My week in Athens

My week in Athens is almost over, and I’ll be sorry to leave the amazing people I’ve met here, who have made me feel so welcome. I’m off to finish my MA and collaborate at distance, but I’ll be back at NBS as soon as I possibly can. So much has happened this week. I’ll try to put it in some comprehensible order…

Scale

The scale of the refugee crisis is truly immense. It’s estimated that there are 60,000 displaced people in Greece, most of whom are in the Athens area. I only started to get a real idea of what that means when I visited a camp. One camp alone houses 1,500 people.

Volunteers

There is an incredible community of volunteers here, some of these are refugees themselves. Everyone uses whatever skill-set they have to contribute. They live very simply, give as much of their time as they can, and are constantly working together to get stuff done. I’ve seen people responding to calls at midnight to go to pick someone up or do some other job. They achieve so much: for example Khora community centre feeds 1,000 people a day. These people are practically moving mountains.

One of the problems volunteers have is that if they’re non-EU citizens (as, actually, I will be in the not-so-far-off future thanks to Brexit) they can only stay here for three months after which they have to return to their own country for a certain period before they can come back. I met one teacher who is from the US and has to fly back there (obviously at her own expense) every time her visa runs out, after which she comes right back. As I said, the level of commitment and humanity I’ve seen here is simply mind blowing.

The students

The motivation level of the students is generally high. English is the lingua franca in the camps and outside in Athens. There’s a mix of L1s, mostly Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish speakers, so English is used as a lingua franca between the residents too. English is absolutely essential for them to be able to do anything, which makes them want to learn.

That said, students can get depressed, which can stop them from coming to class. Some people are trapped in their housing as going out would mean running the risk of getting stopped by police, (which because of racial profiling they often are) and being deported back to their country. Thankfully, if they are able to explain themselves in English the police tend to be more lenient.

Many students are multilingual. I met one man from Afghanistan who could speak six languages and subsequently teased me mercilessly about my paltry knowledge of only two! And yesterday an Afghani 8 year-old taught me how to write my name in Greek (see pic).

What’s needed…

What they need most is long term teaching volunteers. A lack of continuity is a clearly a big problem for both the school and the students. It makes assessment of learning progression very difficult. And, as displaced and often vulnerable people, the students need to feel secure and form a trusting relationship with their teacher, which is impossible if someone new is arriving every two weeks.

Most of the teachers that come have had little or no teaching experience and have no teaching qualifications, but lots and lots of generosity and enthusiasm. They need and want support and training. No Border School offers teachers’ workshops open to all teachers in the Athens area. I was fortunate enough to run a couple of these this week on using technology in the classroom. The students here usually have mobile phones and most buildings (apart from the camps) have WiFi, so using apps and Google searches can be a good way to personalise lessons and can make up for a lack of materials. The teachers were very enthusiastic and they’ve asked me to do more sessions.

But my lack of experience in this context means that I’m not able to help them with everything. What they need most of all is ideas on how to teach adult literacy. They find that it’s difficult to keep students engaged while they’re learning to write in our alphabet, as adults aren’t exactly enthusiastic about copying text from the board. They find that the materials available are either aimed at children, or at people who aren’t literate in their own language, which is rarely the case here. I’m afraid I came up blank when they asked me about these issues.

If you can help with any of these things please do get in contact. Thanks for reading. Please share.

The Flipped Language Classroom: a case study

I’ve been pretty busy with my MA over the last few months, but have taken a sneaky couple of hours off essay writing to share this. 

In the not-so-distant past I was DoS in a private language school. I was asked to write a new set of syllabi, and the management team decided that these should follow the principles of the flipped classroom.

The students and the course package

Our students were mainly adult working people who were attending lessons in the evening. Courses were comprised of three elements: a group lesson for two hours once a week (60 hours an academic year); unlimited access to free group conversation with a fluent English speaker; and an online platform provided with the coursebook used in class.

Why change your syllabus?

These were our reasons, some of them will sound familiar:

  1. Our students expected to complete a whole CEFR level during in the short academic year which ran from October to May, while only coming to class once a week.
  2. EAQUALS accreditation requires that syllabi are mapped to the CEFR, our old syllabus was not.
  3. We had no scheme of work. If students missed lessons, it was difficult for the admin team to tell them what they needed to catch up on, ditto for late starters.
  4. Our old syllabi were heavily grammar or function focused. Skills were largely absent.
  5. End of module tests often assessed students on discrete language points that hadn’t been taught (because there was no scheme of work).
  6. Often the teachers didn’t have time to get to the practice part of the (usually PPP) lesson in the course book, or to use the teacher’s book activities. Being (in my opinion) the most useful and fun part of the lesson, and the only part that the students couldn’t do on their own, it was a mistake for them to be neglected.
  7. Students had commented that the group conversation element was not relevant to what they studied in class.

 

How we did it: getting rid of the grammar

As we were already offering a blended course, we decided to ‘flip’ the online platform content i.e. learners would use this to study and practise grammar points before coming to class.

I designed a scheme of work detailing the content of each lesson for each level. Explicit grammar presentation was removed completely. We instructed the teachers to refer students to the grammar reference part of their books and study it at home.

The productive practice (speaking) exercises for language systems in the course book became the main focus of each lesson, thus our syllabus became predominantly skills based. Teachers were encouraged to have students repeat tasks, and were given training on how to personalise and extend activities in different ways.

Although a scheme of work may sound prescriptive, we allowed for some flexibility to avoid the dreaded ‘teaching from the book’ syndrome and adapt lessons to students’ interests. In each module there was a Dogme-style lesson, when learners brought in their own texts. Another was simply ‘a YouTube video’. Teachers were given freedom in terms of content, but support with lesson planning and staging.

The group conversation element of their package was integrated with the syllabus, and used as practice for specific skills or language points, using the teacher’s book materials. Extensive reading was also encouraged by asking learners to borrow graded readers and discussing their reactions to the text.

 

Resistance- Teachers’ comments:

“It’s a lot. I think they’ll feel overwhelmed. I don’t think all of them will do their homework.”

 

“It’s very different from the education system they’re used to.”

 

“They might get used to it by module.”

 

“It’ll be a bumpy beginning.”

 

We had a pretty good idea that the teachers wouldn’t be happy about the changes. The biggest adjustment for them would be giving up their trusty PPP framework.  The students, too, would no doubt feel that a complete absence of grammar from the programme was too radical and destabilising. To counter this, the scheme of work included a ‘Grammar SOS’ session every 5 weeks. This was a 20 minute slot of lesson time dedicated to extra practice or clarification of grammar points. Students were asked to prepare questions for the teacher in advance of the lesson.

Flipping the grammar input also meant that things got tricky for the teachers if the students hadn’t studied at home. We encouraged them to soldier on with their lesson in this case, thus forcing the students (we hoped) to become more independent learners.

Assessment

The fact that the syllabus was (in part) a-posteriori, and not structural, meant that we could assess our students purely through skills. Unfortunately, this made marking (of the productive skills) more time consuming, and also more subjective. We had to produce our own set of assessment criteria and carry out standardisation, since the teachers would eventually be marking their students’ work.  

Outcomes

Implementing a flipped syllabus meant that there was much more onus on the learners to study independently. Some protested about this of course, but as we explained to them, this was the only way they would get the results they wanted in the time they had available (i.e by attending school only once a week).

After the predicted bumpy beginning, when we asked for student feedback it was 90% positive. Most students said that they didn’t mind studying the grammar at home, and that they understood and appreciated the methodology we were trying to deliver.

What do you think?

How would your students react if they had a flipped syllabus thrust upon them like this?

How would you react if you were told not to teach grammar?

Thoughts from Greece 2. Why do we need grammar?

It’s all Greek to me!

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I’m sitting in a bar on a remote island. There are very few English-speaking people around (just what I was looking for) and I’m trying to ‘acquire’ more Greek. But it’s not really working. I decide to whip out my iPad and amuse everyone by reading out loud the bizarre selection of words that my app has sent me:
‘textile’
‘tzaziki’
‘elastic band’
‘button’
‘coal’
‘Yiannis Parios’ (He’s a Greek singer, my waiter tells me- old people like him)

Apart from the questionable utility of the vocabulary, I find that I’m puzzled by the change of form of some of the words in the sample sentences. The verb for ‘see’ is βλέπο or ‘vlepo’ so why doesn’t the sample sentence (‘she can’t see without her glasses’) contain any word that remotely resembles ‘vlepo’?? And if ‘nostimo’ means ‘delicious’, then why does ‘itano stimotato’ mean ‘that was delicious’?? Which bit means ‘that’? Why does the adjective change? Do adjectives have a past form in Greek? Although the guys in the bar are very friendly,  I think these questions may be a tad annoying. So I don’t ask. 

The Lexical Approach

I find that I want and need someone to give me the ‘rules’. This a surprise for me, because I’m a great advocate of Lewis’s Lexical Approach to teaching grammar. He suggests that grammatical ‘rules’ should emerge from samples of authentic written or spoken language, rather than be taught. I have to say that it’s not working for me in Greek. I guess this is probably because:

  • There aren’t enough contextualised samples of the same lexeme/chunk/verb.
  • There’s no teacher to direct my attention to the samples and encourage “noticing”.
  • There’s no teacher to ask leading focus questions to help me work out the patterns, such as ‘Is it singular or plural’, ‘Are we talking about the present or the past?’.
  • Greek’s bloody difficult- many of the Greeks I’ve met have told me I should give up!

Conclusions

We still need grammar! It seems to make the whole language learning process a lot faster, especially in the beginning, so not using it would be pretty silly. As a beginner you are impatient to make sense of the new language and join its parts together. I see grammar as a network that connects the pieces of what would otherwise be a confusing maelstrom of lexemes. Perhaps grammar teaching should/could be seen as a ‘stabiliser’ that can slowly be removed as a learner progresses?

We still need teachers! 🙂 Over time…eventually…I’d probably acquire Greek, but a teacher can direct my attention towards the useful stuff, like how to conjugate the verb ‘see’, and away from the useless stuff, like Yiannis Parios!

 

Learning or acquiring? More thoughts from Greece.

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In my valiant attempts to learn Greek, I’ve been reflecting on the role active study and technology can play in language learning.

My memorised sentence

I have an app…it sends me a Greek word every day with sample sentences and translations.  It’s the free version, so it’s pretty limited. I’ve been flicking through these words for a couple of years now, basically since my last Greek holiday, but have only managed to remember a single sentence, translated by the app as: 

‘The station is far from here.’

(Actually we would probably say ‘a long way’,  but that’s another article 🙂 )

In Greek: 

‘Ο σταθμός είναι μακριά από εδο’ (I think!)

Or with our alphabet:

‘O stathmos ine makria apo etho’

Apart from that, all the Greek I could remember was chunks of language that I’d actually used with real people on my first holiday here like: ‘Where’s the toilet?’, ‘How much it it?’, ‘A glass of white wine please’. This would seem to confirm Vygotsky’s theory that we learn socially, through connecting with other people. So if that’s the case, then is there any point in studying grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary? Was Krashen’s acquisition theory on the nail?

Going back to my Greek sentence, what I’ve noticed is that it did give me a few tools to decipher more langugage. I guessed that:

  1. ‘O’ is a definite article (the), but probably this changes according to the gender of the noun, as in many languages?
  2. stathmos = station
  3. ine = verb ‘be’ – ‘it is’
  4. makria = far (the key word and translation of ‘far’ was ‘makrinos’ so maybe it changes according to some other factor?)
  5. apo = from?
  6. etho = here?

A quick check in the dictionary confirmed my translations. The sentence gave the language a context and (I guess) made it easier to remember.  So when I got off the plane and spoke to my first real Greek person (a taxi driver), and I told him where I wanted to go and I heard ‘ine makria’, I was pretty chuffed with myself that I knew what it meant, and of course knowing how to say ‘it is’ in any language is enormously useful. That said, it has to be taken into consideration that I’m a language teacher and deciphering and analysing language is what I do. Nevertheless, my experience would seem to suggest that theoretical linguistic knowledge and awareness can help our learners. 

Individual words

Listening to the bus drivers’ chat during my journey yesterday, I noticed that I could recognise some of the words from the app in their fluent speech.  I couldn’t necessarily translate them immediately though: ‘imerologio’ I knew was something to do with time- year? clock? (It was ‘calendar’). And when on the next bus the driver put a football match on the radio, helped by the context I heard the words for ‘head’ and ‘zero’, among others.  After that happened, as with the taxi driver, I felt that I would  be confident enough to use the language in conversation. It was as if it ‘clicked’ into place in my head. You could say that theoretical study of language is useful for receptive awareness, but this knowledge is transferred to the long term memory/speech (?) part of the brain only once you’ve had the language ‘confirmed in real life’ by a fluent speaker??

Another point of interest is how at this stage I am relying very heavily on translation, a fact which makes me feel rather shamefaced about how often I’ve said ‘Don‘t translate!’ to my poor students!

Authentic questions

 

I’m on my jollies in Greece at the moment, but keep thinking back to my lovely summer stint at Stafford House and these guys…

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One lesson, they became curious about my family, specifically my brother. Non grammatical questions came tumbling out like:
‘Where live your brother?’
‘He have wife?’
‘What he job?’

My reply was ‘OK guys, I’ll tell you, but first you make correct questions’. In pairs I got them to write them out, reminding them of the QASI syntax rule for present simple and inversion of subject and ‘has’ for ‘has got’, which we’d just studied.

After a while, we had a list of things to ask my unsuspecting brother, because now came the surprise. I got out my phone and recorded this message to my bro on WhatsApp: ‘Hi Ryan. My students want to ask you a few things.’

I had a few looks of shock at this point, so I reassured them they’d only ask one or two questions each and they’d have time to rehearse them first. I reminded them they’d be transforming them into the second person ‘you’, since they’d be talking to him directly.

The result was intense concentration on getting the pronunciation and form right. It was also a way to deal with their not-so-sneaky Whatsapp use during lessons. If you can’t beat them join them!

Unfortunately poor Ryan was at work and didn’t have time to even listen to the 20 odd voice messages we sent him, nevermind actually answer them! So in the end I did it on his behalf.

Shame… because I was curious to hear his answer to this one: “Is your sister a little bit crazy??”

Long Live Exam Prep! Part minus 2 B: The Carousel Quiz

 

In Part Minus 2 A (this is getting silly-I’m so sorry!), I explained the first half of a first lesson to use with exam prep classes (or indeed any class over B1). Now comes the nitty gritty focus-on-the-exam bit. To do this I use a multi-skill activity that I call a carousel quiz. You do need some materials for this, but fortunately they are freely available. Here’s the link to the Cambridge English : First Handbook for teachers, which is all you’ll need for this FCE activity. We had a set of them at our school. Cambridge used to send free copies out, but I’m not sure if they do that anymore. You could have the students download it or view it on their mobile phones. Alternatively you could print it out before the lesson.

(There are similar resources for IELTS, PET, CAE and CPE)

The steps:

  1. Ask the students to brainstorm what they know about the exam. Generally this is very little. Accept everything they say and get it up on the board. Guide them with some questions like: How long is it? How many papers are there? How many pieces of writing do you need to produce? What do you do in the speaking test?
  2. Refer them to page 2 of the handbook: ‘Content and Overview’. Give them 5 minutes to scan for the correct information. Elicit what they got right and what they got wrong.
  3. Now tell them to concentrate on one part of the exam per group. So ideally you’ll have 4 groups and they take one paper each (splitting up Reading and Use of English). Tell them to refer to the relevant part of the handbook to read about their section of the exam in more detail.
  4. Explain that they’re going to make a quiz about their section for the other students. You can give them some question stems to guide them like: ‘What do you have to do in….’, or ‘What are they testing in…….’, or ‘How long is……’. Give them a fixed number of questions depending on how much time you’ve got. Monitor and help as needed.
  5. When they have their questions and are ready to go, ask one or two of the students to stand up in each group. Tell them to move clockwise around the room, taking their copy of the questions about their section, and sit at the next table. You should have two students from group A with group B, two students of group B with group C and so on. They ask each other their questions, awarding points for right answers and deducting them for wrong answers. They’re allowed to refer to the handbook. Then the same students stand up and move around again. This is repeated until they’ve spoken to everybody and they wind up back at their own table.

Rationale:

  • It’s student centred! Why spend the evening before making a quiz yourself when you’re the one who’s proficient in English? Let them work on the language.
  • They get a clear idea of what’s expected of them in the exam. Often this doesn’t happen until the exam date is looming, by which time it’s too late. Giving them this information in the first lesson allows then to prioritise and organise their study.

But it’s not perfect….

  • It can get a bit long, and the pace can drop as a result, so have something a bit lively up your sleeve for the last 15 minutes.
  • I’m not sure whether all the vocabulary is actually that useful. There’s a lot of teaching jargon that can be confusing.

Give it a spin and tell me what you think!

A real-life shopping game

One of the novelties for me of teaching in London again is that English is everywhere. I’ve been exploring ways to make the most of this, and today I came up with this shopping game. This was partly because I needed some shopping and I thought I’d get my students to do it for me!

Instructions

In the classroom I explained that they would be split into three groups, given £10 and a shopping list. They would have half an hour to go around Borough market and buy the things I wanted. They had to ask for some information, like whether the eggs were free-range, if the apples were English. They had to ask to taste some cheese and choose a nice one for me. The winner would be the team who got all the things on the list and brought me back the most change, so they also had to ask how much things cost.

I also showed them the route we would take on Google maps and an approximate travel time.

Since the instructions were pretty complicated I got them to repeat them in pairs so I could check that they’d understood. Then I put a mini quiz on the board:

  1. How long will you have?
  2. How much money will you have?
  3. How do you win the game?
  4. How will we get there?
  5. Which bridge will we walk over?

Language and rehearsal

They had a look at their lists and we went through the meaning and pronunciation of the vocabulary.

I then gave them some language they might hear (Next please!,  Are you waiting? ) and elicited what they would need to say (Could I have some…?). They rehearsed the dialogues in their groups. Then off we went.

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Happy campers and a happy teacher. The pineapple was really good, and the English cheese was amazing! Carlos, Ana and Thais’s team (the Sharks) won. They gave me £2 change. 🙂