Rewinding & Unwinding

blog090816

Dave Dodgson
Dave Dodgson
by David Dodgson

“But you only teach six lessons a day and you have a guaranteed summer holiday…”

Ah, the common misconception that being a teacher is somehow an “easy” job!

We all know the truth, however. We know that those six hours in the classroom are intense, full hours; we know that those six hours are supported by more hours of planning and preparing; we know that those six hours are followed by marking and reviewing; and we know that those “guaranteed” weekends and holidays often include training and development.

We devote ourselves to the task regardless. We take it all on for the benefit of our students, coming in early and/or taking work home when necessary. For dedicated teachers, it can be difficult to let go.

But we have to let go sometimes… Work too hard for too long and the energy and enthusiasm needed to help ourselves and our students develop starts to wane. Maintaining that interest in development while also finding time to relax can be a tricky balance, so in this post I will share things I do at work and away from it to avoid burning out.

At work – Time to rewind

As mentioned above, a teacher’s day can be a busy one and we are often as keen as the students to head on home once the last lesson has finished. I worked for many years in a school that let teachers do just that but I often found that once I was home, my head was still full of thoughts about the classes I had taught and ideas for the next day’s lessons. It was then easy to fall into the trap of taking work home and, although I was physically at home, mentally I was still at work.

In my next job, the system was different. Teachers were required to stay behind after the final class for an extra hour. My initial reaction was that this was a terrible idea but I soon realised the benefits. For me, it was not so much the intended time to plan for the next day that had a positive impact but rather the chance to sit down and rewind – think about the day’s lessons, what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what I could do differently next time.

Now I find myself a few months into another job where once again we are free to go as soon as class is over. However, I find that I still stay in the teacher’s room for a while longer to reflect on the day and clear my head. How? Well, there are two main ways I go about this:

  1. Writing a journal
  2. Talking to like-minded colleagues

After a hectic day, finding a quiet spot to sit down and write my thoughts out on paper helps in a number of ways. First and foremost, it is cathartic – I revisit moments in class, positive and negative, and release them onto the paper. It also provides a record that I can come back to and use to reflect, develop, and inform future lessons. Finally, as I am the ICT Coordinator in my school, it is nice to take 15 minutes away from the glare of a PC screen or interactive board and put pen to paper (sometimes, I later take these journal notes to form the basis of my blog posts and articles meaning a return to the screen, but that’s another story!).

Of course, journal writing is something of a solitary act so it is good to take time to talk to colleagues who are also still present after the students have left. They are often around for the same reason as me and are more than happy to engage in a quick but fruitful discussion about the day’s teaching. This is a great way to not only release your thoughts for the day but also to hear about another person’s class, exchange some ideas and advice.

After Work – Time to Unwind

There was a time when I used to take work home – written assignments to mark, lessons to plan and materials to prepare for the next day- but no more! I make sure I use my time during the day to get all that done (and if there isn’t enough time, I speak to my line manager about it – say nothing and you will only get more work!).

It is impossible to fully switch off, of course. Ideas for activities in upcoming lessons still pop into my mind at random times and I do still on occasion talk about work with my family when I get home but I don’t let that take up more than a few moments of my free time.

In my current job, on some days I finish in the afternoon and on others I go home late in the evening. On the days when I finish early, there is ample opportunity to unwind and plenty of time to spent with my family. When I work evenings, however, the kids are often asleep when I get home and there are only a couple of short hours to unwind before heading to bed.

I recently purchased a fitness and activity tracker (one of those that you wear like a bracelet), which gives me data on my sleep patterns and it revealed an interesting insight -when I was working evenings, my quality of sleep was much lower than the other day. I woke up more often in the night and had fewer hours of “deep sleep”. I did a little research on this and found that my mind needed to be less active when I got home. I would often watch a football match or an episode of a favourite TV show but this would leave my mind buzzing right before bedtime.

I found the best way to relax was through another digital hobby of mine – video games. Now, you may be thinking that those would surely be just as stimulating, if not more so, than watching a TV show or a live match. It’s all a matter of the kind of video game you play. A fast-paced action adventure game will get your mind racing rather than relaxing but there are also games which don’t demand much of the player, or at least give the player the option of not doing much. So, sometimes, I log into World of Warcraft and simply go fishing or I load up Euro Truck Simulator (my current favourite) and just drive, admiring the scenic European countryside as I go. Not exactly demanding but that’s kind of the point!

Euro Truck Sunset
FishingWarcraft

Reassessing Assessment

Dave DodgsonThink of assessment and many teachers think of tests – that moment of fixed time when all the learning of the past few weeks, months or years comes down to a series of multiple choice questions about grammar, vocabulary, course content, with perhaps a writing task or reading comprehension thrown in.

Tests are one enduring feature of education. In every language learning setting I have worked in, tests have been a regular and dominant feature. They are used to determine success or failure, report grades, and determine how ‘good’ someone is judged to be in English.

There are alternatives of course: project work, portfolios, oral assessments, self-assessment and more, some of which I have discussed in a previous iTDi post. I previously worked with young learners and tried to give them as much of a say in their assessment as possible, even getting them to compose their own exam questions, but this has had limited success. I did this for my classes in the year group I was teaching in but it was not adopted elsewhere in the school. Prescribed questions on discrete language items still held sway and I expect my old area of influence has now reverted back to the same format.

However, my new job has offered the chance to start afresh in many ways. I am now the coordinator of a new language school for adults in Gabon. I have set up the school, designed the learning programme, and implemented an assessment programme from scratch. This post will detail how I have approached this task.

In essence, we have three kinds of ‘tests’: we have ‘placement tests’ to put new students in the right level; there is also an ‘exit test’ which takes place at the end of each 6-week course; and we have external exams such as TOEIC and TOEFL. The external exams have been included because of market demand. Even here in central Africa, such exams are much sought after by employers and universities so they are a necessary component of our programme. Like them or not, they are a demand we have to cater to, and there is little we can do to change the style or content of those tests.

However, I have had the chance to affect the style and content of those other tests. The quick turnaround of courses means there is little time to get students to produce their own questions but there are other ways I can get these tests to be more meaningful, purposeful, and therefore more indicative of the students’ language level.

The placement tests

  • They begin with the speaking component. There are a few ‘starting point’ questions but our teachers are trained to let the conversation flow depending on the input of the student.
  • There then follows some short reading and writing tasks (graded according to the performance in the speaking test) but not with multi-choice questions or strict instructions. The tasks are designed to provoke thought and the questions are open-ended to give the student a chance to show what they can produce rather than what grammar they know (or can guess!)
  • This gives a much more accurate impression of where the student will fit into our learning programme than a multi-choice test would. Students can freeze when faced with a grammar based test. Conversely they can get lucky with their choices in an A/B/C/D test. Our speaking test gives them the chance to loosen up and our written test gives them the chance to express themselves and fits much better with the philosophy of our school.

End of course assessment

  • It actually begins at the start of the course! In the first week of a new 6-week cycle, the students are given a written task to complete and a speaking activity to engage in. The writing task provides a wealth of information about where the student is in terms of their English ability and is used to inform the focus of the course (see this recent post by Willy Cardoso for another explanation of this).
  • The same tasks are then repeated in the final week of the course. The students and teacher then compare the earlier effort with the more current one to identify areas of progress and things that still need to be worked on. This is great for showing students how far they have come and in making learning plans for future courses.
  • The final week also includes a self-assessment task asking the student to identify their progress and what they are struggling with. This is then discussed with the teacher in an end-of-course feedback meeting.
  • There is ‘pen and paper’ assessment as well but it contains no grammar or vocabulary questions. Instead, it features an ‘input text’ (a reading passage, an audio recording, or a video). Students are then asked to respond to it through a series of open-ended questions or a short written response.
  • All of this tests not what points of grammar they have memorised but what language they can use and how they can express themselves. Surely that is what language learning is all about!

I have been lucky in this job. I was asked to design a learning and assessment programme and I was trusted to implement my own ideas. Not everyone is in this position. You may work in a school where there is a designated ‘test writer’ or tests that come with the course book are used as a standard.

But what I would say to that is ask ‘why?’ Why is a test prepared and imposed by someone from outside the class? Why is an isolated test of the content of recently taught units used? Ask these questions. Suggest alternatives. Start a conversation about assessment. Decide with your colleagues and with your students what approach to testing will work best to measure language ability and to inform future learning.

That is where the importance of testing lies, not in the summative or the formative but in the informative. Start the conversation, get the information, and use it to move forward.

 

More on Assessment – David

Dave Dodgson

Helping Young Learners Get the Most Out of Assessment – David Dodgson

One of the biggest ‘changes’ I have witnessed in my current school during the ten years and more I have worked here concerns assessment. When I started here, pencil and paper testing was king, dictating students’ grades and condensing their learning efforts of the previous few weeks into a concise 45 minute grammar-based test (as is the case in the majority of schools in Turkey).

However, there have been ‘changes’ (the reason for using inverted commas around ‘changes’ will be become clear as you read on): first, we were introduced to the CEFR; following that, portfolios and self-assessment were introduced to our in-house assessment programme; an increased emphasis was placed on project work; rubrics were created for grading classroom performance; and the Cambridge YLE tests (Starters, Movers, and Flyers) were brought in for the appropriate year groups.

With all these new elements, you would think that the importance placed on exams had diminished over the years but, far from it, the exam still rules over all. End of year grades are heavily weighted towards the test score. Moreover, the projects, portfolios and class performance grades are officially not allowed to be ten points above or below the test grade… And now you see that these ‘changes’ have not really changed much at all, except that students and teachers alike now have more work to do…

I may be wrong (I hope I am) but I suspect the same may be true in countries other than Turkey as well – ‘alternative’ methods of assessment are included and given some attention but the exam is still very much on top when it comes to student, teacher and stakeholder priorities.

So, I guess the exam is here to stay. That does not mean, however, that is has to stay the same. There are changes we can make to ensure that exams are used in a child-friendly way and in the second part of this post, I will share some changes and I have made and some changes I would like to make so that exams test the whole of the child’s knowledge and not just a few structures and new words covered in the since the start of the semester.

 

  • Using international standard exams as a role model for in-house assessment

As I mentioned above, my school added the Cambridge YLE exams to our EFL programme a few years ago. This has had a positive impact on our in-house exams as we have started to mirror the question formats. This means fewer densely-packed gap-fill grammar exercises and more comprehension and thinking-based questions. It also means more visual stimuli in the tests and a more spaced out layout, which leads to a more child-friendly and less intimidating appearance for the exam paper (alas, sadly that does mean we use more paper!)

 

  • Test the whole language

Another lead that I have taken from the Cambridge tests is to focus on the larger picture of what the student knows. I avoid testing obscure vocabulary items just because they were in the book or directing students to focus solely on using past simple or past continuous because that was in the last unit. Instead, I aim for texts, questions and activities that test their overall knowledge of English from the 3 or 4 years they have been learning at school so far. In order to successfully complete the exam tasks, the students must activate their whole knowledge rather than just part of it. In what may seem like a contradiction, this is actually less stressful for learners as they don’t fret over a new language point they are fully familiar with and they don’t feel the urge/pressure to cram study.

 

  • D.I.Y. test preparation

Of course, exams are not just about taking the test but also revising and reviewing ahead of it. It’s all too easy to fall into a trap here of worksheets covering recent grammar and lexis, which often add to the boredom and/or frustration of the exam process. This is one area where we can inspire a change – we don’t always have the authority to change the exams our students take (I can only directly affect the exams for students in the year group I am responsible for) but we certainly can change the way they prepare. Instead of those boring review worksheets, why not get your students to create their own practice materials? After reading a text in class, ask them to prepare exam-style questions on it; get them to make their own grammar gap-fills; encourage them to prepare vocabulary quizzes for the rest of the class; use their own compositions and paragraphs as reading texts. All of these activities can help students get inside the exam and think about how the questions are put together from a different perspective. And they might just learn something rather than simply review it.

 

  • Give students a voice in their own assessment

Why stop there? If students are capable of preparing their own practice activities, why not have them compose their own exam questions as well? I tried this with a few classes last year for some target vocabulary. I reviewed the words they needed to know for the exam and asked groups of students to write questions involving each word. We then spent time correcting and redrafting the questions, rejecting any that were too easy or too hard and eliminating any ambiguity until I had a list of about twenty questions. From those that list, ten questions were chosen for the test so the students wouldn’t know exactly which ones were coming up. They may have recognised some questions when they opened their exam paper but I believe they got more out of researching and writing those questions than they would have from memorising the words during a period of self-study.

 

  • Have alternatives, not additions

And, finally, I would like to return to a point made earlier in the post. Alternatives to ‘traditional’ assessment are all well and good but they must be used to replace or at least reduce the emphasis on exams. What I have seen happen in several schools is that portfolios, project work, external exams and so on are all added on top of the existing assessment system. This leads to a never-ending cycle of work and pressure for the kids and preparing, supervising and marking for the teachers. Ideally, these assessment alternatives should mean that in place of say four written tests a semester, students have perhaps two tests and then graded project and portfolio work. If exams must stay, let them stay but if we want to explore alternatives, they should be just that – alternatives, not additions. And as for the exams themselves, let’s try to make them positive and rewarding experiences for our young learners that help them develop, reflect and grow.

 

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Classroom Management – Dave

Getting a KICK out of Classroom Management
with Young Learners  –  David Dodgson

Dave Dodgson
When teaching young learners, classroom management is one of the most important aspects of our lessons. Good classroom management ensures we can create a positive and secure environment for learning, which in turn allows our young students to be enthusiastic and motivated about their lessons. Poor classroom management leads to every teacher’s worst nightmare – out of control students who don’t take our lessons seriously and have a negative effect on everybody’s chance to learn.

So, how can we manage our classroom space to ensure learning English is a positive experience for learners and teachers alike? Well, the first thing to remember is that there is no one right answer. Different classes and different students need a different approach and what works well in one class will not necessarily have the same effect in another. However, there are some points we can bear in mind to help us get a KICK out of working with our young learners.

 

K – Know your role (not your enemy)

One error I made when I first started teaching children was to view them as a threat. It was almost as if they were they enemy, always attempting to destroy my carefully planned lessons and I was therefore overly strict and trying to stay in control. This, of course, was not the right way to approach the lessons as it meant I wasn’t giving my students a chance to show me they could behave.

After spending some time around young learners, I ‘softened up’ and took a more friendly approach. However, I soon found this is not ideal either as it caused some students to not take my lessons so seriously as they saw me more as a friend or big brother instead of a teacher.

So that is why I say ‘know your role’ – make sure the students understand you are first and foremost their teacher. Lessons can be enjoyable but they are still lessons and the students must be prepared to work hard. As a teacher, you need to have the authority (not in a super-strict, domineering way but rather a controlled effective way) to manage the lesson and ensure the students both feel comfortable and eager to learn. How? Read on…

 

I – Invite student input

One of the most effective ways to help students feel enthusiastic and secure in their learning environment is to give them a voice in important classroom decisions. Even with primary school classes, this helps the kids feel valued and listened to. I do this right from the start of the school year when we establish our class rules. I explain my rules to the class (only a few, short rules so as not to overload them) and ask if they agree that these are good rules to have. If not, I ask for their suggestions, thus initiating a useful discussion about what rules are for and why they are important in schools.

Then, in the interests of fairness, I give the class the chance to set some rules for me. After all, I have given them some rules so why not allow them to do the same in return? The only criteria I give them are that they shouldn’t go against the school rules and they mustn’t take away from our learning time (to stop suggestions like “You must show us a film every week!”) I put the students in groups and give them some time to come up with some ideas. They then discuss them as a class as choose which ones they want to have. Usually, they decide on rules like “Do not give us homework on Fridays” or “no surprise tests!” – rules I am happy to abide by to set a good example for them.

It’s not just setting rules either. I also involve my students in other decisions as well: if we have a choice between doing two or more different activities, I ask them which one they would rather do; I offer the choice of working in a group, a pair or individually; they can choose if they would rather submit a project as a poster, a PowerPoint slideshow, or a video… These are all choices that help my students feel involved and help me have effective lessons.

 

C – Consistency is key

Whatever class rules and routines you have, being consistent is always important. One mistake I made early in my teaching career was to make too many changes when things weren’t going well in class. I would try to change the rules in the middle of the school year or change the way I approached activities but this only caused more problems. Some students were confused by my sudden switches in approach and others lost respect for the rules and me because everything changed too often. Of course, we need to make changes and be flexible from time to time but if we chop and change too often and at seemingly random times, it can do more harm than good.

We need to be consistent not just in the rules and routines we have but also in how and when we apply them. It’s all very well having a rule like ‘put your hand up before you speak’ but if you sometimes allow a student to shout out an answer or speak out of turn, the rule will soon lose its value for everybody. Gentle reminders about rules and routines as and when necessary are always useful. Sometimes, a brief ‘hands up please’ will be enough. Other times, stopping the lesson and talking to the whole class may be necessary but the important thing is to ensure you are consistent.

Routines for starting lessons and moving between activities are also very helpful, especially with younger children. Such moments act as a signpost for students, which can be vital if they are beginners with limited language. My students, for example, know I will always write the materials we need for the lesson on the board before the lesson begins (this helps save time and avoid unnecessary books taking up space on their desks). They also know that when I raise both my hands I want them to stop whatever they are doing. Whatever you do, make sure it is part of a regular routine in the lesson and it will be easier for the students to understand and remember.

 

K – Know your limits

Finally, it is vital to know the limits of what you can do in your role as a teacher. Whatever approach you take in class or whatever systems, routines and rules you have, you must be mindful of what is acceptable in your school or in the eyes of your students’ parents. It is all very well having your own rules or your students’ rules in class but they should avoid going against school rules or cultural expectations.

For example, I know in my current school that sending a disruptive student out of the classroom is not an option as it is against school policy so I find other ways to contain such (thankfully rare) situations. On the other hand, I also know that as a native speaker, my employers and my students’ parents want me to speak English with the kids as much as possible so they are happy to hear that I limit use of Turkish is class considerably (which also helps cut down on chatting between students!)

It is also important to be aware of your limits when making promises of rewards for good behaviour or successful completion of a task or series of tasks. If you tell your students you will show them a fun YouTube video relevant to the current in-class topic as a reward for their hard work, you should make sure that the necessary equipment is working, the Internet is available, you allot enough time in the lesson and that showing the video is not going to cause a problem with the school administration. If you can’t keep your promises, your students will be disappointed and that will not help maintain a positive environment for learning.

As I said at the start of this post, there is no single right answer when it comes to successful classroom management. However, if we can bear the above points in mind, working with our learners and within the parameters set by our schools, and be consistent and responsive, we can get a KICK out of teaching our classes and our kids can get a KICK out of their language learning experience as well.

 

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The Games Issue – Dave Dodgson

Press ‘Start’ to Play & Learn: Game-based learning in the language classroom  – David Dodgson

Dave Dodgson
Games have many benefits for learning, encouraging us to learn new skills, develop strategies, think critically, follow instructions, and reach targets to name but a few. The great thing is all of this can be achieved with the knowledge that in the event of ‘failure’ we can simply try again and, even better, we can have fun at the same time.

The same is also true for video games. When playing them, we need to think and react to what is happening around us and interact with the game world, its characters and even other players to progress. With the recent growth in use of mobile devices, gaming is literally everywhere and has become a major part of people’s daily lives, especially amongst the younger generation (who make up most of our students!) These games are engaging and motivating and, best of all for English language learning, most of them are in English.

In fact, the learning opportunities video games (intentionally or not!) offer have given rise to the concept of game-based learning (GBL) – in short, the use of games to increase student engagement and promote learning.  However, despite the benefits, there are also issues about the use of video games in the classroom. One of the major issues is cost. Buying games and having the necessary equipment for students to have access to them can be expensive. There is also the issue of which games to use. While gaming is popular, not everyone likes the same games or has the same devices. And finally, there are a few people who might view games and gaming as not being educational or a productive use of lesson time.

So, how can we best make use of video games to motivate our learners and help them develop their language skills? And how can we do so without running into some of the issues mentioned above? Well, what I do is to introduce gaming as a topic without actually using the games themselves. This offers a way to get my students engaged by connecting lessons with something they love doing and also gives me the chance to test the water ahead of potentially doing some game-based activities in the future and I will share some of those ideas with you now.

Introduce your virtual self

Games often have ‘avatars’, characters that players make to represent themselves when playing. These can be a great source of descriptive language in the classroom. For example, you may be entering a new class but find that the students already know each other and are bored of traditional ‘get to know you’ activities. So why not get them to introduce themselves as avatars from their favourite games? Or, if you need to review language for introducing yourself or describing people in the middle of a course, get the students to use their avatars for inspiration then. This ensures such activities stay personal but avoid being repetitive.

Guess the avatar

Another way to make use of avatars in class is with an adaptation of a guessing game. Before the lesson, ask the students to email you an image of an avatar they use when playing. Once you have collected these, display them all on the class projector (or you could print them and display the pictures on the wall). The students’ first task is to try and match the avatars with their creators and also guess which game the avatar is from. Follow this up by revealing the answers and getting the students to ask each other about their characters. Wrap it up by getting the class to compare the avatars with the people who created them. This is a great way to get your students producing lots of language (speculation, descriptions, comparisons) in a highly personalised way.

Describe your favourite game

With my young learners (I mainly work with 10-13 year olds), I have found they are always keen to talk about favourite games and they know a surprising amount of vocabulary from them (for example, without any prompting they use words like swipe, tap and tilt when describing tablet and smartphone games). These gaming chats used to take place outside lesson time but nowadays I make them a focused part of the lesson. This might take the form of a simple speaking activity where the students ask each other questions like “what kind of game is it?”, “how do you play?” and “what is the aim of the game?” Alternatively, it could take the form of a guessing game in which a student describes a game and the others listen and try to guess which game it is.

Gaming discussions

My students also enjoy discussing issues about gaming. I have posed questions to them such as “How can games be useful for language learning?” and “What are the pros and cons of using games in the classroom?” Such discussions are great because the students usually have a lot to say and it also gives me a clear indication of how my students feel about games and how they might react to their use in the classroom. It’s also good to put a clear emphasis on the idea that games can be used for learning in the classroom, not just as an excuse to play. Other fruitful discussions include “what makes a good game?” and “what does the future hold for gaming?” These are all discussions that my learners, despite their young age, have been keen to participate in – a case of high interest and engagement transcending limited language.

Project work

This is the final way in which gaming has had a major impact on my lessons in recent times and it is my favourite because it came about entirely from the students themselves! Last year, we had just finished studying a unit in our course book about unusual homes and we were preparing a project on the topic. One of the suggestions in the book was to design and/or make a model of a treehouse. One group of boys approached me and asked “Can we make our treehouse in Minecraft?” I was not very familiar with that game at the time so I asked them to explain what it was and how they could use it for their project. They proceeded to explain that this was a building block game in which you could create all kinds of structures and their plan was to make a treehouse in the game, take screenshots of it and use those for their project. I told them to go for it, expecting a poster of printed out images, but I got something even better. They compiled the screenshots to make a video, which can see here:

Granted, there are some basic language errors in the video but that is not what is important. Thanks to this game, these students were able to create a detailed project and, thanks to their enthusiasm for and love of the game, they got very creative and went so far as to produce a video by themselves! That set the ball rolling and for the rest of the year,  every time we did project work at least 3 or 4 groups would do something with Minecraft whether that be a story set in the game world,  a poster using images from the game or a video showing something they had created in the game world.

That for me sums up perfectly why games and gaming have a place in the classroom. They encourage creativity, increase engagement and promote language production. As the above examples hopefully show, you don’t even have to play any games in class. Just using gaming as a topic can give these results.

Do you have any experiences of using games or gaming as a topic in the classroom? Please share.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about gaming in the language classroom, please check out my GBL blog: eltsandbox.weebly.com

 

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