Tag Archives: teaching

Guest teaching, everyone learning (in Hue, Vietnam)

My first trip with Teachers Helping Teachers SIG to Vietnam is over now. It was a whirlwind – and a blur. There is a lot and too much to reflect on as a result, there are projects to work on, decisions to make, new friends to keep in touch with, professional and life goals to set and work towards. You’d never think so much can happen to a person in a week’s time! But this is all material for some other posts that I will or will not write here. This one, however, is about a class I taught as part of our program and that many of YOU, readers, Twitter and Facebook friends, made possible. Here’s how it happened.

***** Planning *****

As I mentioned earlier, the program involves some of us, volunteers with the THT SIG, guest teaching a class in the university where the seminars for teachers are later held (Hue University of Foreign Languages which has apparently been the partner and platform provider for the seminars for about 12 years). Anyway, I had never before been faced with a task to teach a class of students in a country I hadn’t even been to before and frankly, know very little about in terms of education or English education. So the first thing I did was write an email to my partner teacher.. and ask a million questions. I thought I could come across as a little over-anxious, but I needed to know certain things before thinking of a lesson plan. Things I needed to know were the following:  What time exactly does the lesson start and finish? Is there any break between two periods? Who are the students? What is their major? What is their level of English? How many students can we expect in the classroom? The class is scheduled to be a listening class – does that mean that same group of students has a variety of classes throughout the week that focus on different skills? Should our lesson be a listening lesson as planned – or any other focus is possible? Would you like to team teach or would you prefer me to teach the whole time? What do you think will be best for students? Is it necessary to use the topic shown in the syllabus, including the textbook and materials that you and students have – or are you allowed to diverge from the syllabus in this guest teaching class? If it’s necessary to follow the syllabus, could you please fill me in on the important details (textbook pages, what students will have done by then, etc). And if you are allowed to have some freedom in our guest teaching time, would you have any preferences as for the topic? 

Luckily, the teacher, Ms. Phuong aka Kathy was very positive in her response and seemed happy to communicate on these and other points I had for her later. She gave very useful feedback to my lesson idea, too!

And my idea was to have students explain things related to what they know best – their culture. Using Twitter and Facebook, I asked a simple “What would you like to know about Vietnamese culture?” – and got a list of 15 or so questions. Thank you! 🙂 Again, I so easily got the proof of how social media (AND personal) connections can empower our teaching, something I’d almost forgot about teaching in my current job.

Fast forward to March 21st. I’m in the classrom and students slowly trickle in – and I know we won’t be starting on time (which is fine! I remember how to be flexible.) I was feeling nervous, but then I saw maybe students were kind of uneasy, too, and that’s only natural. We chatted about it a little, we smiled. I tried to use the marker on the whiteboard and it didn’t work. Ms. Phuong took a marker out of her own bag and gave it to me. Somehow, I wasn’t even surprised that would be the case – both in Russia and in Japan I carry my own markers to the classroom.

Anyway, back to class. In the first 45-minute period we did an activity where students speculated about what my life as a Russian living and teaching English in Japan might be, on certain topics that I gave them, such as my house, my daily routine, my free time, etc (I modified one of the activities from Culture in Our Classrooms book).  Time-related and other reasons prevented us from working on ALL of the questions you asked in the second period, I hope you understand. I had to make a choice and picked, together with Ms. Phuong, ten questions that would be most suitable for the level of the students and their ability. I dictated the questions, then students had to choose at least 3 questions that were interesting for them to respond to and work on those individually. I was surprised and happy to find that most students answered almost all of the questions! After talking about their answers in pairs, they were to put their name and a smiley face on their paper IF they agreed to let me use their ideas for this blog post. 🙂 Now, this is what it’s all about. Here’s what you wanted to know about the Vietnamese culture – and we bring it to you.

*****

1. How often and what do college students drink in Vietnam?

College students often drink milk tea and beer when they hang out with their friends.

College students in VN hardly drink alcohol like beer but they drink milk tea and canned drink like Coke. We sometimes drink beer on special occasions like birthday or reunion party.

They often drink milk tea and coffee 5 times a week.

In VN, they often drink milk tea, coffee, fruit drink, cane juice with friends after school, in free time or on weekend.

Quite often. Especially among young college students and young people who are so corrupted (playboys/girls). They drink on most occasions, like random parties, birthday parties, relative parties, etc.

Coconut, sugarcane juice…

Students in Vietnam often drink some fruit water, milk tea, coffee, etc…

Vietnamese college students often drink beer, local beer, and some kind of soft drink.

Twice a month, beer or sweet canner.

Sometimes, when we meet highschool classmates or have some parties. We usually drink beer. Some girls drink coke or something not alcohol.

College students often drink milk tea and smoothies. They drink when they go out with friends or sometimes order from home.

They often drink milk tea, soft drinks, beer.

2. How do Vietnamese people celebrate Lunar New Year?

Vietnamese people celebrate Lunar New Year by cooking “Chung” cake, decorating their houses by blossom trees, and giving lucky money.

VNese people shop for new things for celebrating in their house, buy new clothes to prepare for Lunar New Year called “Tet.” During Tet they visit each other and hang out with their friends or relatives.

Vietnamese people usually cook delicious kinds of food and put them on altar for commemorating ancestors. In addition, they decorate their house and go shopping before Tet. On the first day of the year, they often visit their relatives and children receive lucky money from adults.

The Vietnamese often decorate and clean their houses in Lunar New Year. They decorate their house with lamps, flowers, papers, etc. They also paint again the walls in their house. They prepare a lot of materials to make “banh chung, banh tet,” such as pork, banana leaf, green bean. Members of the family come back and celebrate Lunar New Year together.

The Vietnamese often offer the five-fruits tray that symbolizes the good luck to expect good things in life. It is considered the tradition of Vietnamese culture. Besides, they often buy some flowers, apricot blossom, kumquat tree, etc…

Vietnamese people try to be tactful and careful when they celebrate Lunar New Year.

We clean the house before the new year. Three first days of the year we visit relatives, children receive lucky money, they go to pagoda for wishes.

Before Lunar New Year, everybody in family stay together to cook rice cake and vegetable pickles. The older give the children lucky money.

3. What do Vietnamese students like to do with their families and friends? Is it true that Vietnamese students care more about their families (than friends)?

Yes, it’s true that Vietnamese people care more about their family. Students like to hang out, travel with their friends, and stay at home and cook with their families.

VNese people like travelling with their family and spend their free time after school wth their friends. It’s true that we care more about our family. Family is always the most important and priority.

That’s true. In their thinking, family is all.

They want to go out, travel with their own families. Especially when there are family reunions, they gather family members and have parties to celebrate. It’s also true that most of the young VNese people care about their families, especially after marriage, young people now have their own family to care about, but they still help and send money to their elderly parents.

Vietnamese students like to have meals or travel with family and like to go shopping or watching movies with friends. It’s true that VN people care more about family. They spend more time with family and share happiness and sadness together.

With family, I like all members sit together chatting after meal. With friends,  I like walking and eating out in a place for students. It’s true that we care about family, because often the majority of the Vietnamese live three generations together and people care for each other, especially the elderly.

I don’t know about other students but I like to have a meal with my family, I want to be with them as much as possible. I have been far from them for 6 years. And I want to travel with my friends, we will have a great time together.

4. What countries are attractive for travelling and for studying abroad?

Vietnamese students really want to travel to Australia, Korea, Finland and America.

For the VNese, Thailand or some Asian countries are the most frequent places for travelling. For studying, they choose America, Singapore, Australia or Canada mostly.

Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, becacuse they have delicious street foods and nice view places.

I think Australia, Canada, America… Because their education system is very developed and modern. There are many famous and beautiful places… There are a lot of lecturers who are so friendly, helpful, well-educated… We can exchange culture and languages with other students because they are from many countries in the world.

I think China is attractive because I also learn Chinese language.

The most attractive country for travelling and study abroad is America.

England, USA, Singapore, Japan.

5. Do Vietnamese students make up English-sounding nicknames for classroom use and for daily life?

Not very many Vietnamese students create their own English-sounding nicknames in class or daily life.

We rarely create English-sounding nicknames. We usually make nicknames by animals’ names or someone’s specific character.

Yes, they do. There are some reasons why students want to give their friends or themselves a nickname. Some people think it’s cool to have a foreign nickname or it simply sounds funny compared to what VNese think about names and such. For example, people call me “Tomorrow” because my last name is “Mai” and it means “the next day” or “tomorrow” in VNese.

VN students don’t create English-sounding nicknames for English class but for daily life most students use the nickname that their family usually call them.

I have a nickname for my English class but I don’t use it for daily life. I think everyone is the same with me.

6. Which is more cool, Japan or Korea?

Korea is cooler!

Korea is more cool for Vietnamese students. They love K-pop.

I think it depends on what culture and language people are interested in. Like, part of the young people love Japanese culture, anime culture, J-pop, etc… They will choose Japan. And the opposite part for Korea if they like Korean fashion and K-pop.

I think Korea Japan is more cooler than Japan Korea.

I think Korea.

Korea 🙂

I think Japan.

7. What are key necessary ingredients for a Vietnamese meal?

The necessary ingredient for a Vietnamese meal is sauce, for example fish sauce, soy sauce.

The important ingredient is fish sauce.

I think this is fish sauce. Because my mom says that most of the dishes taste best with fish sauce.

Fish, rice, and pho.

Rice. Of course.

Rice, vegetables.

8. In Vietnam, what is a polite way to greet someone?

The polite way to greet someone is to shake hands.

Say “Hi” and wave hand.

The polite way is shaking hand and hugging each other.

You wave one of the hands and say “Chao,” “Xin chao,” or “Hey”… Something like that, at the same time.

Shake hands and say hello, or wave hello, call name…

Greeting and a friendly smile 🙂

Say “Hello” and make friends with somebody and smile at someone.

Look at her eyes and smile.

Say “xin chao”

9. What clothing is appropriate in Vietnam?

Vietnamese people can wear any clothes, but not to show a lot of cleavage.

Jeans and shirts or T-shirt, shorts are acceptable.

To the oriental thoughts: men can wear any clothes they want but women should wear full-covered clothing or people will consider you are a naughty or a play girl. But in modern days people are more open-minded and wear Western-style clothing more.

Ao dai, T-shirt and trousers, dress…

Ao dai is the clothing suitable in Vietnam.

Skirt or jeans or T-shirt.

You can wear everything you want but not too short or small.

Jeans, skirt, shorts.

10. Do Vietnamese people travel around Vietnam? What are some popular destinations?

Yes, they travel around Vietnam. The popular places are Hue, Da Nang, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Sapa.

We do travel around VN. Some famous destinations are: Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh, Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, etc.

Some people do, some don’t. If they have good financial condition, they will. But still, some people just want to work more and more, and save money for the living purpose, not to enjoy life…

Sapa, Hoi An old town, Nha Trang beach…

Yes, they do. Here are several destinations in Vietnam: Hoi An ancient city, Hue city, Phong Nha-ke Bang cave.

VN people travel around VN very much. There are many beautiful caves in VN that attract tourists to go there.

Vietnamese people travel around Vietnam. The places where Vietnamese always travel are Da Lat, Da Nang, and Son Doong (Quang Binh, DMZ).

Da Lat is the most interesting place for travelling because it has many beautiful views, fresh air and flowers.

Yes, I do. Some popular places are Thien Mu, Dai Noi, Nguyen Dinh Chieu street and so on…

I think that is Danang and Hoi An. There are a mix of modern and traditional. I have never been there.

Yes, they do. They often travel in the summer or spring. Some popular places are Da Lat, Da Nang, Sapa…

***** Final thoughts and comments *****

I would very much like to thank this group of students, who didn’t know what kind of class they were walking into on March 21st, but were all so engaged and responsive and active. I had been nervous imagining what it was going to be like, teaching a class of students I don’t know (and who don’t know me!), in a country I’d never been to before. In the end, it was so much fun – and I hope the information they shared can be useful for anyone who wants to know more about Vietnam. Ms. Phuong, Doan Van Vu, Pham Thi Thuy Linh, Nhat Minh, Lien Thi, Thanh Nhat, Thuy Dung, Hoang Anh Mai Thi, Tien, Linh Thy, Nguyen Phuong Thanh, Vo Thi Van Tham, Hong Diem, Minh Trang, Phuong, Nhu Quynh… Thank you so much – and I’m sorry if I made any mistakes in spelling out your names!!..I did my best 🙂 And I truly hope I’ll see you again.

 

 

P.S. Random notes:

  • their handwriting is a beautiful cursive!! Very impressive penmanship.
  • after class a few girls came up to me and wanted to become Facebook friends. Each of them later sent me a private greeting and thank-you message! I was touched and again impressed by their social media manners 😉
  • it was already in Vietnam that I learnt that every word in Vietnamese is one syllable (right?…). So they spell their country as Viet Nam. Hence the abbreviations you might have noticed in their writing – VN and VNese people.
  • maybe I remember how to plan a class that is not a discussion class that follows a similar structure each time. Maybe I remember how to be a little creative and flexible in-action. I was relieved to feel how I felt teaching what I myself chose to, and being comfortable and confident doing so. I think maybe I’ll be OK in my next job.  🙂

 

Thank you for reading, as ever. I hope this post can be useful in some ways, to some.

 

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Chris Ozog on the ELF issue (guest post)

February is not only my birthday month, Valentine’s Day month, and the coldest, most miserable month to experience living in a tiny old apartment in Tokyo. This February also happened to be the ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) month. Along with other teachers from all over the world I’m taking the ELF-Aware Classroom course with Katy Simpson on iTDi and I’m trying to get my head around on how we can raise our own and students’ awareness of the issue and learn what teachers can do to incorporate more ELF activities smoothly.

And now, February will also be the month when Chris Ozog writes a guest post on ELF for this space! I think I first met Chris during ExcitELT in Tokyo last summer, though I’d known him from the ELT internet spaces before. I was paired up with Chris in a session, and by the end of that session I was of this opinion: I wish Chris were my teacher trainer. He’s so sharp and chill and thoughtful. Over to Chris, then. 

 

Chris Ożóg Photo 2016Chris a teacher, teacher trainer and writer, originally from Scotland but now based in Japan. He’s been involved in English Language Teaching for long enough now to have white hairs appearing, usually working for International House, and is the current editor of the IH Journal. His work has taken all over the globe, from Costa Rica through Dubai to the Czech Republic, amongst other places, and he’s very much enjoyed almost every minute of it. He also tutors on online courses, writes occasionally, and keeps the world’s least updated ELT blog. You might occasionally see him presenting at a conference or giving the odd webinar, but you’re much more likely to find him in a café reading literature, history or psychology books. At present, his work involves mainly Delta and CELTA courses, which he enjoys for the chance to work with so many teachers and aspiring teachers from such diverse backgrounds.

(Anna: If you want to know more about Chris’ ELT journey, read  from the man himself here. An additional benefit of doing so is, if many of us click the link, his blog will stop being one of the least updated ELT blogs and we ourselves will have done a good thing).

*****

Accents, ELF, and Teacher Training

A teacher’s pronunciation is important. We can probably all agree on that. What we might not agree on, however, is why: why does a teacher’s pronunciation matter?

There are two general answers to this question:

  1. A teacher needs to be a model for their students
  2. A teacher needs to be able to identify pronunciation issues in learners’ speaking

So, what does that mean, in reality, for teachers’ own pronunciation?

A recent survey in Tokyo found that most respondents:

…believed teachers’ pronunciation should not have traces of a Japanese accent, and that teachers should instead acquire native-speaker accents…[i]

It seems so simple then: teachers should sound like native speakers – problem solved. But regardless of where you stand on the emotive issue of native speaker deference, this ‘solution’ is not as simple as it seems.

Digging Deeper

Let’s return to that quotation above. Unpacking it a little, the teachers in the survey seem to be suggesting that:

  • Japanese English accents are inferior/incorrect
  • Native speaker accents are superior/correct

This might seem straightforward enough: native speakers’ pronunciation is better and so, one assumes, easier to understand; Japanese-inflected pronunciation, on the other hand, is deficient and therefore more difficult to understand. The simplicity is attractive. But it’s also false.

Consider the following interaction:

Japanese person: Hi. Whe-a izu the banku?

English person: i tzeaze yif ye teika rai tovah de road

Believe it or not, that English person is speaking a form of ‘native speaker’ English. Try sounding it out syllable for syllable to see. Then put it all together and say it quickly. Is the native speaker’s pronunciation really clearer?

What Does This Mean?

The example might be rather crude, but it makes the point. Being a native speaker does not necessarily guarantee your listener will understand you. In fact, being an unaware native speaker might be exactly why your listener does not understand you! What matters instead, for native and non-native speakers alike, is being intelligible, i.e. speaking clearly so your listener can understand you. But this brings its own complications. Who are the listeners? Which sounds are most likely to be clear? To begin to answer these questions requires an understanding of the way English is most commonly used around the world, as a Lingua Franca – a common language between people who do not share the same first language.

Let’s pause a moment, though, and go back to the Tokyo survey. Who were the respondents? Who held the implicit view that native speaker pronunciation was clearer? The answer: 100 Junior High School teachers. In other words, teachers themselves! So, why is it that the Junior High School teachers in Tokyo believe that native speaker accents are more relevant to their context? Especially when we consider the importance of being clear and English as a Lingua Franca?

Sadly, the research in question does not probe this view further, so we have no insight from the teachers themselves. However, from my own experience in teacher training, I would suggest that these kinds of misconceptions are so firmly entrenched that they filter down to learners in the form of (un)conscious attitude and classroom practice. When those learners then become the next generation of English teachers, so the cycle continues: the received wisdom is passed on. The problem with received wisdom though, is, while it is often gratefully received, it is rarely questioned. So where to start asking questions?

Accents and Teacher Training

Use yourself or a recording as an example

  1. Tell the teachers a short anecdote (or play one).
  2. Ask them to note down anything they notice about your accent.
  3. Groups discuss the accentual features they notice.
  4. Whole class discussion about which features were noticeable and why, whether any caused communication problems, etc.

(for a more detailed version of this activity, see here)

Read a text aloud (in a multi-lingual group)

  1. Choose a short text of about 50 words and prepare a task sheet for teachers.
  2. In groups, teachers read the text and the others note down which words they pronounce differently in the group.
  3. Whole class discussion about which features were noticeable and why.
  4. Highlight any potential problems in intelligibility and discuss issues connected to ELF.

Give an article about ELF

  1. Find an introductory article to ELF, e.g. this one, and prepare some questions, such as about which accent is desirable, is L2 accent ok, etc.
  2. Pre-reading, have groups discuss the questions.
  3. Give the teachers time to read the article and answer questions based on the article.
  4. Groups discuss the questions and then open this up to full class.
  5. Robustly defend an ELF perspective in the discussions and challenge teachers to find objections (the aim here is for teachers to develop their ideas, so still be nice!)

 What’s the Point?

Pronunciation matters. The more issues surrounding pronunciation are explored, the more acceptance there will be of different accents. The more the goal of a native speaker pronunciation is challenged, the more confident those Japanese Junior High teachers can become. The more a trainee teacher knows about their own pronunciation, the more confident they can be in their own intelligibility. And the more a teacher knows about ELF, the more they can help their learners communicate successfully without trying to force them to speak a certain way.

 

[i] Yoko Uchida and Junko Sugimoto: Towards the implementation of ELF-oriented pronunciation teaching in Japan. Retrieved from: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/elf10-uchida-sugimoto/

*****

I want to thank Chris for this post and yes, I want to robustly defend an ELF perspective in discussions with other teachers… and with students, too. There’s a controversial story on my mind that I want to blog about some day but I’ll hold it off for now, but I’ll just say this: 

In the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to travel around Southeast Asia. Every interaction I’ve had in English – with people in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia – is an example of an ELF interaction. By paying closer attention now to those interactions and analysing them (sometimes even too much!), I’m learning so much. It’s often hard for me to understand  English in SE Asia, and I think nowadays I’m keeping a more open mind to the challenges than I did before. And I keep thinking that as a teacher I want my students to have an open mind, too.

There are some more thought-provoking posts on the ELF issue here:

Michael Griffin makes a point that acknowledging  ELF and viewing your teaching through this perspective doesn’t have to mean any dramatic change to our lessons.

Katherine Bilsborough adds an ELT author’s, materials writer’s perspective to the issue.

Katy Simpson recorded short video interviews with many teachers, whose first language is or is not English, in which she explored their attitudes on different aspects of ELF. 

 

 

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On things that were and might be, musings

I welcome 2018 in an idle state of mind. I wrote elsewhere that reflecting on the year that passed did not come natural this time, and it still holds true. Every time something important (and even unimportant) happened, I talked it over and in detail and the matter ceased to exist or bother. When and if it didn’t, I blogged.

For resolutions, I found that for me writing them publicly almost equals condemning myself to failure. Sure, I can tell you I plan to create routines, and practice Japanese, and write diligently every day (just like I recommend my students to do, hypocrite), and study something new, and so on and so forth. The truth is known – I likely won’t. I do crave writing though, so on this cloudy yet beautiful day on a beach somewhere in Myanmar, instead of starting off the year with a post that is doomed disappointment, I will muse and ramble. No shame in that.

***** A few random thoughts on the beach, Year 2018, Day 2 *****

  1. I feel proud when I see former students writing in perfect, complex English sentences on social networks. By “proud” I mean proud of their effort and success. At the same time, I feel just as proud when I see former students writing in short and simple English sentences on social networks, because it takes courage to start and overcome the barrier, even if the wall is digital.
  2. Last year I sounded critical far more often than I intended to, in various situations related to work. If I made resolutions, one would be to breathe deeply and give myself time before offering any opinions, however important they seem to be at the moment. In fact, especially when I feel that my opinion is the right one and thus so “necessary” to be shared immediately. I will keep practising deep listening.
  3. Related to the previous point, one of the presentations I’m planning to do this year will be about Buddhist ideas that impacted my teaching. I quite look forward to that.
  4. It should not be viewed as official statistics but I feel like the majority of my colleagues have part-time jobs in addition to the main, if not too demanding, full-time job in our university. People work as IELTS examiners on their one and only day off (Sunday), give classes in other universities or language schools, do translation work, etc. This leads me to contemplate my own strong choice of NOT adding more PAID work to my day. It is pretty clear to me that I love teaching, so why wouldn’t I teach more? Why wouldn’t I add more variety to the somewhat  monotonous life within a unified curriculum, a classroom life that repeats itself day to day, week to week, semester to semester?… The answer to these questions to myself is, I enjoy exactly this. Having the time to leisurely stay at work after work and do things at my own pace; organizing reflective practice meetings each month and investing my time and energy in what is going to happen there, because it’s something I truly care about at the moment; curating and editing iTDi Blog issues on a *mostly* monthly basis; being involved in a few projects at work at the same time; presenting at conferences; organizing a conference; and doing my many hobbies off and on. It is good for me. But… might I enjoy a side job, too?… That’s something to ponder this coming year.
  5. In March I will go to Vietnam to give workshops and volunteer as a member of the Teachers Helping Teachers team (a JALT SIG I mentioned previously in my posts). Maybe I will decide it is what I want to be involved in more. Maybe I will like Vietnam so much that I will choose to live and work there. Maybe it is a passing stage and I will keep looking for what it is I want to do next with my career. In 2018, I’m open to maybes.
  6. Along the same lines, I recently heard from a colleague about opportunities to (volunteer to?) teach English to North Korean defectors. If there is a way to do it online, or on a short-term basis (my trips to South Korea are frequent but never longer than a week), I would jump at the chance.
  7. Finally, I want to apologise to all I have left waiting for something from me: emails, comments, responses to requests… I have not been very organized. It has not always been easy to face communication and/or making decisions. Sometimes I am efficient, other times I dread the pressure.

 

*****

Aimless, I step into 2018.

I know I will try to be the best teacher I can and be kinder to my students, my colleagues, and myself.

I want to try to keep up the rejuvenated spirit of socializing offline.

I might try to be a better communicator online, too.

It is kind of exciting to not have a big plan of what happens next and make adjustments on the way.  It’s fitting this way now.

Onwards!

 

Thank you for taking the time and reading to the end. I truly appreciate the fact. 🙂

 

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My Happy ELT Story ‘2017 (or RP meeting that didn’t happen)

Today’s blog post is a reflective practice meeting on paper.

Wait, what?

Let me explain. Here in Tokyo we hold monthly reflective practice meetings (and I mentioned those before in my previous blog posts, for example here). We tell stories and ask questions, trying to help each other look deeper and see more in what happened. Some meetings see more participants than others, some have two. Like today.

And while it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have a chit-chat with Lina and call it a Meeting, we thought we’d do something special. We’d type up what we’d otherwise be saying.

So here goes your Christmas present from RP Tokyo, a reflective conversation around a happy ELT story from a 2017 classroom. 

 

***** PART 1, THE STORY *****

My happy story did not start so cheerfully. In fact, it started as one of the most challenging, trying classes of this fall semester. In a bunch of high level proficiency students, most of whom had either studied or lived abroad, there was one kid who seemed particularly… bored. Let’s call this student Bo.

Bo’s casual English was nearly flawless. I could easily see Bo hang out with his mates in LA, London, Singapore, etc. and have zero problems getting the message across (a possibly timely note: Bo’s “mates” in my imagination would be 16-18 year olds). So back to our classes. From the very first lesson (and mine is a mandatory discussion class that HAS to be taken no matter how fluent and great you are at English), Bo looked like the class was about the worst possible way to spend time (yet, Bo only missed one class out of 11). Bo was the first person to grab the bag and leave the classroom the very moment the bell rang and I wrapped up the lesson. I don’t remember Bo ever saying goodbye to either myself or group mates – and the class size is eight students, so I would most definitely hear those words. In group discussions, Bo liked to sit back in the chair and waited to be asked to share opinion. Which Bo would quickly do – and return to the very comfortable if idle position.

Needless to say I felt not a little annoyed and frustrated by Bo’s attitude. However, that class was a BUNCH, as I said, and it was a bunch of Bo’s and other. Every day I had to teach that class, I mentally prepared myself for a storm of emotions that I might have to go through. One such time it hit me pretty hard and I blogged about it. I didn’t really want to give up on them and all of the various issues I found myself experiencing when teaching this particular group. I tried to do something (or not do something I’d been doing) in class, hoping that a little change would work (for this idea in my mind I will forever thank John Fanselow). Yet it seemed like they could see through my intentional effort – and class went off the rails (for me anyway) in a totally different way again.

Anyway, I did say it is a happy story, and so it is. After our latest lesson I was returning back to my office from another building on campus and I saw Bo, who I’d earlier taught that day. Bo was in a group of friends and engaged in a conversation… but as I was passing by, Bo made sure to say “Goodbye Anna” loud and clear enough for me to hear and react to. Right now as I’m typing this, I’m smiling. Such a tiny thing, you’d think. Coming from Bo, though, in a circumstance like that, it felt pretty great.

I am not sure what had happened and what Bo will be like in the remaining classes we have together this term. I do want to mention something, though. In one of the recent lessons I asked those students to do a self-reflection. Among other tasks, the reflection had these questions:

Apart from our Discussion classes, do you have an opportunity to use English in your life right now? (By “use” I mostly mean speak, but please mention other ways you use it, too). When do you use English? How much (a week)? With whom?

We only have 5 classes left. After that, you won’t have any more Discussion classes. This could be a good time to set a goal to achieve by the end of the course. What goal(s) would you like to set for yourself for Discussion class? What can you do to achieve this goal?

Bo’s answers were eye-opening to me (and who knows, maybe to Bo, too…). Bo said that, having spent many years abroad speaking English every day in an international school, now there is NO chance to use English. Bo’s goal was to participate actively every class and ask group mates lots of questions (I’m obviously not quoting, so I think Bo formulated it even better, and with … mmm… heart put into it). In fact, all students in that class surprised me that time with how thoughtful they were, how genuine their response was, how openly and responsibly they took the questions. They inspired me to be more positive and have good faith in what we can all do together in class. I now don’t fear that class approaching. I like them and I think I will miss them when I have to say goodbye.

I don’t think self-reflection or any other measure I took or didn’t take to turn things around in that particular class worked on its own. Frankly speaking, I’m not even sure how the next class is going to be. But I feel now it’s a happy story already.

 

***** THE QUESTIONS Lina asked *****

In group discussions, Bo liked to sit back in the chair and waited to be asked to share opinion.

Lina: Why do you think this happened? Bo’s English is almost flawless, as you describe it, so it wouldn’t be difficult for Bo at all to participate in the discussions actively. What could have stopped Bo from doing that? Bo didn’t like being forced to take this class? Bo didn’t like the topics? Bo thought it was too easy?

Anna: I observed Bo, even though I think for the first few weeks my vision was clouded with the frustration I felt about exactly this – having the means to do the thing and participate, and yet not having the desire to do so. I think this is a case when ability and willingness to communicate did not get to meet. For a while. It might have been conditions, or atmosphere, or mood, or class composition, or teenage rebellion… anything, really. Everything.

 

and class went off the rails (for me anyway) in a totally different way again.

Lina: It would be interesting to hear in what ways the classes went off the rails. In what ways did they ruin your efforts?..

Anna: For example, I have a bad habit of running class a little overtime. It never seemed to be a problem with any other students, but as Bo was always the first to leave abruptly, I felt badly and thought we should finish on time. However, it’s tough as students in this class are overly chatty and I had to spend quite a bit of our time bringing them back to tasks. So that one class I started by offering “a deal” – they’d be paying attention and not getting distracted, I in my turn would be able to finish and let them go on time. I was pretty happy with my idea. Well… they could focus for about 7 minutes… and for the remainder of the lesson, they suddenly decided to chat with each other in Japanese!… In all lessons stages, between speaking tasks, during speaking tasks, in group discussions.. It was something new, and something I couldn’t expect from students of their level of proficiency. It was something else. The deal didn’t work…

 

Bo’s goal was to participate actively every class and ask group mates lots of questions

Lina: I can’t wait for an update! I really want to get to know if this student achieves the goal or not. Will the usual behaviour change?

Anna: We’ve had two classes since, and it’s been great. Touch wood. =)

 

I don’t think self-reflection or any other measure I took or didn’t take to turn things around in that particular class worked on its own.

Lina: Do you think you managed to establish a good rapport with these students? Do you feel like they’re a unity now or still just a bunch?

Anna: I feel like we’ve come closer. Not only me and them, but also them with one another. And…. again, I was frustrated that my usual methods of “establishing rapport” were not successful with this group. It’s a long, long process, the building of group dynamics. Now that we’ve probably come to something good, we’ll have to part soon…

 

***** THE HAPPY END***

This post was brought to you by a #livebloggingparty featuring Lina and myself. Be sure to read Lina’s happy story in her blog here.

We wish you and your students many happy moments in 2018! Stay positive, and if you feel you can’t – find a person you can talk to. Chat with an understanding colleague (hi, Shoko ;)). Write a journal and give it to read to someone you trust. Come to our reflective practice meeting, if you’re in Tokyo. =)

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Questions for discussion kind of post.

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

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

*****

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

Questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading.

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Another Textbook Issue

Image result for uchebnik angliyskogo

If you are reading this post and my blog in general, you are likely a teacher. Odds are English is not your first language. The chances that you are a Russian English teacher, or have experienced learning English within the Russian education system, are slimmer but still exist. But if you can imagine two English textbooks – one written by your country’s ELT authors and published in your country’s publishing house, and any coursebook by a big ELT industry name – you will understand what the discussion below is about.

I stumbled on this discussion in the comments section under one of my friend’s Instagram posts, was excited to lurk for a while, and then decided the topic could actually be relevant to teachers in other countries. So (with these people’s permission), go ahead and read my translation of their discussion, and let us know if it resembles the situation in your country or the country you work in.

 

*****

DS:  … For a whole 11 years of school kids study the language and the end result is zero! Why do they have to learn about London sights for the whole third term (cultural note: the 3rd term in this case probably lasts from around January 10th till the end of March). Who can possibly need to use that in real life, and when??? And the teacher is faced with a dilemma: to teach the way that will be good or to teach what the syllabus tells us to teach. ..

AZ: And then all kids have to hire tutors because of such syllabi…

DS: Exactly!! I feel so sorry for both children and teachers!

LB: Well of course, a whole term is too much. But it’d be great if after school kids had a little idea of where the UK in fact is, which city is the capital of which country, who the queen is, and knew a few sights. I’ve been tutoring kids for about 3 years and I’m in shock from their knowledge. There’s a feeling that they are all cretinous. By the way, if a child happens to get 5 in English in school (cultural note: “5” in the Russian education system is the equivalent of an A grade) and their parents happen to have enough money to send the kid to London to a summer school, then this knowledge would be quite helpful. But these kids are one in a million…

K: One can bend the system, one can fit something else, more useful in it!

DS: @LB There’s a billion of great travel guides which show where to go and what to see… I think it’s absurd to study the history of the Tower of London while living in Moscow area or in a whatever-it’s-called small town… I agree with the idea of teaching general notions, but not the way it’s done in the idiotic ****** textbook. If this author, as one of the authors of the standard (state educational standard is implied), writes such a textbook, I don’t have anything else to say about the standard itself… As for kids’ cretinism, it’s a complicated, multifaceted question that needs to be discussed…

LB: Well that’s you going to extremes here. Will they never go to see the Tower, or want to learn more about it in the future, study language more thoroughly, even if they live in this nobody-knows-its-name town? Or, what if a child is an invalid, can’t leave home at all, and their only chance to learn is English classes at school? Should students give up learning anything at all at school since they can grow up and buy a copy of “London for Dummies”? The content of what’s being taught is not made-up or accidental, it’s borrowed from foreign textbooks, which everything is copied from. The way that ****** textbook presents the topic of London only shows that it’s her personal choice and problem as an author and an educator. As well as it is the problem of your school which chose this textbook in the first place. There are better textbooks. And in general, the standard was not designed to match the textbook, but rather the author edited “old stuff” that already existed to fit the standard requirements. And this is quite manageable. So you shouldn’t paint it all with the same brush.

DS: There are much more interesting and visual ways to see the world without leaving your apartment for an invalid, other than studying about the Tower in old English. I agree about the brush here in this case. Regarding the choice of textbooks I agree as well, but I’m ready to argue regarding the copying of topics from foreign textbooks! *** textbook, for example, is a little less of a copycat, which makes me like it more, even though even this book is not without some amazing (weird?) things. I sincerely can’t understand, having the teaching experience that I have, why a language education standard can’t be based on such mastodonte materials as ones by Cambridge, for example, on the grounds that it is their language exam certificates that are accepted worldwide. But that’s not a question to you:) In any case, I agree that it falls on a teacher’s shoulders to find ways to get out of this situation and turn flaws into advantages 🙂

K: @J I wish you best of luck! Unfortunately, syllabus can be so imperfect that a teacher has to redesign it completely. One of my acquaintances teaches Russian using one of those prescribed textbooks. And if I were a foreigner, I would hate Russian the way it’s presented through that book!… But the teacher and students are working with it, every time trying to create something new, something of their own…

 

*****

Three years ago in the blog post here I wrote about my personal experience with this notorious textbook issue in a school I taught in Moscow. Since I haven’t worked as a school teacher in Russia for almost ten years now, I don’t think I am the best source of an opinion to contribute here (although my feelings towards textbooks in general have been established on this blog, I believe…)

Thank you for reading. I sincerely look forward to whatever comments this discussion can spawn.

 

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Dialogic journaling. Part 1, notes.

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

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

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

 

***** PART 1.  MY NOTES. *****

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Measures I noted down as possibly helpful/necessary:

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

 

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

*** Lesson 4 ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What happened (my action, their action)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 7, November ***

What happened (my action, their action)

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

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

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

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

Some factors I’m thinking about:

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 8, November ***

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 10, December ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

*** Lesson 11, December ***

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****

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

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

Thank you for reading – and always supporting me.

tugboat and barge

 

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#JALT2016. Notes on the highlights.

Sarah Mercer and Relational Pedagogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Fanselow and iTDi

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

As ever, thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

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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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Articulating beliefs

By 9 am next Monday, August 1st, I should turn in an article. In this article I should be examining how my teaching beliefs have (not) changed during the first term of working in my university. To set the scene and probably give more perspective into how one semester at a new workplace might very likely lead to some changes or clashes in one’s belief system, I should say that my new teaching context involves teaching within a unified curriculum. That is, teaching the same lesson 13 times a week to 13 groups of students in the way that is handed over to me (and 42 other instructors).  It is a course in English Discussion and I see it as a good course that does get the students speaking the way we expect them to speak.

Throughout the term I had numerous conversations with a few colleagues (hey, N., H., A. and others), basically discovering and “examining” my beliefs on a daily basis. I realized I had a few. I realized I could not articulate them well (I doubt I can now but that’s what this post is for, in part). I realized it’s a choice to feel frustrated or liberated and challenged by not being able to teach the way you’re accustomed to.

I still don’t know what the article will be about or what my beliefs are, and so this blog post is to help me see it. The notes below were typed at various points over the past 4 months with the aim to help me figure out what was happening and capture any changes. Some of those might not make much sense to you as I’m contemplating certain stages of my lessons, as stages are what I must have and follow in my plan. You might sense that I feel uncomfortable with this idea. Parts in red are what I see as important, for now or the future, for the article or my own thinking.

Please do ask me questions about things.

Also, enjoy.

*****

April 11th (Lesson 1)

First classes! Feel fussy asking students to change seats (I have no system or idea how to do that) and it’s not clear at all how to ensure rotation of partners for a 9-people class. Timing for practice discussions is random (note: discussions are supposed to be 10 and 16 minutes long). Hard to focus on feedback – what do I monitor for? How do I make it thorough and structured, especially for tracking progress for each individual student? Forgot to introduce “How do you say… in English?”

All in all, I’m quite satisfied. Concerned about lower level students – I should remember to give them time to prep/note down their ideas! (note: this didn’t happen)

April 12th

Significantly shyer, less talkative students. I forgot certain points that I aimed to mention and my monitoring and no grouping strategies are bothering me!

April 20th

  • Weird, not smooth, or no transitions between lesson stages at all
  • I need to find a way to talk less
  • Don’t elicit from some groups

April 21st

Left books open for the second, long discussion – for ideas and questions – I think it helped, especially lower level students! (note: it is amazing to me how in this context every little change in class seems to matter and make a difference… or maybe it’s like that in any context, but I never had a chance to see it because I rarely, if ever, taught the same thing again and in the same way – or paid attention enough!..)

April 27th

The idea of not having to correct or work on grammar or vocabulary is liberating!!!

May 5th

It’s interesting to see my opinions change.

These 2 days of Review Lesson I’m having problems with managing/fitting in Discussion 2 and subsequent feedback. I need to stop rambling at some stages of class! I should also be more ready to cut prep time (note: there are prep activities we do before each of the two discussions).

May 31st

INCIDENT.

I am really worried AND, again, I’m in a situation when I’m uncomfortable being too distant from students as per rules. Am I a teacher? What’s the definition of me as a ‘teacher’ in this course? How is ‘instructor’ different from ‘teacher’ and why does it have to be so different (or seem so for me)??

June 16th

I’m considering ideas for my reflective paper.

  • Students’ awareness of their own learning, why I feel it’s needed and is currently missing, how I could achieve that
  • Students and teacher in reflective dialogue

The first half of the term I was so focused on and anxious about my PLAN – teaching all I have to teach, correctly and well – that I forgot to connect to students. Make personal comments, greet the way I would and have small talk, engage in simple conversations unrelated to my ‘teacher talking script’, rehearsed and acted out time and again. I think now I am getting better.

I want to be involved.
Some time mid-July

Some of my unarticulated as yet ‘beliefs’:

    • L1 is OK
  • (1) Writing is necessary in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking.
  • (2) There should be plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity in *my* classes. 
  • (3) I need to feel at ease with time and syllabus to teach ‘unplugged’. Dogme, teaching from students’ emergent needs is beneficial for students (and comfortable for me).
    • Reading is just as important as writing, ideally they should come together, in a meaningful combination. 
    • Technology has been part of my teaching for about 5 years, every time assisting in various ways depending on the context. I don’t rely on it but I feel its benefits very strongly.
  • (4) Connecting emotionally (building rapport, being involved in class) is one of top priorities in my teaching. I can’t feel good or motivated to teach if the connection is not there.
  • I believe in co-creating the syllabus of a course together with students, which means different goals, different materials, different approach every time. 
  • Vocabulary is of crucial importance. 
  • Everything I’ve written above happens through communication in class. Does it make these classes CLT-type classes or the opposite of such? I don’t know, neither do I care much. Maybe I believe in non-labeling.   

 

Many of those beliefs might have led to (?) unstructured, for the most part, classes in which it was often hard for me and students to chart progress.  

Are my teaching beliefs influenced by my own language learning preferences?… I’m not sure. But I wonder what was it that formed those beliefs in me over time.

***** end of notes*****

 

 

I would appreciate any comments, thoughts, links, criticism, support, likes, or other. I wonder if any of you have experienced teaching in a similar context. I wonder if you have recently “examined” or stated your teaching beliefs and what happened. I wonder if you think it’s important to stick to your beliefs.

Thanks for reading.

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