I was a rabbit in your headlights.

(image taken from google images)

It’s been nearly 2 and a half months since my unplugged project came to an end. I would like to say I have been on a long, sun drenched, relaxing holiday and completely disconnected my overworked brain, but instead I threw myself into summer work and have only just come up for air.

Throughout that time, my reflection of the last teaching year has been on slow burn and after a recent conversation about what ’emergent language’ was, I felt it time to bring an end to this chapter of my teaching life.

For those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning, skip to the next paragraph. For those that are new, a very quick recap of the project. One intermediate class, one fairly inexperienced teacher, a blog to record everything that happened in the class and the chance to teach in the unplugged approach for an entire academic year. There were ups and downs, crisis’ of confidence, euphoria, breakthroughs and blogging block.

All that’s left to do now is summarise my thoughts on the whole thing. Which is easier said than done.

I will start with the good news. The four students that took the PET exam and were part of the project group from the beginning, all passed. You wouldn’t believe how happy this made me. The class was never really exam orientated, although with the exam fast approaching toward the end of the year I did base lessons around the PET exam and the final classes were devoted to exam technique and making sure the students were aware of the format.

Looking back at the year, I realise how incredibly lucky I was to carry out such a project. This couldn’t have been done without the support of my D.o.S, Emily Bell (@emilyvbell), my fellow teachers at IH Santander and my ever-expanding and awesome PLN. The magnitude of what I was actually attempting didn’t hit me until people like Anthony Gaughn, Jemma Gardner, Chiew Pang, Mike Harrison and Scott Thornbury, and many others, began to take an interest in what I was trying to do. In all honesty, it was completely bonkers. A second year teacher, with a hare-brained idea of teaching without a coursebook, with minimum materials and then taking on the added pressure of blogging about it and then presenting at two conferences. Madness. But you know what, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I took a journey that many people would never even have imagined, a journey that many other teachers would have shied away from, teachers with years of experience that have continued to follow the same well trodden path and never ventured from their comfort zone. I proved to myself that I could teach and that I was making a difference and I hope that people who have followed this blog, have been inspired or provoked to look at their own teaching and what happens in their classroom.

I also feel honored to have championed teaching unplugged as a legitimate teaching practice. While I am well aware that there needs to be a lot more research and debate rages as to whether it is ‘just good teaching’. I genuinely feel that it is an authentic way of teaching and can help a teacher to strip down everything around them and get back to basics.

I feel like a more rounded teacher, a more confident teacher and more importantly I am unafraid to experiment in my classes and push the boundaries. I’m convinced that this can only benefit my students and help to push English language teaching into the 21st century. Even if I don’t get it right the first time,  the amount of reflection and learning that happens is unprecedented, which I think project unplugged demonstrates.

To finish, I just want to add my thoughts on emergent language. Which I think is the cause of much debate and is quite hard to define and even harder to extract and then work with. I think emergent language exists. It is an indicator that the students are pushing themselves to experiment and produce an utterance that they are not quite sure of or perhaps haven’t studied properly but is appropriate to say at that moment. The slightly garbled and mixed up second conditional, which is then pounced upon by the teacher, exploited, clarified, practised and reinforced so that it become a part of that students language armory.

Just as important as emergent language is the language gaps our students have. The things they aren’t saying. The structures they aren’t using, when in fact the situation is screaming out for it. Some people might argue that the coursebook caters for this. Ploughing through from unit 1 to unit 12 will cover all the bases and fill those gaps, but unless we actually listen to our students and allow ourselves the opportunity to notice these gaps through conversation driven activities, we may just end up papering over those gaps and not filling them correctly.

Output (emergent language) + Input (filling the gaps) =   Results

On that note, I will draw a line under my unplugged experience. It’s been emotional and my Dogme days are not over. I have ideas and motivation for future projects but they will have to wait.


A little less conversation….?

After the disappointment of my last lesson with the class. I really wanted to prove to myself and the class that we could have a class based entirely around conversation, that is student centered and with minimum input from myself.

Recently, I have been following the #eltbites minimum materials challenge . http://eltbites.wordpress.com/ The idea is in the title, but click the link to find out more, a great challenge from Richard Gresswell. (@inglishteacher)

Jason Renshaw, a.k.a @englishraven, posted a very simple but intriguing idea about handing the board pen over to the students and allowing them to, in effect, dictate the class proceedings. Along with this, I had received a comment from @jemjemgardner regarding my last post, in which she suggests that simply writing something on the board and using gestures to get the students talking, without actually talking yourself, is a great way of making things more student centered. I had nothing to lose!

The class was half-full as I entered. I didn’t say anything. I simply picked up the I.W.B pen and handed it to the nearest student. I smiled and gestured to the board. I sat down and began filling out the register, making sure not to look as though I was going to assist in any way. There were a lot of strange looks, shoulder shrugging and general confusion. The first student wrote hello on the board, it was a start, he then clicked on and started to ask the class how their weekend was. After they had finished, I motioned for someone else to take over, and instead of writing on the board they asked another question for the group, “what are you doing for the holiday, next week?” Some more people came in to the classroom and the others told them what was happening. The speaker changed, and this time the question immediately caught my attention, “what do you want to talk about today?” I quickly noted down the answers:

  • The passive (I know, I couldn’t believe it either)
  • Everything and nothing.
  • Can we watch a film?
  • Grammar
  • Can we do some listening and just talk?
I stood up and asked for the pen back. The class looked a little bit relieved that I had decided to join in. I was pleased that they had taken the initiative and got the ball rolling, now it was time to keep it going. I paired up the students. I gave them all something to talk about, two students were on the same course at university so I asked them to talk about their course and what they had learned so far that week. The other group contained the student who asked to watch a film. I told him to tell the group about the last film he watched, the other student had to talk about why he wasn’t in the last lesson and the third had to talk about a conversation he and I had before the class started. The final pair, included the student who wanted to talk about grammar. I asked her to tell her partner why she wanted to do that and then I noticed that her partner had come straight from the gym, so I asked her to talk about what she did at the gym. The class room was full of conversation. I sat in the corner of the room listening in to the various conversations, writing down some notes and errors.
When the conversation naturally died down, I got each pair to report back. From this I would decide the next topic for conversation, depending on how the other students reacted to what they heard. Sometimes I got the groups to report back to other groups, I swapped the pairs around, if I heard a group reverting back to Spanish, I got them to tell me what had been said and found another question from that to get them started again. The board started to fill up, vocab, phrases, words marked for pronunciation at the end of class. I started to write down errors on post-it notes and hand them to the students, who would immediately repeat the sentence but this time with the correction. These were the topics we talked about:
  • Reasons we go to the gym and what exercise we enjoy
  • Reasons why we don’t have time to go to the gym
  • What we would do if we weren’t all so busy
  • When was the last time you had a bad nights sleep and why?
  • When you can’t sleep, what do you do to get to sleep?
I barely had to do anything, bar deciding what the next topic would be, and that was generated by the students themselves. I finished the lesson by reviewing what had come up in the class. Vocabulary, phrases, ‘used to’ and why we use it, drilling of some particularly difficult words and finishing with some praise relating to the way some of the students were responding correctly and accurately to some 2nd conditional questions.
In the end we had talked about everything and nothing, just like one of the students had wanted, they listened and talked a lot, just like another had asked to do, we had dealt with some grammar, although not the passive, as another student had suggested. The students left the class happy and content. I should have been feeling the same. I was happy with the amount of talking we had done and the fact that it was all student centered and generated, yet what had they really learned from this lesson, and what had I actually taught them.
For me the class was nothing more than a glorified conversation class. At least I achieved my aim, but what about the emerging language? This is something I have struggled to deal with and identify from day one. Trying to listen to 4 different conversations at once, writing errors, good language use and also trying to figure out what the learners need to work on or what language they are lacking is extremely difficult. Especially for someone who is lacking in experience, such as myself. While I understand that from teaching in an unplugged/dogme style a lot of the planning comes after the lesson, via reflection and what emerged in the lesson, should I not be seizing on these teachable moments there and then?  Are my students missing out on something, that perhaps a more experienced teacher could give them? My process of post planning has been extremely useful. It has allowed me to reflect on my lessons with my D.o.S and then plan for the next lesson. Yet, this planning has become more about teaching a particular language point in the next lesson and planning a range of activities that will achieve that aim. Taking away the control of the lesson from the student and becoming a teacher centered lesson. Although, very useful for the student, it isn’t really teaching in the true dogme sense. Also, it is much more comfortable for someone of my experience to feel as though I have slightly more control of the lesson and that I am actually teaching them something. A lot to ponder over the winter break.
The project will be changing slightly after the Christmas holidays. A large amount of students want to take the Cambridge PET exam, so the dogme teaching will be week on week off with exam prep classes taking place in-between. It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on how I teach my future dogme classes and also how the students react in the classes, especially after going back to a more structured exam class.
Happy Christmas. See you in the new year.

Building steam with a grain of salt

From listening to records                                                                                                         I just knew what to do I mainly taught myself                                                                     And you know I did pretty well                                                                                               Except there were a few mistakes                                                                                     But um that I made uh                                                                                                       That I’ve just recently cleared up                                                                                               And I’d like to just continue                                                                                                   To be able to express myself                                                                                                 As best as I can with this instrument                                                                                     And I feel like I have a lot of work to do                                                                                     Still I’m a student of the drums                                                                                                And I’m also a teacher of the drums too

I came across this sentence last weekend and instantly knew I wanted to base a lesson around it, or even use it as a warmer/conversation starter;

If you had 2 minutes to talk to the whole world, what would you say?

I tried out a few formats with my early morning classes. They were a bit rough around the edges but produced some interesting results. One class produced a mini speech about what they would talk about if they had those two minutes, and the other class became a simple discussion class, after I changed the structure various times to allow the students to produce different answers and therefore different discussion points.

I decided to use it for my project to introduce, revise and work with the 2nd conditional.

I told the class I had found a really interesting question, but I couldn’t remember all of it. I wrote this on the board;

What would you say if you had 2 minutes……….

I passed out some slips of paper and asked the students to complete the question with whatever ending they wanted, and then they should swap the question with their partner and answer each others question. Immediately the class was alive with discussion and questions. I walked around helping with the construction of the sentences and vocabulary. I listened in to the answers and helped with pronunciation and corrected where necessary.

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes with Obama?’

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes to talk about your whole life?’

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes to talk in front of Spain’s prime time TV audience?’

Once the discussion had died down, I changed the initial question and asked the students to do the same as before;

What would you do if you had 2 minutes………

The class erupted into even more noise, they seemed to really be enjoying this activity. The questions became more inventive and random, yet produced even more talking and language.

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to spend 10,000 euros?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to eat 3 pizzas?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to tell the woman of your life you loved her and you saw her in the street?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes before some really important to you died?’

I went to the board and discussed all the points that had come up. I asked if they knew what grammar we were using in the lesson. Instantly the 2nd conditional was shouted out. We put the construction on the board, talked about swapping the clauses around, the position of the comma and why we use the 2nd conditional.

By now 30 minutes had gone by. It was surprising and satisfying that one simple sentence had produced so much already. I told the class we were going to read a text about a BBC programme, and put the title on the board;

People watchers

I asked them to discuss in their pairs what they thought the programme would be about and what they thought people watchers did. After some feedback and the mixing together of several ideas, we eventually came up with a suggestion. I asked the class to read the article to find out if they were right. They weren’t far off. Next I asked them to complete the five comprehension questions for the text. We did feedback and boarded the answers. We talked about unknown vocabulary and I asked them to pick out the 2nd conditionals. We were running out of time.

I told the class we were going to watch two clips from the BBC programme. Their attention immediately picked up. I wrote the question below, on the board. I asked the class to discuss it in pairs.

If you could steal something from a shop without paying for it, would you? 

We did a quick show of hands to see who would and who wouldn’t. Some people were very honest. I asked them to watch a clip of the show to see what the outcome of an experiment was that investigated this question. They had to simply tell me how many people paid for a paper. (4.50mins for the first question and 7mins for the second question)

We did the same for another question;

If a stranger came up to you in the street and asked to use your mobile phone, would you let them?

They watched the related clip and had to tell me whether the man or the woman was successful in getting people to lend them a mobile.

The end of the class was upon us. I asked them to write three 2nd conditional questions for homework and I intend to use them as a review and warm up in the next lesson.

I really enjoyed this lesson. Planning it, teaching it and being able to watch the students enjoy it too. I think this was by far the best lesson we have had together. The amount of talking and language that came out was unbelievable. And it was clear from the students faces that they were having a good time and engaging with the material. I had taken the text from the coursebook that we should be using from the class and also used the same comprehension questions included in the book. The actual planning of the lesson didn’t take long at all, and seemed to come together naturally. The question is, was it Dogme at all? I had planned the lesson and had a clear language point I wanted to cover. I was more than prepared to go off in another direction if necessary. The first half an hour was great, I anticipated maybe 10mins or, at the most, 15 mins for this, but allowed it to flow and continue as the students continued to discuss the questions. The rest of the lesson was straightforward and controlled by me, the teacher, yet highly productive and enjoyable. I could agonize over this, but I’m not going to. The students enjoyed the lesson, participated fully and left the class happy. At the end of the day, Dogme or not, this is what counts.

From watching other teachers                                                                                                 I just knew what to do I mainly taught myself                                                                     And you know I did pretty well                                                                                               Except there were a few mistakes                                                                                     But um that I made uh                                                                                                       That I’ve just recently cleared up                                                                                               And I’d like to just continue                                                                                                   To be able to express myself                                                                                                 As best as I can with teaching                                                                                              And I feel like I have a lot of work to do                                                                                     Still I’m a student of English                                                                                                And I’m also a teacher of English too

Unplugging the Spanish classroom.

Now that the term is well under way, and I have settled into a nice routine, I feel as though I can concentrate on other things. I have decided to start Spanish lessons again, beginning on Monday. Nothing earth shattering I know, but after getting published in the Guardian, did I mention that by the way http://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/education/2011/oct/11/class-report-native-speaker-woes, the Spanish teacher at my school started asking questions about teaching unplugged and has taken it upon herself to try to read ‘teaching unplugged’. (Thornbury&meddings, 2009)

A couple of days later, I asked if she would like to practice teaching unplugged with me. Two, hour lessons a week, no more photocopies, adapting activities from the book and generally making it up as we go. She seem’s very excited about the venture, as do I. A great chance for me to be on the other side of things, more importantly, I’m helping another teacher to try something new and develop, as well as perhaps helping to spread the unplugged gospel, in the Spanish teaching world.

I was wondering if perhaps I was being a bit too hasty in asking my Spanish teacher to go unplugged, until I read this blog from Ben Naismith, http://eltstew.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/random-spanish-vocab-at-its-finest/ He talks about learners learning what they want to and not what is prescribed by the teacher, emergent language and the dullness of set material. I know that I hate being handed a stack full of photocopies, filling in endless gap fills and listening to conversations between Pedro and Jose in a cafe. I know, that if I went back to Spanish lessons such as these, like Steve, I would probably lose interest and drop out. Therefore subjecting my girlfriend to listen to my painfully bad Spanish for another 6 months, before deciding to try again. I suppose it must sound a little selfish too. Expecting my teacher to learn and deliver a brand new way of teaching after only just learning about it. But, I think we are both aware of the possibilities and difficulties that we face and I see it as more of a partnership than a normal teacher, student relationship.

So on Monday a new chapter to my unplugged adventures starts. I would love to know if anyone else has tried a foreign language in this way. I would hate to think I was the first and only. I will post some feedback as the weeks go by and hopefully get some comments from my teacher too.


Lesson bytes.

I just wanted to write a quick post about some of the unplugged lessons and moments that have happened over the last couple of weeks. I will try to keep it brief.

Audio upgrade – I wanted to record my morning group and get them to listen back to an audio extract to practice some error correction and simply to promote some conversation after spending the previous lessons on listening and reading recently.

The students had previously written down some topics they wanted to discuss and some questions they wanted to ask the others. We sat down, took the first topic off the pile and began talking. The audio recorder wasn’t on at this point I just wanted the students to warm up and get into the flow. I fed in whatever vocabulary was necessary and boarded everything, making some small error correction and notes on common errors. Once the conversation came to a natural end I went to the board to highlight some small points. We started again but this time I explained that I would be recording a section of the conversation. We started the next topic and I immediately noticed the effect that having the possibility of being recorded had on the way the students spoke. They concentrated harder and their utterances became clearer and fewer errors occurred. I managed to get a good 4-5 minute chunk of the conversation. (I used audacity). Just before the end of the lesson I played the recording, asking them to pick out what they thought were common errors and we discussed them as a class.

The next lesson was after the weekend which gave me time to type up the chunk of conversation. Each student received a copy in the next lesson and we set about looking at errors and discussing ways that we could upgrade their language. How we could perhaps say what they initially said but better and clearer. The activity lasted the whole lesson and allowed me to practice some board work and led to a lot of new vocabulary and highlighted a lot of language points. A very successful and useful lesson which I think I would like to repeat in the future.

Classic recycle – I wanted to spend some time on looking at the vocabulary bank that we had built up over the last few weeks. I had written down every new word onto small pieces of blank paper. I brought them all to class and gave out five to each pair and asked them to discuss each word with their partner and then use the learner dictionaries to write a definition and the part of speech on the back. There were a lot of words so this lasted quite awhile, but just discussing these words allowed for language to emerge and make the recycling activity more memorable. Once the words had been exhausted I asked the students to try to group the vocabulary into lexical fields. Once this was completed we talked about how certain words could move in and out of different groups and this led into a discussion about collocation. Another lesson I will be repeating.

A teachable moment – I had my lesson idea all ready. I started as I always do by asking how the student’s weekend went. The usual responses followed but then one of my students started talking about her trip to Madrid and how her sister in-law’s kids had been driving her mad all weekend. Waking up early, too much energy and generally getting what they wanted by crying and shouting. I asked her if it had put her off having kids, and she said that perhaps it had made her think about waiting a little bit longer. At this point I knew that my original plan wasn’t going to take place. The conversation progressed naturally about the pros and cons of having children and then it moved onto how children these days are very different form those that we grew up with and that the cause was how parents brought up their children. I put a simple table on the board with two columns, problems of parenting now, suggestions for better parenting. By the end of the lesson the board was full.

I followed the topic up in the next lesson by finding an article in the Guardian about 21st century mothers. A quick title mix and match lead to a very relaxed reading lesson. The article was mined for new vocabulary and ideas from the previous lesson were highlighted in the article and discussed further.

Put your hands in the air, and say yeah! – This was a very simple activity but proved very effective. In my CAE class I had a 30 minute slot to fill after a pre planned activity fell very short. I asked the students to write down topics or questions they wanted to ask in the class on some post-it notes. I explained that the idea was to keep the conversation going for as long as possible and if I heard an error I would simply raise my hand. I wouldn’t correct but the student should verbally highlight their error, correct and carry on with the conversation. I would only step in if they needed help. This worked really well and after a few topics the group was split into two and one of the students became the teacher. A simple but very effective activity.