Monday, March 18, 2013

Habits in the Classroom

After reading Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit, I can't help but see this world and myself ruled by habit. That may be overstating the point of the book, but only slightly. We all know that habits are very powerful forces that can shape our lives for the better or for the worse. What Duhigg's book does is show us how and why habits are so powerful.

As an example in the book, Duhigg tells the true tale of a man who has lost the ability to create new memories. This man can't remember anything new; however, over time, doctors and family notice the man demonstrating new behaviors--essentially picking up new habits. Duhigg shows us that memory and habit are not the same things, but neither are they mutually exclusive. What we often consider memory is just habit in disguise.

How does this help us in education? Duhigg points out that whatever is done repeatedly becomes habit. If our students are engaged in our classes and leave with a feeling of accomplishment, they'll develop beneficial habits towards education. If they generally feel intimidated and frustrated in the classroom, they'll develop ineffective habits towards education. (Same goes for teachers.) Once again, this is nothing new, but the role that habit plays tends to be more powerful than we think.

Duhigg's book has caused me to ask myself what am I really teaching my students? I know that I've been teaching them how to organize an essay and how to use the present perfect to ask questions, but I've also become aware of how I teach my students to deal with frustration, how I teach them to deal with their insecurities relating to academia, and how to I teach them to engage with the content in a meaningful way. The Power of Habit made me a bit more aware of how my teaching helps instill habits in my students and has also made me more aware of my own habits in the classroom. Though this book is not specifically written for educators (it's actually billed as a business book), it's one of the best educator books I know.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Two Students, One Book

It used to annoy me when my students would forget their books. I'd then have to pair the student without a book with a student that had a book so they could share. However, I began to notice a curious thing-- the partners that shared books were generally more communicative and more on task than those that did not share a book. If each partner had their own book, they tended to work silently and alone  (usually out of shyness or discomfort), even if I asked them to work together. The partners that shared one book had no choice. They had to collaborate.

I then realized, if that be case, why shouldn't all students share books? Now there is the odd rule in my class that partners will occasionally work out of one book. This requires partners to confer on answers, discuss where they disagree, and explain or justify their knowledge. Rather than providing the option to work together, it creates the necessity to work together. In a communication class, I try to place more emphasis on how students communicate--how they go about getting an answer--than circling the correct answer.

This does not mean that finding the correct answer is not important. Once students have finished an activity, I'll check their work. If there is an error, I won't point out the error overtly. Instead I might circle three questions in the book. Two will be correct and one will contain the error. I will then tell the students that one of those three questions are wrong. It is then up to the students to discuss where they think they made their error and correct their own mistake.

Using these methods has helped take what might be individual and non-communicative assignments, and change them into collaborative activities.

Do you have any strategies for creating a more communicative and open atmosphere in the classroom? If so, I'd like to hear them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Competition Vs. Non-Competition: You Decide Who Wins!

One unhappy participant 
When I first started teaching elementary school in Korea, other teachers would tell me how much the kids liked to compete. Competition sounded like the ESL, elementary school teacher's holy grail-- a way to get the students excited, on task, and behaving. So we played games for a bit; however, I found not all was well in the land of competition. For all those students that got energized by the competition, I also encountered students that became frustrated or just apathetic. After a game of telephone, I had half of a third grade class crying because they had lost. It was then that I took the sage advice of those before me and gave it a second thought.

That didn't mean than I got rid of games. I love the way games coax and trick us into learning; however, I stopped playing up the extreme competition, winner take all, aspect of games. I also stopped pitting group against group. I changed the games to be individual against other individuals with board or card games. There was nothing more on the line than just finishing the game. I also turned to game-like activities. "Draw the Monster" is probably my most successful lesson plan and activity with elementary school students. It can be downloaded on the Resource page on my site: Active ESL. In this activity, there's dice, there's surprise and chance, there's sharing and communicating, but there's no competition and the children love it.
A proud student with his creation

I find that younger children can take competition too seriously and older kids (6th grade and up) can easily dismiss it. Everyone has their own teaching style and will have different results; however, I've found competition to be a mixed bag.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words... and a Few Laughs Too

There's been quite a bit written in education circles and in the ESL community about lowering the affective filter. I've always found this term to be a bit cumbersome--lowering the affective filter? It sounds like something you might do when cleaning a pool or landing an airplane. This is just a fancy way of saying that the more comfortable a student feels in class, the greater quantity and quality of work they will produce.

If you look at my site, you'll see that I'm a fan of Power Point. This is partly because of it's ability to display images. Over the years, I've collected some goofy pictures that work well as conversation starters. The pictures have a two fold purpose. One, a funny pic lightens the mood and helps lower that affective filter. Two, these pics are great for intiating conversation and driving home grammar points. The picture on the right is classic that works well for the theme of opposites and using the present progressive tense: "What are they doing? The large monster and the small boy are yelling."

One tip I have for beginning teachers-- if you like to use Power Point and often use pictures, start a collection of your own useful pictures. There have been many times when I've found that perfect picture, lost it in the maze that is my hard drive, and then spent way too long scowering the internet for the same pic. Creating a picture gallery will ensure that the useful pics you find will always be handy.

Have a look at the pictures I've collected at Active ESL. Go the Resources page and look under Templates. For an example of a Power Point using some of these pics, go to the Resources page and look at the Scare, Scared, and Scary--English Survival Skill PPT in the Adult ESL section.

Also, I'd like to know about any resources you have for finding good, conversation inducing art. How do you use visual media in the classroom? Drop me a line if you have the time.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

English Survival Skills

When I first started teaching university, I noticed gaps in my student's knowledge. We would be learning about the second conditional or something like that, but my students wouldn't know what a verb was; or they'd mix up words such as fun and funny, scared and scary, bored and boring ("Nathan, you look so boring today!" they might say). Out of this need for review, I created English Survival Skills. These are small mini-lessons that I present at the beginning of class. They are designed to briefly review some prerequisite knowledge. The students know many of these points but have forgotten them and need the review. I try to make these mini-lessons as quick and entertaining as possible. I was somewhat surprised when I gave my students a survey about the class and many students said that the English Survival Skills were the most helpful part of the class (maybe I should just teach the English Survival Skills).

For examples of what I'm talking about, head to the Resources page of my site and look for English Survival Skills PPTs in the Adult ESL section of the page. I think these would work equally as well with elementary, middle school, or high school age students as well.

Friday, June 15, 2012

SVO and the World of Meta-language

Ahh...meta-language. There's quite the debate as to whether meta-language hinders or helps students acquire another language. (By meta-language I am referring to the words we use to refer to words. Confused? i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, subject, object, present progressive, passive voice, etc.) I tend to fall on the side that meta-language is useful in limited quantities in error correction.

For example, as I mentioned in the previous post, my freshman tend to start off the year giving me one word responses.

Me: "Hi, what's your name?"
Student: "You-jin."

Me: "What did you do last weekend?"
Student: "Shopping."

Me: "Why don't you have your book today?"
Student: "Home."

It's funny, the student's meaning is clear in all the above examples, but these responses are obviously not acceptable. For one, it sounds  rude. Now, my students are not rude. They will usually say these things with a smile on their face; however, it sounds rude none-the-less. Two, these responses sound unintelligent. Once again, my students are not unintelligent; they just have some bad language behaviors.

One word on bad language behaviors-- it is teachers that reinforce bad language behaviors in their students. Often times teachers don't want to decrease student motivation by correcting student responses. Students then learn that one-word responses are okay. We do not do a service to our students by letting them use language that would not be acceptable in English speaking countries.

How then is a teacher to correct a one word response. Many teachers often overtly correct a student's response hoping that the student will parrot the correct response back.

Teacher: "Where is your book?"
Student: "Home."
Teacher: "No, say, 'My book is at home.'"
Student: "Oh, my book is at home."

The only problem with this is overt error correction rarely creates student uptake (see my website in About Me / Writing Samples for a paper I wrote on the is subject). In other words, the student knows they did something wrong, but that's all they learned. In fact, the teacher did all the work.

This is why I always make my students speak in sentence, and why I teach them that every sentence has a subject, verb and sometimes an object. I have a power point that I show in the first week of class (see my website under Adult ESL for English Survival Skill PPT) that reviews how to make sentences. This may seem simple, but it's a simple thing that students often don't put into practice. This way when students give me a one word response, I can use met-language to have them create a grammatically sound sentence.

Me: "Where's your book?"
Student: "Home."
Me: "Use a sentence. What's the subject"
Student: "My book .... home."
Me: "Where's your verb?"
Student: "My book is home."
Me: "Good sentence. 'My book is at home.' Please remember to bring it next time."

This may seem a bit like pulling teeth, but it takes awhile to break old habits. After a week or two, I can just ask students to use a sentence (no reminding them of SVO) and a few weeks later, I don't have to remind them at all.

Some teachers may think that this style is a bit too nit-picky, that it is ultimately demotivating for students, but I have found the opposite. When students are able to make their own sentences, when they correct their own mistakes, it helps develop a feeling of accomplishment.

Another thing to keep in mind, is try to have a sense of humor about all of this. Don't berate students when they get things wrong, and don't put them on the spot. It's a balance between helping them, but also holding them accountable for their own language.

Helping students develop good language learning habits goes beyond teaching a language, it helps students develop a learning skill they will use for a lifetime.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Banishment of One-Word-Responses in the Classroom

I was teaching an elementary class when a student came up to me and said, "Teacher, bathroom." I understood that the student wanted to go to the bathroom so I said sure and let the student leave. It was only later, when I thought about it, that I realized how much poor communication I let the students get away with. This student had, for all intensive purposes, called me a bathroom and I let them leave the class.

Flash forward a few years, to when I started teaching university, and I found that many older students had the same problem. They've learned that they could get away with one word sentences so I found myself teaching students that sounded (sorry to say it, but it's true) unintelligent and rude. Now let me clarify--the uni students were not dumb nor rude, but they were stuck in rut of saying what is easiest and leaving it at that.

Unfortunately or fortunately for them (depends on the student), I no longer allow my students to use one word answers at any time in my class. Every time they speak, it must be in a sentence. This sounds a bit heavy handed, but I think most students actually enjoy this. They know that native language speakers rarely use one word responses and speaking in sentences helps the students to sound more fluent. It seems like such a simple idea, but it is one that is rarely employed in many language learning classrooms.

The big take away: Make it a rule that students must always ask and answer questions in sentences.