‘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.

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“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

Co-Teaching: Sharing is Caring

Today I want to talk a bit about co-teaching. I have already tweeted about it, and it seems like different teachers have a different understanding of what co-teaching is, so I decided to expand on it.

Classification
Based on my personal experience and some comments from other teachers on Twitter, I came up with this basic classification based on the nature of the actual teaching process (feel free to add more):
1. Independent
Two or more teachers share the same class/course, but teach different parts of it on different days. Quite popular in universities across the world. I had some courses like that (e.g., Scandinavian Historical and Cultural Topics or Scandinavian Literature) in the UoE. I guess the planning should be done collaboratively, but teaching is more or less independent, so that is why I called it that.
2. Passive
Two or more teachers share the same class/course, one is teaching, others are observing and probably making comments if asked. Never experienced it as a learner but did do it as a teacher. Even though the other co-teachers are present in the classroom, their roles are minimised; therefore, they are passive.
3. Symbiotic
Two or more teachers are sharing the same lesson. It means they teach the same lesson together swapping or sharing the stages. Experienced it as a learner during CELTA course and did it as a teacher last August and this week. This one is my ultimate favourite, so this entry will focus on it rather than the previous two.

Teaching Context
I am teaching within a unified curriculum which means that forty teachers are teaching the same lesson at the same time but in different classrooms to different students. Therefore, it is relatively easy to implement symbiotic co-teaching. While there is no opportunity for it during the semester, the so-called Repeating Course (RC) (a special course offered during holidays for those students who failed the regular course in the previous year) often involves classes being combined (due to low attendance) so teachers end up being assigned to the same – newly combined – class. While most teachers choose to implement passive co-teaching and teach every other lesson, my co-teacher and I went for symbiotic co-teaching and enjoyed it a lot.

What We Did
We had to teach the last part of the RC, i.e., five lessons. The first lesson was a review lesson, and since we were new to the students (the previous parts were taught by different instructors), we had to include a getting-to-know-you stage. The review lesson was followed by two regular lessons, one review lesson, and one final test lesson. We decided to do symbiotic co-teaching for the first review lesson, second review lesson, and final test lesson. Two regular lessons were co-taught passively (the main reason behind that decision was that we wanted to observe each other teaching a regular lesson from beginning till the end). Here is how our lesson outlines looked:

co-teaching

Review in a form of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was our tech innovation. My co-teacher had a template with sound and animation, and we decided to try it out. I came up with some questions related to the skills we were teaching, and my co-teacher added some extra questions and inserted them into the template. For the activity, students were divided into two groups; each group had a small whiteboard, a marker, and a tissue. They would write the answers on the board trying to meet the time limit (5 seconds for easy questions, then 8, 10, and 15 upon achieving the threshold, i.e., the amount in white).
Fishbowl in Lesson 12 is an activity in which student observe each other and then give feedback to their peers.

Reflection
For symbiotically co-taught lessons, we literally shared the stages and were giving instructions together. While students were doing the tasks, we were monitoring and then giving feedback adding to each other’s words. Together, we were able to give more accurate and detailed feedback.
Although our approaches to teaching skills were somewhat different, we did not have any conflicts or misunderstandings; instead, we managed to combine our strengths and techniques and deliver more effective lessons.
An important thing for co-teaching is for teachers to get along with each other both on a personal and professional level. It does not mean they have to share the same teaching beliefs and teaching principles, but they have to be ready to try new things and learn from each other. Only in this case, I believe, co-teaching will be beneficial for both teachers and students.

New Endings

It has been a while since I have posted anything on this blog. Blogging involves a great deal of self-discipline, which I lack. Those bits of self-discipline I do have are all invested in lesson planning. Choices, you know.

Anyway, my third semester of teaching English discussion finished several days ago. Last lessons are always hard to plan: I find it tricky to stuff something meaningful, something memorable and something exciting into one lesson altogether.

I believe that the end of something is always a good chance for a reflection. That is why this time, I decided to begin the last lesson with a reflection.
At the end of almost every lesson, my students would write answers to two questions: the first question would ask them about what they liked or found interesting, and the second question would make them focus on something they thought was difficult. I wrote about this activity a while ago.
I thought that students would benefit from getting some tangible result from this activity. Even though I would write them a reply and hand it out at the beginning of the next lesson, I was not sure how many of them would actually read it 😀 Since most of my students admit that speaking English is stressful, I wanted them to see that these 3 months were enough to make some progress. Therefore, I prepared a simple reflective task.
First, I looked through their answers to the second question and made a list of top-10 difficulties/issues/problems they faced at the beginning of the course (first 5 lessons). Students were asked to have a look at these problems and circle yes or no when answering two questions:
1. Did you have this problem in the beginning?
2. Do you still feel like you have this problem?
After that, students would discuss their answers with each other and share their impressions. They would also answer some other questions, e.g., “Do you feel you made some progress?”, “Are English Discussion classes similar to your high school English classes?”, etc.

It was heartwarming to see how many yes became no! I heard some of my students saying that in the beginning, they were nervous and had some kind of negative attitude towards the whole idea of having discussions in English (something we can call demotivation, according to Kikuchi). However, after some time, they started feeling like it was getting easier and realised they actually could have long discussions in English. The thing is that in Japan, in most high schools, the grammar-translation approach is still used so when students get into universities that use CLT, they feel anxious and stressed out because they have to communicate in English – something they were not taught to do.
There is nothing more empowering than watching these students develop their English communication ability, watching how they rely on L1 less and less and learn to use communicative strategies effectively.

Another reflective activity I did in this lesson was a Semester Reflection. Students would draw a mind map for the following topic: My first semester at university. They would put whatever they think was important enough to be on paper. They would share their mind maps with each other and ask some questions if needed. They would also discuss some questions, e.g., “If you could go back in April 2018 and start your semester again, would you change anything?” and “What is your goal for next semester?”.

So far, I am happy with how the weekly dialogical feedback activity ended up being wrapped into an end-of-semester reflection. I would say the piloting was successful. Getting ready to try out the refined version next semester and write a paper on it! And for now, holidays.
There is one exciting thing I am planning for August (hint: it has something to do with Dogme), so stay tuned!

Equal Opportunities and Emotional Investment

I teach 12 groups of students per week. It means teaching and interacting with 94 individuals. I can describe each of my students and give detailed comments on their personality, typical behaviour, difficulties they experience in the classroom, and their attitude to our lessons.

Emotional authenticity and investment, as well as teacher-student relationship, are wide-researched topics in the field of ELT. We all know that our relationship is developing differently with different groups/students, and we are all guilty of having our favourites (I am no exception).

My favourites are groups that consist of smart and fast-thinking students. They love brainstorming; their ideas are more or less broad and interesting to listen to. They love English and enjoy the CLT environment. Finally, they are always eager to learn something new; they accept everything new that comes from me with enthusiasm and start using it immediately. Their level does not matter – their attitude does. No wonder that I, as a teacher, want to give as much as possible to the students in these groups.

Now, one of the things I often repeat to my students is that discussion is always teamwork and that it is up to them to ensure that everyone gets equal opportunities.
What I have realised is that while I am teaching my students about being considerate and mindful of each other, I myself might have broken these principles. I have come to an understanding that I am less emotionally invested in those groups that do not meet the criteria written above. I still care about them, but since they are less receptive and do not seem to be that into what we are doing, I start feeling the same. I do my job as well as I can, but I do not share my knowledge with them as easily and happily as I do with my favourites. I am just not sure if they need or want it.

I know what is happening here is logical and can be easily explained by some theories and backed up with some research, I do. My question is not why, but what should I do to change it and should I even change it or not.
I do not have the answers to these questions, and I am not sure I ever will.