Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dogme, Anyone?

I'm not sure how I stumbled upon the book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury. I just know that I was immediately intrigued by the synopsis and ordered a copy from Amazon that instant, not even waiting until Monday to see if my employer might purchase a copy for our library. No, I knew this was a book I had to own. And I was right. Within hours of unboxing the slender volume with its glossy white cover, I had festooned the pages with ever so many green, pink, orange and purple sticky bookmarks. Late into the night, I could be found tucked snugly in bed with my new book, a fat yellow highlighter in my hand.

Because I was at that time volunteering my lunch hours to facilitate a Lunch 'n' Learn class for our full time students who had no place to sit and eat between morning and afternoon classes, I got an opportunity to try many of the suggested "materials light" activities with this wonderful group of about eight students. The response? They loved these lessons, and so did I. Soon I was babbling on excitedly about the book to any teacher who would listen. One colleague took it home for the weekend and liked it so much that she also ordered a copy. Two years later, my practicum student also ended up with a copy.

After trying several of the suggested activities in the book, I began to take off the training wheels and do a few lessons that were completely born of a teachable moment with no prior prep having gone into it. Though not every one of them took off like a rocket, the vast majority of those lessons seemed to me to be even more energizing and successful than the ones based on activities in the book.

Now I can't say whether I was implementing dogme in the way that the authors intended. I hadn't yet had a chance to go to any workshops on dogme (though I have now twice attended Ken Lackman's 'C.A.T.: A Framework for Dogme). So I just made up my own jazz tune based on dogme principles.

So what does my version of dogme look like?

The dogme lesson, in my mind, can start with a topic elicited from the students. More often, however, the teacher can simply eavesdrop on the before-class chatter and can pick up the juiciest, most promising thread. If neither of those is viable, the teacher can ask students to brainstorm topics, put a list on the board, and have students vote for that day's topic.

The way it works in my class is that gaps in the students' communicative knowledge and ability come to the surface like bubbles. In my experience, there is no lack of interesting language points to explore. In fact, there are usually so many potential linguistic points to mine that the teacher has to narrow them down to a manageable number for the time allotted.

A given conversation might render a need to explore a few new nouns, verbs, adjectives, one or two phrasal verbs, and perhaps a point about a tense, a voice, a mood. If several students are making the same pronunciation or prosody error, that becomes an impromptu lesson. I tune into students' energy and interest, surfing them like ocean waves.

After I have put the needed language on the board, using familiar conventions for grammar formulae and IPA for pronunciation, we practice the new language. And this is the hard part for the teacher. I have to come up with what will help them practice using the newly learned language structure or lexical chunk. You end up being a walking encyclopedia of language activities. Sometimes it's a game or a role play, other times a pattern drill or a writing exercise.

For example, during one conversation hour it became evident that many students had no mastery over question syntax; they were not inverting the subject and auxiliary verb.  "We don't know how to make questions," these CLB 2/3 students whined. Fortunately the TESL Ontario conference was only weeks behind me and I still remembered how much fun I'd had playing The Question Game in one workshop. So I put students in pairs and explained the rules: A asks a question and B asks another question. And so on. The first person who responds with anything other than another question loses. It's harder than it sounds, I warned them with an evil grin.

Within minutes the pairs were laughing, arguing over points, reminding each other of proper syntax, laughing some more, and getting better at questions!

To sum up how I feel about dogme, I can say that dogme is to language teaching what "Just in Time" is to the business and manufacturing world. In traditional language teaching, we give the students all sorts of vocabulary and grammar, filling their storehouse in the hopes that when they need any of it, they'll remember where it is on the shelf, pull it down and use it.  Dogme, on the other hand, waits until the learner has the need for the language and then provides exactly the language that fills the gap and no more. Because the presented language is relevant to a student's need in that moment, the lesson is very well received and classroom energy is high.  However, I would like to see some research into how this method compares with others in terms of long-term retrievability of the newly acquired language.

In closing I would like to add that although I don't currently teach dogme lessons on a daily basis, having delved into the methodology and movement has left its mark on me as an ESL teacher.  I have become a teacher who looks at pre-packaged materials with a more critical eye, often abandoning them in favour of my own materials that leave more room for flexibility, more space for us to flow with what emerges through the week. While I might have an idea where we want to end up by Friday, how we get there will depend on formative assessment and feedback I get hour by hour, minute by minute. My explorations into dogme help me feel validated and more confident in implementing a materials light approach.

If you would like to read another educator's blog post about this same topic, visit Giulia's blog, Wandering in Absolute Freedom. Her post is called My Dogme Experiment.

What about you? Have you heard of or used a dogme approach in your teaching?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Free Language Activities for iPad Lesson


This coming week I will be introducing both my morning and afternoon classes to the iPad. Among the students in my multi-level seniors' class, two of them own or can borrow an iPad from a family member. Those who don't have access to one often gather curiously around the iPad users. They are eager to learn about this tool in so as to decide whether purchasing one would be a worthwhile investment.

I have developed some worksheets to get our week started and have put the language activity pack on my FREE RESOURCES - COMPUTER page for you to download. As usual, the resource is a Word document, which allows you to easily edit and tailor for your learners. As our week progresses, I will get a feel for what is working well, what additional resources we need, where they want more focus, etc.  So I will go back into that activity pack and add, correct any errors we discover, etc. If you find any problems with it or have suggestions for enhancements, feel free to leave a comment.

In my afternoon (literacy) class, I have been using one iPad with the newest student for about two weeks. I am amazed at how her self-directed, self-paced practice with the app iWrite Words has trained her to form each letter of the alphabet perfectly. With this app, you have to trace each capital and each small letter with your finger or stylus. If you try to write any stroke backward or out of order, it won't let you proceed. You have to follow the little crab fellow (or is it a ladybug?) as it leads you through the strokes.  Having spent about three hours per week for two weeks using this application, the new students now models wonderful penmanship when she comes up to the board to fill in a blank. I am impressed!

I am thinking that we will do something like stations to introduce a handful of classroom apps. I could ask each partnership to familiarize themselves with one of six applications. Then we can do an "each one teach one" activity in which one partner stays at the station to teach others who visit that station. At halftime, I can ring the bell, at which point the itinerant student returns to his/her station, becoming a teacher and allowing the formerly stationary student to travel around to learn about the other apps.

I have uploaded a nascent iPad language activity pack for literacy learners to the FREE RESOURCES - COMPUTER page back on my website for you to download and enjoy with your class. I will be shaping, improving and adding to it this week as learners give me feedback.

What are your ideas for other activities I can facilitate around the iPad? 

Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you'll leave a comment, even if it's just to tell me whether the snow has yet melted where you are. ;)


P.S. Check out my WORKSHOPS page. I am excited to announce that I'll be facilitating a webinar in May on creating a blog for the ESL literacy classroom. I especially want to encourage teachers who are not terribly comfortable with technology to give this webinar a shot. We are going to take it slow and easy, step by step.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Spring Break Catch-Up

Are you on spring break?  If so, how are you using the time?

I have a TO DO list as long as my arm. I'm happy to have already scratched many tasks off that list, but there are so many still to tackle. Also, of course, I've included fun and relaxing activities such as chilling with a DVD from the library, nature walks, and some time for my arts and crafts projects--something I always find restorative and therapeutic. I may or may not get around to the sewing project; we'll see.

I have some intriguing items on my TO READ list, too.  I plan to read at least one more chapter in Scott Thornbury's Uncovering Grammar. I want to read about the Picture Word Inductive Model that was mentioned in a blog post I stumbled upon this week. And I want to go back into Shona White's article on teaching vocabulary to take down better notes this time.

I'm working on the website, too. I've recently enhanced the About Me section, adding a slideshow under "Personal Life." I also uploaded a couple of my own creations to the free resources area under blank templates and under grammar - tenses.

I've started to build a new sub-section on the COMPUTER page for apps I have vetted and feel I can recommend based on my own classroom experience with them.

Finally, I am trying to create a video of my first ELT resource review. The fact that I'm having trouble learning how to edit in iMovie is slowing me down. I'm usually a pretty skilled autodidact, so not being able to master everything today is making me petulant. Meh.

To make up to you this lack of a proper blog post, I assure you that I will upload and share my review of an ESL resource just as soon as iMovie stops kicking my butt.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What Does Learner Autonomy Mean?

Thanks to Svetlana Lupasco, I have recently discovered the weekly Twitter forum #ELTCHAT. The first time I tried to join the conversation, I forgot that my Twitter settings did not allow anyone but my followers to see my tweets. No wonder nobody responded to anything I contributed. They weren't being rude; they couldn't "hear" me.

The following Wednesday morning, I forgot about it. But I was able to use Nurph's play-back feature to see everything that had been said.  I believe the topic was learner autonomy, and the entire conversation got me to pondering: what does learner autonomy mean?

I mulled over the question as I went about my teaching week. A varied number of scenarios prompted me to ask myself, "Isn't that autonomy?"

I asked myself that question while teaching my literacy class. As I often do when the teaching assistant isn't available and the topic and vocabulary are too difficult for my newest student, I offered her one of the school's iPads. She smiled, put the earphones on, tapped the icon for her favourite phonics app, and spent the next hour in self-paced practice of short vowel words. Then she did something she had never done before: took out a pencil and began copying the words from the iPad screen into her notebook.

The question silently revisited me in the same class on Friday during BINGO when a taciturn student rose from her chair and took the bowl full of bingo words from me, motioning for me to take a seat at her desk. The week prior had been the first time I had invited her to be caller. I guess she'd liked it!

But the question most loudly resounded in my mind when one of the students in my class of fourteen senior citizens told me that she had started a petition asking our orientation department for free bus tickets for all the seniors during the winter months. She told me that senior citizens shouldn't have to brave the icy sidewalks to come to school, nor should they have to stay home and miss class on days when the conditions are brutal.

This story amazed me for a number of reasons.

For one, there is the fact that when these students first came to our centre, trying to get them to participate in what I call classroom democracy was like pulling teeth. But gradually they have begun to give responses to my incessant invitations to help shape the curriculum, such as the request that resulted in my adopting the 'Back to the Well' ideas of John and Chirawibha Sivell.

The second thing that made this so surprising to me was the fact that they didn't come to me with this need, but organized the petition on their own.

This incident seems to be part of a larger trend with them. The more comfortable we become with one another, the more we bond and build a culture of collaboration, the more they take matters into their own hands. Case in point: they recently organized a pre-winter-break party (complete with programmed speeches, food and entertainment), and they did so entirely without input or help from me.

On a recent TESL Ontario Blog post called The Power of Disorientation, I responded to the question of what we do to empower our students by saying that I tend not to compartmentalize and say that this activity empowered while that lesson didn't. Everything I do, including smiling warmly to encourage small acts of independence like Say Say's claiming the helm on BINGO day, is designed to empower. Whether we are learning to read a bus schedule, to talk to the doctor, to use an ATM, whether we are building together the rubrics against which we will grade our own essays or are using CLEO materials to learn about our rights as employees and tenants, we are working on autonomy. That's how I see it, anyway.

How about you?

How do you define autonomy? Is it something you think consciously about, or something you weave into your teaching quite naturally? Is it something real, or is it, as one #ELTCHATter mused, just a buzzword?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why and How I Use Total Physical Response (TPR)

When I was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock working on my B.A. in the early 1980s, I was invited by one of my profs to travel to Santa Cruz, Bolivia as part of a Partners of the Americas exchange. Dr. Jones was going down there to teach Bolivian ESL instructors how to use Total Physical Response, a language teaching method developed in the early 1970s by James Asher. I was to assist him in facilitating the workshop. Naturally, I first had to learn how to use TPR! This was decades before I would become an ESL teacher, but I was often chosen by the faculty to assist with such projects due to my reputation as a keen polyglot.

There are many good resources on the net for learning about TPR, such as Asher's own site--TPR World. You can find other websites about it and watch tutorials on YouTube.

And I will share a brief summary of the (perhaps unorthodox) version of TPR that Dr. Jones taught me.

Start with some basic classroom commands, such as:
  • stand up
  • come to the board
  • pick up the chalk/marker
  • write your name
  • put down the chalk/marker
  • return to your seat
  • sit down
Ideally, you need a model to whom you can initially give each command so that students may copy the action of the model. This is one reason Dr. Jones needed two people for his workshop. If you don't have an assistant or strong student from another class, then you have to use yourself as the one both giving and receiving the commands.
T: "Stand up." [model stands up.]
T: "Sit down." [model sits back down.]
T: [addressing the class] "Stand up."  [Ss stand up.]
T: [addressing the class] "Sit down."  [Ss sit back down.]
Now then, there are two main considerations as I see it:

First of all, you should be careful to build the bank of commands very slowly, only adding a new one when all students are executing the existing ones flawlessly. Easy does it. Confident students enjoy the lesson. Nervous students don't.

Secondly, don't reward guessing. Rather, structure the order of commands so that students must truly listen and understand the utterances. To achieve this aim, you have to keep the learners on their toes. Make the order of commands unpredictable both by mixing them up AND by throwing in some random crazy commands, such as:
  • jump up and down
  • turn around
  • touch your nose
If I'm using TPR with my literacy learners to teach some new vocabulary, it may go something like this:
Mahmed, give the eraser to Fatima. Fatima, give the eraser back to Mahmed. Mahmed, put the eraser on your head. Give the eraser to Susan. Susan, put the eraser under your book. Thank you. Pick up the pencil. Give the pencil to Sarah. Give the eraser to Mahmed. Sarah, touch your nose. Please stand up. Jump up and down. Give the pencil to Juan. Sit down. Thank you. Juan, ...
And so on.

It's a LOT of fun, and takes the pressure off the students to speak. I use it when introducing new concrete vocabulary, such as clothing, school supplies, money, etc., and when we have a new student who is starting from zero, unable even to answer the simplest of questions or spell her name. After ten minutes of TPR, the new student is participating just as successfully as higher level students around her, which helps her relax and gives her a boost of confidence. I agree with Asher's assertion that language-body conversations are a 'stress-free tool.'

So the short answer to why I use TPR is because I know of it. Because I was in the right place at the right time 30 years ago, I have an extra tool in my TESL tool box. I have continued to use it because it is a great way to get up and running with very low level literacy learners who are starting from scratch, and--best of all--because the learners enjoy it.

Beyond the scope of this little blog post are the phases of TPR in which learners begin to speak and write. You can research those on your own if you're interested.

I hope like this little peek into my use of TPR in the ESL and ESL Literacy classrooms and will leave a comment so I'll know you were here.