Saturday, 29 August 2009

Outsider again

Two weeks into the new school year, and a feeling of disillusionment and alienation is creeping in. It wasn't until today and reading Paula White's blog post, Disconnected (And Feeling It!), that I started putting my finger on what the problem was.

I spent a lot of my summer learning about Twitter, among other things, gradually getting more and more positive about its benefits to educators around the world. So far, I've mostly been on the receiving end of wonderful ideas and links that are filling my account. In due course I hope to be able to reciprocate and become a more useful contributor myself. All through summer I got more and more overwhelmed by the selfless online sharing, assistance, inspiration and kindness that is hard to come by in the course of hectic daily lives at school!

Back in my 'real' school life, it's a totally different world. Many of my colleagues have spent the long summer break not giving the slightest thought to school or education. And they have every right to totally kick back and relax. As it is, though, I find it best to keep my Twitter and other online existence mostly to myself. I must admit it's hard sometimes when I've learned so many cool things from my PLN that I'm dying to share them at school. But I know that, should I ever open my mouth about it, I would only be labeled even more an alien from outer space than I am already. For the time being, my flock is not at my school.

Funny enough, apart from Paula White's, I have just recently read several other blog posts describing similar situations, both here at home and internationally. The underlying problem in all those posts has been that virtual contacts are not considered 'real' by the vast majority. For example, art director and designer, Marko Teräs, blogged about a leading Finnish business magazine's article that predicted the collapse of Twitter and Facebook in the near future, which would give people back 'their real lives' and make them read newspapers again. Prejudice, suspicion, feeling threatened, resistance, fear, dismissal... So many negative attitudes towards people, who are curious to grab the opportunities of sharing through social networks. People react in such different ways to the rapidly changing reality, denial and clinging to safe old solutions being a very understandable protective mechanism. If only these people realised what a lot they are missing out on!

In the discussion that soon followed after Paula White's post, she concludes:

I do however, feel some distress over the fact this post has resonated with so many, as it supports the fact that social networking for professional reasons is the exception rather than the norm now.
I'm looking forward to when it IS the norm!

So am I! But what can we do about it in the meantime? My approach will be to discreetly promote the sharing culture instead of the traditional working alone in isolation ethic of teachers. For example, at the beginning of the school year I introduced my colleagues to social bookmarking. Sharing my account and links has at least made some English teacher colleagues have a look at it, and hopefully realise its multiple uses in education.

Photo: The Outsider by sillysamlee on Flickr

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

First English lesson of the new school year

I took an online 'teacher personality' quiz, which had the following question:

Which do you agree with most: It's the first week of school. This is a time to:
  • Allow kids to get to know you better without requiring a lot of work.
  • Teach the students your rules and enforce them strictly.
  • Get to know each student while testing them to find their level of
  • Jump right in and get started on the curriculum.
This made me think of my first week of school next week. I would very much like to take the first option, but I have always maintained that, in our system (which I briefly outlined in my previous post), it simply is not possible. To get through all the course content in the 6-7 weeks allocated for each grading period, I have usually had to follow the last alternative in the list - start work from the very first lesson onwards, with a little bit of diagnostic testing, and, of course, explaining my classroom rules, too.

I am not happy about this rather impersonal approach to meet my first groups of the year, though. What if this year I did it differently? During my summer reading I came across Paul Blogush's post about first impressions, which effectively convinced me not to start by enforcing my rules, or going through the syllabus and frightening especially the poor nervous new first-graders about how much more work senior high is going to require of them. In the first meeting of each class, I am going to try to meet the students more personally by engaging with them in some interactive moments of getting to know each other.

Another new revelation for me during my personal online summer studies was learning about the 'dogme' approach to language teaching, outlined in this article by Scott Thornbury. I am not surprised that we haven't heard about 'dogme' here in Finland, as EFL in Finnish senior high schools ('lukio') is taught by non-native teachers relying on set textbooks made in Finland to prepare students for the written national final exams. However, I got inspired to step outside my comfort zone next school year and introduce a weekly dogme-style lesson in all my courses. I also thought it would be a good idea to set the new tone right from the first lesson, so I am going to 'go partly dogme' with all my groups in their first lessons next week.

This is my lesson plan for my first-graders' first English class.

- new to our school (16-year-olds, 7 years of English studies behind them)

I will leave all the rules, textbooks, syllabus etc. explanations till a later time. Instead we will focus on the people in the classroom and understanding certain underlying principles of my English lessons.

One of my principles is arranging desks into groups of 4 instead of the traditional rows. I will divide the students in the groups in advance, mainly to make sure that there are both boys and girls in each group, but also to avoid quiter students being left out or finding it too frightening to join others. I firmly believe that group seating in foreign language classes engages students, encourages interaction and communication and allows learning from peers.

Another important principle in my classes is the importance of spoken English skills, too often neglected with the traditional, mostly written, textbook + grammar approach. Instead of doing the pre-prepared icebreaker 'getting to know each other' exercises provided by the textbooks or the dozens of others easily found online, I am going to ask each group to prepare 10-20 interesting questions to ask their classmates to be able to introduce them to the others later. I want to get the input from the students to elicit meaningful and new questions rather than the worn-out and predictable teacher-prepared lists. As one of the grammar points we are supposed to revise in the first course is all the tenses in English, I am going to go through them briefly with them - probably write an introduction of myself with all the different tenses in it and project that for them for a quick recap of the grammar. Then I will ask them to use as many different tenses in the questions they prepare as possible.

Once the groups are ready with the questions, each pair of students will then work with a new pair from another group. After greeting each other, they will then in turn ask their questions and make notes. To introduce the idea of communicative skills, I will ask them to avoid a repetitive, going-through-the-motions question-and-answer style, but instead try their best to take a real interest and keep the conversation going. The problem with, at least Finnish, students is that they tend to just go through their questions as quickly as possible and provide only very short, matter-of-fact answers.

To finish the lesson, each pair is then going to introduce the two students they interviewed, and we will hopefully get to hear many interesting anecdotes about all the new people in the group. From previous experience, I have also realized that our students are usually too shy to reveal a lot if asked to introduce themselves, so introducing somebody else might make it less threatening and help us learn more about each student.

From a grammar point of view, introducing another person, and not yourself, also brings in the 3rd person singular plus the pronouns 'he/she', which always need special attention with Finnish students. In Finnish we only have one word for both he/she, and so a typical mistake in English is, for example "Do you know my mother? HE is a nurse." Rather confusing, isn't it? All along, I will make notes of typical mistakes - how to form questions, forming the tenses etc. and in the next lesson I will briefly go through the problematic points with the whole group.


With this lessons plan I hope to achieve to following goals:

  • break the ice in an unthreatening way and learn something about each other
  • engage each student in a communicative exercise, and introduce the idea that in my classes they will be expected to SPEAK ENGLISH (with each other, and in public)
  • keep it all in English
  • talk about topics that the students find relevant
  • start introducing the course grammar in a (hopefully!) less boring way
  • get the students used to the idea of working in small groups from the beginning
  • set a nice and relaxed atmosphere

Monday, 3 August 2009

School development project

August. And suddenly the mail box is inundated with 'back to school' shopping catalogues. School thoughts start creeping in. Last night I even had my first annually recurring start-of-school-year nightmare of being hopelessly late, but not finding my clothes anywhere, and ending up rushing to school in my nightie! (Freud might have an interpretation or two about that!)

Our first day of school will involve each homeroom teacher welcoming their flock back and going through all the necessary admistrative and other details and paperwork with them. It's also an occasion to motivate and inspire students for a fresh new start.

Today I started thinking about our school development group's achievement from last year - a slideshow on guiding students how to gradually be more self-directed.

View more presentations from sinikka.
The ideas of the slides were compiled by our development team by studying literature and research on motivation, learning to learn, lifelong learning etc. and also visiting experts on these fields at Finnish universities for consultation. All the ideas were also passed through all the staff, and revised accordingly. This was done with the hope of all teachers committing themselves to applying these principles in their lesson plans by varying their teaching methods to help different students learn to learn. The visual look of the slides was developed by a group of students, some of whom also adjusted the Finnish language to sound right for teenagers (the English translation you see here is mine).

On the first day of school, each homeroom teacher is going to introduce the slides to their group in a way that they feel comfortable with - some may use drama, others more traditional class discussions. As in our school system senior high school is an optional establishment (about half of 16-year-olds choose a more practical-oriented vocational school instead, some even enter the working life at 16). In Finnish 'senior high school' is called 'lukio', which is derived from the verb 'lukea', meaning 'to read'. This clearly indicates that it is a rather academic type of school preparing many students for later university studies, and thus it is generally believed that students at this level should be capable of studying much like at college. This belief is reflected in the very structure of our senior high schools, which is rather unique in the whole world. The underlying idea is that students compile their own yearly schedules from a choice of courses, which, in our school, looks like this.

Every year students choose one course on each of the horizontal lines with the aim of getting together the required minimum of 75 courses to graduate. The number of compulsory courses per subject varies, and depending on their preferences and plans, students then choose any number of optional courses in different subjects. They can, for example, focus on mathematics, physics and chemistry and only study the bare minimum of humanistic subjects. Or they can take several courses in history and social studies, and only fewer courses of lower-level mathematics. Many different combinations are possible. In practice, it means that students don't study with the same group or with the same subject teacher all the time, but with different teachers and students and following their own schedule that changes 5 times a year, ie. we work in 5 different grading periods. Also students' school days may be very different. Because of this unusual structure of the school, I would actually like to talk about the Finnish lukio even in English, since translating it into senior high school or secondary school or anything else is rather misleading.

Most students spend 3 years in senior high school, but 4 years is gradually becoming more common, which is often due to students slacking, ie. only choosing very few courses for some grading periods. Because they can. There is no denying that it is a demanding system, and unsurprisingly, not all students can handle the freedom they are given responsibly and wisely. We developed these levels of study skills as a tool to make students aware of how they could cope and develop themselves better. Not all of them starting at senior high school at 16, are even at level 1, whereas some get stuck on that level and waste their time on rote learning their textbooks and still wonder why their results aren't improving. In my school, it's rare to meet anybody at level 5. Most students need a lot of scaffolding and guidance.

We also have a much more detailed teacher's version of the levels with suggestions on how teachers could develop themselves to facilitate student learning. The teachers' version is in the form of a wiki that is supposed to be built together once we have more experience of working with this model. Hopefully the wiki will start 'living' next year after the initial sceptical opposition of many colleagues.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer

Finnish teachers are spoiled with an unusually long summer break - this year for me a blissful 11 weeks! Frequently, a cause for a lot of envy, too. Watching non-teacher friends frantically perfect a tight schedule not to miss a minute of their precious 4-week holiday, I usually avoid talking about the length of my holiday. In summer, I wouldn't dream of revealing my profession to any strangers either. But should I really feel guilty that I can allow myself apparent non-busy days in summer?

Creative idleness

The truth is that to be able to give and inspire again in the new school year, you simply need to detach yourself and get inspired in turn. Creative idleness is what we need after the hectic and tightly scheduled school year. True, some colleagues spend a week or two in June going back to school to organize all the papers that have piled up in the rush of the year, plus go back a week or two early to start planning and preparing for the new year. Not me. I am like a horse in spring let out in a field for the first time, ecstatically galloping away, mane flowing wildly in the wind, without once looking back to the stable. Leaving the school building behind on graduation day, I won't go anywhere near it until the first day of autumn term, unless it's an absolute emergency! Summer is MY time, to do what I please with, when I please, to devote time and energy on myself, my family and my friends.

It's an eternal wisdom. "Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop", said Ovid in ancient Rome. Teachers in the last week of spring term look like wilted flowers or arid ground that has been drained out of all nutrients to be able to sustain any new growth. Their body and mind are in dire need of rest and replenishment to be able give birth to new ideas again. What to outsiders may look like laziness (a teacher lying in a hammock in the sun all day!) is actually a busy day for our brain. A bit like defragmenting the hard drive on your computer - time-consuming but essential. Summer is the time to reflect on the past school year to redevelop and refresh your approaches and practices and to find a balance in life again.

A very Finnish phenomenon is the summer cottage culture. People run away from the hustle and bustle of working life to a remote cottage by the sea or a lake to indulge in a primitive existence, filled with manual work to maintain the cottage and its surroundings. I try to spend at least some time at my brother's cottage every summer. No electricity, no computer, even mobile phone connections are unreliable. All you need is a pile of good books to keep you company while you sit on the jetty with no other disturbance than the occasional water bird or insect and the sound of the gently lapping water of the lake. Excellent revival for body and soul!

In fact, any nature-oriented activity, whether it is picking berries in our vast forests, sailing in the beautiful archipelago off my town, digging in their garden or cycling, is popular among Finnish teachers, or Finns in general. Whenever possible, I abandoned the car this summer and got from place to place on my faithful, red companion. Apart from keeping you fit both physically and mentally, also good for the environment - and your finances! A lot of these activities also bring instant, visible results, which often are rather elusive in teaching.

Personal and professional development

Of course, the long summer break also allows time for studies. According to statistics, in Finland teachers are among the keenest participants in all sorts of summer courses, professional or recreational. Or they catch up with the reading they have collected during the busy year that left no time for it. For me, summer is a good time to learn online. This year, for example, I have collected an array of valuable links for use in the classroom, thanks to twitter and other social networks. I have also read innumerable articles and blog posts, which have given me a lot of new insights that I will write about in another post soon. As for books, my summer reading mainly consists of escapist fiction. No need for early morning alarms, which makes my days very flexible. If I happen to come across a real page turner I can happily read through all the light nightless night, and sleep in the next day. Rare luxury during the school year and food for your imagination!

Travelling and cultural pursuits

Alternatively, many teachers widen their horizons by travelling near and far, or taking part in many cultural events. Finnish summer is overflowing with festival galore, even in the tiniest villages! Teachers typically flock to these. One of my summer highlights in my town was the Baltic Tall Ships races with fascinating old ships a week ago. Next week I will travel to England for some days to visit family and friends plus stay in touch with the language I teach. All this is not only entertaining, but also gives ideas for many lessons. A constantly inquisitive mind is the trademark of many teachers.

Compared to teacher colleagues in many other countries, who teach summer school or only have very short holidays, we seem to have it incredibly easy here. I sometimes think that here in northern Europe we simply need to go crazy over the short and light summer to cope with the close to 6 months of cold and dark winter ahead.