Leading to #independence; From students to #Lifelong learners

”Students keep asking me, how do I do this? But I’ve just explained it, for like the third time.”

”They get excited when I show something on the whiteboard, but it’s only for about as long as the class lasts. If I ask any questions on that picture or link a couple of weeks later, it’s like we’ve never touched on the subject.”

”I want my students to start taking initiatives when it comes to learning. Sometimes I feel that if I’m not around, they won’t be able to communicate in English – even the high-achievers in my classes.”

Do the above ring any bells? They all come from colleagues, hard-working EFL teachers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating on various projects. And I’ve thought of those words myself numerous times.
I’m certainly not an expert of any description; I’m just curious. I’ll press my nose into anything and I want my students to do the same. But how?
Here are the first six steps I try and take for each of my lessons to assist my students in taking learning into their own hands:

– Get comfortable
If your class doesn’t feel like home, it can’t work. Devote some time to getting your classroom as you want it and leave some room for what your students want. We’re all learning together, so we should all feel comfortable.

– Know your students
And do so in a fun way: The ”Lie detector”, my personal favourite. A nice ice breaker which can be used with students at all levels and age groups: ”Write three sentences on the board about you, 2 are true, and 1 will be a lie. […] Embellish the details slightly and write some sentences that the students wouldn’t be likely to guess. Depending on the level of the students, the students can then ask questions about the topics of the three statements of the teacher to determine the lie. BUT, the hook to this game is that YOU, the teacher, may lie verbally to the students in your response, and the students must play the role of a lie detector and figure out which sentence is a porky pie”  – you can find a full description and more ice breakers on BusyTeacher.

– (Re)learn to play.
Turn your class into a game, have students play with words and join in. I’ve used several different ways to integrate gaming in my lessons and so far, none has failed. Whether it’s a simple word game like hangman, a game-based assessment system or a fully developed computer game, it works. Firstly, because we all have fun and secondly, because we do things the way we choose.

– Give them tools, not just answers.
After we’ve all got comfortable, I share the following presentation with my students and ask them to try out those tools and decide what suits them. Integrating technology is not the easiest task you’ll have to tackle, but it can be one of the most rewarding.

Learning together - My toolbag

–  Build on curiosity

Remember that students are not mute. They have opinions, questions and a lot to contribute. Let them lead from time to time and work with them on what they care about.
Something I’ve found very helpful, is introducing the ”can of words”. It can be an actual can, or a virtual one. It’s where students keep at least three words they have found interesting each week and with which they have to produce sentences to share with their classmates. We often try storytelling, using everyone’s sentences together. It’s always a good idea to have your own can of words as a teacher – it keeps both you and your students motivated; and much like the can of worms, it’s difficult to close once you’ve opened it!
CanOfWords– Don’t tell them; show them.
Find what suits YOU best and share with your students. A video? A song? A poem perhaps? Make it visual, make it sound different, make it yours and theirs. Patti Smith once said ‘I came into music because I thought the presentation of poetry wasn’t vibrant enough. So I merged improvised poetry with basic rock chords.” Make your lessons vibrant and unforgettable by merging your students’ interests, your own ideas and every tool available.

Learning doesn’t begin and end in a classroom.  There shouldn’t be an on/off switch. Make it happen by understanding and using anything that works; if you can lead your learners to independence, it will last forever.


#30Goals Combo Challenge; a case study on the glittering world stage.

When I saw the goal posted by Theodora I instantly thought of one student. This post is dedicated to N., for educating me on the things we can achieve if we listen to our learners and for being patient and willing to try everything – even when he wasn’t really in the mood to do so. I see him as  the epitome of case studies (!), so I had to turn this into a combo challenge;

First, a bit of background:

N was a student at a language school I used to work for about five years ago. He was already branded a ”nightmare” and everyone was anxious to warn me of his erratic behaviour and denial towards learning. I didn’t get the chance to see him ”in action” at the time, as I was assigned  another class, but I would see him in passing and chat to him during intervals. One thing I could tell for sure: he was NOT a nightmare of any kind, outside the classroom anyway. On the contrary, he seemed an extremely clever, considerate and creative person. I talked to his parents a lot, as well, in an effort to unveil the mystery of how such a promising mind could cause problems and negative comments among his teachers. But I was not ”his” teacher and therefore could not have much say on the matter, as was pointed out to me by the DoS.
I also didn’t have the chance to explore the issue more, as he (along with his classmates) left the school that same year.
I would hear news of him from other students and parents, not promising in any way, and used to worry about him and feel I had in a way abandoned him. Until last December.

I got a call, late last December, from N’s dad. Would I take up the tremendous feat of teaching N? Would I?! Thrilled. I think that’s the word. I felt excited and apprehensive at the same time. Would this work? N is 15 and simply doesn’t care for schools and lessons of any kind. I quote: ” I hate them all. It’s pointless”.
It would work, because it was up to us to make it work.

It’s common and logical to decide on how you’ll approach a course beforehand but that could not be the case here. Together with N, we decided that our lessons would take shape along the way, so this one-to-one course would be based primarily on observation. We decided on a goal: a C2 certification, and took it from there to form our lessons. We keep record of our findings and progress together. We’re both gamers, so we take notes as if we’re writing a game walkthrough.

Level 1. First observations and feedback.
N hates books and loves social media. That was the first piece of knowledge we established. He doesn’t mind reading online though, it seems more natural to him and he can retain things better.
We spent the first two months of our course reading, discussing and writing articles and sharing news and views on almost every social media website.
Personal observations: He’s a competent user of English already and has a unique ability of making any piece of spoken or written language noticeable. Great presentation skills; he would make an incredible performer. Certain elements need to be worked out, a couple of grammar and structure issues. Could we avoid the grammar book?
N’s observations: ”I prefer e-books to books because I really enjoy doing things on my computer!
I also CAN’T STAND hardcopies…because I think they are VERY BORING. It’s just a paper with words…but on the computer there is a difference; you can have animated pictures and that makes it more enjoyable.”

Level 2. Getting the hang of it.
How could we move from competency to proficiency? There are no set ways of assessing progress since we don’t use a course book. Do we need a course book after all? No; not yet, anyway. We’ll try the open course on Edmodo.
I had created an Edmodo group for C2 learners at the beginning of the school year. Could it be useful to N?
Personal observations: He was so ready for this. He kept posting questions, he was the first to do the polls and quizzes (90% score being the lowest) and was the only one viewing the group’s library files on a daily basis. He actually ended up correcting answers from other students taking the ECPE this May. Well, there you go.
N’s observations: ”It’s a nice way to learn things because it’s like Facebook, which is something I use everyday, and it’s not tiring. I can also communicate and work with other people who are members on Edmodo and that may lead to very good lessons!”
The extras: I asked all students on Edmodo (B2 and C2 levels) to interact with each other and introduce themselves to their fellow learners. Nick’s powtoon video was an instant hit among them and the web community in general. He’s got something very special.

Level 3. Let the games begin!
Gaming came into our lessons naturally. We’d talk about them, exchange views, discuss differences and watch tutorials together. We are quite different gamers. I’m more of an intellectual healer and he’s the ultimate fearless adventurer! Fearless being the word. He was so anxious one day to show me a new game he was playing, ”You must try this!”. He showed me how. I was terrified going through it but felt so proud while he explained gameplay in English.
Have a look at my frightful but rewarding experience (with occasional slips into L1 due to the excitement!):



Personal observations: Computer games are slightly misunderstood, I feel. Yes, there are a lot of issues to iron out when you try to integrate them in your lessons, but we should give them a chance. Being a gamer definitely helps, as it’s easier to choose appropriate games, relevant to the learning context and create assignments you know your students will complete straight away. With N, who is convinced he can’t write a ”proper” text (as he calls it) in English, I set a game task every week within the construction set of one of our common favourite games: First he had to create a character and provide a short bio, then he had to place that character in an environment (country, city, village, anywhere he chose) and so on. He’s starting to accept that he actually can write ”properly” in English.
N’s Observations:  ”My favorite games are Horror and Action ones which make you feel the adrenaline burst in your whole body and that makes me feel alive!
I also use games to learn and practice my English. Learning from games is a great thing that makes lessons more interesting and amusing and I think I can write better when I do it for the game mod.”

 Level 4: Bring the world in
Sometimes two people are not enough. A 1-to-1 lesson can have its drawbacks, but we can work our way around it.
N started using social media in English (he had all profiles in Greek, his native language) and set up a new Tumblr where he could post his thoughts while practicing his second language. We started creating videos for what we learned together and shared them with the world for feedback.
Personal Observations: I almost don’t believe how much N has achieved so far, not only in language acquisition, but in becoming an admirable digital citizen of the world. His love for music, dancing and photography have gained him an array of followers who anticipate his next post and that audience is gradually becoming bigger and multicultural.
N’s Observations: ”Writing is not my favorite thing, but when I can put a picture there and a video or a song it’s better. And when people like it or share it again it is like they know what I do and why I do it.” 

We are currently in Level 5: Exam preparation and things feel smooth. We’re slowly moving to set exam tasks and so far the hardest thing has been moving from typing back to handwriting. We’re taking small steps and have decided that the best way to start is drawing. We spent a couple of hours handling pens, pencils and markers to decide which feels better and did the same for notepads. We chose a thin A4 pad for essays and a thick A3 for our creative projects and storyboarding. The A4 can have only words on it, while the A3 is open to all means of expression: words, drawings, pictures, doodles, anything. The pens and pencils that passed the test have their spot in the middle of our working area.
N draws his own picture and writes two short paragraphs every week on quotes or pictures I share with him on Facebook. He is free to upload his creations on his Tumblr after we’ve discussed them in the lesson. It’s a good start.

Lessons so far and what the future holds:

What have we achieved? We have built a strong relationship. We know what our expectations are respectively and we take steps based on respect for each other and the time we devote to our lessons. We know we aren’t exactly equal, but we try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. We think, we are creative and we never stop learning.
This is not just about learning (or teaching) English; it is about developing the right habits.

Here are N’s general observations after six months:

For me this is a perfect lessonWe listen to music, not very loud, but it’s nice and we don’t do boring book stuff; we play games to practice speaking and writing and we work online which is very helpful because I have all my notes in one place.When we like a song we write the lyrics on our own which helps me a lot with listening and we make videos like presentations, games’ descriptions and documentary type videos that everyone can see. Studying isn’t always boring and having an English lesson isn’t the same as others. I don’t mind doing it, even if it was longer or more times every week.

I’ll close my (huge, I fear) post with a quote mash-up:
Habits are malleable throughout our entire life (Charles Duhigg) and they can change into character (Ovid).