Mini Whiteboards in the Young Learner Classroom

I have lots of props, posters and other visual aids that I use in class with young learners but I’m pretty sure that my best investment was in mini whiteboards.  They were relatively inexpensive yet are extremely versatile and fairly durable.  I don’t use them every day in class but I do use them for a range of activities and at various points in a lesson.  The possibilities are endless but I’ll share some ideas here.  The reader is also encouraged to check out AnthonyTeacher.com and his blog post called ‘Six Ways I Use Mini Whiteboards in the Classroom’.  I had been mulling over writing about mini whiteboards for a while and reading his post helped push me towards actually sitting down to write it. Thanks, Anthony!

Let’s begin with a look at why mini whiteboards are a valuable tool in the young learner classroom.  First and foremost, they grab the students’ attention. As with most classroom props, I don’t bring the boards out until we’re ready to use them.  I do this in part because young learners will most certainly be distracted if they see the boards sitting there, waiting to be used later.  But it’s also a tactic in using their surprise at seeing me take the boards out as a way to motivate and interest them.

In addition to the excitement that the boards bring to the classroom, they also keep the lesson student-controlled and student-centered.  Instead of the focus being on me at the board/projector at the front of the room, it’s now up to the students to produce whatever we’re working on.  I think that this shift in control is part of the appeal that using the boards has for younger children.

Putting the focus on the students also means that they’re being forced to work in pairs or groups giving them practice in skills such as sharing, negotiation and collaboration.

As the teachers of young learners will know, having them take out a piece of paper and get a pencil ready to write something down can take AGES.  Mini whiteboards save time as well as paper.  The first few times you use them it may take a bit longer but once the teacher shows the students how to use the boards efficiently and correctly, it can become an effective part of classroom routine.

At the Primary level, mini whiteboards can be used for a wide range of activities and purposes but I think I’d have to say in our classroom they are most frequently used by Fast Finishers because it’s quick and easy for students to pick up a board and do a few activities, most often with a partner.

There are plenty of Fast Finisher tasks that students can do with mini whiteboards but the two that stand out for me are Peer Dictation (also mentioned by Anthony Teacher) and Hangman.

Peer Dictation with primary-aged children is much simpler than that of older students but the principles involved and the skills they practice are very similar.  Some of these skills include but are not limited to: listening, writing (letter formation is the focus for the younger students), spelling, pronunciation, working in pairs and error correction.  With students in the first two years of Primary, we use word dictation; older primary students can dictate chunks of language or full sentences.  The target language will depend on the capabilities of the students as well as the aim of the task.  I usually ask them to dictate words or sentences from the unit we’re working on so that the task serves as reinforcement and revision.  It’s important to set up the activity carefully with them, especially the first few times.  I make sure that they’re sitting facing each other, one has a book and the other has the board.  I also number the spaces where the student will write the three words or sentences that will be dictated. We do a demonstration of the steps involved in a dictation and off they go.

Hangman is another Fast Finisher activity that is easy to set up, familiar to most students and can be quickly interrupted when we need to move on with the rest of the group.  I usually ask students to use words from a particular unit/s or I give them some categories to choose from.  I find that narrowing the scope a bit helps them come up with more meaningful vocabulary and saves time because they can get overwhelmed if told to just come up with any words they can think of.

Although we use mini whiteboards most frequently in Fast Finisher tasks, there are countless other ways to incorporate the boards into lessons and at various stages.

Brainstorming is one way to use the boards.  There are many reasons to brainstorm and many ways to implement it in the classroom but one example is before reading a new text or starting a new unit, having students brainstorm related vocabulary or ideas.  This helps to activate their prior knowledge on the topic and build upon it. Writing on the mini whiteboards saves time as well as paper and makes the activity a bit more attractive to students.

I also use the boards in presenting and working with new vocabulary or grammar. Something that has worked well in our classroom is using the boards to put the words in a sentence in order.  At the Primary level, students often get confused about word order, especially in negative sentences and questions.  When we’re looking at a new construct such as ‘I can swim/ I can’t swim/ Can you swim?’, I write each word on a mini whiteboard and have students hold them in order.  We make up new sentences and questions that the class reads aloud together or the class will come up with ideas for sentences that the students holding the boards have to put in order.

Mini whiteboards can also be used during activities that require pair or group work and minimal writing (due to the space available on the board).  For example, we could do a listening activity in which students are asked to take note of the food (or colors, animals, etc) they hear in a recording.  Instead of each student writing separately on paper, it saves a lot of time (and paper) if the teacher hands out mini whiteboards and the students work in pairs or small groups.  Another possibility is a reading activity in which students write the answers to concept-checking questions about a text on mini whiteboards with their partners.  Again, this saves time as well as paper and makes the task a bit more fun.

Quizzes and games also lend themselves well to implementing mini whiteboards.  There are all sorts of possibilities here but a revision game that we use seems to work well.  At the end of the school year (although this could be done at the end of a unit as well), the students form small groups of three or four.  They sit facing each other so that they can discuss answers and collaborate.  Before class I prepare a list of questions based on information we’ve seen in the course book.  These questions can be True or False, multiple choice, fill-in-the-gap, short answer, etc. I use the board or projector if I need to or I have students simply listen to the questions. Groups earn points by writing the correct answer on the mini whiteboards. It’s important that they take turns within the group writing on the board and I always make a group discuss their answers before giving the final version so that there isn’t just one student always taking the lead.  We keep score on the board and the winners may receive a sticker or small sweet, although I try not to use prizes much in class.  Participating and enjoying the activity should be the real motivation.

Keeping all the groups engaged, even when it’s not their turn can be difficult and for this reason I usually allow the next group to attempt to answer if the first group doesn’t come up with the correct response.  The trick is to not repeat the question.  If that group wasn’t listening and can’t provide an answer or if their answer is not correct, it’s then the next group’s turn to respond and so on.  The students tend to enjoy this activity and it’s a great way to consolidate and revise the information we’ve seen throughout the year.

As we’ve seen, mini whiteboards are an adaptable and efficient tool in the young learner classroom.  They can be used for a wide variety of tasks and at many different stages in a lesson.  Students really enjoy working with the boards, helping to keep them focused as well as motivated.  If teachers are looking to invest in a resource that is practical and multifunctional, mini whiteboards are the way to go.

If you have more ideas to share on how to incorporate mini whiteboards in the YL classroom, please leave them in the comments section.  Thank you for reading!

Posted in Methods, mini whiteboards, Young Learners | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

The Conference High

I love going to Teachers’ Conferences.  I always walk away with my head buzzing and full of ideas.  They’re energizing and motivational, especially at this time of year when I need just a little boost of excitement about teaching to keep me going.

On Saturday I attended the Conference in Málaga organized by ACEIA (Asociación de Centros de Enseñzana de Idiomas de Andalucía). They made it well worth coming out on a Saturday morning. It was a smoothly run operation making it an overall pleasant experience.  An added bonus was the mid-morning breakfast and the snack after the sesssions had finished.  Both were really tasty and supplied generously.

I had a really hard time deciding which sessions I wanted to see.  They all had something that caught my attention but I can’t be in two places at once so I had to choose.

Karen Muckey was giving a presentation called, ‘I am the Kid Whisperer’ and Bridget Hutchings was discussing TPR in her session, ‘Shake Your Body’ but I decided to start off the morning watching Claire Potter deliver a session called: ‘Harnessing instrumental and integrative motivation in the classroom to promote meaningful communication’.  What I liked most about her talk was that she didn’t just present us with information, she personalized it and got us interacting in pairs and groups.

Claire started off asking us when we last learned something new, what motivated us to learn and what our strengths and weaknesses were.  I thought this was an effective way to put us in our students’ shoes and get us thinking about what motivates them to learn English.

Next she had us take part in a few speaking activities that we could adapt to our own classrooms.  I like the fact that she didn’t tell us how to set up and do the activities, she showed us how to do them by getting us involved.  More and more presenters are using this tactic and for me it’s much more meaningful to have gone through the motions of doing an activity myself than to have someone describe it to me.

After the lovely breakfast, we went off to session two.  There was a session on Demand High by Scott Donald, another about Mindfulness and EFL by Simon Pearlman and another on The Lost Art of Drilling by Hannah Beardsworth.  What a difficult choice!  At the last minute I went with being practical and decided to see what Hannah had to say about drilling.  I was not disappointed.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hannah’s session, not only because of the ideas I gained from it but also the way she delivered it.  She has a rather humorous way of presenting, using different types of voices and intonation.  There’s energy in the way she speaks and it grabs your attention because you’re not really sure what’s coming next.  Another reason I liked her session is that she included quite a few activities that I use regularly in my own classroom.  Learning new things at conferences is great but sometimes it’s just as nice to see a presenter using the same routines and methods as you do.  My first thought is always, phew! I am on the right track!

The last session I attended was ‘Observations from Observations: The 7 Essentials’, by Chris Johnson. Again, it was really hard to decide where I wanted to be.  I could’ve seen Teresa Bestwick’s, ‘Raise Your Expectations’, but her workshop was aimed at first-year teachers. I almost went to ‘Classroom Management- Reflect and Plan Your Troubles Away’, by Michael Joseph Gibson but in the end I opted for Chris’s session.

In this last session, Chris got us discussing in pairs what he considers the seven essentials of teaching:  Working in Pairs, Pronunciation, Error Correction, Recycling and Reinforcement, Personalization, Pace and Pushing Our Students.  It was a nice way to round out the morning and reflect on these fundamentals of teaching.

Once the presenting was done, we shuffled off to the lobby area of the hotel for some refreshments.  As I mentioned before, it was a wonderful and generous spread. We all had a chance to catch up with people we knew as well as continue chatting with people we had met that morning.  It was networking at its finest. There was also a raffle (I won a little stuffed puppy I can use with my YLs- thank you Macmillan!).

I really enjoyed watching the speakers and I found the sessions useful, practical and thought-provoking but I have to admit that the best part of the conference for me was interacting with everyone in the lobby.  My PLN (Personal Learning Network) includes quite a few people from Seville and Cádiz so we generally keep in touch using Facebook and blogs.  Actually being able to see each other and chat in person is a luxury that doesn’t happen often so when it does it feels that much more special.

I think I could’ve stayed there chatting and catching up for quite a bit longer than we did but all good things come to an end.  When it was time to go I definitely felt that Conference High I usually get after a productive and stimulating morning like this one.  I’m already looking forward to the next conference coming up.  I may be a conference junkie.

For more information about the ACEIA conference and the speakers I’ve mentioned, check out their web page:

http://www.aceia.es/aceia-malaga-elt-conference-2016

If you have that Conference High and want to keep reading more about them, Mike Griffin has just published a series of posts on his blog related to ELT conferences:

https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/

Please share your experiences with the Conference High in the comments section.  It’d be great to hear from you!

Posted in Conferences, PLN, reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mindfulness Blog Challenge

Mindfulness seems to be popping up everywhere lately.  It’s being used in business to increase worker potential and give them an edge in decision-making.   It’s also used in education to help students focus and to aid teachers in preventing burnout. There was a Mindfulness Summit during the month of October with fascinating interviews of people describing what Mindfulness is, how to practice it and why.  There’s also a Facebook page dedicated to Mindfulness and EFL.  People practice mindfulness sitting at home, while they’re out walking or even while they’re eating.   It’s definitely gone mainstream and has become somewhat of a buzz word.

Photo Credit: built4love.hain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: built4love.hain via Compfight cc

I came across Mindfulness one day while searching for information about yoga.  At first I was just curious about this strange new term but the more I looked into how to practice Mindfulness and the possible benefits from doing so, the more convinced I was that I should be trying it out.  That was around three (maybe four) years ago and I’ve practiced it on and off since.  The beauty of Mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere, at any time and without the need of any equipment or special conditions.  You can adapt it to your routine and your way of life.

I began including, when possible, a few moments of Mindfulness in my daily routine. There were days when I didn’t manage to fit it in or completely forgot about it but generally speaking it has become something I do once in a while just to take notice of how I feel and what I’m thinking about.  It’s a moment when I try to just be.

Last year I began using Mindfulness in the classroom.  I have no training in this regard so I just followed my own intuition.  I would find a moment during class to really become aware of the present.  As teachers, we all know that this can be extremely difficult to do.  When I’m in class, my attention is split in countless directions at the same time: is this activity working? is Juan paying attention? did I remember to put the flashcards in the order of the song? if Maria finishes before the other students, what can do on her own? which activity should we move on to next and when?  Lots of very distinct thoughts dealing with the present, the past as well as the future.  It’s hard to cope sometimes but using Mindfulness now and then helps bring me back to the here and now.  I’m not saying that those thoughts go away- and I don’t think they should because they’re all a necessary part of the process of teaching- but taking a moment to live in the present and take stock of the situation helps me maintain my energy levels as well as keeps me thinking clearly.  I think it prevents me from getting whisked away by my own thoughts.

I’m no expert in Mindfulness by any means, but I’ve noticed two different ways of practicing it in the classroom.  There are times when I use Mindfulness for my own well-being.  As described above, I use it to find my center again, a sort of restart button.  There are also times when I focus my practice on my students.  Instead of being aware of how I’m feeling and what my needs are, I try to tune into what their energy is like, the dynamics happening at that moment and what they could possibly need.  I think a critical moment to do this is right at the beginning of class, maybe in the hallway before they’ve even gone into the classroom.

With my pre-schoolers I often practice Mindfulness during ‘Talk Time’ (described in this post).  At the beginning of class, we settle in and each child briefly shares something with the class.  While they are speaking, I try to focus my attention solely on what each one tells us.  I make sure that I have nothing in my hands and that I’m sitting in a relaxed but attentive way.  I try to make sure they keep an active pace in going around the circle but I try not to be forceful in directing what goes on.  During their moment to shine, I simply listen and notice what’s happening.  This technique has become really useful in deciding how to carry out the class, which activities would be more appropriate depending on their levels of energy as well as interest and, maybe most importantly, it’s something I truly enjoy.

In this post I’ve described the ways I use Mindfulness in the classroom and why.  I challenge fellow bloggers to do the same.  Whether you’re just starting to practice Mindfulness or you’ve been doing it for years, write a post about it.  Tell us about how you practice, share an anecdote or simply write about why you would like to practice Mindfulness.  The point of the blog challenge is to raise awareness of how other teachers use or are interested in implementing Mindfulness as well as to allow us to learn from each other.  Thanks for reading.  I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences and thoughts on Mindfulness.

Posted in Mindfulness, reflections, Young Learners | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Blurred lines and awkward conversations

As teachers of young learners we take on many roles.  We lead our students in class, share knowledge with them, cheer them on, listen to them, protect them, arbitrate between them, care for them… the list goes on and on.  We also have to liaise with parents, keeping them informed on how their child is progressing.  All of these roles and responsibilities are at times difficult to manage but it’s all a part of working with children, especially very young children.

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

There are times, however, when the lines that define your role as teacher can get a little blurry.  In this case, I’m referring to those times when you notice that a child is having difficulties that may require the intervention of a psychologist but you’re not sure that it’s your place to bring it up with the parents.  If you are their teacher at school and with them all day, it’s deemed quite logical and normal that you should contact the parents with any issues; as their English language teacher who sees them two or three hours per week, it can be tough to decide whether to speak up or not.

Let me give you an example.  I had a student for a number of years that was extremely intelligent and excellent with numbers as well as patterns.  His memory for facts and vocabulary was also outstanding.  He was a star student who acquired knowledge almost effortlessly, but he struggled to get along with his peers.  Even now I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it was that made his social skills seem so weak but it had to do with him basically ignoring the rest of the students in his class.  His interactions with them were short and to the point.  He often acted as if he was the only one in the room and grimaced when ‘forced’ to collaborate with others.  I have some training in Psychology but I am not the person who can adequately diagnose this sort of behavior.  I mulled over the situation for some time before trying to bring it up with the mother.  Her reaction was merely to minimize my concerns and effectively brush them off, claiming that nothing was ‘wrong’ with her son.  It was an awkward conversation that, looking back, I probably could have conducted in a different (possibly more tactful) way but the mother’s reaction made it impossible to pursue the issue.  So I went back to the classroom and continued to observe while this child failed time and again to understand how to interact with his peers and also while his peers learned to regard him as an odd duck who should be avoided (and at times ridiculed).  It was frustrating and left me feeling like there was more I could do but that I shouldn’t overstep any boundaries.

Another example is the situation I’ve found myself in recently with a student who has been displaying behavior that could be linked to anxiety.  He has always participated a lot in class but he began showing signs of being upset when I didn’t call on him.  At first it was a simple sigh or roll of the eyes but soon enough he was complaining vocally and disrupting the class quite a bit.  I spoke to him about it a number of times, explaining that the other students in the class need an opportunity to participate just as much as he does.  He didn’t take it very well at all and even responded to me in a disrespectful tone.  His behavior in general seemed to become impulsive and reactive.  Any little thing that I or another student said would set him off.  It was very unpleasant as well as distracting for everyone involved.  I sent the parents messages, asking them to please come in so we could discuss the situation but they never did.  They thanked me for my concern and explained that there were some issues at home regarding health that could be the source of his stress.  On the one hand, they recognized that there was a problem, but on the other, they never took any steps to remedy it.

I felt like I was caught between a rock and hard place because I knew that this boy was suffering but as merely an English language teacher who sees him twice a week I could do little to help him.  I did the only thing I thought I could do: I tried to make sure that he saw English class as a safe place.  I talked to him after class one day and asked him why he seemed to get upset when I didn’t call on him.  He didn’t have a very clear answer about why he was feeling that way.  I explained to him that everything I do in class is so that things go well and we can all enjoy learning.  I told him that in no way would I ever try to exclude him nor single him out in a negative way.  I also tried to make it clear to him that he is an essential part of the group and that we all care for him.  The next few days in class he seemed a bit more relaxed so maybe my words got through.  This all happened towards the end of the school year.  We’re now starting up again and I’ve been in touch with the parents but we’re just going to ‘see how it goes’.

As teachers we form a part of our students’ lives but as English language teachers our observations and opinions are often disregarded or at best considered limited.  It is true that we spend less time with the students than their teachers at school but it’s still enough time to pick up on difficulties or issues that they may be having.  In my opinion, we have a duty as people who work with children to make parents aware of any problems their child is having.  There may be times when there is a reasonable explanation or when our observations are off the mark but I believe it’s better to cross those blurry lines that define our role and endure those awkward conversations just in case; we may be the only ones in that child’s life calling attention to or even noticing that something is not quite right.

Posted in Parents, reflections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Encouraging YLs and Tweens to Use L2

I’ve used a number of different strategies in class in trying to encourage my pupils to communicate in English and had varied results.  What worked with one group didn’t necessarily work with another.  Finding something that I’m happy with and that motivates the learners is an ongoing struggle but I think I may have stumbled upon a tactic that could work, at least for the upcoming school year.

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

Before I go into detail about what I’ve tried in class and what I plan to use next year, let me explain that I’m referring to learners between the ages of eight and twelve.  With pupils younger than eight, we discuss why they should try to use English in class and I try to design the activities so that using L2 is a natural outcome (which sometimes works but sometimes doesn’t but that’s a whole other post!); I prefer not to use anything systematic in controlling how much L1 vs L2 they are using because with very young learners it feels unnatural and forced.

For a number of years I used a system with young learners and later with tweens involving red cards to limit the use of L1 and attempt to encourage the pupils to use L2.  When a learner used Spanish instead of English they were given a red card.  If they accumulated three cards or more in one class their daily participation mark was slightly affected.  There were some advantages to using this strategy: learners were more aware of how much L1 vs L2 they were using and L1 was effectively limited making L2 the predominant language being spoken as well as heard.  The problem was that none of it felt natural.  I was happy that students were using more L2 but it didn’t feel right to punish them for using their native language.

So I moved on to using flags on the board to signal when they should strive to use English (a poster with the American, Canadian and British flags) and when it was considered acceptable to ask more complicated questions in L1 (a poster with the Spanish flag).  I also tried to verbally encourage learners to reformulate their questions or statement in English if possible, suggesting words or phrases that would be helpful.  For the most part, this strategy worked: students continued to be aware of whether they were using L1 or L2 and they got a kick out of the flags.  However, there was quite a bit more Spanish being used in class than before.  The system was lacking a certain spark, a certain motivational push that would get them trying to communicate more frequently in English.

During the last trimester of this school year I suddenly had an idea.  I’m not sure when this Eureka moment actually happened or where it came from but I decided to implement it immediately and test out the waters for next year.  I was very pleased with the results.

My newest strategy in motivating learners to use L2 involves using those same red cards but turning the system on its head.  Instead of giving them cards when they speak in Spanish, I take their card away.  At the beginning of class I give each one a card.  In order to keep that card they need to use English to communicate in class.  If they revert to Spanish, I take the card back.  I’m also considering allowing learners to keep their card if they can rectify and try to reformulate in English.  At the end of class I ask for a show of hands from those who have managed to keep their cards and give them lots of praise for doing so.  I also make sure I give the pupils who lost their cards a firm ‘you’ll-get-‘em-next-time’ comment and smile.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect but so far this new system has worked like a charm!  More than ever pupils were trying to communicate in English.  They were asking me questions, telling me about things unrelated to class (what they did at the weekend, etc) and even talking more to each other in English.  The best part is that I didn’t have to remind them or encourage them  to do so.  They were doing it because they wanted to.  It felt natural and good.

So why does this strategy work better than the others I’ve used before?  It’s hard to pin that down to one specific explanation but in general I think it’s a matter of pride.  Students want to keep their card until the end of class so they can lift it up and show everyone what they have accomplished.  In terms of classroom management it’s about using positive reinforcement instead of punishment to encourage certain behavior.

Although this new system seemed to be working well, there are some points I need to reflect on before the next school year begins.  First, I need to figure out to what degree I take into consideration peer input.  During the short time that we used this tactic this past year it wasn’t clearly defined whether students could rat out other students.  When one of them told me that so-and-so had used Spanish, I simply asked the student in question and expected an honest answer.  I’m pretty sure that they were mostly sincere and quite a few willingly gave up their cards.  I haven’t decided whether I want learners to police each other or not.  This will be more food for thought during the summer months.

I’m also a bit concerned about shy students limiting what they contribute to class in order to avoid having to give up their cards.  Most of the learners participated very well and some even seemed more motivated to join in, but there were some that were as quiet as before or even more so.  I need to consider ways to get these shy learners communicating and sharing more in class.

And one last thing I’d like to mention is that I recycled my old and tattered red cards in testing this new way of doing things but for next year I’ll have brand new laminated orange cards with stars on them.  I think the change will get them even more excited about trying to hold on to their precious cards.  In doing so, they’ll be practicing more English in the classroom, which is the whole point of this little experiment!

Posted in Classroom Management, Tweens, Young Learners | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

End of Term Progress Report

It’s been quite a while since I last posted (since March!) but I’ve been so busy this school year that I simply haven’t had time to sit down and write.  Now that I’m on summer vacation, I’ll have more time to post- at least in theory.

At the beginning of the school year last September I wrote an entry describing my New School Year’s resolutions (read here).  For my first post after my hiatus, I thought I’d go back to those resolutions and examine how well (or not) I accomplished what I set out to do.  So here you have my end of term progress report.

The first goal I set out for myself had to do with Mindfulness and using it more in the classroom.  Simply by posting about Mindfulness and discussing it has helped me to use it more, often in ways that I’m not consciously aware of.  I don’t think I could describe the exact moments when I used Mindfulness or even how I did, but it was definitely an implicit part of my presence in the classroom and I believe that through Mindfulness I was more connected with my students’ needs as well as my own.

I’ve noticed that other teachers are also interested in using Mindfulness in their personal as well as professional lives.  Some discussion on a Facebook page dedicated to Mindfulness in the classroom sparked my interest in using meditation and breathing exercises with my pupils.  Towards the end of the school year, my younger learners (ages 5-7) would come to class rather rowdy and unfocused so I started using two or three minutes at the beginning of class to help them settle down and refocus.  We closed our eyes and breathed in and out deeply a few times.  These simple breathing exercises really worked to get rid of that wild, nervous energy and helped them to concentrate on beginning our English class.  They also truly seemed to enjoy it; some even adopted lotus poses (or something similar) without me asking them to.  I marveled at the fact that they had seen this pose somewhere and knew that this was the situation in which to use it.

Improving my listening skills was another objective for this school year.  My reasoning was that I had noticed that my classes had become a bit too teacher-centered.  I thought that really making an effort to listen to my pupils when they spoke in class instead of rushing them because of time constraints would help lower my own talking time as well as put the focus back on the students.  I put in quite a bit of effort related to this goal, especially at the beginning of the school year, but there is still room for improvement.

My credo for this past school year has been ‘less is more’ and it’s helped me to plan my classes in a more meaningful way as well as manage my time more effectively.  I’ve always been way too ambitious in terms of planning, trying to fit too many activities or too many steps into one class period without giving my students time to assimilate what they’re doing.  With experience I’m learning how to pick and choose what will be most useful.  This usually involves accepting the fact that we can’t do everything I’d like to do but recognizing which activities are most beneficial for a certain group.  As with most aspects of teaching, this is a work in progress and I think that each school year will help me fine tune this skill.

Using more pair work and peer checking was another aim I set for myself this year.  One of the most constructive steps I took to achieve this aim was having pupils sit in pairs.  This seating arrangement encouraged them not only to collaborate with the person sitting next to them but also to get to know them.  In addition, I changed their seating after each trimester so that they had the chance to work with a number of different partners.

Working in pairs can be quite difficult for young learners because they have less experience with this sort of dynamic and because they are more focused on themselves than older children.  For this reason, we discussed quite often (in L1) why it’s important to work well with a partner and how to do so.  We talked about listening to the other person, how to make suggestions and share ideas as well as reinforcing the notion that copying someone else’s work is not a valid option.  One of the advantages of having the same pupils year after year as they progress and grow is that we can work on these skills little by little, planting the seeds that will later help them be effective and cooperative when working in pairs.

I also tried some peer correction in my classes but mostly with the older pupils (ages 9-10 and 12).  They seem to have a better grasp on how and why correcting their partner’s work could also be beneficial to them.  One of my resolutions was to use peer correction more with the younger pupils as well but I need to put in some more effort in this regard.  It’s going to take a bit more reflection and planning on my part in order to help them develop this skill.

My final goal was to promote synergy in my classes.  Through mindfulness, improving my own listening and focusing on pair work, I think we achieved a higher level of synergy but in a more social way.  I think (or would like to think) that my students were a bit more aware this year of the benefits of cooperation and mutual respect in their treatment of one another.  I would also like to believe that they now feel more integrated in their corresponding groups.  These are all positive and important advances; however, I would also like to encourage synergy in terms of working toward the completion of tasks and projects.  This will be some food for thought during the summer months.

In conclusion, I made some progress and showed some improvement but I still have work to do.  I need to put in some more effort in certain areas (peer correction, synergy, listening skills) but  I’m happy with how well I’ve advanced in using Mindfulness and the ‘less is more’ strategy.

I enjoyed writing these two posts.  Writing the previous post on my resolutions helped me to set goals for the school year, something that I normally only sort of vaguely do in the back of my head.  Putting them on ‘paper’ made these goals more tangible and easier to focus on; reflecting on my progress at the end of the school year allowed me to examine carefully what I had done to achieve my aims and what I still need to work on if those aims are still valid.  I believe that these exercises in reflection are an essential part of teaching/learning.  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.

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Getting parents involved

There are lots of reasons to encourage parents to get involved in their child’s learning of English.  I won’t go into detail here but in my experience, the children who gain practice and reinforcement at home are more likely to remember what they’re learning and their levels of motivation are usually higher.  When parents show interest and consider learning English to be fun as well as useful, their children normally follow suit.  I’d like to share here some of the ways I try to get parents involved in their child’s experience with English.

Possibly the best way to include parents is to invite them to class.  At the end of each trimester I invite the parents of the pre-schoolers to attend and observe our class.  We do a demonstration of the songs, activities and stories that we’ve focused on during the trimester.  It’s difficult for children at this age to remember what they’ve done in class once they’re out of that physical environment, so these ‘Open Days’ give parents a chance to see what they’re learning as well as how.  Most parents seem to really enjoy these observation classes and they usually all attend.  At the end of the class I hand out the progress evaluations and chat a bit with parents about how the class is moving forward.  Inviting the parents to class has been a great way to let the kids show off their English as well as touch base with parents about their progress.

Another way I encourage parents to get involved is through our web page.  For every unit I create a glogster page (check out gloster here) and post it to the web page.  On a side note, I’ve taken precautions as far as internet security goes: all parents have signed authorization forms allowing their children to appear in videos and pictures posted on the internet and the class pages on our web page are password protected.  If you’re considering posting videos and pictures of your students on the internt, I strongly recommend carrying out similar steps.

Creating glogster pages for every unit for my classes is time-consuming and at times tedious but I’ve noticed that some (definitely not all) parents follow and really enjoy what I post.  It’s for the sake of these few that I continue to do so.  I’ve also noticed that recording the videos in class with the kids has become part of their learning process.  For the little ones, it’s a way for them to show off for their parents and enjoy sharing what they’ve done in class at home.  For the older ones, it’s become a way to monitor their progress as well as showcase what they’ve accomplished with the target language.  Recording the videos has turned into a sort of consolidation of what we’re focusing on and it gives them a sense of purpose in using the language, which is difficult to do with young learners.

On each class page I also post numerous links to websites and videos that are relevant to that age group.  They include sites with games, stories, printable activities, information, videos of songs to sing along to, etc.  If they are so inclined, parents can help their children continue to enjoy learning and practising English at home.  I’m not sure how many parents actually take advantage of these links but they are posted for those (probably) few that do.

Workshops are another way to involve parents and I’ve just started introducing them this year.  I had noticed that quite a few parents had questions about how to play with their kids in English, how to encourage the kids to practise what they know as well as technical questions on pronunciation.  I began thinking that workshops could be a way to deal with these issues in a more effective way: instead of on a one-to-one basis, we could meet and discuss them as a group with the parents who were interested.

In the first trimester I held a very practical workshop for parents on how to register their children in the digital course.  I had quite a decent turnout and I think it was just what some parents needed to get their kids signed up and using the course at home.  I think some parents shy away from registering their children because they’re not sure how to do it or whether the course is worth the hassle.  Showing them what the kids can do with the course and going through the registration process step-by-step seemed to motivate quite a few parents.

In my experience, the parents of pre-schoolers tend to be the ones most involved in their child’s learning.  For that reason I decided to hold a workshop each trimester for pre-school parents.  In the first trimester I explained and showed them a number of simple games they can play in English with their children.  I think it went over well and I even had parents who couldn’t make it to the session ask me for the handout.  The workshop for this trimester was on useful phrases and pronunciation.  I prepared a list of vocabulary and phrases/questions that parents could use at home with their children.  The workshop went off really well.  I tried (and I think succeeded) to keep the atmosphere light and fun so that parents felt comfortable speaking in English.  We looked at the items on my list, drilling each and practising in pairs.  There was a lot of laughter during that session and everyone participated more than I had imagined they would.  Afterward quite a few commented that they had had a great time and had learned at least one new word or expression.  In the last trimester I’m thinking of exploring the links that I’ve posted to the web site in the hopes that they’ll be more motivated to use them.  I hope that workshop goes as well as the first two.

It’s sometimes difficult to get parents involved in their child’s learning but I think it’s important to at least give them a number of opportunities to do so.  In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the time and effort that needs to be put in.  Please share your thoughts and suggestions on how to get parents involved.  Thanks for reading!

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Blogging Habits Ramble

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

Zhenya’s blog post called ‘Blogging Habits (1)‘ has been floating around my head since the beginning of January when she added it to her blog ‘Wednesday Seminars’; I am not alone in having my interest piqued.  A number of bloggers left thoughtful and very personal comments on the post and quite a few decided to write about the topic on their own pages (Hana Tichá and Sandy Millin were among them).

The ramblings in my head have been about blogging habits as well as habits related to social media (mostly Twitter and Facebook).  I have a love-hate relationship with both blogging and using social media.  Let me explain.

Let’s first begin with the positive side.  I love the way blogging, reading other people’s blogs and using social media make me feel connected to educators around the world.  There are countless ways that these tools have affected me and my teaching but some examples of what I’ve gained are new perspectives on teaching methods, activities to try in class, applications and new technology, the reinforcement of or knocking down of my beliefs, the revision of strategies that I’d forgotten, confidence in my teaching and my blogging and a general sense of being a part of something bigger and greater.

Twitter is a huge part of the world of social media.  I use it to stay connected with other teachers, read up on the latest news and pass on what I consider worth reading.  I also think that the chats on twitter are one if its best features.  I’ve participated in two chats (#eltchat and #eltchinwag), both of which I highly recommend.  Lately I haven’t been able to participate as much but I hope to be able to join again sometime soon. The exchange of information and viewpoints on topics that are pertinent as well as interesting make these chats a source of motivation and inspiration, at least in my opinion.

Reading other people’s blogs and occasionally commenting on them is something else I really enjoy doing because I learn so much from them.  At times I’m astounded by how well other bloggers express themselves and how prolific they are.  It’s a humbling yet motivating experience.

The main purpose of my blog is my own personal growth as both a teacher and a writer.  It’s heartening to see people comment and follow this space but the primary aim when I started was to improve my writing.  Writing is probably my weakest skill.  It takes me a long time to organize what I want to say and how I want to say it.  I’m pretty certain that a lack of confidence in my writing is part of what makes this process so laborious so I figured that blogging would give me a chance to practice and help me build confidence.  So far so good; I feel like I’ve come quite a long way in just under a year of blogging and it’s giving me the encouragement I need to keep going.

So now that we’ve seen all the wonderful benefits of blogging and using social media, let’s move on to the dark side.  It pretty much boils down to the fact that the internet is extremely fast-paced as well as overwhelmingly full of information.

There are so many times that I start reading an article or a tweet which leads me to a blog which then has a link to a wonderful new application that I could definitely use in class.  Oops! Did somebody say class?  Wasn’t I supposed to be planning that class that I could use that new app for?  And now I have to rush through my prep because I got distracted with all of the above.

I never seem to have enough time for everything I’d like to do: reading blogs, writing meaningful comments, keeping up with my own blog, tweeting, joining chats… The list is endless and for that reason I sometimes avoid twitter and the blogosphere all together.  Why start reading or writing about something when I only really have time to scratch the surface?

I would love to have an endless amount of time to fully take advantage of blogging, tweeting and all the rest but life gets in the way.  When I’m not teaching or preparing classes, there are lots of other things I like to do:  spend time with my husband, read, go cycling, do yoga, watch TV or films and so on.  Quite often I have to choose between blogging and cycling; the latter usually wins.  There are times when I feel like I could invest more time and effort into the online world but I think finding a balance between work, hobbies and family life is really important.  I’m not always very good at keeping that balance but I try.

In sum, I truly enjoy blogging and tweeting because they allow me to access loads of information and ideas.  I also like the cozy, connected feeling they give me.  The downside is that I don’t have nearly enough time to really take advantage of all there is out there to read and write about, which leads to frustration and even feelings of guilt. At times it’s a tightrope walk from dizzying heights and the best thing I can do is try to keep my balance.

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Teaching Tweens

I hadn’t taught tweens (ages 11-12) in quite a long time.  For about six years I had taught mostly very young learners ages 4 to 10.  It’s only a question of two years but in that time they change so much that it’s really a world of difference.  Due to scheduling, I added this age group to my courseload in September.  The transition has been challenging for me and at times rather difficult but extremely rewarding.

I started preparing for this class during the summer.  Or at least I tried to.  Having taught mostly the same age groups for so long, it was hard for me to anticipate what level of English the tweens would have, what their interests would be like and what sort of classroom management strategies I needed to implement.  I came up with an evaluation system concerning homework, classroom behavior and project work.  I also had a good look at the coursebook and used it to come up with a general syllabus.  I was able to get some aspects of the course prepared beforehand but I am the type of person who learns by doing so I couldn’t do anything more specific than that (as far as copying worksheets, coming up with lesson plans, etc) until I was actually in the classroom with these students.  I needed to be around them, watch them in action and see how they reacted to me before I could think about how to adapt the coursebook to their needs and interests.

On the first day I asked them to complete a questionnaire (see below), which had questions about how often they use the internet as well as what they do in their free time.  I used the questionnaire to get to know them a bit more as well as see how well they understood the questions and how they answered them.  We also did an ice-breaker activity in which I wrote three words related to my life on the board.  The students had to ask me questions in order to guess what these words meant to me.  We revised Wh- words beforehand and I encouraged them to use these words because I wanted to see how they did forming the questions as well as using them correctly.  I then asked students to write three words related to their own lives and ask each other questions while I monitored.  Next year I’m also going to ask them to write a paragraph about the information they learned from their partner. (The idea of getting the writing sample came from a post by Hada Litim on making the first day count.  Thank you Hada!).  I thought the first day went very well.  We got to know each other a bit more (two of them were my students before but as I mentioned before, they change so much in two years!) and we talked about the expectations for the course.

Photo Credit: Love.Sasha.Lynn via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Love.Sasha.Lynn via Compfight cc

In the past three months there have been good days like that first day when the students were focused and participating well.  But there have been quite a few not so good days in which they’re completely distracted, chatting amongst themselves as if I weren’t even there and not participating in English.  It’s also a constant struggle to get them to complete homework and project assignments, even the most dedicated students.  At first I was really frustrated, believing that their behavior and lack of motivation were directly related to my teaching skills (or lack thereof) regarding this age group.  It was so much easier to manage my much larger class of twelve five year-olds than this small class of four twelve year-olds.

Despite my frustration, I’d like to think that I rose to the challenge (time and time again),  using different types of activities and topics to draw them in and motivate them.  I dedicated quite a disproportionate amount of time and effort to preparing the classes with this group (and I still do).  There were some days when they responded well to my efforts but other days that they seemed to be so lost in their own worlds that it was impossible to bring them back to the tasks we were working on in English class.

At first I was disappointed.  Disappointed with myself but also with them as students.  Since then I’ve come to realize (through talking to other teachers and reading online) that tweens are just a really awkward and challenging age group.  They are making the transition from being considered children to being adolescents.  This is a significant change in their lives and affects them in all types of ways: physically, hormonally, mentally and emotionally.  There are days when they are focused and ready to carry out the resonsibilities expected of them, but there are other days when any number of factors get in the way.  Sometimes they act like small children but then at other times they seem quite mature; it’s really difficult to plan and prepare lessons when you’re not really sure what age the students will be acting like that day.

As a teacher, I’m learning how to encourage and appreciate those days (or moments) when they’re fully engaged as well as how to ride out the storm during those moments when they seem to be out of reach.  As the school year marches on my disappointment is wearing off and my patience is growing stronger.  They’re going through a tough time in their lives full of changes and new responsiblities.  I try to keep this in mind when they exasperate me in class or when no one found time to finish the final project for the day it was due.  I remain hopeful that if I continue to set high yet achievable expectations they’ll get there in the end.

I’m not really sure where I was going with this post.  When I started writing I had other ideas in mind but it quickly turned into a rant so I just went with it.  Thank you for reading. Please share with me any advice you have on teaching tweens or any experiences you’ve had with this age group.

Teens A Welcome Questionnaire

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It’s Music to Their Ears

Music is a staple in the young learners’ classroom.  That’s my opinion at least.  Music is a huge part of my lessons, especially with very young learners.  In this post I’m going to explore why I use music so much and the variety of ways in which I put it into practice.  I hope you find something useful and if you have anything to share, please do so in the comments section.

Why use music with young learners?

There are many reasons to use songs in the classroom.  First and foremost, they’re fun!  Not all children react the same way to music: some dive right in and start moving to the beat while trying to sing along; others prefer to watch their classmates and listen.  Either way, they’re enjoying the music and participating.  Music grabs their attention and provides us with some really enjoyable moments in class.

Songs are also memorable.  It’s easier for young learners to remember the phrases we sang as part of a song than to try to recall the question we all asked each other in circle time.  Some songs have that catchy quality to them that make it impossible to get them out of your head.  That makes for a great song in the classroom.

Another reason to use songs is that they are made up of chunks of useful language.  It gives the children a context for the target language and the vocabulary we’re focusing on.  Singing a song (especially without the CD) can serve as a substitute for drilling those chunks of language that the teacher wants to practice.  The fact that it’s part of a song makes the process seem worthwhile to the young learners.

How can I use songs in the classroom?

You can use music at any stage of a lesson and for a variety of purposes.  I use songs with my younger learners (ages 4-7) every single day of class.  Below are some ideas on how to exploit songs to their fullest potential.

I generally use three phases when using songs with children and for a lack of better terms I’ll use the following: presentation, practice and production.  (I suppose the process is similar to the PPP method but that’s not really my intention).

I always learn the songs at home before presenting them in class.  I practice and practice until I can sing as well as mime the song without having to think about it too much.  This frees up my attention so that I can work on getting the children involved.

When I play a song for the first time, I always sing along and show the pupils the mimes we can use with the song.  Mimes are a crucial part of using music with young learners.  They help reinforce meaning as well as give the pupils an opportunity to move around and get rid of some of their energy.  I always encourage and never force pupils to participate.  As stated above, everyone responds differently to music.  Some need some time to organize the tune and the mimes in their heads before joining in.  Others may never participate as actively as the teacher would like but as long as they’re listening and observing, they’re making use of the song.

After we listen to a song, I like to sing it again without the CD and sort of break it down for them.  I guess it could be considered a controlled practice of the song.  We practice the chunks of language, the difficult sounds, the intonation and the tune.  We also discuss meaning and I rely heavily on mimes in expressing what the chunks and words mean.  I also sometimes use L1 if necessary because I want them to relate to and understand what they’re hearing.

Then we move on to a more free practice and we sing the song every chance we get, with and without the CD.  Sometimes when they’re working on a worksheet or in their books, I’ll start singing one of the class songs and they’ll join in.  It’s a great way to keep them focused but revise songs at the same time.  For more ideas on how to incorporate music into your lessons, see this page from Super Simple Learning.

I’ve included a production phase in this process but it may not always be possible, depending on your teaching situation.  In my classroom, I use my mobile to record videos of the children singing the songs and post them on glogster pages (if you do something similar, I’d recommend getting parents’ authorizations first).  I also invite the parents of the pre-schoolers to observe the last lesson of the trimester so they can have a glimpse of what we’re learning and how.  These forms of production seem to motivate the pupils and allow them to enjoy showing their parents and loved ones what they have learned.

How do you use music in your classroom and why?

Photo Credit: Smeerch via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Smeerch via Compfight cc

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