Thursday, June 11, 2015

Using Facebook Groups to Extend the Language Classroom

This photo of me is from a recent presentation with my colleague, Yuliya Speroff,
about using Facebook Groups in the classroom.

Check out our slides from Meliksah ELT Day 2015

From our abstract: 

ESOL Teachers are always looking for practical ways to facilitate communication withstudents and promote autonomous learning outside the classroom. Technology and the internet have opened myriad channels for communication and learning; however, today’s vast array of web 2.0 platforms (Dubravac, 2013) offer almost too many options for teachers. Moreover using multiple platforms for socializing and completing class work can create an unmanageable amount of separate accounts for students to check. To reach students easily, why not use a platform they are already familiar with and checking daily? Facebook offers a user interface that is simple, yet capable of many of the functions teachers want. Using a private Facebook group, teachers can easily post links to resources, multimedia homework assignments, and class reminders. Students receive notifications of posts from the teacher; and they can easily post videos and other multimedia back to the group, send messages to the teacher or to other students, and find new ways to participate in their classroom community. The extension from classroom to Facebook Group may help to promote autonomous learning and a sense of comradery in students who would otherwise depend on the teacher or coursebook as the only sources of input.

Want to ask a question about our presentation? Have a suggestion? Please leave a comment below, or feel free to join our Facebook Group for more info: Meliksah ELT Day 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A better day

I'm writing to follow up on the gloom and doom from the last post. Today I proctored the final speaking exams for many of my students.

To be honest, I was proud of them. Despite the challenges they posed for me, I got to know some of them pretty well; and despite their behavior, I actually liked many of them.

Today I felt sad to see them go. I won't miss teaching them, but I will miss them somehow.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Teaching trials and moving on

It's been a month since my last post. I finally finished the fourth and final teaching quarter at Meliksah. The last quarter was by far the most difficult--in fact, there really is no comparison to any teaching challenge I've ever faced in the past.

I was assigned to teach the dreaded "repeater" sections of students who didn't pass the 3rd quarter. Some of them didn't pass because of proficiency, but most didn't pass because of attendance or motivation issues. While the lowest 2 repeater sections gave up almost immediately and started watching subtitled films instead of working in the course books, my sections were supposed to trudge on through the material that students had already seen the previous quarter. You can imagine that my students and I were not so thrilled to review the exact same material again.

Things were bad. I felt like I had stepped into an alternate universe in which disrespecting and ignoring the teacher were normal behaviors, and a good day was one during which I only imagined strangling one student. Students would deliberately put headphones in when I was talking, flat out refuse to do activities, and in some cases, refuse to speak English to me. Students painted their nails, applied make up, played cell phone games, took selfies, sang along to the songs on their headphones, and even set up what looked to me to be a craps table using their books. Perhaps most annoying of all, many of my questions were not answered with words, but with this delightful gesture/noise. It's a very casual way to say "no" in Turkish, but it's really not appropriate for a teacher-student interaction, and definitely not appropriate to an open-ended question.
I cried in the classroom for the first time in my life.

These groups of students took me to a very dark place. For the first time in my life, I genuinely did not want to teach. I felt like my job was pointless. Honestly, I think my students were in a similar mode of apathy and ennui. The classroom atmosphere was heavy and dull--completely the opposite of how it usually feels.

Now that it's over, I can look back and see a few bright spots, but I was so relieved to finish my final hour on Friday. I'm usually sad on the last day of class, but not this time. It was a bad feeling for me. I want to like my students and help them and miss them when they're gone.

My colleagues and I had a great party last night to celebrate the end of the repeater classes, and I'm feeling much less toxic now. I'm ready to move on.

I'm looking forward to non-teaching time this summer to investigate my research interests in educational psychology and identity. I hope that I will feel refreshed and motivated now that I've survived such a difficult experience.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Open-mindedness, Tolerance, and Respect for Diversity

Yesterday I was confronted a very uncomfortable situation in my classroom.

I had students making xenophobic, insensitive, and ill-informed comments about people from other cultures.

Following a particularly offensive outburst from one student, I dismissed the class early. Tears welling up, I asked the lingering students to leave and get my teacher friends. I needed emotional support. I filed a report detailing the events and my supervisor has commended me for how I handled the situation. 

Following the incident, I have been reflecting deeply about my teaching philosophy and my personal philosophy as Jena Lynch. Being open-minded, tolerant, and respectful are at the core of who I am, and they are at the core of why I am a teacher. I have chosen a career that puts me in direct contact with people from hugely diverse backgrounds. I love learning about other cultures and people's experiences. Building relationships with people from other countries makes me feel like I have a place in the world. I feel most alive when I connect with someone who speaks a different language, who has a different background, or who is simply curious about the world we live in.

My philosophy has no place for hatred based on ignorance, closed mindedness, or lack of respect for humankind. My students' comments yesterday deeply hurt my feelings as a foreigner living in Turkey. Even though the comments were not about my country, the fact that my students were openly so disrespectful and hurtful was appalling to me.

Granted, at 19-years-old, many people aren't making their best decisions or saying the most intelligent things, but there is no excuse for the kind of behavior I witnessed. 

This incident brings me to the question: to what extent is it my job to teach tolerance in my language classroom? I get into the deepest muck when I question whether my values are somehow inherently right or better than those that my students portrayed. 

In the 21st century language classroom, I think my values of open-mindedness, tolerance, and respect for diversity are dead on. I think that part of teaching English as an international language is teaching respect, curiosity, and tolerance. People who interact with others must understand the impact of everything they say and do as a direct reflection of themselves, their country, and possibly even larger organized groups, like religious affiliations. I stuck to my belief yesterday that there is no place for hateful and ignorant speech in any classroom. 

If those students learn nothing from me about vocabulary or grammar, I hope they remember me as the teacher who could not tolerate a student's offensive comments about Iraqi people. That's a reputation I could live with.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Quarter 3 Highlights

Quarter three at Melikşah prep school tested my endurance. I had 5 different classes of students, each with 20 names and faces to remember. I'm sure many teachers out there are saying, "Yes, and...?"

I can appreciate the challenges of teachers of large classes and teachers with 100s of students to manage. I did manage to learn each student's name within the first 2 weeks, even with three Dilara's in one section.

Current ESL/EFL methodology encourages a communicative approach in which the learner is the center of the classroom. In my philosophy, this manifests as me trying to get to know each student, and tailoring my classroom activities to fit the class's personality. In fact, I often have particular students in mind when I create activities. I think the personalized attention I put into materials development is one reason that students respond to my lessons. As an example, one of my classes during the last quarter was super chatty. They also liked to talk about each other and give each other a hard time (in a joking way). I capitalized on this tendency to teach qualifier + comparative structures--For example, ______ is a lot taller than ______.  I created 7 sentence frames following the example pattern, but with different adjectives and the option to replace "a lot" with "a little." Students filled in the blanks with their classmates' names, and then we read them out loud. The sentences were often funny, and because students were talking about each other, they had real motivation to listen. The speakers also had great motivation to use correct grammar, because a correct "insult"has more impact than an incorrect one. We had a lot of fun with that activity!

The past quarter had some challenges reminiscent of the struggles I endured during my first weeks at this program. Among the most challenging aspects for me is getting students to be quiet and pay attention, especially following group work. Switching the lights on and off, clapping, and even using my lifeguard voice barely had an impact. In a short class period with lots to cover, the time lost trying to get students back to attention really adds up.

Despite some of the ongoing classroom management issues, I found success in vocabulary instruction with the help of PowerPoint and Google images. For each set of new vocabulary, I made a PowerPoint slideshow in which the first slide had an image related to one of the new words and the following slide had the picture and a meaningful sentence including the new word. I found that the pictures helped students recall the words, and the sentences helped reinforce how to use the word correctly. We reviewed these shows at the beginning of nearly ever class hour, and I felt that students were able to bring these words into their productive vocabulary more quickly due to the repetition. In addition, I printed the pictures and sentences on separate papers and then gave each student either a sentence or a picture. Working with their classmates, they had to find the appropriate matches and sit together. I found this to be an effective get-out-of-your-seat activity to introduce the new vocabulary in a communicative way. Students were mostly able to find the matches on their own, which I assume is more valuable to learning than simply absorbing the teacher's explanation passively.

Overall, a successful quarter, even if I did often feel zapped for energy. I blame that on the springtime weather tease: warm and sunny followed by snowstorm and wind.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Resume and Teaching Philosophy

My resume as of February 2015

I am an English as a second language (ESL) teacher by training, but at least half of my teaching experience has been in the university composition classroom. These two general contexts have informed my teaching-philosophy about how to approach a diverse group of students with varying needs and preferences.

Regardless of students’ language proficiency, my most important goal is to see students engage with the material. I’ve seen that careful planning, coupled with enthusiasm, creates a safe, yet dynamic and enjoyable, atmosphere for engagement and learning. My ultimate goal as a teacher is that students will apply what they learn in my class to other areas of their lives. The best compliment is a former student recounting how something we learned in my class helped her with a later assignment.

Creating a space where students feel comfortable to try (and sometimes fail) is essential for me as a language and writing teacher. My students need support from me and from each other in order to take risks, learn, and ultimately gain proficiency. During every class, I try to check in with each student, even if only during an attendance question. It’s important to me that I treat my students with respect and curiosity. In my assignments and grading, I always try to set my students up for success through well-planned prompts, but I believe that students deserve a second chance.

Another way I set students up for success is through lesson-planning. Lesson plans should account for course objectives, student needs, and learning preferences. Working to meet course objectives is the top priority as a classroom teacher. Ultimately, students will be tested on these objectives, and will need the information and skills developed in the course to be successful at higher levels. Beyond objectives, accounting for student needs, at a class and individual level has yielded positive results for me. Personalizing material for students can help them connect and engage on a much deeper level. In addition, being responsive to student questions and concerns builds trust and contributes to the safe atmosphere I provide. To account for students’ learning preferences, I try to vary the mode and method of instruction from class to class. For example, teaching vocabulary through student-created actions (or skits) adds a dimension of physicality that may help the new words stick for some learners. On the other hand, drawing a picture to represent the new word may help other students connect new knowledge to existing knowledge. Through experimentation, students develop a repertoire of strategies that they can take with them to other classes and beyond.

Teaching students strategies for learning is an effective use of teacher time. I believe that by teaching strategies alongside content, I am building not only knowledge for now, but skills for later. For example, I identify and teach strategies for decoding new words based on prefixes, suffixes and stems. I also post various strategies in the classroom or online as a reminder to students throughout the semester. The critical part of strategy instruction is to acknowledge the individual differences in student preference, as well as the sometimes slow process of working a strategy into one’s routine. Building a repertoire of strategies helps students feel supported and prepared for assignments and assessments in class, and also in future tasks.

My favorite teachers have been dynamic and alive in front of the class. I believe that the best way to get energy from my students is to give them energy. I am comfortable to be animated, enthusiastic, and spontaneous in front of students because it results in animation, enthusiasm and spontaneity from them. The dynamic classroom has clear goals to achieve, but may diverge from the lesson plan depending on how students respond to the material. Comprehension checks and participation are important elements of my classroom. I try to plan partner and group work, along with individual reflection, into every lesson. I believe that the human elements of the classroom, such as teacher attitude, student interaction, and capitalizing on unplanned learning opportunities make all the difference in terms of student engagement.

Overall, student engagement, long-term learning, and creating a positive environment are some of my top priorities in the classroom. During every lesson, these core elements of my teaching philosophy influence both what I plan and how I think on my feet. I believe that these elements have contributed to my success as a teacher.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Success in Quarter 2

Two quarters complete. One semester down. Half way through my first year teaching in Turkey.

My tumultuous first quarter prepared me for many of the challenges in this teaching context, including student motivation, last-minute changes, and difficult classroom management. However, the second quarter provided me a reprieve from the struggles of the first. I taught the top two sections of a CEFR B1 level listening and speaking class, using a textbook designed for English for Academic Purposes--my specialty. I also taught a mid-range section of CEFR A2, which kept me grounded in what the majority of teachers here trudge through on a daily basis.

Our classes work like this: based on proficiency and achievement test scores, students are sorted out first into A1, A2, B1, B2 levels. Then, within those levels, they are further divided into sections. The first quarter, we had 31 sections of A1 and handful of the others. The second quarter, 27 sections of A2. Our students basically progress en mass through the four levels. Each quarter, though, some teachers are assigned to teach in the other levels. I considered myself lucky to be one of the few teaching B1 students--they were absolutely awesome. My A2 section was fun in its own way, too. We managed to push through some very difficult material in A2, and I'm really proud of my students for picking up as much as they did. We had a lot of inside jokes in that class--"çay accidents" for spilled tea; "BRReak, BRReak, BRReak" for the end of a lesson. It was fun.

While I can chalk up a lot of the success I enjoyed in the second quarter to awesome students and different classroom dynamics (every teacher can relate to the seemingly random nature of groups of students who are productive together, and groups who are...not); I can also congratulate myself on personal growth as a teacher.

I handed out a syllabus on the first day of class with my expectations about classroom behavior, homework, and where empty tea cups belong (this is Turkey, after all). I was consistent with my "lights off means silence" policy all quarter, and it worked much better this time.

I did my best not to take students' behavior personally. I often reminded myself that these  are 18-year-olds who are experimenting with adulthood, meeting new friends, and experiencing university life for the first time. They want attention from each other. They want to be social. They don't care about relative clauses. I thought a lot about something a very zen colleague once said. "When I see students not paying attention, I think, he isn't ready to learn today." I like how that phrase takes the burden off of me. I focused on students who were ready, and did my best to get the others on board when I could.

One of my favorite experiments this quarter was using Facebook groups with students. Each class had a group where we could post and share things. I assigned students to make videos of themselves speaking English, write paragraphs, answer questions, and watch YouTube videos using Facebook. It was way better than I expected. Some students really took to it. Some were nonplussed, but that's normal. The students who liked it really seemed to enjoy posting and commenting on their friends' posts. Many students took advantage of the chat function to ask me questions, or wish me well on the weekends. While sometimes I wanted to escape from the messages, they were almost always important things or messages that made me feel good as a human being. Sometimes that doesn't happen enough to teachers.

Of course some students dug through my Facebook with a fine-toothed comb, finding some pictures that I might not choose to show them otherwise. You can imagine the horrifying moment shared by me and a student when a third student blurted out "Jena! Can I ask you about a picture Mahir sent to me? I didn't know you were like that!"  Oh no. What did I forget to delete? By the way, Sent to me.??Yes, they've been texting my FB profile pictures to each other. Oh boy. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed, me or the sender, but we actually talked about the picture, featuring a friend and me decked out in gothic Halloween make-up from 2007, and I think we all felt much less awkward after that. Even empirical studies suggest that sharing Facebook inherently makes teachers a little more open with student, and this is part of building a trusting community. See Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds (2007). Of course, the natural consequence is built in--students know more about you, and in a digital world, there can be an awful lot to know.

Did I delete that picture after school? Yes I did. I thought I had eliminated most traces of my undergraduate life from Facebook, but I guess I missed that one.

So, I'm leaving the second quarter on a high note, full of momentum. There's a pretty good chance that I will be slowed by the one month break from teaching, and that my next teaching schedule won't be so awesome, but I can take comfort in my newfound confidence and my expanding knowledge of this student population.