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.