Wednesday, 6 October 2010

SUKOL - resource links

Rohkeutta kieltenoppimiseen ja -opettamiseen

Sinikka Laakio-Whybrow, Kaarinan lukio

This is a list of links for my talk at the Finnish language teachers' union autumn PD session. My topic was 'Social media in foreign language lessons'. As my talk was in Finnish, to a Finnish audience, some of the links are only in Finnish.
- Find interesting blogs, follow them - lurking is quite allowed!
- Here are some links from my RSS feed

- Anne Rongas, sosiaalisen median pioneeri Kaakkois-Suomesta
- Tania Sheko, teacher-librarian from Melbourne Australia, reflects on a wide variety of educational topics
- Silvia Tolisano, technology integration facilitator from the US, background in Germany and Argentina
- Lisa Nielsen, educational technologist from the US, writes passionate posts about technology in education
- Ann S. Michaelsen, Norwegian high school teacher blogger, her classes have student blogs, too
- Isabelle Jones, Head of Modern Languages (French, Spanish) in the UK, actively involved and interested in many language teaching initiatives
- Danika Barker, high school English teacher from Canada, uses class blogs for her groups

- Lurk at first, and join when you feel comfortable.
- Here are some that you might like to try

- for example, I have link collections of online resources for all the different courses I teach
- Keep your own profile private ('friends only'), and start a professional page for students (they don't need to be your friends!)
- Voit liittyä myös erilaisiin ryhmiin, esim. Tieto- ja viestintätekniikkaopetuksessa
- almost 50.000 educators from around the world!
- hundreds of groups
- lots of discussions, always help and tips at hand, and a good place for networking and partner searching
SOMETU - Sosiaalinen media oppimisen tukena
- kotimainen verkosto, yli 3000 jäsentä kaikilta koulutuksen aloilta
- yli 700 jäsentä, erillisiä ryhmiä kieltenopettajille
- "A unique mix of activities exploring the relationship of language learning and social media in the web 2.0 era: Participatory debates, award-winning competitions, policy recommendations and reports, scientific publications and field studies."
- start following other language teachers; you will find links to good articles, videos, teaching resources etc.
- check my profile to find some language teachers among people I follow
- online photo sharing
- EdTech365/2010 - international educators' group to upload one photo a day for the year 2010

- This really is the best part, and what makes it SOCIAL media.
- Start commenting on blog posts, taking part in forum discussions in social networks, updating your Facebook status, sending out tweets etc.
- And if you are brave enough, why not start writing your own blog!

- I first started by finding a couple of interesting young student blogs, reading posts with students and then writing thoughtful comments

- You only learn by doing!
- Here are some examples of what I have done with students

- Voilà-kirjasarjaan perustuva kurssiwikini, jota käytän ikään kuin 'digitaalisena kurssisuunnitelmana' opiskelijoille (oman wikin voi aloittaa, esim. vielä ilmaisesta palvelusta WIKISPACES)
- a project wiki done as group work in one English course - information about Finland and our town for Singaporean students who were coming for a student exchange
- an educational network on the Ning platform (used to be free, unfortunately not any more!), with students from Asia and Europe - profile pages, discussion forums, photos, videos, blogs etc.
- blog posts also written during ordinary English courses
- photo/writing project between students in Kaarina Finland, Naples Florida and Melbourne Australia
- explanation about it in my blog
- Tania Sheko's project blog

- This is good AND OFTEN FREE professional development for anyone!

- semi-annual online conference on language learning with technology
- November 15-19, 2010

Photo: The Swing Carousel on Flickr

Thursday, 26 August 2010

PD for today

I am a member of a small school development team in my school. We meet about once a month, and bring forth pedagogical development ideas for the whole staff. We had our first meeting of the new school year yesterday, and decided that our main focus area this year would be 'new learning environments'. Tha plan is that we will look into the many opportunities of web and project based learning, among other things.

No sooner was this decided than colleagues started talking about the need for training. What training courses or seminars are available, where and how much do they cost? Which of us will have the chance to go? Will the school pay for it? It was taken for granted that training would mean travelling somewhere as a physically present participant.

How about webinars online, I suggested cautiously. Surprisingly, none of my colleagues were very much aware of this opportunity! I have found global teaching webinars very enlightening myself although, I have to admit, I am still quite a beginner in that field. The last one I participated in a little bit, was the 2010 Reform Symposium in July.

Webinars are a great way to virtually meet, or at least listen to, enthusiastic educators from around the world - all in the comfort of your own armchair at home, if you want to. Once you get a bit more comfortable with the format (an Elluminate session, for example), you will be able to get more involved with the interaction and get much more out of it than just by listening passively. And if you can't make the schedule, the sessions will usually be recorded and uploaded on a website to be listened to later, at a more convenient time.

In no way am I writing off traditional training altogether. There is still a need for carismatic speakers, who know how to inspire masses of people when heard and seen live, in person. I also believe that getting a breather away from a hectic working schedule, and networking in real life also play an important role in teachers' lives every now and then. But for the most part, why get involved in all the wasted time in travel when you can just as well lern many things online, more time- and cost-effectively?

My point to my colleagues was that to develop new learning environments, we need to have first-hand experience of new types of learning ourselves! One problem for us is that there is relatively few opportunities on offer in Finnish. It will also be a challenge to inform and motivate teachers about the benefits compared to old-style training. It takes a lot of self-directedness from teachers to seek out these opportunities, often in their own time. It is no wonder that our students wait to be spoon-fed by others if we teachers expect the same.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The difficulty to 'ship'

After reading 'Linchpin' during the summer holiday, I have become a regular fan of Seth Godin's short and insightful blog posts.

The idea of 'shipping', getting things moving and done, is central in 'Linchpin'. Over the summer, I have hardly shipped anything in this blog. Procrastination, the eternal excuse of being busy with other things, or maybe closer to the truth, a certain disenchantment with my profession in general, and my personal calling as a teacher. Several reasons have contributed to this feeling, and in the end, all inspiration seems to elude me.

This week, Seth Godin's blog post 'Finding inspiration instead of it finding you' was exactly what I needed. As it's so easy for me, as a teacher, to let inspiration fade, how easy is it then for students who feel bored with school!
if you're not inspired, it's not your fault if you don't ship, it's not your fault if you don't do anything remarkable--hey, I don't have any good ideas, you can't expect me to speak up if I don't have any good ideas...
I will remember this next time a student hides behind the pretense of 'I don't know' or the 'couldn't care less' shrug. As for myself, I will remember Seth's advice on blogging:
Do it every day for a month, one new, actionable idea each and every day. Within a few weeks, you'll notice the change in the way you find, process and ship ideas.

Monday, 28 June 2010

It was good as long as it lasted

WARNING: This will be a sour grapes rant!

July will start in a few days. And with that, I will finally have to make up my mind what to do with my couple of Ning networks. The latest email from the Ning Team tells me the following:

I had been led to believe earlier that the Mini deal would be free for all schools, but it now turns out that since I'm outside North America, I will have to start paying, even for Ning Mini. Actually, even free Ning Mini wouldn't have helped me with my international projects, which I have been running for the last three years, as the membership has exceeded the 150 allowance of Ning Mini. However, I was hoping to still be able to run smaller projects free, even after the Ning changes took place.

I know, I should have seen this coming. There is no free lunch. Even so, I feel I've been given a rotten deal here. My school won't pay to keep the old Nings running, nor to start any new ones. I was told to go back to the platform my school offers - Moodle. There was a reason why I abandoned Moodle three years ago, though. Ning was so much more user-friendly, and appealing to young people. I know, even more reason why we should pay for using such a slick service! But I don't think it will now be an option for many in the public school systems outside the US. In principle, I am not willing to start paying for the school Nings out of my own pocket. Many people say that it's not the tools, it's what you do with them. Quite right, but after driving a sportscar with all the modern bells and whistles, it won't be so much fun being behind the wheel of a basic saloon again. School will once again be further removed from what the real world has to offer.

Another unfortunate consequence is losing the 'digital footprint' created in the earlier projects. Naturally, I have got some screenshots and statistics, plus presentations I have made about the projects, but most of the student work will just disappear into thin air. True, the quality of all of some of the student work leaves a lot to be desired, and I'm sure the Internet is already bursting with too much 'virtual waste'. But as a teacher, being able to refer to what has been done before, might be worthwhile in the future. International school project work is a continuous process, and documentation of it an essential part of moving ahead. Not to mention the transparency factor of anybody being able to see and assess the work online. What's more, I feel responsible for all the partner schools around the world, all the hard-working teachers and students, who have invested their faith and trust in this project, and who will now see all their efforts wasted. Many of them will lose the links they have created to the project site from their school webpage.

Looking at this map, I'm now wondering if it might be different if some of our partners were in North America? There is already talk about Finns creating their own social network services, in order to keep all the copyright and other issues strictly inside our own borders. How does that support the idea of bringing the world closer together, and more globalized education?

I am not looking forward to starting to decide how much, what and in what format to save some of the work of last year's project. I could think of better things to do during my summer holiday.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Reflecting on problem solving

I've made a decision to re-energize my reflection routines in this blog. So here I go with the first reflection about the just finished school year.

At the beginning of the summer holiday it suddenly dawned on me that, for the last months of the school year, probably even longer, fun had seeped out of school. David Hamilton wrote about reflection in his blog, and said the following: 
In fact, it is often the emotion – whether it takes the form of doubt, puzzlement, or distress – that drives people to engage in reflection.
So true. I realize I have felt distressed for quite some time. Tired of classroom situations with big (over 30 for me is big), very heterogeneous groups that pose such a challenge, even with my years of experience.

More specifically, my problem are students, the vast majority boys, who are bright but thoroughly bored day after day, and who finally start giving trouble. They come to our school at 16 with a good basic knowledge and understanding of English, but with the unfortunate attitude of thinking that they know it all, or at least enough, and thus they absolutely don't need to do anything to learn more. I despair when I see them wasting all their promising potential, and underachieving in the end, because studying as we present it to them, simply isn't their cup of tea.

I know it seems to be a pattern in certain young boys' world that, above all, you need to be cool, and avoid being seen as a swot. With English, though, the learning never ends. It's a wonderful language with such a wide and colourful vocabulary, with a startling variety of nuances you can express with it, that the learning will never end. Yet, that kind of middle-aged female teacher's passion about the language won't stimulate these young rebels. Neither does it help that half of the class have been almost totally immune to understanding even the basic structure of a foreign language, and valuable time is spent trying to help them to at least the minimum passing level.

But all this is just old, repetitive complaints and moaning about the undesirable situation. It is not going to lead to anything. The question is: what am I going to do to make it better next year? Nobody else is going to solve this problem for me, nor is my school willing to adopt a concerted effort to change things. I need to wake up and smell the coffee, and keep reflecting to be able to move on and design a new action plan before the next school year begins.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Time for a make-over

Three years on, I feel the need to do something new about this blog. I know cosmetic changes don't do a lot alone, but as Blogger now has these nice new templates, why not give my blog a new look.

So bye-bye old, static style.

And welcome this modern, more lively feel of transparent pictures. I may soon want to customize this style, though, after seeing too many exactly similar blogs around. First of all, I need to think of a different, better fitting title picture. But all that can wait.

My main priority for now, hopefully inspired by the new look, is to renew my blogging practices. I have been far too neglicent lately. Blame it on being busy with other things - school exchanges abroad and return visits to our school, to start with. Yet, it's all down to better planning and time management. I want to get in the routine of more frequent, and maybe improvised, blogging, because it truly is a very valuable and effective way of reflecting, which I find necessary in the teaching profession.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Together across continents

This year's virtual AEC-NET project culminated in a grand finale, when we were lucky to receive a group of 15 students and 1 teacher from St. Mark's Senior Secondary Public school in New Delhi, India, for a one-week home-stay student exchange visit in May.

When young people from such different cultures come together, a lot of negotiation is needed to find the compromises required for mutual understanding and alleviation of culture shock. I am convinced that there is no other way to learn intercultural communication than be thrown in at the deep end, and with careful guiding and debriefing gradually become aware of and learn to appreciate other ways of being and doing things.

As always, it was the genuinely collaborative activities that were the most fruitful. Anyone organising student exchanges should remember to minimize touristy 'showing and telling' things, and rather make students mix and solve problems together as much as possible. It was heart-warming to see our student help their Indian friends who tried ice-skating for the first time.

Introducing some of the sights in town was more fun when done in the form of a treasure hunt competition, where our students were just as ignorant members of the mixed teams, and the tasks needed a lot of collaboration.

The joint assembly brought our whole school together to enjoy a colourful and diverse show of dances and music from both countries. It ended with the song 'We are the world', sung by our school choir together with one Indian singer. You may think the whole idea rather twee, but for me, at that moment, joining in the chorus made the lyrics ring truer than ever. Enjoy!

Find more videos like this on WHAZZUP? 2009-2010

Friday, 9 April 2010

IWB entered the classroom

Recently, our school has invested heavily in IWBs. In principle, I am all for getting new technology into schools as it challenges me to stop and think, and maybe look at the classroom and the whole learning experience from a new perspective. In my school, teachers don't have their own classroom but share different rooms at different times. Anyone could sign up as a volunteer to start using the IWB rooms, and I jumped at the chance together with some of my colleagues.

What I like about it

I have now used the IWB for 6 weeks. It's nice, for many practical reasons. For example, a lot of the clutter on the teacher's desk is gone - among other things, the fiddly separate speakers connected to the teacher laptop. These are essential language teacher's equipment, and now the speakers are neatly on the wall as part of the IWB.

It does save my time when I don't have to prepare OHPs or PowerPoint presentations anymore to present the correct answers of textbook exercises, but can use the course book publisher's website and the curtain application to gradually reveal the lines. I can use the coloured markers to highlight certain points, or construct something in collaboration with the group - even ask the students to come to the board or use the slate to add something on the board. Mind you, it takes some getting used to the delay with which the markers work, and certain software don't allow the use of the markers at all, but all these are just little hitches that you just need to familiarize yourself with. It’s the same with getting used to any new tools.


In our school, wiring has been a nightmare. Once, I and colleagues spent a long time trying to trouble-shoot why the laptop couldn't find the connection to the IWB. We clicked every possible button, reinstalled programmes - all to no avail. Finally, we realized that one of the many extension wires along the floorboards had been disconnected - possibly by custodians, while cleaning. Just one of the many hair-splitting instances when lesson plans have had to be scrapped. One colleague complained that he had resorted to preparing OPH transparencies as plan B, just in case the IWB didn't cooperate! Teething problems, partly, I'm sure. But this uncertainty and need to learn a lot of new technical details is enough to put some colleagues off using the board at all, especially as in our school, we don't have the luxury of a full-time ICT person to help out if needed. An extra challenge is that there are different IWBs in different classroom, each with their own peculiarities to learn and get used to. I would possibly do more if I could use the same board for all my lessons.

What is pedagogically new?

As for the pedagogical advantages of the IWB, I must say I am still looking for the real 'interactive' element so much hyped about yet. And I am still waiting for the WOW effect. We have had a few training sessions with experienced IWB users or vendor reps revealing their secrets. So far, all they have been able to show is very simple exercises and games, mostly for the primary school level. I have no doubt about how the use of the IWB motivates very young students and brings lessons to life. But I'm afraid that isolated magic tricks, or funny little things you can do with all the gizmos of the board won't cut it at the high school level any more. So far, I haven’t been able to see or fathom for myself really well-planned, pedagogically reasoned high school lessons, where the IWB considerably facilitates student learning. I need a spark to start even imagining what it can do for me and my students. Straight away, I fell into the trap of just trying to force the new tool into old-style lesson plans. I often find myself just using IWB an electronic version of the old OHP, and then get totally disillusioned about the mere cosmetic changes it makes in the lessons. It's clearer, more colourful, and easier to use (when it works!), but that's all. It still boils down to reassessing what LEARNING is supposed to be today, and how to activate students to take charge of and get passionate about their own learning. The IWB is no automatic solution to this. I need to know what to do first!

Networking and some progress

To find inspiration, I started looking for online peer support groups. And as often happens, within no time I had joined the Interactive whiteboard revolution Ning, created by Australian educator Chris Betcher, whose Betchablog I was already familiar with. There are already close to 1,300 members on the Ning, mostly from Australia and the US. I spotted a discussion about IWB use in high school, initiated by Julie Lecoq from France. Julie is is doing research on the gains of IWB use in schools. I didn't really find any more concrete ideas in the discussion thread but a lot of confirmation to my initial thoughts about no magic formulas for IWB use but a need for new, innovative, creative thinking to benefit from these expensive tools.

I did have one lesson where I saw a glimpse of something new, thanks to the IWB in the class. We had been doing an online photo project on Flickr, and in the last lessons of the course, I asked students, in pairs, to give their feedback on e.g. what they had learned, found interesting, what pictures and what writing had made an impression on them. They got really involved in doing this, and I was happy to see a lot of negotiation and collaboration taking place in the computer room while they were preparing. When we got back to our classroom to share their presentations, I was surprised to see the students using the IWB very creatively, and with no teacher guidance or pre-training needed! Interacting with each other and the board really made a difference to their presentations.

Baby steps, need for patience and perseverance and a gradual learning curve in store for me.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Second impressions of school in Singapore

After my first impressions, I will now write a couple of thoughts about what I observed in the lessons I attended during the student exchange, and what ideas I, as a teacher, brought back.

I was surprised to see how similar many of the teaching practices were compared to our schools in Finland. The more student-centered approach seemed to be the norm in most of the lessons I observed. Instead of sitting rigidly in straight rows only facing the teacher and listening to him/her, students did a lot of problem solving in small groups, just like I and some colleagues have started doing in our lessons lately. Our students were asked to join them in their groups, and it was nice to see the interaction start after they had managed to break the ice.

I wanted to find out about incorporating ICT, since the work my AEC-NET colleagues had showcased at several conferences was always of such superior quality. The classrooms and the whole school seemed to be very similarly equipped as our school - a data projector in most classrooms. Some teachers actively used ICT in their teaching, others not so much - familiar story. (NB. I only observed a few lessons during one week, so I shouldn't really draw any general conclusions. These are simply my personal impressions.) But when you think about it, a data projector only serves as a modern replament of the chalk board or the OHP if it is only used by the teacher to show and demonstrate things to students. I have seen this reality in schools in many countries. We think we are up-to-date and doing something new when in fact, we are just doing the same old thing in a slightly flashier fashion.

Each Pioneer teacher is given a personal laptop by the school, something that only a few schools in Finland have managed so far. Instead, we have one teacher laptop in each classroom that all the teachers using the room share.

Just like in our school, Pioneer Secondary had a separate computer room that teachers could book to use for their classes whenever they wanted, provided that the room was vacant. We attended a lesson where students were doing their AEC-NET project work. I was very impressed to see how self-directed and active the students were in their small groups. The teacher was available to help and facilitate but the students mostly worked very independently and confidently, and they were only 13-14 years old. It really showed me what education at its best could be today. The students were doing research on ecotourism, and then uploading the results of their work online to share with project partners in other countries.

Pioneer Secondary has invested in a whole school platform, called iCollaborate, which they have used for all the students' project work for many years. Basically, similar to Moodle that our school provides as an overall platform. The advantage of the whole school using one platform is, of course, that it is easier to train teachers to use just one system, and simpler to manage it on the whole. The downside then is that standard solutions don't please adventurous teachers, who soon want to jump outside the box and try something more user-friendly or versatile. Personally, I find these platforms restrictive and dull compared to what social media tools are on offer these days, but that's just my preference.

I had a chance to talk to the head of the ICT department, Ms Ling, at Pioneer Secondary to share ideas. She told me that because most of their staff are quite young, they are perhaps a bit keener to incorporate ICT in their lessons, as it is an integral part of their own lives, too. For this reason, she also said that most of the teachers using ICT are quite confident and self-directed, and thus don't need her help a lot. Yet she is there to help and assist all the teachers, which again brought home one thing I feel is terribly neglected in many Finnish schools, and which I have mentioned many times before - the fact that Finnish schools don't invest in employing a full-time pedagogically and technically qualified person to help teachers, as was the case in Pioneer. I want to add, though, that I tend to reject the ageist idea of teachers' ICT use - considering myself as an exception to the preconception that older teachers can't be 'digital natives'. But, of course, there is no denying the fact that ICT tends to be a more integral part of the lives of the younger generations, which is bound to have an effect on schools once some of today's youngsters become teachers.

I totally agree with Ms Ling's vision that you can't force any teacher to use ICT. Instead, the will to use it must spring from a pedagogical need whereby the teacher realizes that to facilitate good student learning today, at times ICT is the only means of doing it. She also pointed out that their aim was not technology for technology's sake, but a down-to-earth, sensible approach, where technology enhances student learning. Sounded very wise to me! I asked her about the use of IWBs, which my school has heavily invested in lately, but which I didn't see at Pioneer at all. Interestingly, she said they had looked into them but concluded that they didn't offer anything drastically better or different than what you could accomplish with a computer and a data projector! I have only started to learn to use one in our school, and so far I tend to agree with her.

From a teacher's point of view, one of the very rewarding and enlightening sides of organising international student exchanges is being able to see different schools, and learn from their good practices, to have something to take back to your own school. I only wish, schools would be more open to good ideas from outside, even unusual and radical ones, and not be such closed and immutable national fortresses.

It is also great to network and make friends with overseas teachers. We had the privilege of working with a wonderful educatior, Ms Yuen Chai Lin, who worked incredibly hard to make our stay comfortable and exciting - even extending her hospitality to opening her home to me and my colleague to stay in. This gave us an extra glimpse to the Singaporean culture. We can never thank her enough for all her friendliness and considerateness, and for untiringly sharing the Singapore customs with us, and explaining anything we were curious about.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Why do I do student exchanges?

International school projects and exchanges have been a central part of my career for over ten years. Every so often, I start weighing the pros and cons, and questioning the point behind it. After another such exchange, this time taking eight students to Singapore on a return visit after hosting a group of Singaporean students two years ago, it is a good time to reflect and take stock again.

My philosophy behind the value of such exchanges hasn't changed in all these years. I have quoted this before, but after many more exchanges, it is even truer than before:
“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)
First-hand experience, even if brief, of a place always gives you a better insight than any book or virtual tour ever could. No other means so far allows you to holistically immerse yourself in the new environment, using all your senses. This is why, whenever the opportunity arises, I jump at the chance of taking students on home stay visits to partner schools ourside Finland. Getting a glimpse into the host student's home and family life, and taking part in the daily school activities opens their eyes much more, and forces them to work out a way of participating in a strange culture and getting along and collaborating with very different people. This is something you can totally miss out on, or avoid on a touristy visit.

One of the fundamental roles of such school exchanges is to sensitise students to seeing the relativity of phenomena in the world, and the fact that if something is different from what they are used to, it is not automatically stupid or wrong. It is essential to have frequent reflection sessions with the students, and try to open up new perspectives and ways of perception and understanding for them. First impressions of a new place are so often based on stereotypes, and even reinforce such preconceptions. This is where a teacher can guide the students towards a more rounded and open mindset in new situations.

Being thrown into a host family, with totally different customs, possibly religion, and a foreign language is daunting to many students. Approaching Changi airport after our almost 24-hour journey, almost palpable nervousness started spreading amongst our students. What will I say when I first meet my host family? How will I feel, will I be able to eat the food, will I feel isolated and alone? All these questions and many more were criss-crossing our students' young minds, as this was the first time for most of them to travel without their own families. In the end, they all pulled through wonderfully, even despite the age difference between them and their hosts, who were 3-4 years younger. I was really proud of all of their adaptability, and I hope they all got lots more self-confidence and a sense of being able to cope.

One more significant advantage in these exchanges is the chance for students to practice oral communication skills, which will most likely be called for in their future careers. During each exchange, students are expected to present something in a foreign language, usually a talk about their culture and background. We always prepare these presentations as a team, practice them together, and students really rise to the challenge and shine when the time comes. In Singapore, it was wonderful to see their confidence and pride after a successful performance in front of a huge audience.

Many colleagues think I must be crazy to get into so much trouble and extra work without any extra pay. Maybe so. However, I feel I'm on a mission, which can't be completed inside the closed foreign language classroom at school. It is not uncommon for Finnish people, with almost perfect passive knowledge of English, to suffer from 'a reduced personality syndrome' when having to use English. They do brilliantly in isolated, written language exams, but are totally unable to adapt that knowledge into creating a fruitful and pleasant communication situation with real people. Overcoming this disability is my mission - for me, as much as for my students. After our week in Singapore, I am happy to say that we proved that Rudyard Kipling wasn't quite right in writing: "east is east, and west is west, and never the two shall meet..." For a short period, we did bring them closer together!

As before, we kept an online travel blog during the exchange for families and friends at home. Unfortunately, it's only in Finnish.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

First impressions on a school exchange to Singapore

What did I know about Singapore before taking eight students there on a homestay exchange in our partner school in February, 2010? Scattered facts only, really. I was aware that the tiny city state had almost the same population as Finland, so I was expecting to be overwhelmed by crowds. The teachers I had got to know over the years of AEC-NET collaboration had struck me as highly efficient, hard-working and dedicated to their mission. Having visited Malaysia a couple of times, I had been told that the ethnic make-up of Singapore was quite similar, with the exception of English being the official language of Singapore, and Singapore not being a muslim state. Further, during a stop-over at Changi airport on my way to Indonesia, I had been impressed by the shiny, airy, well organised and extremely clean environment. No wonder, Changi was voted as the world's best airport this year! And of course, I had heard about the 'no chewing gum' law, and been warned about their strict fining culture by the local Finnish Embassy. Oh, and I had heard of the famous Singapore sling coctail at Raffles hotel.

On the first morning at Pioneer Secondary School, we were greeted by the 4 main languages of Singapore right at the school gate: Malay, Chinese, Tamil and the official language of education, English. Each student also attends lessons in their home language, so most of the students are at least bilingual, which is quite impressive.

Each school day starts in the school yard, with a tangible community spirit, often missing in our school. All students, dressed in their white uniforms, in orderly lines, watch the flags go up, sing the national anthem and say the pledge. The first morning, there was also a welcoming ceremony for us foreign visitors.

After this routine, there is a quiet reading session for half an hour, during which all the students sit on the ground, and read something in English. Teachers go round checking that everybody has the right texts, and if not, they are sent to stand and be ashamed at the back of the yard. Obedience, impeccable, gracious behaviour, knowing your role and place - at first glance, at least these struck me as driving values in this school.

Our students really stood out like sore thumbs in the orderly white crowd. In fact, they had considerable trouble seeing anything positive in school dress codes, which are almost non-existent in our school. Girls having to tie their hair back, no flip-flops, no revealing spagetti straps - it was finally beginning to dawn on them that this really was not a holiday in an exotic destination but a working trip to represent our country and to respect the culture of the host school. An excellent lesson for our students coming from an individualistic, relatively free and easy, express yourself and your individuality, do as you wish school culture.

Not only were the school values implied by the daily routines but they were visibly present all around the school. You have already seen the vision of the school - Passionate learners, gracious citizens - in previous photos. Behind the podium you can read the school mission: We provide opportunities for students to develop their potential and be competent, caring and responsible individuals who will contribute effectively to society.

The underlying school values were high up on another wall around the main school yard.

And even above the main entrance there were words to indicate what the role of this school is in society.

I liked this idea of prominent, transparent missions and values. It's in great contrast to our system, where similar words may be written in a curriculum that dusts away in a folder that nobody ever looks at. The place and role of education in our society is largely taken for granted, and only implicitly present all the time. It might not be a bad idea to try to crystallize and publicly announce certain ideals to the school community and society at large. Interestingly, our students thought that having so many written slogans around the school was rather propagandist brainwashing, and they wondered if anyone ever truly looked at them or read them. Once again, two very diffirent cultural practices collided.

The concept of learning environments is big in Finland at the moment. Our Ministry of Education is currently generously funding projects to develop and diversify the learning environment. In Pioneer Secondary, I observed many great initiatives that seemed to be a natural part of Singapore schools without any separate projects. For example, all the schools we visited had a green, open plan - for obvious climatic reasons.

As we are closed inside the school building to keep warm half of the year, being able to sit outside all through the year, seemed a lovely idea. We realized very soon, though, why Singaporeans would rather escape into air-conditioned buildings in a constantly hot and humid climate.

Singapore schools seemed to be very target driven, from top to bottom, and all their achievements were proudly displayed around the school.

Instilling the community spirit was also enhanced by allowing students to contribute to their physical school environment.

I was truly impressed by all this student team effort, and convinced that it really improves the students'
ownership of their learning environment.

One more thing that caught my attention, like in many other foreign schools before, was the involvement of parents in the school community. In a Finnish high school (for 16-19-year-olds) parents have no role whatsoever, other than coming to school once a year for a formal information session where they are, to a large extent, just passive recipients listening to the teachers' lectures. In Pioneer Secondary, we saw some parents at school every day, they came along to some of our excursions, and some of them ran their food stalls in the school cafeteria. This mother's noodles were the favourites for many of us.

Naturally, our students were surprised by the school lunctime routines, which were so different from our standard, one-course, free of charge school meals. Having a choice of all the different ethnic cuisines really appealed to them, although they did realize that the variety and choice came at a price.

In hindsight, now, I feel that despite the major differences highlighted in this post, there were surprisingly many similarities in the working cultures of Singaporean and Finnish schools. But those will be the topic of another blog post.

I miss the buzzing, lively, pastel-coloured Pioneer community that opened the door to Singaporean culture to us and welcomed us so heart-warmingly. In a week, you can only scratch the surface, so I am looking forward to another visit to this fascinating city state - to find the time to try the Singapore sling, too, which I missed during this first visit. While waiting for that chance, I can reminisce by looking at this beautiful batik painting by one of the Pioneer students, which was presented to us, and now brings colour to the wall of our school hallway.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Through global lenses

February snow on the ground in Finland and in the background quite a mismatch of a business idea. Possibly an attempt at a global feel with the stereotypical Aussie icons plus the name Sydney, although I suspect this place has nothing to do with Australia otherwise. After all, they serve Italian pizza and Turkish kebabs, washed down with, whatever else than the epitome of globalization - American coca cola.

This is very much the reality in my country, where using English or global references are considered a sign of success. I can well understand the backlash from many Finns, who become very protective towards anything domestic and want to support nothing but Finnishness and Finnish products, language included.

Many of my high school students also feel this way. Although, on the surface, they love travelling, have dreams of spending some of their lives abroad, and seem to prefer many international brands and ideas, when it comes to learning English, their defenses zoom up and they strongly cling to their right to speak and use Finglish - a variant of the global lingua franca with a strong Finnish accent. And, of course, they are welcome to do so. The only problem may be that (as I have blogged before) they may be unnecessarily misunderstood among native English speakers, wrongly considered a little bit dumb perhaps, and not get out of communicative situations what they would like. I wonder if it's all to do with a certain inferiority complex we may, sometimes unconsciously, suffer from. Native English speakers have a clear advantage compared to us, and we find it hard to come to terms with it, especially if we have worked hard for years, and reached a fairly good level in English.

The photo bringing Finland, Australia and America together is very relevant for me right now, as I am just about to embark on a novel pilot project with two teachers on opposite sides of the world, but both in English-speaking countries - one in Australia and the other one in the States. We are going to run a photo sharing project with our students for 8 weeks, in which students upload a weekly photo assignment with a written description in our Flickr group and comment on other students' contributions. It will be very interesting to see how it will all work out, particularly from the language point of view. How will my students feel conversing with native English speakers, and will they be able to be sensitive enough not to label people based only on their limited EFL skills. A lot of intercultural learning opportunities for all participants, I feel.

I must say I am in awe at the efficiency, enthusiasm and initiative my two newly-met foreign colleagues have demonstrated! Setting this project up in such a short time (only about a month!) is potent evidence at the power of online teacher networks for the benefit of student learning.

Map photo by colemama on Flickr

Friday, 5 February 2010

How to assess learning - that is today's burning question

At the start of a new exam week, assessment is on my mind again. It seems that it is being reviewed and discussed in Finland as well as abroad. Just yesterday I received the following comment from Susan van Gelder in Montreal:
There is a lot of talk here about assessment of learning and assessment for learning. In the latter the student also plays a role in assessment, reflecting on their learning, their strategies and setting goals.
And then today, looking through some of the Finnish educators' social networking sites, I came across exactly the same topic. Referring to my previous thoughts about standard assessment in Finnish high schools, I welcome all these ideas about focusing more on self-reflection, peer assessment and the role of assessment as a means to enhance learning. It's a clichéd statement that assessment guides what is learned. So it would make sense to assess what is worth learning, wouldn't it?

Another point that keeps coming up in connection with assessment is the use (or rather the absence!) of new technology for assessment purposes. In my 365 photo blog, I shortly touched on this topic inspired by the classroom reality during exams. We don't use technology in exams, period. It's the old paper and pencil method. For that exam photo I received an interesting comment from Marie Coleman, in Lorenzo Walker Technical High School, in Naples, Florida:
...most of our high school students exams are provided online, so laptops do replace the traditional paper and pen!

I guess I'm not convinced that the written exam is a way to assess learning - what about projects, multimedia, authentic assessment? Perhaps that is too unrealistic or unwieldy, but that is the way I would prefer to see the focus with or without technology (i.e., technology itself is not the focal point, but will likely be of use due to its ubiquity!).
On second thoughts then, I realized that we do use something new -

- these wireless headphones for the listening comprehension tests in foreign languages. But as you can see, it's the old bubble sheets for the answers. The headphones don't really offer anything new - they are just a crutch, and actually make the situation totally unauthentic - as do the structure and content of these tests and the multiple choice questions. Nothing new under the sun in the field of school assessment. Even I succumbed to the old testing format yet again, despite all my good intentions. The students did do portfolio work throughout the course, and part of the exam was their own self-assessment on this work, but that's as far as my innovation has reached.

I do agree with Marie, and so many others, that it is not the technology per se that is going to revolutionize (or even slightly improve) assessment, and education in general. Clearly, assessment needs much more time and focused and collaborative faculty planning.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

EDUCA fair in Helsinki

Yesterday I visited EDUCA, the largest educational fair in Finland. For two days, hundreds of vendors, educational organizations and interest groups had set up their booths to promote the latest trends in education.

IWBs were prominently displayed as a must in any classroom these days.

This particular company marketed the concept of ActivClassroom, but looking at these people here, I couldn't help wondering what was so active about it? Looks very much like a glorified version of the old teacher-centred demonstration devices. In my school, we will get a few new IWBs in February, and one of my goals for this school year is to learn to use one. I am interested in seeing if I will be able to find the much hyped, revolutionary, interactive element in it. New technology is only any good if it shakes stuck-in-a-rut pedagogical practises, too.

My most interesting insight at the fair came from a lecture by Professor Andy Hargreaves from Boston college. In his engaging and humorous lecture he went through some of the educational policy changes in the last 50 years, and introduced his latest recipe for school systems of today, 'The Fourth Way'. He had labelled each policy with different planets. So from the lovey-dovey Venus 60s and 70s, he took us through the Mars years of the 80s to the present Mercury atmosphere of imposed targets and data-driven accountability. And then he left us thinking about the fourth way, illustrated by the Earth.

He had been specially commisioned to do some research on Finland and our much praised educational system. His dream for us was the following: build on our heritage and reputation for being one of the most inclusive nations in the world (e.g. gender equality, including disabled students in mainstream classes) and extend this to be know as the world leading country of cultural diversity. That will be a challenge for a country that has been very homogeneous for so long, and is now finding it terribly hard to come to terms with the arrival of more and more immigrants in the last decade.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

It's a small world

It sure is a small world in this photo from a bird's eye perspective, inspired by today's Daily Shoot assignment #ds72. It seems to be that from any perspective in my life at the moment. The new year has started with a lot of serendipitious net connections - all thanks to Tania, alias @tsheko, and her legendary photoblog from last year, threesixtyfivephotos. Tania had taken part in the challenge of posting at least one photo per day for the entire year, and also uploaded them with interesting commentary in her blog. This is where I got the idea of starting my own 365-project this year. Not only did I become a member of the EdTech 365/2010 group on Flickr, but I also decided to run a separate blog alongside the Flickr collection.

Almost a month into it now, and I seem to have abandoned most of my other online activities in favour of the engaging conversations on Flickr. I haven't written anything in this old blog of mine, nor have I had more than an occasional quick glance at Twitter since before Christmas. I have had to admit that I'm not much good at online multitasking, especially with an increasing load of offline duties as well. Curiously, my online presence seems to develop in varying bouts of enthusiasm, but mostly with maximum 2 different bouts at any one time. It's good to know your limitations, as not everybody can be an almost 24/7 net communicator.

My activity in Flickr has paid off big time, though. I have made many wonderful new contacts, and right now it seems that I am jumping right into organizing a small-scare student photo exchange experiment with Tania (from Melbourne, Australia) and Marie, a.k.a. as @colemama on Flickr (from Naples, Florida). Think about it, 3 women educators from so far away, on three continents, suddenly finding each other, and, more or less on the spur of the moment, setting up a joint action plan! Isn't it amazing?

Even more amazing was that today, despite the big time differences, I managed to quickly have a real-time conversation with Tania on gmail, just by chance! It sure is a small world!

More about this endeavour as things begin to unfold.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Language teaching stereotypes

We have an annual school marketing evening where prospective new students come to see what our school might have to offer them. In our school system, it is at the age of 16 that students make a big choice between a more academic senior high school and different vocational schools. In areas where there are several high schools to choose from, there is a serious competition between them to attract the best possible students to their school.

This month we organized this evening again for 2010. After a general info session in the school cafeteria, the visiting students and their parents then go around to school to see different classroom and meet all the various subject teachers to be able to learn about studying at our school. Different subject departments go into great lengths to decorate the classroom and make their subject look interesting and attractive.

All us foreign language teachers shared one classroom - English, Swedish, German, French, Russian and Italian.

For English, apart from the candles that are there just to look pretty, there is a London taxi and double decker bus, plus all the textbooks used. Doesn't give a very vibrant and modern image of language classes, does it? Wouldn't you like to know what is actually done in the lessons, how the students learn, possibly what new technology is used to enhance their learning? How could we move beyond the old touristy stereotypical clichés to present a language?