May 16, 2005

"We can do this the hard way or the easy way..."

A request from a presenter at the JALT PAN-SIG conference I attended this last weekend reminded me of a colleague at my university, someone who has influenced my partner-in-autonomy and me to a greater extent than any other teacher on campus.

One encounter was one he led a faculty discussion on teaching methods, problems facing teachers at my university. I noticed his great good humour and and self confidence: he was completely at ease, and with great good humour was gently chiding his colleagues to "stop teaching!" I have been thinking about what that means ever since. It seems each time I ponder it, I come up with a different answer.

A second encounter was when he invited us to watch one of his classes. My partner and I went separately, as our schedules permitted. I was the only visitor to the class I attended. My partner and I went because we had heard him talk briefly about an approach he was using, which he called the "raku-raku course" and the "benkyo course". These mean respectively the "easy" course and the "study" course. This class was an optional class on education. About 100 students had signed up. Seeing this large number, and knowing the quality of the students had been dropping (this was a few years ago now; although the quality has not improved since, it seems to have stabilized somewhat recently, plus teachers have got somewhat used to it by now), he decided on a radical approach - he told all the students in the first class that he would divide the class into two groups, the "easy" course and the "study" course, and students would select which "course" they wanted to take. The "easy" course was for those who were not particularly interested in the subject and who just wanted the grades; these students had to write 3 reports by certain dates, reports based on the set text, but they were forbidden from attending the classes - I don't want you in this class! he told them. Go away! Don't attend!. Assuming they handed in satisfactory reports on time, they would get a pass mark: 60%. Nothing more.

The other course was for those who were genuinely interested in learning something and/or who needed higher grades. They were to attend every class, and, in groups, would prepare presentations on various chapters of the book each week. These students could get anything from 61%-100%, depending on their attendance, participation and work.

This approach, and the thinking behind it, greatly appealed to us. Last year, my partner (he asked me to refer to him as "Pinky") had a chance to try this approach out.

May 11, 2005

Blogging and autonomy

Having had such fun in the winter months learning about blogging and enjoying the conversations with some bright and resourceful edu-bloggers, I was eager to try blogging with students. But as term approached, I began to feel it would take a lot more work and energy than I'd thought, and would it be worthwhile? So I actually put nothing in place, except take a look at Moodle.
Then term started, and, taking a hint from Getting There, I invited students of all my classes to give me their input on rules of the class and basic behavioural guidelines.
I first wrote up my 4 rules of the class on the board: 1) be on time, 2) attend at least 2/3 of the classes, 3) practice positively, and 4) respect everyone else in the room. After students had copied these down, I then asked them to discuss these in groups of 2-4 and add anything to them, especially #1 and #2. For instance, what if a student is late? Any penalty? How late is "late" and how late does "late" turn into "absent"? And what if someone is borderline attendance, what should that person do?
Then I asked them to write down their additions, comments, etc., and I collected all the papers. With later classes I asked them to email me their comments and suggestions. I created a special email account at Goo for one school I work at. Goo also has a blog option which I want to try out (my daughter uses it and says it's very easy to set up). My plan is to post all the students' comments and suggestions and questions on the blog (anonymously of course), and include my own comments or other information (like textbook title or homework assignments and deadlines), and see what the interest is. If it takes off, I'll look into a group blog to which all students can post (not just comment on). One step at a time.

So, from now on, this blog will include results and observations on the use of blogging for autonomy, and blogging as an adjunct to regular EFL classes as a tool for self-reflection and to help invite students to be involved in some of the decision-making and running of the class.
Lesley left a comment to my post a while back, and I've been meaning to blog about it coz it was such a lovely quote. The quote is from the French pilot, author and visionary, Antoine de St Exupery:
If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the workers to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

My first reaction on reading this was, that's ridiculously idealistic! You can't build a ship with people who only yearn, for a start! Then my next reaction was, that's all very well but how on earth can you teach anyone to yearn for anything? My next thought was, how can I teach anyone to yearn? And what might that look like, teaching people to yearn? What would the EFL equivalent of "yearning for the vast and endless sea" look like? Finally, I stopped trying to figure it out, and just let St Exupery's words wash around inside my mind. Maybe, if I am quiet enough, I can hear the sound of a seed germinating.

Thanks, Lesley.