education

#PD by Design

I have written about how I flipped my staff meeting here and would now like to devote another post to the initial stage of that session, which I called the poster & post-its stage. I had come across IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators the previous year. I’d known very little about Design Thinking, yet just enough to get me curious. So when I found this resource which proposed a design thinking approach to address every-day situations faced by educators, I was eager to learn more about it and maybe find possible applications to my particular context.

The poster & post-its activity was meant to be the entry point to a larger reflection process in which I wanted teachers to engage collaboratively to generate possible solutions for a challenge – to find ways of successfully adaptating a newly adopted coursebook to our context. Therefore, I wanted teachers to approach that challenge by first discovering and interpreting the key elements of our teaching-learning reality by collectively braisntorming answers to the three questions below, whose answers I will now attempt to summarize and interpret in this post.

Who are our students?

wordle1

 

Our Advanced students are mostly teenagers. They are mostly overwhelmed by the amount of schoolwork they already have aside from the work we ask of them as part of our EFL program. It is the belief of many teachers that these teenagers are under a lot of pressure from their parents and society in general to prepare themselves to compete for a spot in the best federal universities of our country. They are, therefore, busy and tired kids. They are, nonetheless, seen as bright and fast learners, who belong to privileged social classes. They have easy access to technology, and most of them have a smart phone and a tablet. These teenagers tend to have a very good level of fluency in English but could still profit a lot from more work on grammatical accuracy and on broadening their lexical repertoire. Most teachers see students as capable and demanding individuals who are also dynamic and restless. They are individuals with diverse needs who are not easily pleased.

What are their needs?

wordle2

 

Most teachers believe our Advanced students need practice, lots of practice. Teachers believe students need to be challenged and inspired so that they can become engaged. They also need teachers’ guidance and attention. Many teachers mentioned that our teenagers need to feel respected and heard, and that their motivation hinges on those two aspects. Many teachers also mentioned that our teenagers need to have fun, to find learning a pleasant activity. This approach would lighten the pressure they bring from school, which overloads them with work in a heavy test-taking, score-oriented culture. Some teachers also mentioned that students still need some limits and positive role models. They need to be taught discipline. There was also mention that teachers need to have students do less ‘talking’ and more ‘making’, in the sense of fostering opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully, to do something with the language they have learned all these years. Most teachers also feel that our teenagers need to achieve better command of the language and a higher level of proficiency.

How might we meet their needs?

wordle3

A majority of teachers mentioned the need to connect with students to find out what really matters to them, bringing the classroom environment closer to their reality. Teachers feel they need to plan lessons that appeal to what our teenagers like. Teachers also believe that they need to engage in meaningful, authentic interactions with their teenage students. Teachers feel they need to challenge students by promoting interaction in the classroom with a myriad of activities on interesting topics. Many teachers mentioned the need to explore the affordances of technology to engage students, saying they need to find ways of getting students to use their smart phones to do meaningful work in the classroom. It is clear that teachers believe that they need to carefully plan lessons and that they need to share those plans and ideas amongst themselves.

I must say that as course supervisor I am quite proud to work with a group of teachers who have such beliefs and whom I know to be capable of understanding what t takes to connect with our teenage students in order to make the most of their learning experiences, together. It is my impression that our group of teachers shares quite a lucid, down-to-earth take on our students’ needs, and that’s what makes us a reference among other binational centers and language institutes around the country. One of the purposes of this post was to provide feedback to our teachers on the richness of content generated by them during this in-service session. It’s always important to know where we stand and what our shared beliefs are in order to strengthen our bonds as well as our committment to realizing our own and our students’ full potentials, and in so doing, consolidating our reputation. Let us now take these reflections and insights and do great things in the classroom, together.

 

Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.

Our Why #ccourses

I have already mentioned in another post how I stumbled upon Connected Courses, how it was basically a call to arms from my friend Maha Bali and how I extended that call to another friend Carla Arena. I’d browsed some of the pre-course resources available on their site and remember finding it most invigorating to read Mike Wesch’s reflections on why the whys are so critical for the whole open and connected learning environments to thrive. I then watched the amazing video suggested for inspiration, This is Water by David Foster Wallace, and was absolutely blown away by it. All that had really struck a chord within, yet little did I know that it would yield precious fruit so soon. I guess that’s my why for sitting here and writing this post right now. I feel truly compelled to make a record of the process which naturally ensued after that in order to reflect on the project that blossomed from it and, of course, to share it with all of you guys #ccoursers #rhizo14ers #edcontexters #clavierers and all.

So the following day I shared the link to the This is Water video with a fellow course supervisor in my institute. He watched it, was blown away by it, and moved to share it on with other fellow course supervisors in my institute. I have to say that I had no idea that what it might have happened right there and then, the moment I shared that link with my friend, was that a seed was being sown, and his subsequent sharing it forward would be the watering of that seed, which began growing, and showing, and stirring the creative juices of those it touched.

Flash forward a few weeks. Yesterday night I came across Jim Groom‘s tweet on Mike Wesch’s video Why We Need A “Why?” and was instantly reminded of the exhilaration I’d felt when I first read his words on the importance of ‘whys.’ It was while I watching this amazing talk by @mwesch that it dawned on me that I’d already been put into motion to make an old project fly, one which had been sitting in the back of my mind since the beginning of the year, even before I went on my rhizomatic learning experience, even before starting my blog. I’d been longing to find a way of nurturing stronger connections among my fellow course supervisors. I truly wanted to see the ten of us be part of a close-knit group, reflecting on our educational leadership identities, exerting/exercising our agency, in the hope of boosting our professional self-confidence.

So it was that about three weeks ago I seized just the right moment to share my idea of a collective website/blog with my fellow supers. The idea itself had sprung up from the depths of my mind a while back, but it hadn’t yet been aired up to the point of being ready to get out of me in the form of a ‘what if’ sentence. The idea was instantly embraced by all. It was as if it’d been there all the time, just waiting for it to be articulated into words somehow. The next step was to find our why. Somehow I instinctively (creative juices spilling out) drawn by the idea that we needed to have our very own ‘why.’ Together we managed to come up with our mission statement, our why. And it is amazing to see how all this movement to fly this collective venture has generated just the kind of flow, the kind of dynamic which is naturally bringing us closer together, both professionally and personally. We are connected.

We will launch our collective site soon, probably this next week, and we are very excited and happy about it. It is just awesome to see how empowering it is to allow yourself to be moved by your ‘why’, and yesterday, watching Mike Wesch talk about it, made me realize the magnitude of the journey we’ve just embarked on as a group. I am certainly sharing Mike Wesch’s talk with my fellow supers for more inspiration. I have a feeling that these words might linger and yield new fruit within the work we do as teachers and administrators:

quotation1If you’re animated by the ‘whats’, by what you’re supposed to teach, you’re gonna be constrained by the model of learning that that entails, which is to say just how to deliver that content. But if instead we’re animated by a ‘why,’ then suddenly the ‘hows’ become open.  ~ Mike Wesch

So, I guess we have found one of our ‘whys.’ Thanks to #ccourses for the inspiration.

To connections and to learning!