Cooler autumnal air and changing colors make me think about transition and closure. Well, most peoples’ classes tend to end in December or June, but my classes have ended this month and I’ve been thinking about activities (and words) that are used on the last days of school. Of course, it depends on how “last” the day is. For example, at a language school, the last day of one level may just mean that students start the next level the following Monday. In contrast, the last day for students in high school, or a university, signifies the end of an era for them, the culmination of a formative period of their life. Likewise, the end of an intensive training course in which participants and trainers have been together for many hours in a short period (like one month), can also mark a significant period of transformation. So what is said to honor this? What activities are used to celebrate these endings and bid farewell?
On the last day of my Master’s program I remember one activity where all of our teachers stood in a circle holding hands. They were facing one another, and in a larger circle around them, we (their students) stood holding hands also facing one another. We took turns giving our appreciation and gratitude to our teachers for the things they had taught and done for us. By the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
On the last day of one of my classes this semester my students threw me a party. It was complete with cake and a piñata! (The photo proves that I was able to make solid contact, but it wasn’t the blow that unleashed the spoils).
At my high school graduation party, my aunt gave me Dr. Seuss’ book “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.” I still have it on my bookshelf and always remember the last bit:
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!
What have you done as a teacher, or student, on the last day of class to applaud the accomplishments and say goodbye?
This month I’ve been thinking about the characteristics of student-centered, or learning-centered, activities (in contrast to teacher-centered ones). My colleague Josh coincidentally has also been thinking about this, and he came up with the following acronym CAN-FIT, for these criteria: challenge (not too much, nor too little), all students actively participate, needs/interests of Ss are engaged, freedom & control, interaction with self-expression, and task with real-world purpose. These criteria are adapted from Scott Thornbury’s criteria for communicative tasks (see link below).
My puzzle is not really what makes an activity learning-centered, or not, because I know how to design one, and I can recognize one when I see it. Instead, my puzzle has been about the role of drilling. Alas, Sir Thornbury has written on the subject already, but the question lingers, for me framed in this way: what is the role of drilling in a learning-centered lesson? On the one hand, it seems dismissive to suggest no drilling. How else can students learn? I’m reminded of a wonderful activity that my colleague Mary Scholl did for English teachers at a conference at Centro Cultural in San Salvador. Her theory is that people who say they are bad at remembering names, in fact just never have the opportunity to practice names enough in order to remember them. To illustrate, she put participants into groups of 10. Then she led the groups through a series of drills to practice learning and remembering each others names. Indeed, these were drills (like say each person’s name aloud three times), but they felt learning-centered.
Can a drill be learning-centered? What made Mary’s drill feel learning-centered? And what about all those mind numbing drills done in language classrooms all over the world: choral repetition, memorizing, fill-ins, etc. Do we need them? Or can they tweaked in ways to make them learning-centered?
So far this month, for pleasure, I have read a novel (Await Your Reply), a book about cognitive psychology (Thinking, Fast and Slow), and a book of short stories (The Return of Sherlock Holmes). In addition, I have read several articles for work mostly about, not surprisingly, teaching and assessing reading. I like to read for pleasure before going to sleep because it relaxes me. In general, I love to read!
My puzzle is: how can teachers inspire their students to love reading? For learning a second language, the research is clear: reading is key. However, here in El Salvador many students say that they do not like to read. They say that they do not grow up with a “culture of reading.” When I was a kid, I remember my mother reading aloud to me from the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Talk about entertainment! Those Choose Your Own Adventure stories were captivating because as the reader (or listener in my case), you had to make choices in the story. For example, at the end of one chapter, the characters would be faced with a decision, like first going into the basement of the old house, or going up to the attic. Depending on what you chose, that was the page you would turn to.
In my opinion, one of the keys to inspiring students to love reading in real life follows the same principle: people need to have the freedom to choose something to read that is interesting and inspiring to them. The students majoring in English at my university here have to take an American Lit class and now they are reading Longfellow. No offense to Longfellow, but for English Language Learners in El Salvador, this is not very inspiring, to say the least. So what would inspire someone to read? Was there a book, or a teacher, that changed your attitude towards reading from something that you had to do for school, to something you chose to do for pleasure? What books have you loved?
A few random links about/for reading:
This month I find myself thinking about independence. Fireworks, BBQs, and long days, but also the question: how can I help students who are going to soon be teachers, think like teachers? In other words, what will help new teachers become confident, independent teachers?
One technique that I use is something I learned from my friend Josh. I’m not sure that it has a name, but I like to think of it as “Wearing Two Hats.” Here’s how it works. First, the students participate is some activity. This is the concrete experience. For example, at the beginning of the class all of us might do a warm-up together, like “Find Someone Who…”. During this activity the participants are wearing the hat of a student. In other words, they are participating in the activity in a real, genuine way. In this case, they are trying to play the game, find the most people who can answer yes to all the questions, and win the prize. The main point here is that the activity, whatever it may be, a warm-up, an assessment, or anything else, must be authentic. Participants need to feel what it is like to really be students doing whatever it is.
After the activity is over, it’s time to change hats. Now the participants put on the hat of a teacher. I like to make this as explicit as possible, so I try to change my position in the room, or change the seating arrangement, something to indicate that we’re going to be doing something completely different. In pairs, or small groups, I have the participants discuss reflection questions that usually look something like this: what did you think about the activity, describe the basic steps, explain how you think it could help, or hinder, students’ learning/participation, and what changes or adaptations could you make to it? I give the participants time to discuss these questions, and then we come together as a group to share ideas. At the end, I provide some quiet time so that participants can take notes in their journals about the activity. Of course, sometimes participants don’t take advantage of this time, and I think that one reason may be because students are not used to teachers being quiet. Nonetheless, as a learner I have always valued a little quiet time for my own reflection and thoughts, so I do it as a teacher.
In the end, I feel like this sequence, experiencing an activity and then reflecting on it, is a way to grow two flowers from one seed (the more conventional idiom here is, “kill two birds with one stone,” but in grad school I learned this more peaceful variation). One of the flowers is that participants learn about some activity by experiencing it. They can then use these in their own teaching. The second flower is that it helps participants develop the reflective thinking skills that are vital for a long, vibrant career in teaching...
The summer solstice is here, the longest day of the year! The astrological event marks a natural time for pause and reflection. These days one of the things that I have been pondering is the nature of the teacher-student relationship. In particular, I have been thinking about where that boundary lies.
Often, when asked about a favorite teacher, people recall a person with whom they felt “connected,” “close,” or “friendly.” Of course, not always, there are other important factors too. But how much time and effort should teachers spend trying to forge connections and friendliness between themselves and their students? Obviously, there are clear extremes at either end that are inappropriate, like asking students out on a date, or the opposite, not knowing students’ names and looking down on them. What I am thinking about is that area in the middle. All good teachers certainly build rapport and trust between themselves and their students. However, do teachers feel, and/or act, like friends with their students, and vice versa?
No doubt the contexts play a significant role in informing any thoughtful answer to this question. For example, in a university setting, younger teachers may be more likely to be collegial with their students, especially if they were close in age. Some contexts just lend themselves to “friendly” relations between teachers and students. In my own experience, I can think of a few examples. For one, when I studied Spanish in Venezuela. There my teachers really were my friends, and a part of that small social world I inhabited. However, they never had to give me a grade or decide if I would pass their class because that was not part of the context.
Although I don’t think of the students I have now as my friends, I do feel strongly connected to them. I admire and respect them. I even “friend” them when they send me a request on Facebook (although for me this is more of a professional space than a social space; and yet, isn’t the very fact of Facebook evidence of the blurring of boundaries?).
In the end, it may come down to what each of us as teachers feel we need, and we believe our students need. Will our social and emotional efforts to bond help improve our students’ learning, or will it hinder our ability to give objective evaluation?
I’d love to hear your own experiences and beliefs about this puzzle. Were you ever friends with a teacher you had? Is it important for you as a teacher that your students “like” you?
Photo by Tim Green
As a teacher and a trainer, I am often puzzling about how best to provide feedback to students and teachers. The most common way to give feedback is giving a grade, but this is not necessarily the most effective or meaningful. What are the alternatives? Of course, as teachers we are constantly giving some kinds of feedback to students. For example, a student says, “Teacher, what you do yesterday?” And the teacher is faced with a situation in which he can give feedback (about the mistake) or not. When and how teachers give feedback is based on one’s beliefs about learning. What will best help students learn?
However, I’m thinking about more structured, formal, approaches to feedback. There are many options, including checklists, portfolios, short notes, and verbal; also, it could be from peers, self, or the teacher. In the literature, this seems to be what is often referred to as “authentic” (or alternative) assessment. For me, it is basically giving and/or getting feedback in some form other than a grade.
One of the challenges with authentic assessment is that it is not traditional. Thus, many people (teachers and students) are not familiar with it. Often, as is our nature, we tend to fear and/or resist that which is not familiar. This is probably a practical evolutionary trait! In any case, I’d like to say that authentic assessment is valuable and ought not to be feared! I encourage teachers to experiment with it. So, finally, I’m wondering about how you may have experimented with it—what have you done (or experienced) with feedback to help students’ learning and participation, or what have you done that has hindered it?
1. Huerta-Macias, Ana. “Alternative Assessment: Responses to Commonly Asked Questions,” in Methodology in Language Teaching, 2002.
2. O’Malley, J. Michael and Lorraine Valdez Pierce. Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners, 1996.
3. Porter, Larry. “Giving and Receiving Feedback; It Will Never Be Easy, but It Can Be Better,” 1982.
This month I have been thinking and reading a lot about assessment (maybe too much, which is why I’m not posting until the end of the month). In particular, I’ve been considering how teachers can best assess students’ speaking. In the literature, it seems that there are four good options that stand out to me for assessing speaking, including setting up role-plays, having students give presentations, doing interviews, or recorded speaking “tasks.” All of these assessment activities, if students have been provided ample time to practice, are set up well, and have clear grading criteria, can provide fairly accurate evaluation of speaking. In the end, teachers probably want to include a variety of more than one of these, in order to feel they have a complete assessment picture.
The main “puzzle” (there are several minor ones!) for me has been, what creates students’ buy-in (buy-in = support for an idea or plan) for speaking assessment? In other words, when are students excited to have their speaking assessed? So far, the best that I can come up with is that it depends. Of course, students are different, classes and contexts are not the same, and teachers are distinct. I’d like to know what teachers have done that has worked well and not worked well, in order to get students' buy-in. I’d like to know what students have experienced that has helped them “buy-in” or has caused them to resist. For example, if a teacher tells you that you have to speak for 2 to 3 minutes in front of the whole class (i.e. "present") about a person you admire, in order to assess your speaking, are you excited and motivated, do you support this plan? Or are there better alternatives?
1. Bailey, Kathleen. Learning About Language Assessment, 1998.
2. Hughes, Arthur. Testing for Language Teachers, 1989
3. O’Malley and Pierce. Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners, 1996.
4. Thornbury, Scott. How to Teaching Speaking, 2005
_ It is March and today is the fourth. March Fourth, which sounds the same as “march forth.” A date (3/4) and a command (go forward; continue on). When I was in high school there was an inspiring science teacher named Clark Schultes. Although I never had him as a teacher, I felt his influence tangentially through peers. I know that his life and his teaching had a positive effect on thousands of students. Sadly, he lost his battle with cancer at a young age. He inspired in life, and in death; he died on March Fourth. At the “celebration of his life” (he forbade a funeral) someone made the point that Clark’s message for us was that we were the ones who now had to “march forth.” Of course, this message was meant to be interpreted by each person in their own way, and so it has.
These days I am working with pre-service and in-service English teachers and I am inspired by the positive influence they have, or will have, on the lives of so many young people. And, today as I think back to that time, twenty-three years ago, I think about Clark and other teachers who have inspired me (directly and indirectly), what characteristics they had, and how they worked their magic. I’d like to hear about a teacher who inspired you and how she/he did it.
_ What is the fount of your inspiration and love for doing what you do? I stumbled on this puzzle this week from two different directions. First, one of my students asked me for some recommendations for where she could find teaching activities. She is beginning her teaching practicum and will soon graduate to become a real teacher. She needs practical inspiration. Can you recommend books or websites that are good resources for EFL teachers?
The other direction from which I came to meet this puzzle is a bit more circuitous, more abstract. I realized this week that now it is February, when Valentine’s Day is celebrated by some. One of its celebrants is my wife, for whom it is her favorite holiday. Not for its materialism or Hallmark platitudes, but rather just for love and all its myriad incarnations. So I’ve been pondering love. In addition, I got to thinking: what brings, and renews, love and passion to your work?
In conclusion, I’d love to hear your comments for both or either of these puzzles: recommended resources for teachers and/or how you stay passionate about your work. In short, inspire us.
Happy New Year! Many people start off the new year armed with resolutions and one common theme that I have heard from some fellow teachers has to do with balance. By balance I mean finding an appropriate balance between work and life. Unfortunately, many teachers seem to feel that they spend too much time working, which leaves too little time for everything else. It seems like the actual time in the classroom with students is not a problem, all the teachers I know cite this as their favorite part of teaching. However, it is the time spent grading, going to meetings, and all the other responsibilities outside of the classroom which seem to wear teachers down.
As for me, although it is not a "resolution," I am hoping and planning to find more balance in my life in 2012. One thing I have been thinking about trying out is an Internet "sabbath." I would like to take one day every week (Friday?) in which I do not use the Internet at all. I haven't started yet, but once I settle into my new job, I'll give it a try.
So, I've been wondering how other teachers have been able to find a balance in their lives. How do you keep from feeling burned out? In addition, I'm also curious about other professions because working too much is not limited to the teaching profession; how do people in other fields balance their work time and life time? I look forward to hearing your ideas/experiences.
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