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 ;-)

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4 thoughts on “Talk at ETAS AGM in January 2014

  1. A very clear set of ideas about teaching mixed-level classes. I’m sure your presentation was just as good, and I look forward to seeing you speak somewhere in the future!
    Thanks Sirja,
    Sandy

  2. Thanks for sharing this on your blog, too. Your workshop was excellently presented and I was especially happy that a younger ETAS member has taken the plunge, overcome stage freight and contributed to our conference – gives me hope for the next 30 years. I’m also happy to read in your introduction that you’ve had similar experiences concerning encouragment from fellow teachers like me for many years. For ETAS I hope that younger enthusiastic teachers like you will keep up the sharing friendly atmosphere in our great association.
    Thanks and hoping to see and hear you at some future ETAS event
    Elsbeth

    • Dear Elsbeth,
      I’m very happy to read your kind and encouraging words here. I felt this same kindness and encouragement during my talk as well, and it made the plunge so much easier!
      Thank you for your support and till next time!
      Sirja

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