While I’ve never used Blackboard or Edu-whatever-it’s-called or any of the big brand name edtech platforms, I have tried a few smaller, freer ones, including the now-defunct collaboration tool Wiggio and a sort of Post-it note board whose name I can’t remember.
But when I made the switch from Word and USB-sticks to Google Drive about 5 years ago, I discovered that it was easier to share links to “living documents” than send the files themselves. Sharing a link to master documents means you can always update them, improve them, and most importantly, spell check them (I can proofread other people’s stuff but I’m often totally blind to my own last-minute spelling errors). And you worry much less about whether someone’s got the “right” version.
Then I took the next step to start creating and sharing a Google Doc to collect all the links in one place (which all but eliminates email sending).
Now I use Google Drive to
co-create an a posteriori syllabus
share teacher- and student-generated documents and links
post (and give feedback on) writing homework
My tech approach is by no means revolutionary — in fact, I’d call it a pretty low-tech tech option. But it is what I’m using for the time being.
So in this post I’ll go through these tasks one by one and then mention a few obstacles you might have if you want to try it yourself.
The a posteriori syllabus
When I shifted away from coursebooks I ran into a series of problems:
Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
Emergent language. Coursebook or not, I’d always wanted some way to keep track of all that great stuff that comes up in class, because whenever you use a coursebook the emergent language seems to fade into the background. It’s hard to compete with Useful language boxes on glossy paged spreads.
I’m also someone who comes into class with a few big events in my mind ― what I think could happen and how long it might take. But I’ve often got more events, or the events expand to bigger than, I’ve planned. So I wanted a place to keep track not of what we were supposed to do, but what we actually did.
For each course I create a Google Doc that I store on in a folder on Google Drive. I create a reference section with few permanent links (and stuff gets added throughout the year).
At the beginning of each course (or as new students are added) I get their email address and share the link. I set everybody’s permission to edit, because I want them writing on it, too. (Nobody actually has to have a Gmail/Drive account exept you.)
Then, as we go, we write up what we did in class. The result looks something like this:
What we do is, each week I copy and paste the syllabus template, and the students take turns writing up the Class Summary and Whiteboard notes (literally what was on the whiteboard) and adding a (hopefully) catchy title to that week’s class.
I always include links to things we might have used in class. I write the homework in the appropriate box, immediately after class. (In this Class Record the page references are to a grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for First.) I also link to a lot of activities that I’ve developed over the last few years, like these listening activities.
I used to insist that students students get it right and I was very specific about what I wanted. I even created this guide, Writing the Class Syllabus (download Word file), and this activity, Writing a class summary (download Word file), to do on the second day of class. In a nutshell, it trains students to write the correct form by comparing and improving two sub-par class summary texts, like you might in a exam writing task.
I generally don’t do this anymore because I find that students get it, more or less, without this, and I’d rather have them think more about the other students and less about whether they’re following all the rules. Also because exam prep is so product-focused I don’t think they need to worry about getting yet another format picture perfect. But I might be wrong.
If you want to try this yourself, here are a few tips:
To decide who’s doing the Class Record for that week, just go in alphabetical order based on who’s in class that day (it’s the easiest way, trust me).
If you use the How to write… task above, finish the task by having students write up a summary of last week’s class (i.e. writing up Day 1 on Day 2). Then put everybody’s work up on the wall and get students to circulate and check who best fulfilled the task. The “winner” gets to actually put their summary and notes online. This makes for a not a bad start to the year if you want to get students reading and evaluating each other’s work.
If you’re not going to use the How to write task, do the Class Record yourself for the first few classes then give them feedback right away on the first time. If you’re slack, they’ll be.
Encourage the student writing the record to take a photo of the whiteboard for later. You’ll still be amazed at what comes out sometimes in the student’s version of the notes.
Set deadlines for when the students should post the summary/whiteboard notes if you like, but I’m more lenient these days. But always be strict with yourself about putting up the homework right away.
Refer back to the Whiteboard notes for in-class review. I’ll often dictate sentences with stuff from the previous week. It’s always a way of helping the person writing up the Class Record feel their work is worth something.
The Writing file
Another standard feature of my courses is a shared Writing document. It’s linked from the Class Record (see the box at the top of the first image above) and the students post their “formal” writing homework there (stuff for more careful marking and review).
I use the same document to put up a model task and tips, sometimes in the form of comments, as you can see here…
And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.
BTW: I still tend to over-mark (my New Year’s Resolution is to step back from that cliff).
But one thing the Writing doc has saved me from is repeating the same issues that I used to repeat by private email. By having one shared doc I can say “look at what I wrote on Marco’s text”. And it works well for positive elements, too.
Other student contributions
I’ll also create and link blank docs for students to:
Create vocabulary lists
Create exam-style speaking activities
Write writing cheat sheets (summaries of the genre types on the exams)
Share Reading Circles contributions
One thing I’ve not been successful at is getting students to comment “socially” ― on each other’s work, or whatever. But Google Docs is for collaboration (I use it for collaborating on copywriting at my other job), so I’m sure there are plenty of more opportunities for the eager teacher.
And of course, there are other useful (but standard) programs in the Google Drive suite, all of which I’ve used at various times:
Google Forms ― you can use to make surveys, homework activities or feedback forms.
Google Sheets ― like Excel, and I always make attendance forms that automatically total up days in class, etc.
Google Slides ― like PowerPoint, and we always use them for storing and running Pecha Kucha presentations
There are some technical issues with Apple users. I’m not an Apple user, but I believe things work much better if they download the Google Docs app for iOS (but they still might have issues viewing comments).
Another technical issue might be that students, with editing power, can delete everything on the doc. But I’ve never had that happen, whatever age the students (I’ve taught from 13 years old on up), and even if it did you can always view and revert to a previous version in the Version Control menu.
I’ve never had any problems with say, a shared writing doc that everyone can see. Everybody gets into it. And knowing that everybody can see your comments means I’ve become much more careful about not sounding too negative. It’s made me more human. But you know your situation better than I do so you be the judge if it would work for you.
Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.
When teaching Business English & ESP a platform is impractical. Too many problems w/ wi-fi, connections, devices. Often a dumping ground for Pdfs & content only.
I’ve had companies that block Google Drive, companies that let employees look at Google Docs but block any further links from those docs, and companies that gave me permission (but not the employees) to access it, though I quickly found out that the wi-fi was terminally malfunctioning and useless.
The good thing about Drive is that you can set documents to be editable offline. So even if you can’t connect, you can come into class with the doc open, add the homework or whatever without the connection, and it will automatically sync when you return to digital civilization.
But, in reality, I mostly don’t use the Class Record in class. The Class Record is there to keep us all together when we’re not right there in front of each other. Because that’s where the teaching and the collaboration and conversation happens, and I don’t need an app for that.
I’d love to hear if you’re using Google Drive and what for or if you’ve got better ways to give your course a little backbone without ever cracking a coursebook spine.
I teach, and have always taught, mostly adult-student-customers in private language schools. If you’re like me, you teach grammar and lexis, help students developing writing and listening skills, and focus on communication of meaning. Meaning, but not content. Not ideas. Or beliefs. Or values. Or knowledge or ignorance. Because, like me, you’re just an English teacher.
But my wise Delta tutor once made a useful distinction being just a teacher and being an educator, reminding us that we shouldn’t forget about being the latter. What she meant, I think, is obvious to anyone who sticks their head out of ELT for a moment, and pushes aside, if just for a moment, all the talk about exam performance and teacher accountability, and thinks back to the idea of a school teacher that predated our corporate model of an efficient, corporate school measuring its success in spreadsheet-ready KPIs.
Educators are more than just teachers. They’re part of a community, and perform a public service, helping their students think about and grow in ethical, moral and intellectual dimensions.
It’s the sort of description that normally makes me blush, because it feels so embarassingly far from any conception I’ve ever had of myself as a teacher. But last week, with those same adult-student-customers I’ve always taught, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be both a teacher and an educator, helping facilitate a real eduucational experience and a community service.
Because we spent two class periods investigating and discussing the Refugee crisis here in Italy.
But just to be clear, I’m not the hero of this story. Her name’s Valentina. My only claim is that I got up the courage to do something that seemed daunting to me at first and went beyond my remit as “just a language teacher”.
First I’ll outline what we did over the two, 2-hour sessions, then I’ll relate some of the feedback I got from the students (which, frankly, got me choked up and was the inspiration for the whole preamble above).
Any given Tuesday
Throughout this year my classes have usually taken one of two patterns:
At-home narrow reading + viewing/listing (i.e. a number of articles on the same topic)
In-class pair/small group + T-guided discussion
At-home intensive reading using Reading Circles roles
In-class student-led small group discussion
Usually the second pattern followed the first, with a Reading Circles text based in some way relevant to the narrow reading that preceded it.
In other words, students come to class with at least of minimum of familiarity with and language relevant to the discussion (see my lesson on the French elections for another example).
This time, as in the French elections topic, I gave them more guidance than usual by providing them with a list of questions to consider. I also tried to vary the offered readings a bit more as I received one (valid I think) criticism that the Guardian articles I recommended were so obviously pro-Macron.
I’ve included the pre-reading selection as well as the questions I gave them as a PDF here: Refugee crisis articles
In class, before discussion, we spent the first hour examining a Cambridge Exam-style REPORT writing task (using the sample texts on the pp. 25 & 35 of the Cambridge Proficiency Handbook for Teachers and pp. 33 & 49 of the Cambridge Advanced Handbook for Teachers. We hadn’t done one yet, and I thought it would be a good opportunity since, unlike with other topics, a number of the readings were so obviously reports.
After that, we had small group discussion, where students shared what they read and their opinions about it. The groups were slightly larger this time, with 5 people each, and I realized at once why I never do that.
There were too many silences, or too few people participating in the discussion. I’ve found that large groups need a lot more structure to work well, which is why I love the highly structured Reading Circles. If you’re not doing that, you need to nominate roles ― leader, note-taker, etc. So the discussion ended up a bit less energetic and engaged than I was hoping for.
The homework task was to both more reading and listening and write a report. I asked students to:
Write a report on facilities for asylum seekers/refugees in the area (the Province of Varese, if not Varese itself). You’ll have to do a bit of research. If you know of any informative articles/reports that explain the facts (in Italian, most likely) please share with me.
I encouraged students to read the local papers, and a number of students posted links to relevant articles (that in many ways revealed their feelings about it). I have both aspiring C1 and C2 students in my group, and so I gave them each a slightly differentiated task:
You have been asked by a visiting commission from the European Union to write a report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area.
Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and suggest any improvements that should be made.
Same as above, but: Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and evaluate whether this system is adequate to dealing with the influx of asylum seekers as a whole.
Just to demonstrate it is possible to produce high quality Cambridge-exam-style writing with a very non-Cambridge style topic (which demanded some research, as well), I’ll share two very good examples (without my comments), one of each.
In a fit of Victorian coyness I’ve removed the names of the cities because in fact I didn’t verify if the numbers are exact (though perhaps, considering the point of this was to get to the facts, I really should have!)
Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area
Introduction This report aims to provide an overview of the current situation in hosting refugees in the province of V. It is based on the information published online by local press and institutions.
General findings The Prefettura, which depends on the “Ministero dell’Interno”, is in charge of the reception of refugees on the territory and has the power to sign agreements with local operators that provide facilities and housing. At the moment it seems that approximately 1500 people are accommodated in this way. Additional accommodations are provided directly by the “Ministero dell’Interno”: 25 in V., 26 in M. and 35 in C.
Issues The number of places available in these facilities is not enough with respect to the increase of refugees in Italy. Furthermore it is worth considering that people accommodated in these structures are those who have requested asylum, which are a small part of the refugees coming to Italy, and not all of them will get it. People who do not get the status of political refugee join the economic migrants that are not entitled to receive help from the institutions and are assisted by charitable organizations. I wasn’t able to find any news about the number of economic migrants in the V. province and where and how they are assisted.
Conclusions Firstly institutions should plan in advance how to increase facilities to host the refugees even if it is difficult to forecast the needs. An increase for the next three years at least should be considered, because it appears unlikely that the immigration trend might change. Then it is recommended an improvement in the way of managing economic migrants with the aim of improving security and control of the territory.
Facilities and accommodations for refugees
A growing number of refugees: Italian facilities in the spotlight In the last five years the growing influx of refugees and asylum seekers landing mainly in the Southern coasts of Italy has put a strain on the whole nation.
The Italian government, already weakened from the political and economical uncertainties, is trying to come up with a solution to the big issue of finding an accommodation to the asylum seekers that have landed in Italy.
The problem is due to the large number of immigrants reaching the Country and the consequent need to find decent facilities to host them with dignity.
Case study: V. and its province To illustrate how the problem has involved towns and villages all over the Nation from North to South, our team has monitored the reception of immigrants in this city and in its surroundings. For example in the town itself one of the biggest facilities is an old hotel which hosts 80 migrants and that it is managed by a local charity foundation, while in the province of V. the reception centre located in B. hosts about 180 people and it is headed by a private cooperative. Almost all the accommodations inspected resulted in old derelict buildings that previously were used as hotels. During the inspections refugees complained of being forced to live in rooms for 6-7 persons each and to have only one bathroom every 25-30 people. The quantity of food provided was also questioned, together with the lack of activities to keep them busy during the day.
Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg because the real problem is that these facilities should be a short-term solution but the red tape and the bureaucracy make refugees’ stay longer and harder.
It is clear the complexity of the situation and that the influx of migrants is not going to slow down in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this problem has to be faced as soon as possible to give refugees a ready answer to their needs while respecting their dignity. This answer should come from the EU which should provide faster procedures for the initial screening and referral of the migrants as well as the allocation of specific funds.
Day 1 conclusions:
Everyone seemed to agree that this was a big, nay, overwhelming topic. And it was difficult to get to the actual facts about the local situation, let alone the national situation. The local press is full of very opinionated reports and attention-grabbing headlines, which often didn’t make it easier to follow the story.
However, a number of students were able to produce excellent reports. In the future I’d like to actually spend more time fact checking, or at least checking sources. I don’t teach EAP; I teach CAE, and everybody knows that on Cambridge Exams there is no obligation to the truth. What matters is your ability to argue. It wouldn’t be such a step for me, in this case, to simply ask that students provide a list of references and insist that they be as accurate as possible (even when inventing an inspection-report style as in the second writing sample provided above).
In addition to the articles from the local papers (in preparation for writing the report), I had students do a guided listening on The Palace of Shame from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent . (If you want to have a listen, the report is from 1’30” to 7’20” in the recording. Here’s my activity as PDF with my own transcript 90PalaceofShame)
It’s a report from 2012 that I’d only used once before (more on that below), on the plight of asylum seekers coming to Italy, many of whom, once they got refugee status, had little choice other than to find lodging (illegally) in a massive squat in Rome. I asked students to consider what had changed, and what hadn’t, in the intervening years (based on their reading of EU/Italian policy, institutions and accommodations, laws, etc.)
In class I planned to discuss the listening, but most of the class would be devoted to interviewing our special guest.
I was extremely lucky to be able to call on the help of a friend (and former student) named Valentina who has a master’s in immigrant and refugee law and currently works in a local reception center.
An aside: on special guests
Scott Thornbury had mentioned it in various Dogme-style contexts, but having a “special guest”, an authority on some topic, always struck me as something you did for elementary schools, or if you lived in an L1-English country (where special guests are a dime a dozen). But two things changed my mind:
IATEFL 2017 scholarship winner Katy Muench mentioning it again in her IATELF presentation on challenging stereotypes in Turkey. You don’t have to lecture to your students, she was saying ― just bring someone else in to do it ― or to testify to the reality your students barely know. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it suddenly seemed like something I just had to do.
Look carefully at my self-justification above (...if you lived in an L1-English country where special guests are a dime a dozen) and you’ll see reason number 2 quite clearly: I thought a special guest had to be a native speaker of English. But thanks to this year’s pushback against native-speaker hegemony (by Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates, and the many, many people on Twitter who sympathise with and advocate for the cause) I finally woke up to the fact that so-called “native-like proficiency” didn’t have to be a prerequisite for a special guest with authority and topic knowledge.
I’ve known Valentina for five years (and she’s been personally and professionally passionate about refugee issues for all that time). And I’ve been wanting to really dig deep into this topic with my students for the last two years. But until IATEFL 2017 I’d never put the two together.
Finally, with the scales fallen from my eyes, I asked Valentina (who, in her defense, is a highly proficient speaker of English and, what’s more important, clearly an authority on this topic) to come and speak to the class.
CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms
After some preliminary discussion of the Palace of Shame listening (in which Valentina joined one of the groups), Valentina stood up to introduce herself and answer questions about the situation for refugees and migrants in Italy.
Throughout the discussion, I functioned as a kind of secretary boarded the points from her explanations.
Students had questions answered about different legal statuses and treaties that migrants could be granted, the various types of structures refugees are housed in, the regulations that established them, why some towns have some and others do not, the process (or lack of one) guiding integration, and much, much more.
What amazed me was how little many of them actually knew about the local reality behind the screaming headlines (and where I live and teach, there are a lot of screaming headlines ― we’re sort of the spiritual homeland for the anti-refugee, anti-open borders movement). It’s not that all ― or even most ― of the students had negative feelings about immigration, it’s just that they had so little definite information about it which with to try and form an informed opinion.
With ten minutes to go before the end of class I asked them to write down their answers to the following questions:
What did you learn?
How will this help you?
How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class.
There were 10 students in class ranging from upper high school aged (18/19) to about 50, with each decade in between well-represented. I’m going to quote them at length because I found so many of the answers thoughtful, eloquent and moving. My conclusions follow.
What did you learn?
Many of the information provided in the classes were completely unknown to me. I have learned what journalists mean when they say that Italian bureaucracy is not helping to solve the immigrant issue.
This topic helped me to become more informed about a problem that our society is facing. I listened to views but I didn’t know very much about immigration. I’ve learned much more about the difficulties to cope with the situation and I am more of aware of what has been done and what hasn’t.
Today I’ve learned that in this world there are many people struggling for the rights and the facilities I’ve always had. Here, in Europe, we are very lucky, but sometimes we forget how lucky we are!
I did not learn new things, but surely I have a deeper vision of them. That will help me because it is very important to think and behave considering the opinions of the people you get in touch with. (NB: In this student’s defense, they were rated as “already extremely informed” about the facts of the situation by other students; I interpret “did not learn new things” as I was already very informed about this issue.)
This lesson I learned a bit more about the law process of the asylum seekers and I understood how it is difficult to explain it to people who aren’t dealing with it in everyday life.
How will this help you?
Based on the information I have acquired, I will definitely read or watch the news with more awareness about the issue, even though we only scraped the surface of this topic.
I often read articles about this kind of topics but it’s easy to look for news which supports your own opinion. Talking with different people lets you see the problems from different points of views which is very useful, both for discovering new aspects and for finding good arguments to support your opinion.
This lesson helped me to organize better my idea about the issue and has been very useful to learn the specific language.
This issue will help me in order to approach this people in a different way. It will help me to clarify my opinion about immigrants and refugees. To talk and discuss this topic in this way helps me also in not having common ideas of mistrust and distrust.
This experience has been very useful for me because my knowledge of this topic was very bad, especially about technical aspects of reception centers, process related to asylum, timetable and people status. I’ve never gone in depth of this problem maybe because the news explains always the problems and I wasn’t interested to understand the topic, but the testimony of a person who works everyday in contact with this situation has given me good input to analyse the problem.
What I’ve read about immigrants and refugees, what I’ve heard this evening from Valentina… will surely help me in the future to appreciate the social welfare I can enjoy here in Italy. It will also help me recognizing the need of the others, wherever they come from.
How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class?
It’s difficult to talk about serious topics in a foreign language because you don’t know the vocabulary and you do not feel at ease to express your opinion in a polite way.
In my opinion it is very useful to talk about serious issues like this also during a language lesson because it can help you understanding…
For me it is absolutely necessary to talk about real issues in order to learn English because only if I’m involved and determined to know or to express my opinion, I’ll be able to improve the language. That has always been my experience.
I think talking about “serious issues” like immigration is fundamental to create an elaborate and not ignorant opinion, especially because these topics happen to be controversial and therefore a great source for debates to spread new ideas and improve or develop the ones we already have.
Talking about serious issues like immigration, politics, etc. it is really important in my opinion firstly because it is necessary to be aware of “what’s going on” in the world and secondly because opinion exchange helps with opening our minds and learning new things. For example, thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
Discussing serious issues is better than discussing lighter topics because you are forced to express your opinion and it is more likely to find someone who disagrees with you.
Before this class, I thought that this issue would have been too difficult for me, because it’s really complicated and hard, but now I can say that I really learned something thanks to my classmates and our special guest.
I think that it is useful talk about real problems during class, especially as I’m not a good reader. This is a way to forme me to inform and even if it takes energy it’s interesting. This is useful and I like this way to learn new vocabulary and expressions.
Sometimes in English teaching it’s easy to forget that education is anything more than teaching grammar and vocabulary. But consider a comment like this, from above:
…thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
Reading this after class, and re-reading this again as I write, I get a lump in my throat . That’s English class the student is talking about.
And for me it’s the difference between “just teaching English” and playing a small but real part in a person’s education.
Because education is about more than verb tense. It’s about more than phrasal verbs. It’s about what all those students said, and did. About investigating. About inquiring. About learning new modes of expression and new ways of seeing. About acquiring the ability to assess and interpret new information and opinions. About opening your mind to new possibilities and new realms of knowledge. And about being able to use all these things in your confrontation and collaboration with other people and the society around you.
And the students in my class did all that while learning and practicing new vocabulary and Cambridge ESOL-approved written discourse (see those reports for examples of both).
Like I said, I’m not a hero. But to me, Valentina is. And my students are. As are all those educators like Katy Muench and Steve Brown and Linda Ruas and Judy Boyle who insprired me at IATELF to get off my ass and try to make it happen.
Did these two sessions change anybody’s world? I don’t know for sure. But the student feedback is eloquent testimony to how the same-old English class may be the perfect vehicle for just that.
I’d definitely like to work on improving some of this for next year (call me crazy but I don’t think this refugee crisis is going away any time soon). Of course, what made this so magical was Valentina’s participation ― and I don’t know that I can guarantee that for the future. What else can I do?
It would be interesting to actually begin the unit with a survey of beliefs and understanding about the topic in order to see to what extent these things change. Clearly, the feedback was all positive in this regard, but it would have been interesting to get a statement from the beginning.
Or, perhaps, better: rather than providing students with a list of questions I’d like to have the students create their own list before we started. We’ve done that with other topics: we spend 20 minutes at the end of class generating questions to guide their research on a topic. (It also helps me select pre-class reading texts). By starting with questions rather than opinions (as in the proposed survey) students aren’t forced/encouraged to take a position. Of course, it takes some knowledge to ask good questions, but it’s still a start.
Find/refine the source list. Especially lighten the load a bit. It would also be interesting to compare and examine claims in competing articles. That was surely a byproduct of the day 1 discussion, but I’d like to critically examine some of the claims as a class. (Although I definitely avoided populist dailies or alt-right news sources, which obviously would have created a different dynamic in terms of critical reading).
Modify the report task in a more EAP direction to get students to cite sources and compare them (even using Italian-original sources).
Provide new opportunities for writing and feedback. Only half the class actually did the report task; I’d like to include other non-exam style options for the others.
Roleplay: I’ve had this idea for some time of a role play based on the very real issue of settling refugees in the local community (a mayor of a nearby town was just in the papers saying he would refuse refugees by “chaining himself to the gates” of the disused school that was intended to house them). A recent blog post by Anthony Teacher got me thinking about preferring that to a debate-style task for actually helping the students examine different sides of the issue. I jettisoned an early idea when Valentina made me realize how little I understood of the situation. I hope to develop it ― with her help ― into something both realistic and useful.
And that’s it! Well, almost…
P.S. When I was looking for an authentic listening task for the students I remembered I had done something with the Palace of Shame text from the BBC ― when it was first broadcast a few years back ― but I didn’t remember I’d actually used it with a class. In fact, I had, with a group of post FCE high school students.
I found their post-listening writing. The task was simply to write a letter to the BBC expressing their opinion about the broadcast. Here’s one particularly eloquent final draft:
To the attention of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston,
Recently I listened to your report about migration across the Mediterranean Sea, entitled “Palace of Shame”, and I would like to express my appreciation of its humanity and of its timeliness.
As an Italian resident, I hear news about boats sinking, countless arrivals and the growth of illegal immigration in Italy almost every day and I think that telling and informing people about the existence of this reality is of great importance if we hope to improve the situation. In fact, this is not only an Italian problem; all people able to do so should contribute in order to solve this situation in a way that is favourable for everyone.
In recent years, more social, political and religious problems led to the outbreak of wars in many of North African countries and, as a consequence, to the increase of migration of people that hope to find peace outside their country. In addition, on account of the disproportionate distribution of food and prosperity, Africans are the most inclined to leave their continent for better prospects.
Your article, denouncing the difficult situation of these people, also through personal experiences, induces us to reflect on its gravity and to ask ourselves what is our contribution to its solution( if one does exist) and if it is fair to mention the word ‘equality’ nowadays.
Kind regards, Beatrice
Which goes to show what Judy Boyle, with her NO Project, and many others (except, perhaps, coursebook publishers) already know: that high school kids may be sufficiently capable, mature and ready to thoughtfully deal with “serious issues” like this too.
Imagine the horror: a few days ago, with three weeks left before the end of the course and the Cambridge First Certificate exam, I found myself sitting across from a student who told me that she did not understand my writing correction system.
“What do you mean?” I said. She had submitted her FCE writing task – a report – as a Google Doc and she was looking at the marked version on her phone as we waited for the other students to arrive.
“The colors. The green stuff. The red stuff. The orange stuff. What does that mean again?”
My blood ran cold.
No, I’ve never actually written or typed or even said that egregiously clichéd sentence before but that’s just what happened: My blood ran cold.
I explained what the colors meant. Then we went on talking about the goods and the bads of her report and did a bit of brush-up work on her use of comparative forms. But the whole time there’s a sort of ringing in my ears and a pit in my stomach and suddenly I am the guy in the movie who’s just got the message in the Sex Pistols font that there’s a bomb in the building and I’ve got to keep it together and keep everybody blissfully unaware until I can calmly slip out and defuse it before the whole thing blows up and kills us all.
After class I found myself repeating the student’s question. What does that mean again? What does it mean that she said she didn’t understand the marking system? That she’s never read any of the corrections and comments I’ve given? That she had, but had no idea what I was trying to say?
Like some character from Dostoevsky, ill-prepared for the weather, I skulked home, umbrella-less in the cold rain, feverishly gripped by a sort of existential fear that nothing I had done as a teacher that year had any meaning whatsoever.
But thankfully that part of my mind that was as far as could be from Russian existentialism, the part that had been trained and brained in my years in all-American sales, shouted one thing to me loud and clear: Action Cures Fear (and yes, there’s an inspirational poster for that).
So on Saturday morning I stormed into my other First Certificate class. They had wanted a review of the Writing Paper (which I’ll explain in the next post), but first I wanted to get one thing clear.
I improvised a sort of Likert-scale questionnaire with never/sometimes/often/always:
1. I read the corrections you make on my writing (in the writing file)
2. I understand the corrections you make
3. I ask if I don’t understand the corrections
4. I read other students’ writing on the writing file
5. I take action to avoid making the same mistakes again next time I write
Just to clarify, the “writing file” is a shared, scrolling Google Doc where all writing homework is posted, and “public” for the rest of the class to view. I often make cross-referential comments. So if there’s a common problem, e.g. excessive use of “a lot” in formal writing, I explain the problem on the first piece of writing, offer alternatives, and then tell any other students with the same problem: See what I wrote on Cristina’s about a lot. I do the same with positive things as well: Elisabetta used a lot of good formal alternatives. I’ve highlighted them in blue. Read hers for some other ideas.
They discussed the statements in small groups. And then I added a sixth item:
6. What could Kyle do to improve the corrections? (Give me some ideas!)
I collected their answers to the survey, and their suggestions for part 6.
Unlike a lot of the feedback I ask for, this time I wanted names. I sorted them into two groups: frequent writers and infrequent writers. Because there are a couple in the group who never do the writing homework, and their feedback obviously has less weight than the ones who actually use the system. (Why some students never do the writing homework is a useful line of inquiry, but I don’t think it applies to trying to find out if the feedback system is functioning – unless, of course, you posit that the feedback system itself is to blame for their entire lack of writing, but I’m not willing to go there right now.)
Out of 10 students:
8 students said they always read the feedback, with only 2 (very) infrequent writers saying they sometimes did.
7 students said they always understood the feedback, with 2 frequent writers saying they often did and 1 (very) infrequent writer saying they sometimes did.
3 frequent writers said they only sometimes asked if they didn’t understand the corrections, along with 3 infrequent writers.
2 frequent writers said they always read other students’ writing, vs. 1 sometimes and 1 often. The infrequent writers mostly reported they sometimes did.
2 frequent writers and 3 infrequent writers said they always take action to try to avoid making mistakes the next time, whereas 2 frequent writers and 2 infrequent writers said they often did.
What does that mean again?
While it was quickly thrown together and, like all surveys, limited in scope, in many ways the survey calmed me down a bit. Between it and the discussion that followed I understood that the system was comprehensible to those who use it most.
And, most importantly, the students have shown vast improvement in their writing. Lovely paragraphs. Clearly linked ideas both within the sentence and across the text. Great awareness and application of the conventions of the different genres.
From an FCE writing-product perspective, they – and particularly the frequent writers – are producing some great stuff that is light years from where they started.
At the same time, the fact that two frequent writers said they often – but not always – understood my corrections and only sometimes asked me about it means there’s another problem to be addressed.
Writing and writing correction is done via Google Docs. But should I take time in class to go through the corrections with students face to face?
One group suggested as a response to question 6 that there should be social interaction on the writing file in the form of questions and comments. It’s a lovely idea that I’ve never managed to make work. Is it the platform (Google Docs, vs. something more social like Facebook Groups)? Is it just my expectations? (The one student who made this suggestion is the only one who regularly emails me about grammar questions.)
I usually do the corrections the night before class – but often students don’t have or take the time to read them before the next morning. Is it a time-management problem?
These and other questions to be pondered in a further post.
What’s your writing feedback/correction system like?
Leave a comment and a link if you’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I’d love to read what you’ve written.
What is your first class or first lesson for? Getting to know you? Or just getting through the first page of the coursebook? In Planning Lessons and Courses, Tessa Woodward says that first lessons are an opportunity for:
Building a sense of community
Understanding student expectations
While I agree, I would add three things:
Materials distribution: Decidedly unsexy, but if you’ve got admin duties like passing out coursebooks you’ve got to schedule time for it.
Grammatical or lexical improvement: it might sound obvious, but I have previously been guilty of forgetting that students should both learn and practice new language on Day 1, of forgetting that when students think “What did I learn today?” they’ll be thinking in terms of discrete grammar items (and not in terms of community-building).
Establishing class culture
Number 3, I think, might need some explaining. What is class culture? To paraphrase a great definition from a different context (by Jason Fried, founder of program management app Basecamp), [class] culture is the by-product of consistent behavior. In other words, from how you teach, to what you teach, to how you interact with students and expect them to interact with each other, your class culture will be the result of what you do everyday. Whether your classes are conversation-driven or lockstep by-the-(course)book, whether you’re up scribbling at the whiteboard or hovering over their busily working pairs, whether you’re assigning day one homework or giving them the night off, your first lesson routine should exemplify the principles you teach by. Day one is never a one-off.
And in order to be true to the kind of culture I want to help foster in the classroom, some years ago I decided the best way to start any class is engage with my students, with nothing more than a pen and paper.
My first day routine goes something like this:
Take the focus off you with a mingle activity
I really don’t like the me-centric, time-killing forced conversations you go through when waiting for the class to arrive and settle in. So once the proverbial bell rings (or the real one, if you’ve got one), I switch the dynamic, no matter how many students are still missing.
Get up and find three things in common with each of the other people in the class. The following things do not count:
anything with the words Italy/Italian
evident physical similarities
where you live or went to school
Why? I teach mostly monolingual Italians, mostly who come from the provincial city in which I work (which means they mostly go to the same schools). And evident physical similarities ― we both wear glasses, we’re both wearing jeans ― are just too obvious. I want them to dig a little deeper.
“Find X things in common” is great because it forces them to ask questions, and lots of them. And any mingle activity is great because it gives you lots of opportunity to hear them talk, and note down good/improvable language. And as the late arrivals filter in, you can shove them into the mix.
Stop the activity at an appropriate time. While they’re still on their feet, tell them they’re going to have to tell the class what they have in common with other people. And they’re going to have to name names. So give them one last chance to double check names with the people they talked to. Have them sit down. You might want to give them some whole-class feedback about positive/problematic structure, lexis, etc., particularly if you think it will be important in sharing what they have in common. Or you might want to put it on the back burner until later.
Ask everyone to share what they have in common with one other person, introducing that person by name. And tell them to pay attention, because there’ll be a quiz. As the chain of contributions advances, you should repeat the names as much as possible, both for yourself and for the sake of the students.
Finally, quiz them: Who studies Engineering? Who also speaks German? Who went to France for holiday? etc.
All about me: getting to know the teacher
Now I give them the chance to do what they’ve been dying to, which is find out something about me, the foreigner.
Now, it’s your turn. You can ask me anything you want. Personal, professional, whatever.
There’s usually a moment of silence as everyone (or at least the most courageous) starts mentally scrambling for what to ask. Then I add:
Ok, I’ll give you some help. You’ll have some time to think of the questions you want to ask, and write down the questions. And you can do it in groups.
Put the students into small groups. You’ll want to have at least two.
Write 5 (or 7, or 10 ― in inverse proportion to the number of groups) questions you want to ask me. But your group is your team. The goal is to ask me the original questions. You get a point for each original question you ask. If they other team thinks of the same question, you don’t get a point.
Why? Because, just like my list of too-obvious similarities, this point-per-original-question system eliminates the usual small-talk list of questions. It will give them some often juicier things to remember about you. And it may reveal a lot about their personalities and preoccupations (I’ve had students ask me things like “How many girlfriends have you had?”)
I will, however, give them another chance at the end to ask me anything that we didn’t talk about during the game (where I’m from, etc.).
When they’ve got their list of questions, I say:
You’re going to ask me your questions. But I’ll only answer “grammatically correct” questions (more on this admittedly problematic term in a future post). Double-check to make sure your questions are grammatically correct.
Give them a few minutes to check their questions again (without asking you for help). As they finish checking, ask each group for a team name. I usually suggest silly American-pro-sports-type names like the Jaguars or the Tigers, but they can choose whatever they want.
Let the teams take turns to ask questions, and after you answer them, award one point per original question. Tell groups to shout out if a group reads a question that they’ve also written (in which case no point is awarded).
Dealing with grammatical incorrectness
The best way to deal with a grammatically incorrect questions is simply don’t hear it: play deaf. What? Sorry? What? Students quickly realize they’ve got to reformulate. Give them a number of chances, then help nudge them in the right direction. Then, after you finally “hear” the question and answer it, ask them to repeat the original (as-written) question again and explain the problem.
Getting beyond accuracy
Some other things I “correct” for are appropriacy, register, intonation and idiomaticity. For example, I make it clear that questions like With whom did you go on holiday? are accurate, but sound strangely formal in spoken English. I also make a point about the inappropriacy of the age question (they always ask). Admittedly, if I’m encouraging students to ask me about my past girlfriends on a first meeting, they might as well as me how old I am, too. But does any adult, in any culture, really ask “How old are you?” ― or volunteer that information ― the first time they meet someone?
You can board the problems in shorthand (pres. perf vs. past simple, preposition position in questions, final -s, etc.). When someone makes a similar mistake, help nudge them toward a better question by referring back to the original group who made and explained the mistake ― and let them re-explain it ― or point to the board to show them the problem.
And by boarding such a list, you’re taking the first steps toward creating the kind of grammatical syllabus that addresses their specific needs, not those simply generalized in a course book list.
Once you’ve tallied up the points and declared a winner (even though the focus is clearly on the process, and not winning points, it’s still important to keep up the pretense of the game all the way to the end) the first thing I like to do is see what they remember. I say:
Now, with your partners, quickly write down everything you remember about me.
I like including a step like this in any teacher-class or student-class interaction (like presentations) because it allows them to communicatively and communally (re)construct what they’ve learned. And gives those who may not have been paying attention a chance back in.
You can quickly check a few facts, based on their questions (What did I say my most embarrassing moment was?) or let them quiz the other groups.
Turning on each other
Now tell them they’re going to ask each other the questions they’d written for you. Give them a minute to edit their question list ― if any deal with you explicitly as a foreigner, or based on some specific knowledge ― and rewrite those that would inappropriate for their classmates. You can model and then elicit some changed questions.
Monitor and get whole-class feedback, asking each student to share the two or three most interesting things they learned about their partner.
Writing: my personal profile
The next step is to get students to write a personal profile. I’ve written my own example as a model. Below is the B2 edition, at Cambridge-First-appropriate 140-190 words. I’ve also got other exam-appropriate editions for other levels. Before giving it to them, I ask:
When would you write a personal profile? (e.g. specific social media contexts)
What info would you include in a personal profile to share with your classmates? (e.g. name, date of birth, reason for taking the class etc.) Board their answers.
Then I hand out my profile:
I tell students to quickly scan for the information thought they might find. What was included? What wasn’t? Then I ask them to check if I’d answered any of the questions from the getting to know me game.
Writing the student profile
The next step is for students to write their own profiles ― whether in class or at home. To get them prepared for the activity, make sure to highlight:
Organization ― paragraphs, headings, title
Content ― I want background and course goals, but the specifics are up to them
Word count, if relevant
What do they do with the profile? I text like this is meant to be read by others, so the worst option for you would be to collect them and comment on them in private. Instead, I’d recommend:
Live carrousel: Students tape their completed texts to the wall. The class circulates and reads. I like to have students comment on other texts in some way to generate more discussion. You can have students put their initials next to things they have in common with the writer, or put their initials + a question mark about something they want to ask. When all the texts have been read, the writer takes down his or her profile and then finds the people who’ve written their initials to discuss commonalities or answer questions. As the teacher, you can underline examples of good and problematic language (you didn’t pick up while monitoring the writing phase) to be discussed in group feedback. But don’t forget to put your initials to commonalities first (sometimes it’s easy to forget that the profile was written for a real purpose ― to introduce the writer to you as a reader ― and that you’re more than just a red pen!)
Virtual carrousel: Increasingly, I use Google Docs to share class work, and any similar cloud-based document sharing app will do. Essentially, the idea is to have students post their profiles on a shared document, and to leave comments as above. Profile writers can respond in the comments.
As of this writing, that’s my day one routine. Like all great routines, it focuses on the big blocks and leaves lots of room for improvisation where it counts, like getting feedback and working with emergent language (but make sure you plan for the worst, as well). And it, along with my day one reading homework, serves to set expectations for the kind of contributions I expect from the students, and what they can expect from me. And crucially, it’s not a one-off or something to get out of the way, but the foundation for the consistent class culture I hope to establish.
Now, over to you: what’s your day one routine?
Woodward, Terssa. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge University Press, 2001.