Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Writing Revolution

Just a short post about a fascinating article called The Writing Revolution. In short, it describes the successful attempt by a New York head teacher to improve grades in a failing school, by focusing on the reasons why students were so poor at writing and more or less forcing teachers to actually research their own learners' work, then come up with solutions.
It turns out that one of the key components of poor writing was, surprise surprise, poor literacy and poor understanding of features such as conjunctions and complex sentence structures. The school devised a regime where literacy skills were taught across the board, not just in English classes, with the outcome that learners were not just successful, they were more motivated overall.
So why write about this? Well, I could immediately see implications for my ESOL learners, and the way in which features such as conjunctions are taught. If you've ever picked up a bog-standard TEFL textbook, you'll probably know that basic things like 'and' 'so' and 'but' are dealt with in a relatively perfunctory style, and that more complex phrases such as 'even if', 'provided that', or 'rather than' don't make much of an appearance until Upper-Intermediate textbooks hove into view.
What if this is the wrong approach? I know from experience that the students who are most likely to go on to become really fluent users know how to handle relatively complex sentence structure, even from a quite low level of English, but that we shy away from teaching it as being 'too difficult'. Perhaps we should be encouraging students to actively engage with sentence complexity - after all, this is precisely what they would encounter in English out in The Wild, as it were. And in fact, by exposing them to these structures, we don't just help them with their writing, but also with dealing with texts - and we know from research that those who read more become more fluent. By teaching the different ways sentences can be constructed, we open the door to reading in English and thereby to greater confidence with handling the language overall.
It's also possibly a way to help students from certain cultural backgrounds with different literary structures and traditions to engage with the way that the English mind conducts arguments, debate etc.
Well, that's my take on it anyway. I'm going to have a little stab at it with some Entry 3 (pre-int to int) students and see what happens.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Padding on

Well, I've had the iPad for just over a week now, and thought I'd give a quick update on how well it's going- or not, as the case may be. And, in the ongoing spirit of being prepared to be disabused of any negative notions regarding all products Apple, I'm typing this on the iPad's keyboard.
To start with, I'm still impressed by the speed of the thing- it really is wonderfully responsive. I love how it renders pictures and documents- but this is all old hat. I can also see how it is extremely useful for carrying round large numbers of documents that you may need to access. Even the onscreen keyboard is pretty responsive- I'm managing to type this at almost normal typing speed, despite having to switch between keyboards.
What doesn't impress me is the fact that editing and text design are very cumbersome or nigh on impossible. I can edit a google doc in Cloudon, but the editing is done using a Word skin, and if I open the same document on the PC, I can't edit it straight away. This is annoying
, to put it mildly. I've also been trying out the video and audio capabilities of this thing, wondering whether they be good for embedding in our blended learning vile or as podcasts, only to run into the problem of Proprietory Formats. Why can't they be in .MP3 or .avi, or similar? Apple want us to share everything ( that's why it makes everything so easy to share), but only as long as everything is shared in the Apple Universe, rather than across universal formats. I'm also, being of a slightly older generation, somewhat wary of sharing my documents of dumping them in The Cloud- somehow it doesn't feel secure enough.
Anyway, back to more bread-and - butter issues -how useful is the iPad in class?
Answer so far - still Not A Lot. I can see direct uses in very small classes ( by which I mean one to one, or three or four students at most); I also think it has wonderful specialist applications for very young, very old, or infirm learners, or ones with Special Needs. I also used it with my five-year-old to practise writing the letters of the alphabet and simple spellings. Trawling the net for blogs and videos has proven rather uninspiring. Besides the tedious repetition, I end up coming across phrases such as, ' distribute your iPads evenly round the class....' Er, hello? Which planet do you live on? iPads? In an ESOL class? The only way that is going to happen is if the things get cheaper. A lot cheaper.
Yes, I can show videos by attaching it to a projector. Yes, I can store all my listening exercises on it, yes, I can project pages of work ya dah ya dah blah blah blah. But I can already do this anyway, and more importantly I can actually work with the materials rather than just gawp at them.
And that is my biggest bone of contention: this is mainly a device for consumption, not creation. It might be good for receptive skills in a limited way, but I really don't see how it is that much good for productive ones. In fact, I have my doubts about how efficacious it is for reading and listening. I get the feeling that the iPad is great for giving the illusion of permanence- a student might think that just because their learning is taking place on a nice shiny tablet, they are learning well, when in fact the opposite may be true - in fact, they are retaining less.
 There was a piece of research a year or two ago that suggested making students learn from a blackboard factually made them learn better, especially if the teacher had scruffy handwriting. The speculation was that the visual 'roughness' made the brain work harder at deciphering what was written, and therefore the learner ended up retaining information better. When you look at an iPad, or indeed any other tablet, everything is wonderfully glossy. I'm worried it's all so well- varnished that anything presented on it wil, end up slipping off the learner's brain entirely.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Alternative Grading Scales

I've been asked to be part of the Observation of Learning and Teaching team at my workplace, alongside acting as mentor for some new teachers. I love watching other teachers strut (or fail to strut) their stuff in class - it's always fascinating to see different group dynamics, and an opportunity to pick up ideas for teaching that I may nebver have considered, or indeed be reminded of things that I've forgotten or not used in a while. Last year's observations for my DELTA were great, although I (probably fortunately) didn't see any car crash jobs. A shame in a way, as a lesson Where All Your Shit Goes Tits Up makes for excruciatingly fun viewing, as well as giving a salutary example inasmuch as a) things can go belly up for anyone and b) things going wrong are often a better teacher of technique than things going right. My favourite buggered-up lesson involved a teacher losing the plot, getting sidetracked, then eventually pretending to be a seagull before perching on a table, squawking.

Anyway, being an observer inevitably involves paperwork, and feedback. Oh, lovely feedback: that moment when someone smiles at you as you both sit down in a room lit by fluorescent strip lighting, smiles even more brightly and says, 'So, how did YOU think your lesson went?', the you say what you thought, and hope that you aren't going to get a Shit Sandwich* back.

A lot of these feedback sessions involve someone saying, 'on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate that?', or something similar. B.O.R.I.N.G.
I was thinking about this the other day, and started wondering whether you could scale things in a different way. After all, getting teachers to be imaginative can only be a good thing, right?
So why not ask them something like this?

'On a scale of monday morning to saturday night, how good was that lesson?'

When you start to think about it, this makes a lot of sense, in a leftfield kind of way. An observed lesson should, in theory at least, be a typical lesson - how the teacher delivers the class on average, rather than the manically prepared, coiffed, perfumed, shaven, dolled-up confection of  a lesson that is the norm when you know that someone's coming in to take notes. I'd say, on this scale, anywhere between thursday at 11.30 a.m. and friday at 7 pm (with another bump on saturday between 1 and 6.30 pm) means it's a good lesson. Anything before thursday would be dull or below par; anything after friday 9.30 pm would be loud and overblown;  and saturday at 3 a.m. would be a lesson that's hoiking kebabs into the gutter.
Anyway, I'm going to give this a try, and devise some for marking student essays.
Probably something along the lines of

'On a scale of Beaker from the Muppets to Animal, how incomprehensible is this essay?'.

*Shit Sandwich: the act of an appraiser giving you feedback where they start and finish with positive comments, filling the bit in between with a steaming pile of criticism, invective and bile, as in:
'Well, I liked your class file. Unfortunately, your lesson went down worse than a drunken whore, and you are, quite frankly, a stain upon the entire teaching profession. However, I was glad to see that you have a nice tie on.'

Monday, 17 September 2012

101 uses for an iPad in the ESL classroom

....or are there?
Sorry about the title if you were expecting yet another breathless blog about how iPads/tablet computers were about to totally revolutionise teaching FOR EVER. From what I can see, most of these over-excited breathless scrawls are either a) written by people who don't have much teaching experience, and think the iPad is going to do all the work for them, b) poorly written, with plenty of formatting and spelling mistakes because they've been written on an, uh, iPad, or c) they've been written by people who are being paid to flog all sorts of pap.
Well, I've been given an iPad as part of the college's experiemnt in using iPads in a Further Education environment. The trial is called the iPad Trial, amazingly enough, and has been going for the past year. From what I've witnessed so far, the iPad Trial seems to largely consist of wandering around with an iPad, occasionally using the notepad function to take notes. In other words, it's like having the world's fanciest, most expensive clipboard.
Having said that, I've been very curious indeed about the possibilities of using tablets in education, all the more so since it was announced that tablet computers have apparently outstripped the sale of PCs in the States. And I'm always happy to have my assumptions disabused or indeed smashed to bits and stamped on. So I was glad indeed to get hold of a nice, shiny, slightly used iPad and invited to go forth and trial it.
First thoughts?
My GOD, it's nice. It has a nice heft to it, although I don't think I'd like to cart it around in one hand all day. I love its tactility: using a keyboard even after just a few minutes of literally stroking the iPad felt odd. It's a sleek, purring pussycat covered in velvet and butter. I started off by uploading all the really important apps - Angry Birds, Temple Run, BBC iPlayer and the Guardian. And again, MY GOD, this is one fast machine, and the display! Awesome! It really does make your average pc or netbook look like a plodder.
So far, so typical reaction - there is no doubt whatsoever that the ipad is one handsome beast, and like anyone else who's ever picked one up, I felt a real WOW! moment.
Then I decided to put it through its paces, and think how I could use it in class.
My immediate thought was that it would be a supremely useful device on 1-to-1 classes, and for CALL lessons for learners who had little or no experience with PCs. For example, we have a group of retired Gurkhas in the college this year, and I could see how using a device that uses instinctive gestures to navigate rather than using a mouse would be enormously helpful. I could also see how I could carry round video and audio files, PDFs and documents for easy access in class.
The trouble is, how do these actually teach, and how do they do the job better than a desktop PC in class, or indeed, a piece of paper and a CD?
I then turned to the College Moodle VLE - it looks beautiful on screen, yes, but what's this? I can't edit or add anything, because of course iPads don't support certain things like Flash. So I can look, but I can't touch, as it were.
I tried downloading an app for editing files - it allows me to edit Google Docs as word or Excel files, but - what's this? - if I try to edit the same files on a PC, Google Docs won't allow me to - I can, again, look but not touch!
And that's the thing, so far: The iPad is wonderful to behold, but when it comes down to it, it's not very productive - not with the written word, anyway: The music and art apps seem to be much more promising. It is mainly a thing for consumption of content, not its production, and that concerns me somewhat in language learning - you can't have one and not the other.
It's also a somewhat solipsistic experience. The iPad, or tablets in general (or, for that matter, and somewhat ironically, smartphones) are essentially about the individual user. To make the whole iPad thing have a chance of working in class, every learner should have access to one - and that is unlikely to happen some day soon, not until prices crash significantly, and their capacity to be used for production increase.
I suspect that the real game-changer in terms of the use of tablet computers in education will be the new low-cost 7-inch tablets that have arrived on the scene - they're easier to carry, for starters, and they have the legs to do the things that you might need. If one of the manufacturers includes a stylus, you've got a product that is seriously usable in class.
Well, I've had the Ipad for a whole 5 days now, so maybe I'm still a bit prejudiced, and as I said at the beginning, I'm happy to be disabused of my notions. In the meantime, it still seems to me like a gorgeous clipboard. And something that's good as a cheeseboard.


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