Saturday, 30 May 2009

Graduation Day

As the traditional symbol of high school graduation, 106 students put the white cap on their heads today amidst tearful and proud relatives, speeches filled with wishes for their bright futures and hundreds of colourful roses scenting the air.

The millions of fractured facts and figures from a wide spectrum of fields crammed through during the three hectic high school years will soon be forgotten. Instead, what do I, a foreign language teacher, hope they will take with them?

  • a hunch of their developing identity and enough understanding about their roots to be proud of them and to be able to share ideas with those unfamiliar with their culture
  • also the willingness to share their culture with others

  • a working knowledge of at least English, and a keen interest and curiosity to learn more languages later

  • some insights into cultural behaviour – for example, what is considered good manners may vary from culture to culture
  • a strong recognition that people from all cultures are equally valuable and deserve to be treated with respect
  • some sensitivity to cultural cues in interaction with new people – not to be judgemental or superiour or judge others based on prejudice and negative stereotypes

  • the ability to step outside their ethnocentric worldviews
  • the ability and willingness to be interesting and cooperative communication partners in all the languages that they know
  • the spirit of lifelong learning

  • realistic, but still optimistic expectations about their future

And this quote with an apparently unclear origin:

Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt, Dance like nobody's watching, Sing like nobody's listening, Live like it's heaven on earth.

CONGRATULATIONS graduates 2009!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Tired of foreign language textbooks - again

Ever felt frustrated at set series of foreign language textbooks? It seems that this frustration hits me every year during the last weeks of school before summer. I still largely have the same concerns as almost exactly a year ago when I last blogged about this. Personally, being one of the 4 English teachers in my school, the rest of whom wouldn't even dream of letting go of their protective armour of beloved textbooks, leaves me in the minority and I simply have to conform and accept the chosen textbooks. The reason is that in our high school system the composition of the groups you teach changes five times a year, and so we four end up teaching some of the same students. If I could teach the same group all through the 3 years of high school, I could improvise more.

Nevertheless, having tested some more outside-the-book work online this year, I am inclined to start designing new units for each course to substitute parts of the book. Systematically aiming at covering all the massive contents of the textbooks is a burden and soon turns into a deadly routine for both teachers and students. Good and carefully compiled by a team of enthusiastic teachers and professors as our books are, they still tend to follow a set format and approach that is repeated in each course. What's wrong with a logical build-up of units , you may ask. In fact, shouldn't it be considered an asset in a course book series? Possibly, if you are lucky enough to share the pedagogical choices of the author team and want an easy life with everything spelled out for you in the teacher's manual. All you need to do then is to walk into the classroom, open the book and manual, and put the record on.

One of my problems with our textbooks is that they are filled with endless gap fill exercises, usually in the form of translating from Finnish to English/French or vice versa. Of course, learning new vocabulary actively requires numerous times of coming across and using the words in different contexts, so I can see the point. Yet, in reality what happens is that many students use already filled in books of their siblings or friends, and, as is human nature, don't bother to erase the answers and consequently, totally miss the benefit from these well-meaning exercises. For those who make the effort to do them, the problem I blogged about before remains - that of trying to memorize words selected by somebody else. It makes little sense for a very low level user of English to try to learn by heart highly academic and formal vocabulary, for example. I can hear colleagues arguing it's better than nothing, and in a big heterogeneous group, as they mostly are in our school, you have to pitch what you teach somewhere in the middle, you can't possibly please everyone. I know, but still I dream of more personalised language classes where students try to understand and produce the foreign language at a level appropriate to them personally at the time. Some could have positive learning experiences with more simple, everyday colloquial language, while others could aim at a more formal, academic style. One of the essential goals for each learner, in my dream class, is to learn to express who they are and what they believe in in a foreign language as well as possible, and with enough intercultural awareness and skills to be active participants and collaborators in any situation they will find themselves in.

To this end, I see a lot of potential in the use of social media, especially for the more advanced students. Having an authentic audience is paramount to really develop their communication skills. I have now set my mind to spending part of my summer holiday designing new units for each course I will be teaching next school year. I need to skip something in each course book by incorporating social media and online profiling and literacy skills, or more spoken practise and presentation skills. My argument is the old adage of 'learning for life' and not only for the final exams. Why not be brave enough to scrap the books altogether and be a real rebel then? I must admit I am still too frightened of students suddenly underachieving in their final exams, the results of which may be critical for their later studies. No matter how much I dislike preparing students for mastering the technicalities and avoiding the pitfalls of these exams and maximizing their grades, I still feel it is my duty to do it. Luckily, I have the freedom to be at least a part-time rebel in designing my courses.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Dismantle those national stereotypes

We tend to think in stereotypes. They are often unavoidable, sometimes even helpful, unless whole nations are reduced to crude generalizations, often based on prejudices, typically negative about neighbouring nations, in particular. For a Finn, thinking about Sweden, our arch-rival because of historical baggage to do with them as the conquerors and us as the subjugated, instantly evokes certain associations, with a total disregard to the diversity of individuals inside each nation.

You might think that young people are more open to diversity than older generations, but from my many years of experience with intercultural school projects, this is not necessarily the case. The 'us and them' mentality is still strong even among, on the surface more globally-minded, teenagers. I can remember one instance from the time when a group of students from a partner school in Singapore visited us for a week. We had organized a whole school assembly with presentations, music, and dance from both schools. Part of the programme was also a quiz with simple multiple choice questions to test which group knew more about each other's country. Afterwards our students were up in arms, claiming that the questions unfairly favoured the guests, who beat our own team. I now realize that the whole set-up of the competition was wrong - national pride surfaces the moment you want to find the winner, be it general knowledge, sports, or music (as became evident again last weekend with the notorious annual travesty of the Eurovision song contest!).

Another example is from last week when I posted some photos of our end of school year project celebrations on our international project site. These two pictures with the caption were among them:

Kaarina Senior High School - "International group" - pot luck food from Whazzup? project countries - crostini from Italy, baguettes from France, pita break and tsatsiki from Cyprus, soda bread from Ireland, pine kernels representing Korea, naan bread, mango chutney and raita from India and orange/mango juice to represent exotic Malaysia and the Philippines.

In no time at all, this comment appeared, after which I, diplomatically, tried to widen the perspective a little bit.

I am now trying to shift my own mindset into designing true collaborative problem solving tasks for mixed teams of students, instead of each national group producing their separate work, or worse still, competing against each other. Hopefully this will bring forth the idea of us sharing the same planet and caring about its sustainable future collectively, forgetting each nation's selfish own interests. Idealistic perhaps, but then I'm an eternal dreamer at heart!

I feel with our next online project, one of the important principles to be shared among all teachers involved will be breaking out of too much flag-waving and boasting about your own country and culture. But where is the golden middle-ground - how to be proud of your culture in a healthy way, while at the same time appreciating, embracing and giving credit to other cultures, too?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Towards more authenticity in EFL classes

We had our second Skype session with the students in Venice today. This time our Italian friends managed to set up their webcam, too, after some initial glitches, so we could see each other. We projected the laptop screen to the whole class, as we still only had my laptop and one Skype account to use.

It was alright, though, as these are early days and we are only slowly learning and finding out how the system might work best. Towards the end of the session we ended up having both groups of students together behind the one laptop so everybody could be seen on the screen.

Quite a lot of lively negotiations went on in both languages about what to ask and how to answer. Students also taught each other some basic everyday phrases in their own languages. Most of my language teacher colleagues in Finland would probably write this type of activity off as much ado about nothing. Their reasoning would be that they wouldn't waste time on such improvised, trivial small talk, which, in their opinion, doesn't improve the students' grammar or vocabulary. But, to me, having fun is an essential part of language classes, not to mention the unique opportunity for some students to use English in a real, or at least semi-authentic, situation for the first time ever.

But how to start developing these activities for next year, when we will hopefully have more webcams, microphones and student Skype accounts? Understandably, the novelty of English chit chat will soon wear off and students will start finding these activities just as forced chores as most other school-related activities. The challenge is to design motivating and plausible tasks that require true collaboration between students. They will need a real purpose for their call, not just talking about the weather or asking simple questions about how old somebody is, or whether they like music. What many people seem to be doing is to interview partner school students about an aspect of their country or culture that is part of their syllabus in a class at the time. I am slightly hesitant about this, since it easily reduces the partners into mere informants, and makes the conversation a one-sided question and answer session. But what would make strangers want to truly engage in a conversation in a foreign language on the Internet, is the million-dollar question. It will always be more or less staged, because that's what most school activities are, despite all the efforts of teachers to facilitate real life problem solving. What I am aiming at, little by little, is tasks requiring more holistic student participation than the traditional purely cognitive and totally out of any real context gap fill exercises to practice and build up students' EFL vocabulary, for example.

When students have to immerse their whole selves in a situation, as ours did during the Skype calls, I think we have taken a small step towards the right direction. I must say, I was surprised, and very positively so, that our students voluntarily wanted to stay at school for an extra hour and a quarter to keep on talking with the Italian students. Quite an achievement, since after any ordinary afternoon class all students can't seem to rush out of the classroom, and then the school building, fast enough at the first ring of the school bell.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

There is always a valid excuse

  • So you say we need to change our schools and the way we teach. In other words you are saying that we have done it all wrong all these years?
  • Who is going to pay for all the extra hours spent on redesigning courses, materials and lesson plans?

  • None of these new methods or technologies are suitable for teaching my subject, just go ahead and use them where they are appropriate, but I will carry on teaching as I've always done - and with good enough results.

  • So are you really saying that all through the previous centuries students didn't learn??

  • If young people are left to decide what and how they want to learn they will become lazy or learn the wrong things.

  • The fundamental responsibility of school as an institution is to pass on our cultural heritage from generation to generation.

  • Global projects - what's wrong with learning about our village/town and our country/nation?
  • You can't really dream of doing anything with a foreign language until you've learned all these hundreds of grammatical rules and exceptions.

  • We need to make sure that young people are taught and memorize the basics of as wide a variety of subjects as possible - application of knowledge will come after school.

  • Our main goal is to prepare our students to succeed in the national final exams.
  • I have got too few lessons to cover the whole course book - it is totally impossible to ever think about any project work or hands-on activities.
  • Theme day - not again, I can't spare any more lessons or I won't cover all the course contents!

  • Online exchange of ideas among colleagues - so face-to-face communication is forbidden now?

  • New pedagogical theories, all well and good for researchers at the university, but they know nothing about the reality of schools.

  • I have only got 6 more years to teach until retirement, no point in starting to learn to use any new tools, all I need is a blackboard, chalk and a working OHP in my classroom.
  • Those innovative ideas may work elsewhere, but we know how to do things best here in our country - let the PISA student assessment results speak for themselves!

  • Groupwork desks - out of the question in my classes, I insist on having students sitting in straight, orderly rows.

  • Paper and pencil never fail, why make things complicated with technology?

  • I am a dedicated teacher, I work hard, I keep preparing worksheets and lesson plans to teach the students, I tell them the same things again and again - it's not my fault if they don't learn!

  • We have one teacher who always introduces strange, new ideas - lucky enough he/she represents a minority, so business can go on as usual for the rest of us.
  • Why can't we just be left alone to teach?

  • Video conferencing with experts from different fields - too much trouble, and who knows, they might give the students the wrong information!
  • More collaboration and sharing with colleagues - how about my personal right to academic freedom?

  • Any changes - too time-consuming, too expensive, not part of the final test requirements.

  • Why should WE change anything? It's even worse elsewhere! We are quite happy with the status quo of mediocricity.

  • Why rock the boat, we can't possibly change the whole system anyway?

No wonder, shifting schools is painfully slow.

Photo: old school book and goodies by crunchcandy on Flickr

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Traditional school assignments don't work online

I and a colleague have been testing how to incorporate an ongoing international school project into regular language lessons. For this last grading period we are both teaching an English course with an environmental theme, and we have given our students some online assignments to do on our project Ning. After signing up, the students have taken part in a couple of discussions , based on prompts, watching some videos and reading certain background material. A lot needs to be learned about building discussions, as I wrote in an earlier post.

Then they were given titles for essay to be written and uploaded in their Ning blogs. About half of my group chose not to publish their essays, but gave me a handwritten paper instead. I don't know all their reasoning behind this, but some, I'm sure were afraid of negative peer feedback about their English, or writing in general. It would be a valuable learning experience to dare to put themselves out there, and strive at getting better and better at expressing their thoughts in English. I need to be clear on my pep talk next time I assign something like this. I am still in two minds, though, about whether to include all the students in an English course in online projects or whether to just offer it as an option to those who are keen. I will have to keep experimenting to formulate my philosophy on this.

One lesson I learned from this, is that ready-chewed schooly essay titles given by the
teacher don't work at all in an online blog environment. Firstly, there will be too many very similar posts that won't receive the same attention and comments as a variety of different posts.

Secondly, these topics don't really allow students to have a voice of their own. This was aptly pointed out in one student's reply to a comment to her post:

Come on, don't take this too seriously :D This is my english essay, not a "real" blog post.
Teaches me to carefully think about assignments for the next online unit. Students must be able to choose to write about something that they find important.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The old language lab will have to go

All through my language teaching career we've had this language lab in our school. When the school building was new, it was state-of-the-art technology and we were all happy with and proud of the 36 separate booths, each with their own CASSETTE (what on earth is a cassette, my students ask now!) player plus headset with a microphone.

This spring finally marks the time when it is all going to be trashed and a new classroom designed in its place. The era of learning languages mainly by being spoonfed teacher-selected tapes to passively listen to is over - thank goodness. Moreover, about a third of the players were constantly out of order, making it too expensive to keep having them repaired almost monthly. Although there will probably be times when I miss the chance of silencing a rowdy group into silent listening in the last restless class of the afternoon, I am really looking forward to having a more flexible working space. Hopefully a group working space with laptops, webcams, microphones, Skype - all the world at your fingertips! Budget permitting, of course.
We received these pictures from a partner school in South Korea, and I am really envious of their table arrangement and spacious room.

I wonder what our solution will look like. All I hope is that there will be enough funds to build something a bit more than the traditional classroom setting with straight rows of desks and the almighty teacher in front. It's quite surprising how many colleagues want nothing but that, probably because it's safe, disciplined and oh so familiar. Unfortunately, these old-style classrooms lend themselves poorly to group work, for example. At the end of the day, though, it's not the space or the tools. If you want to bring the world into your classroom, you'll make do with what you've got!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Visualising project membership

I got an idea of making a mosaic collage of our WHAZZUP? project members profile photos when attending the Finnish conference on Interactive Technology. The Sometu team (Social media supporting learning) had posters up with hundreds of profile pictures from the network Ning.

Why wouldn't I make a similar poster? So off I went, looking for a tool to easily compile a mosaic collage of the 256 little square profile photos on our project Ning. I ended up using Qoop, which I found through Flickr. It took me quite a few trial and error sessions to come up with this poster.

The problem was the many members who hadn't put up a profile picture and either were represented by the boring orange head or a Windows sample scenery picture, after I had set it to be compulsory to put some profile picture up. What I had to do was to calculate exactly how many of each of the pictures I needed, rename them all to be able to upload them on Flickr, and then finally reorganise the set to have these repeated photos fairly evenly distributed across the poster. I also added two AEC-NET logos at the beginning and end of the set, since I didn't find a way to have the logo with the poster title. There might be an easier way and a different tool to achieve the same result, even a company somewhere in Finland, but I really got a bee in my bonnet to get this done today.

Although far from perfect, I am quite pleased with the poster now. To me it is essential to have each of the 256 members represented on the poster, as it tells several stories:

- Firstly, about a fourth of the all the members opted out of choosing a profile picture for themselves - some of them silent, inactive members, while others must have had various reasons for this.
- Secondly, I like the fact that teachers and students are represented here as equal members of the project.
- Thirdly, the poster to me beautifully displays the wonderful diversity of our project members - reflected in their clothing, for example (school uniforms and Muslim hijabs as opposed to bikinis on the beach).
- And last but not least, having all of us together on one poster also brings forth the idea that, despite our different backgrounds and motivations, we still came together during this school year as one community to share our learning.

Paying for the postage to order the printed poster from America was quite dear, but I think it will be worthwhile framing it and putting it up on the wall at school as a colourful reminder of one year's intercultural exchange.

Photo: Oletko kuvassa by rongasanne on Flickr