12 ways my PLN (often unexpectedly) made my classroom a better place for learning (and teaching) + 1 look ahead
– Kevin Stein
This year has been a little busier than I would like. In many respects I feel like I took much more from the teaching community than I was able to give back. And is often the case when busy, I haven’t taken as much time as I should to say thank you. So I’m grateful to have a chance to share a collection of 12 ways my PLN made my school a better place to learn and teach in 2013.
1) I love Post-It notes. This might seem like a very small change, but it has been huge for my students. The fact that I don’t need to run to the board, that the post-in notes remain right there in front of the students, that they can be picked up, elaborated on, slapped into a student notebook and taken home, all of these things make all the difference. So thanks Carol Goodey (http://cgoodey.wordpress.com) for the original nudge towards post-it notes, and Larissa Albano (http://larissaslanguages.blogspot.it/2013/10/the-power-of-post-it-notes.html) for another example of why Post-It Notes are a crucial classroom tool.
2) Be a gentle observer. A few months ago I was wondering why, whenever I observe a class and a student seems unsure of a vocabulary word, the teacher invariably stops the flow of the lesson and insists that the student (or class in general) try and guess the meaning of the word from context. Why doesn’t the teacher just give the meaning and move on? I was kind of ranting about the situation over drinks with a more experienced teacher. He laughed and said, “Maybe they’re just teaching by the book because you’re in the room.” It hit me that being observed often comes with the feeling of wanting to do things the “right way.” Being an empathic and supportive observer means keeping this in mind, always.
3) Comprehensions question, not so bad. I wrote a series of posts over the course of the year in which I derided comprehension questions. I was, for the most part, very, very unforgiving and harsh. Members of the community were for the most part, much more forgiving of my unforgivingness. On Twitter, in e-mails, and face to face, teachers would ask (and so gently), “Don’t you think there might be a role for comprehension questions?” And because they kept asking, I kept thinking. Eventually, as I was teaching a class in September and thinking how useless the coursebook’s comprehension questions were, I remembered something John Fanselow (http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/teaching/) said: “If you don’t like the questions in the book, have the students make up their own.” So that’s what I did. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Comprehension questions do serve a purpose, especially when students write them and ask them to each other to check their own comprehension.
4) Video as student tool. For the past year, I’ve been taking short videos of my classes to use as observation tools with my fellow teachers. Nina Septina and Tim Murphey, both iTDi-ers, suggested that I could take those same videos, give them to the students, and let the students use them as models to practice English outside of the classroom. Their suggestion was, I think, based on a paper they wrote together here (http://peerspectives.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/language-performance-videoing-for-home-viewing.pdf). And it allowed me to take a observation tool for teachers and turn it into a resource for student learning.
5) Moving isn’t just for children. As a high school teacher, it’s all too easy for me to fall in the trap that sitting at a desk and puzzling over difficult language is what learning is all about. So thanks to Sir Marco Brazil for your collection of videos (http://www.youtube.com/user/5254marco/videos), Malu Sciamarelli, and Barbara Sakamoto (amongst others) for reminding me that getting up, playing with actual objects, and physically feeling the wonder of learning isn’t something that diminishes as our learners get older.
6) Walk the mistake walk. I often give lip service to the idea that making mistakes is good, and that students should make mistakes. But what does that mean? And how can I do more than just give lip service? One of my favourite PLNers, Sophia Khan (http://languagelearningteaching.wordpress.com), started a blog this year and she had me thinking about mistakes. I realised that probably the best thing I can do is just own up to my own mistakes in class and show the students how I’m going to use that knowledge to make future classes, hopefully, a bit better. So this year I’ve said sorry a bit more often. And I like to think that’s helped my students see their own errors as a chance to improve.
7) Useful tech. This year I set aside some time for the students in the computer room. Not much, about an hour a week. Some of my favourite bloggers have kept up a steady stream of comments and reflections on tech they love to use in the classroom. So thanks to Sandy Millin (http://sandymillin.wordpress.com)and Chiew Pang (http://aclil2climb.blogspot.jp/p/useful-resources.html) and many others, for links and lesson plans about Quizlet (quizlet.com), Lyrics Training (http://www.lyricstraining.com), and Storybird (http://storybird.com) to name just a few of the tools that my students have loved enough in the classroom to take outside of the classroom and make language learning a larger part of their lives.
8) Pronunciation work has always been one aspect of language teaching that I felt could be saved for when there was more time. But in a classroom, there is never really “more time.” A series of blog posts on pronunciation by Alex Grevett (http://breathyvowel.wordpress.com) convinced me that students might be much more interested in pronunciation that I thought. So thank you Alex for convincing me to take the time I need, and the students want, to focus on pronunciation issues.
9) Tell ‘em what’s wrong. Cecilia Lemos, iTDi associate, blogger and teacher, gave a talk at IATEFL (http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013/sessions/2013-04-09/oral-correction-reflections-recovering-recaster) this year in which she challenged the notion that clearly correcting students’ mistakes will somehow inhibit classroom learning. It was a great chance for me to rethink what error correction is all about. And when I asked my students, it turned out that they wanted, whenever possible, quick, clear and concrete error correction as well.
10) Go to Activities. At the end of the year, Anna Loseva (http://annloseva.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/the-flashmobelt-movement/) and Michael Griffin (http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com) came up with #FlashMobELT, a lino wall filled with classroom activities that take little to no preparation. (http://linoit.com/users/annaloseva/canvases/flashmobELT). Having 1 or 2 of these activities in reserve has given me a nice cushion to fall back on when things don’t exactly go as planned.
11) Other Ways to Collect Feedback. For much of the year, I found myself stuck in a student feedback rut. But thanks to posts on fostering student reflection by Alex Walsh (http://www.alienteachers.com/1/post/2013/05/promoting-student-reflections-failures-successes-and-lessons.html) and a host of other suggestions such as feedback boards, many of which can be found here on Anne Hendler’s blog (http://lizzieserene.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/collecting-and-using-learner-feedback-a-workshop/), I was able to make the giving and collecting of student feedback a much more enjoyable part of class.
12) Teaching is trust. When a class starts, and the students are sitting at a table, all of the theory and knowledge in the world isn’t going to do very much if your students don’t feel that you care about them. Every single time I read a blog post, every single time I perused the iTDi forums and interacted with teachers on FaceBook, I was reminded again and again, that here are a group of teachers who are, more than anything else, dedicated to their students. Dedicated to fostering their students’ potential, to making a safe place for learning. And knowing that I am part of this community, makes me a much better teacher than I used to be.
So this has been a year of much taking. These are just 12 of the ways the teachers I know and respect have made me a better educator. Which leaves me with 1 more something to bring this post to a nice round 13 for 13. And I would like to end by looking to next year. #13 is a promise to give something back. This year, more than anything else, I’ve learned that I am a member of a community which recognises the value of experience. We are a community which believe that all teachers have something important to say. So my goal for next year is to more actively help to create that kind of space and invite as many teachers as I can into it. Because 14 for 14, 15 for 15, and even 45 for 45 is well within our reach. Especially if we have a chance to hear the rich and nuanced voices of all the teachers dedicated to making learning possible.
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12 thoughts on “13 for 2014 – Kevin Stein”
I read your post an hour ago. I needed time to think. There’s something stirring inside me, and it has to do with community and connection. It has to do with what you wrote here:
“This year, more than anything else, I’ve learned that I am a member of a community which recognizes the value of experience.”
What an amazing opportunity to be part of a community that sees this. It is so gentle and yet so energizing. When you (a community of teachers or any community really) see me as me, and see what I’m doing as simply that, I have so much more energy to continue and grow. Instead of pushing against something such as judgment or criticism, I’m flowing. Thank you for reminding me that we are in the flow. So grateful.
“So my goal for next year is to more actively help to create that kind of space and invite as many teachers as I can into it. Because 14 for 14, 15 for 15, and even 45 for 45 is well within our reach. Especially if we have a chance to hear the rich and nuanced voices of all the teachers dedicated to making learning possible.”
Imagine the possibilities! You got it Kevin. At times during the year I felt a bit saddened by not being able to connect with the community as much as I would have liked. I saw amazing things happening (most of what you described), but had to lurk. I just couldn’t find the space to dive right in. When I read what you write here, I realize that maybe it isn’t about connecting the way I think I *should be connecting, but maybe it’s just about connecting as much as I can and listening to the love that is there. I know that I have gained so much from just one person in the community saying “hey, I like what you’re doing.” If I can be that one person to someone, I know lots of magic can happen. I’ve felt it first hand.
Thank you for giving me something important to ponder during our first week of the new year. This iTDi blogging journey truly sets the tone for the year. I can already tell it’ll be full of inspiration, creativity, and fun!
All the best my friend,
Thank you for the comment and keeping the conversation going, and giving me more to think about. Members of iTDi, you, the people I make contact with regularly both in my school and out, all of you are, first and foremost, there because you genuinely believe that supporting each other begins by listening to each other. And almost everyone I talk with tries to put aside their judgments, and engage in a real dialogue.
That’s not my strong suit. I like to think that I have, in 14 years of teaching, found a few answers along the way. But forcing my ideas of what works on others, is just that. It is a force against which others will wish to “push” back against, setting up a dynamic of wasted energy.
I guess the whole mindset of “should”, as in I should be active in the community, I should reach out, I should…, I should…, I should…, whether this mindset comes from outside or from ourselves, creates a similar dynamic. It’s a force against which we, invariably, find ourselves resisting at times. Because we are tired. Because we have other responsibilities. Because we just want a chance to say “no” to something.
But that is also the beauty of this community. I know people are grateful for what we can offer to each other. How we can be there for each other. And I’ve never, for a moment, felt any pressure when I needed to take some time off. At least I’ve never felt any pressure except from myself. So I think I know how you were feeling at certain points this year.
And I hope that maybe some iTDi members, or teachers thinking about becoming active in iTDi, who might be reading this, feel a little bit of space, perhaps relief. There is room to join the conversation at any level. There is space to come in and out of the dialogue. You are welcome. For a day. A week. One moment. I think that’s what it means to be a teacher amongst a community of teachers as we take our first steps into 2014.
Really enjoyed reading this post. It’s so incredible to see how connected we can all be by reflecting and sharing our insights. Appreciated your blurb about John Fanselow’s take on comprehension questions -definitely a good way to make materials relevant to students!
Happy New Year!
So happy to have your comment and want you to know I’m a fan of your blog and think your site is a fantastic resource for the ELT community.
As I was reading through a bunch of iTDi posts from this year, as well as the 13 for 13 blog posts, I was amazed by the way there is a very strong sense of narrative that flows through them all. It’s not just a set of posts, we are very much in conversation with each other, and it is then through the comments that we get to take that conversation to new and unexpected places.
Glad you liked John Fanselow’s take on comprehension questions. Watching students create their own comprehension questions this year has been a lesson for me in how much responsibility students can and will take for their own learning. I’m planning to write a full post on the student generated comprehension questions sometime soon. But for now, I’m just happy to spend the start of the new year reading and catching up on other blog posts and thinking about how good this year is already looking.
Yes, yes, yes!!! This community is a gift I discovereed only a year ago, but the benefits it gives, the growth in me it has produced, the joy in teaching it has given – it’s priceless. i am happy and proud to be part of it all. And just like you, I told myself on the eve of the new beginning – share and participate even more. All the time spent on reading and writing blogposts and FB feeds and Tweets, it’s not self- indulgent procrastination, it’s continuous growth and change and it’s my work ( my passion too! Now, I call that lucky 🙂
Thank you for all the links, there were a couple I haven’t visited yet, so will do!
It’s amazing how finding a community of teachers (and maybe it is especially true of this community), brings a new kind of joy to the act of teaching. And I feel a similar sense of pride just knowing that the people who are there for me, are there for each other and for their students each and every day. And it certainly is a nice stroke of luck that the energy and joy of reading and about and being a part of that community is actually what our job is all about.
So happy to have you sharing in this conversation and looking forward what 2014 has in store for us.
Loved reading this post, thank you. It’s great to see where the year has taken you but it also raises lots of questions for us to explore and places to start out on that exploration. Have a great 2014.
Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment. 2013 was certainly a year in which I felt like I was not only learning new things, but spending a lot of time questioning and starting the process of relearning what this teaching thing is all about. Thanks for the bouquet of fabulous lesson plans on ELT-resourceful (http://elt-resourceful.com/). And looking forward to what 2014 has to bring.
Hi Kevin, what a great summary. I’ve been a bit more absent in 2013 with one thing and another so it’s great to be reminded of some of the ideas you found useful and inspiring. I don’t know how you find the time to teach, observe, reflect, blog, attend conferences, present at conferences, write articles, talk online, mentor, and the million other things you do, not to mention have a family and a life! But you do inspire me to keep experimenting, keep learning & keep an open mind. See you out there in 2014!
What a great and unexpected reply to find this morning. A very happy belated New Years to you. And thank you for being part of my PLN. I’m not sure if I do manage to find time to do all of the things you mentioned in your comment, at least not all of them well. In 2014 I’m going to try and find a way to balance all of those things I love a bit better.
Looking forward to sharing what 2014 has to bring.
Thank you for putting so much of what I feel into words!
This is true, that students want and need error correction, they appreciate when it is done in a delicate polite way. We should be very cautious doing it, not to confuse them and not to ruin motivation.