The Young Learners Issue #1 – Annie

Changing Lanes and Marching 0nAnnie Tsai
(What I have learned from working with YLs)

In my opinion, there are two kinds of people that work like mirrors and oftentimes they unknowingly help us learn more about ourselves. Our partner can do that: he or she reacts to our thoughts and actions and in a way reflect our image. Our students can also do that: they are the great reminders of ideas and concepts we’ve taken for granted as time goes by. They help you realize what you are good at and areas you need to work on. Be it adults or children, what we teachers can learn from our students is usually the key for better teaching and learning.

I’m been undergoing a transitional phase in my career this semester after walking away from my comfort zone as an EFL teacher for 10 years and starting fresh as a homeroom teacher. It is no easy step. It’s a bazaar feeling to start learning to teach like a NQT after 10 years but the experience is truly amazing. I learned more about these ‘little people’ and in a way my students have taught me how to fit in the new role. I felt I’m seeing teaching from fresh perspectives and have learned quite a lot from my children. So to celebrate my halfway up to the first year as a homeroom teacher, I’d like to share some thoughts about teaching little devils young learners.

Annie 1

Remix teaching material
The textbook is usually the thing I have kids to get out at the end of the class. I believe that a textbook, regardless of its formality and quality, is supposed to be a guideline, a tangible object for students/teachers to fall back on; while real learning takes place in a more ‘intangible and messier’ way. I often remind myself to embed at least three different teaching media in a 40-minute session. The combinations can be various; they can be good-old-fashioned blackboard drills, interactive whiteboard games, or individual writing games. It’s the teachers’ interpretation of the language material that connects the textbook with real life. The ritual of opening the book at the end of the class serves the purpose of organizing/rephrasing prior ideas into clear concepts and logics. At the meantime, it’s also a good idea to do some individual quiet work so children have the time to reflect on learnt material.

Embed learning strategies in teaching
Have children organize teaching material with graphics and diagrams. You can always start from a simple T-chart then gradually progress to more complicated charts such as a Venn diagram. The practice not only reinforces vocabulary but also personalizes the language material. Moreover, learning strategies are embedded so children can start developing their own learning system. And it’s all part of the scheme of nurturing successful learners’ autonomy. Visual clues should be put out all year round and updated in an appropriate manner.

Having fun is always the best motivation
Little people learn from doing. They learn from enjoying the sense of achievement. For children, singing and dancing is always the best trick to get them involved in the class. However, it’s the ‘extra mile’ you lead them to afterwards which determines if the fun part compliments the learning. Even the roll-calling task at the beginning of the semester can lead to a meaningful and active learning process (Read a sample lesson plan here and here).

Step back and wait for it
For many Taiwanese EFL teachers, the challenge we face everyday is that true beginners sit side by side with advanced students, yet they share the same classroom, under the guidance of the same teacher in the same time frame. Our long tradition of cram school system, meaning after-school English education, makes sure public school teachers have a hard time setting reasonable goals and make effective lesson plans. After years of battling with the reality, I finally realized that teachers also need to step back and let the material sit in for a while. Not just for the students, but also for the teachers, to have time to do individualized learning activities. This is especially important if the routine learning hour does not meet the requirement of sufficient language exposure. Patience and keen observance can help you pick up the holes and patch them up before they got too big.

Helping them to take ownership of the language
Needless to say, this is where language learning started to make sense for learners. However, for YLs, especially in an EFL country, taking ownership of the language material may require a long time. In this case, try customizing the available material. I’ve had my kids grouped in teams make their own team songs AND draw matching posters (Read OUP project here). We end up creating 5 different lyrics and accompanying posters from 1 song. My children even claimed, ‘It’s MY song!’ Additionally, making alphabet books with local themes also encourages applying the language plus easier to do differentiated teaching (See alphabet books sample here).

Annie 2

Teachers need to experience the ‘FIRSTS’ as well
After years of teaching in the same context/position, we all need a break from fixed routine and maybe a couple of new thinking caps. If changing lanes is too dramatic for you, try to do experiments in your class. Try out the methods/projects you’ve long known exist but never get to put them into practice. Engage in local/international-wised projects so you can do your lesson planning from a new angle (See my International Exchange Project here). I’m especially fond of this interview of Jamie Lee Curtis where she said that we adults should have our share of ‘firsts’ to ‘celebrate the every day bravery’. So I’m embracing my journey as a NEW teacher starting from 2012. I was reborn again in that sense! Haha!


Voices from the iTDi Community – Annie

Annie Tsai – Taiwan

Annie Tsai is an EFL teacher from Taiwan. She’s a tech-savvy teacher. She currently lives and works in Taiwan. She’s passionate about teaching via IWB and other web 2.0 tools. She believes in hands on learning and reflective teaching. She’s also a dog lover and a passionate backpacker.

What are you passionate about, Annie?

Annie:  I’ve been an EFL teacher in Taiwan for 9 years. I work with elementary school children. I enjoy backpacking a lot and I like to share the tales and adventures I have on my journeys with my students. To me learning is a vital survival skill and I’d like my children to be open to new things, and to be positive about changing. I’m very passionate about learning to be a better teacher and trainer. I know this might sound like a cliché, but the best reward for a teacher is to see children develop through your guidance and advance into something better.

How and why did you become a teacher?

I was major in journalism and have worked as a copywriter/media planner before changing my career path ten years ago. That was when the Taiwanese government started to install English education in elementary schools and they need many English teachers in a very short period of time. So I took a test, passed the training and officially became a teacher. However, passing an exam doesn’t mean that you are ready to start teaching. I don’t think I was ready mentally nor professionally then, so I had a really bad first year. Luckily, I survived and kept going and I’ll be celebrating my 10th year of teaching at the end of 2012.

What are you most interested in right now?

I’ve been working on international exchange project with my students. I also joined a couple of international projects via iEARN.  I realized that project based learning (PBL) seems to be the best way for effective language learning and teaching. For young ELF learners, being able to use the target language with real people for a real purpose seems to legitimize the rationale of learning a foreign language.

I have always been a subject teacher and facing 300+ students per week is a routine for me. In Taiwan, we only get two 40-minute sessions of English class per week and that’s just not enough to produce a visible achievement. So I decided to change my role to a homeroom teacher in the coming school year, which means I have more time with children and I get to devote my attention to 26 students only. My interest now lies in the possibilities of promoting EFL education as a homeroom teacher.

What things do you do to help you get better at being a teacher?

I develop by joining projects and competitions and by interacting with my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Facebook and Twitter. By doing this, I get to allocate time and energy to suit my schedule while updating my teaching knowledge and skills. It was through these mostly free resources that I won a 2-week teacher training workshop sponsored by Cambridge University. My children and I also got to spend a lovely afternoon with a two A-listers from the U.S. after winning a competition sponsored by Oxford University Press. For a suburban school like mine, this kind of event helps both parties in the classrooms to teach and learn. We were all very much inspired and stimulated after the project. Thus, my next goal is to cultivate Project Based Learning (PBL) activities in my class.

Additionally, I think documenting your teaching activities and sharing with others also helps one to be a reflective teacher and learner. Blogging in English takes this to the next level because then you are putting the language to use as well. I get to learn from many outstanding teacher bloggers by reading, sharing and commenting on their blog posts. The learning and support is mutual and without boundaries.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a teacher?

I think for a non-native English teacher, the most challenging part for many of us is how to maintain your English language proficiency after 5 or 10 years of teaching. This is particularly tricky if you happen to teach young learners (YL) in an EFL country. Your predicament is somehow not that far different from your students.  

You have to try very hard to build an English learning friendly environment and you need to be persistent about it. My suggestions for doing this are to participate as many professional development groups as possible, both online and offline. The virtual groups tend to broaden your horizons because of the mixed nationalities and teaching contexts of the people involved. The real groups, additionally, helps to share and communicate upon common ground. Teachers also need to be learners so they don’t take teaching/learning for granted.

What advice would you give to a teacher just starting out on a journey of professional development?

Always be open-minded. Sometimes it takes years for us to see the value and feasibility of something we always knew but never or rarely use in the classroom. Also, read and explore teaching resources from English speaking countries as much as possible. Your language proficiency and your teaching knowledge can be stimulated at the same time and it also helps you connect with wider professional community. Meanwhile, document your own teaching process in English and communicate with like-minded teacher bloggers. Share your ideas by being a presenter as this also helps to reflect upon and focus more. The best remedy for occupational fatigue is to keep learning and to keep trying new ways to engage learners.

Any blog or online link you’d like to recommend?

1. iTDi of course!

2. TES

3. elt chat

4. English central

5. EFL 2.0

What’s your favorite quote about teaching?

Keep calm and teach on!