Earlier this year at the National Conference for Teachers of English in San Jose, Costa Rica, I could attend several workshops and plenary sessions regarding English learning in the 21st century.
The very first workshop was presented by Jair Felix with a hands-on approach:
The teachers’ challenge was to build the highest frame using uncooked spaghetti, string, tape and topping it with a marshmallow. Right from the start most teachers sat on the floor and started discussing ways and ideas on how to build the tallest structure. And the biggest challenge was resisting the urge to eat the marshmallow.
How can you measure the level of communication skills a person has? Can they write? Can they read and interpret a text? Can they understand what they’re told to do? Can they express their thoughts in a clear and objective way? Well… that’s a tough task in your mother tongue. Imagine in a second or third language.
I’ve never been much of a supporter of language exams conveying the idea that Language is just one more school subject in which you must have high scores. And it feels like it’s just one more scheme for publishers to milk money off potential victims. You and I know that language is much more than 101 points on TOEFL (out of 120), for example. But the reality is that there is a need for more objective and fast assessment tools for specific purposes; and exams still are the tool du jour to do that.
TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language. Today the TOEFL iBT (internet-Based Test) is the most used tool to measure the student’s ability to use and understand English at the university level in North America. And it evaluates how well they combine their listening, reading, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks.
So… when a former student, Vitoria, contacted me and asked me for some classes to prepare for the TOEFL I was a little hesitant and tried to come up with excuses not to take her on. I said that I like to teach real-life communication not preparatory tips and schemes to reach a high score in a test; I didn’t have an open slot for a new student; I only teach from home; Etc. But how can a teacher say No to a student? Answer me that if you can.
I took the TOEFL back in 1987/88, not yesterday you could say, a time when no computers were used (yes, Dinosaurs also have feelings) – you would receive a booklet with the questions and an answer sheet and be interviewed by a real teacher. Maybe a little more nerve wrecking than just recording yourself.
As in all exams, the goal is to narrow as much as possible the scoring criteria, so even if you come up with a question such as “What’s the meaning of life” – the examiner will be looking for very specific content.
In Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, summarizing is a highly valued skill and connecting the dots in order to answer what has been asked.
A key point is: Make sure TO ANSWER THE QUESTION.
In the Writing Section the student will be judged based on their development, organization and language use.
In the Speaking Section, the students will be analyzed based on their:
Delivery – clear, fluid, pronunciation, intonation, pace
Language Use – grammar and vocabulary – apparently raters love some connecting words and phrases such as:
on the other hand (which is a very good phrase and requires attention because many students still say “IN the other hand/way/side”)
I want to mention
what this means is
Topic Development – fully answered, clearly expressed, connected ideas.
What this means is…
don’t speak too quickly
time yourself when you practice
summarize the opinions.
So… my best piece of advice for my students is: practice, practice, practice. Make the language your constant companion. And shine on.
I’m reading now the feedback from the latest TEFL conference in Costa Rica and – phew – all of them were very positive. Not that there is anything wrong with negative feedback as long as it can be used to fix or change mistakes in my presentation. But it does help boost one’s ego to hear good things about your work.
I tried to keep the feedback format very simple and objective. I handed the attendees a Post-it note and asked them to write at the beginning of the session what they expected to learn from that workshop. All questions were related to the theme of the workshop “Dogme and Technology – and how to use technology in class – only one attendee expected to learn how to use Linux and http whatever (which I’m clueless about since I’m just a language teacher 😉
After they’d finished the task I asked them to pass the note to the person sitting on their left (of course, the first time I tried it I forgot to give them clear instructions and there was some confusion = cause- effect). At the end of the presentation I asked them to write on the back of the note at least one thing they had learned during the workshop. If they hadn’t learned anything they could just write zilch, zero, nada.
All answers were very positive – and the best part is not that they all loved the presentation (which doesn’t hurt) but that they felt that they could use technology in their classrooms and not be afraid of using it (exactly the idea of the workshop).
I have just returned from four wonderful days in beautiful Costa Rica. The multitude of things one can do there is amazing – Costa Rica’s strikingly diverse terrain — lush forests, wildlife reserves, and tropical beaches — offers a little something for every traveler. Beach-lovers staying along the Pacific Coast can enjoy a palm-fringed coastline for sun and surf. Nature-seekers staying in the Northern Plains or along the Caribbean coast should pay a visit to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before venturing inland to zip line above Monteverde’s Cloud Rainforest and hike Arenal Volcano. Whether you seek sun, nature or adventure, there’s much to discover in this paradise.
So which of the above took me there? None. The reason that brought me to lovely Costa Rica was The National Conference for Teachers of English http://www.nctecostarica.or.cr/ – which gathered English teachers from all over the country and speakers from the US, Canada, Mexico and even from Brazil.
OK, I must confess I played truant one afternoon and went sightseeing at the Volcán Poás – up in the Costa Rican Alps. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the crater though, since it is quite regularly covered in heavy fog, but I could most definitely smell it – sulfur and other intriguing aromas.
Who would have “thunk” that a Brazilian Teacher of English would be invited to participate in such an honorable event. Talk about breaking paradigms and stereotypes. “Native Speakers of English” never have and never will have exclusive rights to the teaching of their language, especially when it is to speakers of other languages.
I was invited via twitter by Jonathan Acuña, the program’s organizer, (may God bless technology) and the theme – Dare to Join the Change – really challenged me to embrace the opportunity and say “Why not?”
First of all, I’d like to congratulate the organizers – I’ve had my share of TESOL conferences and some of them – dare I say it – were rather poorly organized and structured. NCTE Costa Rica did a wonderful job in getting together different speakers and workshops spread all around the “Centro Cultural Costarricence Norteamericano” – with every classroom having support personnel and dedicated staff. Loved it.
I had been warned of the Tico Time issue (which is not exclusive to Costa Rica, by all means), when things tend to follow their “own time” and tardiness is expected and sometimes even embraced. Not this time. Sessions started sharply on time – save some technological glitches. The plenaries also started punctually as scheduled.
The workshops tended to focus on English Learning in the 21st Century: diversity in the classroom, Fluent x Accurate spoken English, natural learning and so much more. (Stay tuned for coming blogs on particular issues discussed in the conference).
My workshop was titled: “Dogme never fear, Technology is here” followed by the subtitle “How can media and dogme work together” and was based on the premise that the simplicity in methodology and movement preached by Dogme in ELT can be enriched and empowered via the use of technology (including social media). The key is to reach a balance between effective language reception and production and unplugged learning. You may see my power point presentation following this link: https://onedrive.live.com/embed?cid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07&resid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07%21835&authkey=ABRDhO-mHMCqr58&em=2
During the training session, the attendees were wonderful – all teachers highly committed to growth and improvement. One thing that was pretty common during the workshop was the fact that most teachers still resist to the use of social media. Technology can be really scary if you don’t know what to do with it. And less than 10% (at least in my workshop) were on LinkedIn. I urged them to create their own LinkedIn profile immediately because it is their professional digital card to their careers.
That’s just a brief insight of what happened on 3 days of intense and powerful collaboration. The conference was tuanis(“too nice” in Costa Rican slang).
My advice? Next time you hear about a teachers’ conference dare to join the change.
A few weeks ago I blogged about my favorite podcasts for EFL/ ESL learners (you may check the list here https://americanoidblog.com/2015/12/30/could-you-say-that-again-please-podcasts/ ) and some teachers have been pestering me, I mean, begging me, did I say that aloud?… Some teachers have asked me about podcasts for their “continuing education”. As a self-employed educator and teacher trainer I know the need we all have to recycle, review and learn something useful for the development of our professional careers. When we work for a school or some other sort of organization, there will be times, if we’re lucky, that a course, tutorial, etc will be paid for and we will enjoy the fruits of working for a wise employer. But if you work on your own, any freebie, such as a cool podcast, is really welcome.
As far as I know, there are not many podcasts directed to teachers of English as a Foreign or Second Language (EFL / ESL) but still they are in a larger number than those for teachers of other languages. Still looking for a podcast directed to teachers of Spanish (Profesores de Español como Lengua Extranjera o Segunda Lengua).
From my experience as a long time podcast listener (since I got my first iPod in 2005) podcasts are catchier, more entertaining and informative when there are 2 or 3 people participating and they don’t go on and on for over 30 minutes (Exceptions may apply when necessary). The podcasts listed here combine knowledge and some informality with some sense of humor and not taking themselves too seriously (with the exception maybe of podcast number 4, which can be quite funny while not trying to be).
So here they are in alphabetical order (in their own words):
TEFL Commute – it’s a podcast for language teachers. It is not only about language teaching. Lindsay (yes it’s a He), Shaun and James try to present a light-hearted listen aimed at brightening the teacher’s daily commute to class. Each episode is built around a topic that could be used in teaching http://www.teflcommute.com/
The TEFL Show – In these podcasts Marek Kiczkowiak and Robert McCaul explore different issues related to teaching and learning English, as well as other languages. http://theteflshow.com/
The TEFLology Podcast – it’s a podcast about teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and related matters, presented by three self-certified TEFLologists. http://teflology.libsyn.com
Vaughan Live – Although this podcast is geared towards Spanish speakers trying to learn English, Richard Vaughan many times presents some comments as an EFL teacher with more than 40 years of experience and some points are quite insightful and useful. As many teachers do, Richard loves listening to his own voice so beware. http://www.ivoox.com/podcast-richard-vaughan-live_sq_f180769_1.html
ELT: WTF – https://elt.wtf – no, no, no cursing allowed, I think. What Tim feels about ELT – as the name implies, Tim presents his insightful observations and ideas from Delta and other teacher certification, backpacking teachers, and much more.
Hope these podcasts will help you on this rewarding journey (not financially though) of teaching. If you happen to know of a cool podcast for EFL/ESL teachers please let me know and I’ll be happy to add it to my list above.
As you know I’ve been teaching private students, mostly one on one for over 25 years so I can’t say I’ve been in touch with what goes on in classrooms all over Brazil. Last time I taught English as a regular subject at school was back in 1986, so do your math, because I can’t. I’m an English teacher after all.
So I decided to talk (via Twitter) to a dear friend and fellow teacher, Iara Will, who teaches at state public schools in São Paulo. Here’s what she had to say:
Do you use technology in your classes?
“Well…at my school in Sorocaba (Humberto de Campos) we have an IT room with 12 computers working.
But my classes have around 30 students… a tight room with broken air conditioning…, so I use computers in class only when a few students show up. The São Paulo state government has an online English Course program open to public school students who even receive a conclusion certificate. The online course presents everyday situations, videos and exercises even allowing for some interactivity. The course goes up to the Intermediate Level.
In class I allow them to use their cellphones, although it’s forbidden by law.
Reason: we have no dictionaries at the school’s library. So.. they look up words online. I try to give them activities that don’t have an easily found answer online, I encourage memorization and I make up many activities.
From the textbooks I only use some texts for reading comprehension.
I also use songs some old and some brand new ones.
I’ve learned that English is more of a decorative subject than really Language Arts. It’s just a complement not a real subject.
I cannot hold back any student. Don’t tell it to my dear students (it’s state secret. LOL)
By the way no one fails any subject nowadays at our schools. But even so, I make my opinion heard at school board and council, especially in disciplinary matters, because I’m one of the few who listens to the students.
My workload is low so I have some free time. Most teachers survive teaching at least 32 classes a week. It would be writing 18 class reports for English alone. Many teachers teach 54 classes a week. I don’t know how???!!!!
What sort of activities do you use with students?
Reading Activities with current issues from texts I find online or from the textbook.
I use songs and films subtitled in English when I know they’ve seen it 20 times, like Finding Nemo. I give them a handout to fill in the blanks and other activities varying according to their grade.
They love it, if I may say so.
I take my own tv, speakers, I have to make my own copies.
The school says they have everything I need, until I really need something.
Some students ask if they may go to the restroom in English, even during other classes, just to be funny, or to be the first to go.
We have more writing activities than conversation. It’s only 2 classes a week, I try hard to follow a program.
2 classes of 45 minutes each?
Wow! Such a short time. How do you divide the time in class? Roll call? Homework? Do you have any warm up activities?
They answer Roll Call in English – Hi, hello, present, I’m here or here. I use up to 10 minutes just for roll call.
When they return from the restroom they have to say “excuse me”
For warm-up I can use an object, a quiz or a previous activity.
They don’t have homework 😦
Sometimes we talk about special holidays, such as Thanksgiving – we have a little party – they bring some foodstuff, name it in English.
Occasionally we even pray in English taking advantage of some special celebrations.
There are cameras in the classrooms. I cannot induce them to anything.
And do the cameras work?
Yes, vice-principals, mediators and school inspectors constantly monitor them
What do your students think of studying English?
It’s hard, cool, boring, Now that I can understand it I like it… things I’ve heard this year.
What’s their social-economic status?
Many of them live in slums. I earn a little more because the school is located in areas of risk.
Thank you so much, Iara for sharing with us this wonderful experience as a caring teacher.
This time of the year comes loaded with written or spoken lists of resolutions, best quotes, funniest videos, etc. The dictionary publishers love posting word of the year, decade, or century.
Well, for 2016, I’d like to post my first word of the year, which also consists of my resolution: EMPATHY – to learn to be more empathetic along the year.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary presents the following definition:
Simple Definition of empathy
: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings
I remember the first time I heard the adjective for this word in Portuguese: empático. I must have been 8 or 9 visiting my aunt in Sorocaba and a friend of hers had popped in for an afternoon cup of tea. I don’t recall the context but we were all sitting in the living room, I was listening to the grown-ups talking and I must have said something during the conversation that the lady said to me: “você é muito empático, menino” (you’re very empathetic, boy). I had never heard that word before and unsure of its meaning I just mumbled a “thank you”. I knew the words “sympathetic”, “apathetic” and “pathetic”. Later I asked my parents the meaning of “empathetic” and hearing their explanation I could see myself as being called “pathetic” or even “sympathetic”. But empathy didn’t seem to be something to aim for.
Later I came to realize the importance of understanding (at least trying to understand) the reasons why people behaved the way they did and also to try to understand the difficulties that my students had in learning something that seemed as clear as day to me.
A few years ago I started learning French in an attempt to understand and remember how my students feel when learning English. And I found out that when learning a language motivation and commitment are key. You can’t expect to learn another language by studying 30 minutes once a week (in the best of times).
As a teacher I must cultivate empathy towards my students thus getting less frustrated and trying to find new ways of teaching by motivating and sharing with them different learning strategies. But the law of cause and effect will still be valid: Little time practicing, little learning. More time practicing, more learning.
So this year I’ll try to wear comfortable shoes but not forget what it means to go barefoot.