A quick post on happy thoughts

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What is the first thing you do when waking up in the morning? And what is the last thing you do before drifting into the land of dreams? How do you prepare your mind and soul for the two long stretches of time awaiting you in both cases?

I SMILE. Even if I don’t necessarily feel like smiling, I do it. I turn the corners of my mouth upwards. This in its turn brings a tiny sparkle in my eyes. Which in turn makes me smile more. This time involuntarily. Which makes me feel good. Which in its turn opens my heart to all the good energy and vibes out there. If it’s bedtime, I keep a tender smile on my face while waiting for sleep to rock me gently into rest.

When it’s morning I think of all the good things that wait for me. And believe me, when you smile, more things suddenly seem good or (if really in a bad mood) bearable.

Smile is amazing. It doesn’t only boost your energy and well being, it airs your brain and sprays positive hues on all your thoughts. It’s a soft armor to accompany you through your day, your lessons, your tasks and duties. It really does work.

And remember  – happy go lucky :-)

PS – Thanks Ann, for the wonderful idea of paragraph blogging!

Thinking of correction

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Let this picture be a reminder that we, teachers, have life outside classroom too :-)!

Yes, it’s snowing. Huge, intricate and soft flakes swirling towards the ground, knitting a beautiful white blanket for the nature. Yesterday, while snowshoeing in the fairytale-like forest, I stopped now and then just to listen and hear the quiet, yet deep sigh of relief nature all around me heaved. 

These hours spent in pure bliss are my life savers. They come to aid me to air the stuffy brain, to make space for new and healthier thoughts (or no thoughts at all!), to help me take a distance from school so that I can see more clearly, see from above, see without the noise.

These last weeks have been extremely busy. The month of January froze the nature outside but got my creative juices flowing abundantly. Maybe it’s the decision to retake more active part in PLN doings, maybe it’s my regular yoga practice, maybe the wonderfully inspirational books I’ve been recently reading, but lots of classroom ideas have knocked at my door and helped to invigorate the teaching-learning adventure in my classes. I hope to be able to write about some of the new ideas in my next post.

Teacher training is in full swing as well, and working with my absolutely amazing colleague (let’s be honest, we are both trainers and learners in that story) has brought into light lots of questions, doubts, ideas. After many hours spent in the teacher training institute going over theories, methods, techniques, we are now actively visiting each other’s lessons and reflecting on the experience.

Last week my colleague was sitting in on two of my lessons, and although many teachers may feel reluctant and fearful towards being observed, I find this practice extremely useful and even enjoyable. I’ve even noticed that being so fully immersed in my lessons, I pretty much immediately forget there’s someone additional in class. So, honestly, when it comes to classroom work I don’t feel the difference whether someone external’s there or not. What’s more, last week I noticed something new in my attitude towards classroom observation. In the second lesson quite a few hiccups came to spice up the lesson; I mispronounced a student’s name, instructions were not very well understood, feedback was far from perfect, and timing didn’t work out the way I had planned. But I didn’t feel disappointed or frustrated in the end. Instead, we sat down with the other teacher and reflected on all that had come to pass. It was one of the most fruitful discussions I’ve had for quite a while, because it was about a REAL lesson, it was about a lesson I teach whether there’s someone in class or not.

One of the questions that arose was classroom correction and feedback. Students had to do an exercise on first conditional which was followed by a whole class correction. I asked students to read the sentences so that we could correct their work together. But this kind of work is often rather unsatisfactory. Students read silently, some literally mumbling into their collars and me, silly me, rushing to echo to make it move on faster and make sure that everyone hears the correct answer. Okay, it didn’t take up too much of the classroom time, but this rather tedious and painful procedure made us, my colleague and me, to wonder how to improve this part of classroom work. Imagine, you ask your students to do an exercise in order to put into practice newly acquired language and then you have to offer further support correcting what’s been done. HOW? Simply reading the exercises can be a real pain in the neck with lots of quiet students. What are the options?

To begin with, I don’t consider not correcting an option. Certainly not. I know that my students want to verify their answers and if I were a student in a language school I would get extremely cross if no correction was offered.

One of the things I sometimes do is write the correct answers on a hidden part of the blackboard and display them once students have finished. But I don’t always have the time before a lesson to get ready like that.

I have also asked students to work in small groups making sure there’s always one higher level student  to lead the discussion. Whenever students disagree, I’d go and check with them. But this option too has its drawbacks. What if students agree on an incorrect option and are perfectly happy with that?

What other options are available? How do you correct exercises as a class? How do you train your students to speak up?

As usual I’d be very grateful for your feedback.

It’s still snowing …

Blogging rituals

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I could write anywhere, right?!

Writing is something I crave. Sometimes it happens in the middle of a lesson that I suddenly get an overwhelming need to write, to withdraw into private reflections and gently release my thoughts to the sound of a pen brushing against paper. But this yearning to flirt with thoughts, to catch them into words, to contemplate in writing can much too often turn into a struggle and instead of writing down my bones I feel them ache.  Yet why is this?

Zhenya got the ball rolling with her post on blogging habits and rituals, and if ever there was an occasion to contemplate my blog writing, this is definitely one. So before I delve into the three questions listed by Zhenya, I’d like to thank her for that fun and inspiring challenge and invite other bloggers to join in as well!

So, back to my writer’s block and blogging rituals in general. More often than not I like to jot down a draft of sorts. I like the feel of pen and paper, or more precisely pencil and paper. When it comes to mind mapping or lists or doodling I need a pencil. I have notebooks, sticky notes and paper lying all over the place so I simply grab one and start scribbling. I might do it all in a row or with small breaks in the middle (one needs abundant coffee and tea to be able to write well) or I might do it over a day or two. This latter is actually the wisest option as many of my best ideas pop into my head in the shower, while driving or when by the oven. The silly thing is that many a times I neglect this important ripening period. Take this post, for instance. I felt like taking up Zhenya’s challenge and here I am sucking words out of the keyboard instead of letting them drop onto the paper once they are ripe and juicy.

The surrounding is important. Or at least, that’s what I have been thinking till now. I somehow used to think that my best posts are born in my office under my tiny twinkling lights with a cuppa next to me. But how can I know? I have rarely written longer pieces outside in the wild world and the more I think about it, the more eager and curious I grow to give it a try. I have a funny feeling that the background noise will actually work as a wall between me and the outside world and make me concentrate more effectively on my own thoughts, it’d help me to withdraw deeper into my own self and find sentiments and words floating in abundance.

Prior to writing I often read a couple of posts either from fellow teachers or bloggers in general. This will help me to get into the English writing mood.

And that’s where we get to the two habits I find upsetting and awfully demanding. Why do I need to warm up, to get myself into the English mood? Well, as several other bloggers who took up this challenge have noted, being a non-native English speaker  can slow the writing process down considerably. And this is definitely the case with me. While Mike mentioned in his comment to Zhenya’s post that mistakes slip in and so what, then many (I guess I can generalize here a bit) non-native speakers have this paralyzing need to get it all nice and neat and super correct and let’s push a little further – it has to be VERY GOOD. Not just good, but VERY good. And this is where the heaviest and biggest cornerstone of my writer’s block resides. There it is! When I write in Estonian ( I have a personal blog too) words simply flow out of me. I don’t need to think hard, I don’t have to look for the best suitable word for the feeling I need to express. Not at all, in Estonian, my mind, my lexis, my hand, they all collaborate and oh what a joy that is. But writing in English is hard work. Honestly, it can be extremely frustrating when you are absolutely sure there is this word or expression that would transmit your sentiment so well, but you simply cannot find it. And that’s when I get stuck. I sit at the computer, I am aching all over, getting more and more frustrated and the feelings that want to get out onto the screen rush to the front of my skull, collide, heap up and rage for release. But I cannot help them as the right words to free them are suddenly lost to me.

The other impeding habit is similar to Hana’s. Instead of writing my posts in stages, taking time off when needed, I want to get it all over with in one go. Now, considering the amount of time I spend looking for words and struggling with getting my thoughts down as truthfully as possible, this ‘one go’ can grow into a seriously long episode. Being a mom of three, these interminable episodes come with a cost and I don’t like to pay this price.

So, having typed all the above, I guess it’s time I came to the last question which was about the one new ritual we’d like to establish this year. Well, I guess you could write it for me now that you’ve read my post (Anyone still reading? … hello? Anyone out there?)

I hope I won’t be evicted from the challenge if I put down three blogging hopes for this new year.

Firstly, I simply need to write more often. Of course it’s hard to verbalize my thoughts in satisfactory English if I do it too seldom.

To fight the important correct-word blockage, I should finally start walking my talk. Let me explain. Whenever I ask my students to do some free writing, I always tell them to just keep writing and not bother too much about producing the correct sentences. What is important is to catch the thoughts before they flee and then worry about the words and expressions later. Well, I definitely need to practice what I preach!

And last (and the most exciting of all for me) – start writing posts outside my cosy office! I want to experiment with writing pretty much anywhere and see what the change in decor has to offer. I will, of course, let you know as to the place of birth of any of my following posts.

New year resolutions are so not cool … here are mine!

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(when I was out contemplating this post)

In two days time the new semester begins and even though it’s not a new school year, it is in a way a new beginning. And I’m personally extremely fond of new beginnings. Suddenly everything seems possible. It’s new, it’s a start, so ‘hey’ I could give it another, a fresh go and do much better than before. Sweeping all my weaknesses and failures aside, there is one thing I am good at – getting back on my feet and trying again. And nowhere is it as obvious as in my professional life. I might walk out of a classroom holding back tears, drive home swearing never to step in front of a classroom again, bang my head on the desk and solemnly promise to find a new vocation (because of being such a miserable and incompetent teacher!!! – you know, those days), but let the sun rise a couple of days later, and there I am, all bright and bushy, ready to kick some a****, help my students in new and inspiring ways.

At the end of the last semester I didn’t merit much of an applause, probably a couple of claps, but no standing ovation, oh no. To put it bluntly, I couldn’t wait for the Xmas break to liberate me from the unsatisfactory situation I found myself in. I didn’t feel comfortable, happy, energetic wearing my teacher hat. Somewhere along the way I had taken a bad turn and was feeling strangely lost. I knew I can perform so much better, I still remembered the feelings I COULD savour during and after positive lessons, but the gap between those moments and the current lessons was widening and I panicked.

But I have also learned that panic is temporary. While in turmoil, it’s certainly not the time to take any ultimate decisions or brand myself this or that. It’s like a hot soup you need to wait to cool down a little before eating. These two Christmas weeks have been exactly that, cooling down and letting my hunger and eagerness grow. To give myself a friendly push, I thought it would be a good idea to think of some objectives I could aspire for during this coming semester. Or like I say in the teacher training sessions, while preparing your lesson plan, don’t only write lesson aims for your students, write also what your personal objectives are.

So here they are, my new teaching year aspirations.

Assessment

Keep looking for new and alternative ways to assess my students’ performance. My previous post was all about that. Some ideas are already stirring in my head, so let’s hope I can travel much further on this new road of fair and varied assessment.

PLN is precious

It’s so easy to drift away. We all have busy lives comprising work, families, hobbies, all kinds of responsibilities. So it’s only natural that keeping up with PLN doings is not always self-evident. I have had shorter and longer moments of letting go and wandering on my own. Yet every time I come back and find  again the old (and new!) enthusiastic teachers from all over the world I always wonder how I got along without them ;-)

So I wish to have the energy and time to keep up with my PLN, to learn from all these wonderful educators, to share my own modest thoughts and cherish the inspiration.

Teacher talk

Simply put – stop blabbering! Putting some sensible limits to teacher talking time is a continuous objective of mine. I do hope / believe I’m getting better. But there are still those I-get-carried-away moments in class when I use way too many words to get pretty short messages across. So, yep, choosing my words more carefully and avoid confusing verbal detours.

Vocabulary lists

Till recently I had an uneasy relationship with the idea of vocabulary lists. I used to believe that it’s up to students to make theirs. I encouraged my students to note down new words. After all, teaching in such mixed-level classes it seemed only normal that every student has a different vocabulary list. However, after reading Philip Kerr’s wordlists blog, this post by Ceri, and reflecting on student end-of-the-semester feedback, I feel change is underway. As usual, keep tuned ;-)

Healthy person makes a healthy teacher

We teach who we are. And I want to be full of energy and inspiration. I know from previous experience that if I take the time to care for myself, I am definitely better prepared to give a helping hand to others. So in order to keep my own humble self growing and developing I MUST do things which nourish me. I hope to be able to read more (MUCH more … I can actually feel the desert advancing in my head and soul whenever I neglect reading for too long). I want to watch more films, too. And last but not least mens sana in corpore sano. Keep running, keep running! And remember to do your daily 5 Tibetan Rites :-)

And you, do add one aspiration of yours into the comment section!

Measuring not measurable

He annoyed me. The guy in university. Besides secretly fancying him, I got awfully irritated every time we had an English lesson together. Because he was THE master of the language. He always got the best marks and had such self-confidence in him, I couldn’t but get annoyed by him. And then once it all boiled over. We had one-to-one progress chat with our teacher. During the talk she handed me yet another essay I had written but failed to get a good enough mark. I remember bursting out, ‘What’s wrong again? Why cannot I get the best mark? I worked so hard? And anyway, what does HE do better?’ (childish? maybe, but also very sincere…) And then this teacher told me something that has stuck with me like a wet autumn leaf gets stuck under your shoe sole. ‘He plays it safe. Always. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But you take risks. Always. You trod into unsafe alleys and dare to fail.’

Back at the time it had no effect on me. I was too focused on my failures and ‘bad’ marks and I didn’t buy any of this beautiful talk about risks and alleys. But a month ago the old story surfaced, it rose into the light, into piercing light so that I saw clearly, understood and then sank into deep and troublesome reflection about what on earth should I now do with all the knowledge and understanding. Let me explain.

This year I have a boy in one of the groups, who, before coming to my class, had never had an English lesson before. He’s (was) a complete beginner. If you’ve been reading this blog before, you know that my biggest challenge and worry is extremely mixed-level classes. I have to teach students whose language levels range between A1 – B2. So this poor chap found himself in a group of language learners who could all more or less make themselves understood and definitely comprehended everything that was going on  in the lesson. He, on the other hand, was utterly lost the first weeks, but then after many talks with me, lots of encouragement, additional help and incredible willpower of his own, started getting slowly onto his English feet. He learned hard, revised a lot before tests and got pretty decent results. The last exam of the semester was a written description of two people students could see on the screen. Students had to answer simple questions ‘What’s he wearing? What’s he carrying? What does he look like’ Now, he could have played it safe, like the guy back at university. He had definitely learned the vocabulary and had mastered the basic sentence structure by then. But he didn’t. Instead he wrote like a poet. He tried to play with the language, he used comparisons, was funny, and beautifully imaginative. And I could see it all shine through. I could see clearly everything he wanted to do, aspired for. But couldn’t. Not yet. He tried to fly, to soar high, but his wings are yet too small to carry him up there. So he basically plummeted to the ground. His writing was drowning in mistakes and the mark reflected that. I don’t know if my long and encouraging and hopefully inspiring personal comment at the end of the writing did any good. Maybe he even failed to read it. Maybe he was so disappointed and discouraged when seeing the mark he crumpled his anger together with the sheet and threw it into a bin. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that I am awfully disappointed too. And sad. And lost. Because I have started to wonder if we shouldn’t evaluate effort too. I mean, this guy is struggling along students who don’t even need to revise in order to pass the test. They’ve already acquired the knowledge and skills needed for this particular level. So of course, they simply turn up, jot down all they know and then walk away smugly knowing they’ve got another best mark in store for them. But the guy works hard to learn the material, he sweats his way through the lessons and trembles through tests and then never gets the best mark. I admit, he is in a very heterogenous class and has to put in extra effort to be able to catch up with the others. But there must be something I can do, besides regular encouraging comments and lots of after-the-lesson talks, to ‘pay him the salary’ he deserves.

And this merit issue brings me to one more incident, which falls into the same category as the previous story. I have one other student, a girl this time, whose struggles are pretty much similar to the boy’s. Only that her problem lies in the nature of test taking in general. Or as she put it ‘I learn, I learn and I know it’s okay but then I take the test and it’s all gone. I simply cannot do it!’ She has dyslexia on top of it all. Yet in the classroom she’s a cheerful, energetic and very talkative student. She is struggling too as her level is very low, but she is eager and has the valuable characteristic of a good learner – she LOVES to talk. But then there’s another test and she totally messes it up and I’m totally confused and hugely reluctant to break the news to her. So before the new year break I took her aside and let her know what my feelings were. I told her that the marks failed to reflect her efforts, that I appreciated her participation, her good mood, her energy a lot, that I was just as upset about her marks as she was and last but not least, I would think of possible ways to remedy this catastrophic situation.

Now, as I said above, this girl loves to talk. She’s good. She can make herself understood. Yet how often do we evaluate speaking? Maybe you do it a lot. Maybe you do it as regularly as written evaluation. But I don’t. It’s easier and faster to hand out written tests. Setting up oral evaluations is pretty tricky. I have only one 1 1/5 lesson per week with my students and there are approximately 15 students in each group. So having regular speaking tests seems logistically impossible. Yet languages are meant to be spoken. And there are students who are absolutely capable of talking but freeze in front of a blank page. Now, how unfair is that?! So having this idea in mind, I tossed and turned and tossed some more and decided that from now on I’ll introduce a new testing into the programme. I cannot test all of my students but I could evaluate two per week. So whatever the topic, one of the homework’s will be a short presentation. Say we are learning the vocabulary of seasons and weather. Students’ homework would be to prepare a short description of the seasons and weather in Switzerland. Ten minutes before the end of the lesson I would ask two students (randomly) to come up to me and we’d have a short discussion together. Meanwhile the other students can finish their exercises or start homework.  I would do that throughout the next semester. And I truly hope that the students who panic during regular tests, will be able to show their skills during our short and almost private talks and receive marks which will finally help to boost their self-confidence and back up their motivation.

So here I am all tangled up in the confusing mess of evaluation and student motivation and the possibly toxic fusion of the two. On one hand I have to test my students. We’re in a state school where marks are the signposts of their progress. They need to get familiar with testing and test types in order to pass the years and then eventually the final English test. But on the other hand, I wish to give marks that also reflect their effort, their personal progress, marks which encourage them rather than send yet another devastating blow. How to get around it all? How to be fair yet cater for different needs? How to help everyone on their particular journey?

In our next teacher training session, evaluation will be the central topic. Maybe I’ll walk away with lots of new and great ideas. Maybe not. I have been browsing through different teacher blogs looking for thoughts on the said topic. But the blogosphere is vast and my time limited.

I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this topic. But also any reading tips.

And last but not least – have you set up any original assessments which have tested students progress and effort in more alternative ways?

And yes, I will keep you posted on how the speaking tests go and whether I’ll come up with any other ways of helping my students show what they can rather than cannot do! Promise!

Magic or maddening teachers

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Our last training session was an inward journey. We went to look for answers (questions too) in the untrodden patches of ‘our-world’, these distant corners we rarely acknowledge as our busy lives seal them off. To get to these rich sources, you have to dig a little. Unwrap layers, think or write them thin so that the dormant answers can surface to surprise you.

We teach who we are … and who we fail to be. Teachers are like spirits hovering in the classroom making magic or madness happen. Not necessarily directly, not by spraying stuff right into students’ faces, but by diffusing feelings, attitudes and beliefs that silently seep into the learners. Most teachers leave an imprint, some deeper, some barely recognizable traces. And these traces are tightly intertwined to who we are or who we fail to be.

In our last seminar we travelled back in time and tried to remember the teacher we’d appreciated a lot. My colleague talked about an ‘ugly’ bottle-glassed teacher who wore the same old tweed jacket year in and year out, combed his hair in a funny way and was young and old at the same time. But, his lessons were always calm, well-structured and had the magic capacity to make the learners feel at ease and confident. I was intrigued and asked my colleague to dig a little deeper. What else could she remember? What about the voice? The gestures? Sanctions? How did he correct the students? How did he give feedback? And that’s where my colleague remembered that he didn’t even talk that much. He was calm, reassuring, more like an all-embracing scaffolding helping students raise to their own feet. He didn’t need to go into sanctions as students hardly misbehaved. They had no need to provoke limits as these were so well defined. From what the other teacher said I could only conclude one thing – that tweed-clad teacher was solid as a rock. He harbored so much self-confidence and calm he didn’t need to mess around with limits or naughty learners. Because the learners felt calm and self-confident too. How powerful is that!

And then I remembered a teacher we used to fear and hate in the secondary school. Even more, we loathed him because of the way he made us feel, how he pushed us into a corner, how he enjoyed being superior and tyrannical. His weapon was fear, and he had acquired quite a mastery of it. But now, looking back, I am sure that fear was not simply a tool he used, fear had enveloped him, fear was eating him from the inside. He could find and manipulate our fears because it was all too familiar to him. He knew fear. He knew it so well he could smell it from far and coax it into the daylight, twist it, play around with it. He was suffering from fear and thus, teaching with fear.

But I also remember a university lecturer, an Irish woman, who was poetry to me. Poetry and words and rhythm and love of literature. She had such a frail figure but powerful mind and feelings. I will never forget the time she brought a book by Doris Lessing to class and read a passage to us. I can still see how she held the book, how she turned the pages with her long and slender fingers, how her voice and body and breathing got captured by the story, how she forgot everything but the book. And I knew I wanted to be poetry too. I knew she had touched, stirred something very, very deep inside of me. The ice had began to melt and I discovered I had loves and passions in me that had lain dormant till that day.

What will I stir in my students? What will I coax into the daylight? How do I make them feel? Can I say that? Can I see that? My students will maybe tell me one day. But till then I will take care of myself as a human being who has passions and loves and interests. I will nurture the good, the hopeful, the soulful sides in me hoping they’ll shine through.

If you want to become a better teacher, start by taking care of yourself as a person … because in the end you teach who you are … or fail to be.

Zoom in

Anna’s beautifully honest post on self analysis made me pace from one end of the kitchen to another while I was mumbling to myself, ‘What’s in here for me?’ ‘How can I use it? Oh, come on, inspiration, I feel there’s stuff in here I can use!’

And use it I can, definitely! It made me think of the upcoming teacher training sessions I am honored to conduct again this year. It’s the sequel to last year’s seminars, which were my first to plan and run. I loved that new project, new teaching / learning adventure that unfolded during the sessions. Loads was shared and analyzed. We pondered on discipline, took apart lesson plans, evaluated each other’s evaluation techniques, studied methods, tasks, attitudes. So in a way, I think, these seminars created rather a neat whole by the end and if the course had stopped there, it would have already been quite a satisfaction for both of us, my trainee and me.

However, as it is a two-part training course, I have one more sequence of seminars to plan. And that’s where Anna’s daring reflections lent themselves to long-awaited inspiration and motivation. I am incredibly lucky to have as my first trainee a wonderful teacher who is on the same wave length with me. We’ve got to know each other pretty well, we are comfortable in each other’s company and both eager to grow and develop as teachers. And even though I am officially the trainer, I can honestly say, learning is definitely mutual when we get together.

So having said all that, what if we turned the regular teacher training a little upside down and started from within ourselves? What if, instead of our students and lessons, we zoomed into ourselves? What if we scrutinized ourselves as teachers?

I have lots of ideas, thoughts, quotes, snippets fighting for attention in my head right now. Questions are bombarding me. Questions like:

How would I describe myself as a teacher?

What am I good at?

What kind of a teacher I dream of being?

What kind of a teacher I would like to have if I were my students?

How would I like to grow? How can I start growing?

It’s all raw and pretty shapeless for the moment. But I am excited about how it’ll turn out. I’m curious and eager to dig deeper into who we are as teachers.

WHAT’S MORE, I am also hoping you could help me just a little bit ;-)

Would you mind sharing any posts, articles, books you’ve read on a similar topic. Maybe there was a quote that touched you. I would be grateful for all inspiration!

I, on the other hand, promise to share the adventure with you!