In the flow

Water

[photo credit Nathan Hall, eltpics, Water]

A very small thing has prompted me to write again. It was a speaking task, an incredibly simple speaking task that  I hadn’t expected to take off as it did.

It was the first class with a small group.  We were getting to know each other,  reactivating rusty speaking and listening skills for some, picking up where they’d recently left off for others. We’d been talking as a whole class about what each student was hoping to get from the course, the last course they’d taken, the B2 certificates they’d all got over the last year, year and a half.  The conversation was drying up, it was the end of a long day, it was hot, everyone was tired and gazes were straying even in such a small group.  It was time to break things up, and rather than be at the centre and orchestrating the conversation, I wanted the students to turn away from me and take a little bit more control.  I also wanted to be able to sit back and really listen.   So I asked them to talk to a partner and find out five things they had in common (as I said a very simple task), but with the proviso that it couldn’t be anything to do with teaching (they’re all teachers) or language learning (as we’d pretty much been through all that).

They very happily turned to each other, moved their chairs, repositioned themselves around the desks to maximise eye contact and immediately started chatting.  They were soon deep in conversation, leaning in towards each other, listening attentively, genuinely interested in asking questions, in expanding on topics, in chiming in on each other’s stories.  And they were also actively involved in scaffolding each other’s English, finishing each other’s sentences, exploring alternative expressions, congratulating each other on getting their ideas across. It was so good to be part of that, to listen in and follow them as they struggled and then succeeded, being able to confirm their triumphs as they were celebrated.

They were small triumphs, but greeted with smiles just the same. Here’s a simple example.  Two of the students were talking about doing sport, they both did different sports, but both tried to do them as often as they could. One student wanted to say that she couldn’t always find the time, but that she did her favourite sport  “all days when I can ….  every days that I can …  no,  every day I can …. Yes, every day I can. ”  Her partner smiled and said, “yes, yes, that’s it, every day I can, me too!”  In that moment they were building the language together, they were invested in getting it right, in expressing the idea in the best way possible.  But they weren’t only interested in the language, they were also interested in each other,  in helping each other, and in the experience they were sharing.  I nodded my agreement, and without barely a pause, they were back in the flow.

Recently I’d been revisiting the idea of flow, of getting so completely lost in a task, absorbed and focused, that you give it all your attention, all your concentration and lose all track of time.  The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihályi suggested in 1990 that flow was the key happiness , but it has also been suggested that it could be part of the answer to successful language learning.  This idea intrigues me and struck a chord in the middle of that task.

Going back to our class, the task continued for another four or five minutes, both pairs absorbed in their conversations,  then slowly the energy and the pace dwindled and it was time to come back together to compare results and reflect.  After reporting back on the five things they had in common, I asked them to reflect on any moments they could remember where they’d struggled to say what they wanted to say, but eventually got there.  The pair remembered the phrase “every day I can” and we discussed also using the expression “whenever I can” that they repeated and made a note of.  With some examples, they needed a little prompting,  I repeated their hand gestures or facial expressions as they had searched for words, or offered the L1 version of what they’d been trying to say.  An interesting thing was that  when they did remember, what they remembered was the final expression or wording they’d decided on and not the steps to get there.

In future classes I’d like to experiment with asking them to make a note of their successes as they happen to see if we can retrace the steps and capture those learning moment, though I really hope it won’t break the flow!

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  Harper & Row.

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (2004) , Flow, the secret to happiness  TED https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow

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Processing the exam

listen Lambda_X

listen by lambda_X on flickr

The class I’m teaching at the moment is a mixed teenage and adult class, and all the students are hoping at some time over the next year to take the Cambridge FCE exam. At the moment one of the things we’re focusing on is demystifying the Listening paper. It’s the one the students feel least confident about, partly from a sense of lack of control.  With all the other papers, even the Speaking to some extent, they can control the pace, they can pause, take time to think, repair if necessary.  In the Listening paper they feel that they’re at the mercy of the audio.

In the last two classes we’ve been looking at part 1 where the students listen to short, unrelated extracts and answer one multiple-choice question for each.  Last week we listened to people talking about situations associated with extreme emotions. In preparation for the listening task we’d looked at adjectives that would appear in the extracts (I’ve written in a little bit more detail about that class here)  and as homework I asked them to think about a short anecdote they could share in the next class to illustrate one of the emotions.

This class are not great at doing their homework, and this time was no exception, but while we brainstormed the adjectives from the last lesson, they mustered some ideas and I divided the class into two groups to tell each other their stories and identify the adjectives being illustrated.  This didn’t quite go to plan. They found it really hard to tell the story without using the adjectives, but as my underlying aim (to activate and access some personal anecdotes) had been achieved, we quickly moved on to the next stage.

Basically what I wanted the students to do was to write a listening question for their classmates.  This entailed writing out one of their stories as an audioscript, roughly the same length as the scripts they’d studied the lesson before, and writing a multiple choice question to accompany it.   In the previous class we’d used the scripts from the teacher’s book not only to confirm the correct answers to the question (which are conveniently underlined) but also to identify the distractors that are carefully planted in each extract.  For example, for one story the students had to choose how the person was feeling; anxious, angry or relieved.  In the audio the words worried and furious were both used (and we had already seen these as synonyms for anxious and angry)  but the correct answer was relieved.   We looked at how distractors were embedded in each of the extracts and how they related to the questions.

Originally I had planned to stage the task with the students first working together to write out one of the anecdotes, and then explaining how they were going to use it as the basis for a listening task.  But when it came to it that extra step, which I had thought of as offering extra scaffolding, just didn’t seem necessary and, in fact, felt counter-productive.   So I laid out my hidden agenda, referred the students back to the audioscripts and questions from the previous lesson and left them to it.

It was interesting how the two groups reacted differently. One group set about immediately writing up their anecdote within the word/time limit given, working hard together on being succinct, but still building up the tension that the story needed. There was a lot of negotiation going on and huge attention being paid to form as well as meaning, a lot of prompting and self and peer-correction.   The other group were thinking about the questions from the outset, thinking about how they could trick/challenge their classmates, and structuring their anecdote to accommodate the distractors.  They weren’t as focused on accuracy or expressing the emotion of the situation, but rather on making the question as difficult to answer as possible.   In fact they chose to write three questions, not just one, and needed a little encouragement to go back and redraft their script.

Exam audioscripts, as we know, are highly scripted and carefully crafted to challenge the candidates, and I wanted my students to work in the same way.  So when it came to the next step, recording the anecdote in an audio file, I was quite happy for them to read from their scripts.  The freer speaking practice had come at the beginning of the lesson, their task now was to read their scripts at a natural pace, with natural intonation, but still to make sure they were clear and audible.  This linked back nicely to the focus on “voice” and intelligibility from the previous class.

To make the recordings, I asked them to use the video function on their smartphones.  I’ve found that, on the whole, students are happier using their cameras than their voice recorders. Often students don’t even know they have voice recorders, they’ve never used them, they don’t know where or how to access the files and often the sound quality is poor.  With the video recorders it all seems much easier somehow.  For this task I asked one student to point the camera at the question/s, while another read out the script.

We use the video recording function a lot in our classes and the students are used to the pitfalls, one being that having more than one group recording at the same time can really affect the quality of the sound.  Luckily we have a long, quiet corridor outside the classroom with some chairs and a table, so one group volunteered to leave the room to make their recording while the other stayed in the class.  When we don’t have this luxury,  the groups have to huddle in different corners of the class and use their bodies to shield the mics.

The second group came back into the room just as the first was checking their sound quality, which was a lovely added bonus of synchronicity, and they swapped phones with no prompting and sat down in separate corners to complete their listening task.  Both groups needed to listen to each other’s recordings twice, and both puzzled a little over the questions before answering them correctly.  There was a lovely moment when they all looked up from their tasks with smiles on their faces.

I don’t know if it’ll have helped them process this task any better,  but I do know that  they worked really intensively on processing language forms and making their messages as clear as possible, in writing their anecdotes, in structuring their questions, in making the recordings.  And that, I think, along with the satisfaction they felt at a job well done, does have a knock-on effect on learning and on confidence.

Posted in exams, lesson ideas, live listening, pronunciation, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Attention breeds attention

unsplash attention

Nature by Linas Ikanevicius on Unsplash

This is a very short observation of a very small phenomenon, nothing new or ground-breaking, but something I wanted to explore.  I’ve noticed it a couple of times recently in my current class of mixed teens and adults.

The first example was in a class when we were focusing on adjectives describing emotions prior to listening to a FCE exam question.  The lexis came from the coursebook, the activity we’d been doing was pretty standard, categorising by negative and positive emotions, and we were checking the answers on the board.  I’d heard some typical slips during the categorisation stage:  confusion over the stress pattern in content, hesitation over the pronunciation of the “I” in delighted.  At the board I asked for the positive adjectives in alphabetical order, the first being content. I wrote it on the board, twice, with “adjective” above one, and “noun” above the other. I asked them how to pronounce the adjective and got a couple of correct answers and a lot of nodding.  We focused on both words in isolation and in context, then moved on to delighted, again hesitation, some stumbling over the “i” sound and -ed ending.  We broke it down into syllables.  There was some discussion whether the word “light” was the root and if that had any bearing on the meaning.  It doesn’t by the way, but it makes a good hook for the pronunciation. There was some discussion about the -ed ending and when it constitutes an extra syllable, which later helped with the pronunciation of frightened.  This stage in the lesson probably took about five minutes.

We moved on to a short discussion activity where the students discussed what made them feel content/delighted/frightened etc in preparation for similar short discussions in the exam listening task.  What I noticed was the added attention all the students were paying to their pronunciation, and not only to the words we’d focused on, but on their “voice” in general.  There were far fewer “Spanish” sounds (e.g. the “e” before an initial sp/st sound – Espanish, esport) . They really seemed to be paying more attention to how they sounded, and it didn’t seem to be slowing down the discussion either.  Stopping a moment, paying attention to one very small aspect of pronunciation had heightened their awareness of pronunciation issues in general, had raised the status, as it were, of their pronunciation.

I noticed a similar phenomenon in a short warmer.  We’d been looking at endangered species and the pros and cons of zoos in the previous class. I’d given all the students as they came in a post-it note with the name of one of the animals we’d been talking about on one side and asked them to write a short definition on the other.  And then very simply each student read out their definitions for the class to guess the animal. Very short, very quick, very simple, really just killing time till everyone had arrived and settled down.  I raised an eyebrow at little slips (it live) and genuine ambiguity (was that eat or it?) and sometimes incomprehension.  The students stepped in to help, peer correct, self-correct, as usual.  It was all pretty low key, no board work, just a nod , possible an echo, and on to the next.  But I noticed that as we moved on the students, once again, were being much more careful with their pronunciation, the initial “es” sounds  disappeared, intonation and stress was clearer, signposting meaning, clarifying ambiguity.  I hadn’t made any explicit correction of pronunciation, but in concentrating on being understood, the students were making adjustments.  Slowing down and paying attention, showing that I was paying attention, caused them to pay attention.   And so attention breeds attention.

 

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Reflecting on reflecting

reflections

[This post was also published on the British Council Teaching English blog. ]

I’m two weeks into a new course with a new class and one of the questions on the BC blog this month got me thinking about how I think about this class – and classes in general.  Reflection is a slippery beast.  It happens in the most inconvenient places and at the most inconvenient times. Washing up, walking the dog, waiting for a bus.  Times and places when I can let thoughts and ideas run through my mind, but there’s nothing to pin them down.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite, but it’s not great if you want to capture and act on your reflections.  And I started to think about how I do that, and how maybe I could do it more efficiently.

My first tool is my mini notebook that I carry around with me most of the time. This is where I jot down lesson plans, reminders for exercises and tasks, questions and doubts.  This isn’t where I reflect as such, but it helps me to reflect.  It helps me to look back at the lesson plan and compare the ideas on paper with what actually went on in class.  It helps me look at the differences between the plan and the reality and think about how and why things worked out differently and whether that was good or bad or just different.  Planning all the lessons for the same class in the same notebook helps when it comes to trying to capture an overview of what we’ve done so far, but also in strengthening links between lessons, planning consolidation and review, building on what has gone before.

My second tool is the lesson summary.  This is a system that I’ve been using for some years with most classes.  Basically we, me and the students, take it in turn to write summaries of the classes and share them with the group by email or on a blog. It takes a bit of time to set up, as do all systems and routines, but I think it’s worth it.  Initially my main aim was to get students to review their classes, to take stock of their learning, to keep personal records of the work they were doing inside and outside class, basically to stop and reflect.  But as a by-product I’ve found they also give me a space for reflecting that’s more structured than the washing up.  Seeing the classes from the students’ point of view is really useful.  Summarising an hour and a half, two hours, of work into a few hundred words is also incredibly useful when it’s  my turn.  It really helps me step back into the class, think about the language and the learning rather than the activities, try to highlight the “teachable/learnable” moments and put those into words.

We often kick off the next class by taking a quick look at the summary from the previous class and giving time for any questions that might have been left unanswered.  This allows for another moment for reflection and helps me see what the students need from me. Which brings me to my third reflection tool:  post-its.  For each class I have a folder, and in the folder I have a stack of post-its.  They usually serve for on-the-hoof micro writing tasks, but they’re also there for me to jot down ideas during the lesson for things to come back to at the end, or in the next lesson, or questions to think about as I plan my next lesson.   I never know at the time where or how that post-it is going to fit in, but it sits there in the folder to jog my memory when I come to reflecting on one class and preparing the next.

postits and notebook

I think I could definitely structure my reflections much more efficiently, and sometimes, when a class poses a particular challenge, then blogging becomes the best tool I know.  Having to think through my thoughts clearly enough to be able to put them into words that I’m willing to make public is the best reflection tool I’ve found.  Laying down action plans and areas for informal classroom research in a blog post helps me stick to them.  It’s a kind of external commitment.  And being able to “talk” through the lesson with an imaginary listener/reader is great.  But it does take time, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. In which case I always have the kitchen sink, my mini notebooks and my stack of post-its.

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Walking the walk?

oxford house palm trees

(the palm trees that framed our conversations in the gardens at Oxford House)

Last weekend I attended the first Innovate Conference at Oxford House in Barcelona.  It was a great experience and one that we all appreciated very much. A big thanks is in order for everybody who was involved in the organisation.  There were all kinds of things that made this conference special; the opening plenaries in the garden on Friday evening, the group breakout rooms which set the tone for sharing and conferring from the very beginning, the abundance of cold water and fresh fruit at all times (might seem superficial but really kept us refreshed during a long, hot, busy Saturday) and, in particular, the chance to take part in and observe classes being taught. And it is this last aspect that I’m going to explore in this post.  The demo classes gave us presenters a chance to put into practice what we usually only get to preach and it was an interesting experience and one I’d like to explore a little further.

As a teacher trainer I teach demo classes and am used to being observed by five or more trainees.  As a teacher at a series of schools that have actively encouraged peer observations I’m used to being observed by all kinds of different teachers.  But this was different.  This was in a conference setting, and I guess I’ve got used to “talking the talk”in conferences, describing and possibly modelling activities and approaches, but not actually getting to “walk the walk”. When the call for proposals came out there were two options, a 30 min talk or a 60 min lesson with students. I’d never had a chance to do that before, conduct a class in front of an audience of peers at a conference and, admittedly with some trepidation, I jumped at the chance.  It’s good to push the boundaries of comfort every now and then!

So this was the set up.  We were in a fairly large classroom. The students’ seats were set out in a shallow horseshoe at the front, and the observers’s seats set out behind them in rows. The brief was to teach for 30 minutes or so and then to conduct some form of feedback, possibly with the observers interacting with the students.   In my case there were 5 students and about 30 observers.   30 mins felt very short to get to know a new group of students, assess their communicative strengths and where they needed support, and demo something that might be worth discussing.   There was a lot to do and this is how it worked out in practice:

1 As the students and observers settled in to the room I shared this link with the observers  in the form of a shortened goo.gl URL.  It gives some background to the lesson and the rationale behind it. The rationale for sharing the link was to save time, and to get down to the class as quickly as possible.

2 I kicked off the lesson and we worked together for about 30-35 minutes. Christina Rebuffet Broadus was one of the observers and she very, very kindly shared her wonderful sketchnotes with me. Thank you so much Christina!  I think they tell the story of the lesson much better than I ever could. (Click on the photo to see the details).

Christina's notes innovate elt

3 Things went pretty smoothly, the students were fantastic, responsive, cooperative, very tech-savvy, which really helped a lot in making the tech “invisible”.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it was great when the observers joined in too.  There’s one moment I’d like to share, also because I think it was a missed opportunity.  A tiny bit of background: we had been exploring an aerial image of a crowded beach, the students had placed themselves in the photo and were writing status updates from the beach.  We shared these on a padlet page. Here’s a screenshot (double click to enlarge) :

on the beach

We looked very quickly, and very superficially, at the language in the updates.  Looking back I wish I’d had the time to let the students read and react to each update with their partner/s. There’s one in particular I love as it’s actually a short story. Can you spot it?  And looking at the language there in the notes, I’d have loved to have time to explore some of the language features of updates in more detail.  For example I’d have liked to look at the use of ellipsis (present in almost all the updates) and discuss how this works in this particular genre of mini text and then gone on to find other status update contexts to recycle our reflections on the language and use what we’d seen.  But that would have taken at least the rest of the hour and there were other things to do!  If you were actually there in the room, observing that class, I’d love to know what you would have done next, how you would have extended the lesson.  And in fact, if you weren’t there too! It’d be great to get some feedback.

4 The next stage was little bit messier. This is what I had planned and shared with the observers in a second google doc using a second tiny URL on a post-it.  Very briefly, I had wanted to give the students and the observers a time to chat, but I’d been expecting a smaller observer to student ratio, so it ended up with a few volunteers interviewing the students, and all the other observers comparing notes.  This however, allowed me time to write a short summary of the lesson so far, which was really the main thing I’d wanted to share ( it’s something I’ve been blogging about a lot).

Here’s a screenshot of the main section of the summary, giving a brief description in narrative form of the work we’d one and the language we’d focused on (in bold).  If you follow this link  you can see the whole summary as it would appear if I were sharing it on a class blog.

innovate summary

I’ve written and spoken about using post lesson summaries quite a lot over the last few years in blog posts and workshops and I’ve often been asked how time-consuming it is, and if it adds to the teaching/planning load.  What I wanted to show here was how quick and easy it can be, and hopefully to counter the fear that using post lesson summaries just makes life harder, whereas in my experience it does the opposite, saving me time in the planning and reflection as we move on to the next lesson and build a record of the course.

5 In the last few minutes of the session I shared a screenshot of a real life class blog where we’d been storing the lesson summaries over the six months of the course in static pages. I talked about the process (Christina has written about this is her sketch notes) and the way the summary also becomes a vehicle for suggesting extra tasks outside the classroom as well as acting as a link to the next lesson which always kicks off with a quick look back and a short Q&A session on any doubts raised.

And that was that.  Would I do recommend it as an experience? Absolutely!  Would I do it again?  Yes, please!  And if you get a chance to participate in the next Innovate ELT conference, take it!

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Denver the guilty dog

Last weekend I was at the TESOL Spain conference in Salamanca. A beautiful city and a great conference, thanks to all the organizers for a warm welcome.

This was one of the activities we looked at in my session on teaching teenagers.  It’s based on a favourite clip in our house, and I noticed that at least one other person in the audience had watched it as many times as me as she could recite the voiceover, word-by-word.  So, here’s introducing Denver, an internet sensation, also known as the number one guilty dog on youtube.

denver

Just showing his photo on a projector brings a smile to the students’ faces.  Some may have seen him before.  They can all identify the emotion on his face.  The gist questions as we go into the first viewing of the clip are:  what has he done wrong?  What does his owner say to him to make him react like this?  You can elicit answers to both if you want, or just go straight into the famous clip which has garnered over 41 million views as I type this.

After watching the clip, we check answers to the two gist questions and then we turn to Denver himself.  What is he thinking?  What would he say if he good talk?  Students write down their ideas in pairs and groups and then watch again and spot where their phrases could fit in with what the owner is saying. Then a second brainstorming session in groups to shape the thoughts or words a little more.  Then there are a lot of possible directions the students can take.  Here are two options:

1 They can choose to speak for Denver, a kind of retro voiceover/commentary by the dog, recalling the experience from his point of view.

2 They can write a dialogue between Denver and his owner.  They can choose to interleave it with the owner’s words on the clip, or replace it with their own words.

Looking at practicalities, the classroom management of the group work will depend on a number of things; wifi connection or not, availability of students’ devices or not, time available, to name a few.

Viewing the clip during the writing stage

If your students can work with their own devices(phones, tablet, laptops, whatever) and you have a good wifi connection, they can watch the clip again in their groups, pausing and rewinding and timing their voiceover as many times as they want.  If not, then you can play the clip again a couple of times for the whole class at three or four minute intervals.

Presenting their work/the final product:

The students can then present their work in various ways.  They can choose to record it on their devices to play in synch with the clip; they can use a web tool like overstream  to add subtitles; they can add their own voiceover using a web tool like Weavly , an easy, accessible, free tool that lets students record their voiceover on sound cloud and add it to the clip.  In all these cases they can watch and listen to each other’s recordings and spot and comment on difference and similarities.  More simply, and just as effectively, they can stand up at the front of the class and read out their scripts as the clip plays with the volume on low. Again, they can comment on each other’s scripts, spotting differences and similarities.

Follow-up

Having worked with Denver and his dilemma, you can choose to explore the topic from a more personal point of view. Guilt, getting caught out, being told off, these are all situations and emotions that teens can relate to. You can brainstorm other relationships; parent/child, teacher/student, team member/coach and the kind of things that might have gone wrong. The students can then take one and write a new dialogue to fit the new context. They can choose to make it personal (the last time I got told off) if they want to, and feel comfortable doing that, or they can choose to play out different roles.

Exploring balance

In the session in Salamanca we discussed the following three balancing acts:

Fun vs challenge

Control vs choice

Structure vs creativity

It might be interesting to look back at the activities I’ve suggested here and see how it measures up in terms of each of these balancing acts.

For an alternative approach to the Denver clip, see Ian James lesson on ViralELT. 

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Into, through and beyond

 This weekend I’m going to be attending the Image Conference in Córdoba.  If you don’t know about The Image Conference, check it out here on the website.   It’s a great initiative and I really enjoyed the first event in Barcelona last year. It felt like a real luxury to be able to dedicate a whole day to exploring, discussing and reflecting on the role of images (still, moving, in class, on the move) in language teaching and learning in general.  Each session brings its own perspective, and each one builds on the other.
sam and bambina
This photo  is one of the many I’ll be sharing in my workshop on Saturday, but more as a totem than anything else!  Here’s a very brief taster of the session.  I’ll be coming back to add more detail (and more images) after the event.
into, through and beyond
In the session I’m going to be exploring the various roles of still images in the classroom by looking close-up at a series of activities and strategies. They will be roughly divided into the three categories of Into, Through and (you’ve guessed it!) Beyond.  We’ll be looking at how images can create contexts, scaffold production, aid retention and recall, support confidence building and a whole host of other things.  But we will also be looking beyond the activities and focusing on the language that emerges and at  how that language is captured, explored, shared and revisited.
If you’re going to be there, I hope we get a chance to meet and chat face-to-face.  If not, you can follow the conference on the facebook page or on twitter #imageconf.    Hoping to see you in one of those three places!
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