Learner Diaries; A summary

As the academic year draws to a close, its time to summarise the two projects that I was running this year, at IH Santander.

If you’re new to the blog and Learner diaries, please read through the posts entitled Learner diaries 1,2 and 3 for the lowdown and extracts from the learner’s diaries themselves. If you have been following these posts from the beginning, thank you and I hope that you have gained something from these posts and maybe even been spurred on to try it yourself.

So, what exactly did I get from this project? Well, I think it is more important to focus on what the students got from this experience. After all, they were the main reason for starting this and without them participating I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Due to various reasons, I was unable to get specific feedback on the diaries themselves which is something I regret. So I have read back through the diary extracts and will be basing my summary around these. Firstly, I like to think that the diaries empowered the learners and was in keep with the theme of the unplugged project from which this off-shoot project formed. By giving them an outlet to express their feelings about the class and what happened in it, I effectively had an ongoing needs analysis that was honest and true and was prompted by questions the students were asking themselves, rather than a two page formal needs analysis that they are required to answer at the beginning of the course, which is normally rushed and completed with the same old answers. Anthony Gaughan recently mentioned the need for more frequent needs analysis in his talk about what makes a lesson great. http://teachertrainingunplugged.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/what-makes-a-lesson-great-pt-2/

Well, needs change, and – if complexity theory really has any relevance to language acquisition – they do so unpredictably, so how often can/should needs be reassessed? Every month? Every week? Every lesson? Before or after the lesson? During it? (Anthony Gaughan, 2012)

I think that learner diaries can go some way to combat this and provide the teacher and learner with valuable feedback in which to proceed with further lessons.

This nicely links into the next point. By responding to what is written in the diaries and building lessons around these needs, the learners can see that what they are writing is important and that you the teacher are listening to what they have to say. The knock on effect is to create a greater rapport with the learners, encouraging them to write more and strengthen the cycle of feedback/needs analysis.

The diaries are also a valuable resource for lesson ideas. What’s great about the diaries is that the learners are constantly producing work. From this the teacher can use what has been written for a writing skills based class, maybe pick up on a topic that a learner has mentioned in one of their entries, something they like/dislike, what they did at the weekend and so on. The teacher can also prompt different responses and probe for more information with the responses they leave in the learner diaries, be it in the form of a direct question or perhaps a personal response to something the learner has written. Again, it pushes the learner to write more, further strengthens the rapport and provides the class with a wealth of material.

The learner diaries were also trialed with various other classes within the school and I was fortunate enough to share the project with Noreen Lam (@Noreen_Lam), a teacher at IH Santander, and we also presented our project at TESOL Spain, Bilbao. Recently, Noreen presented the same talk as part of the International house on-line conference and you can see the recording here; http://ihtoc50.posterous.com/pages/learner-diaries

Here is what Noreen has to say about the project;

Looking back at a year of learner diaries, I think that what I have felt most satisfied with is the insight that the journals have given into the lives of students.  Sure, it’s true that with the young learners, there isn’t much meat in the responses, and it’s often limited to “I like games and I hate homework/tests” etc, but once in a while, you get something that surprises you.  The students see it as a way to speak to you when maybe they aren’t able to do so during class time, and you can come up with something like “I hate be (sic) alone and get angry” which isn’t perhaps relevant to English class, but does tug at a more personal response and willingness to express feelings.
With the adults, it has been the same, but on a more complex level, which is what we were aiming for from the start.  I was lucky in that my adults are very enthusiastic and intrinsically motivated individuals, and they really poured their hearts out and were completely honest.  Entries began with a mixture of uncertainty, worry and lack of self-confidence, and towards the end of the year, became more and more positive with noticeable pride in their accomplishments.  They recognise their strengths and weaknesses and have taken it upon themselves to work hard.  It has been very rewarding reading their entries, especially when they share their secrets like how one “play[s] a game” where she mentally translates conversations she has with colleagues into English, thereby creating an internal dialogue in L2 and reinforcing the importance of it in her life!  Something like that just makes you go “wow!” and think, all that hard work throughout the year has paid off, and maybe I have done my bit as a teacher.

I think Noreen has summed up the experience very nicely and I can only echo her feelings. The chance to see into the lives of the learner is not only a privilege but also a very rare chance to get such personal feedback. To be able to allow the learners to do this is what teaching is all about. Empowering the learner.

Despite all the positives, not everything was plain sailing with the project. Initially, the learners took to the idea of the diaries enthusiastically and the responses offered lots of material to work with. As time went by and other things took priority, exams, holidays etc, the entries became fewer and fewer. The fact that we had the diaries spread across six or seven different classes also meant it was difficult to keep up with the responses and to put in the required time in order to get the most out of them. Some learners simply didn’t want to give up their time to fill out the diaries and for some ages it is more difficult to implement than others. I tried to deliver the diaries electronically with a group of teenagers after the initial paper based way failed and even that proved to be futile.

In conclusion, the project has been extremely enjoyable, thought-provoking and useful for both the learner and the teacher. Both Noreen and I plan to continue the learner diaries next year and another teacher at IH Santander is also looking to start the diaries with a class. I would encourage any teacher to give learner diaries a go and it would be great to hear from anyone that has tried or is even thinking of trying this kind of project with their learners to share experiences and thoughts. If anyone has any further questions about the project or the diaries, please feel free to comment here or contact me or Noreen via twitter. (@bealer81 and @Noreen_Lam)

Many thanks to Noreen Lam, Emily Bell and the students of IH Santander for supporting, participating and genuinely being cool people.