Thursday, March 30, 2006

blogging and teaching

I was reading Cool Cat Teacher Blog and it got me thinking about success and failure in the classroom. While I love technology and enjoy encouraging my student to blog it is not a panacea, nor will it be everyone's cup of tea.

As far as my class's blogs are concerned they've brought mixed results, with few of the students contributing regularly. I had hoped that if I showed them how to blog some would "get it" and continue under their own steam. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case. The contribution of the students reflects my emphasis on blogging in the lesson. As I stopped asking them to do stuff on the blog so they stopped bothering to add posts.

In my private lessons the results have been better and some of my students have really taken to blogging and produced some great work. On the other hand others have resisted it with a passion.

Moral of the story: Explain, explain, explain. What for you is self-evident is not at all obvious to others. Yes, blogging is a wonderful form of self-expression. Yes, it's a great way to practice your English in a natural setting but these benefits need to be explained and justified to a sceptical audience.

I need to work a lot harder on this if I want the results I initially expected. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Coming to you live

Today we're going to have a solar eclipse in Greece, however here in the north it will only be 75%. By pure chance I have found a wifi hotspot in the centre of the city and I'm writing this on my ibook from a street cafe in plateia Navarino. The weather has definitely changed and now we're into Spring (actually more like Summer if you grew up in England like I did). The eclipse is scheduled to happen in about 5 mins, 1pm Athens time so you're getting this live indeed. I'll post a few photos in a bit when I can pull something off the net. (not a good idera to be staring at the sun with or without a camera).

I guess this is what they mean by citizen journalism, the idea that ordinary people can give their version of events without relying on the regular media. It's strange to think that the moment an event happens thousands or even millions of people can transmit the news to the whole planet.

Oh, don't worry I'm not getting delusions of grandeur, CNN et al are not going to shut up shop since I wrote a paragrapgh or two.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Immunising my daughter against technophobia.

It's a pity we can't find a cure for induced fear, you know the fear of trying something new, experimenting and even failing that most of us acquire as we grow up.

At the moment Lydia is learning how to play chess. It's a painless process since I've not taught her any of the rules, I doubt if she knows that the object of the game is to eliminate the other side. All she is aware of is that she can move some pieces in a certain way (the game won't allow illegal moves) .Sometimes those pieces are taken and some times she can take the opposing sides' pieces. The idea of losing doesn't come into it. For her its just another video game to play with.

The point is that not whether she learns to play chess well or not , but rather the most important thing is to experiment, try new things. If you try a hundred ideas and fail 90% of the time then you've come up with ten successful ones. If you try only one new thing and succeed 100 % of the time then you've only thought of one new idea.

random thoughts on teaching

I was thinking last night on how much time we spend teaching stuff in EFL/ESL that probably has little or no impact on our student's linguistic ability. Imagine if we taught driving in the same way we teach English

Year 1 (yes, year) Students spend;

80% of their time behind a desk learning the theory of internal combustion and the physics of motion.
15% of the lesson is spent watching the teacher drive.
5% of the lesson is devoted to student driving.

Year 2

60% of the time is devoted to relearning the theory covered in year one.
20% is devoted to learning the highway code.
10% is devoted to watching the teacher drive.
10% is devoted to student driving.

Year 3

60% of the year is spent on revising year 1 and 2 theory.
20% is spent on mechanics and repair.
10% teacher driving.
10% student driving.

And so on and so forth for another two to three years

And then we wonder why after so many years of education the students go out on the roads and crash with alarming regularity.

Perhaps it's time to update the wonderful example of N.S. Prabhu's Bangalore Project for the internet age ? It is pure alchemy;the idea that knowledge and learning can be created out of the basest of raw materials e.g. railway timetables.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

weird, wonderful world of blogging

I can across this blog which caught my attention which is written by a student on an icebreaker in Antarctica. A window into a completely different world. You've just got to love blogging.

Independence day

Today is independence day in Greece and every town and city has a parade, which I missed (again) as I overslept. However, I woke up in time to go to an ouzeri to eat the traditional μπακαλιαρος με πατατες τηγανιτιες ( fish n chips to you and me). Unlike the english version this is served with a garlic dip, various salads and retsina. You can't mess with tradition.

For the more historically minded, here is a link to Wiki's take on the war of independence.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Spring is here at last

Apart from the appearance of flowers on the almond and cherry trees in the neighbourhood you can tell spring is here because I'm gradually discarding stuff in order to ride on the Vespa. Slowly, I'm getting rid of the chunky sweaters and thick gloves as the weather gets warmer.

I was wondering if I'm entitled to combat pay as a scooter rider. If you consider that every year 1600 - 2000 people die and up to 30,000 (3000 odd left disabled) are injured in traffic accidents then it seems more dangerous than being a US soldier on duty in Iraq.

Now this is what I need. A Vespa with some serious attitude (and a bazooka for the next idiot who pulls out in front of me). LOL

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It's official

I finally have my life back. This is the first Tuesday in three weeks where I don't have to go to computing lessons. It's such a relief knowing that I can do something else with my time, like tidying up the place, washing the dishes, go shopping, prepare lessons etc. etc.. Sorry, what was I saying about getting my life back.LOL.

Anyway, My idea for today using War of The Worlds (book, film, musical and radio play).

Material needed

War of the Worlds DVD (2005 version)
Orson Welles's production in mp3 format
Jeff Wayne's musical on cd/mp3
The original book by HG Wells in electronic form

Lesson Plan

1 Ask students if anybody has seen the film, read the book etc (make a note of them for later reference). Ask the students to talk about the story.

2 If you have access to the internet students should spend 10 minutes doing research. At the end of the 10 minutes get your students to talk about what they learnt, away from the computers and share what they remember. Elicit answers from the class.

Alternatively, set this for homework or get the students who have seen the film tell the others about it.

3 Ask students to imagine what would happen if aliens invaded their city. Consider;

How they would feel
where they would go
what they would take with them
what would everyone elso do

Give students a couple of minutes to jot down ideas then get them into groups of two to four. Elicit answers.

4 Divide the class into three groups (don't forget to assign students who've seen the film or read the book a different format). Assign one group the film, one group the radio play and one other the musical for homework.

5 The students then summarise the basic plot and say what they liked and disliked about the film/play/story for homework.

6 In the next lesson put students in groups of three and ask them to compare their answers and come up with as many differences as they can between the different versions.For example when it's set, ending, characters etc.

7 Give out a photocopy of a scene from the original book and ask students to compare the way it was interpreted in each version.

If you try this let me know how it worked out and how you'd improve it. Thanks in advance.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

If music be the food of love ....

Music that is rocking my world at the moment;

Temptation by Heaven 17
Emerge by Fischerspooner
It's a Beautiful Day by Reno
5AM by Appleton
60 mph by New Order
Let's Go by Frou Frou
Walk Into The Sun by Dirty Vegas
Pinball Wizard by The Who
Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers

Saturday, March 18, 2006

St Patrick's day

I"ve always been a bit ambivalent about St Patrick's Day It seems another chance to reduce a large, complex mass of humanity to a simple bunch of mindless cliches. You know the kind of thing;

The Irish are ...... (add the insult/attribute of your choice).

As if four (?) million odd people all thought and acted in exactly the same way. Of course the annoying thing is that people have this horrible habit of thinking for themselves and not just following the "national blueprint". The more you get to know people as people, the more you realise how little nationality plays a role in their psychological make - up.

I happen to be half - Irish and when I was young I was lucky enough to spend my summer holidays in Tipperary on my grandmother's farm so I got to know a lot about the people there. I still for the life of me cannot reduce them to a single, easily formulated category. I find that those who can often have only the vaguest idea about what they're talking about.

Friday, March 17, 2006

picking through the debris

As annoyed as I am about this course I think there are very valuable lessons to be learned from this debacle.

1. Computers are boring. Yes, they are very, very boring things. Then again, so are car engines for people not interested in mechanics. But who does not enjoy the freedom and possibilities a car (or vespa) offers ? So, we have to focus on the fun things computers can do for us as much as possible and keep the "mechanics " to a minimum.

2 Many people "don't get" computers, either because of the technical goobledegook or because they consider them the preserve of geeky teenage boys. As a teacher you have to give them a glimpse of how computers can actually be useful to them personally. I doubt that most of yearn to use Excel or Word better, but who doesn't want to chat to far away friends, have access to the music they love, see their photos instantly etc. ?

3 Architecture (not biology) is destiny. The organisation of the classroom defines the lesson and style of learning. The layout of the classroom (similar to the photo above) meant that we were stuck with a lock-step kind of teaching which fails a large number of students either because they can't keep up or they're bored silly. It also reduces the chance for students to work with each other to a minimum. It's little like a medieval monastery in which each monk sits alone in his cell.

4 The more you do as teacher, the less the students will learn. I know that sounds counter-intuitive but it is absolutely true. By taking responsibility for learning out of the student's hands, you drastically reduce their opportunities to learn. You can't learn to ride a bike, play a sport, master a musical instrument etc. just by watching somebody else do it.

5 Group work, group work, goup work. We did virtually nothing in pairs or groups during the three week course and as a result the instructors ignored the fact that some of the more knowledgeable students could have helped the others. This would have have created a more personalised learning situation in which each students' weaknesses could have been dealt with more effectively. A wonderful by-product of this is that it helps create a great feeling of team spirit which can make a huge difference in how enthusiastic people are about the lesson.

6 Learning is doing. It's not enough to present people with knowledge, you have to give them a context/excuse/reason etc. in which to use it. Again we did very little in our course apart from "learn". With the exception of a couple of handouts which had to copied using Word and Excel we didn't actually do anything with all the stuff we were taught. Meaning, of course, that within a few weeks we will have forgotten most of it.

7 Sometimes teaching is not the opposite of learning but the antithesis.

I know all of this most sound like teaching 101 to many of you but sometimes we must remind ourselves of why basic principles are so important. The course has really helped me in my teaching since it reaffirms my faith in my own personal teaching style. Now I've seen the alternative with my own eyes and it just doesn't work.

Web 0.2

I'm sure that some of you have heard of web 2.0, i.e. the next generation of internet in which people take a more active role in actually contributing material. Well, stuff that, we have web 0.2 in which we struggle with a connection which is running at 14,400 kbs. This means that we have to wait minutes at a time to get to a new page. For those new to this, the experience is frustrating.

I just did a head count and out of the 17 people in the class I think just 7 are following what the instructor is saying (see previous post).

I know that Cool Cat Teacher says that we should make the most of what we have and I usually agree with that philosophy but there are limits. Considering that this is a school dedicated to teaching computer skills I think that this is a disgrace. Although the computers are old with pretty poor specs they are perfectly adequate for using Word, Excel etc. However, when it comes to teaching people about how to use the internet the speed of the connection is unacceptable. They've simply done this to cut costs rather than for any pressing technical reason.

The worst part of all this is that people who are new to the web will go away with the impression that it is slow and boring and definititely not worth the hassle.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

busy, busy, busy

Yesterday, it seemed that I hit the floor running in the morning and didn't stop till I got home at 10 pm. Still, I had a good time teaching and my students appeared to as well.

I have a couple of private students who have really taking to blogging and this has really helped with their language skills. This is especially true of Antonis who has made enormous progress in the last few months. I was also pleasantly surprised by Antonia's blog which is very inventive and full of humour.

I finally got my black vespa back from the garage after a long and expensive story which started last year when I made the aquaintance of two footballers from Cameroon who did an illegal u-turn which resulted in me crashing into the side of their car and flipping over the bonnet (hood).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sometimes the big picture appears in the smallest of things, in the seeming trivia of everyday life. Today I decided that I didn't want to be part of a forum (see here) that seems to embrace and celebrate the worst in people.

It all started with a few off-colour jokes which I considered racist and posted a reply. If it had remained at that I probably wouldn't have given it much thought. Like you, my life is full of so many other things to worry about that this could hardly be considered pressing. Then the comments supporting the jokes kept on coming and I started to think more seriously about the "stand" I had taken. There are times when the most trivial of things can make you look at yourself and ask the question;

"What kind of person are you ? What do you consider important ?"

In the whole scheme of things I know this is a tiny and probably unimportant step, but I thought it was one I had to take.

I would like to thank DeviousDiva for her words of support in this.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Using pocket pc's

Pocket PCs and Palmtops have fallen out of favour these days, however, they are a very useful tool both inside and outside the classroom. I have a Hp Ipaq 1930 (see here for more up to date version) which is a life saver as far as organisation is concerned. It allows my to see, and more importantly to change my schedule at a glance. This is particularly important as my programme changes from week to week and I have to be aware of when I can do a lesson. In addition I read newspaper extracts from the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, The Times, The Guardian etc. downloaded every morning off my computer using Avantgo. It can also double up as a mp3 player (great for listening to audio books) and even a "tape" recorder.

As far as lessons are concerned I can use the mp3 player linked up witha couple of cheap computer speakers to do listening exercises downloaded that day from CNN etc.

Example lesson

You'll need to download a CNN podcast (see here)

1 Ask students to write down recent intenational stories. They then discuss them with each other.

2 Ask students to decide which are the most important.

3 Write down a list of words (3 to 5 taken from each CNN story) on the board.

4 Ask students to guess what the content of the story might be.

5 Play the podcast. Ask students write down details as possible.

6 Students then get together in groups and swop information.

7 Play the extract again. Students then check their answers with each other once more.

8 Discuss the answers as a class. Students then decide which story is the most important for them.

This is good preparation for the listening component of the TOEFL and Michigan exams. It can also be used as a preparation for students to create their own podcasts/news stories, which can be recorded on the pocket pc.

Monday, March 13, 2006

blagging some time on my blog

Once again I'm in Public using their wifi to download chapter four of Ancestor which has inexplicably disappeared from the ibook and the latest In Our Time programme which can really help stretch those brain cells. It's pouring down outside and I'm dressed up like a fisherman's friend since the vespa isn't that waterproof. LOL.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Boring me, boring you

I once worked at a school where I was also a student. I had signed up for a course in Modern Greek at a language school and luckily for all of us, the director of studies was doing the course as a Masters project. This meant that it was very communicative and the teacher was very enthusiastic about what she was doing. A wonderful combination. Later on I was offered a job teaching English there. It was a very strange experience to be the student and then within the space of ten minutes the teacher, both in the same classroom. The good thing was that it made me very aware of what role you play as a teacher in the classroom and of course what you can (and cannot) expect from students.

Being a student again in the computer course has once remined me of those useful lessons. Enthusiasm is perhaps more important than even knowledge, that if you can motivate your students they will achieve miracles. If, however, you use your knowledge as a mace with which to bore them into submission, being the most knowledgable person in the room will mean absolutely nothing.

This does not mean we should be ignorant as educators but rather, we have to recognise the human factor in teaching. That's why I don't lose sleep at nights over the possibility of computers, internet or something similar taking my job.

The moral of the story: If you're bored doing what you do in class, the kids will agree with you 100%

Saturday, March 11, 2006

dubious humour

I belong to a site here in the city that is a point of contact for English-speaking foreigners. I was reading stuff and I came across something that I consider offensive. (see here). While I found most of the jokes funny I thought that the ones concernng Chinese people racist. Now I'm getting a lot of flak for objecting to this.

Do you consider this objectionable ? I would like to hear other people's opinions.

Friday, March 10, 2006

exploding heads

Do you remember the movie Mars Attacks by Tim Burton ? In it the only thing that stops our little green friends from taking over the planet is a Hank Williams song which causes the martians' heads to explode. Well, I'm starting to feel like a martian in our computer classes. I tell you, I think our instructor is paid by the word rather than the hour since she has kept her machine gun style of delivery for over an hour and doesn't look like running out of ammunition any time soon.

It's not that I don't understand the language, the problem is that it's like listening to somebody reading out a text book. Judging by the looks of bewilderment on the faces of the people around me (who are mostly Greeks) I'm not alone .

More good news. We have found out that they're extending the course by another week. Why this is suddenly necessary has not been explained. Maybe I need to slaughter a chicken and examine the entrails. Perhaps if we sacrifice an ox, the overall plan will become clear. This seems to be the only way us mere mortals are going to find out what is in store for us.

Check out KEK Platon (ΚΕΚ Πλατων) for yourself.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Welcome to our new Proficiency intensive course

From left to right; Jim, John, Stephanos, Maria, Tina and Peggy

Hi to everyone starting their Proficiency course today. Check out their blog here

Monday, March 06, 2006

Well, the Oscars got me thinking.....

If you've seen 12 Monkeys you perhaps know that it is based on a short film La Jetee which is made up entirely of black and white still shots. I was thinking that we could do this as a class/group project using a digital camera and Windows Media Maker or Apple's Imovie.

I know there is not much language used in the actual film but the act of using English language software and pair work in the classroom allows ample opportunities for real language use. I haven't done this yet so I'm just throwing this out into the ether. Let me know you ideas and reactions.

Kathara Deutera in Greece

Or "Clean Monday" or the first day of Lent for the Greek Orthodox church so everybody was out flying their kite, eating lagana, fasolada and olives.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

today's beautiful photo

Originally uploaded by Annene von Durchgerockt.
A little piece of aesthetic self-indulgence.

Making my ibook sing for its supper

Like a lot of guys I often buy stuff with the excuse that,

"it will come in handy."

or even worse,

"I need it for work."

So you end up with a lot of expensive stuff you use only a couple of times but which you can't bring yourself to admit was bought because you wanted a cool, new toy. I was starting to think that this was also true about the ibook I got at Christmas then I thought about what I had done with it over the week;

1 I used it to download loads of stuff while at Public. Their wifi connection is a zillion times faster than my dial-up at home. The ibook logged onto their network immediately and seaminglessly. Plug and play at long last. Its small size and lightness means that its not a hassle to carry around with me on the Vespa.

2 I was doing a exercise in a Headway book which involved listening to a poem by Auden. Luckily, it is also in Four Weddings and a Funeral which I copied onto the hard disk and played for the student which made the whole thing more interesting.

3 Started making a list of the dvds I had using Open Office for Mac (NeoOffice), the lessons on using Word which I did this week proved very helpful.

4 Downloaded stuff from in break between lessons to help me with teaching Of Mice and Men. I'm not a English Lit graduate - Ba(hons) Sociology, Ma (TEFL) - so preparing a student for lit exams is a bit scary.

5 I'm editing Ancestor and The Pocket and the Pendant with Audacity so it will be a bit less repetitive i.e. getting rid of the theme music and ads at the begining and end of each episode before I give my students a copy.

Still the old joke still holds true;

"What's the difference between boys' toys and mens' ?"
"Mens' cost more."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

the weekend so far

Carnavalli and Katheri Deutera (Mardi Gras and the start of Lent) are upon us, so it's time for my daughter to dress up as a princess, not that she needs any excuse. Plus a couple of other photos of her and her friend eating delicious homemade chicken soup.

Friday, March 03, 2006

"Always look on the bright side of life."

I thought that my last posts have been a little on the dark side so I thought I'd write something more positive. So here are some things I've learnt over the last week;

1 I don't know as much as I thought about computers.

2 How to use Word for something other than very simple texts.

3 What it feels like to be a student again.

4 What it feels like to put in a full day's work and then study on top of that.

5 How to learn through a foreign language rather just the language itself.

6 What it feels like when your teacher just races through the materials without checking whether you've understood it.

7 That I need to slow down as a teacher sometimes and that we have to finish the page/chapter/unit/book is no excuse.

8 A whole new area of vocabuary in Greek since the lessons are in Greek and we all use the Greek language version of Windows XP.

9 Your fellow student can be the best teaching resource at your disposal.

10 Teachers are the most critical students LOL.

taught to death

Or at least that is how it feels. Today in the lessons we had a new instructor who seems hell bent on boring us to death with jargon. The machine gun style of delivery combined with a voice so harsh it could qualify as a weapon makes the three hours we have here seem like ten.

You know the kind of thing; the teacher who prides themselves on covering the requisite amount of material whether the students have learnt it or not.

"Who cares if they don't understand the important thing is that we covered three chapters."

If nothing else this person is a wonderful inspiration to me. Now I know why I teach the way I do and not like this. It reaffirmed the faith I have in not blindly following any kind of curriculum, irrespective of whether students can absorb it or not. This may sound obvious but far too often teachers come under pressure from the administration, parents and students themselves to "finish the book" As if reaching the final page was any guarantee of increased awareness.

This is especially true of language learning where skills are evaluated not simply a body of knowledge.

Another interesting article on Teaching and EFL

How learning has escaped from the box

Technology is getting easier and its rapid development is changing language education, making it possible to link the classroom to the real world beyond

Gary Motteram
Friday February 17, 2006
Guardian Weekly

Have you noticed how technologies that were once hidden away in intimidating computer rooms, guarded over by zealous technologists, have recently moved back into the classroom? And these are not the grey boxes of old; in fact they are being carried into class by learners and their teachers in pockets and handbags.

See here for the rest of the article.

Some photos from the computer class

Despite all the crap they gave us yesterday at the computer lessons I thought I'd post a few photos just to show a more postive side of things

Thursday, March 02, 2006

spitting blood

Scratch my last post as I'm now officially p****ed off with this course. Five minutes before the lesson was due to finish the secretary waltzes in and blithely announces to 25 people that the course times have been changed and that instead of doing two three-hour lessons a week we'll be doing three three-hour lessons a week, starting tomorrow.

So everyone has to rearrange their programmes, planned weeks in advanced to accomodate a bunch of disorganised knuckleheads who have 50 odd computers at their disposal and the organisational skills of a first grader.

What annoys me most (apart from the monumental lack of repect shown the people taking part) is the fact that no explanations was given as to why, suddenly at the last moment, this change was necessary. When everyone started complaining the secreatary just shrugged her shoulders and said,

"Τι να κανουμε;"
(What can we do ?)

What you are telling us is that this say an act of nature like a hurricane or flood, completely beyond your control?

You can check out these jokers for yourself here

learning more

I’m writing this while in my computer lesson; we’re learning how to put hyperlinks in Word documents, which is something I didn’t know about. So it’s pretty useful so far. I’ll write more when I have time.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

500th visitor!!!

According to Clustrmap I've had 500 plus visitors since the 19th January. May not sound much to people who get thousands of people everyday, but it's far more than I expected when I started this blog. I feel as proud as punch.

I've tried viewing this site with Internet Explorer but for some reason the sidebar drops down to the bottom of the page. So try using Firefox instead. I've had far fewer internet hassles (viruses, spyware etc) since I switched.