Category Archives: teaching

My textbook doesn’t work

Having spent half the weekend in Tokyo for JALTCALL 2007, and after spending too much time preparing in previous weeks, I decided to cut out the fancy stuff, and just go by the book for once: just follow the instructions in the teacher’s manual. Would you like to know how it went?

I knew you would! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

The book I’m using was chosen for me, and is pictured above (see more details on the Longman website): Powerbase Elementary.

Keep books closed. Hold up a newspaper/magazine and point to a job advert. Say what is it? Try to elicit advert or advertisement in L1 or in English. Say It’s a job advert.

Open books. Ask students around the class Are you a accountant? etc, and elicit replies.

Oops. Didn’t read this instruction in time to prepare. I didn’t have a newspaper or magazine (stopped reading them years ago, so I didn’t have one handy in my bag). I skipped this part and just told them “these are adverts. These are job adverts.” Pretty ingenious, eh? I also skipped the part about asking them “are you an accountant?” because all the students in the class are university students, they all know each other, and so they can all answer “no” to any question I ask them; they know it’s pointless and they’ll just look at me like, “what…… are you doing?” Moving on.

Focus attention on the adverts. Ask students to read them quickly and fill the gaps with the jobs in the box.

Walking around the class, I noticed hardly anyone doing this. Did they not understand? Thinking this might be the case, I went around pointing to the jobs highlighted in yellow which are supposed to be used for this exercise, and showed them where on the actual job adverts they were supposed to write their answers. Nobody seemed thrilled, but they (oh! so slooowwwwly) got into gear and started reading and writing. No collaboration, no talking. You could hear a pin drop. I put on some background music. A couple of guys were already asleep (this is the last period in the day). I walk briskly around the room, jollying them along, but asking myself “what’s the point?”

By now, some have quickly finished the exercise, while others have just started, and yet others are doing nothing at all except possibly waiting to be told the answers. (This is a teacher’s exercise, so sooner or later teacher will check the answers aloud with the class; they can just wait till then and write down the answers. Saves time and brain “wear and tear”.)

Already feeling disheartened, I plough on:

Ask students to read the job adverts again, then ask check questions such as What is Trevor Gibbons’s telephone number? Where do they want a piano teacher?

This is toe-curlingly slow. Nobody answers. I have to stand in front of someone or call their name, then wait up to 30 seconds or even longer while they figure out that I’m asking them a question, that it has something to do with the text in front of them, that they are going to have to actually read the text to get the answers, and is it really worth the effort? Meanwhile, I’m aware that most of the rest of the class have tuned out because I’m asking a particular student. I belatedly realize I should have added another activity: read the friendly text. Again. After a couple of questions, I abandon this activity, and move on. They don’t read the text. They only read the text, when they hear a question regarding it has been directed at them. Then they hold the whole class up while they stare at the text trying to figure out where in it the answer lies.

The next activity requires them to match (write) verbs with nouns, such as “send” + “an email”, or “make” + “arrangements”. I walk around the room, but most students have already finished the exercise, while (again) some haven’t even started. Do I make the quick ones wait and insist that the slow ones complete the exercise (some students don’t even have the textbook; I’ve lent my copy out already)? Or do I abandon the slow ones and move right along? I decide to abandon the slow ones.

Now it’s listening time. There are 2 conversations on the CD which refer to two of the jobs listed in the adverts. Which ones? I make a meal of the explanation, to make sure everyone gets what the activity is, where to write the answers, etc. I play the CD. I just let it run, and, remembering that up to now I’ve kind of been flogging a dead horse, I decide not to replay it, but ask students what they think the answers are right after stopping the CD at the end of the 2nd conversation. The first student I pick looks at me with an expression that tells me she hasn’t got a clue, and may not even understand what it is I’m asking her. This time, perhaps, I should have gone more slowly… I long for the days when I did drama, and barely used a textbook at all…

To be fair, it’s not entirely the textbook’s fault, nor the students’: some are not interested in English at all, but others genuinely want to try speaking it. Some of the fault is mine, for not properly preparing and anticipating some of these problems in advance (I’ve worked here long enough, I should know by now. And I did! I just wanted to try just following the teacher’s manual for once, instead of spending hours creating my own version of the text and the teacher’s book, because that just takes too much of my time).

But they want to talk to the foreigner, me, not their partners. Talking to one’s Japanese partner in English is so weird and unnatural that they do it as little as possible. They are not really interested in learning to use the bricks and mortar or the language, they just want a genuine opportunity to speak it, and they want to say and hear something fun, funny, cool, or all three. What would go down well with this group is a scene from a popular movie, which they read out or maybe act out with appropriate gestures and movements.

There is a major mismatch between the students’ wants on the one hand, and the curriculum that has been prepared for them on the other. The textbook is well put together, based on some sound pedagogical principles, but it fails to grab the students’ attention or imagination: they’re not interested in learning grammar or practising discrete grammatical or lexical items. They just want to talk. I need to come up with something fast. Maybe some role plays with role cards? There are far too few conversations in this textbook, conversations that students could use as models (not just for listening exercises) to base their own creative efforts on.

In an earlier class, I had had students practise three different conversations, then perform them for me in pairs or threes. This went rather better than the last class of the day, the one I described above: altho I was not “teaching” for most of the class, students were practising their conversations in English for much of the time (some downtime while they waited for their turn to perform for me, inevitably), and enjoyed the interaction with me, some hamming it up (including pretending to be completely clueless and unrehearsed, simply in order to spend more time getting my attention and annoying the groups waiting for their turn).

Teaching vocab

(Photo by seaworthy on Flickr).

I’m looking for vocab teaching activities. I really don’t have time to make many materials, so I’m looking for stuff that’s already out there.

I’ve insisted my students buy word-cards. I show them how I want them to use them, in class. I’m going to set a target for them of 20 new words per week, starting after the holiday (called Golden Week). I’ve been giving them breakdowns of the textbook units we’re using (using VocabProfiler), showing them how the vocab breaks down into K-1, K-2, AWL and “OFF-LIST” types. We’ve covered some basic vocab info, so they now realize it makes sense to learn the most frequently used words first. They still only vaguely realize what this has to do with them (“doesn’t the textbook, or the teacher choose those words for us?”).

In class, I have them pick 20 words they don’t know or are not sure of from the textbook, focussing on the first 1,000 most frequently used words (they have a copy of the VocabProfiler analysis in front of them). Using an example from the textbook, I point out how “new words” can (and should) include new meaning for words they already know. As several words that came up recently included words now used in Japanese, I pointed out that the meaning in Japanese of such words usually uses only one of several meanings of the original English word, and sometimes changes to a new meaning altogether, and therefore they should beware of “false friends”.

I found this system called SAFMEDS useful for using word-cards.

Slicing teaching

I didn’t think a great deal at first about Dan Meyer’s idea of teaching being an art/science that can be sliced into very (infinitesimally thin) slices, but as time went by I found myself using the concept more and more.
Here’s one thin slice that immediately helped me understand what Dan was on about:

In my first year, I realized I often phrased my instructions as questions, tossing out weak mandates like “Would you guys please get down to work now?” because I wanted to be liked. I worked at balancing kindness and firmness (“I need you guys to work quietly now.”) so that we could work and learn more.

After reading Other People’s Children, I reflected on the possible differences between Japanese pedagogical rhetoric (teacher-talk) and that of a white, Western, middle-class male. I reflected on this some more when a colleague returned me a short piece of Japanese I’d written and which he’d proof-read for me, saying, “Use the short form of the verb, not the long form. It makes you sound kinda feminine.” Hmmm. So I started implement that change in my teacher-talk right away. It seems to be working. At least, I notice when I lapse and don’t use it, I get these looks like “Does he seriously expect us to do this?” When I use it, there’s no debate.

Another “slice” is telling students at the outset of each class exactly what that session’s objective is. I did this last semester. I haven’t done it this semester yet. It’s easy for me to dream up good ideas like this; it’s harder to gather the data to then assess whether it’s a strategy worth keeping or not. Would a strategy like this translate into actual immediately measurable results? I didn’t gather any data (other than the usual semi-annual student evaluations which were no worse and no better than previous years), which in turn did not inspire me to continue this practice.

I’ll have to re-think my lesson plan so that it includes more regular assessments of teaching/learning objectives. The only trouble is… that’s hard work! (Damn!).

Dictionary training

I adapted Rob Waring’s paper “How to get your students to use their dictionaries effectively” (OUP, 2001) and created a worksheet for my university EFL students to help them become more familiar with the various functions and uses (and limitations) of their dictionary.

Rob Waring stresses that it is best if all students have the same dictionary when you give them this kind of dictionary training. These days, tho, almost every student has one of several types of electronic dictionary, so getting everyone to buy or use the same type is unrealistic.

It takes about 40 minutes to work through the worksheet, though your mileage may vary.

With just a little editing, it could be used as-is for EFL students other than Japanese.

Class records and filing

Over the years I’ve used several different ways of keeping track of exactly what the students and I did in class, but I have yet to be completely satisfied with any one system.

I have used hanging files to keep the loose-leaf handouts and student homework, but what about extra copies of handouts that I need to keep for the inevitable few who were absent that day and will (guaranteed) ask me for the handout the following class?

I also want a good system for keeping a record of what we did and what handouts/materials were used in each class. The best I found was a 1-page template that listed what we did, my comments and notes (on how the activities went down, high-points, low points, problems, etc), what handouts I used, what background music I used (so I don’t use the same 2 weeks running).

I think the reason I didn’t stick with it was simply that I didn’t match it with a satisfactory complementary system of keeping all the handouts and extra pieces of paper that go with each class. I usually end up throwing everything into one file for that class, but it quickly becomes unwieldy. I also keep my attendance sheets in that file.

Anyone want to share a system that works for them? I’ll post the template I mentioned above, when I can figure out where it is.

Teaching vocab

I’m trying to figure out how to best teach vocab to my uni students.
I’ve been playing with the Vocab profiler, and have input the first unit of all the textbooks I’m using, and separated out the 1k words, the 2K, the AWL ones, and the off-list.

I also want to give some basic dictionary training, adapting Rob Waring’s suggestions. I think that should cover me for tomorrow, he-he-he.
I’m also going to give them Nation’s 1K vocab level test, and another one next week. Most students know about 1,500 – 2,000 words I would say, but their knowledge is spotty, and needs reviewing.
I don’t just want to focus on reviewing the top 2,000, tho, I want to move on to AWL, particularly in the fields my students are majoring in (Economics, Informatics, Engineering).

Just because I have them, I want to assign Rob Waring’s receptive test AND productive test. Well, it would be a more accurate measure (for me) AND it would, ok, might, bring home the point that there is a difference between the two, and which one to focus on is more a matter of personal goals than course requirements (is it realistic to require students to master 5,000 words of productive vocab when they and I both know they are highly unlikely to ever need English in their lives ever again after graduating?).

At my present rate, I’ll be doing dictionary training and vocab testing on the top 1,000 words for the next 3 months….
I’m getting lost in the forest.

Plagued by students plagiarising?

I’ve been using Snagit, a Windows program that takes screenshots including grabs of scrolling windows, and they send me a newsletter every now and then. Today’s a link to a website that allows you to input some (student-written) text and see if it’s been plagiarised or not. I’ve no idea how it works, or if it’s reliable, but am just passing on the info.

Three times while I taught English composition at the college level, I failed students for plagiarism.

They were heading that way … they hadn’t turned in the rough drafts for points, they waited until the last minute to turn in anything at all, and the writing styles were dramatically different than anything they’d previously done.

Technology helps with this too – I used Google – but there’s also, which detects online plagiarism. It searches through 120,000 student papers a day to find copiers. (You can learn more about it here.)

Powered by ScribeFire.

The Education Debate

Dan Meyer posted a thoughtful piece after watching Freedom Writers, an(other) inspirational school movie. I’m unable to post comments on Dan’s blog for some reason, so I’m posting my comment here.

Quick update: IMDB offers quotes from the movie, including this:

Andre: It’s the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb.
Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz.
Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?

The dumb class.

a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with JD Hirsch’s push for a unified curriculum, “What every child should know” etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours “hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning”. Not that I don’t believe in those approaches; it’s just that it’s easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.

That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is described in Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)

Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians – people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth – and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring ? sadly ? is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.

And on which “side” should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?

It’s not black or white, and it’s not a 2-sided issue, “caring vs professionalism”. It’s a lot more involved and complex than that.

Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. The Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn’t believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?

(I only know that it’s corrosive … on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis…to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane…. no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn’t martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)

Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how “our” approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn’t believe any of that shit and he couldn’t have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.

I’m not a big fan of the “inspiring teacher” film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a “system” that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.

(Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals [would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?], the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the “student-centred, project-based, free expression” approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)

Finally, here’s a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you’re still here, thanks for reading:

Every now and then, I go to some event — I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor — and essentially ask people why they’re there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets…
So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.

(My emphasis).

(Related comment on Borderland)

Leaderless classes -idea versus reality

Borderland posted his response to a current meme on leadership. The leadership meme doesn’t interest me but this caught my eye:

This is all good in theory, but classrooms don’t often work like this. In the classroom I’d like to be more supportive and less directive (Who wouldn’t!), but those groups are rare. These aphorisms represent little bits and pieces of an ideal.

Not too long ago I realized that my aim in the classroom was to uncover and encourage genuine learning. This is my personal goal, over and above the syllabus and curriculum. The realization was brought on by the usual crap students ask you: “How many times can I be absent (and still pass the course)? How many words do we have to write? How many times have I been absent? Do we have to write in English?”, etc., etc. The whines and wiles of people trained in “doing school” as opposed to genuinely learning anything useful.

OK, fine, nice ideal. But then I have to face the questions that inevitably come up: if children are naturally curious (I have four of my own, but if you don’t have children, or don’t believe this, read John Holt), then what happens to that curiosity and desire to learn in school? And what is or might be stifling that curiosity and promoting this interfering utilitarianism instead?

It was reading JD Hirsch that reminded me, or pointed out to me, an obvious, if unwelcome, truth:
teaching or tutoring an individual child is very different from teaching a class of 20 (or 30 or 40 or 50). It’s one thing to understand how human beings learn, but quite another to create a practical, workable curriculum and syllabus for a class of 20 boisterous youngsters. As Gatto points out, it is well known that the tutorial is the best (most effective) teaching method. But how can you have tutorials in a class of 30? It’s not impossible, but…

My point is that unfortunately but inevitably, management becomes a large and urgent issue.

It’s grading season here in Japan. Lots of papers, some with names missing, some with dates missing (which assignment is this supposed to be?), some names written in kanji,
which I can sometimes read, but not always which means I then have to identify the student via their student number. You get the idea.

No doubt I’m getting crustier as I get older, less patient, but these kinds of minor irritations make me resolve to be much tougher next semester, even if it has little to do with “nurturing genuine learning”:

  1. Any assignment or email without a name in Roman characters gets tossed
  2. Any assignment without a date gets tossed

Borderland’s quote of the I Ching reminded me of something I came across a while back and would love to explore more (although it’s highly unlikely to be of any practical use to me in my teaching situation here in a collectivist society): leaderless teams.

This reminds me of an interesting post Aaron Campbell wrote recently about writing for an audience or to create community. I’m still thinking about that one, too.