Month: May 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hoseini

I’ve just read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and I’m still reeling from the ignorance, false pride and abuse of power that seems to be rampant in our world, and not only in Afghanistan, I hasten to add, but at the same time this novel gives a sense of the beauty and magic of Kabul and here are some lines from the poet Hafiz, (follow the link for more) that are quoted in the novel. Hope you like… them:

Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not,
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not.
If a flood should arrive, to drown all that’s alive,
Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not.

I particularly like the rose garden image :-)

Surfing Google’s new Wave

Well, it’s been quite a stressful three days since Wednesday, here at the “chalk-free face”, organising an exam session for next week, in which roughly one and a half thousand university students will be taking their English exams at the University of Verona. In order to attempt to run this fairly smoothly we work in pairs (very true to tefl, don’t you think?) and in the past this has always meant a flurry of emails, which are useful but rather a “stop and start” process at times too.

This time I decided I’d like to try working with Google Wave, and with beating heart, on Wednesday, I set it up, created a new wave and started typing a summary of the work so far. Then I contacted my colleague and lo and behold, without too much hassle, she appeared and we could actually see each other typing, not like a chat, where you only see the finished product, but the actual thought process as the other person works.

We could check info in real time and edit the wave or “document in process” as we went, or jump in with our own ideas and questions at any point in the document. The result was, that on Wednesday evening when I went home I logged on again, only to find that my colleague, and her husband, were still there, posting photos, and generally expeimenting, so I joined in the fun. The euphoria died off a bit on Thursday as some other colleagues told us they hadn’t been able to see or access the wave, and we’re still working on that. Then today it crashed at one point, but, after all, it is still experimental.

Why not just use Skype?

This was one of the first questions I was asked when I set up the wave, and I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, on Google Wave you can create a document together simultaneously, and I’m afraid you have to try this out to see it happening. (Or check out the link below and watch the video) But, take it from me it can be an amazing experience editing together with another person on one document, all at the same time. Secondly, it is like a sort of advanced chat, because it is “instantaneous” so that you see the other person “thinking”. So, all in all, I can highly recommend it (although I’d save a copy of the document too, as you go…)

So come on jump in and join the waves. The blog is a good place to start:

Life at the university

I’m not exactly anti coursebook, in fact, I’m always very hopeful when a new one comes out. Maybe this will be the exciting new course that is perfect for my learners? This, however, is almost always impossible. To be fair to coursebook writers, having done some writing myself, I know the constraints, and apart from the limitations posed by the publishers there is also the simple fact that no group of people is the same, no teaching situation is exactly the same, and as a result, it is almost impossible to produce a coursebook which will meet all the needs of a group of learners. Having said that ‘Inside Out’ by Macmillan does a good job and in their new version they have added the CEFR “can do” statements, adapted for each level and for each module of the course.

I was looking at the Upper Intermediate level (B2) this week and wondering how I could use these statements with my students. There are of course, various ways, and the most logical would be, as the teacher’s book suggests, to use them as a detailed needs analysis before doing each module, so that you could then decide what to focus and expand upon and what can be left out.

In small groups this works very well. The learners are enthusiastic and it helps me a lot with the planning. I feel as thoug the work we are doing is really useful to these learners and they are not wasting time on things they are not interested in. As a result they like the coursebook, which provides practice work that I can relate to very well. So, thanks Macmillan, Inside Out gets a thumbs up from me!

This of course led me to thinking about how nice it would be to have time to tailor my course in the way to the needs of all my learners. I can do this when I work freelance, with small groups or in one to one situations, but in university classes of anything from thirty to a hundred students it becomes difficult to provide tailor made courses which really meet learners’ needs.

Large classes are not the only thing that limits our students either. Our learners are also bound by exams that they have to pass which sometimes give rise to absurd situations, such as Economics students from my university,who are complete beginners, obstinately demanding to be allowed into a B1 level course, because “That’s the exam we have to do!” And you can explain until the cows come home on Farmville that if you are a beginner you should first do a beginners’ course (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?) but they don’t listen. This is a minority, of course, but it illustrates some of the surreal events that we have become so used to that we think of them as being normal. Learners who are in a class that is completely wrong for them level wise, will not be able to benefit from the work being done. At best this is a total waste of time for them and at worst they become a disruptive element for everybody else. This should actually not be happening any longer as they are supposed to already have an A2 level before they can go to a B1 class, but with large numbers there are still one or two who slip through the net.  So it comes back to the large numbers once again. 

In the “world of TEFL there is so much emphasis on learner centred work, stressing the need to cater for the real requirements that learners have, but our university students often find themselves in classes that are so large that it is difficult for their teacher to even remember all their names. How can teachers do learner centred work if they do not even know the names of the students? Once again, the answer is simply that they don’t. They focus on the exams and what is in them. We know what sorts of “typical areas” our students will have difficulty with, but in no way are we able to look at every learner as a whole individual.

My solution is to show them the “can do” statements and to ask them to assess themselves, which is a far cry from what I would like to do and can do in small adult groups, where I can look at the results with them, provide teaching in class that focuses on their needs and then direct them towards out of class work that will interest them and be relevant to them.

I try to do the same in the university and, don’t get me wrong, sometimes the numbers are not so big and I can, but I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the line our students are getting rather a rough deal, and I would like to be able to do so much more for these intelligent, often much maligned young adults, who when given the chance can actually absorb and contribute so well.

Using art in the classroom… and passing exams too.

Well, it’s Saturday afternoon, after rather a stressful week of exams, exams, and, well, yes… more exams. This, I suppose is the joy of the university world, so it made me smile to see Jamie Keddie’s work on using art in the classroom on Onestopenglish, and in particular, I quote:  

“In a culture of ‘correct’ answers and multiple choice grammar tests, the subjective nature of art can pose a problem in the classroom.” (J. Keddie.

This culture of “correct answers” is just what I’m trying to get away from, but then I find that we have to help our students to pass exams too. What we need is to combine the best of both worlds and that means motivating learners through lovely inspiring activities like Jamie’s wonderful work with images, and in this way their general love of the language will increase to the point where the exams are just syages along the road of discovery, rather than being great big blocks up ahead.

This is what I have been aiming at and judging from some of the emails I recieved today from students who have passed their exams too, it seems to be successful. They have learned a whole lot more from their courses than just how to get the answers right in the exams.

  So, if you’re feeling under stress, and feeling that you “ought to” be focusing on exams rather than communication, try doing both. Sometimes all it takes is a little shift in perception. Oh and ckeck out Jamie Keddie’s lesson ideas too.

Jamie Keddie's book OUPHis book Images can be accessed at Amazon and you can look inside to see some of his activities. He also has a lovely website called teflclips.

My Teaching Self: reflections from an examination room.

Dörnyei and Ushioda have done wonderful work on motivation and the way we see ourselves, and that is what comes to mind as I watch my students sweat their way through exams and wonder what I’m doing here. My ideal teaching self is not this. In an idea world I, as a teacher, or omnipotent authority, would be invisible, and what would be happening would be groups of learners, or yes, even individual learners being helped along their own paths of discovery. I try to communicate with them as far as I can as an equal, but, the norms of status what they are, this is well nigh impossible in a university setting in Italy (but I suspect in other places too.) I would like learning to be a magical experience for them, for them to be curious, and want to read, search to find ideas that excite them, developing their language competence as they go. This would then help them to communicate with others all over the world so that their studies really would be meaningful. Note, however, the conditional here.

All too often what comes into play is the “ought to” self both for me and my students, I think. Our lives are governed by rules, regulations and the small fears and worries of everyday life. How long should that composition be? Have I prepared everything properly? What did X mean when he/she sent me that email? Etc. etc. The “Ought to” self  is effective in motivating us to do all the things we “absolutely have to” but how useful is all of this in the long run. Sometimes it is more important to bake a cake than to write all thos incredibly urgent emails, and sometimes it is worth while just switching off and thinking.

If I’m honest I don’t really want to be invisible when I’m teaching but I want to be helping people to do something meaningful that will have impact on their lives. Oh, well, I ought to go and post this, I suppose…