June 30, 2007

Blogging with students (4)

Because the task I described at the end of my previous post, proved a little too challenging for my students, I re-cast it (see below). I'm trying to lead them to an understanding of web 2.0

What is good blogging?
  1. Visit this blog, then this one. Which is better (more interesting, more useful) do you think? Why is it better?

  2. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why is it better?

  3. Now visit this blog, then this one. Which is better do you think? Why?

  4. Now go back to the blog you chose in question 1. Write the answers to these questions on your blog.

    1. Who is the blog author?

    2. What is his/her name?

    3. Which country and town do they live in?

    4. Do you want to write a comment on their blog?

    5. Why (or why not) write a comment?

    6. Is it easy to write a comment?

    7. If you write a comment, can the blog author reply to your comment?

    8. Can the blog author contact you?

    9. How?
I followed this up with a quick look at the BBC websites which invite readers to post their photos and videos.
Here are some news photos for you to see from the BBC: 1, 2, 3.
Who took these pictures?
The BBC lets readers send in their photos (see here). What do you think about this idea?

I feel like I'm re-inventing the wheel here. Thousands of people have probably already put together a list of instructions and tasks for EFL students beginning blogging, and they're no doubt all much better than my attempt. But I couldn't find any suitable ones in an hour's worth of Googling. If you know some, or want to collaborate, please drop me a line.

(Credit: a very warm thanks to Aaron and Sean for lending me their students' blogs.)

Blogging with students (3)

I then set them the following task:

Look again at my blog entry British Sports News. Then answer the questions below on your blog.

  1. Good blogging is NOT:

    1. a diary: Dear Blog, Today I got up at 6.30. I had
      a cup of coffee for breakfast. I brushed my teeth. I went to work by train. Then
      I came home. I had dinner and went to bed at 11 pm.
      This is not a good blog. Why not? (Discuss with your classmates and write your answer on your blog).

    2. Today, I visited this website. It was interesting. Then I visited that website. It was interesting, too. This is not a good blog. Why not? (Discuss with your classmates and write your answer on your
      blog).

    3. Today, I found this news article. Please read it:
      Police have confirmed they are now investigating the discovery of two car bombs in the West End of London. Police said the second device was found in a Mercedes hours after the car had been given a parking ticket in Cockspur Street and towed to Park Lane.Another Mercedes, with a bomb made up of 60 litres of petrol, gas cylinders and nails, had been found outside a nightclub in Haymarket at 0130 BST.Both devices were similar, viable and clearly linked, police said.At a news conference on Friday evening, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said the discovery of the second device was “obviously troubling”.“There was a considerable amount of fuel and gas canisters, as in the first vehicle. There was also a substantial quantity of nails,” he said.

      This is not a good blog. Why not? (Discuss with your classmates and write your answer on your blog).

Woah! This was hard, this required thinking!

Blogging with students (2)

This post follows my previous entry on Blogging with students.

Today I had another session with the one class I teach this year where we are using the Internet as an integral part of the class. Yesterday, I wrote a model blog entry in order to
  • encourage them to write in English
  • show them what I expect in a blog entry

Because part of this course is reading news articles in English, vocabulary-building is obviously key. Having attended a workshop given by the creators of Lexxica last year, I signed up for an account, created a group for my students and today had them take the Lexxica vocab assessment test, V-check. It is really quite impressive. I also invited them to play with the games and flashcards and to write a brief response on their blogs.

Apart from the course title, I have been given no directives, guidance or objectives for this course, which will not surprise those who read an earlier blog entry on instructional objectives and university EFL classes (in Japan). So I have to make my own.

Although it's a little late (almost at the end of the first semester!), better late than never, eh? I'm making my own list, but I thought I would ask the students what they expected from the course. This isn't as dumb as it sounds (really!). (If you agree this isn't dumb, skip to the next blog entry).

Over 10 years ago, when I first started writing course descriptions (because there weren't any), it was because I was interviewing English native-speakers for part-time positions and they kept embarrassing me by rudely asking "where's the course description?" Imagine! I approached my Japanese colleagues about this, first to check that there weren't any, second, to obtain guidance and third to see if the department could show consistency and fairness by creating course descriptions for all the department courses, not just those taught by English native-speakers (the furriners).

Guess what I found out, boys and girls? Oh, Japanese teachers don't need course descriptions; they already know what to teach. How? From the course title.

So if it's called "Eigo Hyougen" (English Expression), for instance, everyone knows that it's a writing-in-English class to be taught mainly in Japanese and asking students to translate discrete, context-less items from Japanese into English. Got it? How come you didn't know that? The joys of living in a high-context culture.

So you see, as participants since birth in this high-context culture, my students are likely to have a much better idea of what this class is than I do.

Asking them is also a smart move because, even if they don't know, in this culture it seems that often the standard is what people expect; therefore, if I first find out what my students expect from this class, and follow that, I probably won't go far wrong.

(An example: if a course has a title written in Roman script, and is taught by someone with a non-Japanese name, then it's probably "Eikaiwa" (English conversation), regardless of what the course description says. I recently heard of the case where a university year-book was being produced and photos and short profiles were being prepared for all the teaching staff, of which there were quite a few non-Japanese, some of whom taught Engineering, some of whom taught English. Regardless, all the furriners had the caption "English instructor" pasted under their photo. They're furrners, right? What the hell else they going to teach?!? What planet are you from?!?!)

Blogging with students

This post follows on from my post Assessing student blogs.

I created a blog entry and asked students to write their own blog entry using mine as a model. Here's my model below. Any comments or suggestions as a model blog post are of course welcome. There are 6 points about this blog entry I pointed out to students:
  1. The topic
  2. The title, where I found it and a link to the original article.
  3. Flesh out some detail of the topic - the "what?"
  4. and of the people referred to in it - the "who?" - with links to resource websites (in this case Wikipedia in English and Japanese) so that readers who are unfamiliar with the names or references can find out more about them.
  5. Two key points of the article.
  6. A personal comment, in this case implying why I selected this article.
My blog today is about sport. It is about tennis.

I found
this news article on the BBC website. The title is "Sharapova and Mauresmo go through".

It is about the Wimbledon tennis championship, which is taking place now.
Wimbledon (in Japanese here) is a suburb of London, and it is famous for the Wimbledon tennis championship (in Japanese here) which takes place there every year in June.

This article is about the Russian tennis player
Sharapova (in Japanese here).

The article says that Sharapova beat the French player Severine Bremond 6-0 6-3, so she is still in the championship. Her next game will be against the Japanese player
Ai Sugiyama.

I like tennis. I used to play when I was younger. I used to watch
Wimbledon on television every year.

June 27, 2007

"Attendance" and "instructional objectives" connection


Last year I blogged about taking attendance in Japanese university classes, particularly about the tendency by so many people in higher education in Japan to use attendance as a measure of achievement, or at least as a factor when calculating final grades.

I've been thinking about it again more recently, after reading Mager's Preparing Instructional Objectives, and I've found a link: vague instructional objectives which specify instructional procedure but not desired student performance (what students are expected to be able to do as a result of the instructor's instruction) seem to often accompany this tendency to stress attendance in a certain number of class-hours as an important factor in calculating final grades.

When I think about it, it's obvious: what else is there? If you don't have a clear idea of what you expect students to be able to do as a result of your instruction, there's not a lot left to go on when calculating grades except how many classes they've attended. Granted, if you need some actual figures, you can always drum some up by having a final exam and by giving students quizzes, or assigning homework and giving them a grade for that, and I suspect this is what a lot of teachers do: I'm guilty, too: I have given quizzes primarily for the (unspoken) purpose of having numbers I can calculate for a final grade.

In the afore-mentioned book, which I heartily recommend (it's a very easy read, written in a breezy, humorous style), Mager writes,
Instructors function in a fog of their own making unless they know what they want their students to accomplish as a result of their instruction.
I was reminded of this today after watching an "open" class taught by a Japanese literature professor at the university. The only clear instructional objective I could glean from her explanation and from her published syllabus was "students will be able to pass the exam I set".

In addition, there was no clear objective for this particular class; there was nothing for students to do except listen and take notes; there was no task, or any opportunity for students to participate.

I'm still a long way from making and adhering to clear instructional objectives myself, but it seems a most worthwhile professional objective at this time, although I'm surrounded by people who think the following is an instructional objective (says me with the sneer of the freshly converted):
Next year will be the 1,000th anniversary of the publishing of The Tale of Genji. This lecture series will survey the 1,000 years of history since the writing of the Tale of Genji to the present day, with that work of literature as a focal point.
This is what the instructor will do. What will the students be able to do as a result of this series of lectures?

OK, perhaps not all university subjects easily yield to such an approach; some might argue, with reason, that some subjects are studied for more intangible benefits. Yet surely there can be few subjects that might not benefit from the rigorous examination that is required when creating clear instructional objectives.

June 24, 2007

Giving Moodle the boot



Tried to upgrade my Moodle installs from 1.6.1 to 1.8 (what Fantastico was suggesting). Fantastico had no problem, but all kinds of problems showed up when I visited those Moodle sites and tried to start the upgrade process. In one case, Moodle told me it couldn't even FIND the directory I was pointing it at. In another, there was some problem with the title or something. In all of these, tho, I had to install UTF-8 encode, for instructions on which I should go to the "Admin page". Which admin page? I can't get INTO my moodle site because this damn "Do you want to upgrade" window pops up all the time and won't go away.

OK, pop over to the old Moodle.org and take a gander to see if I can find out how this UTF-8 transfer thing happens. Do you think I can find a page of simple instructions on this within, say, an hour? DO YOU?!?!? One page says do the transfer AFTER you upgrade, another says you must do it BEFORE you upgrade. In any case, there is no "UTF-8 transfer" button (or anything like it) on my Admin navigation bar.

It's the usual story: batted from pillar to post, from "documentation" to "installation" to "Installation FAQ". In between the search, it's time for dinner. Afterwards, somewhat refreshed, I try again. After more pointless running around in circles like being trapped in some porn site, I see the light: I return to "Installation FAQ" and click on "How to uninstall Moodle?"

A mere 5 minutes later and my troubles are over. Moodle has wasted more than enough of my time. Not any more. Blessed release!

Instructional objectives in university EFL classes

On Harold Jarche's blog, I found a post about a book called Analyzing Performance Problems. Thinking it might help me analyze why my students don't "perform" (i.e. study, learn, practice) as well as I think they should, I borrowed it via the inter-library loan and read it. Fascinating. Helped me look at what goes on in my classrooms from a different perspective.

I then ordered Preparing Instructional Objectives by Mager (one of the co-authors of "Analyzing") and was again fascinated. It forced me to examine the following

1) what are the students required to be able to do by the end of the course?

2) what are the skills required in order to be able to begin (undertake) the course?

3) what criteria attend the performance objective(s) (under what conditions will the learners be expected to perform)?

Mager gives examples of "instructional objectives" which aren't: they are procedural instructions or refer to what the instructor will do, but make no mention of what the learners will be able (and expected) to do by the end of the course. E.g. "In this course the instructor will cover the Middle Ages, the Renaissance,... "

I take a look at the syllabi and course descriptions I have been given and the ones I have created. Uh-oh. Almost none refer to what students are expected to be able to do by the end of the course.

Topics are listed, and in some cases notions and functions, but not much that could be clearly labelled an instructional objective. No criteria are given, either. In other words, how am I expected to assess the students? In writing? With an oral exam? And if the latter, what kind?

In one case, I have been told I'm expected to give an oral exam at the end of the semester (next month), but no specifics are offered in terms of objectives or criteria.

Actually, that is not quite true. I have been given one unequivocal condition:
We also ask that during these final exam sessions, students not be allowed to leave early. Students can be given written work to keep them occupied while other students are performing their speaking tests, for example. Even if teachers cannot be in the room, physically, they are expected to provide work for the students to do to keep them in the classroom until the end of the class period.


A point Mager makes in his book is that, if instructional objectives are clear, this should leave the instructor free to achieve those objectives in his/her own way and his/her own time: if the objectives can be achieved in 6 hours instead of 10, great.

I have spoken with other instructors about instructional objectives, i.e. what are our students expected to be able to DO by the end of the course? Generally speaking, the Westerners are sympathetic to this approach whereas the Japanese are not and raise all kinds of objections. A recent one was, "what about the slower learners? Won't they feel frustrated and badly treated if they are the only ones left in the classroom at the end while everyone else has left early?"

My interpretation: a class is a group. In a collectivist society, the group is paramount. In other words, the purpose of having a class is to create a group, and this is more important than actually learning anything. I recently met a student who was in my class last year; she said, "Everyone in that class still has a strong esprit-de-corps". They all bonded. How nice.

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave my friend's example: he had figured out early in his first year that lecturers were reading out info that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn't go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. This lady was outraged: this seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice - it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

I have also experimented with such an instructional objective approach in a freshmen EFL class: there were 10 speaking tasks; students had to practice them until they could perform them satisfactorily. Part of the idea was to allow those who were superior in ability to finish early, because the administration forbade us from granting some students the credits for that class without taking the class, even if the pre-test showed that they were well above the target level of ability.

This experiment did not work well, as basically, students did not practice and simply goofed off. Despite repeated explanations (in their native language), they seemed to completely fail to grasp what we were trying to achieve. Instead they sat there, waiting to be taught.

This experience, together with administrative intransigence with regard to allowing students to "test out" of basic classes, re-inforced my belief that credits are awarded primarily for time spent in the classroom, this being the clearest "instructional objective" I have yet been given. Parents pay for so many hours in the classroom, and this is what teachers must provide. If a teacher misses a class, he or she is expected (in many institutions) to make it up to ensure that students are provided their full quota of 15 90-minute sessions per semester. I understand this, but I also chafe: it fosters a lack of clarity in terms of performance objectives. Apparently, no-one seems to have a clear idea of what students are expected to be able to do after their 15 90-minute sessions.

June 23, 2007

Assessing student blogs

Searching for help with assessing student blogs took a long time. I first found Aaron's summary on Dekita of Jill Walker's list of what works and what does not.

In only one class at the moment am I using blogs. I'm having students write in their own blogs about news articles they find on the web. It has taken 2-3 months for students to get used to blogging and searching on the Internet, using their Bloglines aggregators to keep track of what their classmates are writing, etc. So I have not paid much attention to the actual content of what they have been writing.

Until now.

The class is about reading news items in English. It is not a writing class, and anyway I am not prepared to spend the hours trying to decipher and correcting their English. Students write in Japanese.

It is clear from reading just a random sample of students' blogs that they do not have a clear idea of what to write. I ask them only for their summary of the news item and any comments they may have, such as why they chose this item, what they feel its import is.

Can you guess what they write? "I found this news article. It was interesting," and variations.

Erm, I feel I should do something about this. What?

Giving students specific instructions has been working for me recently, both in terms of having students do sufficient work of a satisfactory standard, and in terms of cutting down on prep and post-prep time. So what kind of instructions should I give them?

I thought I recalled seeing something that might be suitable on Will Richardson's blog, but, while I found some interesting things (who could not?), I didn't find what I was looking for.

On Will's blog, I found a link to Konrad Glogowski's Blog of Proximal Development, which was one of the first to be in my aggregator, but which I stopped following a while back. In his post Making Assessment Personally Relevant I found two graphics that Konrad has used with this students to evaluate and help them self-evaluate their blogging work. I found both very useful: the Individual Progress Report and the self-assessment sheet.

Thanks, Konrad, for making these available. His post also gave me the idea of having students work on a long-term project, rather than looking anew for fresh news items each week.

I might also make a template for students to use when writing: probably a simple lsit of questions. This might also allow them to write (simpel) responses in English: they would just be answering the questions.

Too much work, not enought time

While some are on vacation, we in the land of the falling yen are still slaving away, some of us until the beginning of August, to ensure the students get their money's worth of 15 classes per semester. I've been keeping a log of how many hours I spend on non-class work. Being a salaried worker, I get paid by the month for a set number of "hours" (actually 90-minute class-periods, called "koma" in Japanese) per month. This is supposed to cover preparation, research and administrative work, but no record or count is kept of that.

The result showed me I spend a lot of time on preparation and class paperwork, and also much time on the Internet doing email, reading and writing blogs. Something has to go. I can't maintain 12-hour days indefinitely.

I've reduced class preparation time by systemizing more of what I do, cutting inessentials, having students correct their own quizzes, etc.

I've cut to almost zero my reading of news blogs and news sites.

I've reduced email to just once a day (and none at weekends).

This morning, I just spent 3 hours online, but it was with a specific goal or task in mind.

June 13, 2007

Blogrolls and feeds

When I first started blogging, I used Bloglines as my aggregator, along with millions of other beginner bloggers.

About 6 months ago, after Google bought Blogger, I started using Google Reader, and found it so user-friendly I abandoned Bloglines in a fit of mid-life-crisis fickleness.

With Bloglines, I faithfully kept all my feeds, adding to them, but rarely culling any, tho I don't think that has anything to do with Bloglines' structure or format. With Google Reader, however, I soon found myself unsubscribing from feeds that bored me, that didn't update frequently (in my case, less than twice a month), or that updated too frequently (like 10 or more per day).

My blogroll today is made up of quite different feeds from when I started 6 months ago or so. However, today I noticed one feed that's still there, or that's amongst the long-standing survivors.

Why has it survived?
  • the writer posts once every few days

  • the posts are fairly long, thoughtful and thought-provoking

  • the writer covers many topics, but the focus is pretty much singular

  • every now and then, the writer includes a blog entry on blogging and/or Internet tools, like a "top-ten pick of the month"

  • every blog post includes links to source blogs, articles and other online resources, which makes for a rich reading experience

  • the writer demonstrates intellectual honesty, modesty, fairness and a sense of humour

  • (tho I don't think it's a reason why I remain subscribed to this blogger, because other long-term survivors in my Google Reader include more commercially-toned blogs), the writer is not trumpeting his own service or product (tho he does plug his wife's business, and also has GoogleAds).


(For the curious, the blog in question is Steve Olson's blog.

June 12, 2007

"They just want to be taught"

In a previous, long-winded post, I blathered rather incoherently about teacher-led classes versus student-led or some form of negotiated curriculum.

I have one language class where for part of the time, students work in pairs or threes, each group with their own CD player, textbook and text CDs. They practise a combination of listen-and-repeat exercises, listening only, and speaking only exericses. We started in April, but it is only recently that I have felt students are ready for the responsibility of working on their own. I was recently telling another teacher about this class, and how students seem slow to adjust to the idea that learning English is largely a matter of practice. She said, "Yeah, they just want to be taught."

Taken out of context, this sounds like praise, not censure. "They just want to be taught." Great! Wonderful! What's wrong with that??!? "I'll swap them for my kids any day! Go ahead and teach them, then!"

I can do that, no problem. But at some stage, they need to go away and practice, then come back and show me what they can do. That's the part they won't really do. They are happy being passive, but balk when it's their turn to actually produce. And to be fair, in what other of their classes are they required to produce anything? Again and again, students ask "How many times have I been absent?" Clearly, the frequency of attendance, not some product or performance, is, in their minds, the criterion for passing the course.

June 10, 2007

Cede control to students? Revisited

Dan asks how I'd respond to this solution:
Cede instructional control to the student. Let her direct her own learning. Curriculum and student desire will align.
I teach university students, not high school; uni students are less easy to convince that they absolutely need what I'm teaching; they are IN (the uni) - the major extrinsic motivator for learning English previously.

I tend towards a negotiated syllabus. Here's why.

In the post that prompted Dan's question, I wrote about a mismatch between curriculum and student desires.

Pissed Off (Teacher)
's comment offers one approach to this dilemma, but to work it requires wielding a degree of fear:
if you don't learn this stuff, you'll be
  • out on the street

  • unemployable

  • a leech on society

  • one step from prostitution and/or gang membership

  • all of the above


What if students don't buy that? What if they don't believe that the consequences will be as terrible as you imply, OR they don't believe that even if they do learn this stuff, that the world will open to them?

In my situation, the hard part is getting in to university ("hard" is relative, and it's getting easier all the time, due to demographics). Once they are in, students pretty much sit back and take it easy, indulging in (what they are frequently told is) their last period of freedom before the penal servitude/military service of life in a Japanese company.

Therefore, there is not much incentive for students to work hard. Even getting better grades will not greatly affect the kinds of jobs they will get. What jobs they get depends a lot on the rank or name of the university they graduate from. As this ranking is outside their control or influence, there is not much incentive to work hard and get better grades.

Assuming that you believe what you are teaching is vital (or important) for students' future well-being, then a possible solution is to negotiate with students to find out what they are interested in, what topics they would willingly (or less unwillingly, at least) read about, talk about, write about.

Another reason for negotiating syllabus might be if the curriculum provided is quite obviously inappropriate, or if it's appropriacy is challengeable or open to debate. Perhaps students' reluctance is not so much a matter of "attitude" as that they do not consider the syllabus relevant or suitable. OK, then what would be suitable or relevant?

Dan's point about the importance of being engaging could be considered a form of negotiated syllabus. Otherwise, why bother?

Finally, I think that ceding complete control of learning content and direction to a student would work well in a one-to-one, tutorial situation, the ideal learning/teaching method. But I haven't made it work yet in an institutional setting, and I don't think it is either practical or effective, though I continue to be amazed by and admiring of people who try it, especially those who seem to succeed with it.

June 07, 2007

This looks like fun: conference in Stockholm in June


Damn! Another conference I wish I could attend. Stockholm in June. Yum. I feel homesick already. And I'm not from Stockholm, or even Sweden.

The website for this Podcamp Europe unconference has done me the favour (there's a hint I'm from Europe) of enlightening me on exactly what an unconference is.

I hope some (or all) of the sessions will have online resources posted at some stage or other. Via the links on that page, I discovered Anna Farmery's Podcasting A-Z which looks like a potentially rich resource.

June 05, 2007

A mismatch between curriculum and student desires

I mentioned my sense of a mismatch between curriculum provided by the institution where I work, and the students' wants, and I wish to clarify this.

In a sense, there will always be a mismatch, or at least a gap: it's inevitable that young people will want to do some things that their elders don't want to spend time on or are unwilling to provide for; and conversely, things that others, from their greater experience and wisdom, can see as important and/or necessary which the young cannot as yet see the point of.

Dan Meyer, an ambitious young math teacher, has been banging on about this on and off since he first saw the light: about the importance of capturing students' attention and imagination, remaining lively, even dramatic:
The truth, if you're a speaker addressing an audience, is that the only way to get your audience more engaged is to become, yourself, more engaging. There is no shortcut. The solution is simple but not easy and the difference between those two adjectives lies somewhere on your TiVo.

I'm not advocating abandoning all leadership and letting the students lead the way.

Yet I cannot help feel that the gap or mismatch in many points where students contact the curriculum, is huge and multi-dimensional.

In another class, I abandoned all leadership and let students lead the way (!): I asked the students what they wanted to do. One said, "Go for a walk." These kids parents are paying serious cash so their offspring can have the privilege of spending time with a fully trained language professional (me); they've all said clearly that their objective (this is an optional class - they are all volunteers) is to improve their English-speaking abilities. Yet when asked what they want to do, their answer is "goof off". Where are they at? I sound chiding, but it's a serious question. I sometimes feel like someone, person or persons unknown, has been seriously messing with these kids' heads for the last 10 years or so.

In yet another class, a "higher-level" class, according to test results, and certainly they are all very diligent and quick and do well on vocab quizzes, I set them some reading and writing activities (from Touchstone by Mike McCarthy, CUP). I walked around to see how they were getting on. Some were slouched across their desks, apparently gazing at the textbook, but with no pen in hand or paper to be seen. It takes several attempts at conversation before they volunteer that they don't understand what they are supposed to do, even tho I just explained it twice, once in English, once in their native Japanese. Maybe my Japanese was crap? Who said that? Highly possible, and yet at least half the class got it.

What got me was not just the incomprehension, but the lack of expression. Incomprehension was ok; just give up. I sensed years of being bamboozled in class, of not understanding a word, and yet having been trained not to make that apparent: just sit tight, maybe it doesn't matter, maybe we won't have to hand it in, maybe it won't count, just let it blow over.

I posted many moons ago, about a student who was sitting not doing anything in class. It took at least 10 minutes of talking to her (more like interrogation in that I mostly questioned her) before it became apparent that the cause was she failed to understand a part of the English dialogue they were supposed to be practising. It took a further full 5 minutes of slowly going thru the dialogue with her to identify exactly where she did not understand. Why didn't she ask? I figure: she's just not that motivated (she just wants the credits), or she is motivated but this particular material is so numbingly boring she can't bring herself to practice it, or she's learned that raising a hand and asking for help is likely to get her a shame-inducing scolding for daring to suggest that the instructor chose inappropriate materials or failed to adequately explain. It's apparently common for Japanese to get upset when they are asked a question, as it suggests some kind of inadequacy on the part of the instructor and hence borders on insubordination. (This is what I've been told by numerous adult Japanese when I asked them why nobody ever asks questions in a class or public lecture).

So many of the students I come across seem tired, bored, apathetic, and seem to have very low expectations of their university classes and teachers. It's all boring, it's all unengaging, and that's par for the course. You just grin and bear it, or lie down, shut your eyes and think of pachinko (or majhong, or pastries, or Keiko, or whatever your fancy is).

June 04, 2007

My textbook doesn't work



Having spent half the weekend in Tokyo for JALTCALL 2007, and after spending too much time preparing in previous weeks, I decided to cut out the fancy stuff, and just go by the book for once: just follow the instructions in the teacher's manual. Would you like to know how it went?

I knew you would! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

The book I'm using was chosen for me, and is pictured above (see more details on the Longman website): Powerbase Elementary.

Keep books closed. Hold up a newspaper/magazine and point to a job advert. Say what is it? Try to elicit advert or advertisement in L1 or in English. Say It's a job advert.

Open books. Ask students around the class Are you a accountant? etc, and elicit replies.
Oops. Didn't read this instruction in time to prepare. I didn't have a newspaper or magazine (stopped reading them years ago, so I didn't have one handy in my bag). I skipped this part and just told them "these are adverts. These are job adverts." Pretty ingenious, eh? I also skipped the part about asking them "are you an accountant?" because all the students in the class are university students, they all know each other, and so they can all answer "no" to any question I ask them; they know it's pointless and they'll just look at me like, "what...... are you doing?" Moving on.
Focus attention on the adverts. Ask students to read them quickly and fill the gaps with the jobs in the box.

Walking around the class, I noticed hardly anyone doing this. Did they not understand? Thinking this might be the case, I went around pointing to the jobs highlighted in yellow which are supposed to be used for this exercise, and showed them where on the actual job adverts they were supposed to write their answers. Nobody seemed thrilled, but they (oh! so slooowwwwly) got into gear and started reading and writing. No collaboration, no talking. You could hear a pin drop. I put on some background music. A couple of guys were already asleep (this is the last period in the day). I walk briskly around the room, jollying them along, but asking myself "what's the point?"

By now, some have quickly finished the exercise, while others have just started, and yet others are doing nothing at all except possibly waiting to be told the answers. (This is a teacher's exercise, so sooner or later teacher will check the answers aloud with the class; they can just wait till then and write down the answers. Saves time and brain "wear and tear".)

Already feeling disheartened, I plough on:
Ask students to read the job adverts again, then ask check questions such as What is Trevor Gibbons's telephone number? Where do they want a piano teacher?
This is toe-curlingly slow. Nobody answers. I have to stand in front of someone or call their name, then wait up to 30 seconds or even longer while they figure out that I'm asking them a question, that it has something to do with the text in front of them, that they are going to have to actually read the text to get the answers, and is it really worth the effort? Meanwhile, I'm aware that most of the rest of the class have tuned out because I'm asking a particular student. I belatedly realize I should have added another activity: read the friendly text. Again. After a couple of questions, I abandon this activity, and move on. They don't read the text. They only read the text, when they hear a question regarding it has been directed at them. Then they hold the whole class up while they stare at the text trying to figure out where in it the answer lies.

The next activity requires them to match (write) verbs with nouns, such as "send" + "an email", or "make" + "arrangements". I walk around the room, but most students have already finished the exercise, while (again) some haven't even started. Do I make the quick ones wait and insist that the slow ones complete the exercise (some students don't even have the textbook; I've lent my copy out already)? Or do I abandon the slow ones and move right along? I decide to abandon the slow ones.

Now it's listening time. There are 2 conversations on the CD which refer to two of the jobs listed in the adverts. Which ones? I make a meal of the explanation, to make sure everyone gets what the activity is, where to write the answers, etc. I play the CD. I just let it run, and, remembering that up to now I've kind of been flogging a dead horse, I decide not to replay it, but ask students what they think the answers are right after stopping the CD at the end of the 2nd conversation. The first student I pick looks at me with an expression that tells me she hasn't got a clue, and may not even understand what it is I'm asking her. This time, perhaps, I should have gone more slowly... I long for the days when I did drama, and barely used a textbook at all...

To be fair, it's not entirely the textbook's fault, nor the students': some are not interested in English at all, but others genuinely want to try speaking it. Some of the fault is mine, for not properly preparing and anticipating some of these problems in advance (I've worked here long enough, I should know by now. And I did! I just wanted to try just following the teacher's manual for once, instead of spending hours creating my own version of the text and the teacher's book, because that just takes too much of my time).

But they want to talk to the foreigner, me, not their partners. Talking to one's Japanese partner in English is so weird and unnatural that they do it as little as possible. They are not really interested in learning to use the bricks and mortar or the language, they just want a genuine opportunity to speak it, and they want to say and hear something fun, funny, cool, or all three. What would go down well with this group is a scene from a popular movie, which they read out or maybe act out with appropriate gestures and movements.

There is a major mismatch between the students' wants on the one hand, and the curriculum that has been prepared for them on the other. The textbook is well put together, based on some sound pedagogical principles, but it fails to grab the students' attention or imagination: they're not interested in learning grammar or practising discrete grammatical or lexical items. They just want to talk. I need to come up with something fast. Maybe some role plays with role cards? There are far too few conversations in this textbook, conversations that students could use as models (not just for listening exercises) to base their own creative efforts on.

In an earlier class, I had had students practise three different conversations, then perform them for me in pairs or threes. This went rather better than the last class of the day, the one I described above: altho I was not "teaching" for most of the class, students were practising their conversations in English for much of the time (some downtime while they waited for their turn to perform for me, inevitably), and enjoyed the interaction with me, some hamming it up (including pretending to be completely clueless and unrehearsed, simply in order to spend more time getting my attention and annoying the groups waiting for their turn).