teaching

#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.

On Wearing Two Hats: Teaching & Responding to Writing

On Wearing Two Hats-Teaching &

This morning I had the opportunity of engaging with quite an interesting and energetic group of bright individuals as part of our institute’s training of newly-hired teachers. The goal was to discuss the teaching of writing to our EFL learners, what it is that an effective pre-writing lesson should entail, as well as ways of responding to students’ writings. It was a hands-on session, with some initial discussion and brainstorming of lesson stages with a specific writing prompt in mind, which was then followed by their response to and correction of an authentic writing sample. The idea was to familiarize teachers with the kind of response to writing that we believe to be in keeping with the principle that writing is a recurrent process, non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one’s voice.

Roll up your sleeves and let’s get down to business

Teachers worked in smaller groups and were asked to respond to and provide corrective feedback to a first draft sample of a five-paragraph essay written by an upper-intermediate level learner. Along with the sample, they received a copy of our correction and proofreading symbols, as well as a scoring rubric by means of which they’d grade that first draft. They immediately set out to accomplish the task, industriously reading the piece, red pens in hand, and… Stop. Wait a minute. Do you feel an urge to begin crossing out and underlining spelling mistakes and wrong verb tense use? You do, don’t you?

Step away from the red pen

Before you unleash your full corrective-feedback-giving potential, put on a different hat. Be a reader. Respond to your students’ content and ideas as a real person. Familiarize them with that sense of having an audience. We use language to communicate, be it in spoken or written form. Let them know that you are truly listening to them. Try to find at least a couple of aspects in their writing that are worth a compliment. Relate to their ideas, share a little about your own experience by commenting that maybe you once felt the same way as they did facing a certain situation in your own life, and that you know how wonderful or how difficult it must have been for them to go through it, as well. Empathize. Connect. Engage. 

Respect individual stylistic choices

It’s always a challenge to provide corrective feedback without stifling the writer’s voice. What I mean is, are you (over)correcting to the point of forcing the student to write as you would have if expressing a similar idea in written form? Of course there are instances of L1 interference that must be addressed, such as word order issues to name one, but we teachers walk a fine line between pointing our students in the right direction and simply imposing our own style on them. Keep an awareness of the fact that your students are experimenting with language (a foreign one, as a matter of fact), and that they are, knowingly or not, in their own quests to finding their voice. Cherish. Allow. Enable. 

Sounding curious as opposed to judgemental

Instead of saying something like “this paragraph is too short. Please develop your ideas here.” how about offering something more in the lines of “I wonder if you could tell me more about this experience/situation.” or even “how did you feel?” and “what did you do next?” The point is that by asking a simple question, you may elicit just the response you want from a student, instead of making a direct comment that might come across as judgemental, in that it is an affirmation made by you, the teacher, who is supposedly the knowledge authority on all subjects language-wise. Don’t point fingers. Ask more questions. Provoke. Entice. Foster.

This set of guidelines sprang up from this group’s engagement and reflections during our training session, so that gives you a pretty good idea of how lucky we are to have gathered such a great collection of curious and avid learner-teachers. Thank you all, Casa newbies, for inspiring me to write this piece.

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Welcome aboard, guys!