Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Class - the plan moving forward

  Summer vacation is over at last and I'm excited to implement some big changes in my classes and approach:

1) Add an online component to journal writing - encourage student to student online interaction

  One of the most potentially effective things we do at 숭의초등학교 is have the kids write two weekly journal entries on a variety of topics (one assigned topic and one free-write), allowing them to create output outside of our short 40 minute sessions. However, the intended benefits of this work go unrealized far too often.
  Ideally, the kids will identify with a topic and be compelled to write meaningfully - their desire to convey new ideas will push them to experiment with new linguistic patterns.  When this happens, mistakes will inevitably be made and it is the instructor's role to correct those mistakes.  The students, reading these corrections, will then internalize the corrected linguistic forms.  This rarely happens, in practice.
     a) The kids often don't enjoy or identify with the assigned topic and/or have nothing to say in the free-write.  When this happens, the kids' writings lack personal meaning.  The result is a rushed effort to complete the assignment, a vomiting of semi-coherent English upon a page intended to secure credit in as little time as possible.  In the interest of finishing quickly and easily, the students shy away from new linguistic constructs and generally don't pay attention to the teacher's corrections - I believe this way of completing the assignment can actually be detrimental to the development of communicative competence since careless mistakes are often made and the fact that students are not given incentive to check for corrections means they often reinforce the validity of non-acceptable linguistic forms.
     b) There is very little incentive to write well.  The whole point for assigning journal homework is for the students to practice using English at or beyond their current levels of ability.  However, the students' grades are based on the quantity of their output far more than its quality; they are well aware of this fact and have little incentive to do more than the bare minimum.
  Proposed Solutions:
  I implemented some changes last semester to rectify some of this while not significantly changing the kids' workload, but I'd like to go further this semester.
  Last semester, instead of having the kids write two new journal entries every week, I had them write only one new entry while also rewriting the corrected entry from the previous week.  This simple change, while not significantly altering the students' workload, improved the efficacy of the journals assignment and a lot of ways.  First, by allowing students to choose either the assigned or free topic, it improves the chances that they will enjoy what they are writing, hopefully resulting in their ideas being expressed accurately, in greater detail, and with novel linguistic constructs.  Second, by asking the students to rewrite their previous week's journal entries, the students are forced to notice, and hopefully meaningfully consider, the teacher's form-focused corrections.  The rewrite also provides extra incentive to focus on form in new writings such that less effort need be spent on correcting errors in the future.  These changes, while not significantly altering the kids' workload, improved the overall quality of journal entries and, in my opinion, transformed a potentially damaging assignment into an activity which actually promoted language acquisition.
  This semester, I'd like to improve upon last semesters changes by selecting an entry or two from each class, every week, and posting them on a student blog.  I'm playing with a system for awarding extra credit both for being selected for the blog and for commenting on posted journal entries.. there's a good chance candy will be involved here as well;)  This arrangement is intended to further improve journal quality while also encouraging the students to interact with each other and each other's work through the medium of English.  Incentives for student participation include the desire for personal satisfaction, parental/peer approval, extra credit, and candy.  I'm hoping for big results, but I'm sure there will be kinks to work out as well.. will update once the system is up and running.

2) Using our textbooks more effectively/efficiently
  I wrote extensively about the problems I experienced using our sixth grade textbook last semester and I am going to keep experimenting with how to run these classes. The two basic problems are that both my advanced and intermediate classes use the same textbook, resulting in improperly leveled material for the intermediate classes (sometimes the advanced classes as well), and there is just too much material for either class to get through by the end of the semester.  
  I don't think there's any one formulaic way to overcome these difficulties, but I'm going to continue some things I did last semester while experimenting with new ways of presenting and interacting with the material.  Firstly, I'm going to be more selective with what we use in class, such that the material with which we do interact can discussed thoroughly enough to be worthwhile.  Last semester, we 'jigsawed' a significant portion of our readings, which involved groups of students reading different portions of the same text and exchanging information to learn what they hadn't actually read.  This encouraged a lot of peer-to-peer English usage and helped us get through the material more quickly, but from a content perspective, too many of the main ideas were lost along the way.  I have some ideas for how to fix this and will blog about them in detail in the near future.. I may put some of them in action this week.  Very generally, I'd like to continue allowing the students to exchange information without limiting their access to smaller portions of a greater text.

3) Having more fun!
  Unfortunately, a lot of the material we cover is quite boring.  The bulk of last semester saw the sixth graders learning about weather and Stonehenge.. I did what I could to make it interesting through the use of videos, slideshows, and stories, but I'd like to find more ways to make this stuff enjoyable.  The first unit we'll look at this semester concerns agriculture.. I get the feeling this wouldn't be the kids' first topical choice.  To make this unit more fun by designing a simple farm-simulation activity/game and frequently altering the focus to other agriculturally-related topics like the foods we eat and the effect of agriculture on lifestyles.. I generally want to create more room for us to talk about the things that actually interest us, even if they take us away from the direct topic of discussion.
  Another focus will be to get through the units more quickly.. If we hope to cover selections from each unit in the book, then there's no time to waste and I'm sure the kids won't mind when they see the pages turning faster!

So these are some of the changes I'd like to make this semester and I'm excited to get started!  I'm seeing most of my students for the first time since vacation tomorrow and we're easing back into the semester with a kind of 'welcome back' activity that I'll post in a few days:)

Monday, June 11, 2012

How have I grown as a teacher..

  So our final presentation is approaching in which I'll have to give a fifteen minute presentation concerning how I've grown as a teacher;  I'll be discussing the development of my practice resultant from the Methodology, Second Language Acquisition, and Intercultural Communication courses.

  When I first looked at this assignment, I sort of disregarded it in terms of difficulty.  Now, though, as I sit down to plan it out, I'm realizing how difficult it is to reflect on personal development in concrete ways.  So, I've decided to start by blogging my general feelings about how I've developed before actually looking at data (videos, transcripts, materials etc) to back it up.

  Before I started the STG courses, my ideas about what constituted effective teaching were resultant of my experiences as both a learner and an instructor.  I had an unrefined awareness of concepts like the negotiation of meaning and the zone of proximal development.  Still, I didn't have the pedagogic or methodological knowledge to be confident that I was developing or implementing effective lesson plans.

  Now that I've had the opportunity to analyze elements of ESL instruction in minute detail, I've become much more knowledgeable about providing input in a comprehensible way and creating the conditions necessary for that input to be acquired.  I have the confidence to recognize a greater range of learner difficulties before they happen and negotiate them when they arise unexpectedly.

  The example of this which came into mind as I wrote that last sentence was teaching phonetics, or the physical act of producing language.  Before these classes, I sort of thought pronunciation developed naturally over time and did not require active instruction in most cases.. active pronunciation instruction was something I shied away from because, if a student was physically unable to copy a sound I had modeled, I had a limited tool-set with which to try rectifying the problem.  I often skipped words which were slightly mispronounced or, in worse cases, was content to provide a corrective recast, sometimes not even requiring that the student reformulate his/her erroneous utterance.  I wanted to focus on conveying meaning and saw inaccurate pronunciation as more of a distraction than an element of communicative competence needing attention.

  I now have a healthier respect for and command of active pronunciation instruction.  Methodologically, I am now better able to demonstrate the physical act of producing sound in a variety of ways including drawing a quick diagram of the mouth or taking the kids through a quick activity to make the recognition of phonemes more salient and their production more easily possible.

  Pedagogically, I started to consider phonetics more seriously when we learned about interlanguage and took a more objective view of the way teachers and learners communicate in class; just because what a student has uttered makes sense to me doesn't mean that it will make sense to another in an authentic communicative exchange.  What I consider a small mistake in pronunciation could potentially disallow the conveyance of meaning with someone else.  Furthermore, the possibility of fossilization makes the need for a greater emphasis on pronunciation all the more necessary.

  So these courses have altered my approach to some elements of pedagogy, given me a holistic and systemic understanding of concepts for which I already had some rudimentary knowledge, and introduced me to concepts and practices to which I was previously ignorant.

  Now that I've written my general feelings on the matter, I feel a lot better about being able to put a quality presentation together for Saturday.  I'll start looking at transcripts and videos tonight and tomorrow morning, possibly blogging again to see how the points on which I'll focus look laid out together.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chapter 6 Reflections

Question 4 - Reflect for a moment on your career in ELT.  What have been the major turning points and decisions in your professional life?  How have these related to your personal life?  What values have guided you in choosing your career path?  What conflicts of values have you experienced, and how have you tried to resolve them?

     I think I can answer all of these questions by discussing my experience during my first year teaching ESL!  When I first started teaching here in Korea, I did it to take a year off before beginning my career in financial planning in earnest.  I had been working at a bank for a period of time and had studied quite hard over the preceding year to become a Certified Financial Planner.  Having never lived outside the US, I wanted to take a year to live somewhere new and do something I knew I would enjoy.
     Things didn't go to plan, however, because I really loved teaching and my experiences in Korea :)  I didn't want to come back and start my 'real' life!  That year affected me on a very personal level in both positive and negative ways.  I think, because many of my own deeply-held values are more in-line with teaching than financial planning, I was able to recognize what I really enjoyed about education despite a very difficult work experience.
     So I would say the decision to stick with language instruction as opposed to returning to financial work was definitely my most significant professional decision, but it was also the easiest life-altering decision I have ever made.  I value the act of helping others and have always known that I would only be satisfied with a job in which this value was directly and significantly attended to.  My desire to help others had previously led me to financial planning (and hospitality for many years before that!), but teaching provided me with a totally pure sense of personal and professional satisfaction which I had never experienced before.  After a few months of that feeling, it was hard to envision returning to a morally complicated and less satisfying career in finance.
     Still, that first year at a language academy was extremely difficult.  Coming to terms with education-for-profit was not easy because management's goals so often conflicted with educational goals.  The academic approach set the students up for failure, a situation with which upper-management was perfectly content provided the net student enrollment was maintained and tuition payments continued to roll in.  I made my feelings known on a variety of issues which I felt were creating a poor quality of life in my classrooms and preventing acquisition, but it was soon clear that the systemic changes needed to move into positive territory would never come to be.  Furthermore, the teachers (foreign and Korean) were constantly being marginalized and taken advantage of financially, professionally and personally, leading to very low workplace morale.  Many of the other foreign teachers had simply given up, using the extremely flawed management as an excuse to check-out as educators and drift through the days, collecting paychecks, students-be-damned.
     The negativity of that place affected me, too, but in a different way from some of my colleagues.  Management was upsetting, but teacher apathy was more upsetting by far.  I found myself motivated to do the extra work necessary to create as much good out of a bad situation as possible for the students in my classes, however much or little that might amount to.  Some of the other teachers clearly had the same reaction, and I suspect some others shared my feelings though their actions didn't reflect it.  In their defense, there were many days (like, every day?) when I also wanted to just give up.
     Still, as painful as it was to watch many students fail where they could have easily succeeded under better circumstances, I think all the disadvantages we faced made it that much more exhilarating when students were able to succeed.  I developed a pretty close bond with some of the kids and we still shoot emails back and forth from time to time.  The good that came from that bad place was so good that I stuck with ESL.. and the bad was bad enough to make clear the need to further my own ESL education; I wanted to have the technical competence and the professional clout to bend disadvantageous educational conditions to my will, making them student-centered and successful.
     So here I am and that's why :)

Question 5 - Think about your own teaching situation.  Do you consider that you are marginalized in any way?  If so, what forms does this marginalization take?  What forms of advocacy are or would be useful in your situation?

     Thankfully, my current teaching situation does not suffer from almost any of the circumstances laid out in the previous section!  It is a private elementary school in which English education is taken somewhat more seriously and my approach to ESL is respected, within limits.  I do, however, feel marginalized at work because of the language barrier between the administration and myself.  Really, I don't put much or any of the blame for this marginalization on the administration.  I think it's my responsibility, as a resident-alien in Korea, to learn to communicate with them or to be satisfied with using middle-management as an intermediary for communication (this presents a slew of problems..).
     While I am able to communicate basic conversational utterances in Korean, I am not, for example, able to effectively explain my feelings on more complex issues: the effect of my class meeting times upon language acquisition; my opinion concerning the pace at which we should be covering material.  For these dialogues, I have to wait for an appropriate time to present itself in which I am able to express a complex thought to our middle-manager and hope that she successfully expresses that thought to the administration in the way that I had intended.  The opportunity to do this in person happens about once a semester.
     The kind of advocacy that would be useful in my situation is my own!  I am looking forward to having the time to continue improving my Korean communicative ability for both personal and professional reasons.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ICC Mini Lesson Reflection

I've posted the slideshow from our mini-lesson in the previous post.. looking back, it would've been great if I had taken some pictures during the class-activity..  oh well.  On to the reflection!

1) Did the lesson plan provide Ss opportunity to meaningfully learn about an aspect of culture by going through Moran’s stages of learning?

     Yes, I think we covered all of Moran's stages of culturally knowing in our presentation.  We focused on the 'knowing how' stage and gave a little less attention to the 'knowing about' and 'knowing why' stages.  However, I think the way in which we covered those stages still would have been enough to encourage a holistic thought-process concerning the cultural practice of gift-giving in China.  We then encouraged the students to consider the 'knowing oneself' stage through the homework questions, to which the answers would be highly personal.

2) Was the cultural content objective and free of over-generalizations and stereotypes?

     It's always dangerous to ascribe cultural practices and norms to large groups of people like "Chinese people", a term which can be used to describe a huge and varied group of individuals.  Our lesson did not take into account the variety of different ethnic and cultural sub-groups which exist in China or Chinese culture.  However, this sample lesson was merely intended to be a first-exposure to the cultural practice of gift-giving; our goal was to provide a sort of cultural survival-strategy or pattern of behavior which would be acceptable in a majority of conceivable encounters in Chinese society.  While information about the variety of Chinese sub-groups and their practices is valuable and important, it was also important to consider the need to avoid overwhelming students or harming rates of retention.  We decided that the presentation of cultural knowings of less prevalent practices and sub-groups would be more appropriate for a more detailed analysis in a later lesson.

3) Was the cultural content objective and free of over-generalizations and stereotypes?

     I certainly hope we didn't overgeneralize the Chinese practice of gift-giving!  There is a wealth of information to be had concerning the significance of the form, timing, and manner of presentation of gifts, much of which is very detailed.  So while we were sure to have the students 'know about' some of these variables, we decided a first lesson should focus on only one of these formats; we wanted the format to be both widely-used in Chinese society and applicable to the students' potential experiences in the short-term as well as the long-term.  So, in the interest of these things, it was necessitated that the target behavior be fairly general.

4) Was the content and language appropriate for the student profile and proficiency level?

     We tried to keep the language quite simple and were able to include some new target-language like "accept" and "refuse".  I think it would have been manageable by intermediate-low learners.  Concerning the content, gift-giving between friends is applicable to all learners, regardless of age.  So, I think the students of the provided student profile would have been well-served by our lesson.

5) Was it student-centered? Did it provide ample opportunities for students to produce language (especially TLC) in meaningful and contextualized ways?

     I think our production activity was much more student-centered than some of our presentation.  While I really liked the bits where we had the students hypothesizing 'knowing why' information, I was less satisfied with the fill-in-the-blank practice sections we mixed into the presentation.  While this was an effective way to make the students notice the target-language form, it was not meaningful production of output.  We probably could have injected meaning to this bit of the lesson by role-playing interactions in which sample gifts were presented by teachers, or in which students were instructed to present a gift to another student.  The downside, however, would be the time that these activities would have required and the fact that, mid-lesson, the students would not have had all the linguistic tools they needed to negotiate a full interaction, necessitating some explanation or assistance by the teacher in order to navigate the interaction.

6) What aspects of the lesson plan and implementation were you pleased with? Why?

     I was most satisfied with our production activity and the bits when we had the students hypothesize possible explanations for the cultural practices, just before our helpful little 'knowing why' dude explained them :)

     I was satisfied with the production activity because it had the students meaningfully practicing the target language and behavior such that, if a mistake was made, students could monitor each other's output to make corrections. It was meaningful because students were given the opportunity to create their own presents and choose the recipients.  Similarly, they received gifts from unexpected givers, necessitating the consideration of an appropriate reciprocal gift.  These are very realistic situations which elicit the same patterns of thought and behavior which would be necessary outside of the classroom.

     I also thought the moments when students were able to formulate and share their own hypotheses about the reasons for why gift-giving is done in the way its done were also useful, because it required the mental negotiation of the 'knowing why' material, making it more interesting and making acquisition more likely.

7) What  aspects could be improved? Why and how?

     I think our fill-in-the-blank practice activities were the weak point of the lesson.  The absence of meaningful production is a major hurdle to acquisition, making these activities less effective than they could have been.  We discussed this issue when we were designing the lesson but decided not to change the activity, given the 15 minute limit.  For a full lesson, this portion of the activity would have been modified to be meaningful, possibly in the way I described in response #5.

Gift Giving in China .pptx Slideshow

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jigsaw Reading part 2 - pics

Here are some pics of the worksheets I used the the advanced-level classes.




1 - I whipped up a worksheet this morning to review some of the language and concepts we learned yesterday.  The first part was fairly straightforward, but included a couple new words (relics, solar) which threw them at first, but I told them to do the words they knew first.  When we checked answers, they were able to infer those words' meanings as I hoped they would.  Beyond exposing the kids to yesterday's targeted language content again, one of my objectives in this section was to present some of that TLC in differing contexts from those in which it was presented yesterday, hoping this would cause them to reorder the content in their minds and increase the likelihood of acquisition.

I designed the second part for open discourse.  They developed their ideas as groups and we discussed them as a class. (I noticed the typo in short-answer question 1 too late... should've used 'many' instead of 'much'... didn't catch that when I read over  :/ )

2 - This is the worksheet from yesterday which I provided with the group readings.  It includes two or three questions directly related to each teams' own reading section, one or two which they might've been able to infer the answers to, and a few others for which the answer could only be obtained by interacting with other groups.

3 - Here's the section of text I gave to group 1 in each class.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jigsaw Reading

My sixth grade classes have a textbook which is impossibly long and simply cannot be finished in one school year.  While I think the material is leveled correctly for my advanced classes, it is quite difficult for the intermediate-level classes to get through the readings due to the amount of new input they are confronted with.  The real problem, though, is that the lessons in the book are designed for 2-hours of daily lessons whereas I only see my students twice a week for 40 minute sessions.  So, it's been a painful necessity to skip massive amounts of material to 'finish the book' as my school would like me to do.

I've wanted to try jigsawing the readings in order to explore the possibility of covering more of the material in less time, but I just haven't had enough time to set up this kind of lesson.  However, since we started a new unit this week, I worked with the time I had this morning in implementing a jigsawed reading activity to varying degrees of success and failure.

The activity I envisioned involved working with my standard arrangement: three teams of four students per class. I wanted to divide a lengthy passage located in the beginning of the new unit into three sections, giving a different section to each team, and have the teams answer worksheet comprehension questions relating to the information in their own section of the passage.  Each team would then have to interact with the other teams to obtain the answers to the worksheet questions which related to information not present in their own bit of text.  I liked this idea because I hoped it would elicit a lot of student-student discourse and would help us move through the material quickly while still absorbing the targeted content.

We are starting a unit on wonders of the world in which a lengthy passage about Stonehenge is presented as an opener.  I typed up the passage and divided it into roughly equal sections for each group to grapple with; the intermediate-class groups received one long paragraph each while the advanced-class groups received three to four.  The worksheet I typed up had nine short-answer questions, of which each group had three specifically tailored to their own passage with another one or two they might be able to answer as well.  

In both the intermediate and advanced classes, I warmed up by having the students look at the unit's opening page which said "Wonders of the World" and contained pictures of Victoria Falls, The Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge.  We discussed what a world wonder actually was and I elicited that they had three important qualities: they can be natural or man-made, they often have cultural importance, and they're impressive.  We then read a short introduction to the Stonehenge reading which related the weight of a stone at Stonehenge to the weight of a bus, so we read it quickly and I asked them to make a plan, with their groups, about how they might move a wheel-less bus from our parking lot to the street without using machines.

I did this activity with the intermediate classes on Wednesday and with the advanced classes today, but I think they went much smoother with the advanced classes.  On Wednesday, the warm-up activity took a bit longer than today due to both the students' lower proficiency levels and a relatively high goof-factor, but I think it got the students in both levels of classes in the right state-of-mind to do the Stonehenge reading.  

Unfortunately, the intermediate classes struggled a bit more than I thought they would with the questions directed towards their own group's passage and we didn't have time for them to complete the activity by interacting with each other and finishing the worksheet.  Part of their difficulty stemmed from the unexpectedly long warm-up while another part arose from the fact that the questions on the worksheet were all mixed together and it was not readily apparent which questions each group was expected to answer.  I had hoped that they would recognize the questions they could answer on their own, but in hindsight, I could have labeled them to make the task easier.  So I scaffolded as best I could as I monitored the activity.  Very unfortunately, because of the holiday on Monday, I won't be able to finish the activity with them until next week.

However, the advanced classes did very well with this activity.  I learned from my warm-up mistakes yesterday and moved the classes along more quickly today.  However, I did not label or relate the questions on the worksheet to their respective sections of text, hoping that the extra time I allotted for the activity would make up for that added difficulty.  I was also sure to be more clear, when I gave directions, about wanting them to address only the questions they could answer with their own slice of the passage.  

After about six or seven minutes into the activity, I got their attention again and told each group to self-select two "diplomats" to travel to other teams and look for answers to those teams' questions.  I also told them that a team's papers could never leave that team's group of desks, so the diplomats would have to really learn the answers and communicate with other teams in order to clear up ambiguities.  The kids got really into this part of the task and there was a lot of discourse going on.  

In two of the classes, I had enough time to begin checking the answers they came up with and I was very pleasantly surprised by the results.  Groups had acquired answers from other teams accurately and were able to demonstrate a functional understanding of those answers, as I found out by asking probing follow-up questions.  Still, I'll need to finish checking their answers with them tomorrow and follow up with a production task using some of the targeted language and concepts... I simply haven't had time to plan out how I'll do that yet.

Looking back on this activity, it strikes me that I could have made it more communicative very easily by simply requiring that the diplomats not be given access to other teams' worksheets, requiring instead that they converse to acquire answers.  This may have necessitated a few extra minutes for that phase of the activity, but that would have been well worth it since I think a lot more meaningful discourse would have been generated.  That being said, I still observed lively and on-topic conversation occurring around the room and it seemed like everyone, including the wallflowers, was getting into it.  To encourage teamwork and team discourse in the initial phase, and then clarification requests in the team-team interaction phase, I wandered the class with my bucket of jewels, giving them out to students who were being communicative and staying on-task.

This is definitely an activity I'll come back to in the future as we were able to cover quite a bit of ground today.  I'm not confident that the kids have taken the targeted material into long-term memory yet, but that will be for tomorrow.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

More Vocabulary Instruction

When I'm able to anticipate new/difficult vocabulary in a lesson, one thing I like to do is make a powerpoint slide to aid acquisition.  Here are a few from last week's classes:



These two slides were for my lowest-level second graders.  To be fair, my goal in this exercise was more about phonics than vocabulary, but I ended up exposing them to new vocabulary as well.  Their textbook had a chunked-pronunciation practice activity in which the kids had to listen to an audio clip and repeat the words.  The clip would pronounce the phonemes of a word in chunks before producing the word as a whole like this: B - all - Ball.  The TLC concerned the 'all' and 'aw' sounds in words like 'Ball' and 'Paw' and was accompanied with pictures.

This exercise was followed by another in which they were to look at simple sentences, like 'Jamie is playing with a soccer ball' and underline the 'all' and 'aw' bits.  This was all well and good, but it didn't require much negotiation of meaning or production or effort on their parts to complete.  So I supplemented the book's activities by presenting a slide portraying an 'all' or 'aw' word and produced the word for them a few times.  It was then their job to, with their groups, decide upon the spelling.

The first picture was of a tennis ball and required no explanation on my part; as soon as the picture went up the kids were yelling 'ball!' 'tennis ball!', so I just affirmed their utterances and proceeded.  However, the next two slides were the ones above.  When I showed the first slide, kids were yelling things like 'beach!' 'sunset!' 'sun!'.  So, to get them on the same page, I said, 'It's the early morning'.  In one of the classes, I said that in Korean since their level is quite low and I wanted to make sure we were all sharing the same meaning.  Then I said, 'Dawn' several times and asked them to work as teams to guess the spelling.  I went to each group and repeated the word to give them a little extra exposure.  

After maybe thirty seconds of team discussion, I drew a rectangle on the board and chose a student to write his/her team's answer in it.  If they were correct, I gave them a jewel and showed them the labeled slide, but I also gave them a jewel if they were incorrect and tried to praise them for the bits of the word they got right.  The words included 'ball'(recycled TLC) 'dawn' 'fawn' and 'mall'.  Most of the time, they were able to guess the spelling correctly and I think the way they engaged with the pictures and their teammates probably helped them acquire the words while they became more familiar with these phonemes.  Unfortunately, I won't see them again until the 25th, so they'll probably forget the vocabulary! :/ I think Bill would have liked this activity since the group work bumped their ZPDs up the interlanguage ladder a bit (hopefully :)

If I wanted to focus on vocabulary acquisition over phoneme recognition and production, I could have included a quick productive activity using these words.. but I thought words like 'dawn' and 'fawn' were too low-frequency to necessitate that kind of focus at their level and I think the activity targeted both considerations to some extent.




I used these slides for my sixth grade intermediate and advanced classes.  We came across these words while reading a passage about storm chasers, so I decided to have them infer the words' meanings while providing some additional contextual usage.  In picture 1, I ended up telling them that 'anxious' was a feeling to make the task a bit easier, so they focused on what the feeling might be. I also asked them to explain how they arrived at their answer so they could get jewels for explanations if their guesses were incorrect.  In general, a kid would give me half the feeling by saying it meant 'scared' or 'nervous', so I kept it going by asking things like 'Are they only scared?  How else do they feel?'  in order to elicit that anxiety can be a mix of both nervousness and excitement.  

Picture 2 was fairly straightforward and most of the kids were able to guess that it meant to 'get ready' as the passage in the book was something like, 'I have to brace myself for the wildly blowing wind'.  I made sure to ask 'why' in order to elicit that 'brace yourself' means preparing for something bad, like a wildly blowing wind or a ball to the face.  In a few classes I jokingly used 'brace yourself' in unacceptable ways to get them to laugh and understand the proper usage of brace yourself... I think I said, 'Brace yourself, here comes a puppy!' and acted like there was a dangerous animal in the room for one of the classes... so even though I demonstrated unacceptable usage, I think the correct usage was reinforced.

Picture 3 ended up being quite difficult for them to do on their own.  The book discussed a 'weather phenomenon' while my example was a different kind of phenomenon, so the kids had widely varying ideas about what 'phenomenon' might mean.  I rewarded them for incorrect answers if they explained why they came to their conclusion; a popular wrong answer was that 'phenomenon' means 'a lot of things move' because the book's weather phenomenon example was a moving tornado and they were able to identify that the butterflies were all moving together.  In general, their guesses were far more detailed than the meaning I wanted to convey and I was sure to tell them that 'phenomenon' was 'a big word for a simple idea'.  Eventually, someone in each class made use of the word 'special' or inferred that it wasn't normal and I had to just tell them that a phenomenon was simply something that's really special or unusual.  I gave them the further examples of a Korean person with blond hair and blue eyes, or a frog with five legs.  I then gave them a few seconds to think of phenomena in their groups and they demonstrated their understanding by coming up with some interesting and sometimes slightly deviant examples lol.  I think I could have made this task more achievable had I provided one or two more examples of phenomena.  However, I don't think that it was a problem that my example was a different kind of phenomena than the one presented in the book since the fact that there are many kinds of phenomena is pretty central to the word's usage.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Vocabulary Instruction

I had intended to record myself teaching vocabulary this week, but I've only just had a chance to finish the Nation and Harmer readings and did not do so in time, so I'll be able to write a fresher and more detailed reflection on this topic on Monday.

After reading the material, I think it's clear that I need to change the way I teach vocabulary!  In particular, Nation's article concerning the ways in which teachers should prioritize and approach vocabulary in a lesson does not line up with what I have been doing, to date.  Specifically, I have been spending too much time explicitly teaching vocabulary and I've been spending far too much time on low-frequency vocabulary.  

I meet each of my sixth grade classes twice a week for forty minutes at a time.  Class-time is precious, and yet I often spend time having the students infer the meanings of low-frequency words from our text.  For example, when my advanced classes read a narrative about the Dust Bowl in Texas on Thursday, I had them using context clues to infer the meanings of a variety of words: most of them were high-mid frequency, but I also included the low-frequency word "thistle".  Looking back, I could have saved time by quickly giving the meaning of some of these words and had enough time to bring the students back into contact with a variety of vocabulary words with another exercise.  This would have been beneficial because the students would have had an extra meeting with the vocabulary words and because I could have presented the words in new or slightly different contexts, strengthening the students' overall understanding of their usages.

One challenge that I face is that, since my classes only meet twice a week, it is difficult to have the students interact with vocabulary enough times that they'll remember it the next week.  Nation writes that students should meet the vocabulary words, ideally, several times within a few days.  Since I am already having to skip masses of textbook content in order to balance the school's desire to "finish" it and the actual time needed for my students to learn, I might as well slice and dice the material such that the second class of the week can repeat more of the first class' material on a regular basis.

I think the most important changes I can make to the way I have been presenting vocabulary are to be more selective in the words I choose to focus on and to ensure that my students encounter those words more frequently, especially in the crucial days after first exposure.

Edit: Looking back on this writing, I actually think teaching a word like 'thistle' is justified at least insofar as it gives the students practice using context clues to discover meaning.  The issue I'm dealing with is an extreme lack of time and my own reluctance to skip huge amounts of textbook content... it just doesn't feel right...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Module 2 Lesson: Making Comparisons

I taught and recorded my sixth grade intermediate-level classes for our module 2 self-reflective research paper today.  We have just finished reading a series of texts about weather and, more recently, about severe weather events.  After teaching the classes, I was aware of some mistakes I had made and some ineffective/inefficient aspects of the lesson had become clear to me.  These were the last three classes of a total seven which I taught today, so I was pretty tired by the end, especially because I was up late doing schoolwork and grading student journals last night.  In the very last class, I had to discipline several students for unproductive behavior and the classroom was heating up, making things quite uncomfortable.  Due to this combination of factors, I had a very negative perception of my performance in teaching this lesson.  However, after watching the video of my second class, I feel a lot better about how things progressed.

The objective for today's lesson was for the students to be able to make comparisons using Venn diagrams where both Venn diagrams and making thorough comparisons were new tasks.  I also wanted to use the weather-related terminology which we've been using for the past few weeks to practice and produce this kind of output.

The warm-up stages of the classes went fairly well.  We did a short greeting/memory activity to get everyone speaking English and played a short game to activate their weather-related schema.  In the game, one student joined me in front of the class and I gave that student a word card.  The student then had to ask questions or give clues to the rest of the class to elicit the word on his/her word card.  The words were related to the weather events we've been learning about.  I think the warm-up phase went quite well as the only difficulty I ran into was that it went a little longer than I wanted it to.  Because I was recording this lesson and I had made such a detailed lesson plan, I think I felt compelled to draw out the greetings into an activity which was unnecessary given the age and communicative competence displayed by the majority of these students.

I ran into some problems when presenting the new material for the day.  I decided to write the word "compare" on the board and have the kids work in their small groups to express what it meant.  This was difficult for them, as I probably should have anticipated, and I had to scaffold quite heavily to arrive at an agreed meaning.  I think a better approach would have been to make a model comparison, citing both a similarity and a difference, of two things before writing the word "compare" on the board and using it in a sentence.  For example, I could have compared ice cream and mud, written "compare" on the board and said, "I compared ice cream and mud".  I think these students would have been able to more easily express that comparing entails looking for similarities and differences had I taken this approach.

Beyond this point, however, things became much easier as it turned out the students had already been exposed to Venn diagrams :o  I had them compare tornadoes and hurricanes in their groups for a few minutes and provided them with paper to record their thoughts.  I then took volunteers and wrote their answers in the Venn diagram.  At this point, I had intended to elicit why I wrote similarities in the circles' intersection and differences outside of the intersection, but I only remembered to do this with the third class of the three.  I think the combination of the students' clear understanding of Venn diagrams and my own mental fatigue caused me to overlook this part of the lesson.  Still, it would have been a valuable isolation activity, if only to have the students produce L2 output to express something they clearly understood on a conceptual level.  In any case, the students came up with a lot of similarities and differences and were able to express them in sentences.  I was careful to make sure they identified both tornadoes and hurricanes as the subject when expressing a similarity and to point out that the use of "but" or "however" was necessary when expressing a difference.  When giving feedback, I tried to use clarification requests in lieu of recasts such that the students' opportunities to manipulate meaning were not negated, but I think slid a few recasts in there as well.  At this point, time was beginning to run short.

I ended the class with a production of new output activity which I used to check their mastery of comparative statements.  I gave each group a printout with a blank Venn diagram and told them to choose two objects and compare them.  After a few minutes, I had a different member from each team verbally tell me about either the objects they compared, the similarities between those objects, or the differences.  Most of the students were able to create accurate sentences and all of them understood the material on a conceptual level.

If I could teach this class again, there are a few things I would have planned differently (Shorter warm-up, more intuitive presentation of "compare"), but I think just as many of the things I would change resulted from my mental state at the time.  This is a challenging class to teach as this hectic schedule repeats every Monday and Tuesday and those are the only meeting times we have.  I think I'll be focusing on how to improve my performance under these conditions in future reflective tasks..