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Heads down = “real” work

We had a wonderful professional development session yesterday  by Ceri Jones on coursebooks.  It was a wonderful moment of querying the role of coursebooks in our classes and really thinking about how we use them.

We discussed what the coursebook means to us individually and the content of an ideal coursebook, looking at how our ideals compare to what the majority currently offer.  Then we went on to look at a specific two-page spread and talked about how we would teach that lesson – how we would Select, Adapt and Supplement the material (a healthy dose of SAS is important for every page of the coursebook!).

At this point, Ceri introduced us to Lindsay Clandfield‘s idea of “Heads Up, Heads Down and Heads Together” as a way of categorising the interaction patterns and activity types.  After the session, I was thinking further about this: about the variety within the class and, more importantly, what learners respond to.  We said during the session that as EFL teachers using a communicative methodology, we instinctively aim for more “heads together” activities as these encourage STT and really get the learners using the target language.  However, something that we’ve found, certainly in the extra-curricular classes we give in a local state school, is that learners respond particularly well to “heads down” activities.  Younger learners who are taught in a fairly strict, structured, “heads down” environment often struggle to recognise the boundaries of a more communicative “heads together” class, leading to classroom management issues because of noise, high energy levels and over-use of L1.  I wonder whether as well, because of their learning experience, they see more benefit in “heads down” activities or whether it’s simply a case of habit and expectations.

As always, it’s essential to have a balance of activities in every lesson.  But also, it’s important to keep those “heads down” moments to appeal to all our learners – those intrapersonal learners probably appreciate the chance to do an activity quietly and it may perhaps be their moment to shine as well.

Closer, closer…

I’ve just read this article about eliciting – it’s one of those teaching skills which I think I do well, but there’s always room for improvement and also it’s good to get a fresh perspective.

One of the points the article mentions early on is about standing close to students with quieter voices so that they don’t misinterpret you not hearing them as an incorrect answer.  This got me to thinking about instances where that has happened in my own classes – I can picture the faces of the students who are keen to volunteer an answer, but then look a little forlorn when I ask them to “say it again”.  Perhaps part of the problem is in my own response to not hearing them: I should say, “Can you repeat that, please?” rather than, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.  Can you say it again?”

This all ties in with classroom management – in this case, thinking about teacher (body) language, noise levels in the class and seating plans.  Do I sit the quieter students nearer me?  Do I make sure that each answer has everyone’s full, undivided attention?  Do I use the correct gestures and language when I don’t hear an answer?

I think the answer to all these question is “No”.

Hmmmm….something for me to think about…

Phonetic Fun

I’ve recently been doing some work with phonology with my 10-year-olds, trying to familiarise them with the phonetic alphabet.  A quick and easy way to raise awareness of English sounds is with a discrimination activity:

  • Divide the class into pairs and give each a mini-whiteboard.
  • Dictate a number of words to them.  The words should contain one of the two phonemes you want to focus on.
  • In whole group feedback, write the words on the board.
  • Then write up the two phonemes and tell learners to work in pairs to categorise each word according to the phoneme it contains.
  • After checking, you can either do some kinaesthetic controlled practice – such as jumping to one side or the other depending on the phoneme they hear – or a freer activity, such as using four of the words in a dialogue.

This activity is especially useful to highlight the spelling-sound difference, for example, /dʒ / in jeans and genius or /i:/ in beach, green or people.

Shark Attack…what happened next?

I’ve done the Shark Attack activity recently with a couple of groups and they really enjoy the task – it’s an easy, enjoyable, controlled practice activity of the past continuous.  However, I was doing a lesson today with past continuous and past simple and adapted the activity so learners would use both tenses.

The first part of the activity was the same: we brainstormed things to do at the beach and then I told them to draw the beach (I didn’t mention a shark) and then mingle to find out what their classmates were doing.  Once we had mingled and done some feedback, I told them to draw the shark and to think about what happened next.  There were some very inventive ideas:

Ana and Elena were swimming in the sea.  When the shark attacked, they died.

Or alternatively,

Álvaro and Carlos were playing football.  When the shark attacked, Álvaro jumped into the sea to save the girls and Carlos called the police.

And even…

Pepe was sitting under an umbrella.  When the shark arrived, he saw Pepe and they fell in love and moved to another country.

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Peer Observations

We have peer observations coming up as part of our school’s on-going professional development programme and in our most recent meeting we discussed the process.  Huge thanks to all my colleagues for such fabulous input!

How do you decide who or what to observe?

What’s your reason for wanting to observe?  What do you see as the desired outcome of the observation? You might want to observe:

  • Someone with the same level so you can compare and contrast, compare their progress against your own, get ideas for activities
  • Someone with a different level or age group which you haven’t taught before to gain a wider range of experience
  • Someone with a different teaching style
  • Someone with more experience in a certain area
  • Someone who is more recently qualified
  • Someone with a strength in a certain area

What do you need to do before the observation?

Once you know who you’re observing, it’s important to get together and establish your objectives for the observation.  Here are some questions to consider:

  • What is the observer specifically focussing on?
  • Is there anything which the teacher being observed would like specific comments on afterwards?
  • What role is the observer going to take during the observation?
  • Is there anything which it is useful to know about the class before the observation?

The joy of peer observation is that it is a two-way process, an opportunity for both teachers to forge connections and improve their teaching.  However, whilst the teacher being observed may not have a specific focus, it’s important before the observation to ascertain boundaries, so that the observer knows what kind of feedback the teacher would like.  The observer’s role should be that of a constructively interested friend and any feedback on the lesson should provide suggestions and support rather than criticism.

Whilst considering boundaries, the role of the observer during the lesson should also be carefully considered before the lesson: on the one hand a great deal can be learnt by becoming actively involved in the lesson, either as a “student” or assistant but peer observation should not be confused with peer teaching and it’s important as well to take time during the lesson “out of the lesson” so that you can adequately reflect on what’s happening at the time.

So, what should you do during the lesson?

Consider your focus for the observation, do you think a specific observation task would be useful?

You can find examples of observation tasks on the Internet:

Demand High ELT provide three in-depth observation tasks (and a fourth for self-observation)

This article from the TESOL-France Journal also provides a variety of tasks focussing on classroom interactions and instructions amongst other things

EF also provide a range of tasks, including post-observation reflection

Scrivener’s Learning Teaching (Macmillan, 2005) also has a number of classroom observation tasks in the appendix.  There is a pdf copy of the appendix here

And what about after the lesson?

  • Praise and thank the teacher
  • Reflect and perhaps work on an action plan
  • Share with colleagues

It’s essential to find a good chunk of time after the lesson: not so soon after that you haven’t had a chance to reflect, but soon enough that the lesson is fresh in your head.  As I mentioned before, the process of peer observation is an opportunity to forge connections and it’s a wonderful chance to sit down with someone who you perhaps only see in passing, in between lessons when you’re dashing to pick up copies or drop off a register; take this chance to go out for a coffee or a beer (or a gin-tonic) and chat about more than just the lesson.

This was my (brief) post on a previous peer observation experience, but looking back now I can remember how enjoyable the post-observation chat was as although it started as a focussed discussion on the lesson, it quickly expanded and developed, providing me with ideas for all sorts of classes, levels and ages.

But what’s the point?

Why go through this process?  It’s time-consuming for all involved and means a significant investment of both time and money on the pàrt of the employers…is it worth it?

To quote my boss, “This is about as professionally developmental as professional development gets.”

  • it provides reassurance and a refreshing outlook on our teaching
  • it encourages reflection and challenges the teacher
  • it’s an opportunity to share good practice
  • we learn through and from others
  • it promotes good staff dynamics and helps build relationships
  • it’s (hopefully) less stressful than a more formal observation
  • it’s inspiring
  • it reinforces our own methods and ideas
  • it’s a two-way process, everybody benefits from both observing and being observed