a slow torture!);
  • One step at a time, don’t overload;
  • Slower pace, change certain tasks from regular classes.

 

A selection of my own entries, written once a week on the day of the lesson. I can be diligent as needed.

*** Lesson 4 ***

Lesson goals on the board – speak 100% English and be interactive (drew a scheme of an interactive discussion, with a mess of arrows and questions). Got too wordy/passionate explaining that. Sometimes spoke when some students were not looking at me. Felt frustrated to have to call their names and ask them to look at me. Did that A LOT in the first half of class.

For the Deep End (presentation of target language) they did not start their discussion for a minute, looked at me and did not know what to do, so I had to stop and model the discussion with Sean. Then just explained the phrases.

There were 6 students present, so group discussions consisted of three people. By the end of class the students grew more responsive to me. At the end of the lesson asked them to write on sticky notes what was easy and difficult today in class.

Easy: only two people discussion; good reactions; speak in pairs; discussion with Brian, very interesting; talk about ways to learn English; talk with classmate, use communication skills. Difficult: giving different viewpoints; giving opinions; group discussion; ask questions; group discussion.

Important note to self: remember to always ask your students.

 

*** Lesson 5, Discussion Test, October (here I introduced a structure for the entries, that I followed till the end of the project) ***

What happened (my action, their action)

I didn’t make any changes to my original lesson plan and had students have a pair discussion (5 min) before a longer group discussion 1 with the same question. As I could hear, they were doing a fine job and discussed different viewpoints. Before discussion 1, I brought their attention to the fact that they each should ask at least 5 questions (and wrote them on the board). In group discussions, they almost never used reactions and didn’t ask many questions. We did a raise of hands on the questions asked. I opted out of doing a self-check so this was it for feedback.

Right before discussion 2 I asked everyone to stand up and sit down only after giving me 3 reactions they would use in the next discussion. In both the following discussion and especially in the test everyone did great with reactions, to the point of exaggerating and causing laughter. Most students did well on the questions in the test as well. When students were discussing in Japanese which questions to choose for the test, they seemed comfortable with each other (laughing). Nobody spoke Japanese during the test.

I try to remember to speak less and clearer. But after I explained to the second test group that they can take their time to choose good questions for the test, Lisa asked Tanya in Japanese what was it they were doing (I assume).

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt we’re warming up to each other (all). Especially so when we did reactions standing. They felt more relaxed. I’m never sure if Lisa understands what I’m saying and I don’t know how to check (when it’s not the task). I feel I should start speaking activities for them as soon as possible. Cut my talking and explanation time to an absolute minimum. But then how do I connect, get through to them in that case?…on a personal level. I mostly felt good in this class and about them, too. It took them longer to do things, but they were/seemed to be less confused than usual.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

It seems like recognizing by themselves what they are doing and not doing (through, say, counting) is helpful (when they see the evidence). Probably self-check sheets are not as helpful. A short, different kind of activity to lighten up the mood is helpful for the good class atmosphere, too (like with reactions). Their recent success with not speaking Japanese transferred into today’s class, so performance maybe was so good for that reason. That makes me think that they should have a feeling of SUCCESS. And 1-2 clearly and easily achievable goals for each class. But they are not the same for all of them, these goals, so setting the goals on the board for everyone maybe is not such a good idea…

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  1. 1 goal for all, 1 personal (give out sticky notes?)
  2. Short, different kind of activity in FB time to illustrate the point and practice straight away; no ticking the boxes in self-check sheets
  3. Stats – count something (that matters at this particular lesson).

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

In other classes I start the lesson by asking students if they checked any media in the morning and what they saw there and also share my own story. In this class I decided not to do this – on second thought, I should have done that. They could benefit from starting to talk from the very beginning of class. Other than that, I did not really change my lesson plan nor did they have any struggles! They were reasonably active and engaged in discussions, didn’t use Japanese! In fact, they performed really well and followed instructions straight away for almost every task. <…> At the end of class, I asked them to write easy and difficult points about the class again. One “bad point” Lisa’s discussion group mentioned in feedback was “slow discussion.” <…> I can notice that the dynamic of a group discussion, even if it is just 3 people, is significantly different from pair work. Slower and confused, indecisive as to who speaks and when.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I never noticed or thought today that this class is “problematic.” When there was some confusion, I interfered and helped as possible. They figured out what to do quite quickly today and there was a nice feeling in the air, friendly and respectful.

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

Some factors I’m thinking about:

  • Ken (the confused guy from last class) was absent;
  • I wasn’t scared of their failure (or rather did not expect it);
  • Function language was clearly presented on the board as a dialogue.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

  • Activate schemata for the lesson – by asking them questions or asking them to discuss some questions related to fluency and lesson topic.
  • Include group work for stages other than group discussion (for example, Practice).
  • Structure the discussion flow more clearly, especially the beginning.
  • Write their good language on the board!! They often referred to the board today, where the key language was written.
  • Think about the “slow discussion” – together??

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

  • Before the bell I tried to talk to them (“How are you?” for the most part). Lisa said she was genki, and in general there was some positive energy. Even though it was as quiet as ever before the bell.
  • Next step was having them do the functions review. I said, “You can discuss and try to remember together” – nobody discussed, everyone worked individually.
  • One more interesting point about Lisa today: the student she’s most likely to talk  to in Japanese is Kim. Today in fluency she reminded him to speak English when he switched to Japanese. The same thing happened in discussion later.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed in today’s class, for a change. There still was the same confusion as ever, but I didn’t react so negatively to it. It didn’t stress me out. There was some energy in this class, and even though discussions were slow, I talked to them about their strong points (many questions!!!) and weird points, HONESTLY, and we could laugh together.
What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

  • Coming to class ready for “something challenging or different” changes perspective.
  • I wonder if I was more scared of them than they were of speaking English.

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

During fluency, the speakers were completely silent for a long time. Same was true for the Presentation (30 seconds in silence), so I came up to each group and asked “What’s your opinion about this topic?” <…> They started with “I don’t know” but then slowly got the energy and spoke about America and Sweden. <…> As the class progressed, they could start the activities quicker.

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

I felt relaxed for the most part. When they were silent, I just waited and realized that I didn’t feel as frustrated as before. They need more time to start. <…> Students seemed more on board with the lesson flow, even if confused at times, mostly at the beginning of class and at the beginning of tasks.

What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on this class)

Starting the timer does not mean start of discussion in this group. They take it as a start to organize themselves. So maybe…(1) We should clarify together what we’re going to discuss now and how we go about it (prompt them to the first few questions in discussion flow); (2) Start the timer when they actually start their discussions.

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

Target language presentation created a big confusion. One group for 1 minute looked at the handout and in Japanese said the names of the people in the picture there. I came up and drew their attention to the question to discuss and asked, “What’s your opinion, Haley?” – but nothing happened after that. Finally, Sean began talking. In the end, I didn’t use the timer in the presentation at all, but rather waited for them to get where I wanted them to get… For the practice stage, again I gave them more time than planned originally.  

How we felt about it (my emotions, speculation about their emotional response)

It was a very energetic class, we felt comfortable and laughed and understood each other (even if they didn’t always understand the task!…). They listened to me more, looked at me when I was talking, engaged with me, responded when I elicited ideas from them. At the same time they were still confused in the first part of class, often confirming with each other. My current thought – what is wrong with them confirming with each other?? They are obviously more comfortable with each other than before. Isn’t it what I wanted?

What does all that mean? (speculation about the causes)

I can’t wrap my head around the reasons for their repeated confusion over tasks in the presentation and practice stages (which, honestly, resemble one another from class to class)… Do you have any ideas?….

 

*****

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. What a long post!.. And no conclusions drawn… I hope you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time reading it, and I will secretly hope that some day somebody can find this post useful, whichever way that may be. If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them below.

Bottom line: I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time on the beach. On the contrary, I finally feel the burden slightly lifted. The tugboat is at work now, slowly picking up speed.

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

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#JALT2016. Notes on the highlights.

Sarah Mercer and Relational Pedagogy

  • Sarah Mercer feels passionate about the importance of the teacher. I feel passionate about it, too.  She also says our well-being comes first. I believe in this, too.
  • When we praise some students in front of the whole class, what are the implicit messages for all other students of that class?
  • Sarah shared the VIA classification of character strengths and I am most thankful to her for that. For one thing, I’m glad the classification, the list already exists. And then this:

Each one of us possess all 24 of the VIA character strengths in varying degrees making up our own unique profiles.

That means all of our students possess those strengths. That said, my most challenging class this semester, which also happens to be the main subject of my journaling, gets another angle to look at. What makes each of those 8 students special? How can I build up on their particular strengths? And then we could start feeling better about our time together in class, maybe.

  • Sarah shared some research which showed that teacher-student relationship is 11th out of 138 most influential factors for learning. Isn’t it quite important, then? Doesn’t it mean that we should invest in this relationship more – notice it, care about it, talk about it, work on it?…
  • Then there was this idea. Just as being around positive, happy people might make you feel happier and more positive, the opposite is also true. The vicious cycle of disengagement:

dsc_2565

And since WE are the adults in our relationships with students (well, when we are), it is up to US to take the effort to start the positive relationship. Ultimately, it is good for US as what we do, the way we do it, will travel that loop and come back amplified.

  • Offer choice no matter how limited.
  • What qualities are important for people in relationships? she asked us. The one that immediately came to my mind was reciprocity. Sarah’s list included that, and also appreciation, equality, empathy, mutual respect, trust, feeling comfortble together, and more… So logic suggests these same qualities should be nurtured between students and teachers, too, as ours is a social relationship just as important, as we’ve seen.

 

John Fanselow and iTDi

  • How many people you know and/or communicate with who are NOT teachers or former students? Talk to non-educators about what is important in their jobs and lives. Take in what they say and relate.
  • “I don’t consider what I do my work,” he said. I share the feeling.
  • Ask your students – What would be great to have in your class and in your classroom? What could make the class better? Quite possibly they have some ideas.
  • Ask them also  – What annoys you about this class? And makes it a pleasant experience?
  • Question everything – How is what you’re doing good? How is it not good? What are the alternative options? Along the same lines… I might think, “it’s a good idea!”… But what if it’s not?…
  • And finally, this: Textbooks leave out the one important skill, which is emotional development.

 

There was much more about JALT, and as usual the most important and memorable was about the people. About our emotional relationships. That’s what stays for me, conference after conference, and likely class after class for our learners, too.

 

Thinking of all the people this past weekend… we hugged, talked, laughed, took pictures, worked in pairs in workshops, shared meals and drinks, shared plans, presented together, tweeted together, learnt together, got tired, felt ignorant and/or knowledgeable together, played games like young learners do, helped each other out… Then we were sad to said goodbye. And now we’re here, at the end of this blogpost.

If you’ve never been to a conference, I hope you do go. I hope you’ll keep an open mind and welcome connections that will flow your way, and then I hope you’ll feel the way I do.

 

As ever, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

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The Chuck Effect

I was reading a collection of essays by John Steinbeck and one on literary criticism had this simple idea that hit home with me:

“Here’s a thing we are most likely to forget. A man’s writing is himself. A kind man writes kindly. A mean man writes meanly. A sick man writes sickly. And a wise man writes wisely.”

After I wondered for a minute about how I write, I thought of different ELT blogs I’m most familiar with and the people behind those blogs that I met. It just made perfect sense. Steinbeck’s was instantly the clearest, most logical explanation of why I feel drawn to some blogs while others leave me indifferent (or even repel me) and where this connection comes from when we meet for the first time offline. Their writing exposes their character, whether they intend it or not.

Today’s post is the effect of one man’s writing.

 

Chuck Sandy writes here about the importance need for listening to each other, and this couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m deeply bothered by the fact that students are not talking to me or interacting with me in a genuine, personal way, the way I know it, the way my job works for me.

I want to tell them about my day, about my life, about what makes me not just “sensei” (oftentimes nameless). It’s invariably painful when I’m addressed like that, even if I know it’s in the culture. I want to find words to reach out to them so that they know how that feels.

I want to tell them that I took an online sketching course and felt so excited to see I could have a little success, one at a time, and create something. I want to show them those photos of my sketches I shared on Instagram, because that’s something that gives me energy for teaching, it makes me myself now.

I want to tell them I started doing yoga and swimming regularly, and that I feel proud of myself for taking my own baby steps and carrying on with it for about a month.

I want to tell them about the book I’m reading and how interesting it is (or not).

I want to tell them about my dreams and hear theirs and talk about them together.

I want to tell them about my desire to travel all across Asia. I would tell them that I spend many of my evenings watching travel shows and taking mental notes of where I absolutely need to go in my lifetime.

I want to complain that it’s tough for me, too, to get up early 6 days a week, but that spending time in class together with them makes me feel better. That I relish their smiles (it is true).

I want to do this and yet I can’t, or I can but I don’t – because I’m shy, because I have a plan to follow and this would be wasting time. Because I heard student-talking time should be maximized. Because after the bell goes, they pack up their things and rarely say goodbye to me unless I say it first.

I want to tell them that I feel distraught and lost when sometimes they come 15 minutes before class starts and sit together in silence, not uttering a word to each other. At the same time I want to tell them I understand that this is just another class, and I understand they don’t have to actually like the people they share a class with.

I wish I could tell those things. I wish I felt comfortable telling those things, and it mattered that I shared them.

 

As I’m writing this, believe it or not, there’s a lump in the throat and tears welling up (which I stopped as proceeded typing feverishly).

I guess it’s true what Chuck wrote about becoming part of their lives. I want us to be part of each others’ lives, even if a little, even if for a short while, but genuinely so.

The teachers that I have warm memories about were the teachers who were empathetic, who said I was special, who genuinely praised me, who were real people above all. The teachers I didn’t want to upset by not coming to class or cheating on homework. The teachers in whose classes I felt comfortable sharing my views, even if contradictory to most others’, openly. I knew that they would accept and recognize me for me.

 

I started by the wise words from wise Steinbeck. As reading Chuck’s post drew me to the keyboard in a way I couldn’t resist or delay at midnight, I conclude and confirm for myself yet again that Steinbeck was right. A man’s writing is himself. So I call this post The Chuck Effect, because inspiring me to be pulling out the uncomfortable truths and writing from my heart is this man’s effect.

 

Thank you for reading.