Making stories your own

Chris Mares
Chris Mares

By Chris Mares

Many of my students are not regular or passionate readers in their first languages and seldom read for pleasure. By the same token, a lot of my students can “read” in English and yet rarely do so voluntarily, or for pleasure. In most cases, in fact, my students only read in English only when they have to.

This situation is, of course, not uncommon and not a surprise to many of you. The question is, what can we do to engage our students in reading? To this end I would like to report on a pleasing success I have had recently with my students.

I have never met students who do not like a good story that they can relate to. Stories are told in all cultures. They are part of the fabric that binds us together through shared experience and the transmission of values and knowledge.

With the above in mind, I wanted to get my students engaged in listening to stories, then reading them, then ultimately writing their own. And so, the Richard project began, in a class that met four days a week for 50 minutes, entitled “Story Telling.”

As a reader with a life-long interest in writing, I decided I would write my own stories for students – about me, but presented through the eyes of Richard. My thought was to write about things that we can all relate to: the first day at school, making friends, making mistakes, getting to know oneself, having parents and siblings, loss, part-time jobs, etc. I wanted to make them authentic, simple, understandable, and most of all, stories my students could relate to. The stories are around 800 words in length. I use short sentences, direct speech, and try to inject useful language which I then recycle in subsequent stories. I try to craft the stories in the style of “sudden fiction” with a hook, a body, and satisfying ending. I have found that students enjoy the humor and a full range of human emotions, especially those that reveal uncertainty, doubt, love, pleasure, and all the others that make us human.

So far I have used the stories in our regular core program plus two intensive programs, one with Mexican students, the other with Japanese students. I have also had one of my colleagues use the Richard stories with success.

Over time, students began to look forward to the stories and request that they be in them. Consequently, with ongoing groups of students I would write some stories that included them, and incidents we had discussed or that had happened in class. I found that not only were the students eager listeners, they also valued reading aloud, and would voluntarily re-read the stories at home. Another interesting development was that some students in my Personal Writing classes began to write letters to Richard, or write their own Richard-like stories. What I am reporting is anecdotal, but true. Finally, a couple of my students asked me about the University Library as they would like to find books themselves to read, stories, they said, like the Richard stories.

With my Mexican students who were very motivated I developed a worksheet on how to write a Richard story. It worked much better than expected as the students not only wrote wonderful stories but clearly enjoyed reading each other’s. Below is the handout I used in this class.

Writing a Richard story

When I write a Richard story, I first try and think about something that has happened to me in my life that you might find interesting or funny. Usually it’s something that I think you will be able to relate to in some way. For example, your first day at school, making a mistake, falling in love, or making new friends. I find it difficult to write in the first person. For this reason I write in the third person. I like to use direct speech in the stories. I keep the sentences very simple and often quite short.

I chose the name Richard because it seems very English to me and doesn’t have any particular associations. It isn’t the name of any of my friends or relatives, for example.

It normally takes me about 45 minutes to write a Richard story. It might take you a little longer.

The Process

  1. Think of a particular time in your life.
  2. Think of something fun or interesting that happened to you at that time.
  3. Note down the names of the other people who will be in your story.
  4. Choose a name for yourself.
  5. Think of a title.
  6. Get writing.

Giving it a try

Like many things in life, it takes a bit of time and practice. If you find it hard to begin (get going)… Just write. Start with the name of your character. Visualize him or her. Have a picture in your mind. Where is he or she? What is he or she wearing/thinking/doing? etc.

 

It is possible to get students engaged in stories and interested in reading. The stories need to be accessible linguistically and culturally and have a universal appeal. They also need to be short enough to be read in one class including the time available for schema-raising, which is to say, getting the students hungry for the story.

If you are interested in reading a short selection of Richard stories, please email me at siff.mares@hotmail.com and I will send some to you.

Error Correction: An Overview

Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

The term “error correction” is problematical as the word “error” has a negative connotation, when, in fact, “errors” are a necessary part of learning and language acquisition process. Without testing hypotheses and getting meaningful feedback on “errors”, learners would not be able to master language.

However, teachers need to provide meaningful and constructive feedback at appropriate times. Naturally the issues to consider are firstly, what constitutes meaningful feedback, secondly, how we give it constructively, and thirdly, when is an appropriate time.

Knowing about languages helps

I often get asked if a teacher needs to speak the students’ first language in order to teach them. I say, “No,” but it helps. More importantly, it is helpful to know about the students’ first language. If you know something about Japanese, you will know that articles and prepositions will be an issue. If you know something about Chinese, you will know that verb tenses will be an issue. And if you know something about Spanish, you will know that word order will be an issue in general and sentence length will be an issue in the written form.

General points

Two general points to consider are whether “correction” is necessary at a particular time and whether it will achieve anything. Consider the adage “telling is not teaching”. Telling a student that she has made an error does not necessarily result in a benefit for the learner. However, training students to notice their own language will help them. It’s worth remembering that students don’t need to focus on all the errors they make and correcting all errors will be demoralizing and counterproductive.

In small classes

In small classes it is reasonable to give regular feedback to both spoken and written errors, and to have a sense of who knows what and who needs what. The trick is to maintain the pace of the lesson and the energy of the class while providing useful feedback to all learners.

In large classes

In large classes it is difficult to provide meaningful, regular, and individual feedback to either spoken or written output. However, it is possible to monitor the class as a whole, look for common errors, and give feedback in a more general sense at strategic points in the class, or in review sessions.

Feedback on spoken errors

Echoing works. For example, a student makes an error such as, “Yesterday, I go shopping,” and the teacher simply echoes the preferred response, “went”. Over time and with regular echoing, students will begin to notice and correct their own errors. The teacher must be principled in terms of deciding what items to echo. This will depend on the level of the student and the type of error being made. If the error is minor and doesn’t impinge on the clarity of the message, then consider ignoring it. However, if the error leads to a lack of clarity in the message or the teacher regards it as significant, then that would be the time to echo.

Feedback on written errors

I recently attended a presentation by a young Saudi teacher on burning the midnight oil. I very much enjoyed it and whole-heartedly agreed. Essentially the message was – don’t burn the midnight oil. You don’t have to. Correcting all errors in a piece of writing will achieve little except demoralize the student. Focus on particular types of error only. Vary the focus. If the assignment is a long one, focus on one error type for the whole assignment and then choose three lines, highlight them, and correct all the errors. This will give students a snapshot of the type of errors they make and have made throughout the assignment.

Final thoughts

Students need feedback and students need correction. However, they don’t need all errors to be corrected all the time. The art of teaching includes deciding which errors to correct, when and how to correct them.

Individual learners need feedback that is particular to their own learning curve, while groups of learners need feedback that is relevant to the group as a whole.

Learning when to give feedback and how best to give it takes time. Observe yourself. Reflect. Ask yourself what you choose to correct, when, and why. Over time you will arrive at a framework that works best for you in the context you teach.

Observing

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Chris Mares
Chris Mares
By Chris Mares

The thought of “being observed” has struck fear into the hearts of many a teacher, including myself. It is often associated with being assessed for some purpose or other, whether it be for a qualification or a performance review. Naturally, when this happens, teachers are more likely to find themselves focused more on the act of being observed than the act of teaching. This is unfortunate and counter-productive. I know, I’ve been there. Initially then, and like many of my peers, I didn’t like being observed and I was unable to teach in a way that was natural for me, at least in my very early years.

I am now in a different place and my experiences as a teacher, mentor, trainer, peer teacher, mentee, and on-going learner have lead me to believe that there are many benefits to be gleaned from observing and being observed. More than that, I believe in an open door policy by which interested peers, trainees, or those simply interested in teaching and learning can pop in. Under certain conditions, of course.

Why observe? 

Teaching is both an art and a skill and as such teachers need to see the act of teaching being carried out in order to fully learn how to do it. When we observe others teach, we not only get ideas for classroom activities and learn new techniques, we also develop a sense of what we do ourselves and where our strengths and weaknesses lie. Thus, in one sense, we observe in order to learn and to hone our craft. However, we can also observe peers in order to offer support and feedback. This, when done constructively, not only provides useful information for the observed teacher, it also helps strengthen professional ties and creates an atmosphere of trust and support.

I believe teachers should be observed primarily to get constructive feedback on what they do in the classroom. However, this is not the only reason. Sometimes fellow teachers who are taking over a class or substituting for a class will benefit from observing a class they will teach in the future. This is also something that students notice and appreciate.

Who should you observe? 

The greater the variety of teachers you observe, the more you learn. If you only observe teachers you like or who are similar to you in some way, then your learning will be limited. If you observe teachers who you know to be different from you, then you may see things done differently and in a way you didn’t previously consider but might find useful. If you are easy-going in the classroom, then it would be interesting to observe someone with firm classroom management skills. We learn not only from what we see but also from reflecting on how we teach ourselves as a reaction to observing others. Try to observe both new teachers and seasoned veterans.

By the same token, the more you are observed by different types of teachers or personality types, the more varied and potentially useful feedback you will get.

What to observe 

There are many ways to observe, from the holistic and impressionistic to the very specific. You can observe simply to get a sense of a particular class or to see how a teacher deals with error correction, or classroom management. That said, it is crucial to remember that there is a lot that you cannot observe, for example, what happened in the previous class, or what will happen subsequently. A lot of the art of teaching is not observable as a snapshot, but occurs over time, such as the feeling of trust that can develop between a teacher and student.

 How to observe 

There are different ways to observe and it is worth experimenting with them. One way is to simply sit and watch the class without taking notes. Another way is to use a rubric that focuses on a particular aspect of teaching such as “teacher action”, “student action”, i.e. what the teacher does and says and what the students do. If a rubric is too complex, however, it becomes difficult to both observe and to make notes.

The bottom line 

For me, being observed is more a norm than an exception. It is something I am used to and something my students are used to. I feel a classroom should be a welcoming place and one in which anyone should feel comfortable. The people who observe my classes include potential students, potential teachers, fellow teachers, peer committee members, and interested community members. I have welcomed them all but I do insist on meeting them to discuss their intentions and to offer some explanation of what I do in class and why. This is important. Teaching is an ongoing and complex business, involving the establishing of protocols and relationships. This takes time. A one off observation cannot possibly capture this and a single snapshot can be misleading. This is something that both teachers and those observing need to understand.

An end note 

I will repeat the fact that I didn’t initially like being observed because, as a novice teacher, I felt vulnerable and insecure. I wasn’t sure of what I was doing and I didn’t relish the idea of being judged or criticized. At the same time, I had no experience of observing so I was unaware of the tremendous benefits of observation.

I am sure the feelings I had are common and not ones to be ashamed of. However, I now value the act of observing and being observed. I have learnt a great deal from observing others and have also benefited from the feedback I have received from being observed.

Many years ago, when I did my Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA at International House in London, I remember being observed by the excellent Ruth Gairns. The first time she observed me she had a yellow legal pad on her lap. I glanced down at it before I was about to begin my class and saw that she had written, “Good Points.”

I’ve never forgotten that, for good reason.

The Unwinding Teacher

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Chris Mares
Chris Mares
by Chris Mares

Teaching is demanding for many different reasons. Any of us could quickly make a list of what it is in teaching that can tire or drain us, from the mundane to the serious. For example, the preparation, the teaching itself, the grading, the paperwork, the administrative duties, and the many side issues. All of these responsibilities over the course of time will sap us of our zest and spark and eventually we will burn out. For this reason, we must be preemptive and build effective unwinding into our lives. This is not an option. It must be done so that we have more energy, more enthusiasm, and are able to teach more effectively for longer.

I get tremendous pleasure from working with students and from teaching which is why I am still doing it after more than thirty-five years. Perhaps one of the reasons I still get such satisfaction is that early on I discovered the importance of unwinding. In my case this means recharging my batteries and getting rid of my baggage.

The google online dictionary offers some pleasant synonyms for unwinding: relax, loosen up, ease up/off, slow down, de-stress, unbend, rest, put one’s feet up, sit back, take it easy, take a load off. It also includes one of my students’ favorite weekend activities, “to chill”.

No one would disagree with the definition of “to unwind”, i.e. to relax, or the various synonyms listed above. However, for us, the beleaguered teachers, something more strategic and intentional is required.

First, let’s consider the goal of unwinding. Clearly, it is to empty our minds and bodies of all the accumulated stress we are carrying. Ideally this would recharge us so that when we return to teaching we are both engaged and excited by the prospect.

Second, let’s consider the different constructive ways we can unwind. As teachers, we vary tremendously in terms of our dispositions, lifestyles, habits, and tastes. As a result, we won’t all unwind in the same way. A dog walk in the woods might work for me but not for you. Some teachers enjoy watching TV while others prefer to read.

Another factor we need to consider is that we are all at different stages of our lives with different responsibilities but what connects us is that we all teach and we all need to unwind. What you do to unwind when you are young and single may be very different from someone who is older, or in a longstanding relationship, or with children.

Given the above, let’s get practical. There are many ways to unwind. Some you can do at your desk or at work, others you would do elsewhere.

You could simply focus on your breathing, take a shower, slump on a couch, run 5km, stretch, practice yoga, take up a new interest, renew an old interest, develop a new skill, join a club or group, cook more, read more, journal, blog, etc.

The important point is to make “unwinding” an intentional and regular part of your life whether at home or at work, or both. The first step is to think about your daily routine and to ask yourself if you unwind enough and if you feel you don’t, ask yourself how you reasonably could. Whatever it is, set yourself a reasonable goal, something you know you can realistically achieve, then monitor yourself over time and see if you are able to achieve your goal and whether it makes a difference.

Unwinding doesn’t always have to be done in the same way. It simply has to be done. You could decide to bake on Sundays and after four Sundays you might be done. That’s fine. Try something else.

The last point is that unwinding is something personal. How you do it is up to you. As John Lennon says, “Whatever gets you through the night it’s alright, it’s alright.”

Reflective Practice 

Chris MaresBy Chris Mares

‘Reflective Practice’ is a familiar term to many teachers.  It has a positive connotation and intuitively seems like a good thing to do. But what is it really, and how do you do it in order to become a better teacher?  These are both interesting and important questions.

The first point is that reflection is more than simply thinking.  There needs to be a critical, analytic quality to the process and the results of any meaningful reflection need to be articulated thoroughly.  More precisely, reflection needs to be ongoing, purposeful, rigorous, and systematic. It also needs to have an outcome that informs our teaching.

Like all skills, ‘reflective practice’ takes time and organization.  I will suggest an approach that will model how reflective practice can be done.  This approach should be seen as an example only as there are other ways that would be equally valid.

The Premise

The premise underlying reflective practice is that you are prepared to take an ongoing systematic look at what you do as a teacher, you are prepared to critique yourself honestly, and that you are prepared to modify or change what you do and how you do it in order to be a more effective teacher.  For this to be a productive experience, you have to want to do it and not be afraid to confront aspects of yourself and what you do that might at times be unsettling.

For the sake of this post let’s simply assume that all teachers want to be better teachers.

Focus 

One strategy is to focus your reflection on a particular aspect of your teaching, for example, how you deal with student errors, how you give instructions, how you approach grammar, or how you raise schema.  An accompanying requirement is to develop a list of rigorous questions that will take you to the core of what you are focusing on.  All teachers are familiar with the visceral responses, “that went well” or “that didn’t quite go according to plan.”  These are acknowledgements of what appeared to happen rather than critical reflection.  Rigorous questions are ones such as, “Did I raise student schema before the activity?”, “Were my instructions clear and effective?”, “Did the students achieve the goal I had set for them?”  These questions provide you with useful and focused answers about what happened.  Essentially, they will result in data that can inform your teaching.  Leaving a classroom with a feeling that the students had fun or that they seemed bored does nothing to explain what happened or whether your goals were achieved.  On the other hand, principled reflection does.

Record 

Asking rigorous questions that get to the root of both your teaching and your students’ engagement and achievement is just the beginning of the process.  The next stage is the recording of these reflections.  I like to keep a journal in my bag which I use for making notes about what I have done in class.  I also use it to make quick reflective notes that I later type up and store electronically.  The process of writing by hand and then typing both allows for the possibility of refining and building on the initial thoughts you had when you began your reflections.

Review and Implement  

Having gone through the process of teaching, reflecting, and then writing up your reflections, it is necessary to review what you have written.  Over time you will begin to notice patterns and detect preferences.  Sometimes you will learn from what you have written specifically.  At other times you will learn from what you have not included.  For example, if you notice a sameness in your teaching, you will learn that you don’t often experiment with new techniques or activities.

Reflective practice when carried out thoroughly is an excellent way to get an accurate sense of what you actually do in your classes, not just what you think you do.  It also allows you to see patterns and possibilities, and to learn about your teaching style and activity preferences.

Conclusion 

Reflective practice requires meaningful disciplined reflection over time.  In this way it becomes a practice. If approached positively and with purpose, it also becomes a means of exploring your own threshold for honesty and self-examination.

And, as we all know, a life is only meaningful if it is examined.