Sunday, 28 November 2010

FWD Messages

You either love them or hate them. I have a rocky relationship with them. I often delete them without reading. Especially when I open my in box and see no 'real' mails from family, and friends just forward messages. It's often really annoying. The messages themselves, if you do open them ,range from annoying to inspiring. They take many forms. There are jokes, stories, warnings and tales, they can be overly sensitive, sexist, racist, narrow minded and just plain irritating.

But if you look closely there are some that can be exploited for use in the English classroom. About year ago I used my first forward message in class. It was part of a lesson on based on the film The Bucket List. The forward message I used was from my niece and it was about life experiences. It was just a simple tick format with questions like:

Have you ever skinny dipped?
Have you ever climbed a mountain?

The message was rich in language and generated a great deal of interest and discussion about members of the class and their life experiences. Students were happy to talk about things that they had done and others were happy to listen. It was materials light and produced a great deal of conversation.

My second experiment using a forward message was more recently. I used in on a communicative competence course with a group of upper intermediate/advanced adults. This time is was called How old is grandpa? Here is an excerpt:

One evening a grandson was talking to his grandfather about current events.
The grandson asked his grandfather what he thought about the shootings at schools, the computer age, and things in general.

The Grandfather replied, "Well, let me think a minute, I was born before:

' television

' penicillin

' polio shots

' frozen foods

' Xerox

' contact lenses

' Frisbees and

' the pill


There were no:

' credit cards 

' laser beams or

' ball-point pens

At the end, the students had to guess how old they thought grandpa was. This led to  a discussion about things they remembered from their childhoods and led to some great conversations about washing, machines, cars mobile phones and e-mail.

Two conversations I remember vividly are J explaining about when his family got their first automatic washing machine. He explained how everyone was so excited about it's first wash cycle. They all sat there watching it - the whole family - everyone was amazed until it started jumping up and down and making a terrible noise. It seems that they'd forgotten to take the bolts out of the drum that hold it during transport!

V told a story about how in her first family car as a child in Cameroon you could actually see through the floor to the street below. The FWD message helped them to remember stories from their past. It stimulated their VOICES.

Last week I used a FWD message about aging in class with the same students. We read the message and then we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of getting older. Again the message led to another great discussion. Here is an excerpt:

I would never trade my amazing friends, my  wonderful life, my loving family for less gray hair or a flatter belly..  As I've aged, I've become kinder to myself, and less critical of  myself. I've become my own friend.. I don't chide myself for eating  that extra cookie, or for not making my bed, or for buying that silly cement gecko that I didn't need, but  looks so avante garde on my patio. I am entitled to a treat, to be  messy, to be extravagant.

After class one of the students approached me and asked if I could give her a copy of this FWD message. As she was asking, two other students came up and asked the same thing. I promptly took down their e-mail addresses and sent them it when I got home.

Christmas is coming and as luck would have it a student of mine sent me a great  FWD message that's going to come in handy. It's about a letter written to God at Christmas by an old lady. I'll forward it you you if you're interested...

Not all FWD messages are appropriate and not all FWD messages have great content but there are some that can be used in class and  I think that they can be really useful as a classroom tool.

What do you think? Have I gone ever so slightly mad? FWD this to all your friends!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Multiple Choice Dogme Challenge # 6 (or not?)

WANTED : German Teacher

I've finally decided that I have to have German lessons. Imagine you are me. Answer the question truthfully. It's multiple choice. You can only choose one answer.

You have decided to learn German. You can choose your teacher. You have the following options.

a) a native German speaker with no teaching experience.
b) a non- native German speaking teacher, who is qualified and experienced.
c) a native German who is a qualified and experienced teacher.

I choose C. 

On paper it seems the right choice.

The best of both worlds. 

Native, qualified and experienced. 

What more could you ask for? 

It's never black and white right? 

Who would you choose?

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Can you hear me? Dogme Challenge # 5



Providing space for the learners' voice means accepting that the learners' beliefs, knowledge, experiences, concerns & desires
are valid content in the language learning classroom.
Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged
, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

Karenne Sylvester’s latest dogme challenge starts with this quote. I sometimes get the feeling when I’m teaching from a course book that I’m just going through the motions. By this I mean, that it can feel mechanical and impersonal. Even if authors include personal questions it can seem contrived. I try to avoid these moments but inevitably they occur. Often as teachers we are pushed into rushing through the course book by external pressures such the syllabus, the director of the school, the students and even the parents.  It’s really important to remember to give our students a chance to use their voice and stop and listen them. This in fact can often be harder said than done.

I find it much easier to hear the voices of my one-to-one students. and clases where I have less than 8 students. To a great extent their classes can be tailored both to their personal needs, and interests.  This of course is a luxury. Obviously the majority of language teaching throughout the world is not done like this.

I spend 26 hours in classes with between 18 and 31 students. Off the top of my head that’s around 300 students.  This is my reality and the reality of many other teachers out there. I look out at a forest. A forest of hands, faces, voice, beliefs, needs and interests. Many of those are screaming for attention, some seem indifferent and some are trying to hide!

I can honestly say that I’m two months into the school year and I haven’t even learnt their names yet. Okay I know some of the brightest, the loudest, the naughtiest but there are loads that I have absolutely no idea about. I’ve given many of them the chance to speak in class but I’ve not heard their VOICES. It takes time to get to know so many children and to learn a little bit about them and their interests.

I can listen to children in class repeat sentences and parrot phrases but I only really hear them when I know something about them. I need to know something about their family, friends and their interests. I need to get a feeling about who they are. This takes time and is not easy to do when you have a course book pressing down on you!


How can we give children a voice? And how can we teach them to listen to others?

  • ·   Personalize language learning by asking them about their likes and dislikes and by choosing material they’re intested in.

  • ·   Getting to know a bit about all of them. I like to build up a list of facts and information about them. I fill out a simple form with information such as their favourite animals, colours, sports, group, parents’ and siblings’ names, pets’ names and other info.Write kids names on piece of paper and fill in the info bit by bit each class.

  •      Once you have this list you can ask them simple questions about their family and pets and other things. I like to ask the whole class questions like : Whose dog’s name’s Rufus? and wait for the answer. Slowly they build up a picture of their classmates too.
  • Lots of group work where children have to listen and collaborate with others. It's noisey and difficult in the beginning but once children have learnt how to listen to others and work in a group it gets easier. Practice is the key and lots of patience.
  •      I remember doing show and tell at school with my dog Lassie. I was in school the other day and one of the children had brought in his pet turtle to show his classmates and to talk about. Why not get children to bring in photos of their families, houses, holidays pets and other stuff. 
  •        I like to take in photos of me when I was a child and do a bit
of  show and tell. Children love seeing their teacher as a child and it helps  to break down barriers.

How else can we foster and environment where children learn to listen to others? And find their own voices? How can we teach in a way that helps us to hear our students? Any ideas?






Saturday, 6 November 2010

The case for and against native language assistants

I’ve finally found the time to catch up on all the posts that I’ve missed and I have to say that there were over a 100 on my google reader. One in particular caught my eye over at TEFLtastic entitled Is there any need for native language assistants? This is a theme close to my heart and even closer to my wallet, as this is where I earn the majority of my income.

I am a native language assistant. I work in a primary and secondary school. I’m also a Diploma qualified TEFL teacher. Working as an assistant over the past three years I’ve had time think about whether there is a need for native language assistants and this is what I think.

In theory, non - Nests should have a level of English high enough that they do not require the linguistic assistance of a native assistant. By this I mean that teachers should have a minimum level of English which I would say should be B2 in primary and C1 in secondary.

Teachers should be knowledgeable enough about English culture that they do not need an assistant as a cultural ambassador. Teachers should be trained in modern methods and be able to use a wide range of resources and communicative methodologies.

If this were the case I think that there would be no need for native language assistants and the money could be better spent on other resources. Sadly, in my situation this is not the case.

Many teachers in primary schools that I’ve worked in do not have a good enough command of the English language to be teaching it. Their methods are often outdated and heavily course book oriented. There’s a lot of reading aloud and children are often still sitting in rows facing the blackboard.

Yes, there are exceptions and yes things are changing. There does seem to be a new breed of younger teachers whose level of English is much higher and whose methods are much more modern. But until this becomes the norm, rather than the exception there will still be a need for native language assistants.