Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Blogging with students 1

This school year, I am experimenting with a totally different approach to language learning. I will try blogging with students, either through a joint course blog, in which students will write one or two assignments, or through individual student blogs, which will eventually be a kind of whole year's online English portfolio. In the Finnish senior high school system, the groups a teacher teaches change 5 times a year, and each course with a group only last 6-7 weeks. To make it worth the effort of setting individual blogs up in that system, all my English teacher colleagues should be willing to collaborate and do blog work. Last spring I envisioned setting up an individual blog for all first-graders, which they would then keep adding to all through the 3-4 years in our school, irrespective of who their teacher was. Unfortunately, my colleagues didn't buy the idea, so for the changing groups, I will have one class blog per course. Luckily, with the favourable support of my school administration, I was allowed to design three new courses that first-graders with advanced English skills could opt for. Here is some more background information for this experiment. I now have a small group of students who will stay with me all through this first year, and they are the ones that will have their individual blogs.

I set up a system of teacher blogs on Wordpress to coordinate all the different courses. Only time will tell if my system will be feasible, and work in practice! I did draw several mindmaps for myself, to maintain some logic in the system. Yet, I have already found some pitfalls in it, and will have to keep tweaking it.

I also set up a wiki, in which I will try to collect useful links and more general EFL tips that will hopefully be valid for years to come, too.

Setting everything up takes a fair amount of time but I feel quite excited about it all. It pushes me to think about foreign language teaching and learning in a much wider context. Simply following the textbook, and the teacher's material accompanying it, won't be enough any more!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

New school year - new approaches under construction

Pheww, it's been a while since I've posted anything here, for a variety of reasons. Mostly it's because of a loaded spring term with this, that and the other. I should know better to learn to say 'no' at times! I tend to pile on extra work and responsibilites, without thinking of the inevitable consequences, ie. tiredness, exhaustion and no time or energy for the so much needed reflection.

But all that aside, it's the beginning of the school year, in which our first-graders will shift into 1:1 laptop learning. Two weeks back at school, and no sign of the shiny new tools yet! Also, a brand-new learning management system was to be implemented for the teachers during the summer break, to facilitate the transition into some kind of blended learning/teaching. But even that is still in the development phases, and not ready to use! It will probably be rather chaotic, introducing such big changes in the middle of a grading period, when everybody has already started off as usual. Oh well! When would anything go according to schedule in schools? What's more, the new media class, which is being constructed by covering our mostly unused inside yard, is still heavily under construction. And on top of everything, we don't even have working air-conditioning at the moment, and are suffering from the last heatwaves of the summer. Business as usual, in a school environment, I guess! 

This space will, hopefully soon, be a new-style learning environment, not a standard boxy classroom

Nevertheless, I am quite excited about the changes the 1:1 environment will bring. I can feel some anxiety building amongst colleagues, though. Just today, there was talk in the staff room about doing a student poll to ask them how much and how exactly they would like to start using ICT in their learning. Although I am all for involving student in the decision-making as much as possible, I don't think following their preferences should be the sole guideline for designing new learning/teaching approaches. We teachers, as adults and educational experts, should have some initial direction in mind, shouldn't we? Many students tend to be rather conservative, and don't like to be shaken off their comfort zones (just as many of us teachers are, too). What if such a poll indicated that the majority of students are not that keen on using ICT at all? Would be abandon the whole thing then?

Last spring, some of my students reflected on their learning in their English essays, and I copied two revealing paragraphs:
I am a bit worried about the fact that next autumn every first-grade student in our high school will get their own computer and that the teaching will eventually be moved to the internet. Today's youngsters, including me, are already spending too much time online, so what will be the consequences of internet education? Will we forget individuals?
Here in our school we students use mini-laptops to "study" although what we really do is update our facebook. What kind of education is that?
Valid questions but also an indication of how much learning, UNlearning and rethinking lies ahead, for both us teachers and the students.