The EarsPeeled Project – An Overview of Eight Learning Months

It has been some time since this blog has had a post published, mostly because sitting on the other side of the table took its toll on personal sharing. In the past few months, my time was divided between making sure I’m well (essential before we embark on anything), those PBL courses I adore and the organizing of events for the Greek ELT community – so the chance of presenting one of the projects at an event I’d had no part in the setting of was remarkably refreshing and simultaneously intimidating. Do others feel like this, I wonder. I’m not yet certain how that presentation went since I haven’t had the time to go through my collected data and reflect upon it properly. The immediate feedback has been great, teachers have already got on board and begun working on the EarsPeeled Project, yet I’m not entirely satisfied with myself. I need to reach a new level of balance (Presentation slides here). Thank you to TESOL MTh and the outgoing Board for giving me the opportunity to share at the 25th Jubilee Convention!

Back to the project: Most of the material my groups work on comes from their own interactions, as well as among them and myself. As all good learning stories, this project started from a frustrated student’s comment and the urge of the group to end that frustration. Should we speak in a particular way in order to be understood in our second language? Does it have to do with accent or diction? Do we listen in the same way as we’d like to be listened to? Is this an indication of our competence and knowledge?

I have to (re)state here that our starting point is trust. In order for a project to materialize, we need to feel comfortable with each other in sharing, offering suggestions, giving feedback and working through tasks collectively. In many ways, a project cultivates the above and sets effective learning in motion; in our case, eight fourteen to sixteen-year-olds, who had much more in common than they realized in the beginning, managed to come together and deliver tangible outcomes after almost eight months of designing and collaborating on the project. That particular group had had experience in the task-based approach and, as the questions multiplied and developed in complexity, their previously acquired skills were put to the test so as to make every task meaningful and constructive. Meeting face-to-face once a week and collaborating online in our Google classroom twice more, the group had sufficient time to discuss new ideas, resolve issues and reflect as a team.

The first stage was simpler in devising and implementing, with tasks like:
-students producing written dialogues in a variety of everyday contexts (breakfast at home, getting to school, discussion during intervals, etc), using prompts provided by the group, and progressively touching on subjects where they felt less confident to express themselves
-role-playing (engaging in a variety of activities and dramatization techniques)
-sub-group recording examples of the everyday discussions above and sub-group identifying the context
-assessing products within the group and brainstorming ways to resolve emerging issues and plan further steps

Moving to the second stage came much faster than I expected, mid-way through the second month. I felt apprehensive, I must admit it. My concerns were whether the group had had enough time to experiment with the techniques and tasks, and also whether it was necessary for me to interfere and stall the process. The driving question, however, had already been enriched with emergent follow-ups: “Does what we say depend on who is listening?” , “Should we change our words and tone in order to be understood?”. Seeing how engaged the group was in the new prospects, I decided to risk it and allow things to evolve, which thankfully led to some further intriguing results:
*Re-naming the project: the made-up idiom story
*The PM Board: task pin-board where the week’s team leaders left messages in the phonetic transcript (the group’s effort to make the most of – both printed and online – dictionary use within our project’s framework)
*The teacher infiltration:
1.opportunity for instruction and scaffolding of bottom-up and top-down processes simultaneously
2.initiating ELF attempts (a shout-out and big thank you, here, to https://elfpron.wordpress.com/)
*The decision to take steps out of safety:
1.presenting project tasks at morning school and involving classmates
2. organizing collective book read-aloud sessions for younger learners, peers in language schools and eventually preparing to contribute to LibriVox

We are currently in the third stage of our project, where the focus is on presenting the group’s work in detail through the final product: the Project website. The core group in Athens has been collecting their own and all material from other groups taking part and has been designing the webpage on the Wix platform. It has been a demanding task, as it requires careful planning, clear roles, and efficient time management, but so far it seems the group has got everything under control and will meet the end-of-March deadline.

No matter how many projects we work on, students never cease to amaze me – but more on that in the next post, along with my notes and reflections 🙂

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Ventures in Vocation – rants and prospects

As months keep flying by in 2017, I’ve found myself in exceptionally busy and challenging environments, so blogging – or rather, posting – fell behind a little. Writing has always been a different story altogether; I always reflect in writing but, lately, sharing those thoughts simply hasn’t happened. Maybe it’s time it did 🙂

For about eight years now, half of my teaching and learning time has been devoted to adult esp courses – focusing on tourism & services, real estate and my long-lasting love with legal English. The new year, however, arrived with an uplifting challenge: teen & young adult groups attending vocational schools – studying in tourism again & automotive technicians for a change – and quite a change, as to this day I couldn’t care less for cars and all. I did ponder whether I should take that up, and for a substantial amount of time; given though that it was two former students of mine who were now pursuing further expertise that their general knowledge of English wouldn’t cover, I said yes. A ‘yes’ that brought me face to face with an inadequacy I didn’t really care to modify and fill into at first, but which also massively annoyed me – it just didn’t sit well in me to abandon the effort. A ‘yes’ that suddenly multiplied the learner group – as those two former students brought the whole class from school with them.

What I didn’t know in the beginning was how much more annoyed I would become during the first couple of lessons. It was annoyance on a multi-level scale too, which made it even more difficult.
Having mainly focused on teenage learners for over a decade, the challenge wasn’t the group, but the subject. How could I sustain my own and the learners’ motivation working on something that does not interest me at all and on which I have next-to-nothing to work with?
Any hopes I might have had for at least some relevant material from official sources, i.e. the vocational school, were very quickly shattered, as the only thing those learners had in their hands was a set of photocopied mainstream elt coursebook pages with grammar rules. Here’s where my annoyance levels begin to go up:

  1. It’s a vocational school. You’re expected to have bibliography on relevant subjects for all your students.
  2. “Just learn the terms by heart. That’s all” – the answer the school English “teacher” gave to the students’ questions about learning how to do their job in an English-speaking environment. When I visited the school, he refused to see me – well, there you go.
  3. There are amazing, passionate and hardworking colleagues in public vocational schools. Shouldn’t there be a database of their produced material available to all students?

I wasn’t trying to avoid preparing material – it just shocked me to see that even though those students were expected to study and take exams on their subject, all the material provided was on general English and several levels below their competency – something common, as I’ve been since informed. We’re in 2017. I might have been too hopeful but having known how colleagues put their heart in teaching and produce materials, I expected those students – and their school teacher – to have access to it.

*rant over*

I decided to make it all interactive – I might have known nothing about cars, but I’ve been good at completing tasks 😉 Obviously, so are my students. We’ve been working our way through terminology and functional language on Car Mechanic Simulator – found through STEAM. The students are divided in five groups of three and each group “owns” a garage – myself and a couple of colleagues pose each week as customers 🙂 The groups are responsible for the smooth operations in their garage, appropriate task allocation and production of three weekly reports (Tasks Performed, Financial and Weekly prospects) as well as a monthly report from the “manager” (selected and appointed by the team members).

I’m not sad to say that I still have no interest in anything automotive – not in handing it, I mean, I’m quite happy to enjoy their service. I am, however, thrilled to admit that my students’ enthusiasm fires me up beyond expectation!
Even though I remain angry at the lack of care, of perspective and of prospect – as  those students are seeking a future away from here and who can blame them? – it’s our duty to pursue shifts in anything that does not work to our own and the future generations’ benefit.

Learn Outside the Classroom #30GoalsEDU

For a change, let’s talk of something that we have done, not something that we plan to do 🙂

This is us:

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I have talked and blogged about our learning adventures together several times. Nick has been the student every teacher needs to have in their class and life. The student who from day one had made clear that ‘books don’t work’, that ‘school is classmates and not teachers’ and that ‘if it isn’t fun, I’m not doing it’. The ultimate challenge learner. Naturally, we took learning outside, to the place where everything happens at once and you can only cope if you’re up for it. The place where books are digital, compact and highly visual, where writing starts from single words and hashtags, where language comes forward because we need it to do so. For Nick, photography is his love and dancing is his breath, so that was what we worked on.

Our first step was to become tourists in our Athens (something I regularly do during my staycations, but this was the first time in student company). We role-played; we hopped on and off buses, we chatted with everyone, we explored what we knew and what we could discover. Each step was a photo, and each photo became a story. Language practice; effortlessly, because we needed to communicate our knowledge and feelings.

Dance came next. What does that have to do with language learning? How can it help you prepare for an exam? According to Nick, if you enjoy it, it will work. And judging by the experience and results, I have to agree. From dancing at home, then in the street, to a dance school and music videos, our learning took shape from within. I’m not much of a dancer, but Nick’s enthusiasm got me moving. His Tumblr posts are a must to many, including myself. He touches you because he loves what he does.

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Only two days ago we got his results; a High Pass on his C2 Certificate. An achievement owed to him doing what he wanted to do, have fun. We haven’t danced to celebrate it yet, but we will 🙂 And make sure someone can capture the moment!