Homemade Materials Issue – Christina

Turning Personal Experiences Into ‘Homemade’ Classroom Material –  Christina Markoulaki 


Homemade… The word itself brings pleasant images to mind. Anything that is homemade is supposed to be of a much higher quality than ready-made stuff. This is a presupposition that seems to have comfortably established itself in our brains. What about homemade EFL materials, though? Can they be as ‘delicious’ as an ordinary course book? As much as I love using an all-inclusive course book, I would definitely argue that self-made materials have a lot to offer in the foreign-language classroom.

The main incentive for devoting personal time to prepare additional classroom activities is that they allow the teacher to cater for students’ individual needs. In a digital era, however, there are more things to consider. Personal materials are directly related to personal ownership. The latter further means that those materials can be used or disposed online in the exact way the teacher wishes them to, without having to face any copyright issues. This is utterly important, in my opinion, especially to the teachers interested in the infamous EdTech.

Turning to EdTech, most teachers, nowadays, are eager to create their own Web 2.0 activities. But when they seem to lack inspiration or the appropriate resources, what constitutes a better springboard than their own experiences? Photos and videos of hobbies, travels, personal belongings, to name but a few, could form the perfect extra activity that will attract students’ attention and ‘sting’ their curiosity, since we all know how interested they are in learning about their teachers’ personal lives.

Here are just a few ways I have turned my experiences into EFL material:

1)     Having to teach the Cambridge FCE (B2 level) every single year, this is what I decided to do to spice the speaking section up a little: I chose photos from different trips I have been, all of which depicted places, this being the word group I wanted students to learn and practise using. Subsequently, I uploaded them on my blog together with nouns and adjectives commonly used to describe places. I have used this blog post with many different student groups since then and I have to admit that it forms the basis of one of my most successful speaking classes, since discussion never stops only at describing the pictures. Students then ask me about my travel experiences in each of the countries, share their dream to travel and sometimes wish to go to the exact places I have visited. If all this discussion is done in English, then it is what can be called a ‘win-win’ situation: students utilise new vocabulary, but also maintain their interest.                                                                                            

2)     Once again aiming at teaching speaking for the FCE exams, the target word group being animal vocabulary, I uploaded a photo of my cat named Giant in an unexpected sleeping position and a photo of two fierce lions I was lucky enough to admire when I visited the Barcelona zoo years ago. Students had to compare and contrast the two (not-so-similar!) photos, also expressing their opinion on animal treatment nowadays. Of course, all students had fun with the task and responded successfully, but most importantly, they took the liberty of talking about their pets in the end, asking me a thousand questions about naughty Giant and daydreaming a little about beautiful Barcelona. They finally left written comments under my post, practising formal writing apart from speaking. I need to point out that if the discussion takes place in English and in such a positive atmosphere, then it is a glorious victory for everyone involved in the lesson.

3)     The most difficult, and therefore most intriguing, athletic activity I have tried is cycling a lot of kilometres. By live streaming photos of such moments from my mobile devices to the television screen, I have managed to sparkle conversations on sports gear, weather, nature and, needless to say, students’ own pastimes. Furthermore, they always grab the chance to ask further questions concerning cycling (how often I do it, with whom, how it all started, whether I prefer mountain biking, city cycling or road cycling and so on). Therefore, whatever a teacher’s hobby may be, a couple of related photographs can sparkle intriguing conversations in a real-life context. 

4)     Reading books is every teacher’s favourite free-time activity, so why not transmit the wisdom obtained to the learners? For instance, as the issue of tolerance is always among the speaking and vocabulary goals during a C2-level course, I blogged an extract from Victoria Hislop’s excellent book ‘The Island’ which illustrated the concept and ignited discussion. The same blog post contains a slideshow with explanations, questions, key words and all the ‘tools’ every teacher uses, but the book extract admittedly did the trick.

5)     Speaking of reading, here is some food for thought: Doesn’t a text become much more interesting if you find the person who wrote it interesting? Readers’ psychology does work in mysterious ways sometimes. Based on that, part of the online texts I suggested to my advanced learners was Barbara Goodison’s article about New Zealand, where she has moved. Barbara used to work in my school and was one of my childhood’s favourite teachers. Consequently, I had a lot of beautiful stories to share with my current students about Barbara, encouraging them to read her article and exchange opinions on it.

6)     Back to teaching speaking with personal material, here is a collection of photos of animals in different zoos I have been, which can be shown on the projector or television screen for all the class to see.

7)     The final link I am going to present is this Voice Thread with family scenes I often use with students to elicit their holiday news. After Christmas, to their surprise, I was willing to share private family moments (excessive food, games and a visit to the village, which are all very typical of Cretan people) in slides accompanied by questions urging learners to put their own holiday reality in words.

The logic behind all previous seven ideas is the same: sharing personal experiences in visual form can work (learning) miracles! Have you ever done a similar activity in your classroom? I would really love to read about it in the comments below.


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The E-books or Print Books Debate – Christina

In Favor of E-Books  —  Christina Markoulaki

Christina’s blog post is embedded as a PDF document (scroll with your mouse/trackpad) or as an ebook hosted on issuu.com. If you have problems viewing either, you can view a full-size PDF version → Here

Here’s the issue.com hosted version as ebook:

[issuu width=420 height=272 embedBackground=%23000000 backgroundColor=%23222222 documentId=120916044858-7493356bc50848d997ffff7490ddde22 name=to_read_books_or_ebooks username=barbsaka tag=ebooks unit=px v=2]

Technology in your classes – Christina Markoulaki

New Technologies and Traditional Values

Please view these slides before reading the article.

Computers will never fully replace teachers in the classroom, but teachers who know how to use computers and other forms of new technology will replace those who don’t.

I had frequently heard words to this effect said in university courses and the various seminars I attended, but I never quite believed it to be true. That was until I actually got centrally involved in education and got to experience for myself how quickly the profession is evolving. Now I do believe it to be true. Teachers who are unwilling to follow and adopt at least some of the novel practices made possible by advances in technology – the practices most suitable for their students at least – are going to be left far behind.

In the slides I’ve provided, I have tried to go beyond what is commonly said about EdTech by illustrating the ways I have employed it to encourage a traditional value: the reading of books in the foreign language. Yes, a technological innovation can and should be used to support a traditional value, such as the reading classical or modern English and American literature. Let me explain:

Why read books?

Because reading enables the learner to pay attention not only to each word individually, but also to the combination of words in a phrase and subsequently in a sentence. Learners do so at their own pace, which allows them to absorb new grammatical and lexical phenomena as well as consolidate the ones already seen. Through constant reading, not only do students practice the language, but they also sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Why teach reading by means of technology?

Because students, especially the younger ones, may not find reading English books to be the best pastime in the whole world! But what if this book is read on an electronic reader? Even better, it may be one of the new interactive kind of e-books which allow the reader to tap on the characters and listen to something or find out the meaning of an unknown word online. Then, book reading stops being a chore or dull homework and turns into an exciting game! An educational game, nonetheless.

How it all works.

The slides I’ve provided contain pictures and links to posts describing how the book reading experience can be enhanced by the use of social media and other Web 2.0 applications together with a mobile device — such as the iPad, in my case.

After choosing a suitable story or book for a particular reading stage and age group, teachers can urge students to:

Conduct online research before reading and try to predict what the story will be about

Exchange ideas through emails or blog/ wiki posts about which books to read next.

Post comments on the class blog while reading a story.

Narrate the story they have read on the class blog using as much of the new words as possible.

Participate in reading competitions (which could, for example, be organized together with their e-pals as we have done with our French friends and their resourceful teacher, Aniella Lebeau)

Record their voices when acting the story.

Collect links and thoughts in a wiki dedicated to that purpose.

Create projects which combine texts and images concerning the book (depiction and description of their favourite scene is one of my students’ top preferences).

Prepare activities on the story as if they were the teachers so as to test their classmates. These will be finally published on a wiki or Issuu, turning the document into a beautiful online magazine.

Fill in handouts describing cause and effect relationships, the course of the story and its climax, character qualities and so on which can and will be published on the class blog for further discussion

You can find most of the book activities I have implemented here.

I hope you will feel free to add your own ideas by leaving a comment. Use your imagination. Given your imagination combined with what’s possible with technology, there are no limits to how creative we can be in ELT.


Staying healthy and motivated – Christina Markoulaki

Enjoying The View

 As a conscientious student who always does some research before doing her homework (whose benefits one need to be reminded of from time to time so as for motivation to be sustained!), I browsed the Net for information about how health can affect a teacher’s work before beginning this piece. Surprisingly enough, this is what I immediately stumbled on:

40% of teachers reported having visited their doctor with a stress-related problem in the previous year.

20% of teachers considered they drank too much

15% believed they were alcoholics.

25% suffered from serious stress related health problems including hypertension, insomnia, depression and gastrointestinal disorders.

(Taken from: http://www.school-teacher-student-motivation-resources-courses.com/howdoesstressaffecthealth.html )

Upon reading this, it hit me: teachers need to consciously do everything in their power so as not to find themselves in a similar plight. How is effective teaching possible in the context of all the aforementioned problems — especially when sobriety is lacking!  This funny thought led me to the following realization: When embarking on a teaching profession, one must be prepared to face all difficulties and demands by discovering ways to renew their energy reserves. This is what I strive to do at the beginning or end of each tiring weekday.

First of all, enriching my educational knowledge by reading various teachers’ blogs and subsequently updating my blog always makes me feel eager to go into class and put these ideas into practice. Seminars, conferences and webinars constitute another great source of inspiration for all educators. A case in point is the iTDi webinar which was held on April 28th.

Also, pursuing an interest plays a crucial role in personal development. For example, whenever I read a good book of Greek or English literature, I invariably end up having more ideas about what material to employ in my next lessons. One of the English books I have recently read is Irvin Yalom’s “When Nietzsche Wept”, which subsequently led me to reflect on personal happiness and urge my adult learners to do the same in a related blog post I prepared for them. The more I read and learn, the more I yearn to share this knowledge with others.

One final activity that relaxes and totally invigorates me is cycling. The feel of the gentle touch of air on my face while cycling in the countryside gives me a unique sense of freedom, motivating me to work equally hard the following day. This sport has, quite unexpectedly, provided me with loads of classroom material, since I used photos of mountainous scenery and cycling equipment as prompts in speaking lessons. To me, every little thing in life, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can constitute EFL material with the proper manipulation.

Above you can admire the view I got to see (Heraklion can be distinguished in the distance) after cycling up a steep hill, sometimes through muddy, craggy paths and small streams, like in the photo below.

In the final analysis, this is what teaching is to me: physically and mentally exhausting and demanding at times, but totally rewarding in the end. Let us all do whatever we can to keep ourselves healthy and motivated so as to enjoy the breathtaking view at the end of the route, side by side with our students.

To round off, I’d like to leave you with these questions:

How often do you spend time expanding your teaching knowledge?

What interest of yours rejuvenates you the most?

Have you ever integrated any material derived from your hobbies into your teaching?

How important is homework? – Christina Markoulaki

Try to picture this: you have just got home after a very satisfactory lesson (no matter what that was) and you are now ready to put your feet up, listen to some music or socialize. Out of the blue, a dreadful thought springs to mind; you have to do your HOMEWORK! It is a time of sheer sacrifice of all the wonderful things you wanted to do instead, which makes indignation drum into your head.

That scene has been described by the parents of certain children I teach, the latter being perfectly happy with the lesson, but totally reluctant to do any work at home. This is why I have decided to highlight the importance of continuing to study outside the classroom not only in every parents’ meeting I organize, but also in discussions I have with the students themselves.

Great benefits can be derived in doing a reasonable amount of homework. As long as it is related to classroom work in a moderately demanding and stimulating way, it can allow students to:

  1. Consolidate grammar, vocabulary and complex concepts. A case in point is my latest lesson with an advanced adult group that was about tolerance, prejudices and subconscious discriminatory behaviour; phenomena that cannot be entirely digested unless they are given serious thought in private space.
  2. Be creative. Homework can be combined with imaginative drawings or even arts and crafts, and creative written expression that can be cultivated through it as well.
  3. Understand that learning does not stop in the classroom. True learning is not only about attending a lesson; the primary aim of every learner should be to constantly try to build on previously acquired knowledge in any way they desire, such as listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video in the foreign language.
  4. Choose which extra activity they want to do – one that suits their tastes or needs. More specifically, teachers can allocate obligatory and optional homework. My experience has shown that, more often than not, students do both. They willingly decide to carry out the additional ‘mission’ simply because they are under no obligation to do so.

Even if all the above does not convince students to do their homework, all of you readers of the iTDI blog did not fail to do yours; that is, read all thought provoking texts on this blog and make a further step towards becoming the teacher you are, as Chuck Sandy says. I am deeply grateful for your time and I certainly welcome any comments you may wish to leave underneath.