Self-Centered Classrooms

A question for all you seasoned teachers out there: How do you get students conversing with each other when they have no interest in anyone but themselves? I realize that people are innately self-centered but lately I’ve been faced with a difficulty in one class in particular. It’s a class of only two, young teenage girls of about the same language ability—upper intermediate; however every time there is discussion, pair work, any kind of interaction (which is the majority of class), it’s like pulling teeth getting them to have any interest in the other. They both love talking—they are actually some of the chattiest students I’ve had, but they are also horrible listeners. They speak their mind, give answers, tell stories but then immediately stop listening when the other speaks. We’ve talked about active listening: eye contact, nodding, asking questions, etc. but nothing seems to work.

I’ve addressed it in class and they seem to grasp that not only is it a bad conversation skill it’s also rude but nothing seems to change. Is this a common problem? How do I create a sense of otherness in my students?

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A Heart on Paper

As a person who has been commonly referred to as “soft-spoken”, I often had a difficult time finding my place in the classroom as a student. Small, discussion-based classes were my bread and butter as far as learning goes; however, once the group size exceeded 15, no matter how confident I was in what I had to say my face would turn a nice shade of red the moment all eyes were on me (I blame that on my red-headed genes). To this day I don’t love being in front of a large group but I’ve done a decent job of learning to control the curse that is a predisposition to blushing.

Thanks to many of these speaking-blushing experiences, I have a special soft spot for the quieter, shyer students who may have something to say and a desire to be heard but often get lost in all the noise. In some of the contexts I have taught (particularly short-term teaching in Asia), a tool which I found to be especially helpful was the implementation of journals.

Journals are something which I never require students to participate in; they are an entirely optional but highly encouraged task. At the beginning of the course I will hand out my stack of journals (usually cheap little notebooks) with a short, personalized note to each student. It generally says something along the lines of “Dear [student], I’m excited to spend the next [duration of the course] with you and to learn about you! You can use this journal to write any questions, comments or thoughts you would like share with me. I will do my best to write back in [time frame—I usually say 3 days]. I’m thankful you’re in my class!” I explain to students as I hand out the journals that I will not be marking the journals, in fact, there will be no grade tied to them at all.

I have had incredible conversations with my students through the use of journals. The times I have  most often used them has been while training English teachers and I will forever cherish the dialogues that took place that would never have happened without this non-threatening platform of communication. Sometimes you get very personal questions that are challenging to answer but are a great springboard into further dialogue, sometimes you get grammar question after grammar question and sometimes you get the most random, out-of-left-field questions (such as “please tell me, in detail, the rules of the game cricket?”).

One time while training English teachers in China, there was an older gentleman in my class who spoke virtually no English and in a short, three-week English course it was difficult to accommodate him in the midst of a class of fluent English teachers. To be honest, I’m not sure how he got into the course. I struggled to include him throughout the duration of the program but felt as though not much had gotten through to him and that he would come away with very little. He did not use his journal at all during the first two and a half weeks; however, on the second last day of class I walked into the room to a stack of returned journals on my desk and as I was going through them later that evening I came across one journal with a seven page letter. This man who never spoke wrote to me all about his life, his family, his experience and hardships as an English teacher who had never learned to speak English—only to read and write. He continued on to share with me that I was the first native English speaker he had ever met, all that he had learned during the course, how he felt so much more confident returning to teach, how he felt equipped with new ideas and how I had touched his life. I was blown away. I instantly felt ashamed for all of the times I was frustrated by his presence in the class and had experienced guilt at not having much to offer him. This encounter forever changed the way I look at students. As a teacher, you never know the impact you are having on those you are interacting with on a daily basis but I’m thankful I was given a glimpse inside the mind and heart of one man.

I recommend using journals. I recommend it because it is an opportunity to get to know your students on a deeper level. I recommend it because in some cultures, there is less freedom to speak openly about one’s thoughts and this is a great way to hear about the ideas of an individual in a society that pressures conformity in thinking. I recommend it because it is real-life writing practice for your students. I recommend it because there will be times when you are moved to tears. I recommend it because your students will cherish those little books and interactions with a teacher who loved them and impacted them for the rest of their life.

Young Learner Activities

The last three weeks have been filled with airports, good friends, babies, a national volleyball championship and a much needed vacation (to the coldest place on Earth—literally—it was -58 Celsius the first weekend I was there). While I feel rested, I probably went a bit too unplugged because now I have tons of catch-up work to do!

The first few days back to work were a rough combination of scattered lesson plans, minimal sleep and extra doses of caffeine but I’ve managed to pull myself together and get re-organized. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’m working at a K-12 private school and as the only ESL teacher I find myself working with a wide range of students. From an absolute beginner in grade 3 to an EAP course for grade 12 students and everything in between. The grade 3 student is the newest addition to the program and is possibly one of the most eager-to-learn students I have worked with. She’s also the lowest level learner I’ve worked with which has been a challenge but one that has stretched me as a teacher. I work one-on-one with this student for approximately 7 hours/week and have had to come up with creative ways of engaging her and keeping her motivated.

She’s a kinesthetic learner so I’ve worked hard to create activities where she is frequently moving and I try to incorporate as much realia as possible. She also loves anything to do with art—drawing, coloring, cutting, folding, looking at pictures— all of which I’ve intentionally implemented into our time together. One aspect of one-on-one teaching I have grown to love is how personalized it can be to the student you’re working with. I know what will capture her interest and motivate her whereas if there were other kids in the group it is more difficult to please everyone at all times.

A few activities/ideas/resources I have used with this young beginner:

Teaching Prepositions

– “Where’s Woof?” I have a stuffed dog which we take turns hiding. The person hiding Woof needs to give hints such as “Woof is under/on/in/behind/etc [fill in the blank]”. She has begun using the language without even realizing it and it is slowly being consolidated in her mind.

– Picture dictations and picture activities. Since she loves drawing so much this is an activity I have frequently used variations of. Sometimes I am dictating (e.g. “Draw a flower on top of the house.”) and sometimes I get her to dictate and I draw (this is used for comic relief purposes because my artistic abilities are nonexistent). Another way I use pictures is that I cut out objects/animals/people with instructions to follow of where they go on a selected background. This allows her to practice reading and comprehending simple instructions such as “The boy is under the tree”.

Teaching Vocabulary

http://anglomaniacy.pl/. While there are many options when visiting this site, I frequently use the vocabulary matching games. It has been helpful in practicing vocabulary words which can sometimes feel redundant in reviewing day after day. She gets competitive with herself and is always trying to match the picture to the word faster than her previous times.

– A personalized, life-sized cartoon. When teaching the vocabulary for body parts I got some giant butcher paper and traced the outline of her body. After that I had her label all of the body parts and color them in. She loved every moment of this activity.

– “Simon Says” is a simple way of practicing action and body part vocabulary. We take turns leading so she gets used to hearing the language and also using it herself.
What are your go-to activities/resources for young learners?

Bridges

A bridge. That is one of the first words that comes to my mind when I think of my experience thus far as an English teacher. There are many reasons behind why an individual chooses (or is required) to learn English but I’m thankful for the bridges that have been built between others and myself as I’ve begun working in this field. In my short career, the people I have met and the places I have traveled are beyond what I ever imagined when I began my degree 7 years ago. Language is a beautiful thing and to be able to share with and learn from others through this gift of communication is a daily blessing in my life.

This past summer I was given the opportunity to train English teachers in a country that is generally not known as a welcoming place. My experience was everything that I did not expect it to be in that it was filled with bridges built between people, cultures and teachers of English. A genuine love for a group of people was instilled inside of me days after setting foot in their country and I was overwhelmed with the hospitality that was poured out for my the duration of my stay.

The majority of what I have read and watched in regards to this country displays one side of the story but we have to remember that there is always more than one side. I appreciate this recently filmed documentary because it presents an actual discussion rather than a harsh critique with no room for change (although there is a bit of that). Give it a watch!

Educating North Korea — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JRtFyLiOnE

In what ways have you experienced language as a bridge? I would love to hear your story!

Worthwhile Homework

Homework. A word that all of my students seem to dread. Perhaps it’s because their evenings are filled with extracurricular activities, L1 tutors, time with friends and social media or maybe they are just exhausted after a long day at school and would rather not think in the evening–but whenever I assign homework I’m met with groans and complaining. Which has led me to begin evaluating two things: 1) Why am I giving homework? 2) Why am I giving the homework that I’m giving? Is it valuable?

In the past I have been guilty of giving “busy-work” type homework. The parents of my students have certain expectations about what their child’s education looks like (as they should) but at times I feel as though I’ve given into a pressure that I do not necessarily agree with to ensure that students are regularly given homework. On days when I felt the tasks had been sufficiently completed in class, I would sometimes give a random homework assignment that was in no way connected to the lesson simply for the sake of sending something home to meet the expectations of parents. As I have been reading more on the topic of homework, I have been experiencing a gradual shift in my thinking. I’m not saying that I think homework in general is a negative component of education but I am saying that pointless, disconnected homework may not be the best use of my student’s time. 

With that in mind, I decided to try something with my students this past week. First, we had a class discussion about their feelings towards homework, why they think I assign homework and what the best and worst types of homework are in their opinion. Then I began to share with them why I think homework is valuable. I told them that I think homework is a great way for them to gain a better understanding about what we’re dealing with in class–both the topics and the language components–and that I believe it will enrich their learning experience if they will put some real effort into the assignments. I then apologized for times when I may have assigned unnecessary work; because I think it’s important to respect our students and the effort they are putting in during class.

I then presented them with an idea which I have seen floating around lately. A homework menu. It’s a list of tasks ranging from easy-difficult which students can choose from and all options on the list go hand-in-hand with whatever topic is being covered in class at the time. Options such as creating a small dictionary of terms covered in a unit, to making a movie presenting the ideas from that day’s class, to preparing and leading a warmer about a certain grammar point covered that week. I told them that all of these options would help them to better understand what we’re learning in class but that they would have some freedom in the type of homework they wanted to do that week. At the same time, it also caters to learning styles and personalities because I know the artist in my class will love the option where she can create a comic strip about a topic we’ve talked about that week while the musician will enjoy writing a song using our vocabulary and then teaching it to the class. 

After we discussed each of the options I asked my students what their thoughts were and I was met with resounding approval. They were excited to be given the freedom to choose their homework and I felt as though they had all grasped the reason behind homework rather than it being a mundane and dreaded task. While there will still be times when a specific homework task is assigned to all the students, I’m looking forward to seeing them create work they are excited about and proud of.

Roles and Responsibilities

I find that a new year always comes with reflections. I’m not one for making new year resolutions but I am one for reflecting on the past year, the ups and downs, and dreaming of the year to come. I like to set goals rather than make changes because it feels more helpful and realistic. Maybe it’s the same thing, but it makes me feel a little bit less cliche. I’m still in the midst of deciding my goals for the next twelve months but I’ve begun well. Setting goals is a source of energy for me and I find it highly motivating when I cross things off my list.

In these times of reflections, I have found myself thinking more and more about what the job of a teacher really is. Is it to help my students pass their university entrance exams? Is it to help them in making their transition into Canadian culture and society as smooth as possible? Is it to train them in a new way of thinking and viewing the world? Is it to perfect their pronunciation and grammar and use of idioms? Is it to mold them into individuals who value others? Can all of these be achieved at one time, in one year? I feel so humbled when I interact with the parents of my students and think to myself “they’re trusting their child’s future in my hands”. What an honor and a responsibility. I find myself conflicted on a daily basis, as I’m sure is a common feeling among teachers, on deciding what is the most valuable use of my time with these kids. I do not take this job lightly and I hope that is not something that changes as I become more “seasoned” in the field.

Over Christmas vacation I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman”. If you have not watched it, I highly recommend it. It’s the disturbing story of the American public school system and how the future of many children in the U.S. is left to “the luck of the draw”. It’s disheartening, angering, and extremely unsettling but it is really informative. I could not believe what I was watching. I was shocked at the selfishness of teachers and their security at the expense of the future of America’s children. 

This is a link to the movie — http://vimeo.com/20095459

Let me know what you think if you have seen it or decide to watch it!

Taking Stock and Present Progressive

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Making : a nice cozy spot to settle in for the day.
Cooking : lighter Zuppa Toscana.
Drinking : water.
Reading : too many textbooks. My Christmas break reading list is growing by the day.
Wanting : to finish my Christmas shopping
Looking: for thoughtful gifts.
Playing: an eclectic combination of music.
Wasting: precious studying time.
Sewing: nothing. If only.
Wishing: safety for loved one’s traveling home this Christmas
Enjoying: the coziness of Saturdays.
Waiting: for our first big, full-fledged, can’t leave the house, school’s cancelled snow day.
Liking: warm blankets.
Wondering: with renewed wonder this Christmas season.
Loving: reunions with life-long friends.
Hoping: for a productive day.
Marveling: that Christmas is in two and a half weeks.
Needing: boots without holes in 4 places.
Smelling: Country Home Vanilla candle.
Wearing: New England Patriots tee, tights and slippers. 
Following: a long to-do list.
Noticing: a theme of Christmas, warmth and coziness throughout this post.
Knowing: grace and truth.
Thinking: about a nap. (Unfortunately.. see “Following”)
Bookmarking: blogs. Went on a bit of a blog following spree yesterday.
Opening: a bag of chocolate covered peanut and caramel clusters. 
Feeling: so thankful. Tis the season, but seriously.
 
A simple idea for practicing present progressive.
A good way to introduce and practice new verbs.
Added bonus: Helps you learn more about your students.