Talking about Teacher Talk (briefly)

As a teacher and teacher trainer, Teacher Talk Time (TTT) is a subject raised often. Too much TTT, reduce TTT, how can we limit TTT. These sorts of comments won’t surprise many who read this blog. It seems we all, collectively seek to reduce our TTT. Why? Because we are developing student-centered classrooms, and running student-centered activities and the whole idea of TTT starts with teachers, so obviously TTT is bad.

But we all aren’t Caleb Gattengo. Even if we wanted to be, is The Silent Way what’s best for every ESL and EFL classroom in the world? If so, what gives with all the alternative methods?

No…even if we’re all silent way masters. In reality, what we’re really talking about here is teacher effectiveness, and how TTT can become Teacher-centered instruction and diminish our effectiveness as language educators.

So, if we aren’t limiting TTT, what are we doing here?

When working with teachers, I find it most helpful to focus on what the TTT is all about, rather than the amount. For what purposes are teachers talking? Are we explaining or demonstrating? Are we providing contextual examples or simply playing “knower-in-chief” so the students feel like they’re in good hands? Are we talking because we feel it gives us control? Because it allows us to ‘cover bases’? Because we don’t trust the students? Because we don’t trust ourselves? Our plans? Our methods? Are we talking because we have a clear objective or we’re reacting to something we’ve seen or heard? Are we talking for classroom management? Are we aware of what we are saying? Are we aware of what the students understand? How do we know what they understand?

In reality, TTT is critical, and the demand for it depends on the level of the students, the particular class and the purposes of the teacher. Students, let’s remember, are in the class because they need guidance.

Yes, teachers should strive to develop student-centered classes, but this doesn’t mean teachers don’t talk.

Teachers need to be aware of their sandbox. The sandbox is where we all get to play. It’s where the teachers lead students to play. The sandbox is the totality of language students engage with/listen to/are expected to produce. TTT needs to stay inside the sandbox. Teachers need to be aware of the language they’re using. Grading it is a skill. Managing language, staying inside that box, is a practice- only time, focus and effort improves it.

The next question may be, How do we define the sandbox? First, needs assessment. Which quickly turns into continuous assessment. A teacher’s obligation is to their students. And if a teacher starts playing outside the students’ sandbox, how can they be expected to find success. We must collect evidence in order to discover what is happening in relation to this sandbox. To do that, teachers need to observe, note, record and generally step out of the way. And that, stepping out of the way of our students learning, may be the hardest part of working with TTT. Giving up control is never easy, and handing over the responsibility for learning to the students feels…hard, in many ways. But they’re the ones walking the path. They’re the ones engaging in their sandbox, and when we’re gone, they’re the ones who have to communicate for their needs. We’re only providing the time and knowledge necessary for them to succeed in doing so.

If a teacher maintains a rigid sandbox, how can students flourish and demonstrate what they know. Where is the goldilocks zone? There is no clean answer. And that is why I love teaching. Every context, every scenario demands a run through the ELC, preferably in the company of engaged educators, with critical reflective practice being the rock from which everyone stands.

There is no easy answer to TTT, except that is it necessary, should be intentional and is consistently affected by a number of factors. As with everything in life, it’s done best when it’s done with forethought and consideration.

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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”.

rpc3 – the descriptive challenge

In my previous post I challenged out #RPPLN crew to describe a negative (or challenging) experience they have had.

Anne Hendler, Hana Ticha and David Harbinson all provided brave and supremely informative insights into the moments in a classroom that affect us all.

Josette LeBlanc  and Zhenya Polosatova went there own way and provided a perspective on interactions that will get you thinking.

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I too will follow in Josette’s renegade footsteps. The following will be a description of an experience I had in the classroom. There is quite a bit of self introspection mixed in as well if you’ll be so kind as to indulge me.

One thing about reflective practice (and something our #RPPLN has consistently shown) is that the “rules/directions” we follow are guidelines, not instructions.

That said, here goes.

I walk into my second class of the day straight after the completion of my first, which happens to be in the next classroom over. I love my first class of the day. The dynamics of the class and the rapport the students and I have built together has been fantastic. I always leave with a smile on my face. 

It’s an intermediate class. There are 15 students on the roll, but attendance is sporadic and averages about 7. Students are all young adults or adults.

The second class of the day is full of great students as well. However, I actively feel my enjoyment and happiness leeching into the atmosphere as I walk into the room. The second class has some very strong personalities. It also has a few quite meek ones. It demands constant attention on my part, to make sure the dominant members don’t take all my attention. 

I’d like to focus on an interaction I have had with my two biggest talkers. 

This experience comes after the class has met a number of times. It or something similar has happened a number of times throughout the course and is one of the big reasons maintaining the enthusiasm and verve from the day’s first lesson has become so challenging. 

One of the students in question is by far the oldest in the class. He is also not a native Korean, in a class full of native Koreans. The other student is nearer the age of her classmates, but has been a previous student of mine on two separate occasions. We are friendly and both frequently join weekly coffee/lunch sessions I have as open invitations to all my students. 

It's like listening to politicians speak past each other, with worse grammar and no vitriol.

It’s like listening to politicians speak past each other, with worse grammar and no vitriol.

Both of these students are quite gregarious. They love speaking. They both tend to dominate the conversations they are in. They both have major difficulties with listening comprehension. They both demonstrate very low awareness of their own speech or of the speech with whom they converse. 

With these challenges in mind I come into the classroom. These two students are always the first in the room, and I try to give them as much of my time as possible before the class proper begins. 

On this particular day I felt more acute frustration than normal at my inability to replicate the great atmosphere and dynamics of my day’s first lesson. I was annoyed that errors and mistakes noted and worked upon many lessons over were not being noticed by the students themselves or their peers. I was confused as to why peer noticing was working so well in the first lesson of the day and failing so miserably in the second. 

Today I entered the room and spent the break chatting with my eager beavers. When the time came and all students had assembled we began our “free time” (a short period at the beginning of class when students can don their metaphorical language hats and settle in for the day).

During this time students are to chat with neighbours, or friends, or me about whatever they’d like to talk about. On this day, eager beaver 1 & 2 had little intention on halting their conversation with me. In previous classes I had tried to use this energy to spark other students into comment. Many are very reluctant to talk.  Today I saw all the other students sitting around our circle looking bored, with their heads down, as my two dominant speakers maintained their line of questioning with me. I repeated many times that it is “free time” and that this is their chance to talk about whatever they’d like to talk about with whomever they wanted to talk to. 

I repeated these instructions with little avail. 

I allowed my frustration to show with the tone of my voice, even though I maintained my smile. I cut off the two in mid-concurrent-sentence.

slow downSTOP! Thank you. Slow down. Listen. Please. Slow down. Now it is free time. Please talk to one of your classmates. Try to listen to yourself. Listeners, help the speakers notice errors. Mistakes are A-OK! Let’s fix our errors! (We had talked about the difference many times. We also discussed the need to fix our errors and how helpful we could be to each other in working towards that goal.)

As I did this with a tone of a parent speaking to a child, with a forced smile pasted on my face, I was ashamed of myself. My eager beavers responded with graciousness and smiles. It certainly did not stop them from wanting to interact. Neither did it stop them from attending my coffee/lunch sessions or generally hurt the rapport within the class. Nevertheless, I was disappointed in my reaction. 

As we moved on into other activities I replayed the whole experience back in my head many times. I haven’t been able to let go of that ill feeling, that is until I read a couple of Josette’s recent posts on compassion training and self-lovingkindness.

mindfulness-roadWhen I think back on this experience now I see myself seeing the hole in the road coming (even though I wasn’t in a mindful enough place to see it in real time). That knowledge led to more self abuse. That is, until I recognised my large step forward in regards to my own mindfulness.

I had seen the hole in the road. I recognised it immediately upon falling in. I mitigated some of the possible negative outcomes by handling the fall more gracefully than I might have done in the past, when that hole would’ve had me at sixes and sevens. All positive steps taken.

Recognising all of this leaves me in a better place the next time this particular hole presents itself, and even if I fall in again, I know I can be mindful enough to recover.

That knowledge is a massive weight lifted.

Thank you for reading and providing me a space to further explore. As others have noted, simply by “getting it out there” we see with far more clarity.

Some questions to consider:

What impact do I think my handling of these students had on their enthusiasm, desire or learning?

How might it have affected the classroom dynamic as a whole?

How might I better manage my expectations from class to class?

How could I have better managed the class as a whole to better serve each student as a whole person (how could I have tailored my lessons to better fit each students needs)?

And many many more…

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rpc1-mission statement

Reflective Practice Challenge – 1

My Reflective Practice Mission Statement

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I seek to better understand myself and how my contextual outlook affects the communications I have with those around me. By reflecting on these connections I hope to mitigate instances of miscommunication. This improvement, brought about through critical reflection, will not only help me in my life, but will assist me in guiding my students through the challenges of communicating with a wider world.

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WHY?

I have been thinking of ways to integrate the inspiration and learning I get from face to face RP meetings with the format of a blog.

This is the first of an undetermined number of RP challenges I will set out for whoever is interested. My hope is that these challenges lead to more interaction between the disparate members of our blogging community, and so provide a modicum of the inspiration and insight I habitually leave RP meetings with.

I also hope that the production from these challenges will serve as a quality reference for anyone seeking out more information on what RP is all about.

This first challenge was much harder than I anticipated. It was also quite enlightening.

I encourage you to think about what your reflective practice mission statement might look like. And I doubly encourage you to post what you come up with so that a wider community can gain from your insight.

I, for one, am eagerly awaiting to see what you come up with.

getting started

It’s late and I’m tired. I wasn’t planning on blogging. However, a late evening glance through the old Facebook newsfeed highlighted a new post from THE Kevin Stein. His writing and energy invigorated me.

Correspondingly, I signed on to give a big thumbs up to Mr. Stein and saw a response to a previous comment from another great blogging friend of mine, Ann Loseva.

Ann has long exhibited interest in one of my teaching passions, reflection. She has a question that I have heard from a number of different teachers when I wax lyrical about the wonderfulness of reflective practice.

How do I start?

It’s a fantastic question. How does one start. We have experiences every day in class. It should be easy, shouldn’t it?

Anyone staring at that blank piece of paper will know that it is not.

I still struggle. I find excuses to get away from that overbearing blank page. I say I’ll do this or that and THEN get to my reflective journal. It’ll give me some more time to think I say to myself.

There is no THE best way to start. That’s the long, short and terrible answer to a great question.

You just need to write. Sit down, get rid of the distractions, and write what happened. Write your feelings. Write the nuts and bolts. Write the nitty gritty of what went down. Write how you felt before class. What did you eat for breakfast? Write “I don’t know what happened”. Do it your way. Just write.

Once those first words on the page come out you will find your path.

The feelings will come. The description will come. As will the analysis of what happened and at a minimum a somewhat, ever so slight vague idea of what needs to be addressed will dare to show itself.

The most important thing is that you write. Once time gets between you and the experience the picture becomes fuzzy.

Like with anything else, the more you do it the easier it will become.

One thing I could never do at the beginning was reread what I wrote. Ever. I would get so discouraged or disappointed in myself for how well I had written or how sloppy my hand writing was (honestly, I will find any and all faults to beat myself with, no matter how small or petty). I would become discouraged again and stop writing.

That’s just me though, maybe you are different.

(ADDENDUM- Write everything. No detail is too small. Be honest but don’t judge. Judgement is the quickest way to fail. Reflective practice is not about judging others, our students our ourselves. It is about improving what we do through thoroughly thinking about and analyzing the different factors that affect us, our students and our class. This is a rule that is all too easy to break. BE WARY. And if you fall down, don’t be afraid to admit your faults and pick yourself right back up again.)

In the end though, it’s the same for all of us. Just get those thoughts out however you can. Find a way to write what’s running through your head down on a piece of paper.

Once you do so you’ll be reflecting. From there on everyone must find their own way.

***PS, if your interested in working with a few other teachers and talking through everything you write down in your handy dandy journal, Josette Leblanc has a lovely write up on the framework of a reflective practice session.***

finding space

The most wonderful part of a reflective practice (RP) meeting is the insight. No matter your experience, age or qualification, everyone provides fantastic insight from which I learn. It never fails. Each and every meeting I am provided some a new perspective with which to consider.

Today I learned perhaps the greatest gift to date. It’s utterly simple yet ridiculously difficult to do.

As teachers, we too need to give ourselves space. We need space to acknowledge, process and prioritze.

Our most recent RP meeting focused on a moment. A moment in class when we as teachers realize, “wait! something isn’t quite right.”

It seems a simple thing, but once we really broke it down we found it quite complex and useful to discuss our differing strategies to cope with such a “turn off course” in a lesson.

Much of what I reflect on regards emotions. I have found that this is largely because I am an emotional being. In that I mean that I have found, in life as in teaching, I do not always succeed in keeping my emotions from controlling my actions.

Reflecting-in-time is something I have been working on this year. It is also something immensely difficult for me, and recently I have felt as though I were stuck. I was discouraged and left without a way forward. I felt this way because I didn’t acknowledge the road blocks my emotions were putting up in front of me.

In addition, I always acknowledged, at least on the surface, but never really contemplated on the fact that I need to empathize with myself. It seems utterly selfish. I need (and most importantly it’s OK!) time and space to process what is happening in my classroom.  I’m still coming to terms with the OKness of this idea now.

It was as if a giant wave of relief crashed over me when I heard this.

I don’t need to analyze what and why.

I don’t need to fix it there and then.

I need to read the situation, take the time to acknowledge my feelings and those of my students, and then set them aside. Only after that can I productively assess the situation and prioritize what I can and need to do to best complete the objectives of that day.

It’s ok to leave the other stuff to reflect upon later.

I’m still not sure how this participant manages all of this with such ease. I’m definitely not sure how I can succeed in following in his wise footsteps. However, I have been working through my experiential learning cycle (ELC). I think I have a plan.

Firstly, when taking notes on class I will reserve a section for myself.

I will take the time I need to not just acknowledge, but write down my feelings. I will do this by creating a personal section in my notes of class. I will break this section into 4 categories.

ONE: Write your feelings

TWO: Why are you feeling this way?

THREE: Empathize with myself. Empathize with my students

FOUR: Prioritize. What needs to be done. What can be done. What should I do next.

How’s that for a SMART plan! And all thanks to a single participants single comment during a two hour RP meeting. Thanks to him, and the space created for exploration that RP provides, I now have a strategy to overcome the stumbling blocks that have frustrated my reflection-in-action conundrum of the past year.

In addition, I have realized how I might affect change with long acknowledged aspects of myself that I find most in need of adjustment.

It is truly amazing what reflective practice can accomplish.

predictable unpredictability

I never want to stagnate. I don’t want to stagnate in life nor in my career. As a teacher that means I must reflect upon what I do in class and always work to improve.

I also believe anti-stagnation necessitates experimentation.

Experimentation in a language classroom (or perhaps any classroom) can be difficult. Students learning languages need structure. They like to know what is coming and how to be prepared. These are important aspects that I (as a language educator) must consider when creating lessons.

However, when we become predictable we also can lurch into the realms of the boring. When we feel we have a formula that “works good enough” some of us may feel entitled to stagnate. The problem is, no matter who you are, what career you’re in, or what you’re doing, “good enough” should never BE enough.

I mentioned in the recent #KELTchat slowburn, that being predictably unpredictable was a good way to engage students, and help with student “buy-in” (in that students understand why and what they’re doing and truly see how it relates to their life outside of the classroom).

I received many positive responses to this comment. However, I was left wondering about about what I actually meant. I could see the me of three years ago reading that and thinking…”Umm, right?”

To be more clear, to be unpredictable is a good thing. Experimenting is a good thing. What one must remember, though, is that the first time will most predictably be a rough time. The teacher is still finding their footing in terms of explanation and directions. The students are grappling with new language AND new directions and demands .

This is to be expected. It does not mean the experiment was a failure.

As with science teachers need a hypothesis. I think ___ ___ is going wrong because ____. Reflection plays a key role in describing and analysing the problem. The action plan is where we can create fun, innovative ways to address said issue.

However, unlike science, we teachers have no control group. Even if you do the lesson the same as before in one class and experiment in another, no two students, classes, or situations are alike. Because of this fact experimentation needs active reflection and persistence on the part of the educator.

The long and short is, be unpredictable with the knowledge that the first few times doing an activity will be a learning experience. It will be a learning experience for student AND teacher. If the teacher does not learn from the experiment, it is doomed to failure.

I have found that, with my former middle school students, some activities just don’t work well. Be it due to size of class, their level, school expectations, whatever. But I did not make that determination without some effort and much reflecting.

So, what I am really saying is to take on board the ideas you here across the internets, regardless of who or where they come from. Don’t reject anything out of hand. If someone somewhere is talking about something that worked for them, it might work for you too, and deserves to be explored. To not do so would be to cheat your students and stifle your growth as an educator. If, in the end, it doesn’t work, your students and you have both learned from it regardless.

Be predictable in the expectations you have. Do so by being clear and consistent.

Be unpredictable with how you go about achieving those expectations.

In doing so, your students will be more engaged because, while they will know what you expect from them, they will not know how you will have them achieve those expectations. In addition, you may just find a few nuggets of knowledge for yourself along the way.