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.