Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘Director of Studies’ Category

Working with new teachers (three things for IH)

Regular followers of this blog may have noticed I’ve been writing and talking a lot about working with new teachers, particularly over the last year. In the last month, International House have shared three of the things I have produced on this theme.

The first is ‘From survival to thriving: how to help new teachers‘, a 30-minute talk as part of the 10th International House Teachers Online Conference on 18th May 2018:

In the talk I suggested a range of different ways that managers and trainers can support teachers as they take their first steps in their careers. I based it roughly around an extended version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I’m not going to share the slides separately, as I don’t think they’ll tell you much by themselves, so you’ll just have to watch the presentation! 🙂 You can watch all of the other sessions from the day here and there was also a parallel Modern Language Conference, with sessions on teaching Arabic, Italian, Russian, French and Spanish.

The second is part of my series for the IH Journal, published in Issue 44, entitled ‘Working with new teachers: the things they say’. It’s the first of two parts (the next one will be in the autumn edition) where I list some of the typical comments I hear from new teachers at our school, and the things that I normally say in response. It’s written for both new teachers themselves and the people who work with them. Again, I’d recommend reading the whole journal, as it really showcases the diversity of knowledge within International House.

The final thing is another video, recording at the IH Academic Managers and Trainers Conference in January this year, and published this week.

This one is aimed directly at new teachers, and gives 3 minutes’ worth of tips to help them out.

If you’re a new teacher, I hope you enjoy your time in this amazing career. If you’re working with new teachers, I hope there are some useful reminders here for you. 🙂

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IATEFL 2018: Management, teacher training and development

I started off the IATEFL Brighton 2018 conference at the joint Pre-Conference Event (PCE) run by the Leadership and Management (LAMSIG) and Teacher Development (TDSIG) Special Interest Groups. I have already summarized what I learnt that day, but have included more detailed information from the sessions here, interspersed with ideas from the main conference, hence the combination of topics in the title of this post. This is by far the longest of my IATEFL posts this year, but I couldn’t work out how to separate the streams, so apologies in advance. I hope it’s worth it! 🙂

The #LAMTDSIG PCE was the first time I heard what became one of this year’s conference buzzwords for me: culture. Many speakers mentioned the importance of creating and maintaining a culture of CPD (continuous professional development) within their school.

How can we create a culture of CPD?

The first was Liam Tyrrell, who reminded us that the shared ideas, values and direction that make up the culture of a workplace or team are important. They are what lead to success. Organisational culture is the number one predictor of development outcomes and improved classroom effectiveness, according to Matthew A. Kraft in his 2014 paper with John Papay entitled ‘Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development?

Liam detailed four questions he asked when aiming to change the culture at his school:

  • What does it look like when the culture is changed?
    If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, how do you know the steps you need to take to get there? What is the pathway for teachers and the organisation? Small success will carry your organisation.
  • Who are the silent majority?
    Run down the list of names of people in your staffroom. The ones you come to last, or not at all (!) are the ones you probably need to shine a spotlight on. Find out about their successes and encourage them to share them. By amplifying them, other teachers can learn from them too. (Liam credits this idea to @nikkitau from TESOL France last year.)
  • What options can you give to people?
    The trick is not to have everyone doing the same thing (one size fits all), but to have everyone do SOMETHING!
  • How can you get recruitment right?
    Make sure people you recruit know what kind of culture they’re coming into, and that they’re comfortable with that. A team is a delicate balance, and every person entering or leaving it can change the balance, and with it, the culture. Is it better to recruit NQTs who see what you do as norm? Or experienced teachers who can mentor and drive change? Who will be able to create and sustain change?

(Side note: Clare Magee (see below) mentioned that during their recruitment process, they include a description of key challenges in the job, to ensure teachers know what they might be faced with. She also said that whenever possible, they try to recruit two people at the same time so that they’re going through the processes of joining the school together, and can empathise with each other.)

Finally, Liam emphasised that change takes time, and that half of the stuff you try is probably going to fail. This echoes one of my favourite ever things I’ve heard at an IATEFL conference: you have to kiss a few frogs to find the one that’s for you.

 

I am lucky that I inherited a healthy culture of CPD at the school I currently work for, and ‘all’ I have to do as Director of Studies is maintain and develop it, but if you don’t already have that a CPD culture at your school, Liam’s questions and the ideas below could help you to move towards one.

 

As part of the main conference, Oliver Beaumont and Duncan Jameson also described how to create a culture of CPD, using the metaphor of a garden. You have to create the right conditions if you want things to grow there. They centred it around three key words:

  • Engage: if teachers aren’t engaged, they won’t be interested. Show them how CPD can help them, and how it fits in with the school’s vision. Creating the right environment also helps, for example a classroom with posters from previous CPD sessions. Carve out time where CPD is a priority: if you value it, teachers will too.
  • Energise: give autonomy and ownership, and encourage collaboration.
  • Empower: ensure there is meaningful action to follow the session, so they can put what they have learnt into action immediately. If you include feedback and coaching in the sessions, a lot more of what they have learnt will stick.

Lizzie Pinard summarised the talk in more detail here.

Creating a welcoming culture

Patrick Huang described a transgender candidate’s experience of a CELTA course, with important points for the inclusion of all candidates who might be part of potentially vulnerable populations, and regarding culture changes which may need to take place to allow this. He noticed that there might be something different with this particular candidate due to the combination of a typically male first name and female second name – the example he gave was ‘Robin Jane’. Because of this, he asked the candidate to speak to him about their experience and to share what could have improved it. The main things Patrick learned were:

Safety should be key. Candidates should not be forced to disclose whether they are transgender/non-binary. For example, on the entry form, have an option for ‘Other’ in gender, not just male/female. Forcing candidates to select from a closed list of options could also have legal applications on a form if they have to sign something saying they did not knowingly give false information.

A pre-course meeting could include the question ‘Anything else you would like to tell me about yourself?’ rather than anything more direct, like ‘I notice that you…’ Again, this means candidates are not forced to disclose if they are not comfortable doing so.

Toilet facilities should be available for everyone. Consider converting an existing bathroom by changing the signing, for example to ‘Toilets for everyone’.

Pronouns should be used as indicated by the candidate. (If this is something you’d like to find out more about, I would highly recommend the BBC Word of Mouth episode ‘Language and gender identity’.)

For relationships and safety, consider introducing a code of conduct. Discuss these things with staff and candidates, preferably before you have transgender students on your course, so that they are aware of how they can help candidates feel safe. Make sure that this policy is adapted to the needs of individual candidates. There should be buy-in from the community, with the option to opt out if they really can’t cope with the situation.

Teacher-centred CPD

Another buzzword I noticed was bottom-up, with many of the speakers I saw talking about the need to move away from CPD which is imposed on teachers by management from above, and instead to create the structures for teachers to be able to work more independently on areas which they want to prioritise. As a couple of people said, ‘one size fits all’ fits noone.

As part of the #LAMTDSIG PCE, Clare Magee and Fiona Wiebusch from Australia talked about a very successful initiative which some of their teachers started, without prompting from management. They set up a Google Plus space to share 2-minute videos of ideas which make their jobs faster, better, or easier. Other people can comment on the videos too, and it often starts face-to-face discussions too. If teachers still have access after they leave the school, I think this could serve as a kind of institutional memory, and an alumni-type space, which they could still participate in if they choose too. This is probably my favourite idea from the whole conference. Once it was started, the institution ran some CPD sessions on how to create videos and how to interact politely on the platform, both in response to teacher requests.

Other ideas that Fiona and Clare described were:

  • #pdfest, one-day events organised by teachers for teachers to share their practice
  • #meetelt, Pecha Kucha events in pubs
  • #auselt, a Twitter hashtag for discussions (similar to #eltchat)
  • Pineapple charts to organise peer observation
  • A regular newsletter emailed to teachers across their organisations’ various sites
  • The Raise Your Voice choir

They suggested that it might be time to move away from the concept of change, and towards that of evolution and revolution. Hamel and Zanini (2014) say anyone can initiate change, recruit confederates, get involved and launch experiments. It’s not the leader’s job to do the process, but to build the platform. Fiona and Clare also said that in order to get all of these things working, managers should:

Give teachers time and money, and get out of the way!

 

I agree with this sentiment up to a point, but I believe that quite a lot of new teachers probably need a base level of knowledge about the teaching profession and about CPD opportunities before they can organise and run this kind of thing themselves. Most of the teachers at our school are in their first or second year of teaching. I have tried to provide the second-years with more space to direct their own development, but it has been challenging to work out and provide the amount of support that they really need to do this. It’s all well and good saying that they can develop however they want to, but if they aren’t aware of the possibilities and opportunities, it can become very directionless. This is where I think they next idea might help.

 

Josh Round and Andy Gaskins talked about Personalised Development Groups (PDGs), an idea Josh introduced in his school 3 years ago, and in Andy’s a year ago, and which has now gone through several successful cycles. Research which backs up their approach includes the Sutton Trust 2014 report on what makes great teaching. That and other reports show that effective CPD leads to great teaching, so it’s important to get the programme you offer right.

Teachers chose a first-choice or second-choice pathway, which enables them to be put into groups of 6-8 people. These pathways enable classroom-based, collaborative professional development, based on the choices of the participants, rather than the more top-down programmes traditionally offered by schools. They were based on areas that teachers had requested, or where they often needed more support. The school wanted a balance between structure and support, and autonomy.

Of course, PDGs aren’t perfect! Initially, they underestimated how long it might take teachers to come up with research questions, so they started to suggest examples within each pathway. It took time to put the scheme into place: change always takes time to be effective. There can also be problems with some members of groups not fully contributing, absence or sickness, and lack of structure – these are all problems I’ve found with a similar scheme I’ve tried to set up at my school.

Josh and Andy encourage teachers to be transparent with their students about what they’re doing – students seem to really engage with the teachers’ research. At the end of the cycle, there are feedback presentations which have become inspirational to other teachers at the school.

Lizzie Pinard summarised the talk in more detail here.

 

At the #LAMTDSIG event, Ed Russell described using the idea of PDGs at his school, once he’d got over the idea that he needed to ‘do some managing’, a feeling I’ve had occasionally too! As part of this, he created a new screensaver for staffroom computers to remind teachers about the stages of the PDGs. Generally, Ed wanted to make what happened in the classroom as visible as possible so that his teachers could share their practice and learn as much as possible from each other. He said it has led to greater discussion in the staffroom, and more of a feeling of cooperation between teachers. I was pleased that he mentioned using my post of ideas for alternatives to the Friday afternoon seminar as inspiration – always good to know! Ed’s school also used ‘cooperative development’, with one teacher talking for 15 minutes while another actively listened to them, then switching roles. Another change they made was in their use of language, talking about ‘my puzzle’ rather than ‘my problem’. Ed has shared some of the resources he uses on Google Drive.

The language of CPD

Ania Kolbuszewska extended the idea of the importance of language, a particular problem in her large school in Switzerland, a country where people are only prepared to take a risk if they are 100% sure of the outcome! She described her attempts to be more aware of the intercultural aspects of her job, something she had never been trained in. As she said, there is a lot of intercultural training available for students and businesspeople, but nothing specifically for managers in language schools, where we are very often working with people from other cultures who may have different expectations to our own.

In Ania’s experience, her teachers generally felt that institutions benefit from professional development, but teachers don’t really, especially if they’re not being paid for it. For some Swiss people, the status of teachers is like that of actors working as waiters until something better comes along. For others, CPD is a checklist for managers, and not something personal.

Cultural diversity in her school provides an additional problem: not everyone in her team speaks English and not everyone speaks German. She described the problems created by the fact that the term ‘CPD’ in English doesn’t have a direct equivalent in German or French, the two other languages she works with. The translations do not cover the same range of concepts, and are much more connected to training than development. Sending out emails in three languages meant that teachers who spoke more than one might compare the different versions and read into them meanings which weren’t intended. Ania therefore decided to use ‘CPD’ across all languages at the school, as well as replacing ‘workshops’ with ‘labs’, a more universal term which encompasses the idea of experimentation, not just learning. She also renamed all of the types of observation she wanted to use to make them as widely and easily understood as a possible.

The language you teach dictates the way that you teach it.

By making sure that the key terms being used were clearly defined and understood in the same way across the organisation, it has started to contribute to culture change. While Ania acknowledges that this process is top-down, she emphasises that this is to minimise problems with understanding the key concepts, in order to create the conditions for more bottom-up development further down the line.

Another change in their organisation is to have cross-language teams. Previously there were separate heads of French, German and English, but now teams are mixed. Echoing what Liam Tyrrell said (see above), these changes are a slow process, but they are gradually moving towards the CPD culture her school wants to have.

Action research

The cooperative development at Ed Russell’s school mirrors the first talk I went to in the main conference, which looked at how to help teachers come up with appropriate questions for their own action research. Paula Rebolledo and Richard Smith demonstrated a dialogue approach with a mentor to help teacher researchers come up with specific questions. When you’re listening to the potential researcher, you can guide them towards questions by noticing when they say ‘I think…’, ‘I guess…’, ‘I assume…’ For example, if they say ‘I think they enjoy it.’ ask questions like ‘What evidence do you have of that?’ If they have none, that could be one of their questions. It’s important that the listener doesn’t come up with answers, but pushes towards questions.

Potential researchers who don’t have a dialogue partner could use question frames like these:

When checking if the questions researchers come up with are suitable, you can use the slightly rephrased version of SMART:

  • Study-oriented (oriented towards the study of the situation rather than action on it)
  • Measurable
  • Accurate
  • Realistic
  • Topic-focused

If action research is something you’d like to explore further, there is a free publication written by Paula and Richard available on the British Council website: A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. It includes everything (as far as I know!) that was covered in the talk, along with a lot more. You might also be interested in ELT Research in Action, a free ebook edited by Jessica Mackay, Marilisa Birello and Daniel Xerri, published by IATEFL in April 2018.

Supporting new teachers

A cooperative practice of a different kind is mentoring, which Alistair Roy covered in his presentation. After 12 roles in 12 years at private language schools, Alistair has had one mentor. He’s had 26 ‘mentees’, including 7 at one time (as he said, how can you mentor people properly like that?!) When asked whether they’d ever had a mentor, I think less than a quarter of the 100+ people in the room put their hand up to say yes, not including me.

When Alistair asked colleagues for help with how to mentor, he was just given checklists, so he started to talk to teachers about what they want from mentoring. He pointed out the amount of questions that we have on the first day of a new job, and how this is multiplied on your first ever day as a teacher, when you’re on your own in the classroom for the first time. He described the story of one new teacher who was given a checklist of things they should know soon after joining the school, and returned it with more than half of the items marked ‘I don’t know’, even though he knew they’d been given that information. This is something I’ve also wondered about in our intensive induction week model (anyone got any other ideas?!)

The whole situation was very different in his first year as a teacher at a UK state school, where he was given a mentor and an effective and useful process:

Alastair found that a lot of teachers seemed to want mentors in a similar position to them, rather than people with a lot more experience. They wanted people who could empathise with them and remember what it was like to be in their position. Josh Round also mentioned something similar at his school, where they have a buddy system for new teachers, with each being assigned a buddy who has been at the school for a little longer than them.

After 5 years, 91% of teachers who have a good mentor stay in the profession. Only 71% without a mentor do. (Institute for Educational Science) So what can managers do to support mentors? Invest money and time, support mentor and mentee, and understand what it’s like to be in their positions.

Lizzie Pinard summarised the talk in more detail here.

CPD for teacher trainers

Of course, it’s not just teachers who need to develop their practice: trainers do too. This was another theme that I noticed: the desire for more systematic training for trainers.

 

Teti Dragas talked about interviews she had done with teacher trainers to find out their stories, covering how they got into training in the first place and how they have subsequently developed. Her main findings were that trainers developed through building up experience, reflecting on critical incidents, working with and talking to colleagues, and attending events like IATEFL. There was little, if any, formal training for them. Another key way that trainers improved was by listening to their trainees, especially when there was resistance to their ideas. This prompted them to think about why that resistance existed, and how to counter it. Mentoring new trainers also helped. What are important qualities of trainers according to Teti’s interviewees? Knowledge, experience, empathy, reflection and open-mindedness. You also need to give trainees time to change their practice. We also need to keep up-to-date with changes in our field, so that we can give trainees the best possible information during their courses.

If you’d like to contribute to Teti’s research, here are her questions.

 

Jo Gakonga’s presentation was based around the idea that trainers need feedback on their feedback, but that most of us never get it. To get around this, we can audio record ourselves, transcribe a minute or two of the feedback, and reflect on what we hear ourselves say and do. The presentation is available as a mini-course on her ELT Training website, and it’s something you can use for professional development within your organisations. We used the course during Jo’s talk, and I would definitely recommend it. I’m hoping to record myself giving feedback at some point before the end of this school year, having just missed our final round of observations. Jo also mentioned the article ‘RP or ‘RIP’: A critical perspective on reflective practice’, written by Steve Mann and Steve Walsh, which I plan to read at some point.

Trinity and Cambridge

Finally, here are two representatives of the main pre-service training certificates for the private language school market.

 

Ben Beaumont’s talk about the effect of washback on teacher training doesn’t really lend itself to being summarised in a paragraph. However, he did share these Trinity materials designed to help teachers improve their assessment literacy. Each video comes with a worksheet, so they could be used as part of a wider professional development programme.

 

Clare Harrison described extensive research Cambridge has done to find out what changes people want to see in the CELTA course, and what changes have already happened. You can watch the full talk here.

They noticed that the percentage of L1 and L2 speakers of English taking the course is now roughly 50/50, compared to 75/25 in 2005. There are also more and more teachers with experience taking this course, which was designed for pre-service teachers. The ICELT, which was designed for experienced teachers, has a much lower take-up. The young learner extension course and CELTYL both had such low take-up that they have ceased to exist, but there is a huge demand for YL to be added to the course, as well as other types of teaching such as 121 or ESP. As Clare said, these are probably beyond the boundaries of a course designed to last for only four weeks and to train inexperienced people to teach adults, but CELTA seems to dominate the market so much that other courses can’t get a foot in the door. Other requests were connected to the syllabus, such as having a greater focus on digital, but as Clare pointed out, this is entirely dependent on the centre, and she reminded trainers to go back to the criteria regularly to check that their course is fulfilling the needs of trainees. Fiona Price has screenshots of some of the changes in criteria on her blog. There are changes in how CELTA is being delivered too: quite a few courses now embed CELTA in an undergraduate or postgraduate programme, for example. After the talk, Clare asked people for any other ideas they may have. Audience members suggested ideas like a post-CELTA module that could provide an extra qualification (Jason Anderson said this), or post-CELTA or –Delta mentors, perhaps with the option of uploading videos of your lessons to be commented on. There was also the suggestion of recertification requirements. I feel like my ELT Playbook series could address some of these needs, so please do take a look at it if you’re interested!

Find out more

Katherine Martinkevich has short summaries of quite a few of these sessions, plus a few others which I didn’t attend. Gerhard Erasmus summarised the #LAMTDSIG day for the TDSIG blog.

If you’re interested in Teacher Development, you might want to investigate some of the other things TDSIG does. They have an e-bulletin (members only), a podcast and run facebook Live sessions, all of which you can find information about on their website. For managers, you can find out more about the Leadership and Management SIG here. If you’d like to join IATEFL, find out how here.

And if you made it all the way through the nearly 4000 words of this post, well done! 🙂

On choosing coursebooks (badly)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written a couple of posts about coursebooks, the first describing my requests for publishers and writers to take into account, and the second a list of questions for anybody who feels like reviewing the coursebooks they’re using so we can all make a more informed choice. I’ve also seen a few other posts that respond to our build on the points in my requests post, like this one by Julie Moore, and this one by Mura Nava. I also received a blogpost length response from Nick to those same requests. This post is partially in response to Nick’s one, and partially getting something off my chest and seeking help.

(By the way, I’d also recommend reading Nick’s post called ‘Challenging the coursebook – challenge accepted‘ and hope he’ll write part 2 at some point) 🙂

Before I continue, please remember that everything I write on this blog and in this post is not designed to reflect on my school, but only to describe my experience, one which I am pretty sure is not unique, at least in the world of private language schools.

As in my requests post, I do not intend to name specific coursebooks as I don’t believe that will help. I am sure that some of the books I am talking about work brilliantly for other teachers in other contexts, and without providing a fully contextualised review, I don’t wish to provide negative publicity for them.

A corridor between two long bookshelves filled with coursebooks

Image taken by @michaelegriffin, from ELTpics under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

I am currently working as a Director of Studies at a private language school, and as such one of my responsibilities is to have the final say in the selection of coursebooks for our school. I inherited a system of levels with books attached to them, about half of which have stayed the same since I started three years ago, with the occasional change of edition as particular books stop being sold in Poland.

Selecting adult books hasn’t really been a problem for me: the majority of my teaching experience is with adults, I have used a very wide range of coursebooks designed for adults, and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I also strongly believe that there are a lot of very good quality adult coursebooks out there, many of which already meet half or more of the requests on my previous list. This means I have a wide range of books to choose from. Adult students who are studying with us are unlikely to be studying elsewhere at the same time, so I have free reign, and can choose whatever I think might be best.

I haven’t needed to choose books for our young learners (aged 7-10) because the series we use is very well thought out, and has a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t really date. The only time we need to change it is when a new edition comes out and the old one is no longer available for our students. Again, students at this age are unlikely to be studying elsewhere, so I don’t need to worry that they will have seen the book elsewhere. The one exception to this was the highest level, which seemed to throw all the challenging grammar normally found in two levels at the students: fine for a strong class, but very challenging for a weak class. When one teacher used it in my second year, we had to adapt it quite a lot and remove at least two of the grammar points. We’ve now chosen a different book to replace it, but haven’t had a group to try it out with yet, so I can’t judge that decision yet.

Teen books, however, are an entirely different question. They are the bane of my life. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent thinking about them, but I do know it is FAR TOO MANY. Here’s why…

In my first year at the school, we were using a series that was already 5 years old, and is now 7 years old, for four of the seven teen levels we have for 11-15 year olds. That means that somebody who became a teenager when the series came out would now be in their early 20s. As we all know, teen culture moves incredibly fast, and while there is no way that coursebooks and publishers could possibly keep up with those changes, I did feel it was time for something more modern. The series worked quite well in terms of language input, and in fact has now become the benchmark by which we judge other books we are considering. However, I don’t really remember my 13-15 year old students ever being engaged by the reading or listening texts, or the writing tasks, or possibly the speaking tasks, regardless of what I did to set them up. Of course, that may well be my fault, not the book’s, but you’d think that at least one or two things would grab them. It could also be my faulty memory, or the fact that in a group of teens nobody wants to be different by showing interest in something the others don’t seem interested in. Many possible reasons, but I don’t think an out-of-date book helped.

To help me choose a replacement, I asked around for recommendations of good series both on social media and when meeting colleagues. The most oft-repeated recommendation was used in a lot of local schools, so I couldn’t choose it. Another one wasn’t available in Poland if I remember rightly. We got sample copies of as many books as possible, and I also spent a long time at publishers’ stands at the various conferences I went to that year, asking about every book that seem relevant. With the help of my senior team, we tried to draw up a checklist of features we were looking for. I know that such lists appear in methodology books sometimes, but they all seem very general, and we wanted something that worked in our context. Here are a few of our requirements:

  • Available in Poland.
  • Age appropriate for 11-15 year olds (many are 9-12ish or 13-16ish – it’s hard to cover the full range)
  • Attractive to look at, so students actually want to open it.
  • Covering a similar range of language to the series we had previously used.
  • Providing a logical progression through the book and through the series.
  • Clear grammar explanations.
  • Including freer practice activities for new grammar (something we often had to add to the previous series).
  • With an interesting range of topics.
  • Lots of opportunities for speaking.
  • A workbook that supplements the student’s book.
  • Has a teacher’s book with extra activities if possible.

There were more, but I’m at home in the evening right now and I can’t remember them off the top of my head! By this stage, we had a very short list of books – definitely two, maybe even three. We showed them to students in class, and to teachers who’d have to work with them, and got feedback. None were particularly any better than any of the others. Quite late in the game we found out about another series, and didn’t manage to get as much feedback on that one. However, it was by the same publisher as the series we used to use, and seemed to cover most of the same ground. The video content seemed particularly interesting and engaging, and was something quite different to any of the others books. In the end, we went with that series.

So in my second year, we had a new series of books covering the same four levels, 3-6. We also had a new book from a different series covering level 2. That one worked pretty well, but about 15 lessons into the year, it was apparent that although the topics in the main series were engaging, the videos worked really well with most groups, and the language covered similar ground to the old series, it just wasn’t doing what it need to do, and was in fact going to cause us more problems than it solved.

One issue was that the lowest book, the one we were using for level 3, was actually easier than the level 2 book (from a different series) at times, and there didn’t seem to be a real level 3 book in their series: I’d made the mistake of looking at the CEFR level on the back and the language covered and thinking it was OK, without doing an in-depth analysis of it and comparing the two books carefully enough. Another was that the reading and listening texts were in general far too easy for our students, and didn’t seem to challenge them at all, while the videos were much harder. Vocabulary sets were almost completely without challenge, with students only really not knowing one or two items in any given list. These are all things we could work around, but they meant a lot of extra work for our senior staff in particular, supporting brand new teachers with adapting the book for their students to maintain the quality lessons we pride ourselves on. Another, much larger, problem was that while the books covered the same grammar points as the previous series, they actually stopped at unit 8, where the old series had had 12 units in each book, meaning a lot of key language was missing if you looked at the equivalent adult levels. This was particularly important for any of our students who might be old to change to adult groups in the following year and resulted in us having to rewrite the syllabus for the rest of the year for four levels, supplementing the book with a lot of other materials to make sure everything was covered that we needed to include. Again, this was a considerable amount of work, multiplied by four to cover all of the levels.

All of these things meant we couldn’t use this series again this year, so we went back to the drawing board, with a much longer list of criteria this time round. Some of the things we added were:

  • Long enough for a 124-hour course.
  • Doesn’t require too much supplementing.
  • Covers all of the ‘main’ grammar points at the equivalent adult level, so if students are moving into adult classes they haven’t missed anything major.
  • Challenging reading and listening texts.

Learning from our experience in the previous year, we checked the grammar points much more carefully. We also tried to be more systematic in getting feedback from students on the books, and had teachers do trial lessons with some of the books we were considering. However, as it was quite late in the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do this: we were starting to wind up lessons with end-of-year revision, tests, etc. The list of books was also pretty similar to the one we’d ended up with at the end of my first year.

Part one of the resulting decision was to use more of the level 2 series for levels 3 and 4 – we’d originally decided against these as they actually felt like level 3.5 and 4.5 to us. At this point in the year, we’re now finding that is true: the harder language points are coming in, and some students are really struggling with them. Apart from that, a lack of ready-made extension activities, and a rather pointless teacher’s book (basically a glorified answer key), the series generally seems to be working quite well and we will probably continue with it next year, trying to re-pace the year to leave more time for the more challenging language in the second half of the books. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how consistent I was with checking which books were used in local secondary schools, and have discovered that a few of our students use the same book (or, worse, the book they used last year!) at school, so will have to check that again with the rep to see whether this is feasible. If too many of our students use it, we’ll have to choose something else, regardless of how good it is.

Decision part two was to use a new series for levels 5, 6 and 7. Level 7 had previously used an adult book which required a fair amount of adaptation, but was the only thing we could really find for their level, so the chance to use a teen book seemed too good to miss. The series was only published three years ago, and I am very sad to say it’s probably one of the frustrating coursebooks I’ve ever had. I’m lucky that I don’t have to teach from it, but I have had to provide a lot of support in planning from it, and listen to all of my poor staff who have had the misfortune of using it. Needless to say, we will not be using this series next year. It was the source of at least three of the requests on my list, including the first two regarding out-of-context items and exam tasks. And who’s to blame for this book selection? Ultimately, me. I am the most qualified and most experienced person on our team, and even though we looked at the books together, the final decision was mine. We chose it because the levels seemed to match up to our requirements, it covered the range of grammar points we required, the topics were interesting and varied, it was professionally presented with interesting images and engaging video content, and I am sure there were other reasons too. Listening lessons are particularly frustrating, as they are often ‘exam-style’ tasks containing 8 short extracts, only one or two of which may be related to the topic of the unit, making it very difficult to raise students’ interest in them. I somehow managed to completely miss that every last skills activity was an ‘exam task’, and the ones I did notice seemed at first glance to match up to Cambridge Main Suite exams, though it has subsequently turned out that they are in fact task types from a wide range of different exams, none of which are explicitly stated. Vocabulary pages are overwhelming for students, consisting as they do of three controlled practice exercises, each with 6-10 items and no other help beyond the questions in the exercise itself. If you’re really lucky one or two of the items may have appeared earlier in the unit or elsewhere on the page, but this is rare. Vocabulary is completely test-focussed, with no explicit input or freer practice activities. Most importantly, the amount of work it takes to put together a single lesson from it, particular anything that concerns teaching language, is completely unjustifiable in our very busy school for our busy, mostly newly-qualified teachers, and the senior team who support them. To top it all, a few students have told us they’re using the book at school, which I someone didn’t find out from the rep (more than likely, that’s my fault as I probably didn’t ask).

So now we’re starting to make decisions about the books for my fourth year, and I’m hoping these are books which stick so I don’t have to revisit this in another year (pretty please!) Here are some of the criteria I’ll be adding to the ever-growing list:

  • Presents and practises grammar and vocabulary items in a clear context.
  • Provides repeated opportunities to activate the grammar or a limited set of vocabulary items.
  • Contains skills activities which are not purely exam-focussed, and which it is possible to engage students in.
  • Is possible to consistently plan a 90-minute lesson from in less than 90 minutes, without requiring entire new sets of materials to be made.
  • Is not used in local secondary schools.

For those who’ve been wondering, I have repeatedly considered ditching coursebooks entirely, but that would create even more work, copyright concerns, and many other issues that I really do not have the time to deal with. It’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead we’re starting the selection process much earlier this year, and we’re going to be teaching multiple lessons from any book we consider. I’ll be checking with all of the reps for a full list of books used in local schools. We’ll go over all of the points in the checklist above with a fine-tooth comb. I know we won’t find anything that’s perfect, because nothing is, but if we can find something at least half-way decent, that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out every time I look at it or hear its name, then I will be satisfied.

All recommendations and advice will be most gratefully accepted. Thank you for your patience!

Teaching the same thing all over again (paragraph blogging)

This week I’ve taught six 90-minute classes at a company, working through needs analysis and getting examples of speaking and writing as we are working with them for the first time. I had the same plan for all six lessons, covering every level from elementary to advanced, but it panned out completely differently in each group. The general structure was:

  • Students write questions for me and their teacher (who was observing and data collecting), then ask them.
  • Annotate a copy of the contents page of the book they’ve been using for lessons before we started teaching them, to show which things they’ve done, what they’d like to do, and what they’d prefer to avoid.
  • Individually, divide up 40 points between the speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to show their course priorities (an idea I adapted from Teaching English One-to-One [affiliate link] by Priscilla Osborne and now use all the time!). Write this on the back of the contents page.
  • Write a paragraph about their job, roles and responsibilities, when/if/how they use English at work, their hobbies, and anything else they choose, also on the back of the contents.
  • Extend the paragraph by finishing various sentence starters from a choice of 10, such as:
    • I prefer English lessons which…
    • I am confident/not confident about ____ in English because…
    • I generally have good/bad memories of learning English/Russian/German/… at school because…
    • A good English teacher…

Pretty straightforward, right? None of the lessons are encapsulated in that plan though! At various points this week, I (sometimes with my colleagues) have done error correction based on questions, looked at the grammar of questions in general, created indirect questions, discussed at length good places to visit in London, talked about the etymology of Wolverhampton and Chichester, discussed learning strategies and how to make English a habit, shared websites that can be used in addition to doing homework, explained various Polish/English differences, discovered all seven students in a single class prefer dogs to cats, encouraged (elementary) students to speak up so that I can give them feedback and then praised them a lot for speaking pretty much only English for 90 minutes, and probably many more things that I’ve forgotten. It’s a reminder, if one was needed, to teach the students, not the plan 🙂

Lady Wulfruna statue

Lady Wulfruna, the source of the name of Wolverhampton – Image by David Stowell [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A day in the life of a Director of Studies (paragraph blogging)

Matthew Noble has just started doing some paragraph blogging for March, with super short updates on what he’s thinking about. I’ll try and join in as many times as I can in March. I’ve been meaning to write something about my job for ages…

When I got to school at 10 I had a couple of brief chats with teachers, and had a bit of food while switching the computer on. I am currently teaching the beginners’ Polish classes for our teachers (more on that at a later date), so I finished my prep for the lesson, then quickly cleared my emails in the 10 minutes before class. We were working on basic foods, based around pizza menus, and I did my first bit of grammar teaching, introducing genders and the endings for one case.

Pizza po polsku - a screenshot from our Quizlet set

Straight from that into the senior meeting, interrupted briefly by a placement test for a new 121 student. The senior meeting is an hour every week for the ADoS (Assistant DoS) and senior teachers to work on any issues we have and make future plans too. Lunch, then 15 minutes or so of printing the observation timetable I put together yesterday, along with the forms for senior staff to fill in, making packs and handing them out. Then 15 minutes to find speaking activities for tomorrow’s workshop on setting up speaking activities, and a rushed 9 minutes (!) to speak to another new 121 before I had to leave. Pre-observation meeting in the car, and teaching chat, then two observations in a satellite school, followed by feedback on one of them for the teacher who has a gap between his lessons. Bus back to Bydgoszcz, when I happened to bump into one of our teachers travelling back from another satellite school, so we chatted about how she’s doing, music, and learning languages. Got home at 8. Not really a typical day due to the travelling, but then, I’m not entirely sure what a typical day is, apart from packed!

 

Working with new teachers: first steps (IH Journal)

Issues 43 of the IH Journal was published yesterday, with lots of great things for you to read:

IH Journal issue 43 contents

It features the first article in a new series which I’m writing, all about working with new teachers. You can read the journal online, and my article is here. If working with new teachers is something you’re interested in, or if you’re a new teacher yourself, watch out for an exciting announcement coming soon on my blog 🙂

The scaffolding continuum

I was giving feedback on an observation today when an idea occurred to me. When we plan a series of activities, particularly for low-level learners, it can be difficult to work out how much support they need at each stage. Thinking of the support we offer (scaffolding) as a kind of continuum might help.

Here’s a basic version:

The scaffolding continuum - left has teacher managing the full activity and providing lots of support, right has students doing everything completely independently

The activity I was watching which inspired the idea was asking a group of nine 8- and 9-year-old beginners to perform a comic book story they’d just read in their course book. The story had about 10 lines of dialogue and was about a postman delivering letters to two children and being scared by the neighbour’s dog. This was lesson 14 or 15 for the students, so quite early in their learning. This is what happened in the lesson:

  1. Students were given roles.
  2. They were put into groups to practise for a couple of minutes.
  3. They were asked to perform in front of the group, but struggled with pronunciation and knowing who should speak next. Other students weren’t really listening.
  4. They were given new roles in their small groups and practised again.
  5. They performed in front of the class with similar problems.

Here’s how I might use the continuum to think about planning the sequence differently:

Scaffolding continuum - with numbers 1-7 running left to right

  1. Teacher reads the whole story aloud with students repeating each line after the teacher.
  2. Students are grouped by role, but stay in whole-class mode. Teacher reads the whole story aloud with each group repeating their lines after the teacher. Do this two or three times if necessary, drilling any problem words and focussing on intonation and stress patterns as needed.
  3. Students break into groups with each role represented. They practise the dialogue while reading from their books. The teacher monitors and helps when needed.
  4. Students put their books away and continue to practise in their small groups. Give them a time limit to keep the pace up.
  5. Ask students to choose two things to change in their version, for example the name of one of the characters or the adjective used to describe the dog.
  6. Give them time to practise with their changes.
  7. Students perform in front of the class, with the other students noticing the changes.

Hopefully that should give the students the support they need to be able to act out the story confidently, by gradually removing teacher support until they’re perform their own version of what they’d read.

P.S. I made the continuum by changing PowerPoint slides to ‘banner’ using page setup, something I discovered you could do yesterday (thanks Milada!)

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