The Myth of the Good Student

15 Jan

Not so long ago I found out that two of my teenage students have been having a competition in my classes.  Apparently they’ve been trying to see who can say the word “genitais” the most in class – this means “genitals” in English.  They’ve been doing this for the last three months and it only came to light because they clearly got bored of my inability to notice and asked me if I knew what it meant.

Not, I’m sure you will agree, the behaviour of a good student.

But then what is?

The topic came up again with another class today, as part of a discussion on good study skills, so I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good or bad student.  Now this group is younger, they’re about 13 years old, which accounts for some of the content, and I reformulated one or two suggestions (though I was impressed when they came up with “the class clowns”).

Good and Bad Students

In asking young learners what makes a good or bad student, you are always going to get a degree of polarisation and counter point.  If the good student “always does their homework” then it stands to reason that the bad student “never does their homework”.  Nonetheless three things immediately jump out at me:

  1. The utter negativity of the bad student.
  2. The impossibility of being a good student.
  3. The complete lack of a middle ground.

 

(1) The utter negativity of the bad student.

Bad students here are demonized.  Look at that word “rebel” in there!  It’s so true as well – if you set yourself against the system in any way, you get crushed by the teacher or at the very least you are cast in the role of the villain for the rest of the school year.  The problem is that, if as the teacher, you cast one of your students in that role, you aren’t giving them any other role to perform – what else are they expected to do?  Don’t challenge authority kids – even when it’s wrong – because that way lies destruction!

There’s the social stigmatism there as well, “are idiots and are dumb” – if we can’t control our students ourselves, then let us, as teachers, set the children against each other and let them do the dirty work for us.  We are civilized, we are emotionally in control and we don’t stoop to name calling.  But we all know why the bad students are bad students – they just aren’t as intelligent as us.  It’s got nothing to do with the background of the “bad” student, it doesn’t matter that they’re being bullied in the playground and are acting out because of it.  Bad behaviour is not seen as a sign of emotional need – it is seen as a sign of poor intelligence.

And there’s the performance angle.  Bad students get bad grades.  Yes, that’s right, the fault is with the student.  They are the one who failed to understand.  They are the one who couldn’t answer the question.  They are the one who had a bad day when it was test time and therefore they are at fault.  The failure of a student to understand is not the fault of the student, it is a failure of instruction.  I should point out that I fail at instruction all the time.  I fail at even giving instructions all the time – I see the sideways glances and hear the whispered conversations and every now and again get the question “Teacher, what is to do?”  Equally, I’m not suggesting that it is always the failure of the teacher – most of the time it is the failure of the situation surrounding the teacher – if you have a class of 30 students and you are busy dealing with three of them, you might not notice the quiet one struggling in the corner.  Or you might not realise the student who has taken his trousers down in the classroom is doing all this attention seeking behaviour precisely to divert attention away from the fact that they don’t have a clue what is going on.  But if we continue to decide whether students are good or bad based on their grades, how can we ever hope that our students place a value on things other than performance?  When will our students ever see each other as human beings?

(2) The impossibility of being a good student.

Ok.  The whole “wear glasses” thing was suggested by one of the students who just happens to wear glasses.  And so do I, so I wasn’t going to disagree…..

But let’s look at what else is there:  are quiet, pay attention, have good grades, are polite to the teacher, always do their homework, are intelligent (for a given value of intelligent, which I suspect would probably correlate strongly with “get good grades”).  Once we’d got all this on the board I asked them how many of them thought they were good students.  Actually I had asked them this before we started listing criteria and without exception, they started putting their hands up and saying “Teacher, I got 82% in history!”, “I have 90 in English.”  It was this that started our little digression into what makes a good student as when I asked them if that was the only thing that meant they were good students, some of the other criteria started emerging.

When I asked them again though, about three of them put their hands up.  The others said they didn’t always get good grades, or they weren’t always quiet, or they didn’t think they were very intelligent (how my heart goes out to them there!!!!), or they missed a couple of homework tasks.  So that works out at about 25% of the class.

25%.

Only 25% of my class think they are good students.

How messed up is a system where 75% of the students think they are automatic failures?  Where, by their own description, they are idiots?

Like most teachers, I would love to have a class full of polite, quiet, focused and attentive students who always did what I said and did the work.  What I have in most cases is a group of students who can occasionally be persuaded to do some work, but who would really prefer to be playing games of some kind.  I think the question from the teacher’s perspective is what do you expect?  Should I expect my students to be “good” all of the time?  It’s not like we get that all the time in the real world – just take a drive through the centre of your town at rush hour and see if I’m wrong!  If we continue to set our expectations so high, if we expect our students, regardless of age, to behave as though they were us, then both we and they are doomed to failure and the class is doomed to a year of demotivated learning punctuated by tantrums.

The good student doesn’t exist.  The good student is a mythical ideal generated largely for the benefit of teachers so that students, kids who crave praise and the external validation of the authority figure, know what exacting standards must be achieved and will strive to get that validation.  The myth of the good student tells students that what their teachers really want – is to be left alone.

 

(3) The lack of a middle ground

The discourse surrounding student identity is completely polarised.  Students, it seems, are either one thing or the other and see themselves in those terms.  You are either for or against, good or bad, successful or a failure.  There is a moral absolutism inherent in this view of classroom management that simply does not reflect the reality of the situation.  It requires the observer (teacher or otherwise) to make a value judgement about the nature of an individual based on  subjective interpretation of behaviour – according to standards that as I’ve already said, are unobtainable.

Most societies, even those that spring from more dogmatic perspectives, embrace a degree of relativism in their social and cultural attitudes.  So why is there no middle ground in this?

What disturbed me most about the conversation with my class is that even at the age of 13, they have been brainwashed into this view that they are either good or they are bad.  I know that more nuanced views develop with age, but the fact that students don’t see that they can contain elements of both is troubling.  At any given moment, in any given classroom, an otherwise great student has let their mind float off somewhere.  This is not a bad thing.

I tried to encapsulate this in a diagram – the idea is that at any moment in a lesson, students can place themselves somewhere within the diagram.

the state of the student

 

It’s not perfect and would probably be better as a series of bar charts.  The positives are lumped together mostly because they tend to go together.  If you’re in the right frame of mind to start with, then the rest comes easier.  And so forth and vice versa.  But it serves to visualise the series of dichotomies that students are up against.

Most students would probably put themselves somewhere in the top half of the circle.  Some in the middle and maybe a few in the lower half.  But very few would place themselves at the extremes and this is because by and large, we all occupy the middle ground.  We are rarely completely one thing or the other and if we only see ourselves in these polarised terms, then we run the risk of perpetual failure or stressed out over-achievement.  More to the point, as teachers, if we only ever expect brilliance and good behaviour from our students, we are dooming them to failure before they even start.  If you can’t be brilliant, you might as well not even try.  That’s the message it sends and we end up, inadvertently, teaching our students to be intolerant of anything less than perfection.

We are all individuals and we are all different (or at least most of us are).  As adults we accept each others’ imperfections with relative good grace and we don’t define ourselves with arbitrary labels like good and bad because we accept that we all have strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds and different interests.  We come together in the middle ground to work together, study together, socialize and start relationships.  Perhaps finding and occupying that middle ground is what we should also be doing in the classroom.

I think the last word in this should go to Joao, who asked me a question towards the end of the lesson:

“Teacher, am I the class clown?”

“What do you think?”

“I think maybe yes.”

“OK.  Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m not quiet and I play a lot and make jokes.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Maybe yes.”

“Why?”

“Because then I can’t get good grades.”

“Well, if you can be the class clown and get good grades, then it’s not a problem.”

“Hmm.  Teacher I don’t want be bad student.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad student.”

“I try to be good student.”

 

 

Warmer: Don’t make me say it!

12 Jan

This is a vocabulary revision activity that I used as a warmer with my classes last week – from intermediate to proficiency.

I went back through the previous couple of units of the coursebook and chose 12 items (words, phrasal verbs, fixed expressions, short phrases) that I thought the class would probably know and I divided those items into two sets of six, trying to make sure there was an even balance of “difficulty” between the two lists.

I put these on a handout as follows:

IMG_20150109_153542056 (2)

The instructions are as follows:

  • Have a conversation with your partner. You can talk about any topics.
  • During the conversation, try to get them to use the words or expressions in the list below.
  • You get one point for every word they use.
  • You lose one point for every word on their list that you say.

What happened:

Predictably, very few of the words on the lists actually got said.  That doesn’t really matter because, as a vocabulary revision activity, what’s happening is the students are creating contexts for the use of the vocabulary, so even if student B doesn’t say student A’s word, they have a pretty good idea of what it is.  However, in hindsight, (and the next time I play this) I’m going to take out the rule about losing a point – it just makes everyone unnecessarily uncooperative.  That said, everyone had a lot of fun.

I also tried this with a group and let them choose their own words from previous units of the book.  This backfired spectacularly as (a) it took far too long, (b) they chose words they didn’t know the meaning of.

It needs a bit of tweaking, but I like this activity because of the way the students are creating these contexts for the items and because it’s prompting them to think about how the items are used – yes, it’s completely artificial, but it also seems to be a lot of fun, which is what you want in a warmer.

Do try it out and let me know how it goes for you – and any changes you made!

Have fun!

(Acknowledgement – I have a vague memory or being shown this or something similar in an input session at IH Katowice about ten years ago, so apologies if this is someone else’s idea!  If so it was probably Richard Venner as it seems like the sort of thing he would do!)

Secret Teacher Guest Post: Professionalism Problems

15 Dec

There are quite a few secret teachers out there in the world.  People who have spotted things that need changing in their environment but whose ideas or suggestions are brushed aside or dismissed out of hand.  This blog was contacted by a reader who needed some help to voice her concerns anonymously.  I’m very happy to do that for this reader and indeed any other!

ninja teacher

So the class is due to start at 9 and you are two teachers short. They are not picking up their respective mobiles and the minute hand is creeping round to ten past. The kids are in their classrooms, or milling around outside and your own class is due to have started ten minutes ago. People here often tend towards mild lateness, but such simple laxness is giving you kittens, week in week out. My emergency lessons are on standby, the trigger-finger hanging over the big green button of the photocopier so that you have something, anything, to start the classes off with before I run around trying to find people to cover the classes. Eventually one, then the other teacher, stroll into the school, say ‘dzien dobry’, and roll into their classes. Five minutes before the end of the class and those self-same teachers are the first out of the door, with a ‘bye’, only if you happen to be standing by the door as they rush homewards. Having looked through the windows of those teachers’ classrooms and registered dull, static book lessons and rows of bored faces of students you feel something should be done. But what?

As a DoS of a Central European language school with an inherited staffroom and with an indifferent local pool of teachers to hire from with a fairly complicated timetable to manage you find yourself in a bit of a pickle. You’ve talked to the usual suspects, they’ve promised to do better and for a lesson or two there was a bit of an uptick, slight improvements in attitude and delivery. But then there is regression towards the mean and you’ve come to face the fact that you’ve got some frankly lazy teachers in your staffroom. What to do?

In a bigger city, in a bigger school, there is more cover, the role feels more impersonal (I know, I’ve been there) and the action clearer. You would, ahem, phase out said teachers, at the end of terms or semesters, rolling in the new (hopefully better) blood as new classes appear. But in a smaller town, where the whole English speaking community know each other rather too well you know that unless handled perfectly such actions will blow up in your face. In such places it’s not good to be too harsh, or at least, gain a reputation for harshness.

The problem teachers moan about some of their classes; they’re ‘difficult’ or ‘sulky’ or whatever. But you’ve taught all the classes in question; these teachers seem to take a lot of sick days, and the classes seem fine when you covered them and you’ve concluded to yourself that the problem classes are problems because the teenagers in question in those classes are very, very bored. The very same teachers are the ones that don’t come to internal meetings and training sessions, that do the bare minimum, which would be called coasting if only they had a little more momentum.

You talk to the teachers in question again. Teaching is a vocation surely and not a well paid one. Teachers, you had thought, aren’t in it for the money.  A laughable idea with salaries the way they are. So if people don’t like the job, why are they doing it? They make the right noises, and small improvements come, and then go again. You wander the halls, hear the students discussing the classes in their L1 (so naïve of them to assume you don’t understand) and discussing how poor they are, and you wonder about when and how turn the heft of the axe into a decisive stroke. You didn’t start this career to be a manager, nor to fire people, but sometimes it is the right thing to do…

Mentor Me! (or can I just get on with it?)

2 Dec

What do you want from a mentor?  As a mentor, what do you want from your mentees?  These two expectations don’t always meet in the middle and it can be a cause of professional friction when that happens.

I recently wrote a post that tried to look at the relationship from both sides:  From Mentee to Mentor and back again – a teacher’s tale.  Thinking on this further, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what I want out of this arrangement.  I think it is important that every teacher have the opportunity to voice concerns to their DoS or manager,  but equally, they shouldn’t be forced to…  I suspect that what most teachers really want is to be left alone to get on with it as they think best.

From the DoS’s point of view though, it’s better to have the information before it becomes a problem, not afterwards.  And leaving teachers to just get on with it can have mixed results…

Hence the existing system of mentor meetings, which I describe in detail in the earlier post.

When I was on the mentoring side, what I really wanted to know was (a) are you happy?  (b) are your students happy? (c) what can we help with?.  What I asked was more often bureaucratic in nature and dealt with the details, rather than the broader picture.  Getting teachers to talk through each and every class is quite useful as it does bring to mind students and issues that might not otherwise get mentioned, but it somehow seems a more administrative function and not quite what the word mentoring implies.

Now that I’m a mentee again, I think what I’d like to be asked most is “Fancy a beer?”  But in all seriousness, I think those three questions probably cover it!

So – a poll!  I’ve put my suggestions in – feel free to vote for them or to add your own suggestions:

 

 

United Nations Day – teaching resources

20 Oct

It is nearing the end of October and that traditionally means pumpkins, black cats, sweets or candy, and a bunch of superstitious nonsense that if it wasn’t for the whole “sweets and candy” component, would probably have disappeared a long time ago.

So this year, I have lobbied for United Nations Day to be the focus of our end of October activities instead!  And apparently I was convincing enough that my colleagues agreed with me….  Ooops.

So I thought I’d take a look to see what teaching resources are out there to help students understand what the United Nations is – and how you and your school can help promote awareness of our primary global institution.

What I found…..

The UN itself, appears to be living in a pre-technological age.  Their website is woeful, but if you want to look at it – it is here.

The UN Cyberschool bus, on the other hand, at least acknowledges that children might be looking at their webpage and has a number of games and activities that emulate functions of the UN.  The best known is probably the Stop Disasters game, which is quite good.  The other games look like they were coded by an eight year old and then got hacked or something.  Nonetheless, the UN Cyberschool bus is worth checking out, just for the sheer range of information if nothing else, and it is at least aimed at kids, which is more than you can say for the rest of the UN….

The Global Dimension has  a range of teaching resources that appear to promote critical thinking and active engagement with the processes and work of the UN, amongst other things.  Their “UN Matters teaching pack”  looks like it has loads of good stuff for the secondary age range.  Some of the stuff is labelled as free, which would suggest other bits need to be paid for.  I haven’t used any of this stuff, so if you do, please let us know how good it is in the comments!

The Guardian, who can usually be relied upon for socially responsible journalism / information, wrote a piece just over a year ago on “How to teach… the UN“.  This was apparently produced in the context of the crisis in Syria, but has wider applicability.  It was developed as part of the Guardian Teachers’ Network and so does have an educational focus, even in the materials will almost certainly need adapting for an ELT context.

The UNA resources:  I can’t  vouch for these at the time of writing, but these activities and background notes are at least designed for education and I suspect will probably prove more useful than the official UN resources!  Teachers’ notes and background information is combined with a range of activities for primary and secondary classes.  While I’ve focused here on the United Nations Day resources, there are additional resources on other aspects of the UN available from the UNA in the their “teaching section“.

UNESCO, as the UN’s cultural and educational wing, should be expected to provide some form of educational resource, but  their website is somewhat inaccessible – at least in terms of finding resources to use with language learners.  Or learners of any kind really.  There is a lot of stuff there, but you really have to dig through it to find anything useful.  They do however, have a primary school activity based on UN Day.  It probably wasn’t written by someone who actually teaches primary.  It is adaptable though, so it’s worth taking a look.

Finally, the Scottish Education sector has put together a  range of resources for UN day.  The first four are simple links back to the UN website and all that this entails.  The last two are links to downloadables for both primary (Human Rights) and secondary (Global Security) that even if they aren’t directly connected to UN day, should prove useful for the classroom.

Have fun!  And happy UN Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dhdhdh

Cambridge First & Advanced in 2015

16 Oct

If you prepare students for FCE or CAE, then this might be useful for you.  Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) have recently undergone significant revisions to their structure and organisation.

This has been on the cards for some time and indeed I blogged about it back in May.

Recently however, I gave an online workshop for International House, which was available to IH staff around the world, and which outlined the changes being made to these exams and discussed some of the implications of those changes.

The workshop was videoed and has been posted on you tube – you can watch it there or here, but it is about an hour long – so make sure you have a cup of tea or a glass of wine (depending on your preference or the time of day) before you press play!

 

Unfortunately, I suffered from the odd wifi glitch during the presentation, so service is interrupted every now and again.  I have, however, also posted my slides on slideshare, so you can download and view your own version – and watch any sections of the workshop that need some kind of clarification!

 

In the webinar I mention a number of coursebook reviews for the revised First exam.  You can find them here:

Any questions about any of this – let me know!

 

World Teachers’ Day

6 Oct

It was World Teachers’ Day last Sunday – and there is a certain irony in celebrating the teaching profession on the one day of the week that no-one’s in school, but never mind!

As part of the celebrations the Teaching English | British Council site asked their blogging team:  “What does being a teacher mean to you?”

You can read all of our responses by clicking on the picture:

 

But it made me wonder.  I know that I’m in a relatively privileged position; I work for a private language school, I get paid relatively well,  I’m supported and offered development, and I’m plugged into a network of schools that allows me to connect with like-minded colleagues across the globe.

So my comment (in the post via the link)  that if I’d won the lottery I’d still teach is probably a reflection of the working environment that I find myself in.

My question is this:

You should be able to add your own answers if you don’t agree with any of the options.

Let me know what you think!

Anagram spelling dictation

6 Oct

Quite a nice vocabulary revision activity, this is something I tried with an intermediate kids class the other day.

Kids in particular, often persist in using L1 pronunciation to spell words in English and this is quite a good way of reorienting them towards English alphabet norms, as well as being a focusing task, helping build bottom up listening skills and reviewing vocabulary items.

It is, of course, remarkably simple and as such I very much doubt if it’s original, but if it was shown to me in the past I forget by who or when or where.  (If it was you, let me know!!!).

Essentially, you choose your list of vocabulary items, which in my case were:  BABY, CHILD, TEENAGER, STUDENT, ADULT, PARENT.

Then you write them as anagrams:  ABBY, DILCH, NAGRETEE, DENTTUS, TAULD, TRAPNE.

I didn’t tell my students they were getting anagrams, I just told them to write down the words I would spell for them.  Which they did amongst much consternation….   ;)

Then I asked them how many of the words they knew and I pointed out that ABBY could be rearranged to BABY.  And I let them get on with sorting the others out.

It occurs to me now that this makes quite a nice warmer activity, and I suspect it might be a nice way to introduce / pre-teach vocabulary before a reading task or some such.  Though obviously if the students don’t know the target language, it does make rearranging the anagrams effectively impossible.  Which might slow down some of the faster finishers….!

anagrams

 

First Lesson: Student generated ID card Swap

3 Oct

This was a lesson I did with a class of elementary level learners yesterday.  My class were quite young, hence some of the content below, but it is quite easily adaptable to other ages and levels.  It doesn’t need any preparation, though the students will need pens / pencils and paper.

I started by eliciting “an ID card” and then by eliciting the kind of information you typically find on an ID card. The class came up with: name, age, date of birth, Card expiry date, and address.

I then said we were going to make our own ID card – what other information could we put on it?  And elicited: likes & dislikes, abilities & skills.

We then worked together to come up with a model:

Bobo the nose monkey(And in case you were wondering (a) “nose monkey” is the Portuguese for a bogey or snot in your nose; (b) these are my reformulations of what they wanted to include on the card.)

Having done this, I got the learners to work individually for five minutes or so to create their own version – a weird and wacky ID card for whatever alien monster their imagination could come up with.  An alternative for adult learners might be to channel various celebrities – it doesn’t matter if they don’t know – they can at least imagine!

When the cards were ready, I elicited the questions they would need to ask for each but of information:  What is your name?  What do you like?  etc.  I then drilled the pronunciation of these.

Finally, the students did a mingle, introducing themselves to each other, asking and answering questions.  The twist is that after each Q&A session, they swap ID cards with their interlocutor.  So if John and Jane are talking, at the end, John walks away with Jane’s ID card and vice versa, and John therefore has to introduce himself as Jane to the next person he meets.

 

***

It worked really well as a lesson and was a nice way for me to gauge the ability of the learners in the class.  Everyone had fun and it was a nice light start to proceedings!

If anyone has any variations – let me know!

 

Book Review: Punctuation..? (and a competition!)

25 Jul

Punctuation..? by User Design is a svelte and elegant illustrated guide for the rest of us.

As you might have guessed from the title, it gives an overview of 21 different punctuation marks from the everyday comma to the more esoteric pilcrow.  Do you know what a pilcrow is?  I didn’t.  Apparently it’s the backwards filled in P that I usually see when I click the wrong thing in my word documents…

Punctuation Graphic

The layout is simple and straightforward:  each punctuation mark under examination is given a description and its uses are supported by explanations and examples – and simple, yet effective line drawings at the top of each page.

It is a visually appealing book that seems very accessible and clearly lays out all of the rules of punctuation that most of us think we have an instinctive command of and which most of us are probably wrong about.  According to the book I have committed at least one punctuation crime in this piece – there are probably others I don’t know about!  There you go – an impromptu quiz:  Provide a list of all the punctuation mistakes you can find in this blog post and put them in the comments section below.  The winner will get a free copy of the book!  Not that the winner of a competition like this will probably need a book like this, but I bet even they don’t know what a pilcrow is…!

This is a prescriptive grammar of punctuation.  It declares the rules in no uncertain terms and seems to borrow its authority from its chief reference source, Oxford dictionaries, and I wonder how much of it is designed to appeal to the pedants and those who view themselves as the last bastions of defence against the corruption and decay that has seeped into the language (there is a somewhat plaintive note in the apostrophe section to the effect that it “has largely vanished from company names and other commercial uses”).  The questions I ask myself are (a) does it matter? and (b) is it useful?

Yes.  I think it probably does matter.  I spent approximately six hours marking “academic” essays yesterday and at least three of those hours railing at my students inability to punctuate properly.  Proper punctuation is more than the written equivalent of verbal pause, though it is seldom used otherwise; it helps determine the relationships between clauses and between sentences, helps to signify the writer’s intent and to package information in such a way that makes meaning accessible to the reader.  In short, our students need to know these rules.  Once they do, they can flout them with impunity like the rest of us – but at least then it would be a principled choice.

So who is it useful for?

I’m not sure that it is a book for students itself, at least not for language learners.  Most native speaker students would probably benefit from a copy, certainly by the time they go to university, if not before.  I think though, that language learners at any level under B2 would find it difficult to access and certainly difficult to apply.  B2 students would need help with some of it and C1 (advanced) would probably be alright with it.  Obviously there’s a lot in it that isn’t really relevant to language learner needs – though the book is not intended as such and it is unfair to judge it on those terms.  I do think it would be a useful addition to most teachers’ rooms though.  Punctuation is often a neglected aspect of language teaching and as I think now I can only recall an overt section on punctuation in one book – somewhere in Advanced Expert – which makes me wonder how much punctuation knowledge us teachers really have!

So if you can’t tell your hyphen from your dash or your interpunct from your guillemets – this is the book for you.  Punctuation..? is available from the User Design website and probably other places as well, but I couldn’t tell you where.

 

*****

I mentioned a competition earlier – so here are the rules:

I am the ultimate arbiter of the competition and what I say goes.  You have no legal recourse or anything like that if you don’t like my decision.  I will try to judge as objectively as possible, but I will be reviewing any and all entries and choosing what I think is the best and most complete one.

If you don’t like your first entry, you can enter more than once – but I’ll stop reading after the third attempt.

Deadline for entries is the end of August (Sunday August 31st 2014).  Any entries submitted after that will be ignored.

I will announce the winner both by putting a comment under this section and in a separate blog post in the first week of September (2014).

Good luck!

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