Author: amyklipp

An American in Holland, experienced grade school ESL teacher happy to share her experiences with others. I currently teach English to Dutch student teachers at a local teachers' college.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

We are under the tables!

chairs-58475_640

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!

 

Walk-n-talk revisited: the adult learner

woodsToday I’m going to write you a story about a discovery I made during a lesson for which only three students showed up.  (Do you have that problem?  Writing lessons for students who don’t show up?  I hope not.)  Anyway, it was warm, we were tired, and half of my activities were no longer useable, needing more than four people to make them work.  So there I sat, wondering what to do.

I decided to change things around: it was lovely weather, so I decided to go outside.  We put our bags into my locker, and off we went to the park just behind my school.  As we walked, we talked in English about all sorts of stuff.  At first, the students thought it was funny to speak to each other in English, but within minutes they got into the swing of things, talking about their everyday lives.

As we walked, I moved from student to student, asking questions, providing new words, and correcting verb tenses as needed.  We talked about work, school, student teaching, living on their own, plans for the weekend.  Every story provided new opportunities for learning as students discovered the words they needed to express themselves.  We walked between the trees, crossed a tree-trunk bridge, discovered a geocache, and explored a local neighborhood garden, all of which provided opportunities for practice as we connected these new experiences to others in our past.

While the students walked, they relaxed.  As they relaxed, they practiced more and more English.  And as they practiced, they made verbal forays into areas of English they’d never yet attempted.  I gave them words and encouragement, giving them space to experience success.  This succes allowed their self-confidence to grow, allowing them in turn to learn more and make more progress than I had ever dared hope.

I’ve adopted this form of work into my regular teaching, making time for a short “walk-n-talk” while the rest of the class works on its own.  Even in the space of fifteen minutes, students develop a certain fluency that I couldn’t hope to achieve in the regular lesson.  Those who wish, may join me for a kilometer or two, and those who don’t, are free to tackle the other tasks I assigned.  Afterward, I check back with the entire class: what did we learn?  Which task worked well, and which didn’t?  In that way, everyone is allowed a certain amount of choice, while being responsible to actively participate in the lesson.

What do you do in order to help your students learn?

Rubrics: a basis for qualitative feedback

Rubric-1

This is one of those things I wished I’d learned about years ago, because it would have made my own life as a teacher so much easier.  I’ve learned about them now, however, so I’m shouting my joy from the rooftops.  Hurray for rubrics!

What is a rubric, one might ask.  A rubric is a means of giving detailed, qualitative feedback to students regarding a given product.  It contains concrete descriptions of the criteria for a well-completed product.

There are different sorts of rubrics.  I’ll explain two sorts of rubrics, using generic sample rubrics I wrote for this purpose.  The first one is a criterion-referenced rubric, and the second one lists success critera for different levels of ability.  I wrote these rubrics for a group project in which the children had to create posters demontrating what they’d learned during the last unit of learning.  They were to use the new words they’d learned in correct sentences.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ve omitted criteria for layout and presentation.  I’ve only included the very basic criteria of content, language, and process.

The first example here shows a criterion-referenced rubric of the sort most people might use.   For teachers, this is an easy form of marking, since the standard for the work remains the same, no matter the ability level of the child.  Also, the criteria for success are clearly described, so all children can know ahead of time what he needs to do in order to pass the assignment.  Another positive aspect is that children get differentiated feedback per criteria heading.  On the downside, it’s perfectly possible for a child to fail the given assignment, as the criteria for success are of the one-size-fits-all variety.  There is no way to allow for differences of ability when using this sort of rubric.Rubric01

That problem can be solved by using a different setup.  The example shown below demonstrates a way to differentiate feedback per ability level.  For instance, if you work in a classroom with a broad difference in language ability, then it might be nice to set up the assessment so everyone has the chance to succeed.  At the same time, this rubric also allows you to set up minimum success criteria per ability group that are just above the actual level of the children so that each child is pushed towards a higher level of ability.  This is called differentiating in output.

In this case, the children should know ahead of time what group they belong to, and they understand that they each have a choice: to succeed at his own level, or to work towards success at a higher level.  The term minimum success criteria is critical here: children should reach the minimum level indicated, but may also choose to work towards a higher level.  Sometimes, if a child needs, he may choose to work at a lower level, but that is a pedagogical decision that you and that child can discuss.  In this rubric, the indicators for ‘process’ are the same for all children, since it would be reasonable to expect all children to work on their social development irregardless of their language development.

Rubric2

Rubric for differentiating in output.  Note that success criteria for the ‘process’ are the same for all children, regardless of ability level.

Of course, no matter what kind of assessment format you use, it’s important that children be aware of the criteria for success so they know what they need to work toward.  As a teacher, I post my rubrics on their electronic bulletin board at school, so students know what they can expect.  It helps them focus their work and gives them the space to make informed decisions when it comes to their own learning.  It also means they have no surprises when they get their grades back, which makes a big difference for everyone involved.

For more information on the use of minimum success criteria and rubrics, feel free to have a look at this site: http://www.assessmentforlearning.edu.au/professional_learning/modules/success_criteria_and_rubrics/success_criteria_landing_page.html

What other topics would you like to see covered on this blog?  Please let me know!

Exploratory action research: improving teacher practice

 

Every year, I guide my students through the process of conducting a small research project.  For them, it’s often the first time they’ve done anything of the sort, so it’s really important that my students understand the importance of learning not only how, but also why they need to learn how to do this.  After all, it’s not always evident why future teachers also need to be able to conduct experiments.

I start by introducing my students to a few articles from “Champion Teachers: stories of exploratory action research“.  My students read stories about experienced teachers who take the time to explore their own practice of teaching.  The teachers in this booklet each follow the same general process: they think about a situation in their teaching that they’d like to work on, and formulate a question they want to work on or a problem they’d like to explore.  They then go through the steps of collecting some basic data, for instance through observation, before moving on to make a plan of action.  Then, they carry out their plan of action, again observing and collecting data as they go.  Does the new idea work out?  If so, why?  Or otherwise, why not?  They think about what their findings will mean for their practice in the future, and then share their findings with others.  Research done in this way, remains formal enough to insure fairly reliable results, while making it informal enough that everyone can join in, with research questions relevant to the daily practice.  It gives educators a simple set of tools to structure their thinking and acting so that they can easily improve their teaching.

While reading the articles in this booklet, my students soon discover that teachers are never “done” with training and improving their practice as educators.  They also learn that research doesn’t have to be a big deal.  It can be a little deal, too.  What’s important is the underlying formalized, structured thinking that defines the difference between research and randomized efforts at self-improvement.  This sort of thinking can be learned, and that’s what I focus on when working with my students as future teacher practitioners.

One way I help my own students in formulating their thoughts about their research project is to employ an adaptation of “Shark Tank“, a reality television program in which entrepreneurs pitch their idea to investors in the hope of taking their product to the next level.  In my adaptation, the students work in small groups.  Each student presents his research project to the group.  The various members of the group then ask critical, open questions meant to help the student refine his plan and make his research question concrete.  After each student has presented his plan and answered all the questions, the group decides which plan was the best by awarding them “money” with which that plan can be carried out.  The winning plans are then presented to the entire class.  Plans that gain the least amount of “money” are presented to me so we can work on improving that plan one-on-one.

This form of co-operative learning was well-received by the students in my class.  Not only did it help everyone get their thoughts organized on this otherwise very daunting project, but they also learned to listen carefully to each other and ask thoughtful, open, yet critical questions in order to help each other.  It also helped create a feeling of connection between the students, as they support each other in their individual quests for development.  And that, in my view, is a very good thing.


For further reading on exploratory action research, a link to the booklet: “Champion Teachers: Stories of exploratory action research

To learn more about the “Champion Teachers” in general, please feel free to follow this link: https://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/continuing-professional-development/cpd-teacher-trainers/champion-teachers-stories-exploratory-action-research

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/action-research?utm_source=twitter-google%2B&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=bc-teachingenglish