Saturday, December 22, 2012

EAP - A Door of Opportunity for EFL Instructors and Language Learners

A gift I received from my EAP group on their graduation.

In January 2011 I took a course to prepare for teaching a new one. The course I took online through UMBC was called TET (Teaching English to Teens) and the course I would start teaching was named English Access Microscholarship Program or just Access or EAP as we call it now. This program according to the official description on the web "provides a foundation of English language skills to talented 13-20 year-olds from economically disadvantaged sectors through after-school classes." In this post I will try to describe my experience with the English Access Program and how I applied some of the theory I learned in the preparatory course. (or already knew) to my classes.

The course on teaching English to teens lasted about a month or so and the new EAP group started in March 2011. The TET course was helpful because it reminded me that teenagers, despite social/economical background, are equal in the sense that they share certain characteristics of personality and have needs that are almost universal. Therefore, taking that issue into consideration and trying to address it, is vital for a successful class. Being aware of these variables, what I did was to apply principles for teaching language to this group catering to some of their specific needs.

One important thing I had to do was to change students' attitude towards the language. Knowing that they were probably coming from a school where English was taught mainly through translation, I could assume that many them believed that learning English was difficult or even impossible. Therefore I told and showed them (through teaching) that translating was not always the best strategy for learning a foreign language. Once they knew it and realized they could understand chunks of language without necessarily finding the equivalent word or expression in their mother tongue, they discovered a new way of learning, and consequently, started changing their attitude towards the target language.

Another important aspect to consider was keeping learners interested in coming to our Friday meetings. Although these students were quite motivated to take the course, I thought it would be advisable to give them something to look forward to when coming to class. To achieve this goal, I used music. Almost every class I played some latest hit song. I usually had some kind of task related to the song. In other occasions I just projected the lyrics on the screen and we sang along. They really had fun and later told me they had that song on their heads all week long. Sometimes songs were not that recent, but if I felt the song had a cultural/historical value, I played it and explained to them why it was important. For example, if there was a major event in which a certain musician (unknown to them because of their age, but famous worldwide) was going to give a performance, I would play his/her most famous hit. This proved to a good strategy because it anticipated something they would see on TV and made them feel more aware of the world around them. So music was a motivator and another way of changing their attitude towards the language.

Providing a range of learning options and resources is also another important issue when teaching a foreign language. In relation to this, I remember that before the course began, we (school coordinators and teachers involved in the program) were concerned about the digital divide. We were a bit cautious about using the web for blended learning because we assumed that these learners, given their social economical background, would not have the desired access to computers with internet connection. To our surprise, however, not only did they have access to the web but were also able to do tasks assigned for web based projects and the available web resources to advance their learning. In this regard, the initial assumption that they had no access to computers was wrong. Under these circumstances, we were able to work on several projects in which they went home, gathered information from their relatives and community, and later shared them in class and published their work on the web. Such projects did not make them more autonomous but also provided an opportunity for reflection and discovery.

It is true that teens have emotional and intellectual needs. However, they also have a very basic physical need: food. Their growing bodies demand a lot of energy and they love eating junk food and sweets. Cooking, however, is not one of my specialties. Nonetheless there is one thing I can make that almost all my students simply love: chocolate chip cookies. Therefore, I made cookies for my EAP class quite often. Once I made them during class Getting some involved in making the though, others in writing the recipe on the board, and others in taking pictures or filming the event. Some of them learned the recipe and baked cookies for their families. I could see that something as simple as this helped them see themselves as more valuable and autonomous learners once they could share something learned in class with their community. Cookies became a sort of transitional object that frequently popped in our conversation and mediated our informal interactions. This connection was so meaningful that we scheduled a reunion some time next year to get together and have some cookies and refreshments.

The enhancement activities were a kind of mandatory part of the course. What we tried to do was to whenever possible draw a parallel between their culture and the target language culture. This was a nice away of contextualizing learning and providing students with an opportunity to make discoveries or recycle their own culture. Once they did that it also made them proud of their background and increased their self-esteem. The latter being an area that deserves special attention first due to their age group and second due to their social economic situation.

All in all, I would definitely say that my experience with this program was a very rewarding one for me and for the students as well. As I watched each one of them walking towards the stage to get their certificate, I felt that they were a bit transformed and had taken their first steps into their journey of learning a foreign language and many other things that will be extremely important for their lives. As a teacher, I felt grateful for the contribution they had given to make my classes better, enabling me to teach teens just like them that will be entering my class next year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gagne and the Nine Events of Instruction in an English Lesson

Skitch note created in Brasilia at 19:37

After years and years of teaching and planning, it is common to think that we know everything. During this teaching journey we also discover that our craft is everywhere we look around. I recognize this might sound like I am a bit obssessed about teaching. But, think with me, don't sports stars and actors also seem a bit obssessed about what they do? So, why shouldn't we? Anyway, obsessed or not, we see a lesson and an opportunity for teaching in a film we watch, on a flyer handed out in traffic light, in a science podcast. Being that enthusiastic about what I do, I have always thought that this is a wonderful job. It extends throughout your life and the older you get the better you become. It might not be so, but thinking like this makes me more comfortable about getting older and having chosen such a career. This pervasiveness is true especially for those who teach language once our subject matter is everywhere. We have a drive to communicate and spoken, written, and even sign language is everywhere. This way, we language teachers, are never at a loss for teaching materials and and the instruction ideas that spring out from them. In this matter, I would like to share with you what I have learned in the course I took at UMBC about Gagné and the Nine Events of instruction. In this post, I will try to connect each of the nine events to the way most teachers teach language.
Gain attention in the first event of instruction according to Gagné. It is true that if we want to engage our students in the learning process, the first thing we should do is to find a way of having, if not all, at least ninety percent of them, focused on what we have planned for a given class. So, this is the moment in which we announce that there will be discoveries. It is that " hey you " moment in which you stop any parallel conversations without asking your students to shut up. To gain attention, you share something that is in way connected to the lesson you are about to start.
Inform learner is the second event of instruction proposed. This is an opportunity to tell your class what your objectives are. I know many teachers are against doing it explicitly (especially if it is a grammar lesson), however we can always come up with implicit/inductive ways of doing it. Informing learners make them realize that we care about their intake of the content ahead and also helps building autonomy. Besides that, it is helpful in the wrap up process at the end of every lesson. Once informed about what lies ahead, learners can access what they have really achieved once the lesson comes to an end.
Stimulate recall of prior learning is the third event in a language class. It is during this event that we show students that we want to learn a bit from them, that what they already know is extremely important for us and for that specific learning community. When we do this, we allow them to share their knowledge and give the first steps in the direction of building a tapestry in which their contributions start being woven into the fabric of collaboration that emerges in class. This event sets the foundations to build the rest of our teaching event. It tells students that they are active participants in the learning process and not mere passive, blank slates.
Present stimulus material is the fourth event on Gagné's list. This one refers to the moment we show learners the content that needs to be retained. For retention to occur, Gange points out, we need to organize the material in meaningful chunks. That is exactly what language teachers do: we divide the content in bite sized morsels so that our students can slowly swallow, digest, and later use it. I like this analogy with food because it helps language learners and teachers realize that it is not possible to speed up the process.
Provide learner guidance is the fith event of instruction. This step has to do with how the instructor communicates with the learner and is intertwined with the previous one. This communication, in case of language teaching is very specific. The teacher tailors the language and instruction to guide the learner and help him or her stay on track. This guidance comes not only in verbal discourse, but also through images and any other media that assists the learner in retaining and encoding information. Such precise and guided communication allows learners to understand content and process it in a way that they gradually feel capable of using it later.
Elicit performance is the sixth event. This one is in a way much anticipated by educators. After crafting a good attention getter, informing the learner, and grading the language used to present content, we do look forward to the moment of having our students perform a task that demonstrates we are doing a good job. Performace at this stage, is still a controlled practice and limited to the repetitions of examples we have given. It is a moment for repetition of a model provided by the instructor. Nevertheless, it is much awaited because it gives us feedback on how much progress is being made by students in retaining the target content.
Provide feedback is the seventh event. This is the one in which we prune or praise the controlled practice. Here lies an opportunity we have correct the course of the learning journey. This correction can be done in many ways. The istructor can give explicit and direct feedback or use strategies that allow students to notice what needs to be corrected and do it by themselves. Here teachers give opportunity for students to review and improve performance.
Assess performance is the eight event. It is at this moment that the teacher checks whether learners have fully understood the lesson. Different from the previous one which involved controlled practice, this one involves a larger degree of freedom because the goal is to assess, not to correct or give feedback. This event is the coronation of a lesson and might indicate the need for change of methodology in the future. An attentive instructor might discover during this event that one of the previous events need to be re-evaluated.
Enhance retention and transfer is the last event. Once assessment has been carried out, learners must feel they have learned the content and are ready to apply it to other situations. So, teachers should plan activities that expand students' knowledge and make them confident in using what they have learned. This is the moment in which students produce language that goes beyond what has been drilled or modeled by the instructor. It is a moment for exercising creativity and transferring what has been learned to a variety of situations. This event is an occasion for free production of language.
As you could see, the nine events proposed by Gagné are a good way of revisiting what we know about teaching. Besides that, they also offer some insights into steps we should consider taking when planning our lessons. For me, the breaking down of the standard lesson plan into more discrete units seems to be helpful for instructors trying to better understand the dynamics of teaching and learning. Finally, it is good exercise to read the steps and compare them to our prior knowledge, and also, a way of enhancing retention and transferring our skills.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Classroom Interaction

Foldable for reading activity
Techniques and behaviors for increasing student participation and practice in class.
On July 25 Dr. Ron Schwartz came back to teach and entertain us a little bit. This time we also had the pleasure to have Madeleine Schwartz as a lecture. The topic of the day was classroom interaction and here is a summary to myself and my readers.
When we teach English, we do not just teach a language, we teach communication. If communication is the goal of our teaching, then classroom interactions are really a vital part of our classes. Therefore, this workshop made us reflect on our practices and gave some ideas on how to promote classroom interactions that help our students learn. This reflection, however, was coupled with experiential learning. Such feat was achieved because the techniques and behaviors discussed were role played during the entire workshop having participants act as teachers or students.
One of the tips shared by Dr. Schartz was a chart in which we could mark the kinds of interactions happening in class. As Dr. Schwartz proceeded with the lecture, participants marked on the hand out the equivalent interaction pattern (teacher asks question, student answers question, student volunteers, etc). This exercise reminded us of the importance of guaranteeing even participation and monitoring the quality of language produced by our students. Although the procedure demonstrated seemed to some of us a little challenging to be execute, it could be used by a peer teacher to observe our classroom and later feedback. A chart like this could also serve as check list to keep on the back of our minds, as a reference to remind us of promoting good exchange and real communication.
As we discussed interaction, the theoretical discussion came to the foreground. This gave us an opportunity to reexamine our, beliefs, methods, and approaches to language teaching in the light of our experince as teachers and the context of our institutions and countries. This was good exercise because it allowed us to share our perspective and reminded us that there is no such a thing as one size fits all method or approach. The ideal method or approach is the one that takes students needs into consideration and is flexible and not restrained by theoretical limitations.
Still related to classroom interaction, we discussed techniques and behaviors that conduct to effective leaning. At this point, Madeleine Schwartz gave us a sample class for teaching very young learners (eleme notary students). We played the role of students and she conducted a very instructive reading activity. The used of foldables together with reading strategies such as predicting, clarifying, asking questions, and summarizing gave us precious tips on ways to engage young learners in reading activities.
On a cultural note, we were reminded that culture affects one interaction style. Although this is little stereotypical, but is helpful to understand the way people interact. Americans are monochronic/linear and when answering to a question go straight to the point and do not give much extra information on the topic. Latins, on their turn, are polychronic and tend to zig zag as they answer a question or tell a story. So being aware of these differences between our culture and the target culture is helpful in making our spoken (and even written - essays) interactions more successful.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Teaching English to Young Learners


Today, July 24, Dr. Joan Shin conducted a very interesting workshop on Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL). As usual, in the lines below, I will try to summarize what I learned from her and from my colleagues in this workshop.


English has become a lingua franca and in the globalized world we live in. In many countries it has also become a symbol of status and prestige. Besides that, there is a belief that starting learningn thenlanguage earlier is better. As a result of these facts, governments in many countries have implemented policies that oblige schools to make the teaching of English mandatory at younger and younger ages. In addition, parents also feel the need to give their offsprings a lead in the competition for better jobs, and as a consequence, are placing their children in language institutes at earlier ages. 

This demand for an earlier exposure to English places an extra resposibility on school admisnistrators and on teachers' shoulders: they need to come up with best practices for teaching taking into account all the peculiar chacteristics of young learners. Such practices .involve, among other things, designing a curriculum that is appropriate to their age, training teachers in methodology that caters to young learners emotional and psychological development, and building an atmosphere that makes students life long learners. In this respect, Dr Shin's workshop was really helpful once she conducted a series of activities that were practical, enjoyable, purposeful, and meaningful. Besides that, she also gave us hints on adapting these activities to our context.

To those not familiar with the field of teaching, the task of teaching young learners might an easy one. However, as participants pointed out, there are many challenges to be addressed. Among those problems are: the number of hours dedicated to instruction, the lack of support from parents for exposure to target language outside the classroom, and limited linguistic competence of teachers. Some of these problems require a dramatic change in policies at the government level and there is not much we teachers can do about them. However, all of us believe in the power we have as multipliers. Change that is lasting has to be a bottom up process. So, while governments do not change policies, we can try to reach our peers. And that was exactly what we started doing in the afternoon session: try to come with ideas that promote professional development in our local teaching communities.




Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Little on Intercultural Communication

Welcome to my culture

On July 23rd, continuing the UMBC E-Teacher Scholarship Program, we formally started our workshops. I say formally because all of us in the program realized that in the last three days we have been part of a big informal workshop. In the lines below I will try to integrate my perceptions of this whole experience and how the situations we have been through and the interactions we had illustrate concepts related to Intercultural communication.

First, one of the things that Dr. Schwartz showed on his entertaining lecture was that when it comes to communication, we are not any different from our students, and as such we have a drive to communicate and make the uniqueness of our identities perceived. So, as we strolled down streets, went shopping, ate together at The Grits and in restaurants, we were having conversations and expressing our cultural identities through communication. Communication is not restricted to words only, it includes our gestures, the way we dress, and even our silences and pauses. Although we all might claim we teach English, what we really teach is communication.

Once we realize how important communication is, we have to start reflecting on the role that culture plays in communication to be aware of two very important aspects of culture: macro and micro culture. In our interactions with the scholars in the program, the coordinators, and program assistants, while we were striving to memorize names and countries the most salient aspect of their and our identities was the macro culture. Every time we introduced ourselves to the cafeteria staff we tried to snow our macro culture badge. Our macro culture IDs work as an ice breaker and makes communication flow. Macro culture is helpful for small talks and to help us to place people on a map (as we did when we were introducing ourselves and pinning the world map with colored post it notes).

While our macro culture is an important badge or hat to identify us and put a pin in the world map, our micro culture is the one that differentiates and defines us in a unique way. In these three days we have been here we were all lucky to have more meaningful interactions with som e of our peers and express a bit of our uniqueness. In these occasions we talked about our ethnic groups, our marital status, our preferences concerning food and dressing. These were moments that we treasured because they gave us a chance to stop being just a pin on the world map. Our micro culture is what helps us to form more meaningful relationships and break the mold of stereotypes that are many times attributed to our macro culture identities.

Although it seems fascinating to think, talk, and write about this dance of cultural identities, we should take into account that conflicts arise. When different cultures meet, at first everything seems to be a bed of roses. This is true especially if it is long awaited encounter, as is our case. This cultural honeymoon also lasts longer when you already know a lot about the target culture or are otherwise under the spell of the fascination of discovery. However, as time goes by and you start experiencing frustrations due to unmet expectations, difficulties to achieve very basic goals, and other difficulties. As a result of such frustrations a relationship with a person or country (a culture) goes stale - culture shock. Symptoms of culture shock can be subtle such as criticism of aspects of host culture such as food or way of dressing. Other times culture shock can cause depression and a total refusal of further interaction with the target culture. Hopefully all of us are just in this minor state of culture shock (the fun crab feast) and under the spell of discovery. So, let's hope it continues like that, but if we happen to be victims of such cultural experience we know there are friends we can count on.

Finally, we have also learned from Dr. Schwartz culture shocks are not a privilege of those traveling abroad. Culture shocks happen within the walls of our schools and classerooms and we have to be aware of them. However, awareness only is not enough. As educators, we should design activities that do not only allow students to express their macro and micro cultures, but that also makes them aware of differences and conflict and teach them strategies to deal with them.

An Example of a Students' Fairy Tale


I was very sick and I didn't have anything to do, so I called my daughter and asked her if she and my granddaughter could go to my house. She said that she couldn’t, but my granddaughter could and she’d bring some candy to me.
Foldable for reading activity

The girl picked up her bicycle and went to my house. She went through the park, because it was faster. She couldn’t talk to strangers, but one wolf stopped her and asked where she was going, as she was very sweet, polite and didn’t lie, she said and showed him, how he would arrive at my house. He ran fast and arrived at my house, pretending to be my granddaughter.

However I’m very smart and I was suspicious, in fact I looked at my surveillance camera and saw who he was. So I called the police and they arrested him. My granddaughter arrived and I told her the story, she was sorry about her innocence. Then, we ate a lot and the wolf couldn’t carry out his evil plan.

(Written by Natália -Juvenile 74)

Monday, July 23, 2012

UMBC Day 03 - Baltimore Art Festival, Baltimore Aquarium, and Mezze Restaurant

July 22nd was another surprising day of activities for e-teacher scholars. We started the day with breakfast at The Grits. Next we got into the bus to go to the Baltimore Art Festival. As usual, the bus dropped us at our first destination - the Baltimore Art Festival - and we were told it would pick us up in about three hours. From then on we were on our own. I really like the configuration these group strolls take. We generally depart with a group of friends and change our strolling peers as we walk and get called by someone else or get distracted by our uniqueness of interests. This unintended group arrangement provides an opportunity for a bigger variety of interaction and is itself a very enriching personal and cultural experience.

The Art Festival


Apart from the human and interactional side of this excursion, the Art Festival in itself is fantastic. The festival is one the biggest of this kind in The U.S. Part of the downtown area streets are blocked for the event. As you walk up and down you can see lots of interesting works of art. Works of art range from paintings to handcraft and from glass miniatures to installation art. There was even an impressive collection of insect replicas. Besides that, there were food stands with a great assortment of choices in case visitors got hungry. I did and I got myself some smoothie and a gyros. Really a great choice for a Sunday morning.

The Aquarium


After the art festival we got the bus and headed to the Baltimore Aquarium. Sitting at the harbor area, this is a four-story building displaying a fascinating collection of water creatures in their different habitats, some rain forest insects and frogs and tropical botanic garden. Again we constantly changed our walking, chatting, picturing peers. I personally found it a very enriching educational experience. As I walked with Valentina, she shared very interesting stories related to animals and the discoveries one can make while closely observing animals in general. We talked about how kids and adults as well can benefit of such experiences and develop a deep respect for all species of life surrounding them. I kept wishing I had my English Access students and my nephews with me. It was so interesting that we had to rush to mange to get a glimpse of everything before our bus arrived. The aquarium showed some of us a world that some of us had only seen on television and it allowed us to share our personal stories about the ones that were familiar to us.


After so much walk, we felt tired and hungry. So, the next stop was the Mezze Restaurant. For this early dinner we sat in parties of five, six, or seven. On my table we talked about so many things. Some of the topics were: food (of course), our students and schools, vacations, what we watch on television, our native languages and their peculiarities and similarities. Needless to say the food was delicious, and being such an unskilled cook, I could not name all the dishes that we were served. The conversation was fantastic, and to be honest, with such wonderful conversation and conversationalists, I could probably go hungry for another two hours. My roommate Chauki and Hisham, who were fasting, would probably agree with that. This reminds of a scene of one of my favorite movies AI (a project of Stanley Kubrick directed by Steven Spielberg). In this scene the mother is taking the now unwanted boy robot to disposal ground on the woods. The boy robot, unaware of his "adoptive mother's" intentions strikes a conversation. The mother is extremely sad and really does not want to abandon him because she has grown to love the robot boy. It goes more or less like this.

" What will we have for dinner today? " asks the boy robot.
" You never eat." the mother says. He is robot and he can't eat. If he does, he is seriously damaged.
" But I like to sit at the table." Replies the boy robot.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

UMBC Day 02 - Crab Feast Dinner

After breakfast at The Grits, we got the bus to go shopping. First stop was Best Buy (my favorite store ever). Guess why! We spent some there checking tablets, PCs and other gadgets. We had about four and a half hours to walk around. Some of my classmates agreed that shopping malls are very much the same all over the world. This similarity breeds congeniality and makes us feel at home. As a result, we become more relaxed and interaction becomes smoother, an ideal situation to get to know one another.  DSC00416
The climax of the day was The Crab Feast Dinner at Dr. Joan Shin's place. We first took a ride through very nice neighborhoods with lush green gardens and beautiful houses. After we went through a beautiful little town (sorry, I forgot the name and google maps was not that helpful). Then we finally arrived at Dr. Joan Shin's home and we were kindly received by her, Teresa, Adriana, and the program assistants. Before getting to the much awaited crabs, we could try some delicious finger foods. Some of us almost forgot that there was something else to eat later.
Finally we were invited to the basement. Surprisingly we were told we did not need any plates. At the basement there were two large tables covered with brown paper. On the tables there were also wooden hammers (one for each one of the guests). Having realized what for and how they were going be used, I thought to myself "This is going to be messy."
At the head of each table stood two white cardboard boxes and inside them, we guessed, famous crabs. The boxes were open and just like paparazzi most scholars with cameras on hand took lots of photos.  DSC00430
Flashes gone on and off, Dr. Shin did the honors of guiding us through the process cracking the crabs open and extracting the meat. It so noisy and so fun. I have to confess I was not the most skillful person in opening the crab, but I really enjoyed the experience as everyone else did. Some scholars suddenly became experts in the task and were very soon bragging about establishing a new recording of being the who ate the biggest number of crabs. It was definitely a messy, and fun experience to all of us. It makes us think about how different cultures can be. The ritual of breaking the carbs looked at the same time primitive and extremely sophisticated. Definitely a life changing cultural lesson.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

E-Teacher - The Grits

The Grits

Meet The Grits. This will  be our first hang out place every morning. This morning I got there at seven something. I had to go back an forth many times. First I had forgotten my umbrella, then my iPad, then my jacket. I guess I am getting old or just forgetful. All these things turned out to be really useful. 
It was really nice to meet everyone rested and enjoy the first meal together.

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E-Teacher Journal - A Draft

E- Teacher Scholarship Journal

I am just trying to use Blogsy on my iPad and posted an entire version of two previous posts by copying and pasting straight from pages.


When I arrived in my room I found a beautiful wine notebook on my desk. I opened it and it suggested that I wrote a journal about my days here at UMBC. I asked myself "Where is my pen?" Then I thought, why using pen and paper if I have a bag full of gadgets (iPad, iPhone, netbook, camera). I had already taken two photos. So I just opened my iPad on pages and started writing. As I wrote, I jus copied and pasted the photos.

Let's see what happens. I already love the idea.


UMBC - Day 01




Today is the 20th of July. After about ten hours of flight I finally arrived at the UMBC Campus. I really caught myself biting my nails all the way till I got here. I was a bit impatient with the taxi driver. Although I had a map and everything, I was still a bit afraid to get lost and not make it. First I went to the wrong entrance of the building. One of the staff showed me where I had to go. While walking to the next entrance, I realized that on the rush to find the right place I had left my taxi receipt behind. When I turning around to fetch the forgotten paper, I saw the lady that had given me directions walking behind me with the receipt on her hand. Then again, I entered the wrong building. Finally, with help of a second person, I made it to the right place. It was a relief when Rebecca welcomed me, gave me key and took me to my room. I was really happy to find this beautiful bag filled with treats. Now I am headed for lunch. Just cannot wait to meet the other scholars later tonight.



Lunch was fine. There was a big variety of things to choose from and this made me feel home. I usually eat in a restaurant that has a wide choice of vegetables. So, I stuck with vegetables, some pasta, and bread. For dessert, I just couldn't help eating some cookies.









While BBQ time did not come, I took the usual after lunch nap. I slept for about an hour and then took a walk around the campus. I was dying to get some coffee. So I went to the bookstore building The Commons. However, as I checked the possible coffee place it seemed to be a bit after hours. So, I decided to check the bookstore.




Barbecue time was fun. We finally met Teresa Valais who has been chaperoning us in this voyage. Joan and Adriana also joined us. We had a great evening and while we savored the food we talked a bit about our experiences and the present state of education in our countries. Scholars arrived little by little, and as they arrived they joined the conversation. I know I should try to name everyone, but I am terrible with names. The food in the pictured is wrapped because we were always waiting for someone else o arrive. Chaouki, who is going to be my roommate, had not arrived till I wrote this post. I really tried to wait as much as I could, but tiredness got the best of me and I had to come to my room. However, before going to bed, I decided to write this post.


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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Where to Publish Students' Work?

Since I started using the web in my classes I have become a big fan of publishing and I have always been proud of some of mine and my students' accomplishments in this arena. In the beginning I started blogging. At first, I wrote blog posts myself and asked students to post comments. I could see that this seemed to be a nice and interesting way of engaging students. It elicited a given structure or lexicon, and got their opinion on a given subject. However, it lacked initiative from the part of learners. I felt that I could not limit blogging to comments from the part of students only. Besides that, I found my posts a little predictable and missing the desirable originally.  To be honest, I started getting tired of listening too much of my own of voice as the conversation initiator.  
photo credit: Βethan via photo pin cc
Once I realized that reducing blogging to students comment was not enough, I moved on to the second stage of my publishing efforts. This stage involved getting my students to create blogging entries themselves. As a result, my class blogs blossomed with creativity. Students used their own drawings and images to illustrate posts. Besides that, I could see that they were more interested in reading and commenting on what their friends had written. Comments were not always written, but they always checked and browsed their peers posts. Therefore, there was a change on the cyber landscape. At this point, I also could change my role and started being the one  reacting, giving feedback on my their work. Not only that but I also got some of my online friends to give feedback on my students published content.
However, as time went by, I started realizing that blogging also had some limitations of its own. For example, in a large, prolific group, one easily loses track of content. If you have too many posts, it becomes difficult to keep up with the time line. Posts that are quite recent are not visible and only the most recent ones are displayed on the first page. As result, your audience (students themselves and others) might feel a bit overwhelmed with content. To top it all, as the web evolved, blogging started losing its appeal to younger learners. Their interest moved to platforms that allowed adding peers as friends and all sorts of connections besides mere comments on posts.
It was after realizing that students needed a more connected publishing platform that I went for social networking. So, that is where I am now. I am struggling to find one that suits mine and my students need. Although I really like Facebook, I think it has the drawback of being sometimes too overwhelming for getting an audience to more reflective publishing. Facebook is good to connect a group, but it is limited if you want to teach writing or engage your group in a given activity. I might be wrong, but I think a barrage of posts and updates does not help teaching. Meanwhile I am still looking for a more suitable and "free" social netwoking platform. While I wait, I am using Here is what my students and I have been doing. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Project Based Learning - Some Challenges

Guilherme Viana Lima
In the last two years I started working with projects. It all started with online courses I took in the beginning of 2011 with UMBC called Teaching Young Learners and more to the end of the same year I took Methods II on Project\Problem-Based Learning with University of Oregon. In these courses, I developed projects for the courses themselves and tried to synchronize assigned course tasks and the ones in my teaching practice. In this post I will address some of the challenges posed by project based learning while working on some projects with my students.

In my opinion one of the greatest challenges of working with projects is the tight schedules we have in our institutions.  As a result, instructors are generally expected to teach a certain amount of content within a given time frame. In my case, most of the content is broken into units and lessons. Therefore, teachers know what lesson to cover in a given class or week. Besides that, a teacher has to keep an eye on the incoming test date which serves as a sort of time tracker that informs them that they have to squeeze content within certain deadlines. To cope with this limitation, the best approach is to work on mini projects, on something that will not take up more than two consecutive classes. A second solution would involve assigning tasks as homework. Doing so, the instructor  saves valuable class time and adds authenticity to a project.  

A second challenge has to do with the syllabus itself and the textbooks we have to use. Most of the textbooks adopted by schools are content-based. Being a teacher myself, I know that some teachers would certainly agree that task-based course books would make the perfect match for a project-based learning approach. However, we do not always have the luxury of inhabiting such perfect worlds. Besides that, I have grown to believe that a task-based syllabus has its own limitations. To win the battle between content versus task, an instructor has to carefully plan tasks that smoothly integrate the content taught into projects he or she plans to carry out.  So, for every piece of content, we should try to think of a realistic task that could be inserted into a mini project. This approach makes the content more palatable and gets learners involved into more authentic activities.

 A third challenge is the sharing of these so-called mini projects. Therefore, once you and your students have invested some precious time and effort into something such as a class project, it seems reasonable to come up with a way for displaying\sharing the work done. If schedule is a little tight, it certainly poses some limitations to the usual group by group presentation scheme. A possible solution is publishing the final result on the web. Such approach allows for the class members and its immediate community (parents and classmates)  to check the outcomes beyond the classroom walls. Besides that, when you decide for this mode of sharing you force your student and yourself to acquire twenty first century learning skills (publishing and all the skills associated with this task). Finally, sharing project outcomes on the web also makes learners aware of the importance of building and online presence and is a valuable opportunity to teaching netiquette (some basic rules for good online behavior).

As a final remark, I would like to point out that this short post is in no way a complete inventory of all the challenges an educator might face when working on projects. I have
just tried to address some of the problems I had to deal with in my specific context - the one of an EFL instructor teaching at a binational language center in Brasilia - Brazil. Nevertheless, I do recommend setting aside some of your class time to work on projects. It is really rewarding and it does change the way you and your students engage with content and learn. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

A Cyber Valentine

As valentines' day approaches in Brazil (we celebrate it on June 12th), I decided to say a few words about mine and my students' relationship with computers and technology in general. First I should say I have no pretense to sound as a scholar on the issue. This represents just my humble point of view. It is just an account of how I see the issue of using computers in the classroom. Valentines has to do with relationships and mine to computers seem to be, for me at least, quite an interesting story. Besides that, someone on TV today quoted a teacher admonishing Fall in love for a cause, find something you are passionate about. Love for a person can be temporary, love for a cause can last for a life time. I would say that using the web for teaching and learning qualifies as my passion and that is why I decided to talk about it.
Lets begin from the beginning. In my case, I can trace my story with computers and technology back to a crash course in word processing and related computer skills I took in 1999 before getting my masters in the US. Since then I have gone from downloading and printing everything to the cloud, from floppy discs, to CDs, to flash drives, to flash memory. I have also become mobile in many ways. I have gone from a desktop with so many wires and cables under my desk that looked more a butchered animal to only resorting to a tablet and a smart phoned for my computer needs.
Having said this, I would argue that my relationship to computers and technology has matured and grown into a full-fledged love affair, almost a marriage. I think that as a digital immigrant (borrowing from Prensky) I have been able to adapt. Nonetheless I have to admit that I am in no way as fluent in the use of technology as I would like to be. I still struggle to cope with the frenzy of updates and novelties that pop up on my screens almost every minute. Many times, to my disappointment, I spend hours trying to achieve a very simple goal.
However, when I think about my students, I really think I see a split in the way they view computer technology. Computers seem to be for fun only. This view also seems to be shared by some teachers who resist to giving control of the mouse to students (and to themselves) and make a more creative use of the web and its suite of tools. I guess this has a bit to do with traditional views held by some schools that imply that computers are for playing or only socializing, not for serious, meaningful learning, for integrating skills.  Some students report that teachers refuse to accept typed assignments under the excuse of preventing plagiarism. Plagiarism was not invented by computers or internet. So, banning typed essays is not going to solve the problem.
Being digital natives, students do feel comfortable with technology. However this does not guarantee that they have the necessary skills to engage in some activities a teacher might propose. This creates an opportunity for teachers to show to students and themselves that they are not so computer illiterate as they believe. Nonetheless, younger students are fast learners and would immediately start using whatever you teach with fluency in a matter of seconds. Sometimes they would hesitate in publishing content for fearing criticism, but once they overcome this initial shyness they blossom into an amazing creative frenzy.
To end on romantic note (since this is Valentines season), I think I may be helping my students to build their relationship with technology for learning. I do that, especially when I reassure them that much of prevailing paranoia about the web is not true.  Doing this, I show them the path of sharing and collaborating. If I mange to do this, I think I encourage them to take some steps towards integrating their existing passion for technology a bit more into their lives.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Still About Wikis

 As I said in my previous post, I have been using wikis for quite a while. I have also promised to write a little about some of the disadvantages of using wikis.
What led me to use wikis so constantly, despite some of its glitches, was the successful experience we have had with this platform at Casa Thomas Jefferson, the school I work for. We have a wiki with 287 users and 7,605 files and counting. We use it as an intranet portal to post resources for classes (power point presentations, videos, lesson plans) and for communication. 
Wikis, as I said at the beginning of this post, are not a panacea that solve every problem. Like any online tool, it has some problems. One problem I would point out is the fact that comments cannot be individualized for posts. Different form blogs, what wikis give the one posting is a page where many things can be posted, knot individualized, separate posts with the possibility of comments for each individual entry. This make it difficult for the reader to connect comments and posts. So, when commenting, it is necessary sometimes to indicate what you are referring to.
 Another problem, especially if you choose to use Pbworks, is that editing is flash based. This can be a big drawback once it does not allow you to post or edit content on your iPad or iPhone. However the platform is constantly evolving, and with the announced demise of flash, I am sure IOS friendly platform will be soon available. I might be wrong, but from what I can gather from my experience with web 2.0, that is the way these things go.
 Wikis are organized in folders if you want to create a page for every student. This makes visibility an issue. To view individual pages, you should first click on the folder and only then  you will see a link to each individual page. I have solved this problem in one of my wikis by placing links to pages on the main page. However, this only works when you have just a few pages. In case you have too many pages, folders are the only solution. In this case, name folders appropriately is extremely helpful.
I guess I would better stop here with the downs of wikis. I really do not want to discourage fellow educators from using them. On a last note, if you want to give wikis a try, pay a visit to my wiki  where you will find an introduction to wikis and plenty of tutorials on how to post and create content. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Wikis as Portfolios II

It's been some time since I last posted on this blog and it was about wikis. During this time I have been involved with the topic in several ways. I find it difficult sometimes to manage creation of content on both sides: mine and my students.
I still find wikis very useful to work with young learners. One thing I like about them is the fact that they do not require students to sign up. This is really handy because very young learners generally do not have e-mails, and if they do, they almost never use them. So creating user names and passwords for students does the trick of having them posting and editing on the site. Another good thing regarding wikis, is the fact that they allow multiple users under different folders and this allows to have different groups of students using a single wiki.
Last year I used my wiki to work on writing with a pre-intermediate level. What I did was to ask them to post written assignments (generally paragraphs to the wiki). I found out that the quality of their writing really improved. This probably happened because they were aware of the fact that I was not the only one reading what they were writing. Publishing creates authentic readership. Besides that, I also use it as opportunity to explore tools and encourage students to create content related to books we read in class or to grammar points we were covering.
Allowing comments is also a good feature of wikis. However, students (just like most of us) are not usually inclined to comment on posts. Nonetheless, I have seen some examples of authentic exchange going on when comments were made. Still on comments, I guess I found it difficult to balance creation of content and commenting on content. I mean, time constraints is a factor on limiting the opportunities given to commenting. Students do check each other's work, but they seldom make written comments. Asking them to do that from home might work, but I still feel that they are a bit reluctant to do it. They seem to connect the use of computer at home for playing and not for doing school related stuff.
Overral I would say that my experience with wikis has been very positive. Although the examples given in this blog post relate to my experience with Pbworks, I have also started using Wikispaces with another group of students and I have found it extremely interesting. There are some disadvantages, of course, but I decided to mention them in another post.