Can we keep our students focused in the classroom?

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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:

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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!

Are we really creative?

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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.

How do we learn (and how can we use Padlet in the classroom)?

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I don’t even remember how I came across Padlet, but since one of my vices is being overly organised (I’ve realised I’m overly organised when I noticed how many people laugh at me or stare in disbelief once they see me do admin work), that was love at first sight – and obviously, as a properly infatuated teacher, I’ve decided to share my ideas on making Padlet an awesome tool in teaching both inside and outside the classroom.

This year I’ve decided to start my classes with a very important topic, which is learning itself – I have observed how many people simply don’t know how to study efficiently (my junior high class), how to find time for extra study (my high school class) or simply forgot how to study at all (my adult class). As a proper master I came to help and created the padlet below to use in class and show my padawans the Way of Learning. You can see the padlet below (yes, it’s a tiny one, if you feel like adding your own links here I’d be more than happy!).

CLICK on: How do we learn?

I started my classes with showing this adorable drawer full of highlighters and post-it notes and we had a chat about our ways of learning etc. Then we moved to discussing types of students and identifying ourselves, trying to get 2-3 learning methods that would work with us.

We made a circle and got a visual of our daily organisation and discussed the possibilities of learning in non-traditional situations (audiobooks while commuting? Memrise while waiting for a sports club?). We also had a chat about morning routines and how we can make them as pleasant as possible (if it’s possible at all, huh).

I put emphasis on note-taking and presented it as a main focus this season (one of my observations being that especially young people have problems with proper note-taking). We talked about doodling in the class and how we actually can change it into far more productive note-taking (embellishments, pictures, short comments etc.). There is a theory that once you copy draft notes into a neat and proper note within 9 hours after classes it’s much more effective than doing it later (or not doing it at all for that matter).

We discussed tips, elements of learning online and I was really pleased as my students seemed really into adding this board into our lesson – so I’ve decided to make it an all-year project. I prepare a board before the lesson and use it with my class (the perk is, students only scan my QRcode instead of googling stuff and have all the materials ready). I find it really nice with younger students as they love using mobiles in the classroom and Padlet is a really user-friendly mobile app, they can add their own ideas and I don’t have to print photos, articles etc.

With my adult group, however, I’ve decided to go full Flipped Model – I give them a QRcode to the next class and they have to read articles and cover vocabulary before the lesson. It motivates them to prepare for classes and I find it a better way of making them do something outside the classroom rather than giving them boring homework 🙂

How long will we work like this? I’m not sure, but if you want me to write about it, let me know 🙂

And if you liked this post, follow my page on Facebook for more useful stuff.

Enjoy!

To be or not to be (yourself)

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In his book, Jim Scrivener advises teachers to “be themselves”. I really respect those who can be both teachers and themselves at the same time. I’d rather not, thanks 😉 I support a more Shakespearean approach, simply, the classroom is a stage, I’m an actress and as a bonus, I also write the script 🙂

I remember vividly that when I started teaching I was 23 and I was lost. I barely knew what I was supposed to do in the classroom and I was thrown into the environment expecting me to be a professional. A piece of advice like “be yourself” wouldn’t have helped me at all, how can you be yourself when you’re 23?

Well, a blessing in disguise, my parents were teachers (yeah, they both taught Maths and dad used to be my teacher at school, I grew up in hell 😉 ) so I picked the only strategy I could have thought of – to pretend I actually was a professional and that I knew what I was doing.

Surprisingly, it worked well. To be honest, it still does, because my style of teaching includes a lot of acting, luckily, it’s the type of performance I can run. I am an entertainer, a show runner, just to keep my students interested in the lesson, as simple as that.

To be honest, I don’t really believe in teachers being themselves. We’re only humans, after all, having our good days and bad days, but I’m not convinced that students should ever spot the difference during the class. Playing a role I feel comfortable in helps me hide insecurities and pretend I’m totally enjoying myself. Even when I am experiencing some tough stuff at the same time.

I don’t mean we have to play absolutely confident roles, I have no problems with admitting I don’t know all the things my students want to know, that I need to double check some grammar issues (articles!). I just believe teachers are professionals and no student should ever suspect their private life might be somewhat messy 😉 and while it’s quite a truism, assuming a role makes it way easier for me.

Also, accepting teaching as some kind of performance helps me detach myself from teaching right after I leave the classroom. You know, the audience is gone, the lights are off…

…and I may comfortably get back to my real life as the Evil Empress of the World 😉

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“First writing” tips

Writing can be one of the most tiresome endeavours of a student – can you recall your own papers, compositions, etc? Surely, not the funniest part of learning 🙂 My language teachers assumed I was able to write a nice story, so they never bothered to teach me how to write. Only at university did I learn what a topic sentence is 🙂

I see no reason not to pass the knowledge further on and teach some writing techniques to my own students. I’ve realised that the sooner they get the basics, the better their writing compositions are.

I think you can start even with elementary students, doing some exercises. Here, I wrote a simple sentence and asked my students to expand it by adding words and phrases. That’s what we got:

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On my last lesson, with my pre-intermediate group of teenagers, I explained what a topic sentence is and we decided to make a short outline of a story using only simple topic sentences. That’s what we got:

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Next, we thought about what exactly we are going to include in the paragraphs. We could do it together, deciding to write one story with the same plot and details, but at that moment my students started to grow their own ideas, so we just made a general outline:

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And then, I asked them to write down some keywords and phrases. It’s a pre-intermediate level, so it’s not too crazy 🙂 but on the more advanced levels I ask my students to add 2-3 items of sophisticated vocabulary, some phrasal verbs, an idiom or two, maybe a proverb. We tend to forget all those nice words while writing (especially on a test), but planning – and writing down – ideas, before we start writing, is a really good idea.

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That’s the final outline.

Next, I asked my students to elaborate the topic sentences the way we did during these simple exercises (like the one in the first photo). That’s how I’m able to monitor their work 🙂

Writing a full story (based on the outline, naturally) is their homework.

Since I include a short essay/composition on every test, I give my students more time to deal with this part, but I ask them to write not only the complete task, but also the process – topic sentences, ideas, keywords. It helps me to observe their progress and help them in those aspects they struggle with.

I hope you’ll find the idea worth giving it a try 🙂

(Thank you, group Washington, a.k.a. LeniweBuły, for your cooperation 😉 )

Let’s write a poem!

Yesterday, when I was on my way to work, I was thinking about the lesson – a group of pre-int teenagers and grammar + vocabulary revision. Not necessarily exciting thing, admit it.

Maybe I’ll give them a funny warm up at least, I thought – and I decided to make them write a poem, which we had never done before.

First came the rhymes, and I found this really helpful to review vocabulary (aye, they had a lesson on Guy Fawkes Night, hence plot), but then the real fun began. I’ll just share the photo of the final outcome… And let me say we thoroughly enjoyed this activity and we’re definitely going to develop our poetical creativity 🙂

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No, the final mayhem wasn’t my idea, it’s just the group I’m teaching. But then again, since I’m the Evil Teacher what else would you expect?