Month: May 2012

Keeping an eye on the Big Picture but don’t let it terrify you!

From Microsoft Clipart

Keeping an eye on the Big Picture but don’t let it terrify you!

I’ve noticed recently how a lot of us want to learn everything straight away, and my students, despite the fact they are all intelligent young people become very despondent when they don’t see results immediately. I sympathise because I’m exactly the same: if I start learning a new language, or to play a musical instrument, for instance, I want to be able to use it to communicate articulately after just a few days!! This is a tall order indeed. Of course, we need to keep an eye on the big picture, which is to become the latest virtusos guitar player, but it is also important to focus on the small steps we are taking to reach that goal. so it made me think when I was reading an article on Learning, as we are fond of saying, is a journey and each journey consists of thousands of small steps, each one just as valuable as the next.

Goal Setting and Rewards

This is why setting goals and rewarding yourself as you go is so important. The thinking behind portfolios reflects this practice and it is widely used in all sorts of areas. To give you an example which is not related to language learning, I know that the only time I lose weight is when I am motivated enough to set  daily goals and give myself weekly rewards if I reach them (not a bar of chocolate, or course 🙂 ) Of course, I need to think that I want to lose 5 kilos overall, but that does not mean I can’t celebrate losing half a kilo or even 200 grammes along the way.

Exams are important but so is learning

For many of my learners this is a difficult practice to get into. Universities tend to stress the importance of the exams and the results without highlighting the process along the way. This puts all of us under a lot of pressure to perform well, and leads both teachers and students into focusing on the exams and exam strategies, rather than on learning the language, but most of these language students did not actually choose to study languages because they want to “pass exams”. They want to be able to travel, and work with the languages they are studying or some of them have a love of language itself or literature ( a few). All this tends to “get lost along the way” if life is overclouded by “exams”. After all, an exam should simply be a measure of your level, and not something that exists in its own right, but, of course, we have gone far beyond that and exams can mean the difference between getting a job or not… It’s hard to ignore this. And yet, I firmly believe that the way to success is made up of small steps, and that if you reward yourslef for each of these small steps then the final goal will appear on the horizon in next to no time, because you will be too busy learning the language, and improving your own competence, to be worried about that destination which seems to be so far away from you. So, if your learners listened to a podcast and understood the main ideas this week, when they couldn’t do that a month ago, this is what they should be celebrating. If they have learned some lovely new collocations then they should have fun using them and celebrate the new language they are learning now, at this moment.

Well, that was my thought for today, and now I’m off to celebrate the fact that I learned how to group the icons on my iphone screen. Another small step on the journey towards mastery. 🙂

Backache, large classes and HootCourse in the classroom

Burning the candle at both ends

I was reading just this morning in Brabara Hoskins Sakamoto’s lovely Teaching Village blog about how tired we teachers are all feeling at the moment, and how important it is not to burn the candle at both ends but to stay healthy and motivated.

This came at a highly appropriate moment in time, because a few weeks ago I was suffering from a pulled muscle in my back (carrying too many books around, I suspect) which was quite depressing because it meant that I had trouble getting around and doing simple things like getting dressed, or going downstairs. The idea of sitting in our classroom chairs and working at the computer or going round the classroom monitoring my students was unthinkable. Monitoring involves bending over the learners as they sit working and unfortunately that is not a movement which is designed for bad backs. Added to that I sometimes work with large classes (50-70 students is the norm for many of these) and that means that monitoring is limited to those sitting on the edges of the rows, or involves creativity… or a little help from my guardian angel. (Well OK, then, my guardian owl… who helps me to hoot away with him on Twitter via Hootsuite.

Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr
Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr

Introducing HootCourse

The Hootsuite team have developed HootCourse, which is a way of bringing Twitter into the classroom or the classroom onto Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook).

It works like a hashtag discussion on Twitter, and students can join a specific course you set up for them, and then tweet inside the HootCourse or directly from Twitter.

To explain how this works and why you might want to do it, I’ll tell you the story of my students in Verona. I set up a course for them on HootCourse. (If you want to see our space, follow this link) I then went into class and explained that I was having difficulty monitoring because of my back but wanted to see what they were doing anyway so would they mind using Twitter.

Twitter? Why shoudl I use Twitter?

This was the first hurdle, because I discovered that whilst most of my learners use Facebook all the time, very few of them actually used Twitter, in fact there were only about 4 or 5 out of 50 that said they used Twitter, and they tended to use it to follow celebrities. They were about to be launched into the Twittosphere in no uncertain terms. To help them along I prepared a document with detailed instructions which I posted in advance on the class blog. Then, in class, I grouped them into 4s and 5s where one person in each group was a representative and used a smartphone (I supplied a laptop and an ipod touch as well to groups that didn’t have mobile devices, as not so manynof my students actually have mobile devices. This will soon change, I’m sure in technophile Italy.) and they set up Twitter accounts and joined HootCourse. This particular course was an EAP course and they were doing an exercise on using academic vocabulary so I asked them to do the exercise and to tweet questions or doubts as they went.

They did this and I projected the HootCourse page on the screen. HootCourse has a useful “classroom mode” which enables you to project the tweet stream in a larger format. As their tweets were coming in I replied to them, so what was happening was actually a chat within the classroom. Rather artificial? I hear someone say. Well, maybe but they were learning how to use the tool, and there were people in the middle of this large group who normally never get the chance to ask questions etc. and they were quite happy to tweet whereas speaking out in front of the class is really much more daunting.

We then went on to use the tweet stream in different ways: the groups made their own gapped sentences, for instance with the academic vocabulary they had just been studying and the other groups had to tweet feasible answers. This was a lot of fun and worked well. The tweet stream was there for everyone to access after the lesson too, and I published the transcript with comments on the class blog page: scroll down to week seven in the second term to see this.

Visitors participated too

An unexpected efffect of this was that we had visitors from my PLN as well. Whenever you tweet something to HootCourse, in fact, your tweet can be sent to your normal Twitter timeline too (or not if you don’t want it to), and my tweets were appearing on Twitter as well as in the HootCourse. This meant that other people in my PLN were commenting on what we were saying in class, so my students had the benefit of other people’s points of view or answers to their questions as well! They were really impressed.

Taking the course out of the classroom

Once everyone had got used to the idea of tweeting in the classroom I invited them to take part in an hour long chat I was doing and asked them to prepare questions to ask about English. I wasn’t sure if anyone would take part in this, as it was in the evening, but in fact a few people did, and we had an informal chat about various English related or exam related things, and it was a fun experience for all of us.

Aren’t the tweets a bit limiting?

It is true that tweets are limiting, but in fact this has advantages. In fact, in one lesson I asked learners to write the main point of paragraphs in tweets, and condensing their thoughts to a tweet was quite an interesting exercise. The HootCourse, however, also has an essay feature which hooks up to blogs so that students can set up a blog on Blogger, for instance, and then link it to the HootCourse. Some of my students have done this and they can now write much more than they could in a tweet. These posts are then available on the course straight away both for the teacher to see and the other members of the class, which has a lot of potential when it comes to integrating learner work into the classroom. The HootCourse stream itself also has a tab for questions, where you only see the questions that have been asked, and another tab for links, where you see the links people have shared. So far, I have to say, we have found the whole platform highly motivating.


Well, yes, one or two. If you post a tweet (or a hoot, as one of my students started to call them) then you have to refresh your page before you see it. This is a bit awkward as you have to keep remembering to refresh the page, and things are slowed down a bit as a result of this. Working directly on Twitter tends to go more quickly. However, the students like the idea that they are “in a social classroom” and the course is embedded onto our blog page too so it is very easy for them to access it, so all in all refreshing the page isn’t too much of a problem.

Image retrieved from on 04/03/2012

It’s still quite a novelty for me and for my students, and it did feel artificial at times as I wrote the answers to questions etc. instead of just talking to people who were sitting right in front of me, but it did help my back and it opened up a whole new way of communicating for us, in fact it is very easy for us to keep in touch outside class as well, as we are only a hoot away from each other.