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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Using L1 with Young Learners

Should English teachers use the native language in class with young learners?

There is an ongoing debate surrounding this question.  It’s been going on for years and I’m sure the end of the discussion is nowhere in sight.  A google search on the ‘use of L1 with young learners’ will provide the reader with an ample source of arguments that go both ways.  I believe that each teacher needs to find their own answer to this question depending on their style of teaching, the needs of their young learners and the characteristics of their teaching situation.  For example, using L1 in the classroom would not be feasible if the pupils did not share the same the native language or if the teacher did not speak it.

Let me start off by saying that I do use the native language (in this case Spanish) in my classroom with my young learners, especially my very young learners (ages four and five).  I believe that there are instances when using their native language is beneficial to the pupils or their learning in some way.

Very young children are often nervous and sometimes scared the first few days of class.  They don’t know me but they’ve been left in the classroom with me and a bunch of other children that they may or may not know.  This can be overwhelming for a little one and getting them to feel comfortable requires a lot of compassionate smiles and hearty encouragement from the teacher.  This is when I believe L1 is a necessity.  These little ones need to know that the teacher understands them and can interact with them in their own language.  It makes them feel secure and helps to lower their affective filter.

I also use L1 when it comes to classroom management.  I’ve found that using just five minutes of class at the beginning of the school year to discuss why it’s better to take turns at speaking and raise your hand than having everyone talk at once works wonders throughout the rest of the course.  Young learners need to understand what the rules mean and why they should follow them.  The teacher can use L2 to demonstrate this meaning but I feel that L1 is more concise.  I would rather spend time practicing target language than trying to get them to understand the classroom rules in English.

Using the native language in the classroom can also help develop skills for independent learning.  Simple instructions such as ‘Read and match’ or ‘Listen and number’ can easily be explained and demonstrated in L2.  I sometimes use L1 to go a little deeper, asking them not only to color the number they see but also to say it in English in their heads while they’re coloring.  With pupils who are old enough to read and work with written texts, we talk about how to approach a new text, how to skim for a general understanding and then how to scan when searching for the answers to questions.  These are skills that they’ll take with them and hopefully use with even more profiency in the future.  All of this can be explained and demonstrated in L2 but, again, using L1 means that we spend less time on the instructions and more time on carrying them out.  On a side note, it’s important to remember that young learners have considerably less experience with tasks such as answering questions about a text than adults or teens do.  They’re only just beginning to understand the steps involved and the reasoning behind them.  I find that using L1 (at least during the first time we try a new type of task) is helpful because it’s one less complication they have to deal with.  Once they get the hang of how to do these types of tasks, using L2 to explain and discuss provides enrichment instead of a hindrance.

It may seem like I use quite a lot of the native language in my classroom.  I think this is true during the first couple weeks of class when we’re setting up routines and getting to know the course expectations.  As the school year goes on, however, I use progressively less L1 in the classroom.  Pupils gain a certain base of knowledge during those first couple weeks related to the meaning of instructions and rules.  Subsequently, they use my explanations in English coupled with the gestures and miming I always use in order to figure out what they should be doing.

Finding the right amount of L1 to use can be tricky.  The native language has its usefulness in the classroom but as teachers, we also need to be careful not to rely on it too heavily.  If the teacher always uses L1 to backup their explanations in English, pupils will inevitably tune out the version in L2 and wait for the translation.  The teacher needs to be aware of how much L1 is necessary and attempt to limit its use to that minimum.

Whether or not to use the native language in the classroom, when to use it and how to use it are all very personal choices that I believe each teacher needs to decide for themselves.  I use L1 at specific times during lessons and for specific reasons: to make little ones feel more secure, to save time and to delve a bit deeper into explanations of instructions and rules.  Using the right dose of the native language in the classroom can be an effective tool but it should not be used as a crutch.  It’s up to the teacher to find and implement the most favorable balance of L1 and L2 to suit their learners’ needs.

These are my views on using the native language with young learners.  Do you agree? Do you disagree?  How much or how little do you use L1 in your classroom?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.  Thanks!

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Talk Time

In keeping with my resolutions for the new school year (see previous post), I’ve added a new daily activity to my pre-school classes.  I call it ‘Talk Time’ because I like alliteration and it’s simple enough for the little ones to say and remember.

We always start our classes in a circle so that we can see each other and interact as much as possible.  With ‘Talk Time’, the first five minutes or so of class are dedicated to whatever the children want to share with us.  For those familiar with the Responsive Classroom, it’s a concept similar to the ‘Morning Meeting’.  Each child has a turn to tell us anything they want: what they did during the weekend, any pets they may have, something funny a classmate said, etc.  In the two weeks we’ve used ‘Talk Time’, the children have only spoken in L1 but I respond to them in L2, sometimes asking them questions such as, ‘How do we say ‘abuelo’ in English?’  This allows us to revise vocabulary we’ve talked about before as well as put it into a real life context, making it more meaningful for them.

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Marc Wathieu via Compfight cc

My decision to incorporate ‘Talk Time’ in our classes was based on a number of factors.   First off, and probably most importantly, children at ages four and five love to talk about themselves and share stories with everyone.  Coming to English class is a social hour for them more than anything; learning English is a by-product of what they’re really there for: to have fun!  Through the years, I’ve noticed that the beginning of class is always a bit of a struggle to get them focused on what we’re doing that day because all they really want to do is tell me about their new pet birds.  I realized that it might be a good idea to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of class to let them ‘vent’, as it were.  I was hoping that after having a chance to speak their mind, they’d be more interested and willing to concentrate on what I had planned for the day.

Another reason for establishing ‘Talk Time’ is to give pupils a chance to get to know each other.  At four and five years old, they’ve only just joined the program and don’t know their classmates very well at all.  During ‘Talk Time’ they give and receive personal information which could help them form bonds creating an environment in which they feel accepted as well as secure.  We’re setting a foundation of integration and trust for subsequent years of learning and interacting together.

‘Talk Time’ also requires children to practice certain social skills that will be useful to them later on.  We have discussed and I remind them (constantly at the moment) to ‘look and listen’, meaning that they should look at the person speaking and listen to what they have to say.  In this way, they’re practising the basic rules of conversation, i.e. turn-taking, making eye contact, showing interest by looking at the speaker, etc.

Photo Credit: avrene via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: avrene via Compfight cc

As I mentioned above, we’ve only used ‘Talk Time’ for two weeks but so far so good.  The pupils seem to enjoy it and afterward they appear to be more willing to focus on class.  I’ve also noticed that I have to remind them less and less to, ‘look and listen’ while their classmates are speaking.

Do you use a similar stage in your lessons?  Do you find it effective?  Please share your comments and ideas below.  Thanks for reading.

 

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Resolutions For the New School Year

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Photo Credit: Sarahnaut via Compfight cc

As we are on the brink of starting a new school year, I thought it best to reflect a bit on some things I’d like to change in my classroom.  I think it’s important to take notice of what’s working well versus what could be changed and set goals that I’d like to achieve.  What better time to do this than at the beginning of a fresh new year?

Mindfulness

I’ve practiced Mindfulness in my personal life for a couple of years now.  Inevitably, this has also spilled over into the time I spend in the classroom.  My goal this year is to consciously practice it more often and add it to the many tools I have in my teacher’s survival kit.  For more information on using Mindfulness in the classroom, read this article.

Listening skills

As teachers we’re normally focused on the students’ skills but this year I’d like to make an effort to improve my listening skills.  A lot of times I find myself asking for input or feedback from pupils but rushing them through what they want to say because of time constraints. I’m going to stop rushing them and really listen to what they have to say.  Even if that means we have to skip an activity I had planned or modify the plan in some way.  I want my pupils to be more vocal in class and I figure that listening more intently to what they have to say is a good place to start.  This resolution goes hand in hand with practicing more Mindfulness in the classroom.

Less is more

I always plan too many activities for one hour of class.  In some ways, it’s better to have too many activities planned than not enough but I’m one of those teachers that strives to ‘get through’ everything I planned for class.  This year I’m going to focus on the activities I believe to be the most useful and meaningful for the pupils.  I’m also going to manage our time better, allowing us to do these activities properly.  I’m hoping that this resolution will make lessons more memorable as well as more enjoyable for pupils.

Pairs and peers

I’ve often used pairwork in class but this year I’d like to do more with it.  Pairwork has many advantages: it give pupils more interaction with their peers helping to improve social skills, it helps to reduce TTT (Teacher Talking Time), it can be very useful in classrooms with mixed-abilities and it gives pupils a greater sense of control and responsibility for their learning.  For more advantages in using pairwork, see this article on the British Council Teaching English web page.

Along these same lines, I’d also like to start using more peer correction in class.  I teach mostly primary-age young learners; peer correction can be a complicated task for them but I don’t think it’s impossible.  As with any new skill they may have a tough time at first, especially in noticing mistakes that need to be corrected, but with some training I’m hopeful that they’ll show some progress.  My reasoning for including more peer correction is that pupils become ‘the experts’ when they peer correct.  It can make them feel more involved in the classroom and adds to their sense of community.  In the long run it can also make them more aware of their own mistakes as well as how to prevent them.

Synergy

‘Classroom Management Techniques’ by Jim Scrivener was on my summer reading list.  I haven’t finished it yet but so far I’ve found it to be a good mix of new (to me) ideas and techniques as well as a brushing up on concepts that I hadn’t really thought about in some time.  In his unit on ‘The Learners’, Scrivener describes synergy as, ‘the energy and achievement that comes when people combine their abilities and efforts to work together, seemingly achieving more than the sum of what all the individuals could achieve on their own.’  He then goes on to describe ways to encourage synergy which involve respect, value, trust and a focus on the task at hand as well as on the process needed to carry out the task.  This year I’m going to strive to promote synergy in my classes.  I like to believe that I’ve always encouraged pupils to respect and value each other but this year I plan to discuss how to do this (as well as how not to) on a regular basis with them.  I also plan to use more group/project activities, which are more conducive to developing synergy.

These are my resolutions for this school year.  As always, I’m being more ambitious than I probably should be, but I will make every effort to at least move in these directions with my pupils.  Mindfulness will help me appreciate the progress we’ve made without the unnecessary judgement that comes with not meeting every single goal.

What are your resolutions for the new school year?

 

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Activities Share

Question Chain

Age:  any

Materials: none

Procedure:  Choose a question- this can be a warm- up question or the target language you want to revise or practice.  Students can sit at their desks, stand in a circle or sit in a circle.  The teacher asks a student the target question, to which the student responds.  That student asks the next student the target language.  You can allow them to choose the person they want to ask or establish a pattern beforehand.  The question chain goes around the classroom and the last student asks the teacher.

 

 

The Dice Game

Age:  5 years old

Materials:  dice (a big fuzzy one if possible) and five flashcards

Procedure:  Put five flashcards face up on the board.  I usually do this activity with Zoo Animals but any vocabulary set can be used.  Elicit and drill the flashcards in order.  Turn the cards over but keep them in the same order and write the numbers 1-5 above or below the cards.  I usually ask for volunteers- ‘Who wants to go first?  Who’s next? etc’.  Each pupil comes up to roll the dice (softly tossing it on the floor) as we all chant, ‘Roll the dice!’  This keeps them all involved and focused on the activity at hand.  The child who rolled the dice then has to say what number he or she rolled and then try to remember which flashcard corresponded to that number.  We turn the card over to check if their answer is correct and then we turn the card back over again so that more pupils can have their turn.

 

 

I like ____. / I don’t like ____.

Age:   5 years old

Materials:  flashcards or drawings that represent ‘I like ___’ and ‘I don’t like ___’.

flashcards of food (or another vocabulary set)

Procedure:  Put the flashcard for ‘I like ___’ on one side of the board and ‘I don’t like ___’ on the other (or draw faces to represent those concepts).  A group of 5-6 students stands in a line in front of the board, facing it.  The teacher stands between the board and the line of students.  Show one of the flashcards of the food.  Students say the name of the food and then take one step to the left or one step to the right as they say, ‘I like _____ or I don’t like ______.’  We all say ‘in the middle!’ and they return to the line in the middle to start again.

Do you have any activities to share?

 

 

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Cycling As Teacher

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I’ve always been into sports and keeping physically fit so when my knee started to give out because of running, I was rather disappointed.  Running was my way of getting in some exercise while relieving stress at the same time.  It was what I normally did on a Saturday morning.  As I was trying to figure out what sort of sport I could take up instead of running, my husband stepped in and suggested I try cycling with him.  He’s been a cyclist for years and often goes on long, mountainous routes by himself.  Knowing what type of routes he usually did, the offer was a bit daunting but I decided to at least give it a whirl.  I am so happy that I did.  Cycling is hard, physically and psychologically.  It’s challenging on many different levels but the satisfaction it brings makes it well worth the effort.  I’ve been a cyclist for less than a year (around ten months) but it’s already taught me some pretty important lessons about myself and life in general.  I also began noticing some similarities between cycling and teaching.  I’d like to share them here.

Know where you’re going

In cycling, just as in teaching, you have to plan and prepare for the route you’re going to take.  You’ll need to know approximately how long it will take you to reach your goal as well as the different types of terrain you’ll meet along the way.  Cyclists use maps and apps to plan their routes; teachers use curriculum and syllabi to guide them.

Progress may not always be visible

It can be disheartening when you’re putting so much time and effort into something but not seeing the results you’d like to.  There will be days when you can see progress and other days when you can’t.  The idea is to keep your motivation levels high and stay on track.  The days when you notice that your legs are responding well, helping you climb that mountain and the days when your students truly begin using the target language correctly, more than make up for those days of frustrating bewilderment.

It’s challenging– or should be

Cycling and teaching should be stimulating and demanding.  If you’re getting bored, then something needs to be done.  You may need to up your game with more uphill climbs or longer distances.  In teaching this can translate to attempting activities or techniques that are more challenging for you and your students.  However you decide to do it, the important thing is not to fall into a comfortable rut.

Expect the unexpected

Cyclists as well as teachers need to be flexible and ready to deal with unforeseen events or even setbacks.  A cyclist should always have what’s needed to repair a flat, stave off temporary hunger, hydrate themselves and protect themselves from the elements.  You never know when you’ll run over a nail or when the weather will suddenly change.  Teachers ought to have their own ‘toolkits’ ready for emergencies: fast finisher activities, reinforcement activities for students who need a little extra support, lesson plans for a reduced number of students on those days when only one or two show up and even band-aids (plasters) for the little ones who need some attending to.  All of this requires thought, preparation and, quite frankly, experience.

Be ready to go the distance

In long-distance cycling and teaching, this is a marathon not a sprint.  Trying to accomplish too much in too little time can leave you (and your students) overwhelmed.  When climbing a steep ramp, control your pace.  You want to advance but at the same time be able to maintain your rhythm.  The same is true in teaching.  If you throw too many items at them at once or try to ‘get through’ too many activities in one lesson, you’ll only leave them confused.  Find a pace that you can manage but at the same time will help you reach your goal.  And yes, it’s easier said than done.

Taking up cycling was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  It’s challenging and sometimes frustrating but is gratifying at the same time.  Teaching shares these qualities and is also something I truly love to do.  I’ve really enjoyed being able to combine and compare the two here.  Please share your experiences with cycling and/or teaching.  Comments and feedback are always appreciated.

 

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