Following the “method”

English-bookYesterday, I was playing a game with my students called “stand in line”.  I asked questions, they had to figure out what place in the line was theirs, and then they had to give their answers.  Questions such as “How old are you” and “How long does it take you to get to school?” were answered easily enough.  They could order themselves from youngest to oldest, from longest to shortest commute without any problem.

Then I asked a harder question: “How confident are you in teaching English to young children?”  After spending half a semester helping them learn to teach and play with their young pupils, I was hoping that they would feel at least somewhat confident in this aspect of their work.

And indeed, a few students stood near the front of the line, indicating that they felt pretty confident about teaching English to young people, and a number placed themselves a bit further back along the line.  I then asked them the next question: why they had chosen that particular place along the line.

As I expected, the students up front said that they felt good about their own abilities, they’d paid good attention during the lessons and had gotten some good ideas, while others mentioned that they’d had good experiences teaching English to young children and indeed, were looking forward to teaching English again.  Further back along the line, students talked about how they felt about their own English, and how they wished they could speak English more fluently and confidently so that they could pass this on to their own class.  This touched me, and I asked what more I could do to help them in this area.

One student, however, said something quite different.  He hadn’t been coming to the lessons, so I was surprised to see him standing near the front of the line.  I asked him why he’d chosen that spot for himself.  He told the class that he’d chosen that spot because he figured, that if he just “followed the method”, then he’d do just fine.

I need to explain something here.  In the Netherlands, the word for “textbook” is “method”.  A complete misnomer, but one I cannot seem to purge from my student’s understanding.  There is a tendency for teachers and students alike to put their blind trust in those who wrote the textbooks, and this leads to all sorts of strange situations in the world of Dutch education.

Back to my story.  I looked at this student, mouth agape, wondering if I’d really taught them that badly.  I soon remembered that it wasn’t my fault – after all, he hadn’t been coming to class – but was too taken aback by this answer to give a proper response.  Something clicked.  And it wasn’t a happy click.  This student was willingly walking into the trap of becoming a “method slave”, as we call it here; a teacher who simply follows the textbook in the misguided trust that it will lead him and his class to wherever they should go.

Why is it, I asked myself, that I have such a complete aversion to this sort of thinking?  Why can I not just “trust the ‘method'” like so many others?  My answer to that is manifold.  But the long and short of it is, the ‘method’ doesn’t always match the child.  On the one hand, sometimes the ‘method’ is too hard.  On the other hand, many classes have “native speakers” of English, for whom the level of English offered in the ‘method’ is too easy.  Other times, the ‘method’ becomes repetitive, with the same activities offered unit after unit.  Oftentimes, the ‘method’ is flawed, offering too little opportunity for children to practice speaking English with each other, instead focusing on the skills of listening and reading – also necessary, but only half of any situation in which actual communication is involved.

Worst of all are the situations in which a school head decides to implement a new, school-wide, program of English, all in one go.  Materials are bought, in a series of textbooks that assume that the children working out of the highest levels have already tackled the previous levels with some measure of success.  Which, of course, they haven’t.  The teacher is faced with an immense gap between that which the book intends to cover (and teach), and that which the children can actually grasp.  This problem goes far beyond the Zone of Proximity, and children in this situation will be left with feelings of incapability that might even reach into adulthood.

Blindly “following the method” is an unacceptable way of teaching.  That is why it is so important for future teachers to learn to see and observe their children.  Teachers must make note of their children’s needs and know what the next logical step is, in regards to their further development as learners.  They must really take a critical look at what their textbooks and materials have to offer, and decide to what extent these match up with their learners’ needs.  They must understand that when these two parties don’t match, it is up to them, the teachers, to make the necessary adaptations and bridge the gap between the two.  That is what teacher training is all about.

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Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)

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Last time, I shared an idea about how to create dialogues that allowed learners of mixed abilities to talk together in a meaningful way. After that, I practiced using the dialogue cards, and soon discovered that while I had hit upon a great idea, I still needed to refine the process of creating these cards.  I went back – twice – until I finally figured out a better way to create interchangeable dialogue cards.  Here’s how to make your own differentiated dialogue cards:

  1. Create or find a basic dialogue you want your learners to practice.  Many textbooks have a ready-made dialogue for each unit, in which the new grammar and vocabulary is practiced.  Below is an example I plucked from a textbook from a Dutch Publisher.

    Sample-dialogue

    A sample conversation from the English textbook “The Team” (Noordhoff Uitgevers)

  2. The next step is very important: change each line in the conversation into a function.  Here is an example:

    Dialogue-functions

    Dialogue made of functions

  3. In the next step, you work back toward the original conversation.  Change the functions into sentences with a number of choices.

    Dialogue-var-notions

    Dialogue with some variable notions.  There is some space for choice, but not always.

  4. Check if your dialogue with “variable notions” matches up with the Original dialogue.  You may need to make a few changes here. 

    Dialogue-fix-notions

    Moving backwards from “variable notions” to “fixed notions”, this dialogue is slightly different from the original.

  5. With some luck (and a few tries), you now have dialogues with various levels of difficulty.  Now you can print these out for your class.

Please note:  it’s important to check that the dialogues actually match up before making copies for your learners.  (I didn’t, and found out the hard way during a class)

Last step: have fun!

Mixing and matching in the mixed ability group

mix-and-match-puzzle-setOne of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class.  No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind.  That’s just the way of things, it seems.  The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.

There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential.  The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next.  I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).

In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way.  But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…

Years ago, I came across a site called raz-kids.com.  I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough.  However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.

In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level.  The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.

I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom.  I came up with a simple solution.  What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?

We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language.  For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.

We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions.  For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”

Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions.  In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change.  The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.

But enough review.  Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.

In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.

Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices.  It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.

Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.

Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels.  The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue.  The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions.  The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card.  The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.

Here is a simple example to illustrate this:

 

Role-play-easy

A simple example

 

No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class.  It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors.  It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with.  Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar.  Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.

Role-play-expanded

A dialogue with multiple steps

 

Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons.  And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!

Getting back to the roots

packing for vacation

My packed suitcase: sewing machine, iron, cutting board, extension cord, cloth, sewing kit, and band-aids for my fingers, among other things.

This week, I’m taking off for a lovely week in the woods.  This time, I’m taking my hiking boots, a change of clothes, and a … sewing machine!

Not the usual thing one might pack in for a week of R & R, but making quilts is how I revive my inner artist and revitalize, refuel and refresh the educator within.  I’m greatly looking forward to this week and wonder what new techniques I will learn on the way.

While I was packing, I had to think back to my very first blog entry, “Teaching is like a quilt,” which I wrote four years ago already.  Back then, the parallel between the process of designing and creating a quilt struck me as very apt, and today I thought back to that time, and realized that it still holds.

First, the inspiration:

zen

The Zen of the Labyrinth

In this case, a book of mazes that look like anything but a maze… creative and intriguing, I soon wondered if I could use any of these designs to make a baby quilt.  I soon decided to give it a try.

The inner educator is always listening, looking, waiting, for something that can be used in the classroom, like some creature in light hibernation.  It only takes a little nudge in the right direction for us to have that “Eureka!” moment.  That’s the moment when we find a new game or book that we just cannot wait to use in our classroom, because we know it will fit so perfectly into this or that lesson, or because it will help a certain child understand the material they need to learn.

Once the inspiration has hit, I use it to focus.  Where do I want to go?  What will fit the child best?  What materials do I have?

quit

My sketch, as copied from “The Zen of the Labyrinth”

 

Thinking along these lines as a teacher, I wonder about my learners: where do they need to go?  What do they need to learn?  What kinds of resources can we use?  How much time have we got?  What learning activities will be most informative, most interactive, and most effective?

Once I have my rough ideas drawn out, I move on to sketches – in notebooks or on graph paper, depending on the design I have in mind.  Sometimes, I create patterns on bits of cardboard to be traced over and over, or draw the entire image out, full-size on tracing paper, as the design solidifies.

 

quilt-sketch
A paper model of the quilt I will be making. This helps me see what kinds of “building blocks” I need to design and where there are repetitive elements.

 As a teacher, this is when I start outlining the lessons: what material will be covered in which lesson?  What is the most sensible way to build the series?   What steps wil my learners need to take along the way?  What kinds of support will they need?

And then it’s time to measure, to cut the cloth, and sew the bits together.  As the blocks are built, I put them in place, making sure everything is still working out as well as I had thought it might.  If needed, I change things around.

In the example given here, I found that I had designed one of my blocks incorrectly.   Fortunately, I could still fix it.  Can you find the difference between the cloth blocks below and the paper blocks above?

quilt-bits

The blocks are ready, now to sew the whole thing together.

As a teacher, this is when I finally assemble the lesson, create the power point I need, and create material.  Most importantly,  I check for the logical “flow” to the lesson.  In other words, does the beginning match the middle, and actually lead toward the goal I originally had in mind?  If not, I then make the necessary adjustments while I still can.

And finally, it’s time to sew everything together, quilt the layers, and putting on the edge.

quilt-done

The final product!  Can you enter the maze (at any point), follow the gentle curves, catching all of the butterflies before leaving?

This is when I get to lean back and enjoy the fruits of my labors, when I actually teach the lesson, encouraging my learners to join in, explore, try out new ideas and collaborate as they develop their skills as future teachers, one step at a time.

Happy teaching!  And remember, teaching is many things: it’s a sport, it’s collaborative work, but it’s also an art form.

 

 

We are under the tables!

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Thinking back to past lessons, there is one moment I will never forget.  One morning, the school principal showed up at my door, together with about ten prospective parents.  I sat in the quiet classroom, alone in my circle of chairs.

“Miss Amy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Teaching English,” I answered.  A few muffled giggles escaped from unseen corners.

In answer to her puzzled expression, I asked, “Boys and girls, are you under the tables?”

The giggles erupted into joyous shouts, “We are under the tables!”

“Are you ready, boys and girls?” I asked.  Silence ensued.  “Then quietly sit on your chairs.”

“Sit on the chairs!  Sit on the chairs!” the children whispered as they made their way back into the circle.  I counted back from five, and soon everyone was seated.  The parents, nodding their approval, continued their tour, and we carried on with our lesson: under the chairs, on the floor, behind the chairs, on the tables, no space was safe for these adventurous children led by their only slightly mischevious teacher.

One of the most important things we as teachers can do, is to have fun while teaching our children.  As I often tell my student teachers, if we have fun, they will have fun, and if they have fun, they will learn more than we could hope for.  When children play, they develop in so many ways: socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively.  They are exploring and experimenting, noting the responses they get, re-fitting their thinking before sallying out again, to try new things or repeat their sucesses.  We teachers need to remember this, and make use of this in our own teaching, but how?

Total Physical Response (TPR) lends itself really well for play.  There are, of course,  different views on what TPR is, and how it can be used.  But at the base of it all, anytime one combines language with movement in order to learn a language, one is using TPR.  In the story above, I was combining a game of hide-and-seek with commands combining prepositions and classroom furniture.  The children were free to repeat what I said, and those who spoke up in Dutch were occasionally corrected by their peers, leaving me with the happy task of keeping a semblance of order in between commands.

A happy classroom is a learning classroom.  Happy teaching!

 

A new school year – getting started

give-me-five.jpeg

In many countries, a new school year is getting started, and it’s important for teachers to take the time to give shape to their class, together with their children.  One important piece to begin with, is the class rules.  I’ve written about this earlier, in the blog “The happy classroom“.   Children feel safer in a classroom with simple, consistent boundaries, so it’s important that teachers have a simple set of rules they can easily explain and live by.

It’s also important that these rules be easily explained.  A visual aid, such as a poster, can be really useful for this.  This is where Sparklebox comes in.  This site has all sorts of free, downloadable materials for all sorts of classroom needs, it also has a page full of clearly-illustrated posters for classroom management.

Myself, I used my own cards to clarify my rules.  I had three simple flashcards illustrating expected behavior: “listening”, “raise your hand”, and “sit on your chair”.   I had these in a visible area – on the carpet during circle time, for instance – and when I needed to correct a child, all I needed to do was say “uh-oh, listening!” and point to the picture of “listening”.  For older children, I would write the word on the board, next to the flashcard, so they could learn to read the word as I used them in class.

Another thing I did was to visibly to structure the lessons.  I created cards that illustrated what would happen in the course of the lesson, such as a book (story time), a pawn (game), two children talking (speaking practice), and so on.  I put magnetic tape on the backs of the cards so they could stick to the white board.  At the start of the lesson, I would hang the cards in their proper order and name them, and as we proceeded through the lesson, the corresponding card would be highlighted by hanging it a bit higher on the board.  The autistic children appreciated having the structure of the lesson made visible, and others could see just where we were and what they could expect next.  As an aside, I was a “traveling” teacher, often teaching six to eight lessons a day in as many classrooms, and so this tactic also helped me keep track of where I was in each lesson.

Whatever we do, however, let’s remember three things: keep it simple, keep it clear, and keep it positive!

happy-new-school-year.jpeg

 

scaffolding the online task: step by step

computerboy

One of the joys of the digital age is allowing children to work on the computer, playing games and doing web quests to further their language development.  Computer games allow children to work at their own level, and computers never tire of the endless repetition of drilling certain grammar patterns, something I cannot say of myself.  We often boast about how children are “so much more at home” with computer usage and how they just “pick it up so easily”.  Just as often, however, we teachers are faced with children who do not just “pick it up” and need step-by-step instruction on how to use a certain computer game or navigate a web quest successfully.  In our well-filled classrooms and even better-filled time, it would seem quite impossible to give these children the guidance they need.

During a course I once followed in order to become a Dalton-certified teacher, I learned about a wonderful solution to this conundrum: the how-to sheet.  A how-to sheet is, simply put, a means of scaffolding children’s work.  It provides a step-by-step guide of how to complete a task, complete with simple instructions and illustrations.  The goal of using these how-to sheets is to allow children to work independently on multi-step tasks or games with a minimum of extra effort from the teacher.

how-to-backpack

A sample of a step-by-step guide of how to navigate the cd-rom for Backpack 3, the textbook I once used for teaching.

The first few sheets took the most time, as I figured out what format was the most useful, and what illustrations the most helpful.  Eventually, I started making how-to sheets for all sorts of things, from computer games to language tasks, so that children could work independently on a range of activities during the lessons.  The first couple of times, the children needed some instruction: how did these how-to sheets work?  Once they figured that part out, they happily worked on their own, and all I had to do was make sure they did their work well and give them feedback once in a while.

how-to-game-4

A sample step-by-step of how to play a language game

The initial work of making these guides paid off: children could work independently, and my hands were kept free for the work of interacting with the children through the new language.

Here is a step-by-step instruction on how to make one of these sheets:

  1. Look at the activity through the eyes of the child.  What is his starting point?  That is step 1.
  2. Go through each step of the activity.  Every time the screen changes, or every new step in the game, take a picture or make a screen shot.  Crop the picture as needed.
  3. Number the steps, and give a short explanation for each one.  Use language the children can easily understand.
  4. Insert the pictures next to the directions.  I have found that using a table is an easy way to accomplish this.  Anchor the picture as a character, and it will stay in the table where you put it.
  5. Where needed, add an arrow to point out exactly where the child needs to click.  Or, insert thought and speech bubbles to illustrate thinking or speaking.
  6. Show children how the step-by-step plan works, so they can refer to it themselves, and refer back to it should they have questions.

Scaffolding towards independence takes on many forms, and this is only one of them.

But for now, the summer holiday calls, and so I shall take a short time off before resuming this blog.  Happy summer holidays, everyone!