Tag Archives: Reflection

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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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)

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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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#RPTokyo, May 27th

One of the things I took for myself out of the Reflective Practice meeting (#RPTokyo being the unofficial hashtag used solely by me *so far*)  that we had today is that I can write every day. I’ll set the timer for 10 minutes and just write. Write those blog posts I want to write. Write NOW and not expect myself to have them clean and perfect and ready to publish.

So here I am, just back home from an RP meeting on a Friday night, dying (metaphorically) to put on the screen what this meeting was all about. Setting the timer for 10 mins and…

 

Below is my plan (annotated where necessary) for the second RP meeting that we held today. I post it as it is, copied and pasted straight away from a Google Doc I have created for that #RPTokyo purpose. Afterwards I will walk you through what actually happened and how.

*****

Second Meeting

May 27th, Friday

LISTEN (note for myself to remember to keep it a priority for us to listen to each other)

Plan

  • Quick intro (Who are you? Why are you here? What’s your experience with RP?)
  • “Fluency” warm-up. Talk to a partner for 3 minutes about the questions. The listener should ask questions.

Remember one or two challenging moments in class: What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you respond to it?

  • Whole group recap of the ways people respond to challenging, stressful situations.

(?elicit and write on board adjectives to describe emotions people felt?)

  • ELC as one of the tools to learn to reflect on our teaching in order to make changes.

(discuss the cycle in pairs?). Any comments? —> “experience” that we look at doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It can be any stage of class or a success. (my own note I wanted to remember to say)

  • Let’s explore the ELC together. In pairs, go through a moment you shared before (or a different moment?) with the help of the Cycle.
  • Wrap-up. Share what you’ve learnt today (if), any thoughts before leaving?

Give article to read just FYI. About RP groups in Korea.

Resources to share in the group:

Zhenya’s posts

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/elc-or-the-art-of-experiential-learning/

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/elc-questions-and-answers/

*****

Lessons learnt, Lesson one

Trust myself to plan and organize, trust the group to follow and adjust.

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You might notice in the rough plan I shared above the many question marks I used. Thinking of how to facilitate a meeting to the benefit of all proved not at all equal to planning a workshop, as the underlying thoughts I had were, “Does it help us feel a community? Can we open up? Will we listen to each other? Who has control?”

One of the main concerns I had in anticipation of the first meeting was that, as an organizer,  I’d risk coming across as knowledgeable. That my role of an organiser and facilitator would have me pushing people to do what I think RP meeting is about, what I saw it to be (in Daegu, Korea, in the autumn of 2014). I sweated  and panicked over this. Two meetings later, I realize that being a facilitator is a package deal – it goes with those concerns and responsibilities in hand. Fear of the unknown, anticipation of negative reactions, unclear set-up, unmet expectations – those were some factors that triggered a massive lack of confidence in me. And while to a certain extent they still do, now I know I’m not alone. In this second meeting, it did feel like we were a group. We were making choices together and it proved painless to trust each other and share the reins. It was painless, too, to get the reins back and ensure we’re on track.

 

Notes, thoughts, practicalities

There’s a mental trap it’s easy to fall into – to consciously or subconsciously expect to come out of an event/presentation/workshop/meeting with real take-aways. Well, when I’m present and listening, it’s easy to. Here are the notes I took which count as take-aways.

1. I did take notes of the emotions that were named during the 5-5-5 activity during our group recap of our stories. Challenging situations left the teachers feel frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, helpless, frozen, ignorant, grateful for students’ good communication skills, guilty, caring, angry… Feeling like they’re not doing enough. I’m glad we looked at the bright side, too.

2. Two out of six teachers present at the meeting were Japanese, and it was from them that I heard the following idea: Japanese teachers are culturally more inclined to be negative towards their teaching experiences. In the same way, Japanese students might not be used to praise.  But then, is it really so culturally exclusive? Aren’t we all too obsessed with dwelling on the negative sometimes?…We’re probably more likely to revisit in our minds a tiniest classroom failure than a little classroom success.

3. … And that was when it dawned on me that, in the short time in the very rigid structure of my class that I have for feedback and potentially connecting to the students, I should aim at making my class a more positive experience. Limit the points to improve, extend the praise. Today was the first day when I drew smiley faces in my students’ self-check sheets.

4. I will use a timer for my own writing! I have. We’re reaping the fruit.

IMG_1807

5. In connection with the same idea of obsessing over the negative, I remembered a plenary I attended three or four years ago at a conference in Turkey. The speaker asked us to write down the answer to the question – What am I good at as a teacher? – and tell about it to the partner. Is it an easy question to ask yourself? I struggled to do it back then, I’m not sure I’ll easily do it now. The plenary speaker was Chuck Sandy.

6. During our discussions at the meeting I formulated a couple more things that teaching at Clark taught me. (A) Have students busy with a task all the time; (B) Minimize teach-talk to students – what is an important message for me is likely a mere noise for them. (C) Do not fear to show strength and character, do not fear to not be soft and friendly. (D) I hadn’t realized before teaching in Japan just how much code-switching from Russian to English and back I was doing in my classes and how big the impact was. I never had to think about it!

 

Final thoughts

I have said it many times, to myself and others, that I’m good on my own. I have said it so many times that I believe it to be true. Indeed, imagining me spending a Saturday night alone sketching, colouring, reading, writing this, one might agree that there’s a lot of an introvert in me. Yet there’s no denying the fact that reflecting in a group for two hours gave me so much energy that I nearly finished this blog post in an hour’s time. After struggling for months to get my momentum back.

Maybe there’s something to it, even if it only were a once-in-a-month kind of effect.

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RP mission statement…loading…

I don’t know if I am allowed to do it in this very first RP challenge I’ve willingly signed up for…But anyway.

 

I, along with all others, was encouraged to think about what my reflective practice mission statement might look like. I have thought about it and come to an (un)easy conclusion:

I can’t make a mission statement before I set out on the mission and go a few steps. This thinking, I anticipate and am quite ready for, may cause some eyebrow-raising and sneering. As it is indeed contradictory to basic principles of all known missions and successful planning. Yet, I have my reasons, obviously.

 

  •  Personal experience shows I’m strong-willed, strong and willing at the beginning of initiatives and then easily slide down to being uninterested and unmotivated. Of course, support and nudge mean a lot. So I have more hopes for this project than for others.
  •  I tend to take unhealthy pleasure from preparations for something (projects and missions). Thinking about them, imagining how they will be done, making long-term unrealistic plans, sharing the excitement with everybody around. I can be a daydreamer, which is not always helpful.
  •  I have this amazing notebook. I like to look at it very much. It came to me from South Korea and was doomed to be used as an RP journal. In these several months I’ve filled it with many words… but mostly not mine. That makes me feel sad and more determined to take up the upcoming challenges (coming as, hopefully, small bites that I will be able to chew). I hope I’ll have some words of my own to fill the pages with.

So, for now, my first RP challenge ends with a failure to formulate my mission statement. I’m not unhappy with it, rather I embrace my way of treating the whole mission. Also, it’s more hedonism))

*****

If you’ve read this and feel confused or annoyed because you think you’re missing some crucial parts of information, this is true. I’m sorry, the text from below should have been an introduction, in fact. It’s all upside down here today.

 

I’ve been reading other teachers’ blogs for a while (almost 3 years, by fits and starts). Reflective Practice (RP for short and forever in this space), as an idea to develop for a teacher after actually going through some mental process of analysis and further action based on it + some research, has long been luring me. Blogs of teachers who do RP have been most insightful to me recently (as well as their authors). I’ve found out there are whole RP meetings in certain parts of the world. And apparently, to my knowledge, there are no such meetings or groups in my country. I hope I’ll try to find a way to introduce this idea to those who could be interested in it here in Russia, while I’m still here (because I’m hopeful I won’t be here from some time on in the future). But as trying to find/make up a group of real-life Russian RP enthusiasts offline is naturally a process too long and painful, doing my own first steps in RP online seems a worthwhile chance (plus attractive in many other respects).

So my mission, one of many this year (which fact probably reduces its chances for consistency and success..), is doing these RP challenges John ObservingTheClass Pfordresher promises to supply me/us all with. The mission with no statement to speak of at the moment.

The invitation to team up for online RP fun is open for everyone, I gather. Join in. The more the merrier/ more reflective/ more analytical.

 

And yes, in line with all of the above…

Ann Loseva’s Space is currently emerging. =)

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16 question marks and a soundtrack.

I’ve read it somewhere that getting students to talk about their lives makes them more motivated in learning a language in general and quite excited about your class in particular. I’ve read it, somewhere, many times.

Disturbing moments, anyone? I raise my hand.

Set-up. Mood: feeling calm, confident, expectant.
I thought it’d be so cool to do this activity from Teaching Unplugged, “Up and Down”, in which you get your students to sketch a mood diagram to talk about how they felt during some period of time you choose to talk about (a weekend, a longer holiday). It’s speaking about my learner’s recent personal experience, it’s going to be practising adjectives and participles to describe events and feelings about them. I’ve done it before. Nice one.

Development. Mood: feeling suddenly less calm and more suspicious; the air is getting tense.
I’m so great, my choices are amazing today. I decide to record this activity to later on think about it and analyse. Press the button.
At that point I could have sensed something was going wrong when I glanced at the page and saw that sharp decline. This could have prompted me to stop this, or twist it, or be careful. But the ball had already been set rolling. In the flashback of the moment, now, I am sure I noticed the eyes becoming watery. I didn’t say a word but I could have (Did I have to? Did I need to? Would you?) Is it in fact a point to be concerned about that I could’ve prevented the bad feelings for the student? It was apparently something looking for a way out, for an excuse to stream out like that.

Peak point. Mood: feeling… uneasy? uncomfortable? damaged? psyched? I wouldn’t mind somebody teaching me some words to describe this state.
I hear myself asking “Are you scared?” And I’m pretty sure now I was asking myself. Hectic racking of the brain, but not for what’s in my activity sandbox… Do I have a box of ready-made emphatic solutions? Some plans maybe, worksheets, activities explaining step by step how to fix this. It’s an extreme emergent emotional reaction which I haven’t read in books how to deal with.
Apparently, it was an unhappy vacation.

From that point on something was happening but it’s all more or less a mess in my head now. In the end, the best of all choices I made at that lesson (probably) was choosing to read aloud. My luck to have one of Kevin Stein’s short stories with me, and the one that the student could relate to. Heart thumping subsides. It’s all fine in the end, it seems so, but I only know what I feel and that’s only 50%.

*****
Post-lesson notes made 10 minutes after the class in an unstoppable flush of extreme emergent emotional reaction of a sensitive teacher. Random, of course.

~ Sometimes at my weakest moments I just feel doing a safe coursebook would spare me (and students) the embarrassment and pain.
~ Is it indeed so very exciting to talk about personal experience?
~ How emphatic do you teacher need to be? Is there any assessment of this ability? Is there anything I can do to learn it? Do I need to learn it? I might not be so sensitive as to cry in front of other people myself, but I feel the pain of others acutely and I’m not at all sure I know how to manage these moments.
~ What did the student learn? It honestly doesn’t matter to me, since the thin fabric of the psyche of my lesson cracked in seams and caused trouble.
~ Now talk about students remembering the knowledge we teachers give, not the teachers themselves (or moments).

I’d like to make it clear that this one is the second post in my impulsive blog post series. It is not about how I handled this particular situation (and a couple of similar ones that I’ve had in my teacher life). It is a story of how we can unknowingly trigger a reaction we are not prepared for, and not necessarily know how to deal with. I think I *half* failed this time.

*****
The weirdest thing about all this is that I now have 45 minutes of this lesson recorded.

And here is the promised soundtrack.

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