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Timing in the Classroom

This blog is for me to reflect on my teaching, as any learner would, and recently I became more aware of how important timing is in the classroom.

The lesson in mind was a 60 minute speaking lesson, but I felt my timing let me down so much that the students had little time to actually do much speaking.

Time management makes for good classroom management and in my next classes I want to improve my timing. Here I will examine what went wrong and what could have been done differently to make the class more successful.

For this class I think I let some activities take longer than they should have. I let a 5 minute activity run on for 15 minutes. Something that should have been brief ended up costing a quarter of the lesson.

One thing I usually do is break my lesson up into different parts. As a new teacher I like to note down how long each part should take. In a lesson I will have 5, 10, and 15 minute activities. I would rarely do one for 20 minutes. I realistically think about how long something should take including the time it will take to set up and complete. Moving forward I will be more strict with my time frames. I will think about where I should be by a certain time and not let things drag on for longer than necessary.

Another thing I did for the class was to try include everything that I had on my plan. I spent too long on explaining something that the students already had a lot of knowledge about. In this instance I should have prepared concept checking questions that would have helped check students understanding quickly to be able to move onto the next task more effectively. I should also know where to drop certain tasks that I feel are not as important as others. For example, a speaking lesson should have had more speaking in it then say writing.

After searching for more information about timing in the classroom I came across Scott Thornbury’s blog, T is for Time. I would definitely recommend this to anybody else who might think they need to improve their timing a little. I especially like the ideas around developing classroom routines so that students get into a rhythm of knowing what will come next, and also setting homework activities for things that take up a lot of time in class such as reading.

For now I will continue to improve and reflect on my timing. I will be strict with the times of activities, not let shorter activities eat into the time of longer ones and know when to drop activities when things are not going quite as planned.

Thanks for reading,

Tom

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Using Smartphones in the Classroom

This week was the first time I have got my students to use their smartphones in the classroom. I hadn’t planned to use smartphones in the classroom but the positive results really got me thinking about my future lessons and how to include the use of smart phones more.

The first opportunity arose after I was told that the printer wasn’t working one day as I came into the college. I was covering for a sick teacher so no printing had been done in preparation for the lesson and I was left thinking about what to do instead.

smartphones

Entering class I had decided to just work from the book, but after looking around the classroom I noticed that every student had a smartphone. I had 7 students in class and all, whether it be a Blackberry, an iPhone or an Android, placed their phones in front of them as soon as they sat down. An idea popped into my head and I started to direct students to the website where I had a gap fill exercise as a downloadable document. Luckily I had an IWB to use in class so directing students to the right website and links wasn’t too difficult. Once there, I instructed students to download the task sheet so that they had it ready to use later in class.

Really all that I did was swap a paper copy of a task sheet for a digital copy. The task sheet was a gap-fill activity so students, unable to fill in the gaps on their phones, still

had to write their answers on a separate sheet of paper. There is nothing incredible about how I got students to use their smartphones, and I would still have preferred a paper copy of the task sheet to an electronic version, but just being able to use them for the first time really got me excited about their potential in class.

The second opportunity came again during another class I was covering. It was an IELTS class and the teacher I was covering for had kindly planned the lesson thoroughly. The teacher had included some IELTS speaking cards for the students.

The IELTS speaking cards usually focus on a topic where students have to describe a personal experience, for example a teacher who has had an important influence on your education. The card also gives hints about what you should include such as where they taught you or what you liked about their teaching.

There were only 4 students in class so the first activity we did as a group. I got one student to pick up a card and read it to the group. The student then had one minute to prepare and immediately after the minute was up they had to try and speak about the topic for two minutes. After this I instructed students to give some feedback on how the student performed, sandwiching one constructive criticism with two positive comments. This task worked really well and the students were using their iPhones to monitor the times.

After each student had spoken I split them into two pairs. I told the students to use their iPhones as voice recorders and continued the task as before, having one minute preparation then two minutes talk time, followed by feedback. The only difference this time was that after feedback students could listen to the recording of what they had said and then discuss if they agreed with the feedback and what they would have done better. The task worked really well and all students said that they would be trying this task at home independently.

I’m really excited about other things that I can do with smartphones in the future and I am sure they have lots more potential.

If you are reading this blog and have used smartphones in your classroom then please make a comment. I would really like to hear your stories.

Thanks for reading,

Tom.

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Dumb Ways to Die – #ESL lesson plan

  • Look at this picture. What do you think happened to the characters?

Image

This picture is from a song called ‘Dumb Ways to Die’.

  • What do you think it means by ‘dumb’?

– dumb is an adjective to describe someone or something as silly or stupid.

  • Look at these 4 pictures and discuss in pairs how you think the four characters died.

  • Now listen to the song and check if you were right. (First 20 seconds only)

– Class feedback – did you guess correctly?

  • Now listen to the rest of the song. There are 17 MORE ways to die. Try to remember as many as possible.
  • Discuss with your partner and write down as many ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ that you can remember.

– Class feedback – how many did you remember?

  • Read the lyrics to the song and insert the correct missing word to the end of each sentence.
fork hair inside superglue bear date work pie platform
internet place pet season bait fly ride space reason

Dumb Ways to Die

Set fire to your                                    
Poke a stick at a grizzly                                 
Eat medicine that’s out of                   
Use your private parts as piranha                  

Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die, dumb ways to di-i-i-ie, so many dumb ways to die

Get your toast out with a                    
Do your own electrical                                    
Teach yourself how to                                    
Eat a two week old unrefrigerated                 

Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die, dumb ways to di-i-i-ie, so many dumb ways to die

Invite a psycho-killer                          
Scratch a drug dealer’s brand new                
Take your helmet off in outer             
Use your clothes dryer as a hiding                 

Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die, dumb ways to di-i-i-ie, so many dumb ways to die

Keep a rattlesnake as a                                 
Sell both your kidneys on the                         
Eat a tube of                           
“I wonder what’s this red button do?”

Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die, dumb ways to di-i-i-ie, so many dumb ways to die

Dress up like a moose during hunting                                    
Disturb a nest of wasps for no good                          
Stand on the edge of a train station                           
Drive around the boom gates at a level crossing
Run across the tracks between the platforms
They may not rhyme but they’re quite possibly

Dumbest ways to die
Dumbest ways to die
Dumbest ways to di-i-i-ie
So many dumb
So many dumb ways to die

“Be safe around trains. A message from Metro.”

– Pair feedback – check with the person next to you and compare your answers.

  • Now listen to the song again and check your answers.
  • Follow on task – in groups discuss and think of 4 more ‘Dumb Ways to Die’.

Dumb Ways to Die_task sheet

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Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 2)

On today’s blog I’d like to talk about the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which I have been using called Schoology. I have been using Schoology for less than a month but in that short amount of time I regard it very highly.

I think every school, whether small or large, would value from a VLE. Which VLE to use, Moodle, Blackboard, Frog, Edmodo, or Schoology, depends largely upon how you will use it and who for. I think VLEs are amazing things. I missed having one in my own education and I am envious of students having all this amazing technology available to help their learning today.

The VLE I have set up is for classes of ESL students. My class sizes vary from 4 to 15 students max. I am using the VLE as a study space for students to come and use resources that I have selected appropriate to their level and set small assignments in class. The VLE has so much more potential than this, but it’s key role is to make learners more independent and autonomous.

I am no stranger to VLEs mind. A few years back I had a short role as a trainer for a Moodle sales company. In the UK the government made it compulsory for all primary and secondary schools to have a VLE. The company I worked for set-up your Moodle and charged for its hosting and training.

At the time I saw Moodle as a brilliant VLE. It’s used by the Open University, and many other universities across the world, and was the most widely used, and probably still is, VLE in the world. It was open-source too, which meant the code wasn’t locked down, so many people could work on Moodle to make it better. I think what happened though is that it became too much and too difficult to understand everything that went on in it. Too many IT technicians and not enough educators working on it was a likely cause. Luckily for me that gave me a job to instruct confused teachers on how to create courses and resources. What they didn’t know though was that I found it very confusing at times too. I bought the guide on how to use it and would always get lost somewhere.

Anyway, let’s focus on Schoology.

The school I currently work at does not use a VLE, which gave me some freedom to try out Schoology as a potential candidate for future use. It is the first VLE I have tried as a teacher and I am very happy with it.

The first thing you notice about Schoology is that you already know how to use it. It’s pretty much the old Facebook layout with a few extras. My students even commented on this and how much they liked the idea of having something like Facebook for the classroom. One advantage I think of straight away is no training! This means no extra costs for the school and no unpaid training sessions. Bonus!

Another thing about Schoology is that it’s free. You can pay for a premium package if you’re a big school, but if you’re using like me, in a small language school, then there are no costs involved. You can of course download Moodle for free. Be wary! To do this you will need a fast computer and access to somewhere that will host it online for you. You might as well pay for all that fuss. Schoology is accessed online. There is no download. All you need to do is sign up using your email account. Two mature students I had didn’t have an email account – no problem I said – and it took about 5 minutes to set them up on Gmail and allow access to the VLE.

At the moment I have set up two classes on to the VLE. A beginners class and a pre-intermediate class. The type of content obviously varies for different levels, but the basic set-up is the same.

The first thing I have done is create courses. Courses can be seen as classrooms on your VLE.  In the courses/classrooms you can start to add materials. There are 6 options of content that you can create in the materials section and you can hide or make visible, just like in Moodle, and decide what you want to show. The 6 are: assignments, online tests/quizzes, files/links, discussions, albums, pages. At the moment I have only got as far as using 3 of them and hidden the others.

Assignments can be used as in-class assignments or homework assignments. I have wanted to watch how students use the VLE so I have only used it in class so far. It’s easy to create an assignment. All you do is click into assignments, choose create assignment, give it a name and then give instructions to your class. You can also provide students with files to look at or links to click on. If you were setting an assignment as homework then you can set a date, allow grading options and allow students to upload finished documents.

In the files/links section you can add files and links. Definitely useful. In here you can separate them into different folders. Great for independent learners. Say a student is struggling with the present perfect, then they can click into the folder and practice using all the links and files you have provided in previous lessons. I think about how much time I spend looking for good resources. I think it’s great how I can now save all these in an accessible place for both myself and students.

Discussions are also a great way to get students interacting with each other. The other week I tried a live discussion with the class. It’s pretty similar to a Facebook wall. I can definitely see the potential in this by getting students to practice their English outside of class. It would be great to set a week long chat on a topic so students can contribute and continually practice what they’ve learnt.

One final thing I’d like to mention is the Schoology network. Schoology is also a social networking site. It is not just a VLE. On here you can join groups such as Schoology Educators where other people who use Schoology will communicate with each other on technical issues or anything else. There is also a system where you can upload your resources from your computer. You can decide if you want to share your resources to the larger Schoology network of teachers. I currently use GoogleDrive as an online drop box for all my resources but I am considering moving them over as it may make things faster in the future when using Schoology, but if you don’t keep files online already and you don’t have Schoology then I would recommend signing up and uploading your resources here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading.

Thanks,

Tom

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Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 1)

Over the past month I have been trying to integrate more technology into my classroom and I have been experimenting with two things, the first being a wiki and the second being a virtual learning environment (VLE) or, if you are from North America, learning management system (LMS). The wiki website I have been using is from Pbworks.com and the VLE is from Schoology.com.

Let me start by saying that I am not a complete novice when it comes to using both wikis or VLEs. Many years back I worked for a company where I trained teachers, and some businesses, on how to use Moodle. I even started to create a wiki for that same company to help train new sales staff on products and terminology (although I left before it was ever finished or used). This is, however, the first time I will be using both as a teacher, and I’d like to share my experiences in this blog.

Let me start in this blog (part 1) with the wiki. The class I have been using the wiki with is a small group of students who I have for 1 hour each day, Monday to Friday. They are mainly Arabic men, aged from 19 to 50, and are at a high pre-intermediate level. The aim of the class is to work on practising a skill for that hour. The point of the lesson is to spend a quarter of their day with a different teacher where coursebooks aren’t used. I usually pick a theme, e.g. food, and practise skills around that theme like listening to a recipe, role plays in a supermarket, or a discussion about strange foods around the world.

The first week using the wiki I planned my lessons to practise speaking, listening, and reading, but I mostly wanted to focus on writing and collaborating within the wiki. My Arabic students tend to appreciate writing in class as much as, and sometimes more than, speaking, so the wiki really appealed to me here. It seemed like the right group to use as my guinea pigs.

You might have heard of something called Wikipedia, the most famous wiki of them all. Now, I have heard lots of very good ideas about how to use a wiki in class such as collaborative story writing, however I wanted to try to use our class wiki a bit like an encyclopaedia. Just as Wikipedia do, I wanted to take a theme or subject, take some key points from that and then write about them. I planned my week very logically as follows:

Monday – introduce a topic and practice speaking skills.

Tuesday – do a listening exercise around the same topic and have a small comprehension and a follow up discussion.

Wednesday – Students write on the wiki.

Thursday – Students finish off writing and present their wikis to the class.

Friday – make corrections, choose several words within their wiki to create more pages.

I used this basic plan with the topic of signs and symbols. I made some of my own resources and also used a peace symbols listening exercise from the British Council website, which, by the way, turned out to be interesting and new for both teacher and students. On Wednesday I got the students to write about one symbol each, putting the reading/listening from Tuesday’s lesson into their own words, and finding more information and pictures from the internet.

I think as a whole the weekly plan to set up and create a class wiki worked well. Students enjoyed the chosen topic. They also enjoyed being creative with a webpage of their own and inserting pictures to make it look good.  They all appreciated the extra writing practise too.

From a teachers perspective it really gave me the time to observe my students strengths and weaknesses. It also gave me time to sit down with my students, ask them what they were going to write and what new things they have found. We shared how to add a page and how to insert a picture communicating all the time. We were all learning how to use the wiki together so it really helped the dynamic of the group.

So yes, I am fairly happy with the wiki so far. It has proved itself to be educationally useful. It involved little extra effort on my behalf and it was producing positive results and good work. There were however a few things that I didn’t like.

Firstly the navigation in Pbworks. Now that’s not to say there isn’t some sort of navigation. There is a navigation bar on the side to jump to different pages within the wiki, however this is in alphabetical order and the class has made quite a few pages making a long list. There is a sidebar area where you can edit and create links to main pages but at the moment students are just using backspace or calling me over because they’re lost.

Another thing about the wiki is that it looks a bit dated. Now I’m no graphic designer, and I don’t think the majority of my students are either, but I am afraid that the wiki may look dull and amateurish and that students will lose interest. There are things you can do to it though such as add a logo or change the colour, but it’s the limitations of the text boxes that make it appear a bit messy. I think my main concern is that students are all using different size fonts and lots of typefaces. One thing I could do is set aside time each week to ‘tidy up’ the wiki making it look more appealing or train students to always edit a page a certain way. The latter could even turn into a collaborative wiki page designed by the students themselves.

Overall, the PBworks wiki has worked well. I got some good feedback from the students and we have worked on the wiki for two full weeks on two different topics. If you would like to see what my class has done so far then please click here.

Please feel free to make any comments as to how you have used wikis in class or if you have used something similar to PBworks.

In my next blog I will write about my experiences with Schoology in part 2.

Thanks for reading,

Tom

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Teaching English as a foreign language: the good, the bad and the ugly

Today is my day off and instead of being in class teaching I am relaxing at home and having a well deserved break. Did I say break? Actually I’ve been updating my files, looking for resources, reading other ESL blogs, chatting to other educators on Twitter and writing this blog! I have booked 3 days of holiday and since teaching has become such a big part of my life I find it hard to switch off from it.

On #eslchat this Wednesday we were discussing our dream ESL job. In my blog I’d like to share my experiences of ESL teaching so far, looking at the good, the bad and the ugly.

Lets start on a positive note. The good. Teaching English now for over a year I am in love with my job. I feel like I am a good teacher and that I’m learning new things everyday. The people that I work with are great and supportive and the people who I see the most of, my students, are a pleasure to teach. I love how I can go into class most days and come out smiling. When a student tells me that they’ve enjoyed the class that day it can make all the effort I put in worth it. Teaching English is a fun and exciting job and I don’t think I could find the same level of job satisfaction anywhere else.

The bad. The past few months I feel like I’ve been working non-stop. In ESL you are paid for the hours you teach. There are no half-terms and no breaks. Classes are Monday to Friday and Sunday is my planning day so Saturday feels like the only time I get to relax. I feel exhausted. I feel like I work a 40 hour week sometimes when I only get paid for 20. I teach 4 hours a day, but if you count unpaid breaks and the time I come in to do printing and organise my files, I’m probably in the school for 5.5 hours a day. On top of that is lesson planning. Now I’m guilty of spending too long on my lesson plans. I think I should be spending no more than 15 minutes for every hour I teach. So 20 hours teaching should equal 5 hours planning a week. In reality I probably spend up to 10 hours. Now that’s not all planning. A lot of it is looking through the vast amounts of resources on the web, or creating my own because there’s nothing that works better than something you’ve designed yourself. So, if you want to teach English as a foreign language, expect to put those hours in.

The ugly. No sick pay and zero hour contracts, and that’s just in England! Schools can only give you hours if there are students to attend the lessons. I understand at the end of the day the school is a business and you can’t give work when there is no work to be had. After a great run of hours, with extra hours to be had from other teachers taking holiday or calling in sick, I have just been given the call that unfortunately there will be no hours for me next week, or possibly the week after, or maybe the week after that. Job security is one thing that a lot of people want from their careers. It’s unfortunate that a job such as this which I love doing will never have that.

If you are reading this and thinking about taking the first steps to becoming an ESL teacher please don’t let those bad points put you off. I love teaching English and wouldn’t change my job for anything and would recommend that you go for it and don’t hold back.

Since I have got this time off I will use it constructively. I’ll think of it as an unplanned half-term break. I’ll search for articles, watch webinars and do all those things that I’ve wanted to but just haven’t had the time for. Perhaps I’ll even write another blog or two.

Thanks for reading,

Tom

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