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

Blurred lines and awkward conversations

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

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jenny downing via Compfight cc

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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

End of Term Progress Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting parents involved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Parents | Tagged , | 4 Comments

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

Posted in reflections, Tweens | Tagged , | 3 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Classroom Management | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments