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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ 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 ūüôā 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.

Drawing my teacher – or how students see us

What happens when you pick up a pencil? A whole world seems to be waiting just behind the tip, ready to unfold on that small (or not so small sometimes) piece of paper. And what if it’s a coloured pencil you’re holding? And what if you’re already set on a particular purpose? Too many questions perhaps, for such a small paragraph. Yet, they were circling around inside my head¬†and I had to let them flow out somehow. A picture goes a long way into showing how your students feel about the lesson and their teacher, what catches their eye and what interests them the most. Afterwards, it’s up to the teacher to decide if changes are necessary and how to test if they have been effective. The simplest but most meaningful project I’ve ever put together.


 

The very first time I got a drawing of myself from a student, happily accepting the portrait came¬†automatically. ¬†I didn’t stop to think whether there was any specific reason of her offering that piece of work, nor did it cross my mind to try and deduce anything from what I was holding: a rough¬†pencil¬†sketch with a huge yellow smile, stretching across my face. I’ve kept that drawing because it brought up, straight from my stomach I think or maybe from my heart, a flowering bouquet of joy and pride, bound together by laughter. We used to laugh a lot together, it was our mark on an interesting lesson.

MyTeacher -by Lily

”Drawing my Teacher” is a project unlike others I do with young learners. I’m more interested in them feeling and showing their feelings than speaking or writing. It’s more than enough for me that the instructions are given in English and that students are able to understand them. Instructions? No, more like explanations or invitations to learn creatively.

This year, five students aged 9 and 10 took part in this two-stage project; both stages involved the scattering of pencils, the distribution of blank sheets and the request to draw their teacher, only stage one took place at the beginning of the course while stage two towards its end.

I’m not going to explain their drawings. They really speak louder than any words. What matters is that those five students showed me the way to get closer to them and help them learn.

 

 Penelope, 9

Antigone, 10

Despina, 10

Irene, 9

Jim, 9

You can also view the second stage on SlideShare.
Feedback and further ideas are welcome, as always!

#Gamers in my class – Teaching through games Vol.2

My previous post on teaching through games was focused more on introducing games as an alternative homework assignment or quick activity for the end of class. A Vol.2 is necessary and is dedicated to my wonderful gamers who come to class fully equipped and enthusiastic!
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Some students just adore games – I daresay more than I do (!). They send me links to every game they try out so I can have a turn, they are surprisingly resourceful with ideas for activities and they make me proud every step of the way with knowing much more than I did when I was their age – keep forgetting, we’ve got digital natives to work with, so we’d better shape up!

Ok, game design isn’t exactly language teaching, but to me it’s definitely one of the greatest, most fun ways to practise what we’ve learned and take it a step further¬†(not to mention digital skills practice!). We work together on lots of different projects and I thought I’d share some in this post.

My young ones have been working in our group on GameStar Mechanic.
Those #ClassicChampions (as my four A2 students have decided to call themselves!) have been doing really well on this platform and keep coming up with new ideas for more difficult games and levels. Safety comes first, so for the time being all projects on the Gamestar platform are posted onto my personal account (Kryftina).

Our first game:

#ClassicChampions first ever attempt on Gamestar Mechanic!

#ClassicChampions first ever attempt on Gamestar Mechanic!

Our current project:

 

Teens though are always up for more challenging work, so Jim, Alex and Antonis (levels B1 to C1) have been testing their skills on Morrowind construction set and mod creation. Not everybody’s cup of tea and truly difficult to get your head around, but they love it and the results are really impressive. Can’t wait for them to publish their finalized projects! Here’s a little taste:

 

#Sleuths in my class – Teaching through games Vol.1

Most, if not all, of the material I use in my classes is decided upon after the first three or four lessons. It’s very important to me to know my students’ tastes and interests, so I can provide them with an easy-going and uplifting learning process. I want my lessons to be meaningful, powerful and fun and I want them to be remembered!
I try to incorporate a variety of materials in every course, from music and poetry to newspapers and social media, but I’ve discovered only one thing can guarantee success: games. Regardless of age and level, all my students have shown a great interest in gaming as a way to learn. Being mad about games myself has been very helpful, as I have a wide selection to suit all tastes. Have a look at some of my favourites on List.ly.

ND_Silhouette originally from http://www.herinteractive.com/

Silhouette originally from http://www.herinteractive.com/

The first ever game homework I assigned was back in 2008, while teaching a group of five 13 year-old girls at level¬†CEFR B1. We were about half way through our coursebook when they asked me if we could ”skip” the unit coming up, or at least the reading and speaking sections, as they were about computer games. ”That’s not for us”, they informed me. My immediate – but suppressed – reaction was to talk that idea out of them. I think I mumbled ”why?”, sotto voce, which thankfully went unnoticed. Instead of going into a fiery lecture defending pc games, I decided to agree to skip that unit, under one condition: they would try out a computer game. I let them moan and protest, as the idea had already taken shape in my head: it was time for the sleuth to come forward.
I still remember the two weeks that followed that lesson; we dedicated them to Nancy Drew and her adventures and they were the greatest lessons we’d ever had as a group. It wasn’t so much that those girls were now hooked on what they used to call a ”boys’ thing”, or that they actually learned through a game. That is a fact in my mind.
What I loved about this the most was that they learned to think twice before they dismiss an idea and I got to see first hand the results of an alternative approach to teaching.

These days, Nancy Drew still finds her way through my lessons in lots of different ways, depending on interests, needs and time available. I use HerInteractive games throughout my courses and have a set of three main activities for each ( listed from most to least time-consuming):

1. Finish a chapter ( set of five or six tasks) in the game and present your mindmap (how you solved it) in class
Goals: Revise vocabulary & functions / practise communication & presentation skills / explore & use digital tools 
2. Finish a task in the game, explain why it was/wasn’t easy and try to predict what will happen next
Goals: Revise vocabulary & functions / practise speaking-giving explanations / storytelling – making predictions
3. Finish an online mini-game. Can you remember at which part of the original game it’s found and what happened after that?
Goals: Practise timed activities / memory training / using Past tenses

I also usually assign three follow-up activities that work well either as individual tasks or as group projects (for groups of two or three students):

– Who’s Nancy Drew? Create a presentation for your family/friends/schoolmates
(Practice: effective web search, decision-making, story-boarding, use of English, editing, digital tools, presentation skills)
-The Nancy Drew Challenge. How many of the #Weekend Puzzles have you solved?
(Practice: getting social, testing skills, using English)
-The Idioms Hunt. How many English idiomatic expressions can you find in the [game title]? Make as many sentences as you can using them.
(Practice: identifying, learning and using English idioms)

I normally suggest several different websites and tools to help out each student, but always let them choose what suits them best. So far, their favourites include Oxford Dictionaries, Wikipedia, Google Cultural Institute, Coggle, Mindomo, Zoho Docs and Glogster.

Gaming plays-and will continue to play- a big role in the future of ELT and I’m always excited when educators around the world discover or re-discover ways of using games while teaching and then share their experience. To keep up to date, I usually refer to Gamification Wiki and Learning through Digital Games, as well as to great posts by ELTJam¬†and¬†ELT Sandbox¬†(If anyone knows of other relevant blogs or pages, please leave a comment below with a link!). I can’t say I’m using game mechanics fully yet, but it’s an idea truly worth exploring.

*Update: two of my lovely girls shared some of their work (Annie used Chrome’s MindMaps and Marina chose Coggle), have a look: