Monday, 29 October 2012

Why do you teach?

"It is going to be a good week. I am overflowing, holy cow, I am so full of joy! I feel like my job gets better and better, and not because it is changing— but because I am changing."

I read this a couple of weeks ago in Melody Joy's blog (which I strongly recommend) and it describes exactly how I feel now. I used to hate Mondays. Why? Simply because they were long and tiring - and so was the rest of the week. However, these days I can't wait to see my students every morning! A profund transformation has taken place and it is not because I have a new job!

What has been going on? Well... first, I must confess there have been some changes at work, some of which I applaud, some of which have left me feeling a little sad. I'm not going to go into details today, but all I can say is that facing difficulty at work has made me stronger. And, you know what? Something amazing has happened: I've been able to react against aggression in a non-violent way. I can do it quite well when a teenager gets angry, but NOT when an adult is the one who does it. It wasn't an easy task, but I managed to keep calm and make my point clear without raising my voice - even when I was being shouted at. When I came back home I was genuinely shocked. I felt a totally different person!

So what has happened to me? Melody Joy was talking about a leadership retreat with her church and how it had left her "shaking from the impact", but in my case I can't say there has been such a clear turning point. I haven't travelled a unique spiritual journey or embarcked on a new professional path. What I believe has changed the way I feel is the fact that I have been able to reconnected with WHY, why I chose to become a teacher when I was 17, why I work where I do and with the people there. And what have I discovered? I teach because I love helping others, I teach because I care for the students I work with, and I teach there because I know those students and colleagues care for me. I feel I am part of a team, I feel respected and ...loved.

If you read the post I wrote in September you'll see I am going through some huge personal changes, but the person who made me think again about why I do what I do is called Simon Sinek. I found his videos a couple of months ago and I have been thinking about the ideas he shared ever since. Please, spend 20 minutes of your day watching this talk or any other you can find online. YOU WON'T REGRET IT.

Monday, 24 September 2012

When in doubt, choose change

Image: 'artjournal4'
I always tell my students: "If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”. For me, learning means changing. I know what many of you might think, change can be messy, frightening or frustrating, but I suppose you'll agree with me it is undoubtedly necessary. Making progress means facing challenges, developing new skills and solving old puzzles.

Sometimes life runs smoothly and learning becomes a slow process, but that is not what has been happening to me since August. From that moment I have been experiencing a deep transformation which has set an inflexion point in my personal and professional life. Embarking on this whirlwind adventure forced me to take a break from blogging, but now that I have gotten into a new routine, I have finally found some time to sit down and write.

Let me share with you the biggest changes I have undergone and the best lessons I have learned.

Change #1: Home alone

For the 1st time in my life I’m living on my own. By the end of July my boyfriend, with whom I had been living for 8 years, moved 250 km away to do his residency. He’s a doctor and it’s too hard to get a position here, in Rosario, so he had to go. We chat almost every day (now I know more about skype, facebook chat, and google + hangout than ever before, hehe), but do I feel lonely? Well... sometimes. I must confess living by myself is not something I would have chosen, but it does feel good, at least at times! 

There are 2 main things this experience is teaching me:  

  • The gift of quiet: A teacher’s world is filled with bustle and noise, but life has given me quiet! After school, when I close the door behind me, I have nothing to distract myself from the thoughts and feelings I don’t focus on during the day. When I am alone I can unwind and learn. What I learn about is myself, my own strengths, my weaknesses, my insecurities. Knowing myself better will help me become a better person and, hopefully, a better teacher. If you can, spend some quality time with yourself.You’ll be surprised how much your “inner voices” can tell you about the aspects of your life you must work on.

  • Time alone is important and so is time spent with others: When my boyfriend was always around, I did not cherish every moment with him. Now that we see each other once or twice a month, I listen more closely to what he says and choose more carefully what to do with him. I suppose we can also apply this to sharing time with colleagues and students. Every person around us is important, but we are usually too distracted to really connect with all of them. Let's cherish every moment we spend with the people we love!
Change #2: Officially a student 

Ever since the beginning of the year I had been meaning to start formal training on ICT but it was not until August that  “Postítulo de Especialización en Educación y TIC ” ( Post Degree in Education and ICT) started. I’m so happy I'm officially a student again! Up to now, we have only focused on analyzing our context, needs and ideas. I hope in the future we’ll learn much more. I keep my fingers crossed!

Change #3: From working with colleagues to working with students.

In May I was chosen to train a group of colleagues at school in the use of ICT. The experience was time and energy-consuming, but absolutely fantastic. However, in August I was informed my role had to change. The Ministry of Education decided it was time students produced digital material. What do I have to do now? Basically I have to find out what cross-curricular topics students are interested in and what projects on these areas are being carried out at school so that I can help students create videos, digital posters, audios, etc to express their ideas. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it is very interesting but I would say this is definitely more time-consuming than my previous task, at least now that I am helping students get organised and teaching them about “Audacity”, “Movie Maker”, “Glogster” and other useful tools. This is a huge challenge even if students know a lot about web 2.0 tools. The thing is, they need to become a cohesive group working effectively and that is the hardest part.I'll keep you updated on our progress.

What about you? Has your life changed recently? Do you feel you need to modify some aspects of your routine? Why?

Friday, 20 July 2012

Let's learn, unlearn and relearn!

Image: 'Lamp'
Do you think teaching EFL to teenagers can be a tough task? I know how lack of motivation and behaviour problems can make it extremely hard at times. And what about teaching adults? Is it difficult? Well, I have worked with young professionals and travellers for many years and the truth is teaching adults can be a fine art. In general, they have other things on their minds. Family, work and a variety of other circumstances can make staying focused on learning difficult. Couple that with bad previous experiences and the result is a really complex picture. However, there’s something much more challenging, something that is testing my teaching skills: training educators in the use and application of technology.

Delivering an ICT course for colleagues at school is one of the most complicated tasks I have ever undertaken. Even those who are extremely motivated find it hard to learn to work with computers or other forms of technology. Is it because they are intimidated by new tools or uneducated on some technology terms (which makes it difficult to understand what is being taught)? Well, these are some of the problems they face, but not the most important. Learning new skills will take a long time, of course, but in my experience, the hardest aspect is reconsidering old ideas and unlearning reinforced habits.

Alvin Toffler brilliantly explained this in one of his famous quotes:“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” In the era of technology it seems we, teachers, have a lot we need to unlearn. “Turn off your mobile” used to be my mantra. Now, I’m learning mobiles can be a useful tool. Writing as much as possible on one page was the norm in the age of photocopies, but not including too much text on a single page is what designers recommend if you decide to have your own website. Countless examples of these paradigm shifts could be mentioned.

A few weeks ago, when I was precisely looking for material to help my colleagues learn, unlearn and relearn, I came across “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab”, a list of suggestions written back in 1999 by Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology. These are great tips for those learning technology skills, EFL or anything in the modern world. I have discussed them with the teachers I’m training and they also feel the tips have helped them re evaluate some pre-conceived ideas. These are my favourite 5:

Learn by doing. When it comes to technology, theory is definitely NOT enough. When you need to install a new programme or use a modern gadget, do you ever read the instructions? Most young people just learn by trial-and-error but, if you are not so brave, you can always watch video tutorials. Having a look at how people do things is much more enlightening than reading. I have encouraged my colleagues to forget about theory or instructions and JUST DO IT!

Technology as building material. Many times ICT courses focus on the “how”. If you are lucky you end up knowing how to use “Prezi”, “Voki” and “Glogster”, but what can teachers or students produce WITH these tools? Technology itself is not what we should focus on. It’s the things you can make with technology what should matter. I have kept this in mind when delivering the classes. I always ask myself (and everybody else!) :“How can we use this in class?” The answers have been really interesting! 

Learning to learn. “Nobody can teach you everything you need to know. You have to take charge of your own learning”, says Papert. This is probably the best tip (well, I wrote a post explaining how important I believe being an independant learner is!). Every day new things are being discovered and there are no “experts” we can refer to. Any ICT course should be a starting point. I hope I have given my colleagues enough strategies so that they can continue experimenting after they finish the course. 

You can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Papert says, “Nothing important works the first time.” I wish all of my students could understand this! He explains,“The only way to get it right is to look carefully at what happened when it went wrong. To succeed you need the freedom to goof on the way.” I couldn’t agree more! Mistakes are a substantial part of the learning process. 

Do unto ourselves what we do unto our students. The 21st century world is an uncertain place. Jobs have changed, social interaction has changed and most aspects of life will probably change. Most of us have been trying hard to adapt and know how frustrating it can be. Papert says,“The best lesson we can give our students is to let them see us struggle to learn.”

So, what 21st century skills do teachers need? What things do we need to learn, unlearn or relearn?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

What really matters

Image: 'LTHE : Learn - Teach - Help+-+Enjoy+/+FOSS'
Time pressure and deadlines. Piles of ungraded tests and forms to be filled in. During many weeks these were my constant worries. There were so many responsibilities I had to take on and roles I had to fulfill, that I simply couldn’t enjoy anything I did! For almost a month I had no free time, no fun and, unfortunately, almost no sleep.

Many of my students also looked completely drained. I believed most of them were also suffering from this end-of-term stress. I could hear many of them complaining about the lack of time to study or having too many exams on the same day. However, these were just some of the problems they were confronted by. When I finally had some time to talk to them I did discover the hard facts. Apart from having to earn good grades, many were being bullied at school, some had terrible problems at home and others, unfortunately many more than I had ever expected,  were fighting serious illnesses such as bulimia, panic disorder and even cancer.

Discovering the uncomfortable truth gave me a totally new perspective. First, I felt incredibly lucky. I’m much older than my students are (in fact, I am as old as many of their parents) and the most serious problem I have is lack of time. I am healthy, I have a loving family, a job I enjoy, and plenty of interesting projects for the future. Why should I be worried? Once again, my students were teaching me a lesson: I must not complain, I have all I ever dreamed of. The only thing I have to do is learn some techniques that I can use to deal with occasional stress.

After this initial shock, I started thinking about the way I teach. Was I placing too much emphasis on testing and subject matter, and not enough on serving as coach, counselor, or mediator? Maybe I was. Maybe I was forgetting what really matters: outstanding teachers are not people who know a lot, they are those who have a thorough knowledge of, and an excellent relationship with, their students. The teachers I remember the most are the ones who developed a personal relationships with me.When I was at school I wanted to be listened to, to be respected as a human being with needs, fears, and emotions. And, above all, I wanted teachers to help me become a better person, not a more proficient student.

I have a good relationship with my students, but is there a way I can help them deal with at least some of the problems they are facing and achieve their full potential? During the last 2 weeks I have been reading a lot about building a stronger relationship with teenagers. These are the aspects most authors agree teachers need to focus on and some of the things I have done recently:

  • Make an effort to learn who your students are and what they need
The more we know our students, the more we can build learning environments that are going to work for them. So,how can we get to know them better? Well, a few weeks ago I wrote a post on why and how I use Facebook with students. I can’t explain how useful it has been. I have really learned a lot about their life outside school, their tastes, hopes and difficulties! Of course, talking in person is crucial, too. That’s why last week I forgot about curriculum and had a serious conversation with each and every class I have. We talked about the problems at school, about who they can talk to in case they need a helping hand, and what we (students AND teachers) need to do so that school becomes a more welcoming place. After this conversation I instantly felt a stronger bond and a more relaxed atmosphere. More conversations such as this one are due to come.

  • Use appropriate language in class
Sarcasm and unkind words when disciplining students are an unfortunate reality.You lose your temper and you forget you should set the example. Right after you open your mouth you can feel it - everyone is uncomfortable.  I make an effort to maintain order using appropriate language.  Being mindful of the choice of words I use contributes to an atmosphere of respect.

  • Create a supportive atmosphere where students develop self-worth
“The curriculum should be planned and presented so that all students succeed each day”, says D.E. Campbell in his article about building positive relationships. Wow, I had never thought about it this way but I can’t agree more! Students who feel comfortable and competent at school develop a positive sense of self. The school's aim should not be to transmit knowledge but to build students self-esteem.Campbell adds that, “ focusing on strengths can help students develop resiliency to deal with serious problems, such as teen pregnancy, violence, and dropping out of school.”

What do you think? What really matters in education?

Sunday, 27 May 2012

What to do when you have NO TIME to prepare your class

Image: 'Reloj.cp'
In a lot of people's minds, an outstanding teacher is a somebody who devotes all of her time to teaching and has practically no life. If that’s what you believe, then you will agree I have turned into a master teacher! It seems that preparing material for the ICT course I’m delivering, and grading exams (it’s the end of the 1st term in Argentina) is taking more time than I had thought. The truth is I am working awfully hard!  I go to school, deliver classes,go back home... and start working again! At the end of the day, I am so exhausted that I just want to have a cup of tea (or some “mate”),  wind down and go to bed. There’s not much time left to read (or write) posts, plan lessons or design engaging extra material for my English classes.

I suppose the easy way out would be to follow the course book and use the resources there, but what if you don’t want to or it doesn’t provide enough interesting material? Well, after teaching EFL for many years I have a couple of lifesaving resources in my bag of tricks. If you haven't tried them yet, do it RIGHT NOW!!

  • What you can do with internet access at school (and a projector or a good computer lab) or a TV and DVD player: Have a look at “Movie Segments for Warm-ups and Follow-ups” and “Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals”. These two blogs by Claudio Azevedo have so much interesting material! The first one focuses on film scenes you can use to prepare students for the topic you will discuss in class (brainstorm or activate schemata) or to use as a follow-up activity (to practise speaking, for example). The sidebar on the right shows all topics covered there and the number of segments on each particular theme. There’s always a pre-watch and a  while/post-watch activity. Some videos are quite challenging, but many come with English subtitles. The other blog is even better and I have used the material there plenty of times. You also have a list of topics in the sidebar on the left.  All the videos are graded (elementary, intermediate,etc) and there’s a warning if the material may only be used with adults. There are so many wonderful segments I’m sure I’ll find something suitable for any class. You can print the activities Claudio has prepared or prepare your own (I usually adapt them a little bit ). The only negative thing is the video quality, which is mostly low, but as the films he includes are very popular, you may have the DVDs at home or find better-quality segments on YouTube. You may download the segments and use a TV and DVD player to work with the scenes you need but, of course, that requires more time to prepare your class.
  • What you can do without internet access at school (and no material whatsoever): Imagine you want your students to practise a grammar or vocabulary topic. In the past I used to prepare endless handouts with plenty of exercises. Was it tiring? Yes. Were students engaged? Unfortunatelly, not always. Well, forget about this time-consuming and nonproductive task. What I normally do now when students need to revise something we have been working on for some time is to make them prepare the material! How? I divide them into groups and ask each group to create 2 exercises (an “easy” and a “more difficult” one). I monitor the groups, answer questions if necessary and check the activities are fine ( they also write the "key" to each exercise). I give them extra marks for original material.Then, usually next class, they swap exercises with another group. Students learn a lot, love being able to challenge their friends and enjoy so much the creative aspect of the activity!

So, what do YOU do when you have absolutely no time to prepare your class?

Monday, 7 May 2012

What does being an independent learner mean?

The day after being chosen to be in charge of “Laboratorio Pedagógico 2012” (an ICT course for secondary school teachers), planning began. My brain turned into “preparation mode” and I compiled a list of things I had to do, find out about and revise. I couldn’t stop classifying the material I had, gathering more, and testing both old and new ideas. As a result of all of this process I have come up with a good teaching plan and I feel confident my first experience as an ICT trainer will be a success. Can you guess how I feel? After evaluating my progress and what I have achieved, I have every reason to be proud of myself. How much formal training in ICT do I have? Well, only two 4-month courses (“Conectar Igualdad” and “Laboratorio Pedagógico 2011”). Most of what I have learnt is basically the result of my own effort, of my own appetite to learn. Formal training just showed me where I can obtain information, how to evaluate its usefulness and formulate my own thoughts and projects . “Well done, girl,” I said to myself “you’ve mastered the art of independent learning. It’s time to share what you know.”

What does being a self- directed or independent learner mean? Basically, it suggests you can make decisions about what, when and how you study and that, little by little, you’ll become your own learning coach. Is this something we must encourage our students to do? Oh, yes, absolutely! I believe students need to become creative, critical thinkers and we must transform from “imparter of knowledge” to ‘facilitator of learning’. How can we do it? In class, there should be enough room to make lots of mistakes and build resilience so that students can become skilled at HOW to learn anything they want to. In the 21st century constant change will be the norm and those who won’t be able to adapt to new situations will be in serious trouble!

 So, what can we do to foster student independence? There are many things you may try. These are some of the things I have done or I am planning to do with my students: 

  • Give choices
 Every time I can, I give students opportunities to make choices. Why? Because in that way they can start reflecting on their own interests and preferences, and take responsibility for learning. Examples of choices could be “Do activity A or B for homework” (I usually give and “easy” option and a “more complex” one so that students have to evaluate themselves and their progress in order to choose) or 'Answer 3 out of the 5 questions' or 'Choose one of these three topics to write about.' 

  • Involve learners in lesson planning
 I love when students become “teachers” for a day (and they love it, too!). Once I had an intermediate level class every Friday from 5.00 to 6.30 pm. Teenagers hated being busy up to so late and were visibly tired so I decided to change my routine drastically. Forty minutes before the class finished, I would stop teaching and sit among my students. One of them would stand up, show me what he or she had chosen (a song, a poem, a video, etc) and the activities he/she had created. I had a quick look at the material and said “Ok, go ahead”. The student would then deliver the rest of the class. Most teenagers brought their favourite song so we normally listened to it and filled in the gaps, chose the correct option or did whatever the student had planned. After that, we wrote all the words they didn’t know the meaning of on the board and get in small groups. Each group worked with a monolingual dictionary, chose 3 o 4 words to look up in it and then shared what they had learnt with the rest of the class. Finally, we talked about what the song meant, mentioned some facts about the band or songwriter’s life and went back home whistling a new tune. 

Another option I am trying out now is dividing the class into groups, giving each group a text from the course book and letting them “present” it to the rest. They must plan reading comprehension activities, teach the new vocabulary and create 2 or more exercises for their peers to practice the new words. I also told them the most creative groups will get extra credit, so now everybody is interested in doing something original! 

  • Encourage self and peer editing 
I have done this regularly and students love it. After each test, students have to correct their own mistakes (I just underline what’s wrong and mark the exam). Then, they get in pairs and, before handing in the revised version, they must check it carefully with this person. 

So, tell me, what are YOU doing to help your students become independent learners? I’d love your feedback so please take some time to comment.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Somewhat confused, a little worried and…terribly excited!

There are no adjectives that can clearly describe my state of mind. 2012 has been a wonderful year up to now but, at the same time, it’s been a real challenge. Learning new things is always hard but if what you are learning is how to teach in a different way, it may turn maddening at times. Why? Well, I’ve been trying many different things lately. First of all, I’ve been using more and more technology in class. Finding out what works and what doesn’t implies hours of preparation and research. I’m also learning about “Building Learning Power” and how my lessons can make students exercise new habits of the mind. I’m eager to adopt this approach, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to try things, fail, succeed and undoubtedly feel exhausted every now and then. Hopefully my students and I will learn a few things. Finally, to make matters worse (or better, if you look on the bright side of life) now I am about to become an ICT teacher trainer!

Let me explain this in detail. Last year I signed up for “Laboratorio Pedagógico”, a course on ICT that the ministry of education offered to secondary school teachers. What was its main objective? To help educators create online material to use in class. A well-prepared teacher trainer came to school once a week and 6 of my colleagues and I started learning how to use different tools little by little. As a result of the 12-week course, we created a bunch of google sites. After the school year finished I created a couple more so that I didn’t forget my new skills. I knew in 2012 one of us would have to continue working with the rest of the staff, but it was unclear who that person would be. Last Tuesday, while I was working with my 9th graders, the head teacher informed me I had been chosen to deliver the course. Wow! I was surprised, excited and SCARED. Anyway, I immediately accepted the job. “What a great opportunity!”, I thought. "Even if I have to stop working with 1 or 2 of my groups ( I can take paid leave), teaching technology for the first time will be a fantastic challenge!"

When I arrived home 2 hours later I was not so sure I had done the right thing. Was I the best person for the job? Full of doubts, I decided to turn on my computer and ask a couple of friends. It was then that I found two wonderful talks. In fact, two of the people I met during the "Teaching Excellence and Achivement Program" last year had their TEDx talks uploaded to youtube (yes, two people I know have taken part in such a wonderful project!!) and the videos were exactly what I needed.

The first one talks about how to face problems. Dr.Deidre Combs, a wonderful mediator and book author, says we should celebrate struggles. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? Well, after listening to her, you start realizing conflict is necessary to push you forward.

The second one is by Paul Andersen, a science teacher I met at Bozeman High. After been nominated for “Teacher of the Year” (and not winning, unfortunately), he decided to use the elements of game design to improve learning in his AP Biology classroom. In the video he explains how.

If you happen to have 25 spare minutes, do not hesitate and watch both talks. They are inspiring and enlightening in ways I can’t even explain. ENJOY!!!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Building Learning Power

'peace with myself'
Let’s take a look at public secondary schools in Argentina. What kind of environment do teenagers learn in? Chances are most schools you analyse will have plenty of dull rooms packed with students sitting still (they simply can’t move!). If you have a closer look, you’ll see some of them are listening to the teacher or copying down facts while others simply ignore whoever stands in front of the class. You may find places where group work is being fostered, but only if students are silent, calm and follow teacher’s instructions carefully. What will happen if you head to the teachers’ room? Well, you’ll probably listen to educators complaining because teenagers do not show respect or accept what they are told.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even though many of us have been trying hard to make things change, it seems most public schools are they way they have always been: traditional institutions focused on obedience, content and test results. Do we want 19th century values and habits to dominate our school system? What kind of mindset are we cultivating? Are your students becoming 21st century explorers or 19th century clerks? These are some of the topics Guy Claxton focused on in his conference on Building Learning Power in Rosario last Tuesday.

It would take a particularly long post to share all of the knowledge I received (in fact, I am still processing most of the information!), but I’d like to share with you a summary of the things that struck me the most:

1- Your brain is like a muscle (or a group of muscles).

Guy Claxton says it clear and says it loud: it is possible to get smarter; the ability to learn is itself very learnable. Research has shown that intelligence is not a fixed-sized pot or bucket that you were born with and has to be filled in with valuable stuff. Instead, he compares the mind to a group of muscles. What are the main groups? Curiosity, resilience, imagination, reflectiveness and reciprocity (click here for a complete list). We all know what happens if you train muscles hard: they become stronger and SO DO YOU! Powerful mental muscles will make our students more intelligent!

2- Schools should be mind gyms.

In many of Sir Ken Robinson’s world famous talks he describes the factory/assembly line approach to schooling. Partially complete “products”, that is to say children, are sent to teachers and each educator works on an individual step of the process until students become “productive citizens”. If students fail, it's either their fault for not trying hard enough or the fault of the teachers, who obviously need more training (click here to listen to him explaining this in detail). Guy Claxton’s new metaphor is a change of paradigm. For him, teachers should stop being the experts who add knowledge to students in factory lines, and become “learning power coaches” who will construct “exercise regimes” that will help students get smarter. Subjects must be compared to exercise machines and students should be able to adjust the level of difficulty of each task in the same way we change the weight in these machines. The result of this new approach: smart teenagers won’t get bored and slower ones won’t be left behind.

3- Let’s exercise new habits of the mind!

Classes are not neutral; they are always exercising some habit of the mind. If concepts are presented as facts to memorize, students will be learning credulity, retention and regurgitation. It is by changing the way we deliver our classes that students will start cultivating new habits of the mind. Our schemes of work should be written taking into account the mind muscles. You can learn history AND empathy AND imagination, if you stop lecturing and let students walk in other people’s shoes. If you are teaching the 19th century Italian immigration to Argentina students could imagine they are immigrants who have just arrived in Buenos Aires and write letters to their relatives back in Rome or Sicily. Facts would also be necessary to write good letters, but they wouldn’t be the main focus and the activity would be much more fun! Other, maybe smaller changes, such as letting students decide how many people per group would be ideal for a given task, will also make a big difference in the long run.

What do you think about BLP? I’m planning to start using this approach with my students. Would you use it? Why/why not?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Have you ever been evaluated by your students?

You grade students’ work every day. You tell them they shouldn’t worry because it’s OK to make mistakes and you reassure them that being tested helps everybody learn what to do to improve. But then, when it’s time for others to judge what YOU- the teacher- are doing, you become uneasy. I agree fear may be a common reaction if a head teacher or administrator is planning to observe your classes but why should we feel scared of students’ opinions? The truth is they are the only people who know what we do every day, how we do it and what needs to be enhanced! If you are still not sure why students’ feedback is so important, have a look at this article: “He Said What? 5 Reasons You Want Your Students to Evaluate YOU

What about me? Have I ever been evaluated by my students? Oh, yes, plenty of times!! Until last year what I used to do was very simple. The last day of the school year I would ask my students to answer 3 or 4 questions about the material we had used, the topics we had studied and my performance. I used to tell them the answers should be anonymous so that they could be 100% sincere. Normally questions were something like this:

  • What do you think of the coursebook? 
  • What topics were difficult? Which ones were easy? Why? 
  • What do you think of my performance? (Write at least something you liked and something you didn’t like) 

This year I’m trying a different approach. In February I created  my google site and among many things I included a survey in which I ask students to evaluate me (and the site). As soon as eveything was ready I told the former students I am still in contact with to visit the site so that they could give me their opinions on it. I was expecting some visits but,to my surprise, many did much more than have look at it: they examined everything, found the survey, took it and answered all of the questions in detail! I got plenty of constructive feedback in a couple of days! Now, I’m planning to encourage all of my students to fill in the form after each term and  immediately apply in the classroom the insights that I gain !

Would you like to include a teacher evaluation questionnaire as part of your routine? Have you ever done it? How has it helped you?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why and how I use facebook with students

'facebook like button'
A few weeks ago I asked my students to choose their 3 favourite words in English (click here to read more about this activity). Most of them came up with “family”, “friends” and “fun” but, to my surprise, others said “facebook”. How was that possible? I immediately asked them why and what they answered was, in fact, quite logical. “That’s how I stay in touch with the people I love”, most students said. Others explained, “I simply use it to play games, have fun and share the things I like”. So answering “facebook” does not sound so unreasonable after all. It is the 21st century tool they use to do what we have always done: interact with friends and entertain ourselves.

Once I understood most students were keen on using facebook (I did that last year),I started thinking of ways to take advantage of it. Is there a way we can channel this enthusiasm to achieve educational goals? Well, of course! These are the key pedagogic reasons why I use facebook with students:

  • You get to know them (and they get to know YOU) in a whole different light. Let’s face it, if you are a secondary school teacher in Argentina, you see students once or twice a week and you have many different groups. In my case I usually have more than 200 students! Can I really know each and every one of them and what they like? Can they see me as somebody they can trust if I am almost a stranger? Facebook is all about self-expression so it can become a useful tool. Once you start using it, you learn about students’ tastes and hobbies, and have the chance to show them what you like. In that way, you become a real person they can connect to, not just a content deliverer. 
  • You can create a more supportive atmosphere. Communication is essential to develop good rapport but, once again, if you hardly ever see your students, that may turn difficult. Using facebook will help you keep in touch with them. Those students who are shy or have doubts after class can send you a private message ( or even chat with you ) when they are stuck on a homework question or don’t understand a particular topic. Students will appreciate having the chance to contact you when they are in need. 

So, if you decide to start facebooking, what exactly can you do? These are some of the things I have done and how I have done them:

  • I set up a second facebook account just for students (or parents). Last year I used to “friend” my oldest students (17/18 years old and adults). It all went smoothly, but I felt a little too exposed. I know there are ways to limit what your students can see but I never learnt exactly how to do it. That’s why I created a different account this year and could finally relax. Now, I can “friend” anyone because I can choose exactly what I want them to see. However, from time to time, I make a point of posting something personal or a little silly (such as a funny picture of myself). Why? Because I don’t want them to feel this account is “cold” or “too academic”. For example, on St. Patrick’s Day I wrote some information on the celebration and I uploaded a picture of myself wearing a green wig. Students loved it (and had a good laugh!). 
  • What do I share with my students? Useful links, photos of things we’ve done in class (so that they can show them to their parents and other friends), videos, and anything that can be useful or interesting. I also remind them of homework assignments and deadlines. 
  • I create groups. Each class has its own. Groups may be open (anyone can become a member and see what’s in it), closed (you have to be invited to join the group and see what members post) or secret (only members see the group, who's in it, and what people post there). What I always choose is “closed” so that only students in a particular class can become members. What are some of the advantages of having a group? Well, if some students don’t want to “friend” me they can be added to the group by one of their classmates and still interact with me and the rest of the people there. 

What do YOU think ? Have you tried using facebook with students? How do you use it?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Learning how to blog

'Blogging Readiness'
Was I excited the first time? Well, of course I was. Was I a little anxious or afraid? Oh, yes, I was extremely nervous!!

6 weeks ago I created this blog, wrote the first post and started this adventure without knowing what to expect. The thing is, I’m not a professional writer or a famous education expert. Even though I truly believe everyone has a story to tell, I didn’t know if the blogging community would welcome me or not. Just in case, I told my friends and closest colleagues about my new place online and kept my fingers crossed. Were they going to love it or simply hate it?? I only hoped for the best.

Well, after reaching the first 1,000 hits and getting plenty of comments (most of them on facebook) from people I admire, I must say everything has been simply GREAT!! I’ve been able to talk about a wide range of topics, reflect on books I’ve read or videos I’ve seen, and I have met wonderful teachers and bloggers from ALL OVER THE WORLD! What else can a humble EFL teacher from Argentina expect? I wish all educators had a place where they could share their thoughts and interact with others.

As I said, I’m pretty sure all people can benefit from having a place to express themselves so, after much thinking, I decided to encourage my students to have a class blog! Most of them are really interested in the project and some are only too eager to participate, but what’s the plan? Well, all secondary school teachers-at least here, in Argentina- have plenty of groups or classes and this year I have 8, which means about 240 students!! I can’t possibly have 1 blog per class or make so many students share a single blog! Well, this is what I believe I'll be able to do:

Most of my students go to EES Nº 572. Unfortunately, at school we don’t have internet access or a good computer lab. Only a few of the children have laptops and internet at home, so I’ll be in charge of setting up and administrating 3 class blogs (one for 3 groups of 8th graders, another one shared by 2 groups of 9th graders and the last one for 10th and 11th year students). I will be publishing their work (texts, videos, posters, etc) and they will be able to leave comments and interact with other students (this will probably be the first time they use English for a real purpose!)

I have another group at Escuela J.J Urquiza. These are mostly 17-year-old students who can access the internet (both at home and at school) and I’m planning to create another blog for them, but this time students will be able to participate as authors. I’m not pretty sure what we’ll do, but I know teenagers are always creative!

So, what do you think about my plan? Do you have a class blog? Are there any tips and tricks you could share with me?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Are you (and your students) in the zone?

“You’re almost unconscious to what’s going on around you. It’s literally the most peculiar feeling. It’s like being in a tunnel but you don’t see anything else. You just see what you are doing. Time changes. Somebody could ask you how long you’ve been doing it and you could have said twenty minutes but it was actually nine hours.” That’s how Ewa Laurence, the most famous billiard player on the planet, describes being in the zone and I guess we all know what she’s talking about. You start doing something you love and are good at, and the rest of the world seems to disappear. Time flies and you feel energetic even after spending hours doing one single task.

The concept of being in the zone or in flow appeared in the 60s. Psychologists have studied how sportspeople and artists enter a state of complete absorption when doing what they love. The one task at hand absorbs them completely and, without making the conscious decision to do so, they lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs.

Is it possible to apply this concept to education? Well, Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most well-known experts in the field, talks about this state of mind in his book “The Element” (for a summary of the book, click here). According to him, we can all experience this frequently if we recognize our unique talents. He encourages us to discover what we are naturally good at and realise how one activity ignites our passion. This activity we enjoy so much is what he calls “the Element”. It’s not something you like doing; he explains this task should give you a sense of identity, purpose and well being. The book is full of testimonies of people who have discovered what their Element is. They are successful and happy with their lives but in the past a big group of them weren’t considered talented and some were utterly miserable because they didn’t do well at school. Sir Ken says, “Many of them did not discover what they could do-and who they really were- until they’d left school and recovered from their education.”

Can school become a window to another world? Could we help our students discover what their personal passion, their “Element”, is? Would it be possible for them to enter “the zone” while in class? Well, I believe we can (and we should) help students achieve their full potential. We want all children to see schools as places where they are inspired to experiment and discover what their true passions are. Will the system allow them to do so? Well, things need to be transformed but, for the time being, I’ll just do as much as I can. I am a big believer in the Gandhi quote “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” These are some of the things I have started doing:

  • Remember all the time there are no “weak students”. Every child is born with different natural talents. Some skills are evident at school, but others are not. For more than 30 years Howard Gardner and many others have talked about multiple intelligences. Recently, I’ve been creating more and more activities where all kinds of students (those who are visual, hands-on, auditory, etc) can learn more efficiently. 

  • Help students identify skills that the system (or themselves) have not noticed yet. I’m encouraging students to try out new things so that they can find what they really enjoy. Experimenting with new activities is fun and when they find something they feel passionate about I stimulate them to continue doing it. 

  • Encourage students who already know what they love to follow their paths (even if it I truly believe they won’t make a living out of it). Why shouldn’t I take their dreams seriously? We live in an era of constant change. Nobody knows what the world will look like in 10 years so who says being a lawyer will be better than being a painter? 

  • Help students overcome some of the obstacles in their way. Teenagers tend to imitate their peers and they usually adapt to what parents and society wants, but sometimes finding your Element means swimming against the tide. If a student is not confident enough, he will follow the crowd and forget about his passions. Let’s help them keep their visions in the face of resistance! 

What else could we do to foster student development? What do you think?

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Teachers learn from teachers

This time last year I was one of the lucky teachers who was taking part in the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Programme (TEA, a programme of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State). One day I was at home dreaming of becoming a better teacher and the next day, I was in Washington DC listening to experts on education, surrounded by more than 60 secondary school teachers from all over the world (Europe, Asia, the Near East, Africa, and Latin America!). I must confess I felt the luckiest person on Earth! Whenever I remember those days I can’t help but smile. Every single minute was simply extraordinary. I was not only given a unique opportunity to develop my expertise, but I also had the chance to increase my knowledge of the United States and… the world! Many people might think that having a course on methodologies, lesson planning and ICT in the U.S. was the best part, but that was not what happened. Can you guess what the most enriching experience was? Well, learning from other teachers like me was by far the best thing. I can guarantee there is no development course or conference that compares to sharing useful activities and strategies with peers.

I could really start learning from colleagues after the3-day Orientation Course in Washington. Twenty of us travelled to Bozeman, Montana and spent 6 weeks there. The programme included a forty-hour internship at a secondary school so that we could actively engage with American teachers and students. We could observe classes and we also had to deliver some (that was a real challenge!). In my case I was partnered with Erica, a social studies teacher at Bozeman High, and I had a great time observing her classes and reflecting on what happened each day. It was then that I discovered what a powerful tool observation can be. Too often we tend to view observations as necessary while “in training” but unnecessary afterwards. In fact, it was during these observations that I could get new ideas, see different teaching techniques and learn classroom management tips, even from teachers who taught literature, psychology, Spanish or science. Now, I'm totally for peer observation and I feel we should include it as part of our routines.

That was not all. As part of our training we were encouraged to share some of the favourite activities in our bag of tricks. That was AMAZING! All of us wrote several lesson plans and demonstrated different activities we loved. The plans were compiled in a booklet and we were filmed while teaching (that was fantastic but a little scary, ha ha ) and I can still have a look at any plan or activity I want to. These are 2 of my favourite, which I used in class last week when the school year began here in Argentina.

Guess! (a game you can use if you want students to get to know you). Thanks Juliana for sharing it!

You write some numbers and names which describe facts about your life on the board (6 or 7 numbers and names would be enough). I can write 34, for example, because that’s how old I am and Andrés (that’s my brother’s name). Then you divide the class into two groups and ask them to take turns to guess what the numbers and names refer to. They can only ask yes/no questions, such as “Is Andrés your father?”. When the answer is “yes” you give the group a point and you may expand on your answer. Students love being able to ask you personal questions (and you can control what you want to talk about)!!

Our favourite words (an activity to get to know new students) Abder shared this with us and I have adapted it a little bit.

You write some words on the board. Then you tell students these are your favourite words and explain why. For example, you write “respect” and then say you chose it because you believe everyone should be respected. After that you tell students they should choose 2 words they consider important and explain the reason they chose them to another student. After they have finished, each student should share what the other person told him/her with the rest of the class. Finally, each student writes the words on a piece of paper and the whole class designs a poster with all the words they love (the picture that illustrates this post shows a poster my students created last week). You can also create a word cloud using wordle (click here to see and example)

What’s in YOUR bag of tricks? Which are your favourite activities? Let’s share some and learn a lot!!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Invisible Children

Today I was planning to write about the beginning of the school year and some fun activities my students and I did yesterday but this morning, while I was sipping a cup of tea, I came across a video. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it but it kept appearing .Totally different blogs I frequently check (for example BubzBeauty, which focuses on make-up, and two apples a day, a blog on education) shared it. I was curious but it is a 30-minute film and the truth is I thought it was just another documentary describing problems in Africa. Was I right? No, not at all. When I finally decided to have a look at it I understood that I had seen nothing like that before. The video I’m sharing here is about how powerful one idea can be and how one person can change his life and…the world!

Let me summarize what you’ll see. In 2003, three young filmmakers from California travelled to Africa in search of a story but, in fact, the story found them. These boys discovered a tragedy that disgusted and inspired them, a tragedy where children are both the weapons and the victims. Joseph Kony, a Ugandan guerilla group leader, has been abducing and forcing at least 30,000 children to fight for his cause. Often these child soldiers have to burn and loot villages, mutilate other children or kill civilians —in some cases even their own families. To give these children a voice, the documentary you are about to see was filmed and “Invisible Children”, a non-profit organization, was created.

Why is watching this short film important? If we want Kony to be captured we need to show authorities we will not allow his crimes to pass unnoticed any more. In recent years, the International Criminal Court has formally accused Kony of crimes against humanity (chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, a well-known Argentine  lawyer, is in charge of the case) and U.S. troops have been sent to central Africa to help in the efforts to catch him. Unfortunately, they haven’t been successful. Kony is still free.

 Do your part, take responsibility and spread the word. Technology is a wonderful tool we use every day to communicate with friends and family. Let’s use it now to make the world a better place.


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

When teachers make mistakes

'Head in Hands'
You write a sentence on the board and continue explaining an activity. Then you go to the back of the classroom to answer a student question, look at the board to give the sentence as an example and there it is: a mistake. There’s a mistake in the sentence YOU wrote. If you are lucky, it’s just a silly spelling mistake anyone can make, but what if it’s more serious? Well, let’s turn this into a real nightmare. Imagine it’s not you, but your students who notice it, decide to record your inaccuracy with a hidden mobile phone and (to your horror) upload the video to youtube. You may think I’m exaggerating but, believe it or not, that’s what happened to a Maths teacher from Catamarca a couple of months ago. The result? The video went viral and hit the headlines last week (if you haven't seen it yet, click here). 

Why did national newspapers talk about this if we know nobody is perfect? Why did some reporters and parents say she should resign? Well, I suppose this incident exposes a deeply rooted misconception: teachers are the experts and therefore should NEVER fail. Unfortunately, we have been socialised into the idea that teachers should know how to respond to EVERY situation. And, would you like to know what really horrifies me? I have even seen teachers taking down notes of colleagues’ mistakes during presentations. I suppose it is some kind of guilty pleasure. It has happened here, abroad, both with experienced and student teachers. It’s sad, don’t you think? A teacher who makes mistakes is not understood or respected by their peers. For all of society if a teacher shows their knowledge is somehow limited, they do not deserve the job. It doesn't matter that we have to make decisions when there’s not enough time, that our context shifts from hour to hour or that we try and look enthusiastic in the 2nd period even if we have been demoralised in the 1st. No, society wants teachers to be 100% reliable all the time.

I don’t believe teachers should strive for perfection. For me even the most decorated and experienced teachers make mistakes every so often. Solid preparation and constant training are necessary but we must stop being "the experts" (I can’t help but associate that term with obsessive, boring and somehow authoritarian people). I see myself as a facilitator and that’s why I usually tell everyone I’m nothing but an advanced student who can help others understand what I know and will learn with them what I don’t. The only difference between my students and I may be that I am more resourceful than many of them. What happens if I make a mistake or don’t know something? Well, I say “Oops, sorry!” explain what is wrong or find out whatever it is I don’t know, and gather my mental strength for the next time it's needed. Teaching is hard enough without the additional challenge of mental anguish over slip-ups and imperfections.

In the era of the internet encyclopedic knowledge and accurate retention won’t be as useful as they used to. Do we (or students) need to remember it all if we can simply click on an icon and find more information than we need in a matter of seconds? Guy Claxton, an expert in education, identifies being a better learner in the 21st century with having the ability to tackle problems confidently and having the appetite to keep on learning throughout our lives (click here to listen to him explaining his point of view). Well, that’s the kind of role model I want to be, but what do YOU think? What should the Maths teacher I mentioned before do? Should she be left out of the system, study more or show students that life goes on, even after being bitterly criticised?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

To Google or not to Google? (part 1)

'Google logo render - Mark Knol'
What are Google Apps? Are all of them easy to work with and free? And if they are, how can a teacher take advantage of them? These were some of the questions I asked myself the first time I learnt about these applications. I haven’t been able to answer all of them (yet), but I have come to realize how easy to use and convenient most of them can be. Today, I'll focus on one of my favourite tools: Google sites.

Well, after experimenting with this application I can say it is great to create web pages for intranets, class projects or e-portfolios. But that's not all, google sites can also be used to present topics, evaluate them and much more. What I like the most is that making them is free, easy (you don’t need to learn any coding language such as HTML), and the final result is an eye-catching, interactive website ( you can embed documents, presentations, video, etc).

Willing to create a site?

Let’s imagine you have decided to try this application. What will the website building process be like? At first, creating a google site might look challenging, but taking the first step implies just having a google account (if you have been using g-mail or blogger, you already have one!). Then, setting up the site won’t take long. These days it’s easier than ever to sit down and put together a great looking website that will do everything you want it to do- without any hair pulling.  Anyone who is able to navigate their computer’s desktop and internal folders will be able to create their own site. You may need to read or watch a couple of tutorials before you know how to adapt it to your needs, but you’ll have a high-quality free website in a couple of days ( or maybe weeks, at the most). For those who are “just do it” people like me and prefer a trial-and-error approach, learning might be frustrating sometimes, but it will definitely be a lot of fun!

And, what about its design? Don’t worry about that. There are plenty of great-looking page and site templates . If you are creative you can change the site’s layout and experiment with different fonts and colours. However, I would recommend reading some information on the topic  ( “6 Conventions of Web Design” and “Color Selection”, for example)  before changing too much.

My experience

 To start with, I tried using google sites to present, practise and test topics. I was given this idea during “Laboratorio Pedagógico”, a course on ICT  provided by the Ministry of Education in my area. You’ll find a link to the first ones I created below.  My students have enjoyed doing the activities, but I’m not 100 % satisfied with how they came out. The good thing is I can keep editing them for as long as I want to.

And what about having a class site or a personal site? Well, at first I felt very intimidated by the thought of making my own personal website, but as I teach many classes I decided to give this a try and created one called “Ana Miotti” .Now, I see it as my home on the internet. Its main purpose is to publish information I wish students to read (announcements, test dates, useful links, etc), but I believe it will be a great tool to get in contact with parents and learn about students’ needs as well. Some of my students have already had a look at it and given me feedback. What  do you think of it? Would you like to have your own google site?

Google sites I have created:
Numbers (basic level, to present numbers to teenagers)
Lyfestyles (intermediate level/ present and practise present simple vs. continuous and stative vs. action verbs).
Ana Miotti (my personal site)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Let's get started!

Ever since I started surfing the internet and learning about web 2.0 tools, I've been interested in blogs. I've always enjoyed reading posts, leaving comments and even interacting with bloggers. However, at first I didn't dare have my very own blog. In fact, it was not until  2008 that I finally started writing one. It was a kind of online diary in Spanish (my mother tongue) where I would talk about challenges and long-term goals. The experience was great: I learnt a lot about myself and made friends with readers and bloggers from around the world (Spain, Uruguay, Chile, Dominican Republic, etc). Unfortunately,  there came a time when I couldn´t post frequently so I ended up abandoning the blog. It was then that Facebook gained in popularity and I decided to keep in contact with friends and colleagues that way.

Now that I'm learning how to bring the full potential of the web 2.0 to the learning experience, I feel the need to have a place to reflect on my practice. I hope this blog will help me overcome my fears, learn more about ICT and contact educators who are interested in sharing their experiences.