Talk at ETAS AGM in January 2014

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Attending a conference can be a truly overwhelming experience. But attending a conference and giving a talk there as well simply blows one’s mind. A couple of days after the event, once the dust has settled exposing a clearer scenery, certain realizations hit home.

Wise men don’t preach, they ask questions. I attended Jeremy Harmer’s plenary speech and one of his talks as well. And in both cases I was amused by how, instead of telling other teachers how teaching goes, he would bemuse us with questions, doubts, open-ended and long echoing assumptions. He was always wondering, always questioning and looking out at his audience encouraging us to inquire as well. It was a really refreshing approach. But it was truly soothing as well. Because there are no ready made and final answers out there. Teaching is learning and it is never complete. Just when you think you’ve got it, the thread slips out of your hand and off you go to search it again.

Even if a pending talk can spoil some of the fun of listening to other presenters, it also makes you more alert, more analytical and definitely a more attentive listener. The message you are about to share makes you compare and contrast, it encourages you to look for ideas, suggestions and definitely for useful quotes to use in your own talk. Or as Byron Wien said about reading Have a point of view before you start a book or article and see if what you think is confirmed or refuted by the author.  If you do that, you will read faster and comprehend more.

I dreaded having to present during the last session. It seemed I was at a disadvantage. How wonderful it would be to get it over and done with before relaxing in other talks. However, the last session turned out to be a real advantage. When I arrived at the conference on Saturday morning, I felt rather lonely. I remembered some faces, I recalled a name or two, but there was no one I felt like striking up a discussion with immediately. The idea of giving a talk seemed more daunting than ever. But then we had workshops to meet people, coffee breaks, apéro and a lively supper, so by Sunday I had all these incredibly wonderful people coming to wish me all the best of luck. Walking into the classroom I even had a couple of familiar faces to give me the encouraging smiles. So let me use the occasion here and praise the ELT professionals. They are the most supportive, friendly and kind folk out there!

Not to talk about Kowalski, who was diligently doing his duty and cheering me on :-)

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As a response to some of the attendees request and believing that several of my blog readers would benefit from the talk as well, here’s the summary of my presentation.

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After having been a member of ETAS (English Teachers Association of Switzerland) and attended many of its conferences and workshops, it seemed time was ripe for me to pitch in and share my own experience. As struggling with very mixed level classes is my daily bread, and coming up with plausible strategies to manage the mess an ever-present challenge, I decided to dedicate my first talk to working in, for and with a class of very mixed level students.

I skipped theory and jumped right into the action giving an overview of all the various tasks and techniques I use in my classes.

First I looked into reading and how to exploit the same text with different levels. Depending whether you want to use the SB and avoid photocopying or bring in your own material, here are some of my ideas (hugely inspired by many educators from all over the world):

Working with books

  • let faster students (in my case, more advanced level students) come up with a couple of comprehension questions they can then ask the whole class
  • In case you make the questions, project them on the screen / write on the board starting with easier ones and putting  trickier ones in the end (the ones that would push more advanced students). Once a student has finished reading direct their attention to the questions and let them begin work on that. Lower level students might not get till the harder questions, but it’s fine. They will have covered the essential questions!
  • Depending on the text, you could ask faster students to work with vocabulary in depth. For instance, they could use monolingual dictionaries to write dictionary definitions into their vocabulary notebooks (making them practise really good English!)

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When you bring in your own material that can be cut up, jumbled up, spiced up, you could do one of the following:

  • Give more advanced students a gapped text instead of the complete version
  • Hand out jumbled paragraphs they have to put in order thus working on linking ideas!
  • You  might want to divide the paragraphs between students (lower levels should get shorter and maybe also fewer paragraphs) and then they should read and report back! OR – maybe they should create a certain vocabulary bank and then share with their neighbor.

I also talked about vocabulary work and listening with the main idea always being that lower level students should get more scaffolding than more advanced level students.

One of the key strategies for mixed level groups (well, any group really, I guess) is to vary as much as possible. There are so many different levels to attend to that all kinds of group compositions should be played around with.

Sometimes working in mixed level groups proves the most advantageous. More advanced students could be the scaffolding for lower levels. Once the work’s been prepared, you can remove the scaffolding, i.e. break the group up and ask every students to work on their own.

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Although in one of my older posts I made a rather assertive statement about how not to work in sections, I have since then changed my mind quite a bit. One of the driving forces, a source of motivation was the incredible Naomi Epstein, who answered my call for help and shared some of her ideas and classroom management strategies. I have used work in sections several times now, and I must confess it is always a pleasurable experience.Capture d’écran 2014-01-28 à 16.54.17

The lesson plan the above poster summarizes is here.

Helping our students become autonomous learners should be on every teacher’s agenda, and even more so when it comes to mixed-level classes. It is inevitable to frustrate some of the students in a lesson. It is either too difficult and fast or way too easy and slow moving. There is, however, no better occasion to choose one’s pace or level than when students work on their own. This is why work outside the classroom should get special attention as well.

I have proposed the following to my students:
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Expression of the week is an ongoing project where every week a new student brings in an expression (s)he has heard, read and introduces it to the classmates.

During the conference I got another idea as well … Do let me know what you think of i! More advanced students have the tendency to relax too much during the lessons and thus miss the learning opportunities always present. One of possible sources of learning is teacher talk. So I was thinking of asking my students to pay special attention to teacher talk and jot down any words or expressions they like / want to learn and then share at the end of the lesson.

And here are the main points to bear in mind when teaching a very mixed-level class:
Capture d’écran 2014-01-28 à 16.58.22The ideas shared in this talk are tiny drops in the vast ocean. And even though, just for a couple of minutes right after the talk was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment, I am still at the bottom of the high mountain of mixed level classes. There are days when it frustrates and discourages me. It seems that no matter what I do, I will never be satisfied nor manage my groups in an absolutely satisfactory way.  But as the wise men say … teaching is learning and it never seizes.

And let’s ask another question ;-)

Students turned into journalists

Curiosity is like a message board. You have your eyes, your ears, all your senses open and every new discovery is a sticky-note pinned onto the wall. Most of the time it looks like  a motley collection of random thoughts, links, quotes, books, songs, videos, impressions. But at times, right notes stick out like dots. All you need to do is link the dots and you’ve got a new idea. Almost all of my classroom projects are born this way. It cannot be a forced creation, it is always an end product of slow maturation.

Sticky note 1 – Roughly a  year ago I stumbled on this fun and truly inspirational blog http://burningquestionnaire.wordpress.com. I loved the interviews and found the questions whimsical. They were questions I would have loved to answer myself. I had a fleeting thought of using this questionnaire in my own class but discarded the idea almost immediately. I feared it was too difficult, too abundant in structures and language we hadn’t covered with my students yet. I couldn’t see it fitting into the programme. But the sticky-note was there, on the board!

Sticky note 2 – A couple of months ago our school headmaster, who also happens to be an incredibly inspirational person, sent me a link to this website http://the-talks.com. He was wondering whether I could use it in my lessons in one way or another. I spend hours enjoying the wonderful interviews, taking immense pleasure in the language and the thoughts expressed through it. It was a real treat!  Sticky-note was on the board!

Sticky note 3 – One year ago I joined the amazing, ever-inspirational, supportive, wise community of English language educators. I began to read thought-provoking articles and blog-posts, I had my eyes opened to innumerable ideas, controversies, trends, beliefs. But above all, I began seeing my own teaching, my own beliefs, my own fears and doubts in a completely new light. What had previously felt like the only good idea, the correct basis for a solid teaching practice, started showing cracks, then had parts chipped off and finally crumbled into non-existence. It wasn’t scary! It was thrilling! Among these strong ideas was my belief that I was in control of my students’ learning. I had very much taken the sole responsibility for their learning. I tortured myself believing that I had to be up to making them fluent in English through the means I and only I presented them with. Thus, coming back to the interviews, I deduced they weren’t able to work with them as I hadn’t provided them with all the right tools yet.

Fortunately, I was able to rid myself of this obstinate and oh-how-painful principle. I relaxed, took a more playful approach to projects (and their outcomes!), but most of all, I realized that teaching and learning don’t go hand in hand. Or as so many wise teachers have said, It’s not because a teacher TEACHES something that a learner will LEARN this. When and to what extent learning takes place is not something a teacher can control. We can, however, inspire, propose interesting tasks, create favorable atmosphere and be there to guide and help when necessary.

At the end of the first semester I had two one and a half hour unplanned lessons to use for any project I felt like doing. And that’s when I linked the dots and came up with an interview project for my students. Initially, I was a tiny bit scared they might not like the idea, or rather, they might protest because of the workload included. But I am happy to say all my fears vanished into thin air the moment I saw my students’ eyes light up when asked who they would like to interview. They were in! They had had their curiosity, their excitement buds tickled and the project took off.

Here’s what we did

Lesson 1

First I showed a possible interview opening on the screen. It went like this:

Singing, dancing, weight-lifting actor Hugh Jackman on coffee, his biggest fears and wearing skirts to school

(From http://www.time.com/10questions)

I asked the students where they could see something like this and what its purpose was.

Next I showed two more possible openings. Here they are:

Rachel Khoo, 33, of BBC2′s The Little Paris Kitchen, was born in Croydon to a Malaysian-Chinese father and Austrian mother. She studied art and design, but after working in fashion, followed her heart to Paris to learn patisserie. Following the success of The Little Paris Kitchen, this year, Rachel travelled through France finding the best dishes…

(From a British women’s magazine Prima)

There’s no mistaking that Amanda Holden is in the room. The actress and TV star has such an infectious laughter and great sense of humor that she soon has everyone at the shoot giggling.

(From another British magazine Good Housekeeping)

We discussed how the three openings differed, and I asked them to choose one of the three types when writing their interview. Next on the menu was Tips for Writing Good Interviews. I had browsed through various sites and come up with a list of good tips concerning the best suitable location for the interview, which questions to avoid, how to make the person feel at ease etc. I gave different tips to neighbors. They had to read theirs, take notes and then report their ideas to their neighbor. Once finished, I asked them to read their neighbor’s versions to check whether they got the truth and only the truth :-) I also wrote the main points on the board for a general round-up.

The last part of the lesson was reading several interviews. I had made copies of different interviews and students could choose what to read. All the interviews were taken from this site: http://the-talks.com

The classroom fell into deep silence as students devoured the words. I was dumbfounded! They do love to read! Just give them stuff they find interesting.

At the end of the lesson students had to tell me who they were going to interview. Their homework was to write down the questions and do the interview. They had one week for that. I encouraged them to use recorders during the talk!

Lesson 2

They had to come to the next lesson with the notes and the recording on their phone (plus earbuds!) The last lesson was writing. They had the whole lesson to write the final interview using the notes and / or the recording. And they did! Again, I was amazed to see how well they can work if the task feels important and personal to them. I was available for help and guidance.

End note

I started correcting their works this morning and I haven’t stopped smiling the whole day. Here are some extracts from their interview openings ( I changed the names):

Nancy is a seventeen year old young woman who has already written four novels. Meet the young writer with a lot of imagination!

Gregory is sitting outside, smoking a cigarette. He’s wearing my grandfather’s old shirt and a pair of mountain shoes. He looks so simple and it’s been a long time since I last saw him looking in my eyes with such a warm smile.

Mary has just turned 17. I have known her since she was a baby and we have always lived in the same street. Mary has an expensive but tremendous passion.

A café in the town centre. Tracy looks happy. She’s smiling. Nothing suggests she used to suffer from bulimia.

I will correct all the interviews and then ask my students to type the corrected versions on computer. On one hand, I want them to re-write the interviews going through the errors and (hopefully) learning from them. On the other hand, I wish them to keep beautiful versions of their work. They definitely deserve that.

Right, back to corrections. It can be fun too!

What a year!

This post belongs to the final hours of this year. It’s like the red ribbon you tie around old letters before gently putting them into a box and then up on a shelf. I want to wrap this year up. I want to take all the incredible memories, amazing moments and wonderful feelings, put a ribbon around them and keep stored in a special place, in the year 2013.

I started this blog almost one year ago. Hesitantly. Tentatively. Not sure I was up to it. Not certain my voice would carry. Not at all confident my lines would find ears and eyes to please. I had followed educators all over the world, silently. I knew quite many names. I had read lots of great thoughts. I was a little scared. All these people seemed so far away from me. They were stars. Famous yet so far away. Why would they take any notice of my thoughts and shouts.

I took a small step. Wrote the ‘about’ page and then waited. A couple of days later there was a comment! A comment on my about page! From Ken Wilson! He welcomed me, encouraged me and asked to read more.  A few lines, a tiny moment spent encouraging a teacher, a priceless move to kick a stone and start it rolling … Only a couple of months later I wrote my first guest post for Ken’s blog. It was a hit. It was absolutely amazing. And I can’t think Ken enough for the support he gives to so many teachers from all over the world!

Once my blog got rolling, beautiful things started happening.

1. It helped me create my PLN. Through writing and reflecting I got in touch with so many likeminded educators. The teachers that only a little while previously had seemed utterly out of reach became my allies and my friends. I have “met” so wonderful people, it makes me humble. And what’s more, I have been mentioned by these people in their posts, in their lists, in their messages. This is huge!  I would love to meet all of you guys! And some I already have :-) In September I attended the first International Loras Workshop in Zug and spent an amazing day with Vicky and Eugenia, two absolutely incredible women.

2. I started to grow, consciously grow as a teacher. Reading other educators’ posts gave me lots of new ideas. Writing my own, made me ask important questions. Suddenly, teaching became less daunting. I started to visualize it more as a  journey, an adventure during which we stumble and fall, but then get up again and become stronger and wiser. Taking a more reflective look on my work, made me more confident. Becoming more confident, made me calmer. Becoming calmer made me a better teacher.

3. Following other teachers rekindled my wish to participate more actively in TESOL. I read my new friends’ posts about conferences and presentations, I ‘liked’ their pre and post talk photos, I had great fun chatting with other teachers during the IATEFL conference. So, why wait any longer?! I gathered all my courage, quietened the voices of the hesitant and discouraging me and sent in my very first talk proposal.  It got accepted! And in three weeks’ time I’ll be giving my first talk at the annual ETAS conference in Switzerland.

I am very excited about the year to come, I am impatient to meet new teachers and make good friends, I am eager to try, to grow and to accept the challenges my wonderful job offers daily. But most of all, I am grateful to all the educators I have met on my journey. You rock! You do! (… gosh, where’s the kleenex…)

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confessions from a tagged blogger

Dear blog,

It’s me! Promise! I know you didn’t believe me at first. And who can blame you? I’m even glad you deter the suspicious beings who pretend to know the password. And please, do keep up the good work, my blog bouncer! However, in the end I am relieved to have retrieved the magic word from a dusty corner of my brain.  And I am happy to realize I know how to add a new post and which button lets me upload a photo. I can even recall the excitement feedback brings. The tiny ‘bing’ in my inbox when receiving a new notice. Gosh, I absolutely adore that!

Yet it would be foolish of me to promise to keep writing from now on. I have promised far enough during shorter or longer breaks from work to know my projects always vanish into the murky waters of frantic work life. Be it chickens in the garden, articles for different journals or knitting winter equipment for the entire extended family – once school starts again I can barely keep my head above the water. So let’s just enjoy the moment. Let’s cherish the precious breaks from the usual rushing around and get some blogging done!

I have approximately twenty different post ideas in mind. Out of respect for you, for my family and my own little person, I cut it down to two.  The first will be a fun one for this evening. The second a little bit deeper reflection on reaching my first teacher blog anniversary.

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I was extremely honored, surprised and excited to discover that two amazing educators, two wonderful women I admire and look up to, decided to ask me to join in the fun and tagged me for a fun blogging game. Carol Goodey and Anne Hendler sent me their questions and the rules for the game. The latter go as follows:

1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger

2. Share 11 random facts about yourself

3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you

4. List 11 bloggers

5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate the blogger who has nominated you.

As the game has been going on for quite a while now and most of the people in my PLN I admire and look up to have already answered loads of questions, I take the liberty of stopping my round after the first 3 tasks.

So, here it comes, confessions from a blogger ….

11 random facts about me

1. I dream of running a marathon (my knee problem won’t let my dream come true)

2. I have lived in Switzerland for thirteen years but miss Estonia almost every day

3. I managed to graduate from a French-speaking teacher training college even though I have never really learned the language. (just picked it up)

4. My written French is poor – poor – poor

5. I have worked as a presenter on Estonian TV (it’s a blur now – I was young and did crazy things)

6. I refuse to eat fois gras

7. I find human beings extremely interesting

8. I dream of being a writer and a little crazy

9. Sometimes I find it hard to fathom that my kids speak French (rather than Estonian)

10. Some TV ads make me cry (especially the ones with people hugging after a long separation)

11. I hate when funny people from the past creep into my dreams uninvited

Questions from Carol 

1. What do you most enjoy about blogging?

I love how my own thoughts become clearer. I love the dialogue. I love the sense of community.

2. Do you play a musical instrument? If not, would you like to? Which one?

Unfortunately, no. My daughter took up flute a year ago and I really wish she’ll have willpower enough to carry on. I envy people whose world is musically so much richer than mine. If I had time, I would learn the drums. I would love to be able to hit the drums like crazy!

3. How far do you travel to work? How do you travel?

My school is a 30 km drive from home. I travel in my car listening to music or audiobooks. It’s great to have this journey to separate my family and work life, to leave me the time to switch from one me to another.

4. What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

The human contact. My students. My colleagues.

5. What was the first thing you ate today?

… let me see … mmm… a blueberry yoghurt

6. If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Why?

I can’t say that :-) It’s one of our family projects for next year and I am too suspicious to even mention it

7. What month next year are you most looking forward to? Why?

March. It’s my birthday month and my mom will be visiting.

8. What meal do you prepare most often for friends?

Lasagne. It’s one of the few dishes I CAN cook … oh dear, I’m a really lousy cook

9.What was the last movie you saw? What did you think?

Just yesterday evening. We watched the Tree of Life with my husband. Didn’t get it. At all. I hardly ever NOT get the films, but this one got me. It was two hours of wasted time :-(

10. What three things do you like to have with you when working?

:-) Fun one! Mmmmm … let me see, a packet of post-it notes, a bottle of water and … a SMILE

11. What do YOU think about reality TV shows?

Depends. There is one on Estonian TV where they help really poor and unlucky families. For instance, they would help a mother with four kids who have just lost their father through a tragic event. I don’t know if this is reality TV or if it has another label …

I never watch people in a sealed box getting crazy under the spotlight.

 

Questions from Anne

1. What was your very first job?

It was a short summer job. I was a cleaning lady in a kindergarten.

2. What is your most valuable possession?

My family … my amazing kids and my hubby

3. Where do you want to go to retire?

Estonia. Or somewhere warm. But in the end it’s probably up to my family and where they will be.

4. What is the most important thing you learned from your parents/ parental figures?

Work won’t kill you.

5. Mountains or Ocean?

Sea ;-)

6. Most beautiful thing you have ever seen?

When my kids smile to  me with deep and sincere joy

7. What’s your favorite blog post you’ve written?

I have two different blogs, the one here and another, more personal in Estonian. My favorite post in the teacher blog is probably the one on non native English teacher doubts and worries. This post made other things happen :-)

8. Favorite education quote?

The one you can see on the right-hand side bar :-)

9. Have you ever done something adventurous? Please share!

Coming to Switzerland has been and still  is an amazing adventure

10. The correct number of hours of sleep is ______ in 24.

8

11. What is something you do that has absolutely no connection to TESOL?

Keeping a private journal, writing an Estonian family blog, skiing, hiking, tasting wine, cheese and chocolate :-)

 

THANK YOU, Carol and Anne! That was fun!

Living up to trust

Last Thursday was an emotional white-knuckle ride.  I plunged from high up to the rock bottom, only to whizz up into the starlight a couple of hours later. That day drained me from all energy, but wow, that day will stay with me forever. What happened there and then made me think of so many different things on so many various levels. It made me ask deeply personal questions, it made me ponder on the responsibilities of a human being and of course, it made me reflect on what it means to be a Teacher.

But before I give you an account of that memorable Thursday I would like to thank you, my teacher friends who responded so quickly to my call for help and support on FB. This would be my WOW moment to write in the footsteps of Mike’s Living PLNeously. I felt so vulnerable and alone, but your lovely comments, your virtual pats on my shoulder helped me go towards the what I then thought would be a devastating meeting with a strong belief that every moment is a good moment to learn and grow, or as Vicky put it so smartly and joyfully in one of her talks “teachable moment! teachable moment!” I thought of her and her mantra and how that would be a moment I could teach myself something new.

It was a Thursday full of lessons. I had the first half of the day behind me when two students from the morning class came to look for me in the teachers’ room. They asked me to step outside as they needed to share something. Once in the hallway they seemed rather fidgety and uneasy looking nervously around them as if scared we might be overheard.  Then they told me they had something very important to share, something that couldn’t wait much longer. They absolutely needed to confess something. I looked at the girls, nodded supportively, yet inside I could feel the gates into the dark and menacing world of doubt and self esteem screeching slowly open.

“We came in the name of the whole class to let you know that we are really lost in your lessons.”

“Yes, Madame, we all have problems learning anything. There seems to be no logic. Everything is so frantic and unconnected.”

“Yeah, and many complain they haven’t learned anything during the last months. It’s like a waste of time. And we don’t even understand what we have to learn and then there’s the test and nobody knows and then we have bad marks and it’s not even our fault!!!!!!!!”

THAT was the dialogue that I dreaded. But it didn’t happen … not anywhere else but in my highly imaginative teacher underworld.

Instead, the girls kept looking around them and exchanging nervous looks. Then one of them told me it was a long story and couldn’t be told like that, and did I, maybe, have a spare moment later on when we could all sit down together. Of course I had that moment, and of course we fixed a meeting three hours later.

And that’s when I spent the vulnerability afternoon chanting Vicky’s mantra and preparing myself for the worst. While the students were taking their written tests I scribbled down any arguments I could use in my defense.  I also put down questions to guide them in their self-reflextion as students. I tried hard to analyse their group and the lessons we’d had till then. Somehow it all seemed to work so well. I remembered content faces and smiling students. So where, where on earth had it gone wrong.

At four in the afternoon I went down, poured myself a good cuppa and decided to plunge into whatever professional life held there for me head on. The girls took their seats in an empty classroom, I closed the door, looked the girls in the eye and said, Before you say anything I want to congratulate you for your courage to come and speak when you feel there is a problem.  So, come one girls, I’m all ears.

I sat down and smiled and waited.

We came to you because we don’t dare to talk to anybody else. We were afraid of other teachers. So we decided to talk to you. We really need help.”

Thankfully I was seated or I would have missed the chair. Thankfully also, I controlled my facial expressions and didn’t let my mouth drop grand open. That enormous was my surprise and, let’s face it, relief!

After the girls had finished, after I had promised to handle their trust with care and talk to people who had the power to act and take far-reaching decisions, I drove back home. My heart, my whole body was weightless, but my head was a busy beehive of thoughts and questions. How had I earned their trust? And once you have it, how to handle such responsibility? I knew exactly who I had to talk to in my turn, but I didn’t want to blurt anything out without carefully honing my words, without making sure this trust wouldn’t be mishandled and violated. I couldn’t let this trust blow back into the girls’ faces with a nasty reaction from someone else. I was thinking of honesty and how fragile that can be. Honesty and trust can become blades that are planted into your back when you’re not looking. But they can be powerful media when given to the right people. How do you know who to trust?

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I was also thinking of my own initial reaction. Why had it been so self-deprecating? Why had I immediately imagined the worst? Why had I feared dissatisfaction and negative feedback? Is it something personal? Or is it part of a bigger picture? Maybe teachers are like that? Just like any creative people who put themselves out into the world, who “get naked” in front of the audience, who lose themselves in the moment? Or simply because their work is to “please” their audience, i.e to make them progress or enjoy themselves, so negative feedback equals work poorly done.

I am glad they came to me, I am happy to be a teacher they dare to confide in and I will not betray their trust. Ever.

And I will continue being amazed at what an incredible life the one of a teacher can be!

Talk to them!

Sometimes to take a single word back you would need pages, I remember one Estonian actress say when talking about the power of words. Silence surely can be golden and a virtue and a sign of intelligence.  However, there are just as many occasions when talking things through would ease the pressure and set things straight. Talking about problems, voicing your fears and doubts, expressing your expectations means putting your cards on the table and being honest. It makes you human, it makes you a partner, it means holding out your hand for the others to grab.

It doesn’t only work in couples ;-) It is also an incredibly powerful tool in a classroom! And though it sounds simple and pretty basic I guess many teachers need to be reminded of the magic a dialogue can create.

During the last two years I have experienced two very powerful moments of the benefits of dialogue. In both cases I found myself in a situation where I felt utterly lost and totally frustrated. I started to dread going into the classroom. I felt the ever widening gap between me, the teacher and them, the students. The classroom was slowly  transforming into the creature I have always dreaded. It was a battlefield of conflicting interests and misunderstanding. I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. In fact, I hated the kind of teacher I was gradually becoming. I heard myself nag and threaten and moan. I had become a team of one against them. And boy, how I hate that! It’s the complete contrary of what I hold dear and cherish in teaching – teamwork and sailing the stormy seas in the same boat with my students.

So I began thinking of the options available. What are my strengths and weaknesses? Which moments make me happy? Which groups do I feel completely at ease in and why? The answers flooded in. Be yourself! Be the cheerful person you are! Stop acting like a policewoman! And most of all, put your cards on the table. Untie the knots with your students.

I remember walking into the classroom, looking at my students and saying, “You know what, I really need to talk to you … “

I loved each one of them at the end of that lesson!

This year I had a similar apprehension with the first year students. It wasn’t anything personal, but the incredibly mixed levels in the group started poisoning the atmosphere from day one. Students felt that something was amiss. Certain students felt bored to death, others struggled. So I reminded myself of the wonders talking things through can make. I decided to devote as much time as needed to explaining the peculiar situation we found ourselves in. I drew lines, I pointed out different levels, I illustrated what was happening. You might think that the students had understood it all by themselves, that they knew they were part of a mixed-level class. Not necessarily!  The visual explanation, the fact I was putting the mess into words cleared everything up. They had a powerful heureka moment. And suddenly we were all in the same boat. I told them what I was going to do about it, what tools and techniques I was going to use to make the most of it. And they knew what I hoped their contribution would be. And what’s more, they knew we were a team working towards a goal TOGETHER.

Now, when I go to this class, I feel stronger and more confident. I try different things, I feel bold enough to experiment. And I feel free to discuss things over with them, to ask for their feedback, to TALK! 

Any you? What wonders has talk made in your teaching? Would love to hear about your experience!

 

nothing should get in the way of a good story

Have you ever asked your students what they do when waiting for their flight in an airport? When you have, I bet the majority would tell you how they love observing people. Right!?

Sometimes, when walking in the streets, I look at the passers-by and think how they all come from very different and incredible stories. They are characters from thousands of tales and what I can see in the street is simply a microscopic glance into a book that will very likely stay shut for me.

Human beings are the most curious and exciting source of tales. Everyone, no matter how insignificant they consider themselves to be, can tell tales which would leave us awestruck, incredulous, entertained, aghast. Their tales can teach us, warn us, inspire us. So to open this treasure chest of experiences, all we need to do is listen to people, ask questions and BE CURIOUS.

When I discovered Humans of New York I instantly knew this was one of the treasure chests. This blog is a collection of pictures and stories of the motley crew of humans you might meet in the Big Apple. It seemed that “meeting” these ordinary or the most extraordinary people would be an inspiring thing for my students. Wanting to know about these humans would push them to use their existing language but also learn new vocabulary. And as these people couldn’t suddenly simply materialize in our classroom, the students also had to use their imagination when guessing these people’s lives and thoughts. So here’s what we did.

It was the first lesson after the long summer break. I had the same groups as the previous year, so it was a good time to brush up on their English, rekindle the class dynamics and restart the learning process by proposing something inspiring.

To begin with I showed a picture of a homeless guy in New York on the screen. He looked absolutely in peace with himself and the world. He was sitting on a folding chair, reading a book and in front of him, on the pavement, there was a doormat which said WELCOME. I told my students that holidays are perfect times to meet new people and make friends. I said that we were going to meet someone today too. And there he was, the guy in NY. I asked the students to look at him and then write down their first impressions. (Imagine you see this guy in the street, what goes through your head)

After two minutes of writing, they had to share their ideas with their neighbor followed by a general feedback and vocabulary questions. We got quite many new (forgotten) words on the board.

After that I asked the students to write on a sheet of paper four questions they would like to ask from the guy. Then I collected the questions.

The next step was getting to know more people, but this time different couples. Every student got a picture of a curious couple. (and there are tons of those on the site) I asked them to write down their impressions once again. However, this time they had to think of some guiding questions (who are they, why are they there, what did they do before etc) I also asked my students to write for four minutes without stopping. If they couldn’t find the word in English, I asked them to write the French equivalent. (It was important to catch their ideas, their thoughts and impressions!)

While they were working on that, I quickly corrected their questions. Mostly the usual missing auxiliaries, prepositions at the beginning of the questions etc.

After the “stream of consciousness” writing, they had time to reread and work with their dictionaries. I walked amongst the students and helped with any language questions they had. There was no time limit. How long you let an activity go on always depends on your students. Once you feel most of the students have stopped, that’s when it’s the best moment to ask everyone to finish the sentence they are writing. After the editing part they had to show their picture to the neighbour and share their thoughts.

Then we looked at the questions. I gave the corrected versions back to the students and then had a class discussion. I wrote the most common mistakes on the board and highlighted the usual pitfalls.

Now came the last part which included corresponding with other students. Every student had to write five questions they would like to ask from the couple. Then I took the pictures and the questions and swapped these with other pics and questions. Now the students had a new picture and five questions. They had to imagine being these people in the picture and answer (in writing) the five questions. I emphasized there were no right or wrong answers, what counted was their imagination and creativity.

Once the answers got written down I gave them together with the pics back to the initial owners, so they could read the answers. There was A LOT of laughter in the class!

As these kind of tasks are open ended, they suit well to mixed level classes. The weaker students have time to work with the dictionaries and produce what they are able to (no pressure!) Whereas the more advanced students can push their own limits. Okay, I admit, they don’t necessarily do that of their own accord. But that’s when your encouraging remarks are welcome.

It’s also an activity that is exciting for the students, it arouses their curiosity. And nothing’s more fruitful to language learning than curiosity!

I used this lesson plan in four different  classes and it worked each time.