teacher development

spectra experiment #5 An English teacher in Japan. darrenrelliott@gmail.com

A Glorious Failure

This is the last post on this blog. It’s been an interesting journey, but ultimately didn’t achieve what I wanted it to. A failure, then, in some ways. But a learning experience nonetheless. Why didn’t it work as I’d hoped?

I think the best way to put it is that it wasn’t organic. From the outset, I tried to put together a group of people to participate in the project very much on my own terms. I was excited to work with people from different contexts and countries, but to round up a group on the internet, arbitrarily, and to set up fairly rigid guidelines for setting up linked blogs was, in hindsight, not the best way forward. Consequently, participation has been very limited, with most barely getting past the first post.

What I have learnt is that there are many great blogs out there already, and rather than starting a community from scratch is is better to join them with some worthwhile content of your own. So that`s what I’m hoping to do over at


Please get over and have a look soon..

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Summer reflections part one - speaking

The first semester is far enough gone to look back on with an objective eye, and the second semester is fast approaching. Time to look back on what worked and what didn’t, and to figure out where to go next.

The first thing I want to fix is the assessments for my oral communications classes. For the non-English majors, I want to do the following things.

1. Use the language and skills we have focused on in class.

Sounds obvious, but it never hurts to remember the obvious. I chose textbooks which hone in on conversation strategies, classes are centred around pair work, discussion and debate, even the lower level classes. So the assessments should reflect that.

2. Incorporate Reflection

I want the learners to think about their successes and failures, and use that knowledge to improve subsequent converastions.

3. Incorporate elements of the students’ majors

I would like them to use what they are learning in their other classes, to see a link between English and the “real world”. I am not sure if this needs to come out in assessment or if it should just be a part of my curriculum, but it occured to me now so I`m putting it down. It’s my blog so there.

I have the following obstacles.

1. Large classes

Not ridiculously so, but large enough to make one to one interview tests, or even two interviewees/one assessor style tests (a la Cambridge ESOL), logistically challenging.

2. Technology shortfall

We have a lot of cassette recorders for recorded conversations and transcription. We have “computer rooms”. We don’t, as yet, have digital voice recorders for every student. But I am not personally opposed to technology, so if anyone has a good suggestion I`m prepared to see if I can work with what we have.

3. Novelty

I have actually been using (what I think) is a very effective method, courtesy of Duane Kindt (I’ve already blogged on this, and his templete is here). Trouble is, so are most of the other teachers here… and nothing kills reflection dead like familiarity.

So, what are my alternatives?

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Xtranormal and the Perils of Technology

This is the winner of the class oscar ceremony, best movie and best script categories. (Click through to see it in xtranormal). OK, so it’s not David Mamet, but it’s actually quite witty…and by two sweet girls, rather than dirty boys.

From script writing and practice (one 90 minute class), through the movie making process (about two classes), to final viewings (one class), this took up quite a lot of time. Was it worth it? I think so, on balance - although if I only had them once a week instead of twice I might be more sceptical.

Xtranormal (http://www.xtranormal.com/) is a site which allows us to put together animated movies simply. For this class of young adults, I gave them free reign regarding location, topic, language… pretty much anything went as long as it was three minutes long and featured two characters. In the first class, I had the students prepare their characters, location, scenario and script and then act it out for another pair. Then we went to “the computer room”, and I gave them a brief tutorial about the application, led them through sign-up to first steps in scripting and directing, then kept an eye on them as they worked. They finished off in the next class, then as our end of term “treat” we had a viewing, made speeches and awarded prizes (cardboard cut out oscars).


It took a long time, and it was hard to keep students in step (especially in the early stages). However, in retrospect it was better to have a bit of confusion - figuring something out in English never does anyone any harm.

Students are generally more technically adept than we give them credit for. If they don’t understand, they can teach each other. If none of than understand, they can figure it out together.

As some students finished faster than others, I had an extra activity in which they researched the vocabulary we had been studying via flickr, youtube and so on… this was actually quite enlightening in itself.

As a final class treat, I didn’t want to do anything too challenging, so I just asked them to take notes on the strengths and weaknesses of each movie and to vote in three categories - best director, best script and best movie. With more time, I`d like to have students analyse the areas in which xtranormal has trouble generating accurate emphasis, pronunciation and intonation. For a computer programme, it is actually pretty good, but not perfect. So why not use that to our advantage?

Now, the rant…… 

I haven’t yet come across a “computer room” that fits the late twentieth century, let alone the 21st. Do you remember the old typing pools, where ladies sat in rows, typing, head down….

Well, that’s what many computer rooms look like now. Add in the security and firewalls that make everything take six years to load, and the trouble getting fifteen machines to run the same programme simultaneously (frequent crashes) and the special trip to the computer room is murder. Where are the round tables where students face one another across small terminals? Easy to navigate rooms full of well-connected, powerful, wireless machines which can be moved around as necessary? I realise this costs money, but would it really be much more expensive than the banks of machines in lockstep rows facing the teacher that we see now?

Is there a paradise on earth? Where are these “normalised” technological classrooms?

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Student blogging notes part two

Two thirds of the way in to the semester, and how are things moving? Well, I’ve learnt that these blogs can become unwieldy, and that different teachers have different ideas of the directions they want to go. The initial idea of posting extra material has proved unsatisfactory. Aside from video links (for example, we showed “The Meatrix” in class when we were working on our food theme, and then posted it for student reference), we have pretty much stopped posting articles, songs with lyrics and so on. I think this is for two reasons. One is practical; items just got swamped and eaten up without response. Despite the tag cloud and the search function, I don`t think students were looking past the first page… partly due to the limited service on their mobile phones (text posts only, with no comment function). Secondly, my feeling is that I didn`t want to feed the learners everything, nor force them to check material we provided. How to encourage without demanding? The age old autonomy problem.

What the blog has become is an arena for collaboration on presentations. Students are required to prepare a presentation for each topic. They do this together in groups of four, then we mix up the groups and they make a solo presentation to members of the other groups.

The students have posted their titles to the blog, then used the comments section to post ideas, links and research for their peers. Some are becoming adept at this, and have begun organising one another. Others are making very limited use. It has been an interesting experiment, but if it is to be used this way it may have been better to use wikis…..

I am interested to find out how the students are collaborating beyond the forums dictated by their teachers. I think it’s likely that they are using their mobile phones to coordinate via text. I am preparing a reflection for the end of term to get a better idea of the learner conception of the project.

My next idea, as the summer approaches, is to open it up. The difficulty has been working with so many students whilst trying to keep the content of the blog on fixed lines tied to the classroom material. To keep the students busy over the summer, I`m thinking of a free-for-all; post one thing a week (video, news story, song, photo…whatever), and comment on two more. I`ll also point them towards things like spore, xtranormal, pixton etc. It`s a limited requirement, but totally free choice regarding content. I can get into the dashboard to tidy up messy links and add tags, but other than that it`s up to them. If it works, we might continue the approach next semester.

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This took next to no time to knock up (as you can probably tell). It gets quicker as you figure it out, too. I will certainly be using this one with some of my students.


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Metaphors for teaching and learning

We have a mini-plenary at the end of most classes in which I throw the students a slightly left-field question based on the theme of the class (for example, if we were looking at “Family” the question might be “What would your family think if they watched you in class?”). But at mid-semester we do a broader reflection to assess progress and attitudes to learning in general. The students interview each other, with a questionnaire I designed based partly on the chapters in the excellent book  Lessons from Good Language Learners (http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780511381058). So there are questions on strategies, motivation, vocabulary etc…. As the questions require a bit of thought they usually take an hour or so and come up with some good stuff.

Probably the most interesting questions, for me, were those on metaphor. It has been very enlightening to see exactly how students view the teacher / student relationship. I have grouped them into three categories.

1. Nuturing. Teacher as gardener, parent etc. Student as flower, child….

2. Controlling. Teacher as dog trainer, god etc. Student as dog, disciple…

3. Utility. Teacher as map, encyclopedia etc. Student as traveller, researcher…

Just these few words can tell us so much about the students’ view of the learning experience. I saw an excellent presentation at JALT last year (and subsequently read the paper) about the relationship between student perceptions of autonomy and their levels of language proficiency. I would be curious to know how these metaphorical views condense wider beliefs; I suspect that there is a correlation between metaphor and autonomous activity. Some students expect to be led, some guided, and some to use the teacher as a resource.

But what do we as teachers do once we have this understanding of the learner’s beliefs? Do we adapt to fit their metaphors, or try to change the students metaphors to fit our own? Does changing the metaphor have an effect on autonomous action? Rob Batstone (in http://www.oup.com/elt/catalogue/isbn/0-19-442250-X?cc=global) highlights the impact of classroom discourse on the choices students make; attention is a limited resource and we can direct students focus towards form or meaning depending on the words we select. Can we influence learner’s metaphorical views too?

Bear in mind, blogs are for half-formed thoughts, but this is something I`d like to look at in more detail…..

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Autonomy and Vocabulary (part two)

As I explained in an earlier post (http://teacherdevelopment.tumblr.com/post/90787284/teaching-and-learning-vocabulary) one of my little projects this year was to innovate the way students learnt vocabulary (you’ll notice I didn’t say the way I TEACH vocabulary…). Previously, I felt they were just memorizing lists in order to regurgitate them on test day. This year, I require them to learn the “whole” word, then ask them to give me a collocation, a synonym, a word family or an example sentence for each word. I’m running this in three different ways. Some classes are continuing in the old way, learning the lists as they chose and putting words into gap fill sentences in the test. Some are learning the “whole word” but still recieving a list from me, based on words from the textbook which I think they ought to know but probably don’t. Reading classes are creating their own lists which I then mark with a code (c = collocation, es = example sentence…) which they get back on test day.

The first tests are done, and the “control” group performed significantly worse than the other two. This is not a scientifically rigorous research project; I can’t say if some tests are easier or more difficult than others, and I know that classes have different workloads in other areas. I can’t be sure that students will be able to use the vocabulary accurately and flexibly in future. However, overall I think the new way is working.

Two problems have arisen. in the self-selected group, students had a tendancy to pick words which I felt were too easy, or too hard. I think it was clear to the students how they could learn more about each word than just a translation, and even why it is a good thing to do. But I have had to reiterate the importance of picking the right words in the first place. We went through a few dictionary exercises looking at the handy codes that many supply these days (S1 = spoken English first 1000 words) at the beginning of the course and in again feedback after the test.

Some thought provoking stuff over here on the theory of teaching vocabulary…. I’ve joined in the discusion with a few more ideas too http://teachingaffordances.tumblr.com/post/109604213/on-teaching-well

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can - soup

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Dream Sequence

1.          Divide students into groups A and B.

2.           Group A watch “Soup” whilst group B just listen.

3.          Each student writes as much as they can remember about what they saw or heard in ninety seconds (or so).

4.          Group B watch “Casserole” whilst group A just listen.

5.          Each student writes as much as they can remember about what they saw or heard in ninety seconds (or so).

6.          A students compare notes, B students compare notes.

7.          A pairs up with B to describe what they saw to one another.

8.           Watch both videos once more together, check notes.

I’ve been working on “dreams” with one of my oral communication classes, and I wanted to do something a little different. They students had a great time, but I felt a little dissatisfied. I think it highlights both my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – I’m quite good at sourcing or creating quirky and interesting materials, but not so good at exploiting them to the fullest. Based on this rough outline of what we did, and bearing in mind that this was for a speaking class (they take writing classes with another teacher), how else might you have directed the language use, taught particular skills or vocabulary, or incorporated more “teaching” into the lesson? or is it fine to keep it loose and see what comes up?

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dream casserole

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