Tag Archives: RP

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)

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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Dialogic journaling. Part 2, dialogue.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

I should research that, thank you!

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

What I learnt, I think, among other things:

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

And other things I guess!!

 

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

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

 

*****

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

Yet no one will write my article for me.

 

Thank you for reading!

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Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

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

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

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

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

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

 

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

*** Lesson 4 ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What happened (my action, their action)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

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

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

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

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

Some factors I’m thinking about:

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

That’s what I asked Matt, my helpful journal companion. In my next post you can read quite a few of his questions based on the notes you’ve probably just read above. What a long post!.. And no conclusions drawn… I hope you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time reading it, and I will secretly hope that some day somebody can find this post useful, whichever way that may be. If you have any questions or comments, please do leave them below.

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

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

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