myths of perception

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. (Joyce- Ulysses)

Perception is a powerful influence upon the decision-making center of the brain. Such being the case, it is necessary that a reflective sort consider the life, learning and cumulative results of experience- wisdom- that serves as the raw material upon which comprehension of the world around oneself is drawn. It is also advisable to keep at the forefront of one’s mind the inescapably of one’s subject-led viewership of this world.

Moving to the realm of a classroom, a teacher: leader, guide, friend is also the teacher: inconsiderate, demanding, blind. As teachers we are the subject of our own perceptions of the multitude dynamic inputs within the classroom and lean heavily upon thought through our eyes.

Easily forgotten, we are the object of any number of students perceptions, and each one has their own life from which to draw upon and form their own unique perceptions of the class, the material and the teacher.

Challenging ourselves to push beyond the ineluctable modality of the visible requires genuine curiosity on our part. Learners will not let us in on their own, honest perceptions if they perceive that the teacher projects a prefabricated understanding of who they are based on the teachers own pre-developed experience with other students. This one-size-fits-all objectification is rightly infuriating as it wipes clean the highly unique learner and their individualized perceptions of their world.

While the teacher may be the primary actor within the classroom, they are by no means the controller of perceptions. How a teacher wields the power of primacy in the classroom determines whether or not they are objectified as leader or imbecile, guide or pedant.

Learners will encounter teachers, classmates and the ‘it’ being studied on their own terms. The teacher can help highlight or guide learners to the material they hope students will learn, but regardless of their efforts each learner will engage with and integrate their own uniquely defined perceptions of _______ on their own terms.

The myths of perception can lead us down a rabbit hole of ignorance, trapping us in the single-visioned subject-led perception of our own world. I control the classroom and what is learned. I have the knowledge they need. That student isn’t doing his job, he is absent-minded. He doesn’t care about all the hard work I have put into giving him a helping hand. The way I do it is superior.

Rarely will thoughts be laid so bare, yet dig just below the surface and you may just see the domination of your own subject-led perception. Thought through my eyes. Be wary of this seductive trap- relying solely on the world perceived by the viewer alone- for it is merely a mythical representation of a single being’s understanding of a multimodal, dynamic world.

 

 

 

observation

Over the years there has been one or two S.M.A.R.T. goals that I have repeatedly failed to meet. Observing others and being observed in the classroom is high on that list.

Classroom observation has always been on my lists of “should-do’s” and “I know it’s important buts”. I have got other things to take care of. And of the times I have been observed, nothing much special has come of it. The experiences have been inconsistent and peripheral to what I do.

In my first encounter with observation, my class was taken to a special room for the occasion. A panel of the school’s teachers sat in the back while I did my thing. This highly rewarding enterprise saw me receive papers from each of the teachers with a numerical score and some comments. The lowest score was a 93 and it came from the vice-principal. His comment, “you should get the students to speak more”. And so ended my first observation, six weeks into my teaching career.

Since then there have been sporadic times when people have ‘popped into class’ to watch for 20 or 30 minutes. I receive notes on what they thought went well and what might be improved. It has all been quite useful in setting my mind to the fact that observation is not a waste of time, but also not something that really deserves the effort.

That line of thinking has come to an abrupt end recently. This semester I am participating in my MAT-ESOL teaching practicum. It involves a number of cycles in which:

1) I develop a lesson plan and have a detailed discussion of it with my advisor.

2) I teach the lesson in front of a critical friend (with attendant pre and post meetings).

3) I write up an analysis of the lesson.

4) I finish with another in-depth meeting with my advisor.

These cycles have really pushed me to open up the dynamic interactions that regularly occur in my classroom. Meetings with advisor and critical friend have served as both a source of enlightenment and a jolt of encouragement.

The effects of all this have not just been to improve my practice, but to open up previously unseen paths of thought that have gotten me thinking about the art of teaching in wholly new ways.

What I have found most surprising is that the after effects of these cyclical observations leave their imprint on me and my classes for days and weeks after the cycle of observation has completed. The mental combustion that the robust, frank and supportive discussions brings about has led to a real and very noticeable increase in my ability to better understand the Thou-It and I-It relationships of my classroom, in real time. This in turn has been a major boon to the corresponding I-Thou relationships.

The cycles of observation have acted as real catalysts for self-produced solutions to my own uniquely observed conundrums of the classroom.

Now I see how observation, when done well, can be such a massive asset to a teachers growth. And as before, being observed and observing will be a S.M.A.R.T. goal. However, in deference to achievable (the A in SMART) I will aim to be observed twice a semester. For all the good observation does, if done well, it is quite an additional amount of work.

 

 

formative assessment

***GUEST POST ALERT***

It is with great pleasure that I host my first ever guest post. The following blog post is courtesy of my dear friend, Manuel Alex Solano. Alex is a fellow student in the MAT-ESOL program at Marlboro College Graduate School. He has been teaching English as a Second Language in Costa Rica for the past seven years. Two of those years have been spent as a teacher trainer. Alex has a BA in TESOL as well as a number of teaching certificates from SIT, including: workshop design, adult learning theory, compassionate communication, and most recently formative assessment.

OK! let’s talk assessment…

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Throughout life we constantly face moments in which we evaluate situations, things, or people. This also makes us objects of critical observation or examination. When this happens, when people are being evaluated or judged, there is a sense of unfairness that makes us ask ourselves questions such as; Does she/he know who I am? Or has she/he even taken her/his time to understand why I did that? This idea of something not being fair appears especially when the results of the examinations are perceived as negative.

In the classroom some situations are similar. Students evaluate their peers and teachers on different aspects while teachers do the same with students, but most times only to test their abilities, knowledge, and even memory. Many times students think they are not being evaluated fairly and sometimes they might be right.

What do most institutions want to see by the end of the courses? Of course they want to see grades. It could be letters or numbers but it has to be a tool that “shows” that learners are either ready to pass a course or to graduate. Institutions want something to magically turn learning into figures, something more concrete. Is that possible? How can teachers represent in numbers how much a student has learned? Are we informing our students about their progress when we give them grades? Are we treating students fairly? Do final tests always show students’ progress?

There is a tool we can use to assess students’ learning and to provide them with a clear picture of their progress. It is known as formative assessment. This tool might be the key to answer some of our questions, but what is formative assessment? What is actually useful or beneficial about it?

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.

Black, P. & William, D. 1998. Inside the black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London

Formative assessment refers to a variety of techniques or methods teachers use to observe students’ progress/learning and identify needs. The purpose of this is to gather as much feedback as possible to make any kind of adjustment needed in order to better opportunities for students to acquire knowledge, or for them to learn within a more holistic experience. It is important to remember that tools such as self-assessment and peer-assessment could also be part of formative assessment. This will also inform students of their own development.

There are some important characteristics we should keep in mind when designing formative assessment tools. Two of them are validity and reliability. Validity we understand as the extent in which an assessment tool measures what it says it is measuring. In other words, the tool must be designed in the same format we teach and addressing the same material that we cover with our students in class. In this case, reliability may be defined/understood as how much we can trust that the results would be similar if the tool was used at a different time or place. In other words, no factor other than knowledge affects the results of the given tool.

For assessment tools we have quizzes, presentations, charts, tests, and others. Basically we can make any kind of tool formative, as long as we do not use it for grading and as long as we use it to inform our students and our selves of where students are, where we all want them to get, and where students arrive. It is not about the final results but about the progress students make. With this we can keep our institutions’ rules but we can bend the way we get to those only for our students’ learning benefits.

So, wouldn’t it be great to take our time, gather information, observe and compare results to use those as feedback to improve relationships with people? If the answer is no, at least as teachers we should follow these principles to focus more on students’ growth and less on numbers or letters. The fact that a student is not ready to go to the next level it, does not mean she/he has not improved. Therefore, it is in our hands to gather information and make students participants of this progress to witness learning and development. By doing so we are letting everybody know how much we care and we are also promoting autonomy so that students become more responsible for their own learning.

assumption hunting

A snapshot of my current thoughts and feelings surrounding reflective practice.

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Seeking out and identifying the assumptions I have, the underlying biases that define my personal understandings, is a step in my reflective practice that I have only recently begun to explicitly explore. It is challenging. Discovering the unconscious biases that define the perspective through which I view the classroom, and the world, is not an easy web to untangle.

How does one seek out assumptions that are unconscious? This is a question with no easy answer, no definitive result. Hunting assumptions is a process, one in which I’m aiming to make a recurring objective in my critical reflective practice. If I take for granted that I am constantly learning, growing and experiencing the world around me; I must also take for granted that the assumptions that guide my beliefs and practices in the classroom are also ever changing.

Assumptions are not, in of themselves, bad things. Assumptions help to guide my decision making as a teacher. As Brookfield states, “informed actions…are based on assumptions that have been carefully and critically investigated.” If I accept this, the objective is not to eliminate assumptions from my teaching practice, but to better understand and analyze those assumptions through a process of reflective investigation. Such inquiry better places me to assess whether or not my assumptions have a concrete base on which to stand.

Open mindedness is a prerequisite to a successful investigation of these unconscious biases. Without an acceptance to consider all possibilities the very assumptions I seek will blind me from finding them. It is important to remember that “[open-mindedness] is not a blind acceptance of all ideas without intelligent critique. Rather it means a willingness to entertain different perspectives, coupled with an acceptance of the ‘possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us” (Rodgers). It is easy to observe benefits in being open minded, far harder is finding the strength to walk the walk, to remain open to all possibilities, even those that poke the emotive, soft center of my inner self.

Building a safe space, creating a judgement free zone, is a requirement for both individual and group reflection. However, even with such a space created, the onus of open-mindedness falls upon myself alone. It is a state of being that requires presence and a continual willingness to examine my thoughts, feelings and needs. It is a demand of reflective practice that has at times scared me. I have found that fear has caused a reflexive defensiveness that inhibits my ability to successfully discover the assumptions hidden within my practice.

Accepting ‘the possibility of error’ with myself is a challenge. Doing so in a group brings with it challenges on a greater scale. Understanding that “[reflection] is incomplete if not done in the company of others”(Dewey) is one thing. Finding the motivation and strength for open-minded critical reflective inquiry within a group can only be found within myself.

By remembering that, “no action a teacher takes can ever be experienced as universally and uniformly positive” (Brookfield) I try to preempt my fear of analyzing beliefs that guide my decisions. I try to remind myself that reflecting on my teaching leads not to a final judgement, good or bad, but rather to a greater awareness of why I make the decisions I do. It is this raised awareness, this greater understanding of the inner terrain that defines my world, in which I was formerly blind or ignorant of, that maintains my integrative motivation regards reflective practice.

Reflective practice also provides an enormous boost to the enjoyment and satisfaction I have in my job. Having peers and colleagues on which to rely, on whom I can count on not to judge, but to assist me in seeing the different perspectives that are necessary to accurately hunt down the assumptions that guide me, is invaluable.

Hunting assumptions requires much, but the benefit I have derived from doing so has been many times greater. I am looking forward to continuing this hunt and developing a greater awareness of myself and my teaching practice.

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Some questions for all you readers out there

What do you think of when you hear the words “reflective practice”? How do you maintain the motivation to develop and grow as a teacher? What challenges have you faced in doing so?

Brookfield, Stephen. “The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important”
Dewey, John. “How We Think”.
Rodgers, Carol. “The Role of Descriptive Inquiry in Building Presence and Civic Capacity”.

feedback for the sake of feedback

I know feedback is important. One method I employ to garner feedback is to give my students a couple written questions every day.

I then take the responses and read them. I comment on them. Or I ask questions. Often times I request more specific information.

I take great pride in collecting feedback and reviewing it assiduously. I believe all this effort helps to show students my interest in their learning. It also provides a line of communication that may prove more accessible to students. It makes me a more effective teacher (at least that is what I tell myself when I look in the mirror).

All well and good. But what is it all for?

In my previous post I discussed losing my focus. I managed to lose it even while eliciting daily feedback in a number of ways. How, you might ask, did this happen.

Asking for feedback, collecting it, talking about it is all for not if we don’t bloody listen to it.

While in class today I heard a number of students tell me (for the umpteenth time) they have a hard time with taking notes. Something finally clicked. They had been giving me feedback for days requesting specific help with taking notes on what they are listening to.

Instead of listening, I carried on doing what, in my mind, was needed. Somehow I allowed their requests to enter my brain space but not sink into my thoughts on how to guide their learning. I allowed the demands of a static curriculum to guide me, not the needs of my students. I was aware of what my students needed, but it was a superficial awareness. The dots between the feedback and planning didn’t connect.

There are all kinds of interpretations we can infer from this reflection on my teaching. Your guess is as good as mine at the moment (more self reflection certainly called for).

Feedback is meant to help us adjust, to be flexible to the ever changing contexts of the classroom. Feedback is meant to help us meet the needs of individuals and classes as a whole.

It doesn’t do any good to elicit feedback if we aren’t actually going to be present to our students needs and plan our lessons accordingly.

 

 

 

trying to do everything…

…and getting nothing done. Or, to be more precise, failing to satisfactorily facilitate learning.

Over the past week and two days I have begun teaching again. It is the first time back in a classroom since the end of January. I am in a new country. I am already on my second apartment (which both have different voltage standards = huge headache) since my arrival. I have taken over a class, in the middle of an 8 week term, from a teacher who left due to a lack of…well he wasn’t a good fit shall we say.

Basically, I have been tasked with completing a term worth of work in half the time. This is hard enough in the best of times, but when I am still learning myriad admin duties …whilst trying to settle in professionally and personally … and help students with developing classroom/learning skills outside of the remit for the course.. the situation calls to mind one word, cluster….difficulty.

And yet I have been working my tail off to manage it all; perhaps from naivety, perhaps from hubris.

While I was reflecting on this clusterdifficulty today I realized that I had allowed the immensity of the task to consume me like quicksand. I realized I had lost my focus.

Somewhere in the mess of life I stopped facilitating learning. Instead my focus turned to keeping the juggling act going at all costs.

We teachers manage an immense amount on our proverbial plates. I know that I have often taken pride in how much I can handle on mine. There is, however, a limit to our abilities to manage.

I know now that when I try to do too much it is my learners who suffer.

Reflection, feedback and experience all helped pull me out of the quicksand. And you know what, I’m not upset with myself for losing focus. Believe you me, this is a major surprise to myself most of all. Usually the self flagellation takes at least 24 hours to work itself out of my system. I put this success down to presence. Daily practice with being present has provided a monumental shift with how I interact with the world. But most importantly it has provided the most wonderful gift, true self compassion. Words yet fail me in attempting to explain this. But I am sure I will find them, most likely in a future blog post.

And so ends this rambly blog entry. Here’s to avoiding the quicksand and finding the self compassion to truly be kind with ourselves.

takeaways

This post is dedicated to (a very few of) the books/articles/presentation that have facilitated a fantastic amount of genuine (Tony Gurr style) LEARNing for me this past summer. LEARNing which has made me eager to get back into the classroom and continue my personal LEARNing journey through the practice of teaching and reflecting critically.

The following sources of learning are followed by short summaries of my personal learning from each.

Donald Freeman’s presentation on teacher development 

July 2014

Freeman’s presentation was phenomenal and rich. He spoke of teacher development, specifically how content is defined in a TESOL classroom. Thanks to this presentation I have found a way to clearly define some of the fuzzy thoughts that have rolled around my head since my career began. As I have learned well this summer, making what is tacit, explicit is a critical skill (a skill this blog is meant to assist me with).

Instead of coming to class with a suitcase full of language, I try to bring an empty suitcase (Freeman’s metaphor). I am then prepared to take that suitcase and close it around content autonomously chosen by learners. I want to take that content and manipulate it in order to orient learner attention to the form, meaning, use of language. Skills involved in these tasks include: using information garnered from interaction with and among students to design/provide engaging contexts, highlighting the pragmatic qualities of use and implications of intonation, matching learner needs with course requirements, analyzing the usefulness of learner errors and adjusting tasks to meet the needs of learner, persistence in requesting feedback. When learners lose engagement with content, change the content by mining learner output and explicitly requesting feedback from learners.

—–Find openness to question self

“Social Identity, Investment and Language Learning” (Norton Pierce 1997)

Norton Pierce produced a stellar piece of research which really helped inform my thoughts surrounding learner identity and it’s effect on language learning. The author here convincingly reconceptualizes current second language acquisition (SLA) theories conceptions of the individual.

A binary view of learner motivation is inadequate when the multi-faceted and fluctuating nature of identity is understood.

“confusion arises because artificial distinctions are drawn between the individual and the social, which lead to arbitrary mapping of particular factors on either the individual or the social, with little rigorous justification”

Thanks to understanding found in this article I now hope to find new ways of facilitating learner investment in their learning journeys by helping them acquire tools needed to enter and maintain conversation, namely by focusing on increasing phatic and pragmatic competence. It is my theory that if these skills are honed, learners begin to feel they own the language they use. That is when the magic happens.

“Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching” (Cook 1999)

Cook was instrumental in helping me make sense of my thoughts surrounding English as a lingua franca.

A few snapshots of my notes:

– The native speaker is not a monolith

– The native speaker norm intimidates learners

– Considerations of learner mulit-competency should be a component of task/lesson creation

I’ve always considered unattainable goals demoralizing and agree with Cook in believing we should redefine the Native Speaker/Non-native Speaker paradigm as L1/L2 users of language. Each user of the language owns their own version of it. Learner goals should reflect learner need and context.

“selections from the work of Earl Stevick” (2015)

Stevick was perhaps the most enjoyable of resources I encountered this summer. His ideas on the roles of the teacher and learner were very enlightening. If you haven’t yet encountered his work, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What I pulled from the first two chapters of this book:

– if what reinforces your self image contradicts/detracts from mine, mine is threatened

– the stakes in any social encounter are high

– deep experiences draw more energy from our “world of meaningful action” and in turn help to shape that world

– critical self plays a negative role when the performing self fails to meet expectations

– Students need to know that choices offered them fit into the teachers overall plan and that they are not presented with them out of teacher weakness

Reading Stevick has helped me better define how to find a holistic understanding to language teaching. His ideas on teaching and the classroom have provoked an immense amount of personal reflection and have helped to orient my attention to aspects of teaching that I had previously been blind to. If I recommended one person to read, it would be Earl Stevick.

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It was a remarkable summer and these tidbits don’t come close to highlighting all the wonderful resources I encountered (some of which I hope to cover in future posts).