Can we keep our students focused in the classroom?

bored-students

indianlink.com.au

I really dislike this season of the year when winter slowly changes into spring. I feel tired and lazy and somehow uncomfortable in my own skin – and when all I hear around is “wee, spring is coming” I feel like crawling into my bed and missing November (my favourite month of the year, seriously). It’s quite easy for me to understand my students being somewhat slow and sloppy, so here are some tricks I use to keep them focused in the classroom because hey, spring or no spring, the Passive must be reviewed.

First of all, change the pace. Shorter but more varied exercises seem to work almost always. When students finish grammar, make them sing a song, act a short scene, come up with a joke. After a short break get back to exercises, but once they finish a decent part of the drill give them a short topic to discuss, a quiz or a short film (Film English is a purrfect source of those). It’s not so much about being unpredictable as not letting them get bored.

Food is always a good idea to relieve the tension of grammar revision classes. I have already written about food here (click!) and I still find it one of the easiest ways to bring fun to the classroom. I usually teach by the book: two units – revision – test. The review before tests is usually the worst part of the routine for my students, so I try to brighten it up as much as I can – by bringing films, making projects etc. My students, especially teenagers, love baking cakes for those classes, as – a scientifically proven fact! – sugar intake boosts your mood and no amount of grammar exercises can destroy its beneficial effect. One of my groups made a recipe project – I brought 500 Cupcake Book and everyone picked one recipe to translate. Now, they’re supposed to bring the results of translation next week when we can judge the quality of translation while reviewing the aforementioned Passive for the test. I will definitely post some photos on my fb page unless I fall into sugar coma… (edit: so far I haven’t – click! to see what my talented students made)

Online quizzes – not only the ones about language! Everyone knows you can use quizizz, quizlet or kahoot but have you thought about something different? I’ve started collecting music quizzes as it seems to be a nice break for my students – and I can use it to share some cultural things English students should know (like watching at least one western, seriously, teenagers!). I’ve tested the ones on my padlet and now I can share them with you and ask for collaboration – if you find any interesting music quizzes share them with me!

Made with Padlet

Chilling out – as simple as it sounds, it may be not so easy to conduct. It’s quite important to keep the balance and allow only for sensible chillout that can be beneficial for the class and not leading to greater laziness. What can we do? We may take the group to the café and enjoy one lesson with a cup of tea or coffee. We may go for a short walk where students are supposed to record a short message, write down all the things they can name in English or do a short survey with unsuspecting passers-by. The idea is to introduce something unusual, simple and entertaining for our students to give them a chance to recharge their batteries.
Finally, introducing nonsensical sense of humour – which is my favourite thing to do regardless the weather or season of the year – but as humour can be quite a sensitive issue I’ll write about it in another post.

Hope you’ll get inspired by some of those ideas 🙂

Enjoy!

English for _very_ special purposes

Last year I got hooked on Stranger Things – a great TV series, especially for geeky 80’s kids (like yours truly, I guess, can’t wait for s02). I guess zombies, aliens, demogorgons and all supernatural things have been quite a thing for a while, and thanks to Netflix we can binge on tv series (btw, thanks netflix for ruining my social life) and it would be a real waste if we couldn’t incorporate it into our classes.

I love creating lessons around tv series (I’m not a whovian, but “Blink” is a great episode to use in the classroom and “Yellow Fever” from Supernatural is simply hilarious – just to name but two) as it shows quite natural language and speech flow, brings some cultural references and is a nice way of learning by fun (which is my favourite way of acquiring knowledge).

Apart from creating lessons around fantasy and sci-fi tv series I’m really glad when I see proper books directed at low-level students, allowing them to be part of the supernatural hype:

alien_20cover

English for the Alien Invasion is written by the same team who committed English for the Zombie Apocalypse (a really good book for pre-intermediate students, I wrote about it here). This time the threat is from the outer space, cunning and intelligent. Beware, it’s not for the light-hearted 🙂 The story focuses on the boy called Dani, Captain Black, Doctor Green and a bunch of aliens, of course. Unsuspecting Dani meets an alien and befriends him only to be lured to the spaceship – will he be able to run away? Will Captain Black manage to inform the President about the danger? Will Doctor Green be able to help? Will humanity survive?

The book is divided into 10 units (from Making Contact to Saving the World) and two sets of flashcards. Each unit makes a 45min PPP-type lesson with similar stages: warm-up, listening exercise followed by reading comprehension, working on important phrases and production phase – creating own conversation or role-play. There are also various ideas how flashcards can be used in the classroom (learning vocabulary, short tests, memory game and story game). I find organisation of the book way better than the previous one and apart from being well thought of, there is still some space to put teacher’s own ideas (fragments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind maybe?) which is always a good thing.

EAI is perfect for elementary students for more than one reason. First and foremost, it’s a lot of fun. Who hasn’t seen at least one episode of The X-files? We can put a lot of fun into English classes and it’s as important for beginners as for any other level. Secondly, for people who have just started learning a foreign language, each attempt of communication in English is like talking to (and listening to!) aliens. We can add some humour into our classes by pretending “aliens” are native speakers of English – not only will it relieve some stress, but it may also be a great pretext to talk about cultural differences and cross-cultural communication.

I hope you’ll get inspired by the idea – it’s always good to be prepared for the worst! And if you are interested in the book, you can get it here.

Enjoy!

I didn’t do my homework… – project idea (not only for young learners!)

 

i didnt do my hw 1

Some time ago I spent a Black Friday weekend in Manchester – yes, I guess I must have gone mad – I do like the city very much (surprisingly, because I support none of the local football teams), but going there in the heat of the international shopping spree wasn’t exactly the best idea ever.

A highlight of my visit was definitely the John Rylands Library – a magnificent building with impressive interiors and amazing atmosphere (generally Manchester’s libraries are awesome, I fell in love with Manchester Central Library, best place ever!). And it was its small bookshop where I noticed a book which immediately caught my eye: I Didn’t Do My Homework Because by Davide Cali and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud.

The book is basically a list of perfectly illustrated, funny, weird, amazingly impossible excuses a student could use… but they usually don’t.

Unless I, as a teacher, make them to 🙂

i didnt do my hw 2

When I was browsing through this book I immediately thought about a project for younger learners. Perfect for a period right after a winter break, when they don’t feel like, well, doing anything. The list of excuses the book offers is great, but my students can surely do better.

Last week I got quite tired with my group full of teenagers who clearly hadn’t felt like doing their homework for a while. So I set up a common account on Storybird, chose a pattern, showed them some ideas and asked them to write their own book. Here is the result being a nice homework, a fun activity and an adorable souvenir for yours truly (my absolutely favourite thing is the alien insects clearly inspired by the X-files).

CLICK: I didn’t to my homework because… by LeniweBuly 🙂

Be sure, though, once you go with this project your students will never again say they forgot to do their homework… be prepared for alien abductions, chupacabras, evil bunnies and alternative worlds galore.

i didnt do my hw 3

However, even older students may enjoy this book and the ideas – who doesn’t have any problems with homework? I personally believe, English classes give the opportunity for adult students to feel childlike once again – after all, the process of learning is (quite unfairly in my opinion) identified with children. I don’t believe those serious mothers and fathers won’t enjoy making up stories on why they didn’t do their homework. Naturally, I wouldn’t suggest drawing pictures, but making a list of the most creative excuses (a contest with a prize maybe?) seems to be a nice activity to help your students relax, perhaps before a test or not so enjoyable grammar part? Or maybe as a way to practise some phrasal verbs?

i didnt do my hw 4

I believe a project like this may be a great fun in winter or early spring when we all feel rather discouraged and wouldn’t mind having a little funny activity to catch a distance and remind ourselves English lessons are fun.

Because that’s one of our tasks as teachers: not only teaching, but also showing our students they can use their linguistic knowledge and abilities to actually have fun 🙂

Enjoy:)

i didnt do my hw 5

Make your own e-book with Storybird

storybird-design-screen

oupeltglobalblog.com

When I was a teenager (ghastly times) my English lessons were mainly focused on following the book with a sprinkle of additional exercises (unforgettable drills by Thomson and Martinett). If I were to admit why I got to like this language I’d have to say a huge thank you to my primary school teacher who decided I should take part in an English contest and spent long hours teaching me actual communication. I didn’t win, but it was enough for me to look past the boring school classes and remember there’s more to learning a language.

I’m really annoyed by the fact that classes today – in ordinary schools – happen to look pretty much the same. It’s probably one of the reasons I gave up on the state educational system and decided to work with language schools, where I can experiment, bring new ideas, broaden horizons (both mine and my students) and put actual fun into our classes. This year I’ve started using Padlet (so far so good!), but there’s a tiny little project I’m planning to use once my students feel bored and will need a spark of creativity – Storybird.

I came across this website and just thought ooh, looks nice, I’ll give it a go… and disappeared for a few hours just to come back with a picture book about cats (duh, obviously). How come I haven’t seen this wonder earlier? This is my own story. Not about me, mind, I just saw some kitten pics and, well…

I might look lonely – enjoy 🙂

Naturally, the curse of a teacher made me think of how I could put Storybird into good use in the classroom. Here’s what I came up with:

Traditional use: Let’s Make a Story! – we can use the platform as an individual or group project when we’re discussing things like storytelling. Students register on the platform and make their own story. The great advantage here is that an account is free both for students and teachers, but there is an option of adding parents so they can observe progress their prodigy make. We can also start a story in the classroom, students will come up with its development, then choose the best one – we put the chosen one as a continuation, read it aloud and ask students to continue, and so on – to make it more of a class project.

Parental control may be a great thing in My Own Dictionary project – here Storybird is a tool for students to make their own dictionary of the words/phrases they tend to forget. Ideally students would add a word or two after every lesson to make it a really nice thing (let’s say, one page of words would be one month of learning). The best thing about this project is the possibility of printing out their dictionaries as a form of a course accomplishment.

The last idea I had about this adorable site was using it as a form of a webpage – choose a particular theme (cookbook? short stories? urban legends? favourite things?) and, as the whole group, collaborate by writing one page about the topic given. It’s a nice way to practise traditional writing – definitely looks less boring!

Also, in my next post I will give you a nice idea which topic you can choose to make a nice book – stay tuned!

I hope you’ll like these ideas, and if you want a short tutorial on how to work with Storybird – here it is.

Enjoy!

Back to basics – dictionaries in the classroom

How often do you use ordinary dictionaries in your classroom? Maybe, like yours truly, you are so much into technology you happen to ignore those old-fashioned tomes? Or maybe the memories of “building up your vocabulary” for Use of English exam during uni times are so traumatic you don’t even want to introduce this torture to your students?

Well, in this case you have definitely missed workshops by my colleague Beata who proved that even dictionary classes can be engaging and entertaining. Seeing my obvious disbelief, she was kind enough to lend me the book that actually made me bring my dust-covered old friends back to the classroom.

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Dusting my collection, looks like I used those books ages ago.

 

This unusual book is simply called “Dictionaries” and was written by John Wright (it’s a part of Resource Books for Teachers by OUP). It’s divided into four parts dealing with various topics in which a teacher can use a dictionary to help develop particular areas of linguistic proficiency. We start with lessons on how to actually use a dictionary (not surprising for those teachers who have already encountered students who are not really able to look for words in alphabetical order). The second part is focused on headwords – my favourite part, here you can find some interesting exercises on pronunciation and generally the phonetic system. Working with meaning deserves a separate part and it’s mainly about vocabulary development, idioms and collocations. The next part combines using dictionaries and original texts (e.g. newspaper articles) to introduce in the classroom topics like memory strategies, register, homonyms, etc. The final chapter focuses basically on vocabulary issues like differences between British and American English, connotations and vocabulary organisation.

I had been quite sceptical about this whole idea of dusting my dictionaries and bringing them to my classes (especially when we can use things like my beloved thefreedictionary), but I decided to leave my comfort zone and start this new year with some oldies but goodies. The exercises that caught my eye were as follow:

Phonemic bingo (elementary+) – develops awareness of phonemic symbols. Students make a bingo grid with e.g. 2 long vowels, 2 diphtongs, 2 short vowels and 3 consonants, then teacher dictates words and students fill in their squares.

Sight and sound (upper-intermediate+) raises awareness of onomatopoeic effects and sight/sound groups. Students look up in the dictionaries words connected with a given sound/sight and then for example, write the diary of a person with a splitting headache.

“It’s a sort of…” (elementary/intermediate) provides practice with the structure “it’s a sort of…”, superordinates and skimming. Students get a text with blanks and work on them basing on context to realize they don’t really need to know the exact meaning of each new word, but it’s enough to now what the general meaning is. I find it a really valuable exercise for my adult students who try to remember every word.

Quick quiz (elementary+) provides practice with wh- questions and helps with contextualizing new vocabulary . Students get the teacher-made quiz referring to unknown words with wh- questions (e.g. “who wears a nappy?”), and work in pairs with dictionary to solve test. It’s a really nice warm-up, or even an exercise to introduce vocabulary before a reading exercise.

Collapsing a page (preintermediate+) encourages learning vocabulary by association. Students work with a random dictionary page (10-15 headwords) and pair up as many words as they can using any justification apart from “beginning with the same letter” (e.g. two irregular plurals etc.). Then they pass their page on to the next group /pair who must guess the pairing rule.

Words and feelings (intermediate+) works with dictionary codes (e.g. derog.) and practise positive/negative connotations. Students in pairs find positive/negative connotations for simple words (fat/thin).

Find a proverb/idiom (intermediate) gives practice in finding idiomatic expressions in dictionary entries. Students get the key words that occur in proverbs/idioms and find English sayings in the dictionary.

“Would-be” vocabulary (intermediate+) focuses on the usefulness of the new vocabulary. Students work with text, find the words they don’t understand and put them in three groups: words useful for me now, words useful for me when…, words useful for me if…

Weather words and global warming (intermediate+) focuses on vocabulary development, especially weather words. Students work in groups trying to come up with cities starting with every letter of the alphabet in various continents, Then they write a weather word to go with each place, they don’t have to make sense (e.g. Fez may be “freezing”), because then they prepare a weather report for one area in the world explaining how global warming is responsible for the changes.

I hope you’ll like the ideas I found – if you want to get more, get yourself the book 🙂

Enjoy!

Commercial Christmas or Christmas commercials?

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projectcomenius.weebly.com

It’s not easy to come up with Christmas-themed lessons, especially when you teach the same bunch of students yet another year and they’ve already had enough of Christmas at school (be it their own or their children’s). This year, I accidentally went for a pretty nice Christmas theme inspired by commercials and a fellow teacher’s blog post.

The theme of my Christmas-related classes is its commercial aspect. For some people it’s the most dreadful thing in the world, but for me the season starts with John Lewis’ TV spot (my absolutely favourite is the 2013 one, the Bear and the Hare with Lily Allen’s nostalgic voice in the background). It’s quite easy to run a short debate on commercials and their influence on our lives, and then it’s just perfect to use the film I found On The Same Page (it’s just brilliant! thank you!).

After watching these inspiring ads I initiate a discussion about the commercial side of Christmas – how annoying it is to go into a shop fully decorated for Christmas right after Halloween, how some commercials can be real tearjerkers (yes, I still want to share some cheesy Christmas spirit even if I’m the Evil Empress of the World in the Making). I’m sure everyone has at least one spot they’ll watch whenever it’s on (like We All Need Warmth by Quechua, awww!).

You may pick some commercials from my padlet here. (Please do not hesitate to add some if you know any nice Christmas-themed commercials!) Each video may be used to ask some questions connected not only with commercials, but also with social issues – mostly family and friends, but also animal care etc.

The last Christmas commercial I have in mind is the one that already went viral – made for Allegro, a Polish auction website.

The discussion that follows this short film may be connected with various aspects. With elementary levels we may talk about difficulties we have while learning, with pre-int students we may talk about our own learning methods, with intermediate+ levels we may discuss the difference in learning (or language acquisition) between younger and older students, and more advanced groups can talk about the impact of migration on family lives and the decisions migrants face.

I hope you’ll have fun with the commercials – and enjoy your Christmas classes!

Are we really creative?

albert-einstein-creativity-quote

Source: ist.greenville.edu

Ten days ago I took part in a great webinar by Agnieszka Gągała from Szkolimy that was focused on creativity – you know it’s a great webinar when it’s 9 p.m. and you’re still having fun. We discussed the concept of creativity as a way of thinking characterised by originality, flexibility, fluency and elaboration, but we also took part in some games/exercises on creativity as well as original and lateral thinking (if you want to practice some lateral puzzles, you may want to have a look at one of my previous notes). I do recommend taking part in Agnieszka’s webinar, so whenever you see her workshops around, definitely join them! You can have a look at it here (Polish only, sorry!):

Apart from having fun, I was reminded of this famous TED talk by Ken Robinson, “Do schools kill creativity?” and the perfect statement regarding the role of creativity in education:

So I want to talk about education and I want to talk about creativity. My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

Now, creativity is one of the most important values for me, not only in teaching, but in everyday life. And, sadly, it’s one of the reasons I stopped working in public education system where I struggled to bring some fun into exam-oriented environment. I’m afraid our education system is so focused on tests and somewhat wrongly perceived linguistic competence, that there’s not enough place for communication skills, cross-cultural experiences and, well, having fun. Students are locked in classrooms with grammar books and vocabulary exercises instead of actually using the language, because the main goal of school is test preparation, and the main expectation of parents is that their child passes those tests. This is really sad, and I must admit I absolutely respect those teachers who fight to change this state of things.

I have been working with kids and teenagers for a few years now, and I must admit that one of the saddest things I’ve observed is the lack of creativity. When I meet new students it usually takes 4-6 weeks to make them think out of the box and it’s honestly quite heartbreaking for me, because I remember myself when I was their age, some weird ideas (when I was 16 I seriously planned to study mechanics and become a president) and I feel really sorry for children who are simply not used to balderdash, being constantly reminded to focus on their future career.

It is definitely easier to work creatively when you work in a private language school, and I love it – using those parts of books I like, bringing in fun, making students talk and actually have fun using the language they’ve acquired through grammar-and-vocabulary-exercises. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever heard was when one of my students told me after our last classes: “you know, I’ve made progress, and I can speak English without fear… and I don’t even know when this all happened”. One of my personal highlights.

Being creative is the key to opening, unblocking someone else’s creativity – but I’m not really sure that being a “creative teacher” is enough, I’d say that being a creative human being is more important here. I believe we, teachers, should not only bring creative classroom activities, we should focus on unblocking this aspect in our students’ mindsets. I’m nor really sure that attitude is something anyone expects us to do, but in a world where creativity is clearly needed yet restrained by the career-focused environment, it’s the teachers that should take at least part of responsibility for students’ creative growth. After all, we’re here not only to share knowledge, we’re here to teach and there’s more to it than preparing creative games for the classes.

And I want to quote Sir Ken Robinson to finish my note:

We have to be careful now that we use this gift (of the human imagination) wisely (…). And the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way – we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.

I’d love to know what you think about creativity and its importance – please, share your comments and if you liked my blog, follow it on Facebook.