Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons – Redux

You are in a classroom. There is a dais with a desk, behind which there is a blackboard. In front of you there are eight novices awaiting instruction.

I choose to engage the novices.

Go ahead.

Today, I have a plan. However, I am interested to know if you have a different plan. My plan can be for another day. Please imagine different situations that you and Rob or Vanessa (our regular Non-Player Characters) might be in. Use last week’s lesson as a planning guide. If you need help, please ask me.

Roll D10>3 and D4<4 for successful engagement and +1 courage.

D10=7,

D4 falls off desk… =1.

It went really well, actually. The students planned in two groups of 4. One group decided on explaining a road relay (and did very well indeed), and the other planned to teach how to make miso soup, which they underestimated the complexity of, but I see this as a good learning experience. I also think that by giving my students a metaphorical look behind the curtain that they can understand the success criteria for the tasks I create a bit better. I would still like a bit more linguistic complexity in their output, but today I am going to take this as a success.

XP +D6

D6=4.

Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

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Dogme & TBLT – What do you do in the classroom?

This is a response to a post by Andrew Walkley of Lexical Lab on his about how teachers can use coursebooks in a principled way.

I am not actually getting into the back and forth about how evil/good they are as I have done so several times before.

Andrew has a couple of questions that seem genuine as opposed to discursive window dressing.

It seems to me, for example, that in choosing a task, TBLT practitioners must have some ideas of level and potential language in mind before the class.

Yes. Very much planned. There is a ton of planning, or at least gathering background information. There’s a needs analysis (NA) and a discourse analysis (DA) in the kind I do, based on Long (2014). I don’t have an applied linguist do my DA for me, though. I try to make a small corpus or at least gather some authentic texts (including videos or audio) to check how the tasks in the needs analysis would normally be done in the real world.

If I can’t access real-world examples then it comes down to reliance upon intuition. I dislike this but I feel that this gives me the chance to say that I have an idea about tasks ought to be performed but they should be co-constructed with learners’ knowledge of it. I certainly feel that writers rely on instincts at times, too.

The tasks to complete should be comparable to real-world tasks. Such tasks in my classroom may be (and I know that I diverge from orthodoxy from time to time) to engage in small talk in reception prior to a meeting in order to build rapport with a customer/client all the way to negotiating timescales with builders for renovation work so you can move into your house. It’s often (but not always) appropriate for learners to plan and repeat tasks. Focus on Form comes in as required. I know some people use Murphy (2012) for this. I don’t but that’s my preference. I use the board or have learners search for examples in SkELL and report findings or even just clean up a bit of lexis and grammar. It could be worksheets printed on the fly in higher tech classrooms. I like learners’ transcription of and reflection on parts of their own recorded tasks and reflection after focus on form and/or feedback in the lesson as a bit of homework.

Andrew also asks:

my questioning of TBLT/Dogme centres on how lessons actually work. I understand that a material-free classroom can work in principle, but I think we need to question the practice. What exactly are the tasks? How are those tasks chosen?

As for Dogme, I doubt I’m canonical here but knowing as much about the learners first helps the teacher pick tasks/topics that will pique interest as part of a negotiated syllabus. Then the syllabus gets negotiated and remains a work in progress. Tasks may even be chosen by learners seeing as they have an idea what they know/don’t know. It’s not an negation of the teacher’s role but information to support it. You negotiate a syllabus, rather than blindly accept “We want to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of the contemporary Russian state” with A2 learners. But who’s to say that talking about Russia or philosophy aren’t nice prerequisite steps towards this?

My Dogme lessons tend to start with a gathering of collective knowledge about the topic or reacting to a story or artefact. This output is then used to synthesise something else (even if it is merely a more crystallised opinion), taking the conversation to wherever it heads, focusing on form as and when needed. This requires neither coursebook pages nor the aforementioned Murphy (2012). Again, boardwork, negotiation of meaning in greater detail and work on nuance pay dividends. Grammar work could even involve a sentence jigsaw made from index cards or Post Its.

I hope this demystifies TBLT or Dogme classroom practices. Any questions, hit me up in the comments. Any comments, er, in the comments.

References

Long, M. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. New York. Wiley.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar In Use (4th Ed.). Cambridge. CUP.

“This is gold!”

I’ve been using Saboteur with an adapted Kotoba Rollers framework by James York with my university classes. I want talking with authentic tasks, which games provide. There is also transcription of language used. It isn’t all fun and games though.

In the game, players are either good, hardworking miners or saboteurs. None of the players know the roles of the others but they hardworking miners need to work together to get the gold. The saboteurs need to ensure the pack of cards is exhausted before the treasure cards are reached. There are also action cards such as breaking tools, fixing tools, causing rock falls and checking maps for gold, which may lead to cooperation or subterfuge.

The published rules are a bit tricky to understand. I had set the reading for homework, figuring that if there were a lot of difficulties the students would use dictionaries or Google Translate. This means my students skim read them superficially and did not bother to understand the rules fully before game play. Dictionaries and Google barely got looked at.

However, the rules needed a bit of clarification. This led to some good negotiation of meaning (Long, 1983). There are cards used to destroy the mine path above or break other players’ tools but they weren’t always easily understood.

The transcription is the main part I changed. I ask students to write three parts.

What did your partner say? Did they say it differently to how you would say it? How would you say it?

This has been done pretty well and is usually the best part of my RPG-based classes’ sheets, too.

What communication problems did you have? Why?

This sometimes ends up being a wishy-washy “I need to speak more fluently” but a lot of my students have gone a bit deeper.

If you spoke Japanese, what did you say? How can you say it in English?

This has an obvious function but students do sometimes half-arse it and just use Google Translate one way without checking the translation in a (monolingual) dictionary or Skell.

Still the work got done and there was another game of Saboteur in the following lesson to review. I was satisfied with this little Kotoba Rollers cycle, and so were my students, though I needed to buy 4 lots of the game for my big class.

References

Long, M. (1983) Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input1. Applied Linguistics, 4 (2) pp. 126–141.

#ELTchat Summary: ’21st Century Skills’

If you missed this #ELTchat on 21st Century Skills, you missed a corker! The discussion just couldn’t end and some of us are perhaps in a space where we need to agree to disagree or even conduct further research on the topic. The entire chat for the scheduled hour is here but it refused to be tamed so there were further discussions afterward.

Links people might want to look at are:

About digital writing in education. A post I basically disagree with.

The Overselling of Ed-Tech. A post I basically agree with.

Kicking off, I (@getgreatenglish) admitted that I don’t see ’21st Century Skills'(from now I’ll use 21CS) as anything worth teaching. Angelos Bollas (@angelos_bollas) agreed, saying that he’d once heard a great talk by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto (@TeachingVillage) about this; Matt Ellman (@MattEllman) said there hast to be more to 21CS than edtech; Michael Griffin (@michaelegriffin) also agreed. His pinned tweet on his profile at that point was:

What every 21st Century teacher should do: Be a teacher in the 21st Century.

Rachel Appleby (@rapple18) works as a coursebook writer and has also worked on digital content for publishers, which she said was “a very different medium”. She also said that she believes that using an  interactive whiteboard (IWB) is “all about approach – not showing off tech”.

She also said that she loves it when teachers take into account how to use tech, including students’ phones in lessons, which Angelos backed up: “not using tech for the sake of it but knowing what, how, and when to use it in order to achieve learning objectives”. Rachel then added that one good way to start using tech is by integrating it into a standard lesson plan.

As for technology itself, I remarked that IWBs are often used just because they look more aesthetically pleasing than flipcharts.

David Boughton (@David__Boughton) claimed he “can’t do anything faster than write on a whiteboard or mark a paper with a pen”. I can type dead fast (I used to be a television subtitler) but I’d agree that waking up a computer and opening software or browser windows takes time that could often be better spent using stationery.

Matt raised the point that 21st Century grammar doesn’t make its way into coursebooks very often (for example, reporting speech using “[be] like”). He also mentioned that because his learners can get exposure to the language using the internet he doesn’t need to use authentic materials as much with his learners.

Angelos, Rachel and I stated that lesson planning is still important when using technology, (I’ll clarify that I don’t think you need to write your plan down but just make sure you know what you want to use, how to use it and what the point is).

I stated a dislike for the maxim that we are “teaching kids for jobs that haven’t been invented yet”. If this is the case, what are we supposed to teach them, where does language feature and where does ELT come into all this? Rachel replied that she would be happy if students saw a reason to study English and that motivation was important in order to get them to want to learn using the best possible means because we can’t predict future jobs. David said that he thought English teachers should worry about teaching English, not job (21st Century) skills.

Teacher training was given a going over: Matt stated that reading lists on certificate and diploma-level programmes haven’t been updated for ages. Rachel said that there are different online course providers available for CPD. Angelos said what about having an observed online lesson, which I said was unnecessary because a lot of people still don’t need/want to teach online and the method is easily learnt after the basics of actual teaching. Sue Annan (@SueAnnan) said that it wasn’t necessary in all contexts. TalkenEnglish (@TalkenEnglish ) said that CELTAs don’t take into account different teaching contexts, which took us onto differentiation.

twitter.comI said that differentiation is preached on diploma-level courses. Carrie Stubbs (@StubbsCarrie) said that differentiation is probably overwhelming on a 4-week initial training course. English My Way (@EnglishMyWayUK) said that training for learner-centred approaches would greatly help this.

Laura Soracco (@LauraSoracco) talked about digital literacy as a 21CS. I disagreed, saying they are just L1 literacy skills which can be transferred to L2/digital environment. Matt seemed to agree with me. Laura continued to state her case, and it can be summed up as:

  • Not all learners have the text-navigation skills in L1, so teaching it in L2 is useful.
  • Managing, storing and producing information digitally needs to be taxonomised correctly.
  • These can be integrated into language classes themed on Digital Literacy.

I’m not totally convinced but we agreed to have a bit more of a back and forth.

This is the #ELTChat that refused to die so it looks like next weeks’ chat will be a continuation on a very related theme.

 

Who’s Driving?

I finished my DipTESOL last week, thus I have time to sleep (after I wean myself of 7,234 cups of coffee a day) and, well, blog.

I was in a conversation on Twitter last week with another teacher about bullying in the classroom. How can teachers prevent themselves from being bullied in the classroom by students. I’ve also been thinking about levels of classroom autonomy that I give.

Bullying of teachers by students happens more often than people think. It can happen with children’s classes, teens and adults.

Root Causes

My opinion, and reflections of classes where I’ve been bullied, is that there’s a difference in expectation for the classes. I’ve had a bunch of nine-year-old girls complain to the head of the school/franchise owner because I wasn’t ‘fun’, where fun was endless card games and hangman. I did play these but I also made them speak English in actual conversations, the cardinal sin. It was a relief to finish the contract.

There has been a university class where I had to “lay down the law” because only three of thirty five were on task, using English or even L1. I left the class, telling the students they would not be marked present unless they got on with the work they were supposed to do, but made it clear I would be outside if anyone had questions.

Now I have a better relationship with that class. Boundaries were re-established and the learners are aware of their responsibilities. There are parameters set at the start of the lesson that I will only mark learners present after I hear them speak English x times.

Parameters, Boundaries

I think all learners need boundaries and parameters to work within. I think it is one of the things that has helped me use Task-Based Language Teaching, too.

Make clear and negotiate what is OK and not OK at the start of the course (my mistake with the girls). If there is a reason, give it. “Endless hangman means you learn nothing.”

Set parameters and/or success criteria for every task. I do this for almost everything now, about expected language complexity if I know learners will use overly simple language, time limits (asking learners how much time they need), groupings, fluency, etc.

Example:

“Talk to each other about your best friend. I want two details about appearance,” (gesture by running hand from head down) ” two personality details,” (gesture by putting hands on your heart) “and three more interesting details. I think seven minutes is OK but you have ten minutes.”

Board “2 appearance details, 2 personality details, 3 other interesting details, 10 minutes”.

If you can negotiate success criteria with your learners, so much the better.

How About Ambiguity?

Some learners don’t deal with ambiguity and vagueness well, and perhaps won’t ask for clarification and then be paralysed by a fear of doing the wrong thing. The solutions are either rigid parameters and instruction checking (not my favourite, to be honest) or a looser, wider acceptable range of outcomes that foster autonomy of decision making, judgement and let learners follow an aspect of the task that interests them (very much my favourite). That isn’t to say it’s a free for all; you still need to monitor to ensure there’s learning and/or application of learning happening. Don’t be afraid to pause tasks for clarification and stop them when they turn out to be too easy or too difficult, (but have an idea about what to do next).

Why Share Lessons on Your Blog?

I don’t know whether many teachers are really concerned about what goes on in other teachers’ classrooms. I am, but then I’m nosy. I want to know what their cool ideas are. I want to steal!

That said, I’m not indiscriminate. I want to steal good stuff that I think will work with my learners. In that case, why do I have people in my personal learning network (PLN) based in across the world, when I’ve said before that learning can’t be generalised?

Because I want to get ideas about flow. Because an idea that won’t work for me makes me think about why it won’t work and what I need to do in order to make it work. It’s part of the reason I set up the Tokyo Lesson Jam, which is way overdue another meeting (December, when I finish my DipTESOL?), so that I could steal other people’s cool stuff.

For those of us who never get to do peer observations, reading lesson plans on blogs is like a glimpse into another teacher’s classroom. You get to say ‘I wouldn’t do that, I’d do this‘ (in a nice way, not a smart-arsed way). You might even say it in the comments of the blog. You might also see how somebody else solved a problem that you’re working on, or tried unsuccessfully to solve it. The internet is the easiest way to join a community of practice and people are welcoming. People will still say that your stupid ideas are stupid, but they will often say so nicely. They will then give you a better idea. If an idea or method should be rejected, you’ll be told why, and if anything usable can be salvaged from the wreck.

So, yes, even if my stupid lessons wouldn’t work for your learners, it can still be useful provided you give the reasons why it wouldn’t.

The Constraints of the Syllabus, the Restraints of the Teacher

I’m on holidays. Wooh!  Rather, a busman’s holiday but it’s an enjoyable one. I’ve been watching ITDi.pro webinars and TOBELTA webinars. Some of what follows is about things I’ve seen, things I’ve read, things I have to deal with and just… things.

Action Research and Ordinary Classroom Teachers

Divya Madhavan gave a webinar on ITDi about action research, about our own practices, about what we can do to develop as teachers. She had everybody think about what research is and who can do research. In my opinion the whole ivory tower-ness of research is basically because ordinary rank-and-file teachers don’t share their own research. You just need to have a bit of curiosity about what happens in your class (either learning or teaching or both) and ask a question, think of something to test over a period of time (because we all have flukey classes that go far better than we have any right to expect and awful classes where things just go awry from the get-go). This gets us into a situation where we can share ideas about what works in our situation (or not), why it might (not) work, and further ideas for research.

Syllabi and the Constraints they put on us and Control!

Luke Meddings gave two webinars in one day on both ITDi and TOBELTA. One was about how we teach and how learners learn in the classroom (or learner-centredness) and one about tests and the changing roles of teachers.

I’ve been thinking about coursebooks, grammar/linguistic syllabi, word lists and so on for the last year at least. The coursebook becomes a syllabus (either top down or by insinuation due to how easy it is), whether grammar-based or lexis-based. We ‘need’ to cover the things in the syllabus, getting through all the vocabulary and then we have a car-crash situation where the learners have not taken on what has been taught except in a very superficial way. In Meddings’ ITDi webinar, there was an interesting slide: Teachers are at the side and the learners are in the centre. We need to welcome them in with the things they want to talk about. I’d say that also the teacher needs to watch out for domination by one learner, but if the learners are coming in with something to say (in L1 you could facilitate it being taught in English) you can run with it and negotiate your syllabus.

In the second webinar for TOBELTA, he advocated for 50-FREE, or 50% of class time devoted to non-syllabus learning. I am a big fan of lip-service to syllabi. I cover what has to be covered as quickly as possible then get onto tasks that will allow learners to express what is on the syllabus but maybe not with the grammar on there (because linguistic syllabi don’t necessarily result in learners learning the linguistic items so why not teach something useful). I still have a syllabus, but it’s fluid and I try to link things as far as possible to students’ interests. I’m also willing to give control to learners and just have them using the language with me able to go around, differentiating teaching according to conversation groups, bringing emergent language that corresponds with the set syllabus to the whole class.

Word Lists

I’ve been thinking about word lists as well. Things like the New General Service List and how, when we get a list, we get bogged down because we have so much to get through. Something like the NGSL gives teachers a tool to ensure the most frequent words are ‘covered’ and the possibility to check for recycling in class. What we don’t usually do is give learners a checklist based on this about how often they encounter these words outside the classroom, or how often they use them. We could, but we don’t. Why? Probably because we know that lists become dominating forces and then will probably turn off students. So , should we systematically teach vocabulary, try to have vocabulary systematically ‘noticed’ or used? I’m not sure I could agree with that. How word lists might be better used is as a diagnostic tool, with learners highlighting what they know at first, then at a second milestone highlighting in a different colour, and different colours for further milestones. Of course this is not a test, it’s highly subjective but it might be an alternative to the pressure cooker state of language teaching for standardised tests that a lot of us hate.

Tokyo Lesson Jam

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I have already set up a Tokyo Lesson Jam site for the first (and hopefully not last!) Tokyo Lesson Jam on Thursday 14th August.