Going Tech-y

Contexts are demanding. They push changes on us. After spending several years working in a not that tech-friendly environment, I moved on to teaching Business English in an IT-company, which is all about technologies.

My students are not good at writing by hand. Typing is what they do every day all day long. Smartphones, apps, iPads, screens in each room, unlimited Wi-Fi access… After resisting this change I came to the conclusion that the more you resist, the more painful the process is. After all, I was just trying to put off the inevitable.

Changes do not come easily, but they do come. Here I am, writing a post about tech tools I am using in my classroom right now.

1. Flipgrid: So much more than just a video-recording platform

So yes, this is a platform where you create your virtual classroom (aka grid). Each grid can have an unlimited number of tasks (aka topics). Students then record and upload a video of how they do the task. They can respond to each other’s videos by leaving video-comments.

Teachers can do the same, but on top of it, there is an opportunity to leave customised feedback: just set the criteria and type in a personal message to a student. One click, and your feedback is sent directly to their email.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s hidden below the surface is a chance to remove the physical limitations of your classroom and extend it much further than the room you usually meet in. Involve students from other classes, invite interesting speakers to your grid, open your classroom to the world!

Another thing you could do with Flipgrid is to create student portfolios. The function called MixTapes helps you create a sequence of any videos you have recorded, a video-portfolio.
You could also use it for sharing semester highlights (having a tangible result never harms, right?). Why not have a look and recalling all those sweet memories we had on the way?

2. Speech Recognition Technology (SRT) & Co

This is a must-have for anyone who teaches pronunciation or at least focuses on it from time to time.
I usually leave it up to my students to decide which SRT app they want to use. So far, we have tested:

– Google Translate app/webpage;
– various inbuilt note-taking apps (e.g. Evernote, Notes, etc.);
– a keyboard with a voice input function + any typing space (e.g. Google Search, online dictionary, etc.)
– Google Docs (PC / tablet);
otter.ai

The awesome thing about SRT is that it is extremely sensitive to the sounds you pronounce, especially vowels. As a result, I can easily identify my students’ weak points by just looking at what appears on their screens. This allows for on-spot pronunciation correction. It has already helped us deal with /e/-/æ/, final /n/-/m/ (a big problem for Chinese learners), /n/-/ŋ/, long vowels vs short vowels, /w/-/r/ (again, an issue for Korean and Chinese students) and many other things.

I also encourage students to practise by themselves. Some of them liked using ELSA, an app for working on American pronunciation. It creates a customised learning plan based on the diagnostic test you take at the beginning. After each word/sentence you pronounce, you get a score saying how close it was to a standard American pronunciation.

Finally, an excellent app to learn and practise IPA is Sounds by Macmillan.

3. Pear Deck: An add-on to your slides

This website allows you to make your presentations way more interactive and engaging, so it is perfect for online courses, webinars, etc.

Link your Pear Deck account to your Google or Microsoft account, and it will automatically upload your slides. For each slide, you can choose what type of question you want to ask, e.g. an open question, a multiple-choice question, etc.

To answer your questions, students have to go to joinpd.com and enter an access code you gave them.

Apart from interactive presentations, Pear Deck has a vocab list feature. You can create your own lists by typing in words and their definitions. You can then play Flashcard Factory where students get words from the list and have to either write a definition or come up with examples for each word. This is an engaging and meaningful way to revise vocabulary before the test.
Also recommended for Delta M1 tutors – imagine playing with your trainees before they sit their M1 exam!

 

I hope you found this useful.
I am going to post more about various tech tools I am using in the future so stay tuned!

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So you wanna take Delta Module 1 Exam?

I’ve finally decided to post about my Delta M1 experience.

I passed M1 in December 2018 and got a Pass with Merit. I am quite satisfied with my results considering that I was working full-time 6 days a week at that time.

1) So what kind of exam is that? What does it test?

As a graduate of a British university, I felt that this exam was quite like any kind of university exam I had in the past.

Delta M1 exam consists of 2 parts and lasts for 3 hours with a 30-minute break in between.
Paper 1 tests your knowledge of terminology and language analysis skills.
Paper 2 tests your knowledge of methodology and coursebook materials analysis skills.

2) So how do I prepare? Should I take a course or not?

Continue reading “So you wanna take Delta Module 1 Exam?”

Plenary Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a plenary speech at excitELT, a conference that always makes me feel excited.
Of course, it did not go as planned (nothing does, right?), but nevertheless, here is the script.
You can also find the link to download my article about the Dialogical Feedback project in the text below.

———- (INTRO) ———-

Oh well… I am feeling very nervous right now.
Actually, I’ve read somewhere on the internet that this is the worst phrase you can choose to start your presentation with.

However, at the same time, even though hardly anyone admits it out loud while presenting, the majority of people do feel nervous and even anxious when they have to speak in front of an audience, even a small and well-known one.
In fact, public speaking anxiety and communication apprehension, in general, are among the most widespread types of anxiety.

Communicative Language Teaching emphasizes communication. Students are constantly talking to each other, even if it’s a simple pair-check for the answers for some activity.
At universities, they have to take discussion classes, presentation classes and all other kinds of highly communicative classes.

Raise your hand if you teach such a class.
Raise your hand if you think your students might feel anxious during your classes.
Raise your hand if you ever felt anxious when communicating in a foreign language.
Raise your hand if your teacher ever asked you how you felt about communicating in a foreign language.
Raise your hand if you ever asked your students how they feel about communicating in a foreign language.

Continue reading “Plenary Speech”

‘Fun’ in the Classroom

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I suck at incorporating ‘fun’ in my activities. In fact, I do not even understand why they have to be ‘fun’.
I remember when I was talking my CELTA one of my tutors told me that I could try making my tasks more ‘fun’. For example, ask students to match the headings with paragraphs by asking them to walk around the classroom and finding these on the walls. It is more ‘fun’ than just doing it while being seated, right? I felt quite sceptical about it. I thought to myself (and I still do): “But is not learning new words and grammar and simply communicating in English, even though it is not perfect, already exciting enough?”
Going back to the tweet (I love it!) at the beginning of my post, you can indeed simply ask your students to choose a number rather than wasting toilet paper, can not you?
What I mean by fun is engagement, and engagement is created by a positive atmosphere in the classroom, encouragement, and support. If you give students these three, they will feel more comfortable with communicating in English and attempting difficult or unfamiliar types of tasks.
I hardly have any ‘fun’-containing activities in my lessons. Most of the time, students discuss challenging topics like the problem of the ageing population in Japan or poverty. Dull, huh? However, I keep getting comments from them that our lessons are difficult but fun because they have an opportunity to talk to their classmates in English and learn their opinions on various topics.
That is it. That is what makes lessons fun: communication. Not the pieces of toilet paper or whatever one does to bring more ‘fun’.
Stop re-inventing the wheel. Simplify instead and give students what they came for because if you ask what this is most of them will say ‘to speak English’. And I bet they do not care about all those extra decorations we try to put striving to keep activities ‘fun’.
It is not the decorations but the content and learning outcome that matter.

“I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?”

As far as I remember, I always enjoyed learning foreign languages.
My first foreign language was German. I hardly remember anything about that experience, but, according to my mom, my German teacher was praising me all the time and suggested I should apply for a specialised German school when the time comes.
My second foreign language was English. I’ve been learning it since I was 4 years old, and I have much clearer memories of my early English-learning experience. For example, I remember my English teacher in kindergarten complaining to my mom that I was mispronouncing /ð/ and /θ/ sounds replacing them with /z/ and /s/ respectively, obviously due to L1 interference (since these were the closest sounds in my mother tongue, Russian). Was I sad? No, not at all. I didn’t care. I clearly remember thinking something like ‘oh well, but she can still understand what words I’m saying, right? So what’s the problem?’. My mom didn’t scold me either.
I then started learning German once again in grade 7, had some experience with learning Spanish in grade 10, and started learning Scandinavian languages and Japanese at university. As you can see, I had or have been learning quite a number of languages.
And I have never experienced foreign language anxiety.

Foreign language anxiety is one of quite well researched affective variables (see e.g. Scovel; MacIntyre & Gardner; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope; Young; von Wörde). It can be defined as the “worry and negative emotional reaction aroused when learning or using a second language” (MacIntyre, 1999, cited in Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). Moreover, Jim King (2014) writes that social anxiety – and foreign language anxiety as a result of it – is especially common within the foreign language classrooms of Japanese universities (and I’d add that not only universities but schools as well).
I remember when I just started teaching English in Japan it came as an unpleasant surprise that I had to drag every word of my students’ mouths as if I was interrogating them and they had something to hide.
As the time was passing by, I learnt not to ask open questions but yes-no questions and provide answer templates, e.g., “Ok guys, how was your discussion? Good? Bad? So-so?”. Only after that would they finally say something. As soon as I’d ask them “Why?” though they’d stuck, but I got used to it.

What never came across my mind is that most of these students would start feeling nervous or even anxious as soon as I opened my mouth and started speaking English. What shed light on this issue was the Dialogical Feedback activity I started doing every week at the end of the lesson with all my classes (I’m currently writing an article on it so stay tuned for updates!).
I thought it would help me understand if I missed something when teaching today’s target phrases, but it became bigger than that. Many students actually weren’t worried about the phrases as much as I thought they would. What worried them much more was an inability to express themselves in English, starting with mild feelings of worry and finishing with severe feelings of anxiety and self-unworthiness like for that student whose words I chose as the title for this post.
Due to my anxiety-free foreign language learning experience, I could hardly imagine how stressful and painful it can be for someone to learn a foreign language.

Scovel (1978) described anxiety as “one of the most important affective variables identified in learning tasks”. Yet nothing is said about this phenomenon in the pre-service courses like CELTA. Freshly qualified teachers step into the classrooms across the world trying to make their lessons as communicative and fun as possible, and the question is how many of them bump into the emotional-based wall of silence like that one in Japan?
What’s more, hardly any of those articles I’ve read on foreign language anxiety (and I read a lot) gives any practical advice on what we, teachers, could do to help our students relax and let all those negative emotions go (or at least make them less strong).
Of course, we do not have adequate expertise to deal with severe anxiety reactions (this is psychotherapists’ work), but we could definitely help students with mild anxiety reactions, those who feel worried, apprehensive, and nervous.
I found some suggestions that come from Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope (1986), von Wörde (2003), and Oxford (2006):
– enhanced awareness of language anxiety for teachers, students, and programme planners,
– a relaxed classroom atmosphere or environment,
– relaxation exercises,
– acknowledging students’ feelings and supporting them,
– small group work,
– advice on effective language learning strategies (Oxfords’ affective strategies are specifically aimed at reducing anxiety),
– behavioural contracting,
– journal keeping,
– slowing down the tempo and giving more time for students to process and digest the material,
– homework assignments and test assignments being explained in L1 or in writing.
I’d add to this reflective practice which lies in the core of my Dialogical Feedback activity.
Give students a chance to write their feelings down and then look through what they wrote. Encourage them to write whatever they feel and make it anonymous to make sure they won’t feel restrained. Then hand out your written reply to what they wrote with some advice on learning strategies, words of encouragement, etc. That’s what I did, and my students said that it helped them identify their problems and feel more relaxed and confident. It works!

When did you become aware of such issue as foreign language anxiety?
What do you do to help your students feel less anxious?
What other tips can you add to the list in this post?

 


References:
Continue reading ““I can’t express myself in English, and I hate myself! What should I do?””

Losing a Battle, Winning the War?

There is always this one class that has an attitude. Every single semester, with no exceptions. The faces change, but the attitude stays the same.
Last semester, this was one of my Monday classes. They were a pretty high level but it seemed that our classes were some kind of a burden for them. I tried to supplement with more interesting and challenging tasks, but no matter what I did they seemed to stay indifferent. When I would offer them to choose what they wanted to do for the next task, they always said that it did not matter to them and they would be okay with anything. They were interested in communicating with each other though, so no problem here.
After some time, I simply gave up on involving them into making decisions about the learning process and left it up to myself.
We had a couple of nice classes (in my opinion), but the majority was so-so. I still would plan good-quality lessons but I stopped being emotionally invested into these students. I would just come, teach and leave. We had a silent agreement: they could keep their attitude but in return, they would not cross the line and do anything to make my job more difficult.

A month ago or so I got the comments from the students I taught last semester. All of them were nice and positive, however, there was a bunch of comments left by the students from the same class that stood out: incredibly heartwarming words that deeply touched me. I could not see the names, only the class code. I usually do not check which class the comments come from, but this time I decided to check.
All of these comments were left by that Monday class.

It made me think how often we have such kind of misunderstanding. It is a well-known fact that there are as many points of view as people.
What I saw was a class with the attitude, a class that did not express their feelings the way I wanted.
What did they see? Apparently, a totally different thing.
They enjoyed our lessons. They said I was a great teacher. They regretted they could not stay in the same class with me for one more semester.
This kind of feedback from them was totally unexpected.
I should definitely try being more attentive and sensitive, and not that quick to judge.

What Depression Taught Me

In December 2015, I was diagnosed with emotional burnout / mild depression. My existence was almost unbearable (no matter how trivial it may sound). I was crying 24/7; I felt miserable and hated myself for being weak and pathetic. Life was extremely painful. Everything was painful. Waking up, blinking, breathing. I would not eat for days – just drinking tap water. I would have to make a titanic effort just to open my eyes and get up. The only things that kept me going were my stubbornness and a thought my mom shared with me once about children leaving this world before their parents do being wrong. Every night I would go to bed thinking that maybe tomorrow it will become slightly more bearable. It would not though for quite a while.
I did manage to overcome this. I fought like my life depended on it – and it did, literally. I won that battle.
I am not going to tell about how I felt when I realised that this experience left me completely blank and I had to rediscover myself from scratch. Instead, I am going to talk about what I learnt from it and how it influenced my teaching beliefs.

Back in December 2015, I was not a teacher yet. I became a teacher almost a year after that, in November. In the beginning, I was mostly occupied with sliding into the profession that was new to me and adjusting to it. However, later, after I got into the routine I found myself going through those harsh memories over and over again. I took some time to reflect on it through the prism of ELT. Now, I am sure what I am about to write is in no way new and eye-opening, but nevertheless…

We, teachers, are probably even more vulnerable than people who work in some other professions. We are constantly under the spotlight; we are being watched and evaluated by our students. I am sure there is no teacher who, at the very beginning of their career, never felt nervous or even a little bit scared when entering the classroom. Scared of being judged. Scared of being rejected. Scared of not being liked. Whenever we are not satisfied with our lessons, we jump straight into blaming ourselves – we failed to engage students, failed to think through the lesson, failed to (insert what is applicable to you here). It is always our fault. Or is it?

What depression taught me is that we cannot be liked by everyone. It is simply impossible. There will always be some people who think we are not good enough. The reason is not that we are actually not good, no, the reason is that different people have a different understanding of what is good and what is not for them. We all have our own vision, and other people do not have to match our conceptions. For example, you do not have to match your students’ ideas of what a good teacher is. They might believe that a good teacher is someone who is cheerful and makes them laugh while your personality is calm and serious. It does not mean you are a bad teacher. It simply means that, for this particular student, you are just not what they expected, and expectations do not always meet reality.

Should you try to change your personality and your teaching style to match your students’ expectations? I would not recommend doing so. What depression taught me is that we have right to be the way we are. It does not only refer to our personalities and teaching styles but also to how and what we feel in the classroom. Teachers often tend to hide negative feelings while displaying positive feelings much more openly  (Gates, 2000; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). What I learnt from depression is that you should not be ashamed of experiencing negative feelings and emotions. You cannot always be positive, cheerful, and happy. There are definitely going to be moments when you feel sad, or irritated, or angry, or disappointed, and it is absolutely normal to feel the whole range of emotions, and maybe sometimes it is worth it to let your students know that you are unhappy with their behaviour or attitude rather than trying to call to their reason in a calm and friendly manner.

Around two thousands years ago, a Roman playwright Terentius wrote “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” However, I feel that we, teachers, are often pushed to supress our true emotions (and emotions are something very human indeed) and wear a mask in front of our students. Inability to be emotionally authentic leads to emotional intensity and a decrease in workplace well-being (Butler and Gross, 2004; Chang, 2009; Lechuga, 2012; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). As a result, we might end up emotionally burnt out and depressed.

There is only one way out I see: be yourself. Be your real self. Do not worry about how many students like true you. It is their right not to like you. It is your right to be just the way you are. No one can tell you what is right and what is wrong – there are as many rights and wrongs as people around you. Decide for yourself and be content and happy.


References:
Hagenauer, G., Volet, S. E., (2013). “I don’t hide my feelings, even though I try to”: insight into teacher educator emotion display. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(3), 261-281. doi:10.1007/s13384-013-0129-5