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!

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scaffolding the online task: step by step

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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!

 

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

Update: Can-do descriptors of language development

One of the questions I often wrestled with as a starting teacher was how to build a logical and developmentally sound curriculum.  I’ve written a blog about it before, but return to this topic as I have since found new descriptors for language development that I thought would be interesting to share.

One set of new documents that I’ve found is a series of grade-leveled booklets in which various levels of language development are described for speaking, listening, reading and writing.  An example of one such chart is shown here:

wida_can_do_1-2_rwAs you can see, these descriptors are still quite general, allowing the teacher to decide what vocabulary to teach in order to help their learners develop towards the next level.

Here, I’ve included links to the booklets with descriptors that the WIDA  (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) developed.

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 booklet1-2

 booklet3-5

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Besides this, WIDA also provides ready-made Can-do descriptor name charts, so teachers can fill in the names of their own children at the appropriate level, thus creating an overview of language goals to work towards.  I’ve included links to these ready-made name lists here:

Key Use Can Dos Kindergarten

Key Use Can Dos Gr 1

Key Use Can Dos Gr 2-3

Key Use Can Dos Gr 4-5

Key Use Can Dos Gr 6-8

actfl-logo-2011Some teachers may find it a bit daunting, however, to deal with these general descriptors.  Is it possible to connect these descriptors with more concrete language behaviors?  The answer is: yes.  The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has put together just such a list of concrete language behaviors in their booklet “Can-do statements: Performance indicators for language learners” (2015)

In this booklet, one finds checklists of behaviors such as “I can say hello and goodbye,” or “I can ask who, what, when, and where questions.”  This booklet is meant to be a self-assessment checklist, but can just as easily be used by teachers to assess their learners and decide what benchmark their learners have achieved.  Besides this, the language skills are divided up into five categories: conversing (interacting), presenting (speaking), listening, reading, and writing.  These categories correspond with the five categories employed by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), making it easier for teachers in Europe to use this document in their own work.

Moreover, the ACTFL has collaborated with sixteen language organizations around the world to define “world-readiness standards” for learning languages, and aligned their own benchmark levels with those of the CEFR.  This alignment makes it easier for teachers around the world to use these documents in informing their own teaching.

So now my question remains, what do other teachers use in designing their curricula?  What checklists, language level descriptors, or other standards do you use?  Please let me know!

Important update to this blog entry: I have recently had my Digital Record of Pupil Progress (DRoPP) program updated.  I have re-written it to include the descriptors from the ACTFL booklet, and the levels are divided up into A0 (pre-A1), A1, A2, and B1 levels for the five language skills areas: listening, presenting, conversing, reading, and writing.  I am including the booklet of instruction here so you can look it through.

How-DRoPP-works

If you are interested in a trial use of DRoPP, please contact me here:

 


Links to the ACTFL documents cited:

https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Can-Do_Statements_2015.pdf

https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/publications/standards/World-ReadinessStandardsforLearningLanguages.pdf

https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/reports/Assigning_CEFR_Ratings_To_ACTFL_Assessments.pdf

 

Deaf and Multilingual

deaf-and-multilingual

Available for purchase from http://www.lulu.com/shop/judith-mole/deaf-and-multilingual/paperback/product-3327972.html

A couple of years ago, I found myself confronted with something I’d never met up with before: a student who was hard-of-hearing, who needed to learn about teaching English as a foreign language.  I spoke with her translator, and soon found out that during my lessons the translator would be working in three languages simultaneously: English, Dutch, and Dutch Sign Language.  I determined to find out more about dealing with this student and her needs so that I might be able to support her in her journey through the world of teacher education.

Once started on this journey, I found a whole new world of communication I had never really thought about before, and made some interesting discoveries.  For instance, something that had never occurred to me before was the fact that sign language and spoken language are two separate languages.  Children who use spoken and sign language are actually bilingual.  Also, sign language differs from language to language (even between British and American English), complete with dialectal differences.  What an amazing discovery!

I searched the internet, and soon found the book pictured above: Deaf and Multilingual, an informative book written by authors with first-hand experience in the field.  It is a very practical guide for teaching a foreign language to deaf or the hard-of-hearing, and can be ordered via this site.  I ordered it and the minute it arrived, settled on my sofa with a cup of tea for what I hoped would be a useful read.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

The book starts by describing why deaf and hard-of-hearing learners might want to learn foreign languages.  Apparently, since communication with the “hearing world” in the mother tongue is often quite difficult, many make the assumption that teaching these learners foreign languages would be a waste of time.  However, these people have just as much a need to learn how to communicate as those who can hear, and foreign language learning helps meet that need.  There are, however, very real issues that these people have to deal with, and teachers can help meet those needs.

For instance, learners cannot just “lip-read” a new language, since the new sounds are created using unfamiliar lip patterns that need to be learned.  Also, they need to be able to see what they need to hear.  Every time the teacher turns to the board to write something down, the deaf learner can no longer see the teacher’s face, and so the communication comes to an abrupt halt.  Also, in classrooms where “smart boards” are in use, it is common practice to turn off the classroom lights so that the board is easier to see.  For the learner, the result is that the teacher’s face, again, becomes hard to see, making understanding that much more difficult.

Then there’s the challenge of divided attention.  Since these learners take everything in visually, they cannot read a handout and listen to the teacher at the same time.  They  have to choose what to do at that moment – read the handout or look at (listen to) the teacher in turns.

Taking part in group discussions is also quite the challenge for these learners, since it’s not always clear who is talking, and by the time they’ve located the speaker, they’ve already missed part of what was said.

There are simple things teachers can do to support these learners.   Here is a short list of things that can be easily implemented:

  1. Face the learner when speaking.  Speak clearly, but don’t exaggerate the sounds.  When writing on the board, stop talking.
  2. Allow for reaction time.  When giving directions, leave some time in between the various steps, as background noise (such as opening books) can make it more difficult for the hard-of-hearing to hear the instructions.
  3. Use visual support such as power points, posters, and handouts.  Make certain to allow time for reading these before carrying on with instruction.
  4. Make sure there is sufficient lighting.
  5. Cue the learner by pointing at the speaker during question-and-answer sessions or other group conversations.  This way, the learner can follow the communication easier.
  6. During group projects, allow the learner to work in pairs or in smaller group.

There are other things teachers can do as well, such as allowing the learner a copy of the teacher’s notes ahead of time, along with a detailed syllabus, so that the learner can come to class well-prepared for the lesson.

This book was an eye-opener for me, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one with questions about how to best support the hard-of-hearing or deaf learner in the English lessons.   However, it’s important to find ways to allow all learners to participate in an increasingly globalist society, now more than ever, and this book is a good step in the right direction.

 

 

 

The ZPD, not just for kids

the-zone-of-proximal-development

How many of us have learned about the Zone of Proximal Developent (the ZPD) when learning how to teach our young learners?  I’ve written about this in earlier blog posts, in relation to how we teachers can best decide on what material to teach our young learners.  However, as a college teacher, I’m realizing more and more that the ZPD is just as applicable to our older learners.  For instance, I spend a good part of my lessons convincing my students that they don’t really have to follow the English textbook (in Dutch fittingly called the “method”) when they teach their classes. In fact, I often encourage them to write lessons of their own, based on the interests and language level of their classes.  The game of Minecraft, Disney’s Frozen, dinosaurs, it’s all fair play in the world of ESL as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve gotten used to the incredulous reactions of my students when I tell them to “try it, they’ll like it,” feeling every bit the Sam I Am in Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.  “Will you try this here or there?” I ask, and slowly but surely the students start to catch on to the excitement of trying out something they’ve never done before.  When needed, I scaffold their learning by giving ideas, working them out and providing search terms.  I encourage them to play, experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and most importantly to try again.  I remind them of the rule of three: the first time one tries anything new, it’s a mess as the children struggle to learn the content and the new game at the same time.  The second time, the children have a better idea of how the game works, and the third time, the children know the way of the road and can concentrate on the content.

As stud3f26d2d4355d1d01edc2769a921a276dents start to navigate the roads of experimenting and teaching, they start to grow in confidence, and I follow along, ready to encourage them to move into the next zone of development, be that CLIL, using children’s literature in the lessons, or incorporating yet another new game into their teaching.

For myself, I realize that the ZPD is an ongoing development.  Not just for the young learners, and not just for my students, but also for me, an experienced ESL teacher.  New levels of development continue to reveal themselves to me a step at a time as I develop in my own teaching.  I keep that in mind while coaching my students, remembering that learning new things requires learners to let something else go.  They need to make a leap of faith, and I need to be there to catch them.  That’s what learning is all about: letting go, making that jump, trusting that one will be caught before the landing goes wrong.  It’s about making space for a certain amount of play: practicing something “for pretend,” before having to go out there and do it “for real.”   Sometimes, it’s a bit of a trick, getting students to understand the parallel between the lessons they follow and the lessons they teach, but on occassion I see one of them light up and I know they “get” it and how they can apply that learning in their own teaching.

It’s a humbling realization, I think, that we’re all learners, with our own ZPD to move into from time to time.  May we never stop growing and learning!