A Reminder that Learning is Learning

Kevin SteinA Reminder that Learning is Learning

by Kevin Stein.


I have been a teacher for twenty years. Over that time, I have often been given a list of program goals at the beginning of the school year. The goals are often things like an expected average increase in students’ standardized test scores, minimum acceptable results for student and parent satisfaction surveys, and class attendance rates. When I first started, I would sometimes see what was happening in my class through the lens of these goals. If a class did not go particularly well, if students wandered off task during a speaking activity, or if there were a bunch of frowning students shuffling out of the classroom at the end of a lesson, I would feel a little flutter of panic. Would my bosses think I was failing at my job? What was going to happen at the end of the year when my students all checked off boxes that stated I was a barely satisfactory teacher?

As I got used to teaching, I became much more focused on what the students were actually learning in my classes and spent less and less time thinking about those program goals. I was lucky enough to work with a team of teachers who wanted to share their own teaching experiences and did not hesitate to honestly tell me how those experiences did or did not help learning take place in their classrooms. We were, as a team, also lucky enough to work with my mentor and friend, John Fanselow. John constantly pushed us to pay close attention to what our students were doing in class and to compare and contrast the impact on learning of small changes we could make in our classroom. We all tried out simple changes, such as where we stood during an activity, or how long we waited for a student to respond after asking a question. And as we all became more adept at noticing how and when learning was taking place, students began to reach those goals which, for the most part, we no longer thought about on a daily basis.

As we worked together and worked with John, we came up with a list of ideas that we still have hanging on the wall of our staff room. These are our beliefs about what we are trying to do as teachers, the principles born out of our shared experience:

  1. Students know how to learn. They have been learning and succeeding at new things their whole lives. Our job is to remind them of this simple and amazing fact.
  2. When students are learning something new, it is not our job to replace that process of discovery by telling them what and how to learn, but to make the process as smooth as possible.
  3. Students learn best when they have a chance to see and hear HOW they are learning. When students are engaged in an activity, they are often wholly focused on completing the activity. Providing students with time to watch and listen to videos or recordings of themselves in the process of learning helps them to see how some of the things they do are effective and some are not.
  4. When provided with multiple examples of language in context coupled with enough time, students can and will (with occasional hints) notice features of that language which they want to use.
  5. Students who come to school are all motivated! If they really did not want to learn, they would find a way to avoid your class. So treat the students with the respect they deserve for wanting to learn.
  6. True goals are internally generated. Regardless of suggestions we make as teachers about what kind of score we think a student should get, or what kind of language a student should be able to use, it is the students themselves who decide what they want to accomplish. We need to help students articulate and reach those internal goals.
  7. Students have a rich and important life outside of our classrooms. When they make a decision to prioritize one aspect of their life over our classes, we should treat that decision with, at the very least, respect, and if possible help a student tie those other experiences to their learning goals.
  8. Acquiring a language is a wholly personal endeavor. We might have 10 or 20 or 30 students in our classroom, but each of those students experiences class as an individual. Our job as teachers is to create an environment where there is enough emotional and cognitive room for each student to truly participate in their OWN class.

When I became a manager three years ago, program goals, some of which I was asked to create myself, suddenly began to once again seem like the most important part of my job. I began to keep myself up at night worrying about how far behind we were in the race to reach those numbers that stretched out like a ribbon across the finish line of a100-meter dash. I would observe a teacher’s lesson and count frowning faces and empty chairs. I would nervously open emails from TOEIC or download the test results from the EIKEN site. I was miserable. I’m pretty sure I was making the teachers miserable as well. And all because I had somehow convinced myself that I was indeed in a race, a sprint to reach a set of numbers I had long ago realized were the result of an effective program and not truly the goal of teaching.

At the beginning of this academic year, I took another hard and long look at that list of beliefs and principles of what it means to be a teacher. And I realized that whether I am a teacher or a manager, my job is to help learning take place. The beliefs and principles upon which I had done my job for the past seventeen years had not changed, even if my title had. While some of the words needed changing, the spirit of what was being expressed did not need to change at all:

  • Teachers have a rich and important life outside of their jobs. When they make a decision to prioritize one aspect of their life over their work, we should treat that decision with, at the very least, respect, and if possible help our teachers tie those other experiences to their professional goals.
  • Acquiring the skills to be a teacher is a wholly personal endeavor. We might have 2 or 5 or 20 teachers working in our school, but each of those teachers experiences the process of becoming a teacher as an individual. Our job as managers is to create an environment where there is enough emotional and cognitive room for each teacher to truly become themselves as teachers.
  • When provided with multiple examples of learning happening in context coupled with enough time, teachers can and will (with occasional hints), notice features of how that learning was fostered, which they might want to use in their own practices.
  • True goals are internally generated. Regardless of suggestions we make as managers, it is the teachers themselves who decide what they want to accomplish. We need to help teachers articulate and reach those goals.
  • Teachers who come to work are all motivated! If they really did not want to teach, they would have chosen a different (and higher paying) profession. So treat the teachers with the respect they deserve for becoming a teacher.
  • Teachers learn about teaching best when they have a chance to see and hear HOW they are teaching. Providing teachers with time to watch and listen to videos or recordings of themselves in the process of learning helps them to see how some of the things they do are effective and some are not.
  • When teachers are learning something new about teaching, it is not our job to replace that process of discovery by telling them what and how to teach, but to make the process as smooth as possible.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I realized that being a manager is not about facilitating some kind of race. Becoming a teacher is not a sprint. There are no trophies, no gold medals waiting just beyond the finish line. It is a long and often difficult journey taken one step at a time. The best we can do as managers is to support and walk with our teachers whenever possible, and to help them see, with both patience and humility, that all teachers know how to learn. They have been learning and succeeding at new things their whole lives. A manager’s joy is to remind teachers of this simple and amazing fact.

[I would like to thank John Fanselow for all the support he has showed me and the program at my school over the years. Many of the ideas touched on in this article can be found in John’s writing and are also a direct result of his advice and input. I would especially like to recommend his new book, Small Changes in Teaching, BIG RESULTS IN LEARNING. It is full of insights that can help teachers both recognize and foster learning in all of their classes. It is also a book full of the warmth and spirit that I hope to bring to my classes and school.]

And then there are dreams

Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein
By Kevin Stein

Part of my job as an English teacher at a private high school in Japan is to conduct interview tests for the school entry exam during January and February. The students are in their third year in junior high school. They walk into the room, bow, give a formal greeting in Japanese, and then are directed to a seat. I and the other test proctor sit on the other side of the room. All of the students are dressed in their junior high school uniforms. Many of them have grown over the three years they have used these uniforms. Their pants are too short and white socks stand out against the black pant cuffs. Their jacket sleeves are frayed. Sometimes the collar of their shirt is too tight for them to button the top button. Some of them tap their foot nervously and the sound echoes across the sea of flooring separating us from the student. And the students, hesitantly, in words stitched together with great effort, tell me about their dreams, their reasons for wanting to study English intensively in high school, their past successes and sometimes failures as students.

It is a chance for me to not only to meet and learn about my new students, but also to check my own ideas about just what it means to study English. In my three years conducting these interviews, I have never had a student say that they look forward to the long hard work of learning the 2800 words or so of basic vocabulary that they will need to communicate in English. I have never had a student express an interest in learning how to draft and redraft a piece of writing to develop the skills they will need to eventually produce an academic paper. I have never had a student say that they would like to spend a third of their class time working with language they already know so that they can improve their fluency. What I have come to see as the most important aspects of learning a language are rarely if ever the things that have drawn students to English in the first place.

Last week, a young girl told me the following story. She had visited Korea on a class trip when she was 12 years old and had spent two days attending a junior high school in Seoul. While she was there, she made friends with a Korean student and they talked to each other in the only language they shared, English. She learned about the different types of Korean pickled foods, about the latest K-pop bands, about the different ways to greet older and younger people depending on their social position. She looked at me and said, “I can learn about many countries’ cultures with English. It is exciting. So I want to learn English.” I imagined how many times she must have practiced saying these sentences aloud in her room to be able to say them relatively smoothly in that big empty room during an entry exam.

A few years ago, Penny Ur ran a webinar for iTDi, in which she emphasized that the main job of an English teacher is to teach English. And I too, with one hundred percent conviction, believe the same. At the end of my lesson, I need to be able to look back on the 50 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes of my class and be able to say that I taught English. That my students walked out of class with more developed vocabulary, a better concept of a grammatical structure, an ability to produce certain target language more smoothly and accurately. But lately I’m starting to feel that as I grow and develop the skills to teach what I think needs to be taught, I’ve lost some of my openness to the wonder and almost limitless potential that draws students to study English in the first place. I worry that my interactions with students are more about running down a mental checklist of what I know students need to be doing (are you making word cards? are you reading two graded reading texts a week? are you developing skills to identify chunks of language?) and less an exploration of what students are actually learning for themselves.

Last weekend, a fifteen-year-old girl told me about how English had helped her learn about a country and culture that many people in Japan view with a certain level of rivalry and perhaps even distrust. After the interview, she turned at the door, bowed, and gave a formal parting greeting in Japanese. Just before she walked out of the room, she looked me in the eyes, smiled, and gave me a little wave. I can’t help but feel that my small wave back to her was a kind of promise, a promise that I would help her use English to learn about other countries, to build a bridge she could walk across into a wider world. And perhaps it was a promise to myself as well, a promise that in the upcoming year I would not simply teach what students need to learn, but develop the skills to nurture the larger dreams of all my students. In a world that has grown progressively darker, perhaps it is only the light of these dreams, so bright amongst too short pants and fraying sleeves, which allows my students—all of our students—to walk, step by step, into their own futures.

Feedback: Making the almost obvious, obvious

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

Last year I was lucky enough to facilitate a workshop with a group of iTDi members at the annual JALT conference in Japan. As a group, we wanted to talk about how listening to our students helps to make us better teachers. I shared a bit about my experience of using videos to help garner student feedback about my teaching and class in general.

I started using videos in my classroom about four years ago. My friend and mentor John Fanselow challenged me and the rest of the teachers in my school to video tape a lesson and, at random, transcribe one minute of that lesson. Then we all got together, read the transcripts, watched the videos, and said what we had seen and read. There were no judgments, no ‘that was a great activity’ or ‘you had a lot of positive energy.’ We simply said what we had seen, which led to statements like, ‘When the student is speaking, he is reading directly from his notebook,’ or ‘When you tell the students to stop writing, many of them keep writing for twenty or thirty seconds while you are explaining the next activity.’ These simple statements of fact often led to suggestions which resulted in more productive classes. Suggestions such as having students turn over their notebooks while talking, or writing directions on the board for students to read so that they can move on to the next activity at their own pace.

As useful as it was to hear what teachers noticed when they looked at my class through short videos and the window of a 1-minute transcription, I felt like something was missing, that there was more I could be getting out of these snapshots of my classroom. Then one day, my co-worker Scott brought in a video. In it he clearly asked the students in the class to work together to complete a storyboard ordering activity, one of those cut-up-pictures of a story which have to be put on the correct sequence after reading a text (there’s an example of a storyboard based lesson). In the video, a pair of students happily get down to work and interact with each other a total of zero times. Scott wanders into the frame at one point, reminds them to work together, and wanders out of the frame. For one moment, the students look at each other warily before going back to writing on their own papers. We all watched the video and tried to come up with small tweaks to have the students collaborate more on the activity (give them only one copy of the worksheet; give each student a specific job such as vocabulary master or scribe; turn the activity into a jigsaw puzzle so half the pictures go to one student and half go to the other and they have to describe the pictures in order to put them in order). But after we had piled up this jumbled hill of suggestions, John said, “Why don’t you show the students the video and ask them why they aren’t working together.”

So that is exactly what Scott did. He took the video back to the students — during their lunch break, no less — showed it to them, and asked them why they had decided not to work together. They both said that they just felt that there had been no real reason, aside from the teacher’s instructions, to work together. As they watched the video, the two students described how they decided to put the pictures of the story in order. They both said that they were enjoying the activity and learning something. One of the students mentioned that if they had worked together, they might not have been able to finish the activity in time. What Scott, as well as the rest of us, had thought was a problem with the activity, was in fact no problem at all. Instead of finding ways to force the students to work together, it became apparent that letting the students work individually, or at the very least giving them enough time to work collaboratively (which, as the student pointed out, does often take more time than working alone) was the only tweak needed.

Over the past three years I have shown small clips of classroom activities to students, asked them to tell me what they are doing in the video and why, and walked away with both some first class lesson modifications as well as a deeper respect for students’ ability to understand and modulate their own learning. Having student groups set their own time limits before engaging in a task; instituting a 2-minute ‘note-taking-break’ in the middle of activities; creating two ‘solo-corners’ in the room for students who want to work individually; all of these ideas came from students who watched a video of themselves in class and told me what they were doing and why. All of these ideas have helped to make my classroom a better and more comfortable place for learning to happen.

Sometimes I think that becoming a more effective teacher is simply a process of becoming aware of the nearly obvious. At one time in my teaching career, I didn’t realize that oral and written instructions only have meaning if students can understand them or try to do so. I didn’t know that students often want time to correct and rewrite errors in their written work. I had no idea that simply asking a student what another student had just said in class (the old “What does Keisuke think about that” trick) leads to better output and higher rates of attention in class. All of these things seem so obvious to me now, but at one time they were hidden in the blind spot between what I knew about teaching and what I could see happening in my classroom. Taking short videos of my classroom and sitting down with my students helps me shrink that blind spot. It makes the almost obvious, obvious. But just as important, by sharing these videos with my students over the past few years and hearing what they have to say about them, I’ve come to realize that my students care deeply about the quality of their lessons and my development as a teacher. I’ve come to understand that listening to my students helps to make me a better teacher because listening to them and respecting their ideas and experiences is at the very heart of learning itself.

Over the Wall of Experience

Kevin SteinBy Kevin Stein

I’ve been a high school English teacher for 10 out of the past 15 years. Before that I spent five years as a coordinator of an outreach program for runaway youth in Chicago.  I wish that those years of experience added up to a deep understanding of teenagers that I could share with you, a key to unlocking the secret fears and longings that sometimes hide behind a sullen look or a blank face of boredom.  But honestly, I probably understand my teenage students less than when I first started working with ‘the youth’.  Probably because the older I get, the less I remember about what made the daily grind of my junior high school and high school days difficult.  So instead of insights into what teenagers are or are not like, I thought I would share 4 things I try to keep in mind that my 45-year-old perspective doesn’t get in the way of communicating with my students.

1. Students have to go to school every day, but there are days they would rather be somewhere else. Sometimes my students work late at a part-time job to help their family make ends meet. Probably the last thing they want to be doing is sitting at a desk in school the next day and trying to keep their eyes open. So instead of just acting like my students are the problem because they aren’t in the perfect place to study on any given day, I ask them the following 3 questions: 1) What time did you get to bed last night? 2) Did you eat breakfast today? 3) If you weren’t in school right now, what would you be doing? And I find that if I ask these questions, instead of nudging my students awake, or worse, scolding them for not participating, they usually will answer the questions and give a little bit more effort in class. Because, “I’m interested in what’s going on with you” is a much more motivating sentiment than, “I’m upset with you.”

2. Just because a student isn’t noticeably joining in an activity, doesn’t mean they aren’t participating. Sometimes I see one of my students just kind of hanging back in a group activity and I get the itch to jump in and try and get them more involved in what’s going on. But if I step back and watch, I often notice that while those students might not be speaking or writing, they are often listening, nodding, and making space for others to lead. Instead of feeling that group work requires a certain set of ideal behaviors, I try and remind myself that there’s no way for me to know what role a student is playing in a group of teenagers unless I spend time carefully observing what’s going on.

3. Tests totally suck. And I mean that in a very technical way. For the most part, tests suck the joy out of learning, the curiosity out of a topic, and the energy out of my students. I often try to use alternative testing to assess my students. In any case, regardless of what kind of testing I do, my students have at least 12 years of school experience to trigger feelings that at the end of each semester they will be standing on the lip of a black hole of giant-test-suckiness which is going to pull all the color right out of their lives. That means that in my classrooms I have to keep the focus on learning. I have to highlight the small gains made in each and every class. I have to find a way to make class about learning and NOT about the test. Even then, my students are going to have to suffer through mid-term and final exams, and the least I can do is empathize with how difficult that can be.

4. Time is relative. When I am sitting down and doing career guidance or holding a student-parent-teacher conference, and feel a wave of anxiety about how hard a student will have to work to prepare for a university entry test three years down the road, I need to take a deep breath and give myself a time out. Three years to a sixteen-year-old is the distant future, it is the glowing umbrellas in Blade Runner, it is unknowable. Three years for me sometimes feels like it might arrive the day after tomorrow. But how I feel isn’t really the point of counseling a student about their future. Before I can talk about a student’s future, I need to make sure that I am listening to and understanding the story of their here and now.

I have a friend, Devon, who manages the PR and recruitment division of a large language school here in Osaka. Up until five years ago, he had been a classroom teacher.  Sometimes when we have coffee together, he reminisces about his time in the classroom.  When I asked him why he had stopped teaching, he said, “One day, I was teaching a unit on hobbies and likes and dislikes, and I suddenly felt like there was this huge gap between me and my students.” He said that he just couldn’t find a way to personally connect with his students the way he had in the past. He didn’t think it was anything he had done which had led to the gap. It was just the result of growing and changing and ending up in a place very different from the one he had been in when he started teaching.

The older I get, the more I understand what Devon meant, how he felt on that day. For me, though, there is no job I would rather do and nowhere I would rather spend my workdays than in a classroom. If that means I need to spend a few extra minutes trying to peer over the wall of my 15 years-experience to see my students a bit more clearly, then that is what I will happily do. Because there are no special keys to help us understand our teenage students, just as there are no magic keys to unlock the feelings and dreams of any of the people we talk with throughout our day. The best we can do is to keep in mind that the people in front of us are living their own stories, in their own way. Making real connections with the people around begins not with our own expectations of how things should be, but with watching, listening, and noticing the small moments of how things are now.

Poetry Collaboration

Kevin Steinby Kevin Stein

Blue Hat Image

 I’ve been teaching for 15 years now and one of the pieces of advice I’ve heard over and over again from teachers I respect is the need to find something you are passionate about outside of teaching. The longer I teach, the more I’ve come to realize just how important this advice is. When I walk out of school at the end of the day, I carry my fears and hopes for my students with me. I think about them, worry about them, sometimes cry because I know that for all my hopes and theirs, they are going home to a dark, empty house. They are going home to parents who scream and belittle them, or even worse, pay them no attention at all.

12 Color Poem

For me, I’ve found my release in poetry. On the crowded train ride home, I will often open a book of Tanka, traditional Japanese short poetry, and so lose myself in the small gem of a moment captured in five lines. I will worry over these poems the same way a small child might rub a shiny, smooth stone. And every once in a while I will try to write poetry as well.

Poetry, it’s how I ended up in an unexpected conversation (as online conversations so often are) with a poet and English teacher in India, Tesal K. Sangma. At first we did not talk about teaching, but about our love for traditional poetry forms. Tesal sent me a poem, Soul Bird by Temsula Ao. It was the kind of poem that left me feeling I had traveled for hundreds of miles over the course of less than a page. Slowly our conversation moved from poetry to our classroom experiences. Tesal was required to teach poetry in his classes, but he was having difficulty finding poetry that his students could understand and identify with. At the same time, I was doing a tanka translation project with my students, but they had no audience with whom to share their poems.

Soul Bird Fragment

This is all we had to start with, just the idea of one group of students translating traditional poetry from their first language into English to be used by another group of students studying literature. As I explained the idea to my students, one boy, P-Kun, looked at the poem about pastel crayons he and his group had been struggling over, and added the following line at the bottom of the page, “From children to adults, many people use pastel crayons to draw pictures in Japan. He explained that he was worried that the students in India would read the word crayon and imagine that the narrator was a child. Soon after, all of the other groups had added culture footnotes to their poems. We sent the poems and cultural footnotes off to Tesal to share with his students. And Tesal took pictures of his students, huddled over their desks, pencils in hands, reading over the poems that my students had translated. When I shared these pictures with my students, there was a moment of silence, a kind of muffled cloud of disbelief. When one of my students, H-Chan, asked the question that anyone would ask in such a situation, “What did they think about the poems?” It was in this moment of true curiosity of how my students’ language had affected someone 5000 kilometres away, that the poetry they were writing became part of a larger conversation firmly embedded in their own lives.

Lino Notes

My students spent a solid hour writing out questions for the students in India.

These were questions that showed flashes of critical insight into the structure and nature of poetry. Did the students in India think that the narrator of a certain poem was a boy or a girl? Was the poem’s tone hopeful or sad? Their questions also moved beyond the small frame of the poem itself. My students used the poems to ask questions about the lives of the students in India. Questions like, “What is the most beautiful scenery you’ve ever seen from a bicycle?” and “Do high school students in India have boyfriends and girlfriends?” I worked with my students to build a Lino Board and it was through this interactive medium that the students in India and Japan continued their conversation. In the end, my students decided to collect all the stages of this project into a book, Exchange Through Tanka Project.

Narrator Gender

“Find something you are passionate about outside of teaching. It’s some great advice. I would add a caveat to it. “Find something you are passionate about outside of teaching, but don’t be afraid to bring that passion into your classroom.” Don’t be afraid to let your passion connect you to other teachers and to your students. Because it is within the soil of that shared passion that collaboration begins. Successful collaboration is not simply about engaging with others. In the end, collaboration is about creating the very ground beneath our feet as we walk together on a completely new path.

students working 2[This post is dedicated to the students in the Bachelor of Social Work programme at Martin Luther Christian University in Meghalaya, India who inspired my students to think deeper, ask questions, and search for the personal meaning in the poetry around them.]