pedagogy

Writing Teaching – TESOL 2015

I had the honor of being invited to take part in the panel “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: Second Language Writing in Global Contexts” at TESOL 2015 in Toronto, CA. The presenters shared their experiences in Second Language Writing (SLW) practice and research in global contexts including Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The presenters discussed best practices in SLW pedagogy and research projects that are influenced by contextual factors such as medium of instruction, culture, and politics. Below I share a transcript of my talk.

Many thanks to Lúcia Santos, Isabela Villas Boas, Denise De Felice and Vânia Rodrigues for this wonderful opportunity of sharing the hard work we do at the Casa.


OUR CONTEXT

I have been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for fifteen years, the last five of which working as Advanced Course Supervisor. Let me briefly describe my context to provide you with some background information that will, hopefully, help you better understand the scope and nature of our work in the teaching of writing, as well as the challenges we face in our educational context.

Casa Thomas Jefferson is a language institute, which, for the past 51 years, has specialized in teaching English as a foreign language. We currently have a little over 17 thousand students, distributed among 6 different campuses, 10 outposts in private K through 12 grade schools, and a select number of corporate courses  in Brasília. Our students have English classes with us twice a week, which amount to a total of approximately 4 hours a week. We are an extra-curricular program, and a large number of our students begin studying with us from as early as 4 years of age, staying with us until they become young adults, teenagers ranging from 16 to 18 years of age. Therefore, the bulk of our student population are youngsters, some of whose parents have been our students in the past, so we do have a reputation of excellence and tradition in teaching English, which we strive to uphold every day.

The teenagers who have been with us since their early years graduate from our Advanced Course, the course which I oversee; these students speak fluent English, and achieve a very respectable command of the language in terms of structure and vocabulary. They can understand spoken and written English, as well as produce the language with a dependable degree of accuracy and fluency both in oral and in written form. That is a result of our skills-based approach to teaching English, adopting communicative methodologies that are informed by highly regarded, pedagogical practices, such as those informed by social-constructivist principles. Another key feature of our methodology is that our classes are taught in English, since we have a strong English-only-environment policy in our classroom.

We adopt coursebooks in all of our courses, which we choose via a comprehensive book analysis process in which teachers, as well as other members of the school Coordination, evaluate and critique several coursebook series before we make a final choice and adopt one specific series. We are, however, very particular about how we need to adapt whatever material adopted to best suit our own context and our students’ needs. That is actually one of the major sources of impetus for the ongoing professional development that takes place at the Casa. Course Supervisors, such as myself, are responsible, among other things, for assessing the success in the adaptation process and spotting opportunities for improvement and development, which result in training for our teachers.

So, as you can see, the work has really only just begun when a new coursebook is adopted. And, traditionally, one of the major components of our courses which require lots of adaptation and personalization is exactly the teaching of writing.

OUR METHODOLOGY

Let me now go into the writing teaching methodology we adopt at the Casa. As mentioned before, we adopt a skills-based approach to teaching English. Therefore, writing is one of other skills that we want our students to develop in English. From beginner levels, our students already start producing short texts, and are exposed to tasks which will foster an experience in writing as a process which not only involves linguistic knowledge but also planning and drafting skills. In other words, we expose our students early on to practices informed by the belief that writing is a sociocognitive process, recursive and non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one’s voice.

By the time our students reach the Advanced levels, they have developed a repertoire of basic writing skills, as well as some writing metalanguage. They have also been introduced to the concepts of audience and purpose, with some experience with different genres. They have worked with drafts, receiving feedback on their writing by means of comments addressing content, style and organization, as well as indications of linguistic improvements by means of proofreading symbols used by teachers.

In the Advanced levels, our students, who are mostly teenagers going to high school, are asked to focus on a specific genre, namely the academic essay, which they are required to master both for language proficiency and college entrance exams.

THE ADVANCED COURSE WRITING PROGRAM

I would now like to focus on some of the distinguishing features of the Writing Program we develop in the Advanced Course. Our Advanced Course is made up of four semesters. The first two, corresponding to the upper-intermediate level, are critical for the success of the writing program developed during the last two semesters, which correspond to an advanced level of English.

During the first semester of the upper-intermediate levels, students’ writing goals are to consolidate and master the writing of paragraphs, following the linguistic and organizational requirements of body paragraphs in academic essays. Now, once they go on to their second semester in upper-intermediate, they will gradually expand on their previous knowledge to learn how to structure a full essay, containing an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. They acquire some basic training and knowledge of the overall requirements of a well-structured essay before going into the advanced levels in the next two semesters.

Once they get to their third semester in the Advanced Course, they’ll get plenty of practice in the four-paragraph academic essay. They will be provided with practice in a variety of writing strategies, producing expository and argumentative essays, for example. In other words, they are learning a specific rhetoric and genre that will benefit their writing skills in and outside of our English classroom.

At this point, it’s appropriate that I mention another aspect of our educational context. In Brazil, they way our teenagers are taught Composition in their K through 12 schools, more specifically in grades 10 through 12, is fundamentally different from the experience with Composition they have with us at the Casa. A vast majority of Composition teachers in Brazilian high schools adopt a product-oriented approach, where writing teaching means correcting students’ mistakes and grading essays against college entrance exams parameters. There is emphasis on neither the cognitive nor the social dimension of the writing process, which relegates writing to being an end-product, resulting from the mechanical replication of models, which is ultimately a score on a life-changing exam for these teenagers, the one that will get them into a good university as soon as they leave high school.

Back to our English teaching context, in the Advanced Course, teachers are required to use a set of writing worksheets which will serve as the basis for their pre-writing lessons. The writing topics are adapted so as to become appealing to our teenagers, and are chosen in order to fit the subject-matter explored in their coursebook units. Students are assigned their writings at the end of a unit, after they have had plenty of opportunities to explore a given topic. In the case of the Advanced Course, pre-writing lessons are preceded by a Reading lesson, which will serve as an entry point to the required writing for the unit.

Now, keeping in mind that we have approximately 100 teachers working with a population of a little over 2000 Advanced students, we need to adopt instruments that will ensure the quality of every lesson, be it a pre-writing, or any other type of lesson. So, we try to select and adapt topics that we believe will entice our teenagers, stimulating their creativity and willingness to voice their opinions and feelings. We also adopt the use of writing scoring rubrics to try to minimize subjectivity in the feedback process, as well as to provide students with a set of clear expectations for their work. Our students need to know how their writing will be assessed by their teachers.

A pre-writing lesson will typically contain the following stages: think about and discuss the writing topic, brainstorm content, outline ideas, study and analyze a model and focus on specific language strategies to convey meaning. Once students have had their pre-writing lesson, they produce their 1st drafts, on which they’ll get feedback from their teachers regarding several aspects of their writing: content (their ideas), text (organization, genre, style), and language (grammatical accuracy and word choice). Students may also get feedback from peers and from one-on-one conferences with their teachers. They are then asked to produce their final drafts, whose grade will be considered for evaluation purposes, together with the other grades they have as part of our course.

We have also been adopting a Portfolio approach, in which students are encouraged to reflect on their overall development through the semesters as Casa Advanced students. One of the strategies we want our students to learn with the collection of a portfolio is to identify areas for improvement and establish goals for future assignments.

Now, the use of portfolios in the Advanced Course presents challenges. Brazilian students, coming from the background they have in their K-12 school culture, do not seem to value their own writings. That is understandable, given the mechanical production of essays for college entrance exam prep. By implementing writing portfolios, we are trying to foster a sense of value regarding writing as a means of personal expression.

Another challenge we face is a certain level of resistance to adopting peer revision, which I personally believe to be a natural fit to a portfolio approach and a writing teaching pedagogy based on socio-constructivist principles of learning.

Another challenge worth mentioning has to do with time constraints and teachers’ workload. It is no easy task for teachers to do the necessary planning and keep up with the drafting process, providing the necessary support and the high quality feedback our students need to succeed. One major adaptation we’ve had to implement is that of bringing the number of drafts from three to only two. That means that teachers now provide feedback on content, organization, as well as language use upon correcting students’ 1st drafts. Teachers are also instructed to grade 1st drafts so that, should a student fail to produce a final draft, that student already has a grade for his writing work, even if he or she do not follow through with the entire drafting process.

To the effect of tackling those issues involving time constraints and handling logistics (turning in assignments and providing feedback in a timely manner), we have started experimenting with a digital alternative to the physical portfolios. We are experimenting with the affordances of Google Classroom for the development of our Advanced Writing program. We are still in a piloting stage, having invited a small group of about ten teachers who were eager to try out this new tool with their Advanced students. We hope that, by making the handling of logistics simpler and paperless, students and teachers might find ways of managing the process more rapidly and more conveniently. And of course, that is not to mention other possibilities of sharing content, communicating, and classroom flipping that we have just begun exploring with this tool. Digital portfolios and the possibility of showcasing students’ writings to a real audience online are what’s next for our students’ writings.

I’d like to share a quote by Professor Ken Hyland in his book Second Language Writing, which I feel synthesizes our efforts towards an effective writing teaching pedagogy:

“In practice this (an effective methodology for L2 writing teaching) means a synthesis to ensure that learners have an adequate understanding of the processes of text creation; the purposes of writing and how to express these in effective ways through formal and rhetorical text choices; and the contexts within which texts are composed and read and which give them meaning.”

We choose to teach writing the way we do because we believe that effective, communicative writing can and should be taught to our English learners. We believe that the very development of their writing skills directly impacts their cognitive and expressive abilities, empowering our teenagers as they exercise and get to know their own voices.


References:

HYLAND, Ken. Second Language Writing. Cambridge Language Education series (Editor: Jack C. Richards) Cambridge University Press, 2003.

VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Stepping Stones for Successful Writing. In: VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras da Universidade Federal de Goiás, 2006, Goiânia. Anais do VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras – UFG, 2006. p. 453-464

VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Process Writing in a Product-Oriented Context: Challenges and Possibilities. Article based on part of the Doctoral Dissertation entitled A Contribuição do Processo de Ensino-Aprendizagem de Produção Textual em Língua Inglesa para o Letramento do Aluno,  presented at the School of Education, Universidade de Brasília, 2008. In: RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v.14, n.2, p. 463-490, 2014.

#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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

 

1st ATNU – Advanced Teacher Network Unmeeting

On February 6 I held a meeting with our In-Service Advanced Course teachers. My group of Supervisors had decided that it would be worthwhile to try a different approach to our In-Service meetings, which have traditionally been lectures containing announcements and information about course features, with an audience of teachers passively taking it all in. I wanted to engage teachers in reflection on their own practice, as well as tap into their beliefs and values as educators, so I gave them a challenge, a driving question that would sort of give some direction and purpose for the session. This was our driving question:

How can we adapt coursebook use in order to foster more meaningful learning experiences to our Advanced students?

In order to get teachers immersed in our context, they were asked to carry out a poster & post-its activity. They sat together in groups of five to six people at round tables in our Resource Center. Each group was given a poster containing three questions: who are our students? what are their needs? how might we meet their needs? Teachers were asked to brainstorm responses to those questions, writing their ideas/responses on sticky notes for each of the three questions. Once they had generated plenty of ideas, they went over their notes with their groups, selecting what they agreed to be the most relevant ones and placing those higher up on the poster. The atmosphere fired up with the buzz of nearly ninety people talking, exchanging ideas, interpreting their findings together.

Now that they had brainstormed and discussed their teaching/learning context, they had a vivid, dynamic image of their students in mind, as well as their challenges in their everyday teaching practice. The next stage would take them closer to the topic addressed in the driving question – coursebook use and adaptation. For this stage of the session, I had reccommended (a few weeks before the session) that teachers read a post written my me on the subject of materials adaptation. The idea was to give them some theoretical and methodological references to help them shape their contributions and reflect on their materials’ use so far in the piloting stage. Each group accessed a Google Doc, which I had previously created especially for this meeting, where they would be guided in their reflection and suggestions for making the best of the coursebook we are currently phasing in in our Advanced Course.

Before we finished the session, once groups of teachers had finished editing their Google Docs, they were asked to leave an exit ticket, sharing their impressions of the session. I will now share some of their responses, sharing some of my reflections triggered by their feedback.

“I think this session was very interesting for learning and suggesting improvements for the advanced course. Sharing experiences with more experienced teachers, was also fantastic.”

This was definitely a concern of mine when planning the session: creating opportunities for teachers with different backgrounds and classroom experience to work together and engage in meaningful discussion. I was hopeful that this kind of heterogeneous collaboration would produce interesting learning for all involved, regardless of how experienced they are, or whether they are new teachers at our institution.

“It was great to have this opportunity to share experiences and generate new ideas with other advanced teachers. The discussions we carried out today will help me plan my lessons and adapt the course materials this semester.”

Hopefully, a great number of teachers was able to take something practical from the session. The fact that they were asked to collaborate in order to carry out the tasks proposed naturally led teachers to share experiences and tacit knowledge, which is especially valuable for those teachers starting out. It’s also a positive way to make the institutional culture known among the people – teachers – who directly contribute to (re)creating it every day, in and out of the classroom.

“it’s important to get someone to keep group on course or discussions become very general rather than specific…” 

This was also an experiment in teachers’ capacity for self-directed, self-managed collaborative work. Some groups seemed to manage to keep on track, being highly productive, whereas others seemed to lag, getting sidetracked in long discussions. This is, therefore, a valuable suggestion for future sessions. I should point out, though, that I feel it’s only natural that it so happens, especially when we are beginning a shift from sessions centered on one person transmitting the information to a hundred passive listeners, to decentralized, collaborative (and often times messy) work among different individuals.

“This was a very hands-on meeting which was very productive. We have had the opportunity to share many ideas and impressions related to the advanced series. There was active participation and a thorough exchange of ideas/concerns/experiences.”

“I really enjoyed the way that this meeting was planned as it allowed us to participate actively and to go deep into the topics discussed. It was also very nice to get to know my colleagues better and to find out their ways to teach the advanced course.”

My two takeaways from these two quotes are hands-on and participate actively. One of my core goals was to have teachers go beyond the generation and discussion of ideas by actually getting them engaged in making something. For me, the posters and the docs they created as a result of their negotiations are valuable iterations of collective knowledge.

“I think this was a very interesting attempt at dealing with such an overwhelming topic. I find the session would’be been more effective if we didn’t need to go through the warm up stage in the meeting.”

This comment has given me some insight on the issue of timing. It had been my idea not to spend too long on the poster & post-its stage of the session. I must confess, nonetheless, that I myself lost track of time at certain points of the session, since discussions seemed to become denser and denser by the minute. This suggestion also reflects a concern I mentioned above, regarding the different teacher backgrounds and levels of experience. A very experienced teacher, having been immersed in the Advanced Course context for a long time, might have been ready to dive into the second stage of the session right away. My takeaway here is differentiation. How might I be able to differentiate without alienating, and still keeping it productive?

There were 43 exit tickets total. Below are a few other comments (highlights are mine and will hopefully speak for themselves):

“it was interesting to share opinions and discuss the questions. i felt there was a sense of focus and that our group feels more ready to tackle this semester. a great way to have the ‘meeting’.”

“A profitable and organized session! I actually had new ideas and heard nice ideas from peers!”

“I much prefer this over the traditional meeting. I think the activity was fantastic for generation of ideas. It was very focused and could have been more productive if people kept the conversation on task.(…)”

“The discussion was relevant and productive. Thank you for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to our next meetings.”

“Very organized and productive!!! I was glad you opened a channel for us teachers to express our real concerns about the book. Hope we find our way out of the main problematic situations.”

“The session was thought- provoking and insightful. The steps were clear and meant to fit a very demanding audience. The group discussions were interesting throughout the session. Most of all, it gave room to the ” Thank God I’ m a teacher” feeling we need in the beginning of the semester!

I will end this post here, for it’s already quite long, but I’ll be coming back to this session in future posts where I hope to explore the richness of content generated and beliefs shared by this amazing group of teachers.

I take this opportunity to thank each and every teacher who participated in this session for their commitment to their own professional development, and to being eager to provide meaningful learning experiences to our students. Thank you.