The exciting business of teaching

It’s been a year! A complete year with all of its 365 days. Check the date of the previous post if you don’t believe me!

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that dusting off this tiny ‘teaching’ corner didn’t seem very likely during that long absence. Fortunately I took no drastic measures like closing down this page altogether. My ‘teaching’ low was simply so void of energy and initiative that even such terminal move was a mountain for a little mole. So yes, sometimes best action is  no action at all!

But life-force is slowly seeping back into the teacher blogger in me. Maybe it’s thanks to iTDi that asked me to write a post on their blog. Maybe it’s other courageous teachers out there who keep blogging no matter what. But maybe it’s thanks to Anna and her willingness to start a spontaneous mini project to make our students interact with each-other, a kind of flash communication between Japan and Switzerland.

Working with Anna and her students gave me lots of positive energy, it motivated and inspired me, but mostly it made me realize once again how exciting, yes, EXCITING teaching can be.

As mentioned above it was as spontaneous as a project can be. There I was sitting at my desk late at night chewing on the pen hoping a lesson idea would miraculously appear. Yes, once again late at night, just before the next day’s lesson! I really believed the term procrastinator doesn’t apply to me. Well, it’s time I faced the facts, right.

Anyhow, I knew I wanted to revise questions with my students. I had some handouts ready, but this something that adds sparkle to the lessons was missing.A truly miserable situation to be in. And then, bang! It was there. The generous teaching muse took pity on me and dropped a brilliant idea onto the keyboard. I sent a message to Anna, who, miraculously replied instantly. I write miraculously because, she’s in Japan and I’m in Switzerland, so if I receive a reply to my message sent late at night from the middle of the Alps, it can only mean one thing – Anna in Japan is skipping her night sleep!

Anna agreed on the spot and the next day my students got truly excited about the mini project we were about to have.

After a short introduction and necessary background information, my students got down to writing questions they would love to ask from teenagers in Japan. As lots of my students are very keen on that country and its culture, the questions as well as their imagination flourished.

Anna did the same with her students.

Then the questions got exchanged and the following lesson was writing answers to the inquiries. We also took class photos, so seeing the people who had written those questions made the whole activity even more real, fun and motivating.

Here are some of the questions the students asked:

What do you think is the strangest Swiss dish?

Which Swiss cheese smells the most?

What are your country’s traditional foods?

What do  you eat for breakfast?

Do Swiss people drink alcohol?

Is it true that all Japanese people like mangas?

When you celebrate with your family, what’s on the table?

Which Japanese tradition do you enjoy the most?

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The mini-project finished with reading the answers to the questions our students had asked in the first place. Anna added a nice touch to this part of the project. Instead of simply handing out the answers, she cut up the questions and replies and made her students match those. An idea I would definitely use next time we embark on this cultural exchange.

All in all I have only positive reactions to this spontaneous exchange we set up. To begin with, I saw my classes come alive and vibrant with new kind of energy. The fact that we were interacting with real people, doing an activity that had real consequence, made the whole task brilliantly meaningful and thus highly motivating. I had an immense pleasure of seeing totally involved students writing with almost tangible pleasure. They truly wanted to tell the Japanese students about their life and country!

We’ve already promised with Anna to look out for new ways to co-operate next year and I sincerely hope it’ll come to pass!

What about you? Have you had the chance to make your students interact with students from other countries? What did you do?

Till next time (I hope it’ll be in less than a year!)

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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 😉

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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