Thursday, March 15, 2012

Week 10 - The End of the Beginning

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Sir Winston Churchill

This is it. The course ends tomorrow.

I will not dwell on my feelings this time. Of course I am sad, but I will not talk about that. Instead, I will lead you through these incredible ten weeks.

If you want to read about a week in more detail, I have linked each week to the appropriate post in this blog.

Week 1: Everything was new for us this week and our main task was orientation. We introduced ourselves in Nicenet, which was going to be our main communication tool throughout the course. I could immediately see that I was surrounded by dedicated and passionate teachers from all over the world. Our group was friendly from the start and was going to remain that way until the end of the workshop.

What I learnt in Week 1 is how to negotiate goals and behaviour models with the students. We learnt that by doing. During the following ten weeks we had a hands-on approach to everything and what we did this week was negotiate the way we were going to behave in Nicenet. Rubrics for Nicenet posts were shared with us and we could immediately see what was expected of us. We were also introduced to Jupiter Grades, where we would be able to follow our progress. I liked the transparency of the course from the beginning and in the future I will try to use Jupiter Grades or another online gradebook with my students.

Week 2: This week we did ABCD objectives, which is another thing that I have started implementing in my classes. I share an objective before an activity and then ask the students whether they think the objective was met. I feel that it helps everyone focus. We were introduced to various web search engines. Knowing how to do effective web search helps the teachers create lesson plans containing up-to-date topics that relate to the students' interests. This week we also read Digital Bloom's Taxonomy.

Week 3: We started using Delicious to bookmark and share and I started my Webskills stack. Ten weeks later, there are 175 bookmarks there. We did sites for listening and speaking (lots and lots of great resources) and I believe that's when the idea for my final project started to form in my head.

Week 4: This week was devoted to reading, writing and vocabulary. Again, the resources were great and it was then that I knew how I was going to organize online discussions with my students - I was going to use interesting and provocative readings and YouTube videos as writing prompts. I created a technology-enhanced lesson plan this week and, in fact, I got a chance to try it out last Wednesday. The students liked it.

Week 5 was busy, but wonderful. We did project-based learning and webquests and I created my first webquest on Zunal. I am planning to use it next week, when my students and I will go on a virtual trip to London. We learnt more about alternative assessment and rubrics and were introduced to Rubistar. Since we don't mark the students formally in our school, I love the idea of rubrics and alternative assessment to help them follow their own progress.

A very useful experience for me this week was marking my own Nicenet posts. It taught me more about academic posting than anything we had done before. I will definitely use self-assessment with my students in the future.

Many thanks to Courtney Cunningham for co-moderating this week's very lively discussion.

Week 6 was one of my favourite weeks. We learnt about large classes and interactive PowerPoints, but the week was really about engaging students. I love different interactive techniques for engaging students we read about that week and I have started implementing many of them (one-minute write, just-in-time teaching...). This was another very lively week in Nicenet and many thanks to Nicole Eustice, who co-moderated this week.

Week 7 again had a great topic - student autonomy. The idea of student autonomy is very dear to me and giving my students a lot of choice was something I did even before this workshop. Now I am glad to find out I was right in what I did. This week we also learnt how to use a single computer in the classroom effectively. Big thanks to Sean McClelland for guest-moderating this week.

In Week 8 we created online exercises and online classes. I created a Nicenet class for my CAE students and I will start working with them there next week. I also created some SMILE exercises and this tool is something that I will definitely use often in the future. Jeff Magoto introduced us to ANVILL and, as the week was coming to a close, I decided to try it out, so I created this lesson. To see it, you will have to log in with your Webskills guest username and password, or just ask me and I'll add you in.

Week 9 was about my favourite topic - learning styles. I feel that knowing the students helps the teacher a lot. I notice that I am slightly different as a teacher in every class I go into. I like to say that I am adaptable. A combination of the knowledge of the students' learning styles and the willingness to let the students be autonomous works well and it motivates the students.

And here we are - in week 10. Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Every single piece of this beautiful jigsaw puzzle fits now.

When planning a course, start by setting objectives. What do the students need? What does the syllabus say? What do you want them to do and how well? Search the Internet to find appropriate learning resources. Then find out what the students' interests are and organize your classes so that they study English while researching their favorite topics. Start projects and make webquests and let them cooperate. Even when you are dealing with difficult things in the syllabus, make your classes interactive. Don't let the students' attention wonder. Pre-teach some of the difficult language using online quizzes and exercises.

Make sure that they know how they are doing in the course and exactly what is expected of them. Give them ample opportunities to assess themselves constantly. Provide a lot of feedback and ask for a lot of feedback. Give a lot of autonomy. Cater for different learning styles.

I really feel empowered after this experience. I believe that, if the teacher is empowered, the students will be empowered too. If the students are autonomous, the learning becomes an exchange, rather than an instruction. And technology is the medium through which this happens and the glue that keeps it all together.

I am grateful to the University of Oregon and to the American Embassy in Belgrade for giving me this learning opportunity.

My special thanks go to Robert Elliott, who was always there for us. A truly amazing teacher, modelling what he taught every step of the way.

Congratulations to each and every one of you who have travelled with me so far. Well done, friends.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Week 9 - Winding Down

070/365 - Slow Down
Photo on Flickr by Frances Yeo

This has been another incredibly busy week. I focused on finishing the final version of my project report on time. It wasn't easy, as I had to add large portions of text to document what was going on in the classroom. There are all sorts of subtle changes that I keep noticing in classroom dynamics and in the way the students behave in the forum. There was a short quiet period immediately after the course had started and I believe that juggling what we did in the classroom with what we did in the forum might have been too much for them at first. Also, since they were talking to me about the tasks in class, they maybe thought they didn't have to write about them. It had just started to worry me and then they were all back, including the two lurkers who finally decided to participate. One of my students has even shared this fantastic link, inviting everyone to 'travel virtually' and I am planning to take it from there and develop it into a full task. What I find amazing is that her link connects neatly to what we had done in the previous task (describing memorable photos). The general topic is travelling, so the panoramas fit in beautifully.

I am grateful to Luisa and Ricard for their help with my first draft. I wouldn't have managed without them.

I revised my report until the last moment. When I finally handed it in, a strange feeling came over me. I know the feeling, suddenly there is a lot of time on my hands. OK, not yet, since you see me writing this at four AM, but soon.

Soon I will be able to sleep long and I will finally start exercising again. I will see my friends and devote more time to my family. I will have some rest.

I am so sad.

I will miss my new online friends. I will miss my weekly readings and our weekly discussions and our weekly tasks. I will continue implementing my project, but I will have nobody to talk to about it. Above all, I will miss the discipline and keeping my mind busy.

This has been such a great learning experience. I don't want it to end. I am sure every single participant feels the same.

Me according to Gardner

Oh, and this week we did one of my favourite topics - learning styles and multiple intelligences. Lots of great resources were shared and there was a lot to read. There was a lot to think about too. I like talking to my students about how they learn and I think multiple intelligences and learning styles will make a great forum topic in April when we start doing the unit on education and learning. The more they can discover about how they like to learn, the more effective learners they will become. Not to mention the value this will have for me as their teacher.

Me according to Felder

I am a compulsive online learner, so I will definitely continue going from workshop to workshop, learning about new tools. I feel happy online and I also feel happy while I am learning new things. What this course has given me, however, is ideas how I can use technology in my low-tech classroom. So far learning about new tools has been just a hobby, from now on it will be a part of my job. Sharing online resources with my students and forum discussions are here to stay, not just with my intermediate group, but with other groups I will teach in the future.

I signed up for this course because I love technology, but I got so much more than I had expected. I got pedagogy, alternative assessment, interactive classes... And loads of ideas for lesson plans.

The course isn't over yet, so it is too early to be sad. I am looking forward to Week 10 and, after that, I hope my new online friends and I will find a way to stay in touch and, maybe, continue sharing after the course is officially over.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Week 8 - Don't Tell Me What I Can't Do

The title of this post is inspired by Lost, one of my favourite TV serials of all time. I feel it is an appropriate title for Week 8 of the amazing Webskills course. It is appropriate for me, for who I have become at this particular point in the course.

In one of my early Nicenet posts (Week 2) I said I felt "empowered" after being introduced to various search engines. Little did I know what waited ahead!

In Week 6, after being introduced to a range of interactive activities, I said I felt I was changing as a teacher. I couldn't check this as I was between terms and didn't have a class to teach. Now that I am back, I believe that I really have changed, in a good way.

The first week with new students is always scary for me. I feel nervous before going into a new class. That wasn't so different this week, but I felt that I had a bag full of newly-learned tricks that I could use. I felt confident.

I have three new classes and an old one. The old class is the intermediate one I am doing the project with. Then there is an elementary class and two advanced classes. The advanced students will stay with me for a year and after that time they will take their CAE exam. My job is to prepare them for the exam the best I can and I have already opened a Nicenet group for them. It will be a place for them to practice writing freely, the way my intermediate students are doing right now. After listening to Jeff Magoto talk about ANVILL, I opened an ANVILL class for my advanced students as well. Their speaking exam is very structured and I feel that ANVILL will be the right tool for them to practice various speaking tasks they have in the exam. It will give them the chance to listen to themselves speak, pay attention to their mistakes and reflect on whether they stayed on topic. I am not going to introduce both tools at once. I will start with Nicenet, since I want to develop good writing habits first. Besides, I need to master ANVILL myself before I introduce it, which is why I have opened another "course" which is going to be a "playground" for myself and anyone else who wants to practice.

As for my intermediate group, I felt they were really happy to see me again. The atmosphere in class was very friendly. Ivana, the student who posted the most, has become very confident when she speaks. So, there is positive transfer from writing to speaking after all. Also, I noticed that the rest of them (the irregular posters and the forum lurkers) are listening to her with respect when she speaks. She seems to have suddenly become the group leader.

To prove to me that they have read all the tasks, even though they didn't post their comments to everything, the students talked about them. There was something I could feel throughout the class, although they never expressed it openly. I believe it was gratitude. As if, by staying in touch with them over the holiday, I showed I cared for them. I don't know whether this new emotion is gratitude or not, but it feels good to be on the receiving end of it.

My post title refers to one more thing I have learnt in this course.It is that, no matter what technology you have or don't have in the classroom, you shouldn't limit yourself by focusing on what you can't do. Most tasks can be adapted to most teaching situations, but every step needs to be thought out carefully. Being overenthusiastic about a tool or technology in general and rushing into projects hoping that "everything will sort itself out somehow" is not a good idea.

In Week 8 we learnt about making online exercises. Some of the tools were already familiar to me, but I was now thinking about them differently. When I finally did create an exercise using SMILE (which is new to me), I tried to apply some of the interactive techniques learnt in Week 6, in particular with Just in Time Teaching and Online Multiple Choice Questions. You can see my past perfect exercises here. I am planning to share them with the students via our forum and to ask them to do the exercises before class. I will then make a similar set of exercises for the class itself and lead the students through them, checking on the way what they have understood and where they still have problems. Then I will continue with the exercises in the book. Finally I will give them some words and ask them to write a story, using past perfect in at least two sentences.

The highlight of the week was the live session. I enjoyed chatting with other participants as much as listening about ANVILL. I met some great people from other Webskills groups. I even asked Jeff a question.

One final thing we did in Week 8 was post the first drafts of our report and do peer review. Luisa made some really useful suggestions and I am going to work on what she has said. Also, there are a lot of things that I need to add - the feedback from my group, the changes observed in the group dynamics... I have mentioned some of them here. Writing an action research report is tricky because the big picture keeps changing in front of your eyes all the time. It still feels strange that we have to hand in the report this early on in the project. As for me, I want to document what is happening in every single stage of this project, so I will keep writing and gathering data even after I have handed in my report. I think I will keep this blog open for that purpose. Let's see what the big picture looks like once the school year is over.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Week 7 - Procrastination

Photo on Flickr by Andy Heather

I love travelling, but I hate packing. I always panic that I will forget something. So I procrastinate.

I did the same when I was a student and when I needed to write longer academic papers. I would sit down to write the first draft, then end up writing poetry on the margin. Or drawing candlesticks.

I am no different now while I am trying to get onto paper the results of my project. What I am doing reminds me of one of my favourite YouTube clips:

Don't get me wrong, my report doesn't look like that empty suitcase up there. There are things in it. But it isn't exactly finished.

All this got me thinking about procrastination. Do we know why we really procrastinate? People don't miss their flights because they procrastinated while packing and Lev Yilmaz obviously "got his stuff done". This great video is the result of his procrastination.

Maybe we need to procrastinate in order to think things through. Maybe we just need to sleep on our ideas or get some physical exercise and things will click into place.

While writing the first draft of my project, I realized that I hadn't been doing too bad with the forum. I kept it going during the four week holiday between terms. During those four weeks, I kept the students reading, listening and writing. Otherwise they would have done nothing about their English. The group was small and they didn't participate equally, but those who did show improvement in their writing. I created a questionnaire for them using Survey Monkey and the initial feedback is positive. Classes start on Monday. Four out of five of my old students have enrolled and I will have two new ones. Let's see how the forum copes with these changes. I am also eager to find out whether the one student who didn't participate because he was "too busy" at least read the assignments.

This week was very interesting in Webskills. I like the idea of having one computer in the classroom. I haven't got any computers in my classroom at the moment, but with up to twelve students, I would be really happy with just one. I am not sure I am ready for a computer lab. Somehow I believe I wouldn't like them to stare at their screens instead of talking to each other and to me. If I had a computer lab, I would probably put in extra effort to learn how to use it creatively. But right now I would be happy with a single computer.

Another thing we discussed this week is learner autonomy, a topic very dear to me, as it is connected to learner motivation:

View more PowerPoint from lunas994

Creating autonomous learners might be just an ideal, but giving them tools to become more autonomous is quite achievable. Having one computer in the classroom as a reference tool can be the first step. Students could walk over to the computer every time they need to look up a new word or find something out. Giving them creative "homework" is another thing we can do. Technology can help us there as well.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Week 6 - Snowed In

Cold Reception
Photo on Flickr by Jackson Carson

We are having a very cold winter. If you have been reading this blog, you might remember that I have already complained about the weather. Sub-zero temperatures, snow and cold winds. Sometimes together, sometimes in three-day intervals (snow, then wind, then it all freezes, then snow...). People have lost lives in blizzards and avalanches. A neighbour of mine was killed by a fallen icicle. Now we are worried that, once the snow starts melting, there will be floods.

That is why my school has decided to postpone the beginning of the new term. Instead of the 20th, the term will start on the 27th. The fact that I have only four people in my online forum (and I was hoping for 12) is one consequence. Another, more serious one, is that I am practically teaching a long-distance course now. The plan was to integrate my little online forum with the face-to-face teaching. That will have to wait for the 27th. In the meantime, I have to make this new situation work for me and my students.

As teachers, we have to improvise and adapt to circumstances all the time. Writing lesson plans and course syllabi is very useful, sticking to them at all costs could be completely wrong. It is the same with my Yahoo Group project. Maybe the new circumstances have made the students more keen to post, to keep in touch with English. Taking into account that there are only four of them, I can't complain. Three different versions of the ending to The Lady, or the Tiger were posted and a student has suggested a great new topic for the forum. I know this isn't much, but it is the first step.

Photo on Flickr by Thomas Bresson

There are other changes that I need to make. When I first planned this project, my idea was to provide opportunities for the students to practice the four skills. Their speaking is quite good for the intermediate level, their reading and listening are good too. However, their writing is on a much lower level. Somehow I haven't noticed how serious the problem is until now. I think I will need to address this problem, since I have the chance to do something about it now. Therefore, I will shift the focus from the other three skills to writing. That shouldn't be too difficult to do since forums are perfect places for practicing writing. I told them I wouldn't be correcting their mistakes in the forum. I want them to write freely. I will collect their mistakes and create a pool of mistakes to work with in the next semester. That is another thing forums are very good for.

The way it works now is that I give them a writing prompt. I want them to read and listen as well as write, which is why I posted the short story. We also did Steve Jobs' famous speech at Stanford University, as it is something I had promised to do with them last term, but ran out of time.

I talk about my online project at such length here not because this was something we were told to do in our blogs this week, but because a lot of my attention has shifted from the Webskills forum to my own baby-forum. It is as it should be. We were given the tools, now we are playing with them and trying them out. This week contained an unusually high amount of readings, but I enjoyed them a lot. We learnt about large classes and PowerPoint presentations, but the real topic of the week was interactivity. Interactive classes, interactive PowerPoints. We were given some very useful teaching tools this week and I can't wait to start implementing all these tools in the classroom.

Creating an interactive PowerPoint was a new concept for me and I had to work hard to make my slides link to each other. I created a vocabulary quiz that my students can do from home. You can see it here, but to make it interactive, you have to download it and watch it in the View mode.

I also played with Prezi a little this week:

I like Prezi. Once you learn how to use it, you can do almost anything you want with it.

I will sign off here. This has been an insightful week for me. I feel that I am going through a major change as a teacher. I will not be the same when I go back into class after this learning experience.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Week 5 - That's How the Light Gets In

Dinner was served
Photo on Flickr by owly9

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Leonard Cohen

When asked to provide my motto in Week 1, I shared this quote. It came in handy this week again when I started suffering from some self-doubts. Let me explain.

This was an eventful week for me. The workload was heavier than I had become used to. We had one additional task that we didn't have to do, but how could I skip the opportunity to create my first webquest? It was fun and I can see this type of activity as something that I can use with my students in the future. I am always on the lookout for "interesting homework", something that will get them working on their English from home while having fun at the same time. Webquests and project-based learning might be the answer.

Creating the webquest was an enjoyable activity, but it took me a whole evening and left me with less time to do other things in the course. Add to that the fact that I didn't get any work done on Tuesday, and the anxiety was back. I had written my first forum post on Monday, but when I came back to the forum on Thursday there was a lovely discussion going on and I wasn't participating. Was it too late for me to join?

Join I did, but was my Monday post good enough? To add insult to injury, we had to do some self-assessment on our forum posts this week. I had to go through the Week 1 rubric and give myself a mark.

This goes against what I was taught at school. Good students should always be "modest" and "the teacher knows best". As a teacher, I am constantly trying to teach my students how to be independent learners and in my school we have our students go through the CEF "can do statements" and reflect on what they have learnt. It leads to some nice discussions. That is what I do as a teacher, but as a student I am stuck in the traditional school.

Assessing myself has taught me more about self-assessment than any theory could. It felt awkward. But I have a confession to make: I gave myself the best mark. Why? Because I decided to mark myself the same way I would mark my students. And now I will try to teach my students to be as lenient to themselves as they would be to others. Because I need to undo what the traditional school did to them. I know there is a severe critic inside them and that this critic keeps telling them their work is not up to scratch. I know that, because I have discovered this same severe critic inside me this week. I have fought this critic and I have won an important battle. But she is still inside me.

I have another confession to make: I am a perfectionist. As a teacher I am not strict. Between the stick and the carrot, I always choose the carrot. But when it comes to my own work, I am never quite satisfied. For example, right now I am worried about the fact that I haven't started writing the first draft of my project yet and the time is running out (or so it seems). I have got the final project in my head, more or less, and I have even started implementing some aspects of my project with my students. But I haven't written anything yet.

Why I am telling you all this? Because I need to get rid of these feelings and I need to vent somewhere, and my personal blog seems to be a good place for that. Also, because you might be going through this as well and reading my post might make you feel that you are not alone. Above all, I am doing this because our students might be going through this and, before we can teach them how to use rubrics and do some self-assessment, they need to deal with these feelings first. This is where they will need to get a lot of help and guidance from us.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Week 4 - Bedtime Reading

Photo on Flickr by Ismael Sans

Greetings from snow-bound Belgrade.

The combination of very low temperatures, strong winds and the snow that keeps falling culminated yesterday. My son's school was cancelled and it took my husband three hours for what's normally a half-an-hour trip from work.

I have been on holiday for the past week, but since the weather has been awful, I have hardly left home at all. If it hadn't been for Webskills, I would probably have died of boredom.

Photo on Flickr by Luka Knezevic

Luckily, this week we have been doing reading, writing and vocabulary skills. This means that I could read short stories to my heart's content. This site in particular has kept me busy for days. And my fellow-participants have shared loads of sites to bookmark and peruse at peace. We also wrote a technology-enhanced lesson plan. Since I have no computers at work, my lesson plan also revolved around reading activities.

That doesn't go to say that I didn't explore sites that would require computers in class. This site will take you on an interactive tour through the museums of San Francisco. Another place to go for a virtual museum tour and also do a bit of writing is the Art Safari. There are loads of vocabulary quizzes here. And a great activity that can be done from home is postcard writing. Two websites where students can find beautiful postcards to use for their writing are E-cards and 123 Greetings. They can send their cards to the teacher or to each other. Or both.

There is more. But I need to focus.

Another thing we did this week was to take one step further towards the final task. Here is my definition of the problem: My students need more exposure to English and more opportunities to develop the four skills from home. With the aid of user-friendly tools, I would like to create for them additional tasks that would be motivating, short and interesting.

I am not quite sure what this means yet, but I have a vague idea that I want them to read something or listen to something, then react to it in writing. It sounds simple, but it isn't going to be.

Making them react to what they have read or listened to is going to become a problem the moment they start seeing it as homework. I mustn't set the bar too high, or they'll give up too soon. This refers both to the tasks and to the web tools I use. The project will probably develop slowly and I will have to be patient and offer a lot of support.

And how will I determine whether the project was successful or not? I will only have up to 12 participants. My experience from online workshops is that quite a lot of people give up at the very beginning. My colleagues who have tried teaching in Moodle and other similar sites say that about one third of their students never even joined the site. Do I sign them up, or do I wait for them to sign up? And what do I do with the lurkers (the people who follow online workshops and read everything, but never post anything themselves)? In class it is not difficult to reach out to shy people and find ways to include them in the conversation. But online?

So, I have been thinking and this is what I came up with: I need to tie my online activities with what we do in the classroom. One way to do it would be to start each class by continuing the discussion that was started online and maybe asking the "lurkers" for their opinion. There is curriculum that I have to follow, but I can always put aside 15 minutes. If they know online materials will be discussed, they might at least review them in silence.

Again, I am back to the question I have already asked: How do we measure the success of an online project? Is it by the amount of interaction? Ideally, that should be how we measure it, but what if the students' IT skills are not very advanced and there are no computers at school? Maybe we should take into consideration how much their English has improved thanks to the online "homework"? In which case there should be a way to measure this through work in the classroom.

Just thinking out loud.