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.