Smilebox at Christmas 2012 and at lots of other times…

Verona XmasSmilebox makes storytelling easy and fun!

If you saw my 2011 Happy Easter post, last year, you’ll already have an idea of the way this site works. I started using it a lot at Christmas 2011 and have used it again this year because there were some lovely designs like reindeer travelling across snow covered roofs or traditional living room scenes complete with roaring open fires, mantelpieces covered in Christmas cards and all the trimmings. Here is the Christmas smilebox 2012 that I made for my class thi syear which has a gingerbread theme as the “gingerbread man” had come up in class:

Click to play this Smilebox greeting
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Free ecard created with Smilebox

Smilebox for Storytelling

I started using this site for classroom activities in different ways last year  and decided to try it out as a storytelling tool. What makes it very useful for this is that the smileboxes (ready made storylines and layouts for you to adapt with your own images and text) are conveniently grouped into themes that cover various aspects of everyday life. This makes them very easy to relate to topics that you might be working on in class such as:

  • family;
  • special occasions;
  • travel;
  • sports;
  • pets.

You get the idea. You just need to browse the catalogue to find a topic you are interested in and then you choose the smilebox, feed in your photos or video clips and add comments.

Teaching tips

  1. Instead of text add questions then ask stds to answer them in class or at home before the lesson;
  2. Use the smilebox in class with a clear story line, stop the film and ask stds to predict the next image;
  3. Post members of your family and ask stds to guess who they are;
  4. Post memorable moments and ask stds to discuss why they are memorable (This can be done in pairs first and then as a whole group activity)

Exploring Life

Here is an example of a box I made called Exploring Life, which I intend to use with advanced level classes. They should:

  1. look at the title and predict the content of the box;
  2. then watch to see if they were correct and decide why I chose the images I did and how they are connected to exploring life;
  3. a vocaulary teaching slot may come here with common collocations and verb patterns related to hobbies and activities (take up something new, try something out, see how you like etc.)
  4. then discuss the best way to motivate yourself when you are feeling down;
  5. the follow up activity is for them to create their own motivational smileboxes, which they can then present to the  the next lesson,  with any task they choose (This may require preparation such as showing them the tool and how to use it and suggesting tasks, but it is worth it, in my opinion, as it adds an invaluable personalised investment element to the whole exercise.)

So, here is the Exploring Life Smilebox. I hope you like it 🙂

Click to play this Smilebox scrapbook
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Customize your own free digital scrapbook

The Essence of the Lesson

Bringing that spark of magic into your lessons

Lighting the spark….I was talking

with two of my colleagues this morning about our lessons, and you might think we’d be discussing the focus we’d planned, or the materials etc. But, in fact, you’d be wrong.

What we talked about was what I call the indefinable extra something that is the essence of a good lesson: real human interaction and communication.

One colleague told me that the audio had broken down in her classroom so she’d got two boys to act out a dialogue. The only problem was that the dialogue was between “Mandy and Jane”, who were two girls gossiping about their boyfriends. The two boys, she said, rose to the occasion admirably and overacted so that they had everyone in stitches. This is what was probably memorable about the lesson, that everyone was having a good time as well as studying English.

In my B1 class the other day I had two examples of John, who was short and Michael who was very tall, a common enough example to illustrate bug differences and how to express them, with forms like, yes, you guessed it: “Michael is much taller than John.” Very dry stuff, until I mentioned “Little John” and someone asked where Robin Hood was. I said that he was somewhere in the middle but was only “a bit taller than Little John”.

In this way, what was a very banal example had been transformed into a memorable communicative interlude.

Grammar and Magic

I would just like to stay with these comparatives for a moment to show how through noticing and experimenting these B1 learners somehow managed to normalize the patterns (to some extent) so that they could make effective comparisons and prepare for their exam all at the same time.

They have to translate sentences unfortunately from Italian to English to show an awareness of various grammatical and lexical items in their written exam, so I, as their teacher, need to provide them with exam practice whilst making it meaningful and, dare I say it…magic, at the same time.

Here is the magic spell

1) Provide a series of provocative sentences for learners to translate.

Travelling by bike is by far the fastest way of getting around the city.

Women tend to be much more faithful than men.

Those who earn the most are definitely the most responsible members of society.

2) Let learners translate these (In our case from Italian to English) then check their ideas and help;

3) Then wave you magic wand and just as they think that is the end of the activity you ask them… “So, do you agree with all this then?” And suddenly these statements are no longer just a mechanical exercise but someone’s thoughts that have been expressed.

4) In pairs or small groups the learners discuss them and, as you go round monitoring you will hear some of this language being expressed absolutely naturally as they make their point.

The height of the discussion this afternoon was when someone mentioned quite a well known Italian politician as being the antithesis of the last sentence.

None of this is particularly innovative. In fact, it is actually common sense, but it shows how from humble exercises real communication can grow, and that is the true magic of the lesson. The essence is always the individuals who are sitting there in your group, and what they can express to each other. It can all be made up into heady brew….

Christmas is approaching

Autumn colours I love autumn. I love the rich reds, oranges and browns and the carpets of leaves that furnish the pavements and provide such an amazing contrast to the black tree skeletons and the skies. Most of all, however, I love the beginning of the Christmas period with freshly lit street decorations and that feeling of expectation of good things to come. So… that’s why this year, I’ve decided to celebrate advent.

I’m not the only one either, and, in fact, I was motivated initially by Macmillan’s lovely Advent Calendar Greeting card which I was so impressed with that I decided to try to make my own using Powerpoint. This is the result:

Just click on a day to go to the activity

This is basically the first slide in the presentation and you click on the date to go to the activities.

Today, for instancThis is where the number 4 on the Advent Calendar takes youe is the 4th December, so clicking on the number 4 will take you to the page you can see in the picture below “Christmas  Landscapes”

When you want to go back to the calendar simply click on the star in the bottom righthand corner.

How to use it

There are as many ways of using this calendar as there are teachers, I’m sure but here are two simple suggestions:

1) Christmassy Warmer

Use it at the start of a lesson as a warmer.

Simply get a student to click on the calendar and then use the text as you would any text, focusing on vocabulary, the text itself, of as a springboard for discussion. This could be a quick discussion or could lead to other activities such as writing. It’s really up to you and your learners.

2) Competition

Here is an idea for a competition which departs somewhat from the traditional calendar idea but is fun anyway:

1) Divide the class into teams

2) each team pics a number out of a hat (prepare 24 numbers in advance on cards, slips of paper etc.)

3) The team answers the question and the rest of the class gives the answer a vote from 0-5. (Don’t tell them why they are voting at this stage)

4) When each team has had the chance to “play” once or twice, count up the votes and the winners are the ones with the highest score.

(In my class I have a real advent calendar at this stage and the winners get the chocolate.)

So here is the calendar:

Powerpoint Advent 2011

(ON some versions of Powerpoint not all the photos load so here is a PDF alternative (unfortunately this one doesn’t have the animations)

Advent 2011

These are just quick suggestions which I am sure can be adapted to suit all needs. I’s be really happy to hear from you if you use the calendar and come up with other ways of using it in class. If you would like to see some more Christmas activities just follow this link to the fun and games page on my wiki, and scroll down until you come to Christmas.

Merry Christmas

From Sharon and Haggis the cat

#ELTCHAT Summary for November 30th 2011 How to Improve Speaking Skills using Critical Thinking (CT) without Spoon feeding.

Am I just feeling stressed?

#ELTCHAT Summary for November 30th 2011

How to Improve Speaking Skills using Critical Thinking (CT) without Spoon feeding.

Hi everyone,
I’ve been trying to keep up with the fast flying tweets on #eltchat recently, despite rather too much work. This is the group that meets on Twitter on Wednesdays to discuss the topics we vote to discuss (all related to teaching). Each discussion is followed by a summary like this one, which are stored at the above #eltchat site, so that there is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of ideas, insights and resources there for any elt teacher. If you would like to take part just download a programme like Tweetdeck and do a search for #eltchat on Wednesday at 12.00 noon or 9.00pm (UK times) and join in the fun :-).

Do you communicate or do you parrot?


This week’s discussion of critical thinking kicked off with a request for a definition of CT (critical thinking). There then followed quite a few references to parrots (Largely my fault as I was in a rebellious mood, I’m afraid :-() but underlying this is actually something quite serious: Critical thinking leads to logical thought and communication of well thought out ideas that are not simply “parrotting” someone elses’s words and ideas. The wikipedia definition was a good one:

Critical thinking is the process or method of thinking that questions assumptions shared by @cerirhianon

Some noteworthy ideas were:

@Shaunwilden Critical thinking – the ability to interact with a subject, & question & debate its foundations with considered ideas. I guess questioning assumptions/norms /givens – not being spoonfed are key factors.

@shaznosel: CT – maybe to encourage SS to elaborate, be flexible, original,creative and to think for themselves..diff between us and parrots??

@hartle reading between the lines and then discussion everyone’s different destinations

@sandymillin: CT – encouraging students to explore and play around with ideas, rather than accepting them without question

So, basically we are asking students to think for themselves, question things and become more independent (less spoonfeeding)

We also discussed the difference between CT and Creative thinking. I personally said that I think you need a certain amount of creativity to be able to think outside the box, and therefore to be able to think critically:

@Marisa_C Very diferent to creative thinking -perhaps we shld draw distinction here? Critical thinking may be more logical & analytical (but then in reply to my ideas she added)
Agreed, critical thinking is related to analysis, creative thinking to ideas.

@cerirhianon RT @hartle: #eltchat treat stds like other adults. Listen to them and really talk to them… > works for kids too 🙂


Critical thought can take us in unexpected directions

We then moved on to consider ways in which we encourae CT in our classrooms and whether this is a good thing or not. Most of us thought that is was a good thing as getting students to think for themselves and communicate intelligent will produce fairly natural language use as a type of by-product, but there were a few reservations. People were worried that learners might ask why they were doing “this” and not concentrating on “new language” etc. These are legitimate concerns and were discussed quite thoroughly.

Some noteworthy ideas were:

@shaznosel I think it begins by having high expectations of our Ss. Ask the questions that they haven’t been asked before.

@hartle say opposite opinions to encourge them to prove their point of view

Some people were asking how using CT skills differs from “normal” speaking activities, and the general opinion was that the skills of speaking are the same ones but the thought befind what people say differs so that there is more brainstorminsg, debate, preparation before activities, rather than just “diving straight in to the speaking activity”

@e_d_driscoll certainly some Ss feel this sort of thing is a waste of time- how is it diff from any other free speaking practice?

@MrChrisjWilson I think interest in topic makes a difference. If you don’t care then why bother to think critically?

@cerirhiannon: might be helpful to share some specific activities and evaluate them for CT ?

@EnglishOutThere  #ELTChat true..maybe let them research at home a topic and then bring ideas to class??
@hartle Speaking skills improve as natural by product of engaged discussion, + LA and feedback

@ElindaGjondedaj RT @Marisa_C: @e_d_driscoll Another good question – should ELT Ts act as educators or just as language dispensers?

This discussion continued but in the end there was a general concensus that encouraging students to think critically would lead to better communication skills.

The mask you choose is the identity you adopt


At this stage of the evening the ideas really started to flow in thick and fast, and it was hard to keep up with everything: so much creativity :-). So, here is a list of the types of activity that we use:

  1. @Marisa_C Simulations and Case studies…alibi games, problem solving, improvise from pics, build on each others ideas
  2. @cerirhianon ask high school ss to  think (but really think) about the relevance of their education system as prep for real world @sanymillin @cerirhiannon great example Ceri. So this perhaps requires collection of data from other countries, analysis of diff views
  3. @aggaridodiez Strategies such as talk to partners allow students to have opportunities to develop such critical thinking, even at survival levels
  4. @eflresource Ethical dilemmas can be a good way in, too – esp.  removed from religious points of view and esp. if they have comic overtones
  5. @Marisa_C Decision making activities which involve evaluation – e,g. candidates for a specific job brief Ss must choose. There used to be an excellent section in Management Magazine callse Dilemma & Decision – i have tons of great lessons from those
  6. @shaznosel critical thinking with lots of a pic which is unusual and speculate why/how /what etc @hartle replied: Ads gd for this too.
  7. @annabooklover I have a game which wasn’t meant for ELT use, called SCRUPLES. Canadian people may know it. Great fun for older students @Marisa_C replied to this: Great game – an ELT version of it in T’s Guide In HEadway Advanced OUP
  8. @cerirhianon read texts about students’ culture written by outsiders – ss as experts criticise and correct the misrepresentations @Marisa_C replied: ss as experts criticise7correct the misrepresentations @eflresource added: Yes, and also science/tech developments – life elsewhere; aliens view of us; etc
  9. @theteacherjames Use fiction/movies/tv as a way of promoting the disc. of opinions. Lots of useful lang can come from this eg disagreeing politely.
  10. @ElindaGjondedaj using breaking news (see link to the website I added below for more on this.
  11. @Marisa_C Games from the Philosopher’s Magazine (See link below, which I have added. I hope it’s the right publication, but even if it isn’t it looks interesting and could well be used in class.)
  12. @Marisa_C: Read news items and rewrtite them from own country’s local viewpoint . Engage with literary text – always a great springboard for critical discussions.
  13. @NikkiFortova @Shaunwilden information gap activities, debates, dictogloss , for example, can be good collaborative tasks And from @Nikkifortova: … our Ss are intelligent, thinking human beings – challenge them with tasks that require higher level thinking
  14. @theteacherjames Compare two opinion pieces from newspapers of opposite views Which is right?
  15. @antoniaclare dictation sentences, but sts need to change the content to be true for themselves, then compare, include controversial opinion. Or…Watch documentary, then Imagine you’re making documentary about this topic, what view will you represent, why etc?
  16. @hartle doing opposites activity.  Dictate something like  “Poverty leads to crime” & ask for opposite. Discuss in grps
  17. @cerirhianon ask ss to debate subjects from the opposite position to their own ( e.g. boys argue that girls are stronger)
  18. @Wiktor Good 4 low levels:”alien interview” -pretend U R an alien, ask ss to explain / define things clearly – annoying & effective as hell….Also: an alien comes to earth, does (insert bad things) but they’re normal in his culture. Shld we punish him?

There was a little aside about questions with “no right answer” which was interesting. Some said their students were frustrated by this type of question, but others felt that they help students to be more engaged. In any case the ideas (as you can see) flew fast and furious and hopefully will be very usfeul to all of us. #eltchat has done it once again, going from strength to strength!

References and links:

Definitions of CT: by @cerirhianon and @EnglishOutThere slideshow shared by @Marisa_C

Ideas and Lesson Plans good lesson plan by @cerirhianon pre discussion work designed to foster crticial thinking prior to discussion posted by @hartle “Information is beautiful” to simulate thought and discussion, posted by @cerirhianon podcast showing “small successes” of some students after working on FB and Skype activities, posted by @EnglishOutThere Every Picture Tells a Story on #eltpics (Look for user of this name on Flickr) posted as a prompt for discussion activities by @sandymillin Lateral thinking puzzles posted by @Wiktor_K The Breaking News website with great lesson plans posted by @hartle The Philosopher’s Magazine posted by @hartle Useful stories to make students think, posted by @eflresource A great site with deceptively simple questions that lead to discussion, posted by @Shaunwilden

Celebrating my first public lesson on WizIQ

This has been quite a week here in Verona. On Thursday Italy celebrated 150 years of unification, with various degrees of success: some thought this should not be celebrated at all whilst others were euphoric and flags sprouted liberally all over the place, still others were of the opinion that there is actually very little to celebrate about at this moment in time. That, however, could well be said of almost all points in time. In my small, personal way I celebrated my own success this week, because I gave my fist ever public lesson on WiqIZ, which is pure distance learning. I have worked a lot with blended learning. In fact, I would say that 80 percent of my teaching these days is blended, but I have always been wary of virtual classrooms.

What is a virtual classroom?

A virtual classroom, and there are several available these days, at varying prices, is a space where a lesson can be held completely online. most classrooms like this have a chat space and both teacher and learners can generally contribute by audio and, or, video. Documents can be uploaded to the site and, at keast in this case, there is a very useful whiteboard which the teacher can use, and control of the whiteboard can easily be given to the learners too. Wiziq has all these things and it is free to use!

My lesson was a conversation class and I wanted to work on conversation via chat and conversation via microphone, so I planned to keep it fun but simple. I pitched it at an intermediate (B1) level but added some work on binomials which I thought would be of interest to those with a higher level too. The site also records these lessons so that they can be viewed at a later stage, which is an added plus. In fact if you want to see this lesson go to this link:

You can see all the comments there too.

The lesson, as I said, was on Thursday morning so, needless to say, I found it very difficult to sleep the night before. When the time came to start I sat there with baited breath watching the countdown on the screen. Would the room open up? Would they be able to hear me? Would I be able to share my screen?

Well, in fact, as more and more learners joined the space and got caught up in our first game, revising language but getting to know each other at the same time, I soon relaxed and settled into my normal lesson mode. Did I have any problems? Yes, of course I did. I wasn’t very efficient when it came to giving the mike to people, which slowed the pace down somewhat, but hey, I never said I was perfect. The whole experience was absolutely energising and I can recommend it. Working with 26 learners (and one or two teachers) who came from all over the world, was extremely interesting and the enthusiasm of the people learning was infectious.

The quality of the recording is very professional too, so I can thoroughly recommend both the site and the experience. There’s also a whole series of communities there that are vibrant places to visit, for instance try this one for teaching technologies, here is a post someone left about my class (plug, plug)

Well, that’s about it for the moment, but I’m celebrating… How about you?