Thursday, 31 December 2009

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

New year - new classrooms

This picture by Ben+Sam is from the wonderful pool of Great quotes about learning and Change on Flickr. It is a good reminder of the need to move forward from the old teacher-centred classroom into new learning environments that put the learners in the centre.

During the last couple of weeks of school before our Christmas break, I was part of a team of colleagues who were given the task of redesigning some of our classrooms, thanks to some surplus in the budget. Rather a challenge to be tackled in such a short time, but luckily we had preliminary plans from last spring that we could now put to use.

During the summer, the old language lab had been torn down (read the reasons in an earlier blog post) and turned into a new music class, which left the old music class empty. We had planned to turn that room into a small-group working space with some new technological solutions, too, but the funding had been missing until now.

We had three guiding principles for our plans:
1. pedagogical principles - our choices should support student-centred learning
2. downsizing - to make space for anything new in already too cramped classrooms, a lot of the old stuff would have to go
3. flexibility - the desks and chairs should be easy to move around and regroup into different formations

This is what the room looks like now. A typical desks-in-rows arrangement with the teacher, blackboard, screen etc. in front. There was also a huge TV and VCR contraption in the right-hand corner, but as you can see, the TV has already been dismantled and is on the floor waiting to be taken away, along with its metal shelving and the screen railings plus the OHP, (first part of the downsizing).

All the furniture will also be replaced by something like this:

There will be triangular desks that can be arranged either individually, in round groups of five as here, or in other formations depending on the needs of the lesson. The teacher's desk has been moved to the other end, even though the old blackboard will still stay in place. An IWB will be installed on one of the other walls, and the teacher will also have a spot table with a high bar chair- ideal to move around and use the new Airliner wireless slate on. Student laptops with some clever wiring from the ceiling will have to wait till a later date.

A small, 12-seat classroom will also get a make-over. Especially the teacher's end of the room has been a real nightmare to work in, although students haven't had much more room to move around either.

The whole room will be emptied and turned into a negotiation style space, ideal for small staff meetings, but also teaching small groups in a more adult setting, which suits our 16-19-year-old students quite well. Hopefully this will even help the students behave in a more mature way. The long oval table is put together of separate units that can also be arranged separately in a more traditional way.
We have definitely come to a point where 'a generation change' will have to take place as far as classroom technology is concerned. When computers and IWBs come in, last century equipment will become obsolete and will have to go. Or so you would think! We have already heard the first bouts of strong opposition from colleagues whose comfort zones have been shattered by these plans. I need to add that, in our school, hardly any teacher has the luxury of a classroom of their own, but we all go round the school teaching in different rooms, so classrooms will have to serve multiple purposes. Apparently, the upset colleagues' subjects are impossible to teach if students don't sit in rows of desks. In addition, they object to giving up their OHP transparencies, since learning to use a laptop and data projector or an IWB will take too much time and be too difficult. And lastly, how will they ever be able to teach that one course a year where they always show the same ONE clip on the VCR? Where their logic fails, is that it's all about TEACHERS and TEACHING!

Of course, ultimately it's not about classroom design or technology, but it is to be hoped that the new environment might open up some new perspectives. It's good for teachers to be forced to stop, think and rethink some old routines every now and then. If only we had had more time, we would have involved our students in the planning, but unfortunately school budgeting works in mysterious ways... I will post some more photos once the rooms have been completed. Let's see how many colleagues will be fighting for the chance to work in these rooms!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Ning and school - once again

After closing a very promising experiment with an online project Ning and  having started a new similar one, it's a good time to touch base and do a bit of reflection. All last year, my aim was to provide a lively, but to a certain degree secured (e.g. monitored membership), learning community to students in many countries. Looking back now, that's what we managed to build in a year although it wasn't by any means perfect. One of the problems was that initially, most of the students only joined because their teachers told them to, and consequently, the bulk of their community presence was in the form of teacher-led assignments. Very typically, students just went through the motions of uploading their blog posts or taking part in discussions to get their course credits from their teacher, but as soon as the assignments ended, the rest of the community members never heard about them again. On a more positive note, at the very least, they got a little bit of information about a new way of sharing information - with pictures and hyperlinks as opposed to the old static and linear pen to paper approach. Also, one of the main goals last year, apart from the obvious intercultural communication and authentic language use, was to introduce students to the idea of writing more serious blog posts in addition to the conversational chatting they are more familiar with. What I'm not so sure about now is whether this brief introduction will serve them for anything in the future, when they are more mature, and possibly have more to share and contribute.

Some time ago, I came across Dean Groom's blog post Communities just don't happen. Reading the next quote made me question the success of our learning community.
A strong community is desirable over a collection of people using a portal, because members are less likely to want to break the bonds made between them. Portals have users, who have no bonds.
Did we get anywhere beyond sharing a well-functioning portal for a loosely connected group? To my surprise, Google analytics revealed that last year's Ning still has almost as much activity as this year's one, even after officially stopping to manage it and guiding students to join the new one for this year. Clearly, some students managed to make lasting friendships and wanted to continue the dialogue even after the project as such was closed. What is quite evident, though, is that without teacher guidance and given assignments, the students simply use the old Ning as a place to leave short chatty messages on each other's walls, and possibly still carry on some of the discussions in the forum. No photos are added, or blog posts written any more.

I can't help wondering whether it would have been a better idea to keep the old Ning running and just accept new members to it. The reason why we opted for starting a totally new Ning for the second year, was that otherwise we would have ended up having too many dormant members after students graduated and left school, or their teachers decided not to continue with the project. With Ning, members have to delete their accounts themselves, the network creator can't do it. In addition, I was afraid that the this year's new members would find it difficult to navigate on the site, if all last year's posts, photos, videos etc. were already there. To avoid this, more guidance into following RSS feeds, for example, would be needed, to keep students on track of the latest additions on the site. Not a bad idea anyway! I think it's the old control-syndrome of many teachers that makes me want to keep organizing the Ning instead of just letting it shape a life of its own. On second thoughts now, I can see that there should be some sustainability to the whole concept of our Ning. We had better rethink the big picture of creating ongoing dialogue between students across continents and focus on the process and creating a sustainable community rather than a one-year project with a one-off end product.

The underlying problem is the 'old school' setting of such a project. In particular, if project work is made part of the curriculum, where students get credit for it, it easily turns into just another assignment for assignment's sake. To some extent, you can 'force' these assignments on students, but I totally agree with Dean Groom that "Participation in groups at the higher levels is entirely voluntary" - you cannot force commitment. As the structure of traditional school systems rather works against this, I have some budding ideas to develop next year, but more about them later.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Motivational quotes for passive students

Just before the Christmas break, we started our 3rd grading period of this school year. It is the last period for our graduating students, who will finish regular school in February and then start preparing for their national final exams at home. The Finnish senior high school system is quite particular (as I have tried to explain many times before). For example, I teach English, for which students study 8 courses during 2.5 years, with each course graded individually. The final English grade will be the grade point average of these 8 courses. A typical scenario is that the first 3 courses, which are considerably easier and basically only revision of earlier English studies, will give most students much better grades than the later, more demanding ones. By the time students start their 8th and last course, many know that the grade for this last course won't make any difference whatsoever to their final grade, so they just slack through the last weeks. I get quite frustrated with them, since they should really be learning more than ever now that the final exams are looming so close. But for the carefree youngsters there is always tomorrow, and "when school ends I will really start studying". Total self-deception and procrastination.

This year I decided to start 'brainwashing' them into making the most of the last lessons and taking advantage of any help and guidance I could give them before the all important exams. I looked for inspirational and motivational quotes for them, then browsed through Flickr to find illustrations for them and decided to start each class with one of these quotes. Apart from motivating the slackers, I also use them to introduce some more vocabulary, and also to start discussion in English about their relevance to the students reality.

So far they have worked quite well, and students are actually already expecting the new quote at the beginning of each lesson. The following one has produced the most discussion so far:

It was rather endearing how keen and open my students were to reveal all their secret strategies of avoidance (most of which I could guess anyway!). I don't know if these quotes will actually change their studying habit in any way, but at least the discussions we've had have been worthwhile. In their hearts, they know all of this, of course, and I know I should be looking in the mirror to find out why they have become so tired and passive, but for their last few school weeks, at least we are having constructive discussions about learning and teaching, and all in English.

For the quotes and illustrations, I have been inspired by others, who have kindly uploaded their work online:

the Great quotes about Learning and Change - a pool by several great educators
Education & Technology Quotes - 19 slides by Tony Vincent on Slideshare
Quotes - beautifully visualized by Silvia Tolisano

(and I'm sure there are many others, but these came to mind straight away)

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Taking stock of 2009

It seems like ages since I've last posted anything here in my blog. In fact, I haven't been much online at all for weeks. I could resort to the accepted excuse of 'being busy', but the truth is that, of late, I have chosen to give priority to offline life. When family, including a teenage daughter, started commenting about mum being at her laptop too much, I reckoned it was time to break some routines. And so I did.

However, I have missed my online contacts and pontificating about education in my blog posts. I want to make this a more regular habit in the new year, provided that I really have important issues to write about. Often I do question the value of my thoughts being online. Personally, blogging has taught me to stop and reflect, which has been crucial to my professional development. But surely I could just as well save these posts on my harddrive for my eyes only. Then again, I have met some wonderful educators through the
comments that they have left here, and I won't want to lose that great opportunity.

Other insights this year: learned a lot about using Ning for international school collaboration, and finally got to use Twitter and tried a couple of online conferences, both of which have truly been more educational than any conventional conferences I have attended in the last couple of years. I have also started taking small steps to get some shifts going on at my school. It is very slow, though.

2009 will end peacefully amidst lots of snow and enjoying candlelight during the darkest time of the year. New year, new tricks soon!