Monday, April 25, 2011

Eye! Eye!

I am the secret camera in this classroom. The more I dwell on it, the more I see my position as ethically dubious.

However, ahem, if I were a legitimate student-observer, or just an observer, how would I behave? what would I be expected to do? what should I say. What should I do? Just listen? Heap compliments? Elicit things that I felt were bad or didn't like?
The first thing to say about feedback is that the context would dictate the kind of feedback given. If I were a manager the feedback I would give would be different to how I would do things as a critical friend, CELTA tutor, DELTA tutor or mentor.

The second thing is that I think all feedback should end up as feedforward. It's far more useful to have actionable points than feedback that is backward looking, dwelling and maudlin. I would also make the useful distinction between feedback and error correction, as Dave Dodgson did recently. Feedback being constructive in its nature, correction, perhaps referring to a mistake / slip in meta-language, or similar.

It seems to be the sanctioned approach to elicit, to get the observed to speak for themselves, to encourage the post-lesson evaluation to be owned by them leading to their own action plans. I think this is beneficial and by talking the lesson through I would hope that observees could work to their own conclusions.

If I were expected to give explicit feedback I would go for a mix of positive and negative comments. I would frame these comments as controllable things, thus avoiding win / lose attributions and encouraging a learning paradigm. This would keep the observed motivated and empowered. As my MA tutor says, “the questions: what could I improve? What could I change? What went well? Are all okay questions but a more helpful question is what have / did I learn(t)?”

I have experienced various approaches to observations in my career. I have usually been forewarned that there was an observer coming and normally prepared a lesson plan. This situation was unnatural as, I would not normally go to this level of planning and it was often associated with a performance management process, thus the stakes were much higher than in any normal lesson. These were sometimes framed as being developmental, but I was cynical about to what extent this was true, particularly as it was my line manager / DOS doing the obo.
There were occasions when observers just dropped in. This was usually forewarned “at some point in the next couple of weeks I / so and so will come and drop into your class for a short time”... and no lesson plan (LP) was required.

Planned peer-to-peer observations were arranged according to availability. These have been sadly infrequent in my teaching life so far, usually stemming from a formal program than anything more organic. Again there formal nature has perhaps detracted from the learning possibilities. As a teacher I would like to be working in an environment where collegial-self-development of this nature is common. Where I get to observe and be observed in a non-judgemental way that is focused on making us the best teacher we can be.

During the observations I usually watch and / or take notes. I sometimes use a handout / template to organise my notes. Often the observed will have asked for feedback on something specific so I may just be focused on a macro-level. Sometimes I get up and monitor what learners are actually doing but usually I sit. All of these techniques I have picked up from people who have observed me.

After the class the timings between the lesson and the 'feedback' session vary between almost immediately, which is good as everything is very fresh (though not always practical on a 24hour/week teaching schedule). Often observers have given post-lesson reflection sheets to me to fill in when there is a substantial gap of more than a few hours. These are usually helpful and include open question prompts to respond to. Sometimes, I have been observed and had scant or no direct feedback.

Like any task, how the pre and post task stages are conducted is almost as important as the task itself. As an observer it is important to acknowledge that this is just a snapshot (if it's not part of a series of observations) into what life is like in the classroom. Observations are more worthwhile, when the emphasis is on growth, learning and development and not on keeping your job, or getting a promotion.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sat in the final exam

Before revising for the final exam I felt thoroughly downtrodden. I knew I was lagging behind the class having disappeared to Istanbul to do my workshop and hang-out, and I was hoping some intense revision on 'grammar' would help, as this was what we were told the exam would be about. This made sense to me the course had been grammar driven. There's a number of reasons why teachers love grammar so much, but Z particularly enjoyed grammar as a way to avoid explaining things. “Grammar” she would say, “in level 5”, yet at the same time we followed a grammar transformation path. In the 4 week course I 'learnt' (I certainly drilled and repeated verbs in) the present, past, and future tenses.

And, guess what was in our exam? Not much grammar! A lot of the tasks were 'new' in the sense that I had never come across them on paper. Some of the language I had drilled but not much of it I had written down. Now, I was in a written exam, I had revised grammar. I had a meltdown. I stopped. I went on strike. This was only temporary, but I was royally annoyed. An exam, a real desks in a row exam, I know of many nicer ways to assess that help students. This is not helping me learn. I am under more pressure in this exam than I have been on the entire course. My stress of course compunded by the fact that I have revised grammar, there's not much grammar on the test and all of the instructions are in Arabic. Who designed this test? I doubt it was our teacher. Is the test kept a secret until the day of the test as a way of testing the teacher too? Anyway, I was in a mess.

There's a certain amount of strategy use I can call upon and deploy in these situations. I teach performance strategies sometimes to students taking IELTS or other exams to enable them to enhance this part of their game (the 'game' analogy is an interesting one, but I shan’t go into it here). So I checked which sections carried most marks, it was the writing, write a description of a room in your home, bummer for me, that was what I missed. Knowing this, shouldn't my teacher have chosen a task that everyone could have a go at? I employed strategies here as in the long reading text (this is the beginners level!), about a girl whose husband was also her cousin, we had some words for rooms and descriptions of them so I liberated some language from there (shows my receptive not productive knowledge and also interestingly this transfer is much easier done on paper, copying the words rather than mimicking spoken words). I also answered all the questions, going the all true / or all false root. I couldn't do the Arabic plurals, even though if I had had more energy I could have sieved the text for some examples to use. I wondered if this was coincidence, that there words needed were available on other pages, or by (good / bad) design.

My anxiety in the exam was somewhat lightened by D, from the lone-star state, who came in late. When asked why he cheekily said he was late because he had been avoiding sniper fire. Our teacher didn't understand this, and it was a moment for the native speakers to chuckle into their sleeves.

Another odd things happened during this exam. It looked like an exam, we were silent, sat in rows, no books on the table and our teacher was sat at the front. However, in the exam she left the room, sometimes for for 5 or 10 minutes. This showed trust on her part, showed disrespect to the institutions exam. What does it say about her attitude towards this test? I thought that maybe she had wanted to help us (me), knowing it was difficult, was creating an opportunity for me to cheat. Regardless I was determined to fail elegantly, with panache and not cheat my way through to an undeserved pass. When I self assessed in a norms based way (comparing to others) I felt I was at the bottom of the class. My writing was better than Ali's but his speaking and lexical range far outweighed this. I deserved to fail the course, I would not cheat and I got tired of using strategies as this wasn't supposed to be a test of our exam strategies. Helplessly, I stopped.

After a long break we had a listening test. This was perhaps the second listening we had done in 4 weeks. It seemed potty to me to test us on this. It was a multiple choice listening so offered a fair chance of success, even if you didn't understand. The materials were clearly made in-house, which is nice but the tasks were far too difficult and again the instructions in Arabic. We hadn't studied how to understand instructions in exams on the course so this was troubling me. The recording was a dialogue between two teachers at the university pretending to be a couple or something. It was jokes, the en-un-ci-ation was at times too clear to be natural and at other moments was incredibly fast and in penetrable. They were reading from a script rather than using a plan and I don't think were consistent speed-wise. This exercise made us smile and laugh at least.

So, that was it, done. I was out of there and not going back. There's a number of reasons why but I think this exam really represents much of what is wrong with the course I took.

p.s. - فقط (transliteration - fukit. Meaning - only / just)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

End of week 2 report

I am finding it quite difficult to not be like the old Perez Hilton, who I read was going to stop being a cyber-bully. It seems so easy to be misconstrued or misrepresent myself, my real intention, particularly if members of my class are readers or heaven forbid the teacher or the faculty at ADAB(the local name for this part of the uni, not sure what it means). However, that likelihood is mitigated by the fact that some blog sites, this one included, are banned here. That + the fact that I get very few readers :O(

Anyhow, back to being Perez Hilton, it's been a really interesting time in class. Reflecting on what the teacher does and what I might do with the same people is super, and as a bonus I am sure my (posh, formal, RP)Arabic is coming on. However, I still have real beef with the course, and the teachers approach, a picky so-and-so I am, I know. I think one of the things I take umbrage with is the lack of classroom management.

She has good techniques, like mill drills but these are overused and the stages before and after them don't seem to make sense. The instructions when we do a mill are never sets them up beyond, “yalla, shabab – houna, ana, anti, anta, hua hia” meaning: “Come on everyone, here. I, you, he,she”. These mills are then cut short, and there is never enough time to (even if I wanted to, which I don't) go through all the verb conjugations. In order for this to be more to my taste I would perhaps like a goal or personalisation. I might like to be told who to work with, or how many people to work with, a time limit. We know each other quite well so it may be fairly easy to talk freely, and realistically, about each other. Furnishing us with question words and phrases like 'me too' would enable us to make more of these free practice opportunities. I often end up talking with a guy and practising “anti” (female you) which seems daft.. Encouraging (semi-)realistic, meaningful, language use would be another idea.

I am not the greatest of students but I think I work quite hard. I try to do my homework, I spend time thinking about and reflecting on classes, and try to manage my own motivation. However, when I am told by Z that I must learn it at home I am heartbroken. Why should I learn it at home, why don't you teach it to me properly!
That said I missed a few classes last week while attending the ISTEK conference in Istanbul. One of the more interesting things about this conference for English teachers, aside from leading an Intercultural Communicative Competence workshop, meeting ELT glitterati (and my Personal Learning Network) was that on the final day the thoughtful organisers included some beginner foreign language learning sessions (Spanish - Hebrew), which were I think sponsored by Berlitz (notorious drill 'em and kill 'em, factory-thinking-behaviourists). I was happy that this featured at their conference as it seems to validate this blog).

For many being a student of a foreign language has an indelible effect on how we (would) approach teaching ourselves. I don't teach in the same context as Mrs Pedel-Samways but if I did I wonder would I do things so differently? Thinking about the Turkish teachers I wonder how many of the participants in these language learning sessions thought back to their own classrooms and how they introduce new language items. Do they use a context or a text or a list? Do they elicit from their participants and work with what they know? How many language items do they introduce? (In my Arabic class the other day the introduction to a new unit consisted of the teacher drilling and translating 30+ items. This wasn't the first time this approach had featured). How do they scaffold the learning? Do they use progressively more difficult stages to increase the difficulty? Do they have text / visual cues that are gradually cut back? (requiring the students to operate with more and more autonomy) Do they drill in a military fashion? Do they allow for personalisation? And so on...(crikey, quite a list there).

Equally important about making teachers become students again is that we can again appreciate the difficulty faced by our students in our classes. This empathy and understanding informs student centred teaching. It is only by asking that we can find out what our students interests are, and likewise what their needs and wants are. Approaching groups of students in this way is tricky as people in the same group may have competing needs, however, doing this (finding out about our students needs and wants) means that we can meaningfully support all our students in pursuit of their goals. In our class the N.Korean girl needs Arabic to support her in diplomacy and in formal contexts. The Texan needs it for more rootsy and social purposes. I need to be able to survive here, not sound posh.

I have been in the position to pick up some useful snippets from my classmates of local Syrian-Arabic, that I can use around town. The focus of our course is 95% grammar, accuracy and speed focused. Language is being taught as content rather than as medium for communication. To exemplify it's the empty vessel analogy where the teacher fills the students empty head with their knowledge of grammar and so on. That's not me with the empty head. I already have a full head. I would like to be enabled to use the language communicatively rather than trained, like a performing seal, to recall certain fixed grammatical phrases on command. This isn't learning in the deep sense. I think I need to employ the language for a social purpose to 'learn' the language. I shouldn't complain as I am able to recall regular grammatical prefixes and suffixes fairly effectively and the Arabic tense system (as far as I can tell according to the beginners, pedagogical, grammar we are being taught) seems simple.

I am happy to receive suggestions about what aspect of my Arabic classes I should write about. What would interest you? More on cyber-bullying? OK, guess not. Il-e-leka...