Designing a Curriculum for Learning

Like an old tome found in the back of a library, I’m dusting off my observation glasses and ready to kickstart this old blog back into gear!

What could’ve brought me back into the fold after such a long – and presumably permanent – hiatus? A very fortunate happenstance – catching the newish blog post by THE Tony Gurr over at allthingslearning by the title –

So…What Exactly Should Curriculum Planning Look Like – for 2017/18? (Part 02)

It struck a chord because it speaks directly and succinctly to the core of what I’ve been haphazardly trying to express to my teachers for the past six months. Let’s let go of the textbook! Take our teacher hats off and put a student hat on. Reflect on what the students learned. Find evidence to back it up. Be creative and experiment! Try new ideas. Break the rules.

Lots of head nodding, backslapping all round. We were going to make a difference, flip the script!

But for all the good theorizing we did and no matter how much I’ve proselytized – the textbook continues to be the first place to turn.

Students need content!

I can’t do my job well if I don’t know where I’m going.

I don’t know what we’re doing here.

I sympathize greatly with these perspectives, for while we (as the ESL field in general) do a fair job of theorizing and creating highfelutin methodologies, on-the-ground implementation of English language classes (especially those of the ELF variety) continues to tend to revert to ‘follow the book…creatively’ curriculum reality. It exasperates some teachers who see their motivation sucked away by endless testing schedules and grammar-driven curriculum demands.

So…Why is it so hard to implement student-led curriculum?? Why do so many EFL contexts rely on textbooks?

  1. Turnover – academies and institutes generally see yearly turnover of their faculty. Providing teachers with books to follow cuts down on the need for…
    1. training
    2. trainers
  2. Keeping a book at the heart of things gives parents/students concrete understanding of what is to come and what has been passed (or in the common language – learned)
  3. (controversially perhaps, but true to my experience) Books provide a crutch for those with less-honed grammatical understandings.
  4. Textbooks lend legitimacy. Oxford or Pearson are names that most people know of, and thus trust. A school striking out on its own without a book needs some other authority figure to back up the curriculum.
  5. Textbooks can be a nice little income earner.

Now, don’t get me wrong, textbooks are grand. They are a super resource for teacher and student alike. The problem is that they can quickly become a magnet of focus for all stakeholders involved.

So what’s the solution to EFL curriculums?

A start would be to read Kathleen Graves’ excellent book, Designing Language Courses.

In short, there’s a process that we must go through. It’s not onerous, and the process itself is highly illuminating. But as with so much in life, without putting in the time to do it right, the result won’t live up to expectations.

Before starting anything, it’s critical one gets to the heart of their pedagogical beliefs. Take a critical eye to them. Play devils advocate. Tease them out.

Then, define the context. Describe every possible detail about the school, classroom, class, students, admin demands, anything that could possibly have an influence on the class should be included here.

Set SMART goals. This takes practice. And then more practice. And then you practice some more. Make them Specific. Make sure they’re Measurable. Make them Achievable. Make them Relevant. Make them Time-bound.

Assessment can then be done by gathering evidence and measuring.

It’s all about Goals.

Goals (or outcomes as Tony referred to) help us reorient our perspective away from the content and onto the students. What exactly do we want to get out of the students in this semester? This month? Week? Class?

At my school, the administration provides the SMART goals for the program as a whole, as well as level specific goals. The teachers use the curricular goals as guidance for developing a scope and sequence to their class, which allows the production of more specific, fine-tuned goals that coherently scaffold students learning from day-to-day.

Implementation then relies on how well the goals (or outcomes) are stated or designed.

Which will have to be the subject of another blog post. Here’s hoping it won’t be another year+ before that comes along.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

Questions

I have been exploring Non-violent communication (NVC) for some time now. Recently I have been orienting my focus towards empathetic listening and it’s application in a community learning context.

In doing so I have received some quality feedback, the most striking being, “You ask too many questions!”

This really surprised me. How can we ask too many questions? Isn’t providing a space for others to detail there thoughts a productive exercise? Doesn’t that space allow for the kind of empathy and understanding that we need when expressing the thoughts and ideas we hold dear?

And there I go again with my questions.

Pondering this conundrum, reflecting on it with friends and personally, has taken up a fair chunk of my time recently.

I think I’m starting to find the clear edges to ideas that were fuzzy and ill-defined at the start.

WHAT”S THE CONTEXT?

There is so much to unpack in this question it is difficult to properly outline it here. The gist is that every experience, ever interaction exists in isolation. As an empathetic listener we have to be present, existing in the moment only.

In addition, we (as a listener) need to identify the specific context to this encounter. Does the speaker(s) need to be heard, or want feedback? Perhaps the speaker(s) desires our opinion or insight? What is the topic of discussion? How personal are the thoughts being expressed? Do we need to tread lightly or does the speaker wish us to be clear and assert our perspective? How do we adjust ourselves with the ever changing dynamics of the conversation?

How we handle and respond to all of these questions will differ on who we are and how we read each encounter.

THE VALUE AND DANGER OF QUESTIONS

Questions are a powerful tool. They can help to illuminate a speaker’s needs as well as clarify the meaning or intention of a speakers utterance.

Questions can also be a major stumbling block to communication. The body language, tone and intention behind our questions have a major impact on how they are received and responded to by our interlocutor.

Considering this fact I have been trying to come up with some identifying markers to these different types of questions. In addition, I’ve been wondering what the benefits and pitfalls to each might be.

1) Targeted questions: The goal of a targeted question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific point or clarify a specific utterance so that we might better understand their meaning or intention. These questions can be helpful if applied in the right way at the right times. However, they easily can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The right tone, body language and word choice is vital to conveying the genuineness of our intentions.

2) Targeting questions: The goal of a targeting question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific aspect so that we might argue the point, steer the conversation in a way that allows us to respond the way we want, or demonstrate our perceived superior knowledge on the subject. These types of questions are seductive to a listener who is bent on making a point or “enlightening” their interlocutor as to a “better” path/way/idea. These questions are dangerous and lead to conflict.

TargetED questions can easily be misinterpreted for targetING questions based on the tone, wording or body language we employ when posing the question. In addition, we need to be aware that our interlocutors personal culture may perceive an attack EVEN IF we are being conscious of the above mentioned obstacles. As an empathetic listener it is vital that in times like these that we effectively filter the emotions behind our interlocutor’s responses so as to understand the meaning and basis for the speakers resistance.

3) Illuminating questions: The goal of an illuminating question is to receive clarification or added depth to a speakers utterance. These questions allow a speaker the space to freely respond. These questions build awareness and understanding of a speaker’s point. Tone, body language and wording are all critical in employing these questions successfully.

4) Directed illuminating questions: These are questions we ask when we want the speaker to clarify or go deeper, but in a specific way we have predestined for the speaker. These questions can pose an obstacle for the questioner because they require us to truly be aware of ourselves and our own intentions. These questions can very easily be formed in an illuminated way (see #3), but when we do not hear an answer that follows an expected path we reframe and ask again and again until the speaker goes in the direction we want. These types of questions can cause immense friction between the interlocutors, easily leading to a breakdown in communication altogether.

TO SUM UP

Questions can be a tricky business, but they are vital to the successful, meaningful interactions that build connections between two people. With an open heart and mind the right questions can lead to discovery, learning and a strengthened bond. Without these attributes encounters have the possibility of becoming ugly, disconnecting and self defeating.

I am sure these are but a few of the question categories to be considered. I would be very interested to hear thoughts or additions that anyone else may have.

PRACTICE AND NVC

I would like to stress that all of this requires practice and that I, nor anyone else, has all the answers. These are personal, self discoveries I have made and would like to share. I am always open to others discoveries and discussions surrounding the snapshots of thinking that are presented herein on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

a new chapter

For the previous two years (I can’t believe it’s been two years already!) I have used the platform of OtC to reflect upon the various components, experiences and challenges that make up my classroom.

Now, as my life heads sees the start of a new chapter, so shall OtC. As of last Friday I have begun coursework to complete my masters degree is TESOL.

In keeping with the reflective tradition established over the past two years I will be using OtC as a platform to reflect upon the classroom. During this experience I will work to reflect from a variety of perspectives: as a student, a group member, a learner, a teacher and I’m sure a fair few more.

Finally, a HUGE, GINORMOUS thank you to everyone who has stopped by, read, commented, and helped me grow and learn as a teacher, and as an individual.

I hope you will continue with me on my learning and reflective journey.

 

rpc5 – generalization

***Guest Post Alert***

I am pleased as punch to announce that once again observingtheclass is hosting a wonderful teacher and individual to lead us in the next step on our reflective journey. This time Ms. Zhenya Polosatova will be leading us.

Meeting Zhenya and being introduced to her fantastic (and new!) blog has been a wonderful addition to my 2014, I hope this introduction will add a little to your year as well.

While Zhenya may be new to blogging she is an experienced reflective practice practitioner. She has gained that experience through her teaching in her native Ukraine and teacher training in many places around the world.

Join us as Zhenya leads our #RPPLN into the next stage of our Reflective Practice Challenge.

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Reflective Practice Challenge 5: Generalization

In the previous RP challenges our RPPLN started to apply the ELC for our own experiences: started to Describe first [description challenge] and then Analyze though various lenses [analysis challenge]. It is now time to move to the next stage of the ELC, and that is to Generalize.

Note: sometimes instead of Analysis and Generalization stages you may hear another term, Interpretation. We are separating the two parts, and my post below is aiming at explaining why do to so (and hopefully to motivate the readers to do the same)

In the Analysis stage we were looking at the experience we had had (and described) and thinking how it was (or was not) helpful, useful, significant, for everyone involved in that interaction. We were ‘staying in the experience’ and were using different reflective lenses to understand it better.

For the Generalizations stage, there will focus more on our learning, or conclusions from that experience, or beliefs one we could notice or discover based on the preceding stages of the Cycle (description + analysis).

There are some questions that may help you see that learning (or generalizations)

What did you learn about yourself (as a human-being, as a teacher, as a learner, etc.)?

What did you learn about others?

What did you learn about communications?

What did you learn about class atmosphere?

What did you learn about … [add what else seems important for you]?

As you see, the questions above are moving you from staying in one specific interaction into thinking in more general terms, stating what you think is true for more than one group of learners (if you are reflecting on a lesson you taught) or true about you and your feelings in more than one situation, for example (if you are reflecting on how you interacted). By stating our generalizations, or beliefs, we are becoming aware of our personal values, things that matter, and therefore learning to form, shape, define our teaching style (or communication style)

You could add ‘in general’ to each question above. It helps some teachers, but it might also sound ‘too general’ for others. I usually suggest that you use the word ‘theory’, or ‘hypothesis’ as of today, meaning that this idea seems to be true now, and definitely needs more data, or evidence in the future.

Below you can see a couple of examples of how Analysis and Generalizations differ. This is only done to serve the purpose of this post, so you are not looking at the description or action plan.

  analysis: Ss might have been too used to the T style of giving instructions It was probably harder to only listen to what T was saying The lesson was after lunch, which might have made some Ss tired/bored The task might have been too easy (which might have made some Ss bored) T might have underestimated the Ss language level, or pace   possible generalizations based on the analysis above: It’s important to vary the style of setting tasks, especially in a lesson after lunch (to surprise/wake up Ss) Combining visual and audio channels of giving a task helps to draw Ss attention Designing a task where there is room for some challenge for stronger Ss help to engage them It’s helpful to give students time and space for independent learning, so writing instructions down on a worksheet might help

Skipping generalizations stage means being ‘locked’ in what we already did and might do again, and never seeing a ‘bigger picture’, or the reason for acting this or that way. Based on our beliefs, or generalizations, it will be easier to come up with a plan of actions (or set an action point for the next stage of the ELC) so that our actions reflected the beliefs we have.

Directions for RP Challenge 5: look back at the description and analysis you provided and formulate generalizations about learning, teaching, communication, (personal and professional) awareness, etc. Are you surprised to see the generalizations you wrote? Have you had them for a long time or are they the result of that particular experience you had?

Looking forward to reading what you come up with! (and will be sharing mine soon)

rpc4 – analysis

!!!GUEST POST ALERT!!!

It is with the utmost pleasure that I post the following challenge, put together by non other than THE Josette LeBlanc. Josette regularly writes on her fabulous blog where she focuses on reflective practice and compassionate communication. She also leads a great group of teachers in monthly RP meetings from her home base in Daegu, South Korea. She has been a momentous mentor to me over the past two years and I believe the following RP challenge will add immensely to our RPPLN’s ongoing reflective mission.

In the last Reflective Practice (RP) Challenge (link) we started at the first stage of the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) and described a moment in our classrooms or workplace. The next stage in the ELC is what some might call the Interpretation stage. However, for the purposes of this challenge, we will divide our interpretation of our moment into two separate parts: Analysis and Generalization. The Generalization will come later in the challenge. For now, I’ll explain how we can move forward into Analysis.

Considering all the facets that you discovered in your description, come up with possible reasons for the actions and reactions. Generate as many possible explanations as you can. Look at the moment from different perspectives. Consider the material, teacher, students, student dynamics, or student-teacher relationship. Recall past teaching, learning, cultural, or life experiences. Refer to the educational, cognitive, and linguistic theories you know. All this will inform your analysis.

The basic question that you want to ask during the analysis stage is, “why?” Here are some examples of such questions:

– why does/did it matter (why was it important) in that lesson/interaction?

– why was it helpful (or not helpful) for the people involved? for yourself?

– why was it helpful (or not helpful) for the goals of the group/course/lesson?

I also want to offer another lens of Analysis to look through. It connects to something we touched on during the third prompt in this part of the challenge: the topic of feelings and needs. During your moment, certain feelings arose which may have caused you to react or behave in a certain way. As I describe in the linked post, when a certain feeling comes up, it is because a need of ours has either been met or has not been met. These feelings and needs can be relatively easy to identify in ourselves — I wrote that with a bit of apprehension because even identifying our own needs and feelings can prove challenging. However, we will never really know the feelings and needs of another. As empathic beings we can only attempt to understand what is going on inside someone else, and this is where I believe we can get great insight into the Analysis of our moments.

Make your best guess as to what your student or colleague was feeling during your moment and link this to a possible need he or she may have had. Click here for a list of needs and here for a list of feelings. I also suggest empathizing a bit more with yourself at this stage. Ask yourself, “What other feelings did I have and what need of mine was either being addressed or not addressed?”

I like using a table to help me analyze feelings and needs:

Moment: Student was sleeping in class.

Me (Teacher)

Other (Student)

Feelings

Needs

Feelings

Needs

annoyed Shared reality (I am here to teach and that means I hope you are here to learn) Exhausted Rest (Maybe he has a job and couldn’t get to sleep last night)

For your Analysis feel free to look through the lens of feelings and needs, as well as the questions offered above, and also feel free to simply look through the lens that resonates more with you.

I look forward to reading your Analyses! 

the activity with no name

This is an activity that is inspired by a blog post write up by @kevchanwow on doing dictogloss/pictogloss summarizing activities with his classes. I’m not sure why Kevin’s post inspired this particular activity, but it inspired nonetheless (as Kevin’s blog is wont to do).

The following also incorporates some ideas I have read/heard/learned about from one Mr. John Fanselow. I’ve added a few elements and twists too, so in the end I guess its not really like anything already named. For that reason I haven’t figured out what to name it. Any thoughts idea on this would be greatly appreciated.

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Background Thoughts

Something that is immediately apparent in South Korea is that many students have an immense data bank of vocabulary from which to draw on. It’s also quickly realized that most have little to no ability to implement this vast bank of vocabulary words when speaking, and little understanding when listening.

What I really want my students to do better is to express ideas more completely. I did this by doing the following.

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Phase 1

I began by teaching the students the idea of a “comfort zone”. I told them that they had a comfort zone when speaking, and that I wanted them to “step outside of their comfort zone”. I wanted them to use phrases and vocabulary they knew, but rarely if ever used.

photo 1

I had students think of a few phrases that they always rely on when using English.

Some examples are:

Hi/Hello/How are you

I’m fine/OK/so so

nothing special

just

whatever

I’m tired

I’m hungary

that’s too bad

Can I go bathroom?

I had each student share one of their “most common” and the class brainstormed different, but similar, ways to express the meaning of the word/phrase.

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Phase 2

Next, I gave each student the following as a handout (as pictured).

I don’t really enjoy watching scary things. If I see something scary the worst, scariest images stay in my head. Sometimes, those pictures remain there for days. I think, it’s much better to see funny things. I can laugh and have positive things to think about and remember afterwards.

I then taught students about sense groups, or the natural pauses in our speech. I demonstrated, with an exaggerated pause, the first sense group. I had the students make a slash every time I paused, even if it was a short pause. Their papers looked like this…

I don’t really enjoy / watching scary things. / If I see something scary / the worst, / scariest images / stay in my head. / Sometimes, / those pictures / remain there for days. / I think, / it’s much better / to see funny things. / I can laugh / and have positive things / to think about and remember afterwards. /

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Phase 3

The next step of the process involved students working together to come up with different vocabulary/phrasal options for the sense groups. They worked in pairs or groups of three. The goal was to brainstorm as many alternatives as possible while maintaining the general meaning of the original.

It was difficult at first. The students focused on substituting single words instead of taking a sense group or sentence as a whole idea.

For example, every single group changed the word “scary” in the first sentence to “horrible”. I explained that, yes, scary movies can be horrible, but so can any kind of movie. If they wanted to use “horrible” then they’d have to adjust the sense group/phrase as a whole.

finished product looks like this

finished product looks like this

Once each pair/group was finished with creating the alternatives I instructed them to rewrite the paragraph using the alternatives they thought or liked best. Following this the students read their paragraphs to themselves and marked out the sense groups in the new piece of writing as they saw fit.

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Phase 4

At this point I reshuffled the pairs/groups of students so everyone was working with someone new.

I then instructed the pairs/groups that everyone would share their paragraph with their partner(s) one sense group at a time.

The speaker is to read a single sense group once. Then they turn their paper over and count out loud to 5. After they count they speak the sense group, once, as best they could recall. The listener(s) would listen, count out loud to 5, and write what they could recall.

When everyone was finished I had students compare and circle the differences.

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Phase 5

After the students had compared and discussed their work for a few minutes I brought everyone back together.

I asked them what they thought of this activity. Everyone immediately said it was difficult. I asked if they thought it was helpful. Immediate head nodding and resounding yes’s. I asked why.

Some answers I got were (general ideas students shared)

We had to focus hard

We used many skills

I see where I make mistakes

We worked together

_________________________________________________Conclusion

I have done tasks similar to this before, but never seen such “buy in” from the students. They genuinely seemed to enjoy the brainstorming alternatives challenge. The sense group recitation was fairly taxing for them, but there was real happiness after realizing what they could do.

One challenge to doing this is making sure my directions are complete, concise and clear. In the past it took half of the activity to get the students working in the correct way.

In addition, a large part of my previous troubles stemmed from my inability to help students understand the aims of this task.

This task aims to help students recognize that understanding the idea being conveyed is as important (or more so) than hearing and understanding each word perfectly.

I had students look at the words/phrases they circled for being different. Once they saw that, for the most part, they understood the ideas being conveyed (even if their spelling was off or they were missing articles/prepositions) they were quite satisfied.

If I were to do this again I think I would spend a bit more time on helping students brainstorm, as a class, before pairing them off and sending them on their way. I would definitely spend more time on creating the write up, which I think is pretty poor.

All in all though, I think it went down quite well. It covered a lot of bases. It demanded the students utilize all 4 skills, work together, step outside their comfort zone and gave the students a fair bit more confidence that they have the tools necessary to successfully communicate.