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!

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!

A happy post for a sunny day.

Some days ago I read Eugenia’s another wonderful post on raising bilingual (no, trilingual, no wait, was there more?!) kids. She talked about using songs in learning, but what caught my instant attention was the first part of her post where she talks about the kind of teacher she is, enthusiastic, full of life and joy. I read her lines and nodded my head vigorously. So much so that it gave me a slight headache 😉 Just as sometimes my lessons would. Not because they are so dreadful and make every part of my body ache. But because I am so happy in most of my classes that the energy being there gives me drives me slightly mad.

I guess there is a tiny actor, a small artist in most of the teachers. And I dare say that if we are completely honest with ourselves, we must own up that being in front of the students gives us a kick. We love the attention, we love the occasional laugh, we love to be loved. Tell me if I am wrong!

What I also love about being in the class is that I can create something. I love getting the initial idea, then developing it into a lesson plan and then getting out there and giving it a go. When I begin planning my week’s lessons I always ask myself – would that be fun to teach? would I want to be a student in the class? Will we have a good time? Now, I am maybe pushing it a wee too far. I know that learning is a serious business that involves a lot of sweat and tears … but I cannot help but try to transform the effort into something that is fun. I couldn’t give lessons I am myself not enjoying.

There are parts to the syllabus that I have harder times dealing with than others. There are some grammar parts, some vocabulary I feel less comfortable with and I dread the lessons where I have to cover them. However, just as there are the occasional bitter parts, there are many lessons I look forward to teaching. I am eager to walk into the class and see what will happen. Tomorrow, in one of my classes, we will be looking into gerunds and infinitives. And since I found a really lovely way of learning that, I have been enjoying this lesson a lot. I am using The New English File Pre-Intermediate for that. In the textbook the gerund part is learnt while discussing what makes us happy. I find it such a wonderful, such an inspirational topic that learning happens without students even noticing. (Oups, sorry, I know NOTICING is important!)

Anyway, students’ homework for tomorrow’s lesson is to take pictures with their smartphones of moments when they felt really happy and nice. I will take my two pics too, as we, teachers, know that joining in is important and can boost students’ motivation 😉

Here are my pics.

IMG_2099IMG_2107

Have a sunny week!

It takes two to tango!

Why don’t you take a step back … and then maybe they will come towards you.

Our headmaster, who also happens to be an incredibly visionary leader and a brilliantly intelligent man, gave me this tiny piece of advice some months ago. It had been one of those bitter days when you feel like a pathetic wedding DJ who shrieks to a crowd of utterly uncommunicative and bland guests to clap their hands and say “Yeeeeee!”  and the only commotion  you get is a glass shattering on the floor because of an old uncle who just nodded off.

It is, of course, possible that you have no idea what I am talking about. It might very well be that your students are always awaiting your arrival with eager anticipation just so they can plough their way through the challenges you have posed to them. And let me tell you, you are a lucky, lucky person and please, do savor the moment while it lasts! I, however, often struggle with a different kind of flock. Now, don’t get me wrong! They are an admirable bunch of young people. Bright, funny, cheerful and so pleasant to have a discussion or crack a joke or two with. Yet curiously, when the configuration finds us me in front of THEM, the atmosphere, the whole ambience changes. The whole idea of poles – the teacher versus the class – can call forth attitudes that I still struggle to comprehend and consecutively deal with.

I consider myself a dynamic and cheerful teacher. I am passionate about English and I love teaching it. I spend hours creating tailor-made worksheets for my numerous classes trying to meet their particular needs and strike a chord with the overall dynamic of the group. And no, I won’t deny it, I have high expectations and lofty aspirations, particularly when it comes to students’ engagement with a lesson. And thus it often happens that I walk into a classroom in high spirits and with great hopes, yet leave it in a rather miserable state. My lesson warmer failed to have the effect I hoped it would, the core tasks turned out to be too easy for some and too difficult for the others (BTW – I can tell you a thing or two about mixed-level classes!!!! aka – welcome to my world), and the final listening activity mutated into a moderate chaos as throats were sore and pens gravitated towards the floor.

When the bitter pill has been swallowed and I have liberated the tortured looking youngsters I stay seated for a while. I replay the lessons and keep asking myself what went wrong, where did I take a wrong turn, which worksheet was insufficient, which activity too long and lagging and where did haste interfere with learning. I attack my mind from various angles bombarding it with questions on how next time I could better meet everyone’s needs and create a motivating atmosphere. Because, I have read and learned, motivation is all it takes! Right? All you need to do, you silly teacher woman, is MOTIVATE them!

CUT!

This is where my headmaster’s words knock on my mind’s door. This is when modest protest starts raising its head and calm, yet forceful reason comes to calm me down. What if the question is not just about ME and MY PERFORMANCE? What if I actually did really well? And what if, there is a slight possibility that questions should be asked from the other pole, i.e. from the students? Why do I immediately blame myself? And why do I presuppose that a lesson lacking in dynamism is my failure solely?

I picked up quite a lot of useful knowledge from my last teacher training course, I love reading about teaching practices and I attend seminars on regular basis. However, sometimes I wish I hadn’t heard all these mantras about how a student only needs to be reawakened and inspired by a teacher who KNOWS how to MOTIVATE. Because these slogans put all the eggs into the teacher’s basket (I have no idea if such an expression exists in English 😉 and can create feelings of guilt and unworthiness in a teacher!

After all, it takes two to teach. I know the effort I put into my work, the hours I spend preparing, the long evenings spent correcting and commenting on my students’ writings. This I know. But I also know how sometimes students simply won’t bother!  And then what? How do I deal with that?

How do you?