education

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!

The 1st Advanced Planning Hub

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We share because we care. (design by Clarissa Bezerra)

Today we launched the Advanced Planning Hub project, with our first face-to-face gathering over at Casa Thomas Jefferson – Sudoeste Branch. This was an idea I had after analyzing the results of a recent survey I carried out with our Advanced level teachers. The purpose of the survey was to foster some reflection on the work developed throughout our first year using Viewpoint (Cambridge University Press) with our Upper-Intermediate level students. This was also a way to get feedback from our teachers as to how they evaluate the effectiveness of the material, as well as identify possible issues or difficulties that may have come up during these two semesters. The overall result of the survey was very positive. Acceptance of the newly adopted material is very high among our Advanced teachers, and we all know that’s key for successful teaching and learning in any course.

There was one aspect that called our attention in the survey results. Apparently, a few teachers had been having some difficulty planning and delivering the Conversation Strategy lessons (lessons C in Viewpoint) in a way that would be more meaningful for their students. It is worth mentioning here that the majority of our upper-intermediate and advanced student population is made up of teenagers, which makes our reality very peculiar, since most, if not all of the EFL/ESL materials available at this level target older learners (young adults and adults). Teachers felt that the way these lessons are structured sometimes yields quite mechanical responses from students. Therefore, we needed to find ways of making these lessons more meaningful, fostering more authentic communication in class. That’s when the idea of the Hub first occurred to me. As course supervisor, I’d been not only teaching with the material, but I had also been talking to teachers about it, as well as observing a number of classes. I knew that there were teachers who had been planning and delivering highly engaging, effective Conversation Strategy lessons, for example. What I needed to do was get those teachers who’d been struggling together with those who had been having all sorts of great ideas for those lessons, and let the magic of sharing work its wonders. And so it was that at 10:00 am today, we had a beautiful collection of thirty eight teachers (that’s about 40% of the total number of Advanced level teachers this semester, so wow!) eager to share their wonderful ideas with each other.

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The Hub in action.

For our F2F gathering today, I had put together a workspace within our school wiki – The Advanced Planning Hub – a place for teachers to share their lesson plans (lesson goals, step-by-step procedures, and supporting materials) and also find help when they have run out of ideas. So this morning, I showed them our new workspace. Our Hub gathering began with two of our teachers, Diana do Amaral and Cristina Bolissian, sharing/presenting a lesson plan of their own, which they had sent me the previous week and which had been shared on the Hub workspace. After that, teachers worked in smaller groups, sitting in round tables spread in the room, and engaged in very productive lesson-planning dynamics. They organized themselves into the different levels they are teaching this semester and went about feeding our Hub with great lesson plans.

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Macaroons of appreciation! (photo shared by teacher Anna Lúcia)

Time flew by, and it was already 11:30 am when I interrupted their busy work. I asked if anyone would like to share something they had learned during that time spent together with their fellow teachers. Some of them volunteered to share all kinds of tips, ranging from handling technology in the classroom (like using the class software and configuring the right screen definition for it to work properly) to actual methodological aspects, such as asking more challenging questions to engage students, and how the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs may help us do that. After that, it was time to go, but not before getting a small token of appreciation from their supervisor – ahem, yours truly – in appreciation for the fact that each one of these educators had chosen to spend two hours of a lovely friday morning planning lessons together, having a good time together, and showing that they care for their own professional development and for each person sitting next to them.

This post goes to all of the people who helped this idea fly today. Hopefully, this was the first of many Hub gatherings to come!

Here’s to caring and sharing!

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