(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).
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) :
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.
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!