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:)