Teaching English in Morocco: Through My Lens

Aziz SoubaiTeaching English in Morocco: Through My Lens

by Aziz Soubai

 

As an English teacher with some classroom experience, I assume that most English teachers I meet either online or in regional and national conferences are extremely enthusiastic about their profession. They invest a lot of time and effort not only in the teaching itself, but also in other areas and activities, such as theatre, acting, and public speaking. In this post I’m going to share with you some reflections and ideas on what it is like to teach English in my country that I have gathered from my own modest experience. I will try to shed some light on the major challenges that EFL teachers and learners might face in the language classroom in my country and what kind of techniques or strategies an English teacher like me can use to achieve the lesson objectives more effectively.

Limited exposure to English

First of all, it is worth mentioning that English in Morocco is taught as a foreign language. This means that learners don’t get exposed to English outside the classrooms, except for some highly motivated students (like this awesome little girl in the video). This also means that less exposure to English creates more burdens to the teacher, simply because learners are detached from the language once they are outside the classroom (and sometimes even inside the classroom, which is a worse case). To address this issue I would recommend teachers to encourage their learners to watch American cartoons like “Martha speaks” or “Family guy” with subtitles, or listen to slow tempo songs while following the lyrics. Of course, YouTube is easily full of these learning materials. The teacher’s job is then to assign these activities as homework, which would be an interesting and fun alternative to the regular boring “page number n” kind of homework.

Demotivated learners

It often happens that students who we label as low achievers detach themselves from English and then have a negative image about themselves as language learners. They lack confidence and persistence and have a very high psychological filter that blocks language production. They become self-conscious and often disrupt other learners in class to get some form of attention. The teacher in this case has to adopt some form of differentiated instruction.

Let’s imagine for a second that you would like to teach your class difficult grammar items (like the passive voice) or ask students to read a particular passage and answer comprehension questions. The teacher in this situation might feel baffled because he or she has to do so many tasks to help all learners to get this particular grammar point or understand the reading passage. It is part of the teacher’s job in this case to explain, for example, very simple vocabulary or the difference between “do” and “watch” to those learners who lack some basic language skills and require remedial teaching. In this regard, I can say that classroom presentations are my favourite strategy. At the end of every unit (which is normally composed of six lessons), I ask those struggling students to prepare a PowerPoint presentation about a particular lesson. That helps the students to regain their confidence and get more engaged in the learning process.

As I advanced in the teaching profession, I learned more ways to effectively engage and manage learners, as well as sustain their interest. One of these ways is having students create their learning portfolios, which is also a great tool for effective English instruction and assessment. I ask students to divide their portfolio into sections, such as “tongue twisters,” “writing drafts,” “what I learned today,” etc. (you can see samples of my students’ portfolios on this page). I also learned to integrate project based learning into my classroom practices. Students love working together and they often come up with creative ideas. We recently moved a little bit further by creating links with local and international schools to collaborate on different topics, such as environment, food, and culture. The collaboration between schools happened mainly on such Learning Management Systems as Edmodo, which offers a safe learning environment. I believe that project work is extremely beneficial for EFL learners because it gives them a chance to practise nearly all language skills and sub-skills like reading, writing, listening, and pronunciation.

Large classes

Overcrowded classes present another huge challenge that teachers in some regions of Morocco might face, particularly novice teachers. I still remember my very first years in a classroom with 40 students… They were all talking at the same time, laughing, and moving in all directions. It is a really nerve-racking situation. There are two techniques I use in this kind of situations. I first salute the students and try to calm them one by one by checking their lessons and homework until the job is done (this step takes from 10 to 12 minutes). Then I do a quick review of the previous lesson to get their attention, but sometimes I don’t succeed and they slowly get back to the endless talking. I know that noise can be normal in a language classroom, but this type of noise can be really annoying. Additionally, they say that “silence is the sound of thinking,” so I always try to keep things balanced: allow for some noise especially during group work, but don’t tolerate it when I’m giving particular instructions or explaining an important point.

I want to conclude by saying that English is a beautiful language with a natural musicality, rhyme, and rhythm. That’s why teachers here enjoy teaching it despite the aforesaid challenges. They help their learners master the language by creating English clubs. They encourage their students to get involved in local and national competitions, like spelling bee and students talent shows. By helping struggling learners, teachers rethink their own classroom practices and engage in continuous professional development.

 

The Three Teachers

Aziz SoubaiThe Three Teachers

by Aziz Soubai.

 

I can talk about the teachers who influenced my life until the cows come home. There are so many teachers who shaped my personality, the way I think and see the world, and they all deserve paying tribute to. However, I would like to focus on the three teachers, each one of whom represents a particular phase in my personal and professional life. 

When I was in the 5th grade (11 or 12 years old), I was taught by a very tough and compassionate teacher (I will later explain why I use this apparently weird combination of adjectives to describe him). At that time I was hard-working and paid a lot of attention in class. I was actually among the three top students. At this very young age, we were all in awe of this great teacher. Why? Simply because he put an incredible amount of effort into explaining the material. I wonder now if he had ever experienced some kind of burnout. It was clear that he was obviously in love with the profession, he loved teaching. This love made him unstoppable. At first we couldn’t keep up with his huge enthusiasm to teach and engage us in the process, but later on, we (or let’s say some of us) loved his personality and methodology. Those who couldn’t keep up were having problems at first and then they changed their style and became good students. At the end of semester and school year, we organized a school party and discovered the other, hidden part of our teacher’s character – he could be, in fact, very sweet. For instance, he shared some stories about his personal life and sometimes jokes and this made us giggle a little, but with total respect. At that time we began to understand that this seemingly strict attitude was just his expression of tough love. 

I have a mix of bitter and sweet memories of my high school years. At that troublesome time, during that adolescent boredom, especially in the first year, my motivation level hits the bottom. I turned from a hard-working, studious learner into a little troublemaker and this, of course, affected my grades, particularly in English and Arabic. I managed to move on to the next level because I successfully prepared for other exams. And that was when my story with the second teacher began. I was not a science major in high school, but the funny thing is, I became extremely passionate about natural science because of the teacher. This teacher was not only passionate but also exceptionally knowledgeable. He had a unique, soothing voice. He brought in extra information and stories and could always find a way to incorporate them into his teaching materials, which made the whole process interesting and beautiful. Some of his natural science lessons are still stuck in my memory to this day. More importantly, this unique teacher had zero classroom issues, even though those very students were uncontrollable and behaved in all sorts of ways in other school subjects. 

University teachers had a tremendous effect on me and the kind of language I speak and write. I loved to learn foreign languages from a very young age, especially English and French. I was addicted to American shows and series, picking up so many words and idiomatic expressions particularly from Oprah, Dr.Phil, and Friends. I had a huge passion for English literature and poetry, and that passion increased to a great extent in the fourth year at university, when I was taught by another awesome teacher. He used to read poetry aloud in class, chanting beautifully with rhymes and rhythm.  

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion  

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,  

Then reached the caverns measureless to man…  

These lines from the poem Kubla Khan” by S.T. Coleridge are  still carved in my memory. They were like soft music to my ear. This way of teaching made me eager to read and enjoy more long pieces of poetry, like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land. Bottomline is, not only the teaching techniques or strategies the teacher used left an impact, but also his ardent passion for teaching, which was contagious. Research shows that “the best teachers are passionate about teaching. They are intensely curious about the world and love learning new things. They are also driven by a deep desire to teach and help others. These teachers give their heart and soul to their work, and to the students they teach.”    

I believe that touching people’s lives and making them better citizens and individuals should be the ultimate purpose of education and teaching. It is not about how much technology you incorporate in the lessons or how many visual aids and colors you use in your class. Instead, it is about how much energy, enthusiasm, and passion you have for this tough profession. It is about how you turn a very lazy, unmotivated learner into a creative one. My final message is, love your job or change it. Otherwise, you will continuously suffer on a personal and professional level because you expect others to love what you don’t love. And this is the very definition of doublethink. 

 

Autism Changed Our Perspectives

Aziz SoubaiAutism Changed Our Perspectives

by Aziz Soubai.

 

When you give your students some space and time to do whatever they want, amazing things happen. I don’t force them to do something they don’t like in my classes. Instead, I suggest topics, look at their reactions, and take their comments into consideration. That’s exactly how my students and I ended up getting involved in the project that I’m going to talk about.

Raising awareness about autism was the main purpose of the activity that my students and students from Al Hadi High school in Lebanon collaborated on and that I would like to talk about in this post. My students worked closely with the Lebanese autistic students and they learned a lot from them. It’s worth mentioning that parents and the whole community were involved in this project as well.

The project was part of the global Connecting Classrooms programme that brought together some schools in and outside Morocco, including mine. On the Schools Online website there are samples of projects, types of school partnerships, and samples of themes a teacher can use to collaborate with other schools. For my students, I chose to focus on autism because there exist a lot of misconceptions about it.

While participating in this project, I found out that students have a lot of potential and become extremely motivated if they are working and learning in an anxiety-free atmosphere. My students had creative ideas and were engaged while learning with their international peers, which showed to me the huge importance of project-based learning and its impact on the learners.

The activity itself was essentially a celebration of the World Autism Awareness Day, April 2nd. Our schools collaborated to help increase students’ awareness of this condition by exchanging questionnaires with the partner school to collect information regarding autism or any other similar conditions. The science teachers were also involved providing some support to us in the process. In fact, involving other teachers in such projects is crucial because of their cross-curricular nature. Students then brainstormed ideas on how to create attractive posters, drawings, or paintings, which were later exchanged for comments and feedback.

The next step was creating a Facebook group and a Facebook page where the posters were shared to show support for people suffering from this condition around the world. The ongoing purpose of the group and the page is to keep the interaction between the two schools alive and to make people change the way they look at this condition.

As part of the process, we also watched an amazing movie about Temple Grandin, telling the inspiring life story of the American professor of animal science and famous autism spokesperson. One of the things that students learned from this movie is that being different doesn’t mean something negative. The movie helped to change stereotypes about autistic people and treat them as human beings. Adding the movie to the list of activities was suggested by the Lebanese partner and it was an important step as schools from both sides had a great learning experience from it.

At the end of the project, the teams from the two schools exchanged certificates of thanks and appreciation. After taking pictures and writing detailed reports about the different stages of the activity, we managed to document the whole process into a portfolio of evidence. The main objective of the portfolio is to record the international work for assessment and evaluation by the Connecting Classroom ambassadors. The document also contained many types of evaluation sheets: for teachers and parents, for students (to write what was good about the activity and how it could be improved), as well as for visitors who might include colleagues from other schools or community leaders and activists.

To conclude, participating in this project was a tremendous eye-opener for me personally, for the students, and for the whole school. Society always regards autistic individuals as inferior creatures who lack social skills, and I hope that this project changed that view a little bit and our students became aware that autistic people can be creative, funny, social, and extremely intelligent.

I think sometimes parents and teachers fail to stretch kids. My mother had a very good sense of how to stretch me just slightly outside my comfort zone.”  (Temple Grandin)

 

 

Are Teachers Supposed to Be Managers?

Aziz SoubaiAre Teachers Supposed to Be Managers?

by Aziz Soubai.

 

We all know that teachers do not only teach – if that was the case, it would be a nice, easy job. Teachers do several other jobs along the way. Before actual teaching begins, they first need to plan, prepare, and design their lesson plans. They also need to make sure that instructional time is not interrupted by potential troublemakers, which may often be the case especially in large classrooms full of low achievers. When (or if) that happens, teachers must find ways to bring their learners’ attention back, otherwise the class will get out of control. In short, successful teachers should be good planners, designers, psychologists, and assessors. Yet even that is not the end and there are other qualities to have and jobs to do involved in the noble teaching profession. I would like to focus on one such quality that is quite essential for the teaching process to work.

The quality or skill I will talk about is managing. The question is, “Can teachers also be managers?” I’m pretty sure that you already know the answer: they can and they very often are. However, you might as well wonder and ask how and when teachers can be managers.

In order to teach you need a classroom, a group of students, and materials. Right? But providing these does not guarantee effective teaching; you need something else. Students in the classroom form groups and alliances, those groups talk to each other, make noise, make decisions based on what they see that will affect the classroom atmosphere either positively or negatively. The social learning theory has proven that people learn from each other through observation, interaction and modeling, and that is what is happening in our classrooms every day.

If the teacher, instructor, tutor, or educator is not aware of the impact of this theory or does not have the right classroom management techniques (such as offering praise and badges, using differentiated instruction, and making eye contact), no learning will occur. In other words, teachers manage students’ behaviours and are supposed to have some influence on students’ actions and reactions. Managing behaviours is one of the non-teaching activities that all teachers do on a daily basis.

Managing in this sense means creating an environment conducive to teaching and learning. It also means addressing classroom issues in a proper fashion. The issues might involve, for example, where and how students should be seated or how to avoid or deal with possible personality clashes (this article comments in more detail on these particular challenges and more). The teacher should know exactly when to intervene and what to say. If the case is the other way around, the teacher will be a bad manager, which is bound to impact the learning process.

To finally answer the question that I posed earlier, I think teachers are already managers by nature and they are supposed to be managers for effective instruction to occur. To get the image clear in your mind, think of the teacher-manager as an orchestra maestro. Students or learners are the musicians and every one of them has a particular instrument playing a different tune. The maestro needs to arrange that chaos and turn it into beautiful music or a song, and to achieve that purpose he uses his hands, eyes, and most of all he has to master the language of conducting as you can see in this video.

My Journey in Professional Development

Aziz Soubai

My Journey in Professional Development
by Aziz Soubai.

 

What do you think happened in the summer of 2014? That summer is of huge significance for me. Why? I’m very sure the lives of so many teachers and educators around the world have changed a lot since that summer.

One of those teachers was me, a novice English teacher from Morocco. I was thrilled beyond description and this was the start of my professional journey as a language teacher and educator.The joy lasted for 10 weeks, but those weeks passed by like 10 minutes for me!

So, what happened exactly is that I was surfing the Internet one day and found the announcement of an online course called the iTDi Summer School MOOC for English Teachers. Something in this title made me so curious to know what this whole course was about. I decided to register and what followed that choice led to a tremendous achievement for me. Back then I didn’t have much experience in online learning and more particularly with WizIQ. It was summer time, a time when most people go to the beach, take a swim, wear sunglasses, and enjoy the freshness of water and the beauty of sunsets. I still remember the two voices in my head. One was saying, “What? Are you out of your mind? Do you want to imprison yourself in front of the computer for this whole time?!” The other voice, however, which was essentially supported by passion and curiosity, was a little stronger: “You have to see what’s going on in here. This looks like a huge learning opportunity – and it is free!”

The next day the voice of passion emerged victorious. However, that was not the end of the story and I had to face many challenges. The sessions were utterly amazing and were mainly about topics related to teachers’ interests and classroom practice. There were sessions about teaching using games, videos, stories, web tools, and more. It was true enjoyment for me and I could attend most of the live sessions. I resorted to the recorded ones only to prepare for the quizzes (that were part of the MOOC program) or when there were connection issues. The thing that really bothered me, though, was the deadlines and the multiple-choice questions which needed a lot of concentration and effort. I know that it was not meant to be a self-paced course. Consequently, I sometimes had to stay up a whole night to make sure I could submit the quiz in due time. I learnt to be more active and get rid of procrastination, which is a pretty devastating habit. All this made me reticent and I realized that I got to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. And then I really made a huge one!

That summer online course with iTDi created a kind of insatiable thirst for knowledge inside me. I have become a great online learner and this in turn affected how I now prepare my lesson plans and deal with my students. The tips, ideas, and strategies I gained and am still gaining from iTDi courses are countless. For example, I now rely more on technology, especially English language applications that teach spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary. I also train my students to use learning management systems like Edmodo to do homework or participate in global projects with other schools. Additionally, I use students’ portfolios for teaching, assessment and reflection.

I feel I have become a global citizen, and a more reflective teacher and thinker. I now firmly believe that “anything I can do, we can do better, an important message and one of iTDi’s principles as described by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto. In fact, this is very true for language teachers. We face more or less the same learning and teaching challenges and we share the same concerns. Here I’m specifically talking about language areas like grammar, especially for EFL learners, which was mentioned in one the talks of Betty Azar, Keith Floss and Michael Swan.

I realize now that my journey in professional development never ends. Every single day I learn something new. I learn from students who are constantly changing themselves. I learn from interacting with my colleagues. I learn from iTDi bloggers. I learn from bad experiences and, most of all, from my own mistakes and blunders.

“I’m praying for the rain and I gotta deal with the mud too. That’s a part of it.”