Daring to learn …

 

I’m just not up to it.

There’s simply no way I can keep posting regularly on this site. Only yesterday I checked Hana’s blog (after a loooong summer break) and couldn’t but gasp with admiration. Hana, you’re absolutely awesome and I love every single post of yours! And most of all, I admire your discipline, what seems like an unstoppable stream of ideas and extremely enjoyable writing style.

I’m waking up to a new school year. On one hand, I’m a little stressed about getting back into the classroom. I get these usual pre-school nightmares which mainly consist of totally unprepared lessons, absurdly arrogant students and trying to find classrooms that don’t exist. My summer has been so incredibly rich in people, places and experiences that school was like a heavy bag that got dropped in June and needs picking up again.

On the other hand, as soon as I sit down at my desk and start organizing the coming year, I feel the excitement, too. What was an empty workspace rapidly fills up with dictionaries, books, flashcards, post-it notes, diaries, markers and lists. I’m a Crazy Miss Lists right now. Lists of this year’s objectives, lists of materials, to-do lists. I doesn’t matter if any of the stuff on my list gets crossed out or not, simply putting it down on a list, makes me feel rather organized and productive. We all have our make-me-believe’s …

In her last blogpost, Hana encouraged us to think about what kind of teacher we would appreciate learning from. The thing is, I have been thinking of that for a long time now. This year is a special year for me because I won’t  be wearing only ONE teacher hat but TWO! Right after the kick off of the academic year, I’ll start my very first yoga lessons. I have been lucky to be able to turn a small room into my very own yoga studio and will welcome my first yoga students in three weeks. Thus, the whole notion of a guide, instructor, teacher, helper has been very much on my mind this summer. As I was asking myself what kind of a teacher I would love to grow to be, I automatically started pondering on what would I expect of a teacher. And here I mean any kind of teacher, be it yoga, English, photography, cooking, you name it.

Here are the words that jumped out at me:

Inspire – I wish that my teacher INSPIRES me. A great teacher makes me want to perform better, aspire higher, achieve more.

Trust – I want to be able to TRUST my teacher. I want to be able to lean on him / her if needed. I want my teacher to show me how to grow wings that carry.

Enjoy – I would love to ENJOY the learning process. And I don’t mean play. I mean enjoy it even if it gets tough because I would be aware that what I’m doing is getting me somewhere. But enjoy it also on a human level. For me a great teacher is also a great person. Someone who has this amazing ability of making people around them feel good and worthy. And with the feeling of worthiness comes trust and with trust comes the DARING 🙂

Do you dare?

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Happy new school year!

Snippets it is then!

I promised to be back before another year, didn’t I!

I actually know why so few posts get written in this space. It’s a monster called ‘thoroughness’. Oftentimes interesting, noteworthy, surprising things happen in the class. I might cringe over a stupid move, laugh till in tears, flush because of embarrassing situations, and every time I make a mental note in my head, ‘blog about it!’ But I never get down to doing it. I am put off by the enormity of the task. I feel I need to develop, analyse, create smart paragraphs. Suddenly the pleasure of sharing is replaced by yet another responsibility, another hard labour.

It’s actually silly because these long, highly developed, hundred paragraphs long posts are hoped to be read by other busy teachers.And do they have the time?! How many teachers out there really crave for never-ending posts that will take two cups of coffee to finish? Blogs  aren’t scientific magazines which require daunting guidelines to be met. And even though teaching blog isn’t simply a personal lifestyle blog and still goes under a more professional category, I think we, the teachers are absolutely entitled to write snippets if we wish to do so or if we don’t want to miss out on the blogging fun yet have a family life as well 🙂

So that’s why I decided to dedicate myself more ferociously to paragraph-blogging instead of slowly fading into the teacher blogs oblivion.

Here’s my first snippet.

Last week we looked into the topic of lying. To introduce it, to get students interested and activate their brains, I used the good old ‘which is the lie?’ warmer. I had carefully prepared five sentences about myself (one being a lie!) I thought I had been very clever and nothing, really nothing, could possibly give my lie away.

So there I was, all proud and beaming in front of my students reciting my sentences. I took extra care to look very casual, especially when I got to the lie part.

And then, as soon as I stopped, a hand went up and a boy shouted out the sentence, the LIE! I was flabbergasted! How on Earth could he know?!

Well, it turned out that …

YES, this boy LOVES police investigation series and YES, he is very observant and YES, I …

I had shaken my head when pronouncing the lie 🙂

I was utterly unaware, by the way!

 

 

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!)

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!

Burn brightly … forever

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Three more months and that would have made one year of no teaching posts. ONE YEAR!!!
Well, I have been busy. Busy on so many different fronts I’ve run the risk of going bananas quite many times. I just cannot do anything half-heartedly. It’s either all in or nothing at all. I’ve been knitting, writing, taking lots of photography classes, living my life of a mom and wife, switching into Estonian, Swiss, English mode, getting excited about myriads of things, wanting to live and love with all the intensity I can muster. But boy, does that get exhausting! It’s like burning with a very bright flame but ending up in ashes way too fast!

I taught and PLN-ed in sixth gear all through the last year. Additionally, I got my first job as a teacher trainer, visited, analyzed, gave feedback on lessons, gave my first conference talk, wrote numerous blog posts, bought and borrowed stacks of books on teaching and tested different innovative activities and techniques with my students. I got to a level of that unhealthy excitement a child experiences when tickled right before the bedtime. I was mad! Happy, but over-excitedly nuts.

Then summer came, school stopped and I got all  excited about all the other things.

Returning to school was tough this year. I felt inadequate, out of sync, not enthusiastic enough, and thus, not satisfied with my own performance. You know, giving myself a truly hard time. But even though it took some time, the teacher in me has been stirring, waking and stretching her muscles. And finally last week, after returning to regular reading of the posts of my dear PLN members, I felt the teacher hat like some magician’s top hat swallow me completely 🙂 I feel alive and kicking again. My reflective practice journal has been dusted, my enthusiasm made me smile while correcting my students’ papers and I got an urge to come and write this post on a Sunday when the sun is high up in the sky and the November warmth is softly caressing anyone’s cheek who is sane enough to go for a stroll (not me!).

But I don’t want to just turn a new page. What kind of a teacher am I if I cannot learn from my own mistakes?! I know I tend to jump right into the action discarding everything else, including my own sanity and health. And knowing myself, the same burn-brightly-till-the-ashes scenario can all to easily repeat itself.

So that’s where the tricky part starts. How to continue teaching in an enthusiastic, fulfilling, satisfactory way, yet keep parts of myself for other activities and other people beside my students and colleagues? How to preserve myself as long as possible? How to live and teach, not live to teach?

Even though I am tempted to rush wholeheartedly into the game again, I try to tread carefully. Maybe I should start weekly planning where time is allotted for different parts of my life and trespassing is strictly forbidden? Maybe I simply switch off all electronic devices for certain amounts of time every day / weekend? Maybe I should learn to rely on my ever growing experience and stop worrying if enormous amounts of lesson preparation hasn’t been done?

Does all that sound like gibberish to your ears or can anyone out there relate to what I’ve been babbling here? If the latter, have you unearthed the magic recipe for evenly-balanced life work formula?

Whichever part of my last questions made you nod vigorously, do come back here as there’s more to follow!

Cheers everyone!

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 😉

Summer in the city

I haven’t abandoned you! It’s just that I have been recharging my teacher batteries, and believe me, they are full to bursting 😉 so, watch out, dear studens!

I am on my way to Estonia right now, but once back, the school kicks off again and I’ll get back to you.

but till then, ilusat jätkuvat suve (estonian for – enjoy your summer, or something of the kind 🙂

best