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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).

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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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Articulated beliefs

“Methods are of little interest” 

L.G. Kelly

I entered my current job with what could be called an average (for an English teacher in Russia) academic background – 5 years at an English Philology department of a pedagogical university – and approximately ten years of teaching experience. In those years, I taught in a variety of classrooms, from General English courses in a small private comprehensive school to an ESP course for Physics majors at a renowned Russian university. Yet, in that range of contexts, over the years, I did not deliberately consider the principles of Communicative Language Teaching when planning my classes. What I did in the classroom was not determined by any particular methodologies but rather by course goals, suggested materials (in the more rigidly structured workplaces that I had to work), and, more recently and importantly, by my students’ needs.

Were I to discuss the “best” ways to teach, I would state without hesitation that these ways, if they even exist, are not wisdoms encapsulated in methods. In fact, methods are nothing without contexts and the teachers and students that constitute these individual contexts. In this way, I am ready to confess that my teaching has been, knowingly or unknowingly, method-free. My teaching beliefs do not originate in methods but rather have developed from my own experience learning foreign languages, from my teaching experience, from professional discussions with colleagues teaching English in various contexts in different countries, and from attending and presenting at ELT conferences.

Below I would like to introduce and comment in a little more detail on the teaching beliefs about learning languages that I value the most, hold true, and attempt to apply, in this or that form, in my lessons. 

  • Language learning should be centered in human nature. Language learning, above all, is a social activity. The people in a classroom are the most significant elements to the learning and teaching that takes place and their interaction determines the quality of classroom experiences. The emotional “bridge” of a connection between students and a teacher, the rapport that is gradually and mutually established, both students’ and teacher’s motivation and involvement in learning process and class activities – these are top priorities and necessary conditions underlying successful learning environments.
  • A language classroom should have plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I see language as more than an entity encompassing combinations of vocabulary chunks and grammar structures, but rather as our interaction with the world in real time. Dogme as sort of a teaching philosophy, in which the central idea is teaching from students’ emergent needs and limiting the reliance on ready-made materials, has been one of the most beneficial influences on my teaching style for the past four years in all of my classrooms.  
  • Writing is a necessary, even crucial skill in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking as it provides sufficient time and focus for organizing thoughts, structuring language both in form and content. Overall, consistent and varied writing experience improves language learning in aspects other than writing itself.
  • Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process and it is a teacher’s job to equip learners with tools for reflection, such as portfolios, learning logs of different types, a chance to co-construct a syllabus, etc. Students need to be aware of what they are doing for their learning in and out of the classroom and why, as well as consider the ways to improve their learning experience and results. Reflection in a systematic way may ensure progress and consistently high levels of motivation.

It might be argued that a few of the aforementioned beliefs could lead to somewhat unstructured classes in which it would be an additional challenge for both a teacher and students to chart progress. While this has sometimes been the case, I have always managed to find balance, remain on track, or adjust initial study plans. I consider myself fortunate to have taught in working environments that allowed me, to a large extent, to practice what I preach and experiment with new ideas. Consequently, my view of language learning as a social, emotionally engaging process that benefits from being, in a sense, unsystematic was confirmed time and again through positive feedback from my students.

During the FEELTA-AsiaTEFL conference held in Vladivostok in July 2016, in his presentation “What drives your classroom teaching?” Dr. Philip Chappell suggested a framework for interrogating teaching beliefs for all practicing teachers. His studies have shown that what teachers believe to be true about language learning and teaching and what teachers really do in class can either converge or diverge. For me in my current position, the dramatic change that this new teaching context brought about for my behavior in class makes more transparent than ever the converging and especially diverging nature of my current teaching practices and my own beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I will classify the beliefs I’ll be talking about into the following three types:

  • converging beliefs – previously held principles that match with my current teaching practice;
  • diverging beliefs – previously held principles that clash with my current teaching practice;
  • emerging beliefs – principles that arose from my current teaching practice.

Converging Beliefs

Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process. From the first lesson in my new job, I could see the significance and potential of using suggested self-assessment lists. The idea of allocating time during class for students to make a reflective pause, analyze their performance, and set their personal goals for the next stage in class (or future lessons) accordingly appealed to me. For every lesson in the term I was using my own variation of a self-check list with every group of students, redesigning it as needed, and developing it to suit my students’ needs as I saw them. New versions of self-check lists incorporated more than the original ticking of the boxes for the used target language: the reflection included gap-fills to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, questions to ask and answer in pairs, and questions to reflect on group discussion performance.

Although the implementation of this way of self-assessment has proven to be quite effective with the majority of students, in the future I would like to bring this reflection to a new level by experimenting with a more extended reflective dialogue. It might include open-ended questions for student-student discussion and/or micro-writing reflective activities for a teacher-student dialogue.

Diverging Beliefs

Language learning should be centered in human nature. In his book “50 Ways to Be a Better Teacher: Professional Development Techniques” Chris Mares suggests that “…we should not only be sensitive to each student in their individuality and entirety, but we should also treat the class as a community that requires nurturing. In this way, the teacher is an integral part of a shared experience, rather than simply a director of activities… Last semester, for what could be the first time in my teaching career I felt very strongly like a director of activities. This “director” leads students through the stages of any given lesson towards expected results step by step, task by task, without an odd minute to pause, breathe, acknowledge the people in the classroom, their moods, needs, real-life problems, and their possible impact on the performance. By the middle of the term I realized that I had failed to establish the quality of rapport that would be satisfactory and in accordance with the expectations that I have of myself as a teacher. A relationship between a class and a teacher takes time to develop (especially so here in Japan, to my observations), but with the rigid plan to stick to at all costs, the very notion and necessity of building a relationship slipped from the area of my priorities, which had quite a negative emotional influence on me. In the first half of the semester there was a significant shift of focus for me, both intentionally and unconsciously, from the people in the classroom to the plan to follow to the letter, from the learning that was taking place to the plan I was/am to follow to the letter. In the next semester I plan to pay more deliberate attention to the process of building and nurturing a community with every group of students that I teach. I will try to remember to communicate more openly and willingly. I will try to remember to acknowledge my students as individuals to empathize and connect with, not merely as recipients of instruction, no matter how student-centered it is.    

Emerging Beliefs

Consistency breeds success. The idea that for most teachers must come as a self-evident matter of course was quite a powerful realization for me: language learners benefit greatly from learning with consistency, learning within a clear system. I have mentioned before that one of the ways my personal teaching beliefs affected my teaching practice in the past was a rather fluid, unstructured, emergent nature of the courses I taught. Last semester, teaching in the *very structured* way I had not taught before, I could observe a tangible, huge improvement most students made in meeting the course goals, and I was convinced.   

While I still hold on to my firm belief that methods are secondary in the success on the path of learning a foreign language, the past four months of teaching gave me an important opportunity to reconsider my beliefs by “doing it another way.” It has certainly been a most eye-opening experience to teach against and in spite of ingrained beliefs. Such an experience, as I have learnt, can be liberating given the right attitude and perspective. Beliefs are not or do not have to be postulates rigidly regulating our teaching behavior and choices for the whole length of our careers. In fact, a lot more can be learnt from the exact opposite context of what we are accustomed to than from persisting in teaching the same way for years on end.

*****

Thank you for making your way through this article to the end. What you’ve read is about 73% (also slightly edited) of my self-reflection “paper” that I was preparing myself for writing in the previous blog post. It was not easy to identify those beliefs but I can recommend anyone to sit down and do so.

And I am thinking now… it is true that we as teachers should be open to change and learning what we can from it. But we should also stay true to who we are, no matter what conditions we find ourselves working in.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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