Monthly Archives: September 2012

three years ago

TEFL Certificate Course

In the winter of 2009 I did a TEFL certificate course. It was my very first foray into professional development. I had been working at a new job for three or four months and I was beginning to feel as if I was going no where. I had been working in Korea for eight years. In spite of all my experience, I couldn’t go forward. Because of all my experience, I couldn’t go back. I needed a new spark. So when the course opened up and it was nearby, affordable, and manageable in the time I had, I jumped in.

The coursebook was a bound collection of articles that had been written for the Asian EFL Journal and edited by Dr. Paul Robertson. It included twelve articles with a mix of practical and theoretical topics, ranging from “Picture description as a very useful learning tool” to “The critical age hypothesis” and back again. There was a mix of action research and methodology. It was, I guess, authentic. None of the articles had been written for the book or with a course in TEFL in mind. From my perspective as a student, that made it rather disjointed and it was anyone’s guess what we were supposed to get out of it. We were just told to read it, especially focusing on the articles about Task-based Teaching and action research. No one told us why. As someone who had never had any ELT theory or methodology before, I found the articles interesting, but not really connected to my teaching. Then again, as an untrained teacher, I decided that was probably my own fault.

That book was my bible. I read it cover to cover. Looking back over the paper I wrote for the class (action research on motivation – yes, they let me write that), I realize that I hadn’t really learned anything. I had swallowed a bunch of stuff without question and used it to back up my perceptions in the classroom, reinterpreting it so that it would fit. I gave them what I thought they wanted to read. The fact of the matter was, my descriptions of what went on in my classroom didn’t fit the references I’d used for it. It was probably one of the worst papers I have ever written. My assessment of the course, by the time I’d somehow passed with flying colors and gotten my certificate, was that it was somewhat useful, but I’d keep doing things my way because my way was working.

Sarcastic margin notes

Last week I was looking back through this book again, trying to find something to help me answer a question for my current TESOL course. I realized that I recognized some of the names of the writers – David Nunan and Rod Ellis, among others –  and now I know quite a lot more about the theory behind their methodology. However, at the time I didn’t challenge or question anything I was assigned to read.

I used to write notes in the margins of the articles. I found some rather sarcastic ones:

“Students might rebel, but at least they’ll have fun.” (on putting the ‘fun’ back in learning – I guess I’ve always been a bit curmudgeony!)

“Assembly-line English.. This should be a comic strip.” (on the description of a teaching style I recognized as my own)

and “Native speakers don’t want EFL learners to be fluent? What?” (on proscription of profanities or slang for non-native speakers). 

There was also vocabulary that was totally unfamiliar, like anything with “meta-” in it (“meta-cognitive awareness” took ages to figure out and I’m still not sure).

And now?

My current assessment of the course is that I could have gotten so much more out of it. I wish I had been challenged to actually interact with the course materials. I wish it had been longer and more in-depth. I wish someone had told me that action research is pointless if you are using a lesson you wouldn’t normally do in your classroom just for the purpose of the research. And I wish someone had told me, just once, that it’s all about the students’ learning, not my teaching.

Still I’m grateful for the course because it put me on the path of professional development and introduced me to other people who have a similar interest. It got me here, where I can really learn, just in time.

all the things i didn’t mean to write (or Today I learned a lot, a summary)

It’s been an incredibly active week on the forums for my TESOL class. Some of the topics discussed were authentic materials, strategic investment (and language learning strategies), learning styles, teaching grammar and vocabulary, and professional development. I don’t always feel like I have anything to contribute in the class forums, and it’s sometimes a struggle to post. This week, however, I was happy to be part of these conversations.

I have a lot to say on authentic materials stemming from previous discussions on #KELTchat and with members of #KELTchat.  I learned from the class discussion that I was missing half of the argument – that they need to be authentic in their production and in their use. I think this might mean that once we bring them into a classroom, it will be very difficult to justify their authenticity, but I’m not done thinking about it. My opinion right now is that whatever we do in class should have a purpose. Anyway, this isn’t what I want to write about today.

The learning styles discussion stemmed from some tests that a classmate posted about learning styles. I’ve seen these before (during an iTDi.pro impromptu webinar – I don’t know how I ended up there, I just saw a tweet that announced it and it read to me like, ‘come out and play’, so I did) and I score firmly in the “auditory learner” category on every test. Funny thing I just thought of: I clearly remember my US History teacher get up in front of the class with some slides and announce that she’s a visual learner. I have no idea what her presentation was about that day. The tests in my textbook score me (unsurprisingly) as right-brained and introverted. The interesting thing about all this is that I teach as though my students are the same way. I also have had to learn some compensatory strategies myself or  I wouldn’t be able to teach at all. (Anyone who’s never seen me teach might be shocked to see me dancing in front of a group of college students, but it really does happen on a regular basis.) The other interesting thing is that 75% of the people posting on the thread about learning styles (teachers all) were similar to me. It makes me wonder about my chosen profession. But this isn’t what I want to write about today either.

The discussions on teaching grammar and vocabulary were timely after reading this blog post by @teflerinha and this possibly unrelated post by @hughdellar (but it felt related, even if I can’t figure out why anymore). Because in the midst of a large group of people posting about using language creatively and placing themselves firmly on the side of the fence against repetition of language, one lone student in the class had the courage to say “I use choral drills.” And while everyone pretty much ignored the post, I could respond, “you know what, that’s okay.” And when I reflect on it, I think it is okay. As long as we have reasons for the things we choose to do, if they work that’s awesome and we see how we can make them work better, and if they don’t work, we change them and try something new, but we should never just not try because it’s not done in communicative teaching (in my humble opinion). Anyway that’s not what this post was meant to be about.

Then there was the discussion on professional development, a topic very close to my heart. I was delighted with the opportunity to explain what PD means to me and how I plan to continue my education after my TESOL unit is over (which happens after I turn in the papers that I’m not typing while I’m typing this). I wrote about my TEFL certification (three years ago) which led me to starting my MA and also to KOTESOL which led me to Reflective Practice which led me to Twitter which led me to #KELTchat and how all of those things led me to the community I am now part of. I took time to explain how Twitter can be used for PD and where to find the people and the chats. And to answer a question on action research as a form or professional development I dug up a paper I’d written for the TEFL certificate course and, on reading it, briefly reflected on how very different my thinking is now from where it was three years ago. And that’s what this post was supposed to be about but isn’t anymore. Another time.

Meta-reflection, a response

Yesterday I traveled down the country to Busan, where there was a Reflective Practice Special Interest Group (RPSIG) meeting in Nampo-dong. The meeting was facilitated by Mr. John Pfordresher, rising star in Busan’s ELT community. Today he wrote a post sharing his reflections on the meeting: RP Busan – September 2012 on his blog, Observations from the Classroom, and I was struck by how different his perceptions were from my own. I’m writing this unsure if I’m going to publish it publicly but out of a need to reflect on my own experience.

There were 12 participants. The meeting began with introductions, as many of the participants did not know each other very well. I learned that the participants with experience in RP share a passion for reflection to better understand their teaching and create a space where they can examine their practices together. This gathering provided such a space. It is refreshing to sit with other teachers and share ideas and resources. This is something I want more of.

John introduced the idea of crowd-sourcing (as he mentioned in his blog post). To help those unfamiliar with the term, he succinctly explained that it means pooling information to help each other. He adeptly created a safe space for us to do that in the meeting.

The next part of the meeting was the check-in. Those who made reflective goals (or teaching goals) at a previous meeting had the opportunity to be accountable to the group for their accomplishment.
Before we moved on to the meat of the meeting, the point was made that it is important to set things up for success rather than dwell on failures. It struck me that this idea is applicable in so many parts of our lives, both for teachers and learners. Modeling for our students and providing examples of the language we are asking them to use is one way to do this. Helping students correct errors by focusing on what is going well rather than on what they’re doing wrong is another. As reflective teachers (if we can call ourselves such), focusing our reflections on the process towards better facilitating our students’ learning is key.

That brings me to the next part of the meeting: John asked pairs of participants to spend five minutes talking about our Teaching Toolbox. This was a subject of discussion on Twitter recently, instigated by Mr. Kevin Stein (@kevchanwow – a #mustfollow dude). As teachers, of course, we didn’t give very many normal answers. But you know what? I wish we had because I was personally more interested in tangible teaching aids that are used with learners, rather than by teachers. I often find that there is something so obvious that I’ve completely missed. That’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of good (and great) ideas from participants. My partner pointed out that a positive attitude and a smile go much further than any tangible teaching aid (I feel like, somehow, this relates to my post on Teacher Fun – a seed). He also suggested coffee, not just for the teacher, but to be shared with tired students. Other groups shared their ideas: a water bottle, usb drive, notebook, paper for the students, internet access, objectives and agenda on the board, structure, warm-up activities, transitions, assessment, a timer, a mic, mini boards and markers, and a plan B. The question also arose of how to keep yourself on task during your lesson (a problem I have, too). Perhaps the answer can be found in writing the agenda on the board (that way the students also share the responsibility) or on something you look at regularly (like the PowerPoint slides? a post-it on the computer screen?). This is an issue I would like to think more about.

John also voiced the opinion that the teacher is vital, as the expert in how the language is actually used. He made his case for this quite well as you can read in his post. Perhaps it will not surprise you that I do not agree. One reason is that I have met many Korean English speakers who have attained a level of communication (either written or oral, sometimes both) without ever having studied with a “native speaker”. Another reason is that I think more often than not us “native speakers” don’t have either the linguistic knowledge or the Korean skills to explain points that will aid students’ understanding. I’m also not totally convinced that “fluency” has to mean sounding like “native speakers” or that “Korean English” might not become a recognized variety of English. That said, I am not really sure of myself in this. I think that the primary factor in students learning is their own motivation. If they have that, they’ll use any tools they can find (with or without us) as their learning aids.

The discussion on connecting with students was very interesting. It ties in with the idea that students will learn more from a “bad” (= inexperienced? not knowledgeable? I don’t really know what bad means) teacher that they like than from a “good” (I’m not even going to try to define this one) teacher that they do not feel connected to. Somehow the discussion also touched on flexibility (although I don’t remember how it came in) and the importance of meeting the students where they are, rather than where we thought they were when we wrote our lesson plans. I remember when I was a newer teacher becoming quite frustrated with classes because they were not learning the material I was teaching. When I reviewed at the beginning of the next class, it seemed obvious to me that no one had done the homework or even listened in the previous class. Maybe they hadn’t opened their books at all. I blamed them. I accused them. In my frustration, I yelled at them. In fact, I now realize, it was my own fault for failing to assess where they actually were and teaching from the lesson plan and then from the book. This happened many, many times (like beating my head against a wall) before I finally learned, thanks to my students – who are really the best teachers – that I was teaching over their heads and not engaging them in learning. Flexibility.

The discussion turned to Teacher Talk, as John asked the group to consider whether it is important and how important it is. He pointed to an experiment wherein Mr. Stein (hatless) spent an entire class in silence, communicating non-verbally and allowing all the language to be produced by the students. Another teacher who tried a similar experiment features in @pteralaur’s blog post: “Shut up! – encouraging learner autonomy through minimal instructions“. (And in fact that reminded me of a totally different Facebook chat conversation I had with a teacher who had lost her voice and so designed a set of activities that could be done without her needing to speak at all – with surprising results.) John described his own experience trying out the silent class, which led to a short conversation around the circle on old teaching methods, including the Silent Way.

Back on topic, in pairs again, we discussed the advantages and disadvantages to non-verbal communication. My new partner, Darryl, made the excellent point that a silent lesson could not be done early in the semester. There would have to first be the time for students and teacher to get to know one another and create a safe space for such a thing to be successful. And to set the record straight, it is he and not I who brought up Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin is the king of silent communication. However, the only video of his that I’ve used in class was spoken. It didn’t really matter, though, since the students couldn’t follow most of what he was saying anyway. Their group discussions indicated that they were pooling their information (crowd-sourcing?) based on both verbal and non-verbal cues from the video (@designerlessons saves the day again, but I adapted this one quite a bit.). In any case, I love the idea of using silent film to stimulate conversation based on non-verbal communication.  I am going to use it in the future. But it’s not my idea and all credit goes to @Darryl_Bautista. Other groups shared their thoughts on non-verbal communication and the opinion that made the biggest impression on me was that non-verbal communication might best be used to supplement verbal, graded language. I found that I agree with this perspective because it most closely resembles real (authentic?) communication (and yes, I will argue that graded language is authentic).

The meeting ended with a check-out in which we all made new reflective and/or teaching goals. I left feeling like I still had a lot to think about and surprised that I hadn’t really had much to contribute myself. Post-professional development (Busan-style: at an Indian restaurant) involved more talk on teaching aids, this time specifically how student work can be used as teaching aids. There are ideas and projects brewing!

in response to fun

“Remember that it’s as vital for the teacher (you) to have fun too!!”

The writer of this comment was suggesting websites for board games and activities to help a stressed-out and over-worked teacher (apologies for the redundancy) during her teaching practicum.

I don’t know if my reaction would have been the same before reading @michaelegriffin ‘s interesting and non-curmudgeony post on the value of “fun” in the classroom (Read it here: “T’s just wanna have fun“). As a “fun” teacher, I take issue with banning certain activities because they are fun. However, as a balanced individual (no comments, please), I completely agree with Mr. Griffin’s assessment that we need to have objectives and purposes for our tasks. Maybe sometimes the purpose is to have fun. Maybe it’s to learn something. Maybe it’s to review or practice. There’s nothing wrong with choosing an activity that’s fun to meet those objectives.

Why, then, do I take issue with the innocent comment above? Am I going to out-curmudgeon Mike and say that teaching is a very serious profession and teachers should NEVER have fun? I’d be a hypocrite. I have fun in class every day. Teaching is fun. But is it really “vital” for the teacher to have fun during an activity that is designed to improve motivation and keep students focused on target language? Why? If a teacher is worrying about how much fun she is having, is she paying attention to her students’ learning? It seems to me then that the focus is off the students and I think – I feel strongly – that the focus should be always on the students.

On the other hand,  younger students especially notice if their teacher is bored or uninvolved. Sometimes they reflect the teacher’s attitude. I wonder if this is what she meant? Or whether it is relevant to the issue at all?

Sorry to my PLN, I don’t really have a coherent contribution to the “fun” debate – just a new question: are teachers allowed to have fun?

A moment for reflection

I finished the camp I was teaching a few weeks ago. I promised myself I would reflect and write about it. As it turned out, it was one of those things that I needed distance from before I could think about. Well, now I have some distance (three weeks and almost 9,000 kilometres) and I’m ready to write.

Meta-reflections

I learned a lot during this camp and I have been reflecting on it in small ways from various angles since it ended. From the start, I had intended to reflect every day at the teachers’ meetings I always hold. It began okay. We sat around and talked about the day’s successes and challenges, students who were especially challenging, and what to expect for the coming hours and the next morning. We reflected on how various aspects of the program went and what we could change. I wrote it all down diligently in my notebook and hope to use it to make the program better. 

I learned a lot from this process. We learned that we needed a classroom management technique that worked consistently for all the classes. We decided on a kinaesthetic attention-getter: ‘thumbs up’ ‘mouths shut’. We tried it out and it worked. I particularly liked this because I didn’t have to yell at the students or scare them just to get their attention. 

Another thing I learned from the process was that some of my role plays are getting tired. One of the teachers pointed out (gently, knowing how invested I am in these things) that there’s a lot could be done to improve our airport role play. ‘How is that authentic?’ he asked. It is an excellent point that has certainly been raised elsewhere. But he had suggestions for improvement and was quite free about sharing them. Next time, it will be better. 

As the days turned into weeks, we all got tired. And then meetings became more concise and less reflective. ‘Are there problems to solve?’ ‘What’s going to happen next?’ ‘What do we need to be ready?’ That was it. We stopped reflecting on the day so much. Sometimes I made time for it and we spent a few minutes. Reflection never disappeared entirely. I think what I learned is that reflection on action, during the camp, needs a little distance. It is also harder to motivate my co-workers to reflect when the benefit is not immediately apparent (or necessarily applicable).

Reflections on being an observee

One thing that helped me reflect personally during the camp was my very first experience of being observed in my classes. I have to admit, this was frustrating, nerve wracking, terrifying, and time-consuming. Of course, most of that was in my mind. The reality of the experience is that it was only five hours of classes during two days. I prepared two specific lesson plans (that were different from how I normally prepare lesson plans). Best of all, it gave me so much to think about and so many ways I can improve my teaching, not just for this camp and this group of students, but for all future classes.

I had never given all that much thought to describing objectives before the observations. Objectives were the goals in the back of my mind that I sort of hoped would be achieved in the course of the lesson and I’d ‘be able to tell’. Now they’re written in my teaching diary and I pay attention to what I hope to accomplish, how it is different from what I hope the students will accomplish or learn or come away with, what path I will follow to achieve these goals (or how I will let my students guide me) and how I will know when they have been achieved. And then I leave a space to write down how it actually happened, what I learned, and what I’ll do next time. Using objectives as a focus helps a lot for guiding my daily reflections.

Another great thing I took away from the observations was a better knowledge of myself as a teacher. I learned that I interact a lot with the students and try to make sure they all participate. I also learned that my unwillingness to yell at students means that I need to find more effective ways to manage a class of younger students. I waste a lot of time trying to get kids to settle down one by one (by the time one is sitting quiet, two more got bored and start jumping around or fighting, etc.). I was really grateful for feedback without judgement and wished there was time for more of it. My lesson plans did not always ever go the way I intended,  and I think that might be okay. After all, I teach students, not role plays.

Feedback

Finally, I got feedback from my co-workers at the end of the camp. It showed that the hard work had paid off: the teachers said they had the necessary tools to do their jobs effectively and commented on the high level of communication, organisation, professionalism and friendliness. They said they’d like to work with us again.

I also got feedback from the observer in the form of a balanced and thoughtful final report. I learned a lot about myself as a teacher and also about the things I actually do in the classroom. I am grateful for the second pair of eyes and ears in class and the gentle reminders to reflect on how I teach.

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