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.

Accepting Doesn’t Mean Giving Up

Marc’s recent post on the vague border between motivation and manipulation made me think a lot. I would probably end up with thinking and re-thinking, and overthinking it in my head without making it public if it wasn’t for this after-lunch class I had last Monday. It took some time to accumulate the ideas, and I ended up spending Tuesday morning trying to type down whatever was streaming in my consciousness while I was on my way to work. These are merely my thoughts based on my observations. You might find them controversial. In fact, I’m inclined to think that the majority of teachers reading (hopefully) this post will disagree with me. Nevertheless…

According to various research on motivation, we can expect to face four types of learners: (1) highly motivated, (2) lowly motivated, (3) demotivated, and (4) amotivated. Kikuchi (2012) explained the difference between demotivation and amotivation pointing out that “amotivation concerns a lack of motivation” while “demotivation concerns the negative process that pulls motivation down” (p. 5). In other words, amotivated learners mostly end up dropping out of classes; however, demotivated students would still keep coming to classes and might even engage in some activities if they want. Therefore, we can have an influence on demotivated learners and, by using various motivational tweaks, transform their demotivation into high motivation. As for amotivated learners, there is not that much we can do as they simply do not care.
Dörnyei (2001) offered 20 motivational strategies divided into four stages (i.e., creating the basic motivational conditions, generating initial motivation, maintaining and protecting motivation, and encouraging positive retrospective self-evaluation). There are many other strategies offered by researchers, and I am pretty sure we all tried using them to motivate our learners.

However, to me, it seems like the primary aim of research on motivation is not only to equip us, teachers, with certain techniques, but also to make us think that we must motivate our students. This means that if despite how hard we are trying, some learners stay lowly motivated, it’s kind of our fault. We weren’t trying hard enough. We didn’t read enough books and articles on motivation. We don’t have enough knowledge or persistence, otherwise, we would be able to achieve a desirable result. Now, your feelings do not have to be the same, but that’s how I see it. How I feel it. And yes, it is kind of our fault, but in a different way.

As teachers, we have to acknowledge students’ individualities. As individuals, we have a right to make our choices. Students can choose if they want to be motivated or not. The only thing we, as teachers, can do is to provide them with this choice. There is nothing wrong with trying hard to motivate your students, but the most important is to accept their choice not to respond to your tries. It’s not only about you but them as well, and their choice does not have to please you. In fact, sometimes their choice to stay indifferent can drive you crazy (as it happened to me last Monday when my high-level class declined my honest offer to tailor the course to their needs and simply let me understand that they don’t really care), but it’s their choice. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but, in my opinion, you should respect it and accept it. And act on it.

Teaching is about respecting your students. Respecting your students is about accepting their choices. And accepting their choices (even when they contradict your teaching beliefs) doesn’t mean giving up. At least, that’s how I see it.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kikuchi, K. (2015). Demotivation in Second Language Acquisition. Insights from Japan. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Dialogical Feedback: The Beginnings

It’s been 2.5 weeks since the new semester has begun, and I must say all my students are really nice and hard-working. Some of them are a bit less hard-working than others, of course, but still, they all try to do the tasks as well as they can and act on my feedback. They are very talkative, are able to keep discussions going for a long time and hardly ever rely on L1. I sometimes feel like there’s not much for me to teach (apart from some useful phrases and expressions)! Though I should not complain 🙂

For this semester, I decided on some things I want to try. First of them was an entirely new Introductory Lesson that would tune my students into reflecting on the features of effective communication and some useful communication skills. I spent rather long time planning this lesson, and it turned out to be a really good one. Here’s what I did:

I. What Is Communication?
This step was different for lower and higher levels.
Lower levels had to do two brainstorming tasks which were somewhat related to each other: first, they had to brainstorm the word ‘communication’, and then they had to brainstorm what they could do to have effective communication.
Higher levels would start with discussing four quotes about communication (if they agreed/disagreed with them and why) and then brainstorm the same question as lower levels, i.e., the question about the features of effective communication.
Students of both levels came up with similar lists, which included eye contact, careful listening, use of body language, and positive attitude (smiling). Only some of them mentioned mutual understanding, though, mostly higher level students.
This stage was kind of a guided discovery task and, in my opinion, showed good results.

II. Communication Skills
This level was built on the features of effective communication my students came up with in stage I.
Careful listening (or just listening to others’ ideas) became Active Listening (use of reactions and gestures), the first skill we practised.
Then I talked about how important for effective and successful communication it is to understand each other and introduced Checking Understanding skill (combined with Paraphrasing and Asking for Explanation). We practised it with the help of a very controlled activity called ‘This is blah-blah-blah’.
Finally, I reminded my students that it is always okay to ask others to repeat something if they feel a need for it.

III. Discussion
The last stage was a long 16-minute discussion about The Ideal Classmate. Students had a chance to reflect on the things that can make their English lessons better and happier for everyone, for example, being active, helping each other, knowing everyone’s name, not giving up, etc. They were welcomed to come up with their own ideas, but the initial list was rather comprehensive, so only a couple of students added something extra (unfortunately, I cannot remember what it was).

IV. Feedback
The last but not the least!
I tried to make discussion feedback both student-centred and level appropriate. Lower levels did self-reflective feedback followed by peer-feedback (they could use their answers in the ‘Check Yourself’ part to answer some of the peer-feedback questions). Higher levels did less scaffolded group feedback that invited them to reflect critically on their discussion both as a group and as individuals.
And here it comes, the so-called Dialogical feedback, my spring innovation. I asked students to write answers to two questions (anonymously, of course):
1. What did you like about today’s lesson? Why?
2. What did you not like? Why? (e.g., something about Lina’s teaching or something about your performance)

A Little Bit about the Results

Students could choose the language they wanted to use for writing their answers.
Lower levels went for Japanese while higher levels prefered English. Some lower level students chose English as well (those who were more active during the lesson and seemed more self-confident than their classmates).
Among higher levels, those students who seemed shy and less confident chose Japanese. Nothing unexpected.

Almost all students wrote about their performance or their worries/concerns/etc. I am not sure if the reason for this was the unwillingness to criticise the teacher or the tendency of Japanese people to focus on their weaknesses and faults. Nevertheless, both reasons are socio-psychological and have deep roots in Japanese people’s mentality and culture.
I mentioned, of course, that if they did not like something about activities or my teaching they could feel free to tell me about it so that I could change it, but as you already know, I hardly got any comments on it. To be precise, I only got two comments:
– One student said I spoke too fast and she did not understand some bits;
– One student said he wanted more copies of the poster because it was difficult for him to share it with other three people.

As for comments on their performance, most students said they had difficulties with expressing their ideas due to the lack of relevant vocabulary. Some other concerns included:
– unbalanced participation;
– lack of ideas;
– communication problems caused by insufficient knowledge of relevant communication strategies (i.e., struggled to keep the discussion going and did not know what to do when there was silence);
– discussing in a 3-people group was difficult;
– low level of motivation;
– low English proficiency and insufficient knowledge of English grammar.
It is possible to conclude that most of the students experience some kind of anxiety caused by various factors, mostly intrapersonal.

This week, I am replying to my students with some advice on how they can overcome this anxiety and provide them with some learning strategies.
I do not push them though since I always recognise the fact that not all of my students have to love English as much as I do. Most of them are being torn apart circle activities, part-time jobs, studying, and necessity to have some free time, and it’s a big question which of the things above are their priority. Actually, I know for sure that for many of first-year students circle activities and free time are more important than studying; we had a discussion about it.
As I said, I do not push my students to follow my advice. However, some of them got the message between the line, and when they had to answer the Dialogical feedback questions, many of them wrote not only about their difficulties, but also what they think they need to do to handle it. Cool!

I am not sure yet which principles this Dialogical feedback activity focuses on. Learning strategies? Maybe, but I am not exploring this aspect deeply enough, and I am not intended to do so. Motivation? Again, maybe some of them will feel more motivated by understanding that their problems do matter.
I will conduct a survey at the end of the course to get some feedback from students on this activity.
Therefore, …

… Stay tuned for updates!

Identity Rambles

It has been a while since the last post. I decided to pause my professional life while being on holidays.
I did not manage to keep this promise though. I read a dozen of articles on fluency to prepare for my poster presentation for the PanSIG conference. I kept reading blog posts from my favourites.
I have also been digging through the NNESts vs NESTs research. Currently, I am reading Nonnative Speaker English Teachers and Non-Native Educators in English Language Teaching, both edited by George Braine.

The fact that this topic is of great interest to me comes as no surprise since I am a so-called non-native speaker. I was born and raised in Russia, and I left my hometown to study in Scotland when I was 19. I have been learning English since I was 4, and I experienced a variety of learning contexts, e.g., public schools, private language centres, and summer schools in the U.K.
As far as I remember, I have always been concerned with my accent. Russian speakers of English generally have a negative representation in mass-culture “thanks” to Hollywood spy movies. Russians are evil, and they cannot speak “proper” English. This thick ridiculous accent of theirs causes nothing but laughter (and pain). You can probably imagine how hard I tried to acquire if not a “native” accent, but at least some neutral-ish accent that would not give a hint about my origin.
I succeeded. People struggle with identifying my background. I am often mistaken for an American (by Australians, English, and Japanese), or Scottish (by Americans), or English (by Russians). When I say that I am Russian, some of them cannot believe it. They say ‘but you do not sound like Russian at all! You have quite a neutral accent’. I did a pretty good job, did not I?

I am not so sure about it now.
My origin is an inevitable part of my identity, and I feel that by getting rid of my accent I have taken something significant away from myself. You can even say that I robbed myself.
It took time to realise.
There are still moments when I sound a bit more like Russian (a bit more like myself?). When I am tired, for example, or when I am excited and talk too fast. However, from now on I choose not to worry about it and accept it as a part of who I am.
I am a Russian teacher of English.

Book Review

When I first read a post made by Elizabeth Bekes calling to join a competition for the best book reviewer organised by the EFL Magazine, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to try something new. Well, not entirely new; I had some experience of writing movie reviews in Russian, English, and even Swedish. However, it was my first time to write a book review.
After reading a dozen of different reviews published in the magazine and trying to figure out how to approach mine I realised that the best way was just to be myself. Just write what you feel like writing. Do not be afraid of getting emotional or personal – if it is your nature, of course.
Being myself worked (once again), and I won the first prize. The prize was the publication of the review in the magazine so you can read it here in case you are interested.
I must say I enjoyed writing this book review, so in the future, I hope to write more of them. I just need to find books that will make me inspired, like Teaching in Low Resource Classrooms did.

Using games for win-win learning

Just finished participating in my first-ever webinar, and this experience left quite a positive impression!

I must say I love using games in my classroom. I think it makes students happier and engages them more. I love watching them getting emotional and having fun while speaking English and revising what they have learnt. So I say a big YES to the games. No wonder a webinar with such a catchy title attracted me, huh? 🙂 Another reason to join was the name of the presenter (John Hughes) and the fact that it was organised by OUP, ‘the world’s authority on teaching English’ (as Gareth Davies, the moderator, said).

Here’s a brief summary of what John talked about.

First of all, when you choose or create a game, consider:
– preparation time vs classroom time
(you don’t want to spend 2 hours preparing a game that only lasts 10 minutes, do you?)
– easy vs difficult set-up
(make sure it doesn’t take too much time to set the game up and that it’s easy enough for students to understand the rules)
– how much language does it generate?
(our main goal is learning after all, right?)
– does it make students forget they’re ‘learning’ English?
(no one cancelled the fun element 🙂 )

Second, make sure that it complies with the 5 C’s:

  • Chance
  • Challenge
  • Collaboration
  • Competition
  • Communication

I’ll tell a bit more about each of these key features below.

Continue reading “Using games for win-win learning”