Author Archives: annloseva

It’s not about you. Or is it?…

It’s been the longest day. So long that by the time you get home you can’t quite remember what mood you left the house with in the morning, what you had for lunch, or how the first lesson of the day went. No detail, no fine lines, just one big smear of the day. The smear caused by something that happened in class that looms dark and large. By the time I reached my front door tonight, I had complained, got frustrated, felt disrespected, poured my heart out, tweeted for help, got comforted, made action plans, blamed myself, found fault with students, realized where I’d done wrong, sulked, felt ashamed and sorry, chastised myself, and finally cried.

I am spent. It’s tough, but I know I need to write about this whirlwind here.

I’ll go backwards and start from the end. As I walked home and replayed the class in my mind over and over again, it hit me that I’d cooked my own bacon right there.

When students were chatting off-topic in class, I took it to mean they were not focused – but were they challenged enough to keep their focus on task? Did the task mean much to them? Did I myself believe in the task I was offering?

When students’ poses during group discussion time looked “too relaxed” to me and suggested indifference – did I consider that’s how those students are, in general, as people? Relaxed.

When their answers to my question “How was your discussion?” didn’t match my expectations, did I acknowledge their responses as viable at all? Did I give them a chance to be heard? Was I ready to hear them, whatever it was they had to say?

Was my view of a good discussion different from theirs, but I stubbornly insisted on mine?

Was I mean to them at any point? Was I patronizing?

Did I praise them at all in this class? Both those who seemed to care and worked hard, and those who didn’t *seem so*?

Could I possibly have imagined some of the attitude? Didn’t I succumb to the negative I saw/imagined, let it control me, and spend the rest of the lesson day with my vision blurred and judgement clouded?

 

The realization that hurt me the most was that I’d acted against my own beliefs (does that mean they are fake?…). Something I talk about with my colleagues a lot – that students are people first and foremost and people are different; that they made a choice to come to my class and that can be appreciated in itself; that they have a right to not enjoy this obligatory class; that we don’t know what’s happening in their lives outside of our class, which is exactly when their whole life is happening; that it’s me as a teacher – and hopefully a grown-up – who is in charge of making steps towards a positive environment.

I forgot to empathize. That’s what made me cry on my way home – and now as I’m typing this.

 

I know I can’t change my reactions, what’s done is done. Surely it was both of us, me and the students, but I know my ego blew it out of proportion. I got defensive, but I’m not sure what I was fighting for so fiercely mattered that much. In retrospect, I sincerely hope nobody other than me got hurt by the blow.

The response to my emotional message shared on Twitter and Facebook was overwhelming, both online and in real life. I’m thankful and amazed at how kind people are to me.

I will try to be that, too.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

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On the current state

Today I want to write here some of my current thoughts about professional development, the possibility of a burn-out, my place in this profession, the changes in my interests in the six years that I can trace back with the help of this blog, and importantly, my thoughts about future. As in, my professional future. Tomorrow morning all of this might make little sense to me but as of now, it stands. I might feel differently ten days from now when I go back to work and have to plan classes again, meet students, spend hours with colleagues, work on projects. But now, lost in vacation, knee-deep in idleness, I feel that.

It’s been a month since I last stepped foot in a classroom, and I’ve learnt by now that long vacations are not exactly a good fit for me. Nearly every time I lose sense of professional purpose, but this summer hit me a little bit harder (though frankly speaking, it has been creeping in for a while).

“What is IT?” you’ll probably ask.

As I scroll down my Facebook feed, I see (this summer much like any other time in the year), an abundance of good-looking and not-so-good-looking resources, useful and toxic articles, thoughtful and all different kinds of blog posts. There’s a lot of everything – and there has been for as long as I have used social media for ELT, which is 6 years.

Yet barely anything clicks now quite the same way as it used to.

I am not drawn to webinars.

I am not willing to participate in Twitter conversations.

I don’t have the energy to look at my WordPress Reader.

You most likely don’t see my comments to any of the ELT discussions on Facebook.

You have not yet received my response to your kind, long and thoughtful comment on my blog post.

 

Burn-out?

I want to look six years back into the logs. Here’s what I’ve been massively excited about for something like 4-5 years: activities, professional communities aka PLNs, technology (apps, web tools, blogs, social media), sharing students’ work, etc. I am far less thrilled about most of those now. I sometimes even catch myself sounding skeptical, and I don’t want to become that person. I used to be so passionate about so many things. These days, I choose and pick, examine carefully what to be passionate about. And then become mildly enthusiastic. I have more criticism in me than I’d prefer. I don’t use as many exclamation marks when I write. One could take it to mean I’ve lost some vigour, if one were to analyse that much.

And, of course, conferences. I couldn’t get enough of them. I wanted so much to be everywhere, to meet everyone, to present and share what I’d done as a teacher. The kind comments, positive response of the audience, presence of those who’d become friends – it got me high and dizzy every single time. Together we make each other feel important. So much support, so much learning, and above all, our relationships growing deeper. We became each others’ stars.

Does it sound like I’m saying I don’t value any of that anymore?

That’s not what I’m saying.

I can’t seem to find my place, that’s what I’m trying to say. I don’t want to be the kind of presenter who shares own experiences in the self-centered way. When I go to a conference, I look to see who will be there. And then aren’t we trapped in this cycle of doing it for the same people over and over again? I don’t think I want to share for the mere sake of sharing anymore. I don’t always understand what and who the conferences are for, my view is blurred.

I wrote before that I want to participate in programs to “help teachers” in developing countries. I still do, but there’s this nagging voice at the back of my mind offering me a vague picture of what it might look like… me performing a role, albeit excitedly. Imparting whatever knowledge or skills or ideas I come up with when I write my abstracts to go. How can a short visit with a couple of workshops help anyone? Do I want to be a person associated with this kind of help? On the other hand, though, what’s wrong with it? Having never been part of it, why am I already doubting the impact?

That’s a rough sketch of where my mind is. Of the current state.

 

My own diagnosis is as follows: a time-out at the crossroads. Re-evaluating the purpose and meaning, locating professional self, contemplating directions.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Semester reflection July 2017

Tuesday July 18th was a great Tuesday.

I owed my good (actually hyper) feeling to an exhilarating hailstorm in Tokyo, my sweet students who gave me the first shikishi thank-you card in my life and made me feel special, AND the best attended RP Tokyo meeting in history – 10 teachers sacrificed their Tuesday night in order to meet other teachers and talk about teaching. When I phrase what happened like that, I can’t help but feel deep appreciation – and fascination, too! I know there are other ways to spend a nice summer evening in Tokyo. I’m grateful people made the choice they made.

We’ll have to put hailstorms, however exciting, aside as this post is about the RP meeting of that day. It was different in a few ways. First of all, we hadn’t had so many teachers in a meeting before. Secondly, we hadn’t had four new members join at any one time before. And finally, we hadn’t structured our reflection in a way like that before. So I have to admit to having been slightly nervous… but maybe it went well (thanks to Bill Snyder and everyone else for being positive and supportive).

And now I’ll tell you what it was we did that got me so excited.

Here’s what happened:

IMG_7496   —>   IMG_7497

Background: A few weeks ago I attended a 5-minute webinar by Sarietjie Musgrave aka @sarietjiem, in which she described a reflection tool she uses with her students in South Africa when they finish certain projects. The idea behind it is that every finger of a hand is used symbolically to pose a question for guided reflection. The original questions that Sarietjie provided were as follows:

  • What worked well for you in this project? (the Thumb question)
  • How can you apply the skills/ information you got in real life? (the Index Finger question)
  • What caused frustration? (the angry Middle Finger question)
  • What made you feel passionate while working on this project? (the Ring Finger question)
  • What made you feel vulnerable? (the Little Finger question)

 

The idea immediately looked so appealing to me that the following week I tried it out with my students, playing with the questions a little to match them to the course the students had just finished. At the same time, I thought it could be interesting (and fitting) for our last Reflective Practice meeting of the term, which had been planned to focus on our achievements and progress made in the four months since the beginning of this academic year.

Procedure: I brought the empty hand template to the meeting and we worked in small groups coming up with our own questions for each finger that we would later answer while reflecting on the term. After that, there were 10 minutes of silent individual writing time (a moment I truly value both in our meetings and classroom scenarios). Finally, we spent the rest of the time discussing our reflections in small groups, asking each other questions to find out more and understand each other better. In the last 15-20 minutes of the meeting in a whole group discussion we shared our thoughts on this way of reflecting and wrapped up the meeting with thanks and farewells and such. Among the thoughts that other teachers expressed while reflecting on reflection were the following ideas that spoke to me:

(1) It was through talking about the experiences lived by us during the term that we could make a better sense of things and events, and also see the interconnectedness of these experiences. I guess holistic could be a suitable word to describe this method of reflection that we used.

(2) We often offer ready-made reflection questions to our students (e.g. how was today’s class? what did you enjoy? what did you learn? how do you do your homework? etc). But the experience of us writing our own questions could very well be transferred to the ways we do it in class – let students come up with the reflection questions they’d like to answer. See where it takes us.

Maybe here’s where the possibly useful part of the blog post finishes and the self-indulgent one begins. I’d like to capture the spring term of 2017 reflection for myself, so here go my answers as they happened during the meeting.

*****

The Thumb, or “Highlights of this semester”

1) Without any doubt, co-organizing ExcitELT conference in Tokyo was the biggest highlight! That sounds like it could be enough but I made a choice to also present at PanSIG conference in Akita two weeks prior to that and at Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe a week after ExcitELT. Five presentations on four different topics within three weeks – so far I haven’t had any experience to top that.

2) At the PanSIG conference in Akita something special happened. I found out there is a SIG that I had just been looking for, THT SIG – Teachers Helping Teachers. In short, teachers volunteer their time and money to go to developing countries and give workshops, presentations, or other forms of support for teacher communities there. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me as after traveling to Cambodia earlier this year I have thought about volunteering as a teacher a lot. Finding the THT SIG seems to be just what I needed. Onwards.

3) After “complaining” about rapport with students in my previous blog posts (that link, and also here and here), finally I feel like this term I’ve managed to establish a deeper connection with my students. The simple answer seems to have been in giving it time, giving me time to adjust to the system. With more control over my lesson plan and my performance within the unified curriculum, also came flexibility. And a comforting feeling that I can afford being me in my class once again.

The Index Finger, or “What did I learn that I can share with others? What did I learn that can help me to move forward?”

1) I would love to keep working on “spreading the love” for reflective practice, the way I know it to be, in the ways I can do it – blogging, organizing and advertizing our group meetings, writing articles, presenting more at conferences, possibly at future workshops that I could volunteer to do as part of THT SIG programs in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, etc…

2) I would love to share the experience of what organizing a conference can be and how to go about doing it in my university in particular. That’s a possible blog post.

3) I would like to read – and practice – more about how to become a better communicator. Among other things, I’m terrible at managing conflicts, in fact, I’m terrible at experiencing conflicts myself. I think I’m grown up enough now to work on that.

The Middle Finger, or “Frustrations, disappointments, anger, and negativity of this semester”

Swept up in the hassle of May-June conference-related and other busyness, I got so grumpy and stressed that I often did not communicate with the people around me… well. Felt no energy to invest into that communication, into understanding others and being patient, into looking for a common language. It wasn’t good for my system and only added to the already existing stress.

The Ring Finger, or “Connections”

This semester I was as social as I hadn’t been in a long while, definitely not since I moved to Japan. That resulted in renewing old connections and building stronger bonds, forming new connections with colleagues in my workplace as well as with new members of the RP group. I sent a hundred emails and networked meaningfully at conferences. With the information about THT SIG, a whole new vision has opened up, with a view into possible connections outside of what my current teaching and working zone is. Connections that could be a bridge into my next step – teaching in other countries in Asia. Feels like the door has opened a crack.

The Little Finger, or “When did I feel vulnerable?”

Quite a few times during the term I felt vulnerable and uncertain in class with student A. An exceptionally fluent – and overfluent! – student who has lived and studied abroad for many years, student A. was swearing in class, unknowingly dominating discussions, and yet all that with the best of intentions as I later found out. How did I deal with it? Talking and being honest helps. Helped. 🙂

Added in the palm of the hand – “Achievements that I am proud of”

I believe I am somewhat proud of, even if exhausted by the end of it, being a part of ExcitELT this year. It was an experience I hadn’t had before and one that taught me a lot – about conferences, about people, about myself.

Another source of pride would  be our RP group success! New members, the interest, the buzz *that I’m feeling**… More than ever before I hope that other group members will step up to become facilitators and share what they believe is worth reflecting on, as well as how else it can be done.

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In a discussion a few days ago I complained with an earnest feeling of frustration in my tone that I think I have a problem. My problem is my stubbornness. The fact is, I appear all too ready to be reflective, only if that’s going to be MY way of reflecting, something I understand, something that speaks to MY style. I know it limits my development – and worst of all, I feel like such a hypocrite. Thus, I’d like to end here with yet another quote that takes its roots in the Buddhist teachings.

When we hold too firmly to our beliefs, we risk being blind to reality and seeing only what conforms to our beliefs.

Haemin Sunim, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

 

Thank you for reading.

 

Questions for discussion kind of post.

Today’s blog post is not a typical post. It’s not even a paragraph-blogging kind of post. Rather it’s an invitation to discuss some questions that are on my mind today, so much that I can’t handle thinking of them alone. 

If you have something to say, I’d love to read your opinion in the comments below.

*****

Topic: A teacher’s responsibility for students’ successful performance.

Questions:

1. How responsible are teachers for students’ successful performance of the target language they teach?

2. When do you know/feel you’ve done everything in your power to help students use the language?

3. How much control do/should teachers have over students’ ability to produce the desired output? 

4. In the case of a rigid, institution-imposed assessment system, what should govern us more, our own beliefs about what “successful performance” means – or the institution’s idea?

5. What do you do when you realize/assume students’ (under)performance may be affected by your plan or your skills as a teacher?

6. In the case of #5, would you want help from others or would you prefer to deal with the issues alone? (only you know your students..). Would you want to talk about it? If so, how?…
*****

I wonder what you think, and of course understand that every teaching context is different. Your answers would enrich my understanding of these questions, whatever context they’d be coming from. Food for thought!…

Thank you for reading.

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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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