Policy planning part 2, rounding off and moving on

Two of the last parts of an English program that we need to look at is how children’s learning is assessed, and how their progress is monitored.

“Assessment” and “monitoring” are, of course, two distinct processes.  I’ve written about “assessment” before, in my blog entries “Testing, testing” and “Testing, continued“.  In these entries, I described my experiences with and thoughts about the Reynell and Anglia tests, and explained the child-friendly form of assessment I had developed over the course of years.  I’ve also written about “monitoring” in my blog entry entitled “ESL and the long-term plan.”  In short, I see monitoring as a way of keeping track of student progress over a period of time, whereas assessment is a series of measurements that form the basis for monitoring and further planning.

Now to turn our attention to the policy plan at hand, and to have a think about the following questions regarding assessment within the English program:

  • How are students at your school assessed?
  • What kinds of tests are used?
  • Do these tests match with the objectives laid out at the start?
  • Do the tests match the sort of skills that are taught during the lessons?
  • Do the tests fit with your school’s vision on education?
  • Are these tests used on a regular basis, or just sporadically?
  • What is done with the results of these tests?

Clearly, the above list questions is hardly exhaustive, but is simply a good place to start.  You may find that other questions are needed give a more accurate picture of the situation in your own school.

Talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

After that, look at the process of monitoring.  As we noted before, proper monitoring, together with long-term planning is key to achieving the ambitions as defined by your school.  Think about these questions:

  • Is there a system for monitoring at your school?
  • Are people aware of this monitoring system?
  • Does this monitoring system function well for everyone involved?
  • Is it used as a basis for further planning?

Again, talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

As you work, remember to describe the situation as it is now, but also to paint a clear picture of where the program needs to go, as viewed by those involved.  It’s really important that everyone has some voice in naming their ideas about how to improve the program.  After all, the more people feel responsible for the improvement of the program, the more likely this policy plan will succeed.

Remember to employ techniques of open discourse when talking about the English program.  One of my own favorite techniques for creating an open dialogue is called the “Socrative dialogue”.  In a really tiny nutshell, a Socrative dialogue means the words “Yes, but…” are strictly forbidden.  Besides that, only open questions are allowed, and new questions must relate to the given response.  Here is a link with some examples of questions that fit this manner of dialogue.

Below is a video with a short explanation of how the Socrative dialogue works:


Once you’ve gone through all of these steps, you’ll be ready for the next step of writing a policy plan: making a step-by-step plan of action.


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:


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?


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.


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?


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.


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!


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!


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?

The road to recovery

Yesterday, I started out by going for my morning run.  After that, I started sanding down my kitchen walls for a much-needed paint job.  My son showed up however, reminding me that I’d promised to go geocaching with him.  One of my favorite hobbies – how could I possibly have forgotten!  So I packed in my painting gear and off we went on a 30 kilometer bike ride, picking up a few geocaches on the way.  After we got home, I resumed painting the kitchen.

Somewhere during the bike ride back, I realized I was actually quite tired.  Hardly unusual for me, after years of burnout recovery.  This time, however, there was a change in my feelings towards my tiredness.  I was tired, yes, my legs ached and my feet were begging for a rest, but I wasn’t afraid.  For those who have never experienced a burnout, this may seem strange.  After all, what’s there to be afraid of, if one is just a bit tired?  After my burnout manifested itself, however, I found myself measuring everything I did in terms of energy output.  Everything I did – climb the stairs to the laundry room, walk to the store for a bit of shopping, make a phone call, all of it cost me precious energy.  For years, I’ve had to weigh everything in to see if I could afford the energy it cost.  The question I had to answer, time and again, was “will this be the thing that sends me back to the ground zero of my energy?  How much will this put me back?  How much time will I need to recover?”  And now, here I was, on a bike, without having weighed it in ahead of time.  I had energy to spend on time with my child.  I wasn’t afraid, but could even enjoy the feeling of tiredness.  That realization was liberating.

I was one of the lucky ones.  Many people who have gone through burnout also fall into some form of depression.  As I have opened up to people around me about my own experience, I find more and more who have gone through this experience.  Countless times, their recovery was paired with use of an anti-depressant, and for some, they remained dependent on their medicine for years afterwards.  I was different, however.  Once I was able to accept my lot and allowed myself to fall into the burnout, I maintained my confidence that my body and mind, though tired, were built soundly and healthily, and they would get me through this experience at their own tempo.  I just needed to trust myself.

Falling into the burnout was crucial to my being able to move forward.  I remember once, watching my son fall off the coffee table he’d just climbed onto.  As I sucked my breath in in apprehension, he reacted to my reaction, stiffening in mid-air and hitting the ground far harder than he otherwise would have had he remained relaxed.  I remembered this lesson as I fell into the burnout, reminding myself that a relaxed fall would save me painful bones and bruises later on.

Another part of my recovery was the realization that burnout, in and of itself, is not a failure.  Not in the sense of being a failure, at least.  What it is, is a failure to realize that crucial limits have been approached, or that these have been crossed.  In failing to notice these limits, it is also a failure to take steps that might help avoid hitting the point of no return.   Burnouts can be avoided.  In order to do, however, people need to know what burnout is.  How it can be spotted, and how it can be avoided, are also important bits of information that need to be spread and taken seriously.

First off, let’s talk about factors that contribute to a burnout.  There are two sets of factors: internal and external factors.  Very often, people attribute burnouts to the internal factors, ignoring the external factors that also play a very real contributing role.  Internal factors that play a role in burnouts and their prevention include emotional intelligence, personality, and people’s perception of how much their work meets their expectations.  It’s quite easy for employers to focus on these issues, calling work-related stress “experienced stress.”  In other words, the stress that one experiences, which can differ from person to person.  Experienced stress is entirely between the ears of the employee, which means the employer is unable to do a single thing about it.  I remember sitting across from the well-meaning psychologist, who spoke with me about my mother before recommending me a book about how to adjust my emotional attitudes towards my work.  I was confused, since I had applied every single trick in that book for years, and still there I was, burnt-out and too tired to protest.

External factors, however, also play a role.  For me, for instance, I remember when the school days suddenly started a quarter hour earlier.  For me, that meant I had to get out the door a half hour earlier to catch the train, so I was suddenly short two hours sleep every week.  Every month, that was an entire night of sleep I lost.  Of course, I tried to catch up, but with two little ones to care for, there wasn’t much catching up I could do at the weekends.  Later, the times were adjusted again, and I lost yet another hour of sleep every single week.  My school days started at 7:30 in the morning, and I worked without a single break until 3:15 every afternoon, going from class to class, carrying my books and supplies to every lesson.  It was simply physically exhausting.  I remember being asked to supply teach on the days we were short too many teachers due to sickness, and I happily complied as this meant I would have the luxury of getting to sit down during snack time with a 30-minute lunch break in-between.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that teaching, is, in fact, a very demanding job.  It’s very rewarding, of course!  But do let’s be honest: being in a classroom with dozens of very different children, teaching them the stuff of life, dealing with their various physical, emotional, and intellectual needs all of the time is simply very demanding.  Talks with parents who may (or may not be) supportive, the demanding principal, and the total lack of support in the media means that when teachers need to have a groan, they are often met with blank looks of non-understanding.  They do, after all, get weeks of paid vacation?  And they can go home when the bell rings, can’t they?  Long-retired teachers show the least understanding of all, not realizing the changes that the world of education has undergone since their retirement, in their ignorance undermining any attempts to better the situation at hand by discrediting the teachers’ voices.  So the teachers grin and bear it, exhausting themselves because no one really understands and of course, they are strong.  They are determined.  And they will carry on, because their class needs them to.

Earlier this year, Sander Dekker, the Undersecretary for the Ministry of Education went to great lengths to gather information about work-related stress.  Twitter, Facebook, and his own blog page were inundated by teachers begging for reinstatement of the caretakers and teacher assistants who for years had been responsible for a lot of the smaller tasks like repairing material, copying, reading to children and allowing teachers toilet breaks, until they’d been fired due to budget cuts.  Teachers asking for a much-needed salary raise after the freeze they’d been forced to accept five years before.  Teachers asking for extra assistants to help deal with the special needs children they were no longer allowed to send off to special education as part of a new inclusionary reform.  Teachers, basically, explaining that they just needed to be valued, in very concrete ways.  After gathering thousands of contributions from teachers from every layer of education, from all around the country, his response was astounding.  Sorry, the Ministry of Education was not responsible for the working conditions of its employees.  That was something that only school boards could deal with, one school at a time.  Teachers felt seriously taken, instead of taken seriously.  This was not the kind of message that was going to stimulate the changes so direly needed to stop the spiral of burnout currently taking place in education today.  Instead, the Undersecretary took the very safe road that nearly every other employer has done so far, calling “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard – and therefore not my problem) and placing the problem… elsewhere.

If we are ever to take the growing problem of burnout in the world of education, it’s time for us to call “YIMBY” (Yes, In My Back Yard).  We need to realize that educators are more than happy to go to bat for our kids every single day, often working through hell or high water, but that we need to back them up 100%.  We need to take them seriously when we give them extra responsibilities, instead of shrugging our shoulders and expecting them to figure out how to make everything work out.  We need to give them extra pairs of qualified hands in the classroom, so they can actually meet all of the demands being made of them.  And we need to value our teachers, every single day, in concrete, real ways.  Stop the lip service, and give them time, space, and trust.

The big bad wolf of ESL: grammar


As a child, I remember outlining sentence after sentence in a hopeless mess of adjective phrases and adverbial clauses, finding myself placing words on random lines in the hope of maybe, just maybe, getting this one sentence correctly dissected.  At the same time, I remember believing that to dissect a sentence was to commit an injustice, taking the balanced beauty and meaning out of its wholeness by cutting it up into bits.  It wasn’t until my last year at the university when I learned about a whole new way of describing the sentence structure, using a structure more like trees – or roots of trees, depending on how one looks at the picture.


Suddenly, phrases and sentence structures became logically interconnected.  The inner balance of each sentence remained intact as I explored the finesses of phrases, clauses, and verb tenses.  And just for fun, I even took another grammar course to follow up.  Here is where I learned the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar, in a manner of speaking, is first the rules, then the language.  Descriptive grammar works the other way around: first the language, then the rules.  To put it bluntly, if a native speaker of a language applies a certain structure to his sentences when speaking, then it’s correct, according to the linguist.  According to the grammarian, grammar is meant to teach “correct” language use, hence the jungle of grammatical rules often found in textbooks meant to teach people proper English.

When I start a new English course for teachers, I ask them what they remember about their own English lessons.  They often come up with one of two things: conjugating irregular verbs, or the nightmarish grammar, both of which they hated.  Fortunately, the method of teaching we focus on at my teacher college is the “Communicative approach”, a.k.a. the “Functional notional approach“.  The students still have to learn grammar, and learn how to teach it, but we focus on it differently: implicitly instead of explicitly.

With the functional notional approach, children are given example after example of how to use given vocabulary in a certain sentence structure.  An easy example might be: I walk to school.  I bike to school.  I fly to school.  (for that last example, the grammatical structure is correct even if the sentence isn’t entirely truthful)  With this series of examples, children learn to apply the simple present tense in a short sentence and will soon figure out how to say “I …. to school”, using verbs of their own choosing.

A more complicated example might be “On Wednesday, we have maths.” or “On Tuesday, we have gym.”  In this case, the child is learning to talk about when they have various subjects.  Once this sample structure has been learned, it won’t be long before the child can extrapolate this sentence to say things like “On Saturday, I play football” and the like.

The basis of the Functional notional approach is the concept of functions and notions.  Functions are language tasks, examples of things we might have to say in order to get things done.  Notions are concrete examples of how we might fulfill those functions. Notions can be further divided into fixed notions and variable notions.

For example, a function might be “order something at a restaurant.”  A sample notion might be “Excuse me, I’d like to order a pizza / some chips / a bowl of soup.”  Or easier: “I want pizza / chips / soup.”  The choice of notion depends, of course, on the level of the learners and what they can realistically handle.  The pizza, chips, and soup, are examples of variable notions because they are interchangeable within the sentence.  The rest of the sentence (e.g. “I’d like to order…”, “I want…”) is the fixed notion, and therein lies the implicit grammatical structure the learners are to figure out.

Is “I’d like to order…” always a fixed notion?  Of course not!  Each language lesson focuses on a given grammatical structure that is chosen based on the vocabulary being taught.  Vocabulary and grammar are interlinked.  This is most easily seen when learning about prepositions, as words such as “in, on, under, towards” only have meaning in relation to the nouns contained within its phrase (in the box, on the table, under the chair, towards the exit), but it just as true for many other parts of language.

By embedding the grammar into the way vocabulary is used, pupils learn to “feel” when a sentence is correct.  They learn to understand the rules of grammar even when they cannot explain them, but apply them instead without thinking.

Do pupils have to learn grammar?  By all means, yes!  BUT… do they have to learn it explicitly, and prescriptively?  I don’t think so.  Pupils have a natural way of picking up grammar and are perfectly capable of creating their own understanding of a language, given enough input.

Screencasts… the instruction of the future?

Last week, I learned about a new tool for long-distance instruction: screencasts.  Actually, I don’t do any long-distance instruction, yet.  But I do give certain instructions time and again, and to avoid getting into the rut of (yawn) repetition, I decided to give this new tool a whirl.


I started by searching for free, easily downloadable software that would be compatible with my computer.  A quick search through wikipedia (screencast software) brought me to Grabilla’s doorstep.  I don’t consider myself to be terribly ict-skilled, but I managed to download the program and give it a try.  After serveral botched attempts, I figured it out.  My day was made!

After that, I had to think of something I could make a screencast about.  Having spent hours and hours of my life making pretty much every mistake possible using Windows movie maker, I decided to make an informative screencast about “how to make a movie”.  Here is the final draft… and it “only” took two hours to make.

Of course, it’s got the regular glitches and issues, but for a first-time screencast, I can safely say I’m quite pleased with the result.

My next question is, of course, how can I apply this new technology in a useful fashion to my own teaching?  What do you think?