Circle Time Feelings Activity

I begin most of my classes with young learners in Circle Time (see this post for more information).  The beginning of each class normally includes students telling the class something they’d like to share, a hello song and a question that we ask around the circle in a chain format (each one answering and then asking the person next to them).  Although we sometimes ask questions like, ‘How old are you?’ or ‘What’s your favourite colour/animal/food?’, quite often we ask each other, ‘How are you today?’.  When I ask the class all together, they know to reply, ‘I’m fine, thank you’.  This is the generally accepted response to that type of question.  But when we ask each other in circle time, the learners have the opportunity to express how they’re feeling that day.

We begin the activity with me holding the laminated emoji cards in my hands and eliciting each from the students.  The feelings shown in the cards are the following: cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, sad, tired, scared, surprised, happy, angry, ill and worried.  A few of my students also took it upon themselves to create their own cards for dizzy, hurt and sleepy.

emojis blog post

As they name the feelings, I put the cards in the middle on the floor so that everyone can see them.  Then I ask the first student to my left or right, ‘How are you today?’ initiating the question chain.  I try to insist that students respond in a complete sentence with ‘I’m’ and it’s also a good way of getting them to practice using ‘and’ as a connector.

Students really seem to enjoy this activity because it’s highly personalized and allows them to express how they’re feeling.  At first I thought they might always end up saying, ‘I’m happy’ but I’ve noticed that some of them like to pretend how they’re feeling and in this way use a variety of the vocabulary.  It’s interesting and motivating to see students so young using that type of strategy to practice English.

I find this activity useful on many levels as it serves to get them thinking and speaking in English as well as teaching them vocabulary that we’ll inevitably use in class to talk about how characters feel in stories, etc.  Indeed, some of the feelings (e.g., worried, surprised) are taken directly from stories we will read in class and this is a way of pre-teaching those words.  It’s very easy to adapt this activity to the vocabulary needs of any class.

Do you use a similar activity in your classroom? Or would you consider introducing this feelings activity?  Please share any comments on your experiences below.  Thanks for reading!

Posted in Activities to Share, Methods, very young learners | Leave a comment

What do you mean you don’t remember?!

Working with Very Young Learners can be painfully slow going and frustrating.  With the four year-olds especially, I often find myself wondering, ‘Am I really teaching them anything? Or are we just playing and singing songs?’ It seems like we’ll work with a vocabulary set over and over again.  They’ll even say the words a few times but then immediately forget all of them.  I’ve worked with this age group for over ten years now and I still get discouraged.

Part of the problem is that VYLs are already taking in so much new information on a daily basis.  Take a moment and think about everything they are learning for the very first time every day: how to hold a pencil, that turning the tap on too far means water will go everywhere, how to sit with their legs crossed and not fall over, the words to express what they want and how they’re feeling…are just a few examples.  They are constantly bombarded with new experiences and knowledge about how the world works.  When you take that in mind, it’s understandable that their brains can be a bit overwhelmed and saturated with information.

Something else to consider is that their memory and cognition are completely different from older children and adults.  This seems like an obvious statement but there are plenty of parents as well as teachers who often fail to take this difference into account when dealing with little ones. Coupled with a short attention span, children at this age also have a more limited short-term or working memory.  These two factors make it even harder for them to transfer knowledge to long-term memory.  As we develop (until a certain age), both attention span and memory increase in scope as well as effectiveness.

There are a few mnemonic devices that I’ve found to be useful in the VYL classroom.  The one that stands out above the rest is using music to help learners remember words and chunks of language.  For example, there are times when I’ll try to elicit a vocabulary word that we’ve been working on (over and over again) but none of them can recall it at that moment.  However, if I start singing the song with this vocabulary set and stop just as I get to that word, someone always seems to come up with the word.

I also use chants with classroom language such as instructions.  I normally have learners wait before picking up their pencils and start to work on a worksheet so that everyone is beginning at the same time.  It helps to lessen the time that Fast Finishers are waiting for everyone else. So the routine is that I chant, ‘wait, wait, wait’.  They often chant along with me and this helps them to remember that they should wait for my cue to start without me having to explain it every time.

Another device to help learners commit new words to short-term and later long-term memory is associating a mime with each vocabulary word.  Very Yong Learners love to move need to move, so using variations of Total Physical Response with them is a must.  Generally speaking, the vocabulary we work with at this age is very concrete and lends itself well to using mimes. Some obvious examples are the body, animals and places in the house but with certain sets such as family or food, you may need to get creative.  I’ve found that when learners can attach a mime to a word it serves as what some refer to as memory hook.  In adults this refers to relating a new word to previously gained knowledge but in young learners I think this hook can be created using gestures they’re familiar with.

Working with Very Young Learners and evaluating their progress (or seemingly lackthereof) can be disheartening and requires quite a bit of patience.  My advice (and this serves to remind myself as well) is to expect to feel frustrated at times but cherish the triumphs and celebrate them.  Praise goes a long way to build their confidence, engage their interest and motivate the rest of the class to participate as well.


Posted in Memory, reflections, very young learners, Young Learners | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Process Writing with Young Learners


As teachers, we all know that writing is an important skill that requires training as well as practice.  Developing an ability to express our thoughts clearly in writing can be difficult and takes time.  I think it’s important to begin working on this skill at a young age and for this reason I include process writing in my classes starting with students around age eight.  In this post I’m going to lay out the steps we take in completing these projects as well as discuss why each step is important.

Developing a skill in writing at any age has its challenges but with young learners it requires careful planning, lots of encouragement and patience.  Pre-writing tasks and scaffolding are crucial because young learners have very little experience with writing (at least compared to an adult).  It’s also essential that we make the tasks personal and meaningful to them in order to keep them motivated.  In addition, having clear steps that they are familiar with will help them stay focused.

The course books we use include a project in each unit so I use these to help model the process as well as the end product but I’ve tweaked it to include more scaffolding as well as more proofreading.  The advantage to using the projects in the course books is that they correspond to the vocabulary, grammar and topic we are working on, giving students an opportunity to put their working knowledge into action.  However, if your course books don’t include a project, it’s fairly easy to come up with writing tasks that achieve this goal.

The first step in writing involves getting the students interested in a topic as well as giving them the vocabulary and lexical chunks they need to express themselves. The lessons in the unit that involve introducing and practicing vocabulary and grammar related to the topic are a large part of this pre-writing step.  Students use the information and structures we’ve been studying when they sit down to write their project, making the task meaningful and giving their learning a concrete purpose.

Another pre-writing task that is extremely important is allowing students to see models of what they’re going to write.  As I mentioned before, young learners have limited experience when it comes to writing so this step helps them form a clear idea in their heads of what the finished product should look like.  I find that when students know what is expected of them the process is less stressful and the reasoning behind each step is easier to understand.

Before we begin the writing process, we look at and discuss the models found in our course books.  I also make my own model so that students can see how we can use the same structures with different information to create our own projects.  I think that they also just enjoy having a model they can handle and touch because it seems more real to them somehow.

In our discussions, I usually begin by reading out loud the model in the book but making mistakes.  Students listen closely, stop me when I make a mistake and say what it really says in the model.  It’s a simple technique but it keeps the class as a whole focused on what we’re reading.  At the same time they’re predicting and correcting the same structures they’ll be using in their own writing.

After we read the model together, I like to point out certain things to keep in mind in order to help avoid errors or to make sure that meaning is clear.  It depends on the text but these things range from a reminder of the spelling of difficult words to how to use the apostrophe correctly.  It’s really just a last minute revision of grammar or spelling before they begin their projects.

The next step involves a notes-and-writing-skeleton worksheet that I’ve come up with for each project.  I like to put the document on the overhead and we look at it together before I hand it out to students.  I think this step is important because once you give them the worksheets, their heads are down and they’re no longer following what you’re showing them on the overhead.  An alternative is to give them the worksheets but tell them to keep all pencils down.

There are two parts to the worksheet for each project. The top part is for notes and it serves to stimulate students as well as help them gather together information they’ll use in their writing.  The bottom part is a skeleton of the paragraph or paragraphs they’ll be writing.  They use the ideas they’ve come up with in the notes section to fill in the sentences in the skeleton.  Writing a full paragraph using connectors, correct punctuation and the appropriate lexical chunks can be daunting for an eight year-old.  Using the worksheet to write notes and fill in the skeleton students magically come up with a complete paragraph with their own ideas and personal information.

While students are filling in the notes section I am monitoring, answering questions, giving feedback, reminding students about spelling and generally just encouraging them to write to the best of their ability.  Before they begin completing the skeleton, I check their notes for spelling, grammatical errors or meaning that isn’t clear.  I do the same when they finish the skeleton.  Constant revision and feedback help to assure students that they’re on the right track and avoids errors in their final product.

We finish the worksheet in class and for homework students write a clean copy of the skeleton on a piece of paper to hand in.  I collect those in the next class and correct them.  I think this step is important for two reasons.  First, it gives students a chance to write the sentences in the paragraph on their own and get a feel for the form of the task.  And secondly, it encourages them to proofread their work.  Their objective is to write a clean copy of their project as a sort of practice run before creating their poster.  They tend to take it quite seriously because they want the end product to turn out well.

Once I’ve corrected their drafts I return them to the students and for homework they finish their projects.  In order to make the projects more appealing to young learners, I ask them to take their writing tasks and make posters with pictures they’ve drawn, photos cut out of magazines or pictures printed off the internet.  It adds an element of fun to the assignment and at the same time gives their writing context.

I collect their posters and mark them using a rubric that they’ve seen before so they know exactly what the expectations are.  I look at things like effort, whether it’s on time, creativity and appearance, handwriting, capital letters/punctuation, spelling and grammar.  Instead of a number grade, I use comments to point out what they need to improve next time and what they’ve done well this time.

The final step in our writing process is the one they probably enjoy the most.  Each student puts their poster on their desk and everyone mingles around, reading each other’s projects.  This is really the moment when everything comes together and all their hard work becomes worth it because they can show it off to their peers.

This is what process writing looks like in our classroom.  It’s a very structured, carefully planned procedure that does allow for some creative wriggle room but its purpose is mostly to give students exposure to using certain grammatical structures and lexical chunks in a controlled way.  A freer approach to writing can and should also be used in the young learner classroom but that’s a whole other post.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you’ve found this post useful or at least interesting.  Please share any techniques or ideas related to developing writing with young learners in the comments section.

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Feelings of Isolation


When I first started teaching, I worked at a public school in the States and then at language academies in Spain.  As a teacher new to the field and keen on personal development, I often sought out opportunities for training (still do!).  They were usually available in some form or another, even if it just meant speaking to colleagues in the break room about what we were doing in our classes.  There was a feeling of being connected and part of something bigger, which is comforting for a new teacher.

After a few turbulent years of trying to find a workplace where I felt valued and appreciated (as opposed to exploited and easily replaceable), I came across the chance to break away from working for someone else and become self-employed.

A friend and I began an adventure in building an after-school English program in a public school.  We worked hard to find our way, establish our own policies and figure out the business side of private language teaching.

This is our ninth year and I’d say we’ve been successful so far.  The school is located in a small town and word of mouth has really helped us to gain respect and trust.  We now have waiting lists to get in to all of our Pre-School and Primary classes.

It’s been daunting at times but I’ve enjoyed putting together a program that adheres to my beliefs regarding teaching.  We’ve had to put some focus on the business side of things but, generally speaking, we try to put the students and their needs first.

Having the chance to create and build up a program such as this has been very positive.  The words that come to mind are rewarding and motivating.  I make all the decisions about my syllabi, curriculums, course books, classroom management, etc.  Everything.  I don’t have anyone telling me that I need to teach these units in the book before Christmas or that we can’t mention this behavioral issue to the parents and that I just need to get on with the class.  Compared to when I worked for academies, I now feel very self-reliant as well as free.

The downside of working for yourself is that it can be very isolating.  There are only two of us running and teaching the classes in our program because we’ve deliberately kept the scope small and focused on quality.  I have the Pre-School classes and most of Primary; my colleague has the last year of Primary and all of Secondary.  This means that we’re in a small town in southern Spain, each teaching different levels and without direct contact with other teachers of English.  The feeling of belonging to a network or at least being part of something bigger is no longer there.

I use a number of tactics to combat feeling isolated.  Talking to friends who are teachers is sometimes effective, although when we get together at the weekend sometimes the last thing we want to talk about is work.

When I have time, I also turn to social media to connect with other teachers by reading and commenting on their blogs, joining chats on twitter and conversations through facebook.  Finding time is not always feasible though.

Conferences are another way to meet new people, hear about other people’s ideas and generally feel connected.  The problem is that signing up and going to them can be expensive (transport, hotel, etc) as well as time-consuming.

Writing on my blog is another way to alleviate feelings of isolation.  Sharing my thoughts with other teachers and bloggers helps me feel significant and like I have a voice.  Interacting through comments also shows me that what I have to say is somehow having an effect on others.

I don’t always find the time to carry out these tactics but when I do, I manage to feel a connection with other teachers, which is important to me.  I value self-reliance but I also believe in the advantages of forming part of a community.

If you can related to the thoughts I’ve shared here, please leave a comment about it.  Be sure to mention what you do to feel less isolated.

I’d like to thank Zhenya (see her recent blog post on Connecting) for the inspiration that I needed to sit down and finally write this post.  Sometimes it helps to just write about something and put those thoughts out there.

Posted in personal reflection, PLN, reflections | Tagged , | 6 Comments

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 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:

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:

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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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