Wednesday, 30 September 2009
Today I remembered this slogan, which was used in an MTV environmental campaign some years back. It came to my mind after our school development group meeting. The goal of the group is to get all our teachers involved in 'a campaign' to change some of our ingrained practices to be better able to help our students learn.
Since its inception back in 2002 our development group has worked hard to tackle problems, such as students' lack of motivation and aimless drifting at school, and consequent teacher frustration and cynicism. Over the year these problems have led to a culture of teachers whining and complaining about the recurring themes of irregular school attendance, neglect of homework assignments and general apathy and low performance among students, accentuated by our aging and long-standing permanent staff. Year in and year out the staff room echoes with us listing the same problems again. Of course, every now and then, it is healthy to do a bit of complaining to vent out when you're feeling tired and fed up after a disappointing class. But to keep going through the same - largely structural or pedagogical - problems without seeking possible solutions, is useless and sets a vicious cycle of passive helplessness and shifting the blame. The unquestioned belief is that we teachers are doing the best we can, and even more, while it's the students who aren't pulling their weight.
There is an old wisdom that rings more true to me here: "if you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got." Why does this need spelling out? We need to break out of stuck-in-a-rut patterns. And for that we will need innovation and creativity to instill an environment of hope and enthusiasm instead of the eternal whining. Maybe it would rub off on our students, too, and we might witness unpredictable results.
In our meeting, we decided to create an online discussion forum to start actively looking for constructive solutions that would energize us all. In the forum complaints about the problems that we all recognize too well by now are strongly discouraged. I look forward to seeing the response from the rest of the staff.
Photo: IF YOU'RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION THEN... by Lulu Vision on Flickr
Sunday, 27 September 2009
Similar concerns are voiced around the globe. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about generation Y and texting with the title 'It's ok how we communic8'. They give the reassuring message that rather than killing acceptable forms of language, texting and online chat forums are actually making our youngsters write more than ever. Problems arise when the text speak conventions of the young clash with the expectations of older generations, eg. teachers at school. Dr Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, is not worried, though:
Most people realise that language is used differently in different contexts. Most people know that while it's OK to be informal with text messages, different rules apply when you are writing a job application.Probably this is mostly true, although I wouldn't take it for granted. A colleague of mine was appalled by a student who, for the first time in this teacher's 20-year career, had finished her national final exam psychology answer with a smiley! It is not automatically clear for many students what style is appropriate in different contexts. The problem becomes even more complicated in the case of foreign languages. Students simply don't have enough experience and exposure to the language to be able to choose the correct register. Our Finnish students' English, for example, is mostly colloquial, spoken language learned from TV and films. Very few of them would be able to produce formal academic texts in English without a lot of guidance and scaffolding. Yet, they are expected to manage this in their final exams if they want to reach the best grades. The problem is accentuated by a lot of English text-speak entering our Finnish language, which makes it sound like part of the standard language. LOL, for example, has become part of young people's everyday Finnish. I have also heard some of our younger government ministers being interviewed in English on TV, and I must say their style of English sounded more like that of a rock star than a serious politician. Although they are quite fluent, their style and register are off-key for somebody in their position. Colloquial spoken English is ubiquitous in Finland, and Finns come to regard it as the current norm. It's a tough job for us EFL teachers to try and introduce the more formal style. Students easily write the formal style off as something nobody but we, old-fashioned English teachers, would use. I have almost weekly arguments over this with students. Are we teachers behind the times, not realizing that communication culture has actually evolved to a new level that we don't understand and appreciate?
In an earlier post I referred to the Finnish research revealing the wide gap between the types of texts students engage in in their freetime and what is expected of them at school. It is true that teachers are not familiar enough with young people's new communication patterns. If we were, it would be easier for us to help them change their register when needed. Rather than being shocked and dismissing students' texting and online communication as something bad and totally unacceptable, we should understand the changes at hand and welcome these new forms of communication. Attitude adjustments are needed from both teachers and students, I feel. Social researcher Mark McCrindle, in the above-mentioned Sydney Herald article, nicely sums up what is expected of today's teachers and students:
Generations Y and Z need to be given the tools which will allow them to communicate effectively with other generations. They also need to know when it is appropriate to use 'text speak' and when it isn't. If they are writing an essay, for example, or a job application, it's probably best to use the language they learnt at school.In our international school projects we have solved this problem by using the Ning platform, where students are guided to use a more formal style to express themselves in their blogs, but still allowed to use their familiar, colloquial style - even text speak and smileys, if they want to - in the discussion forum. I feel this approach is working quite well, if only we teachers take the time to keep reminding and guiding students to keep editing their texts. Quite a few of them need constant reminding, even to run their pieces through the computer spell checks before publishing!
Photo: LOL by sermoa on Flickr
Saturday, 26 September 2009
I try to be environmentally aware, and I also try to model responsible behaviour in my own lifestyle. I believe it's my duty as an educator of future generations to bring these issues up in my English lessons, too. English, after all, is the language of most global cooperation, when solutions are negotiated to our huge common problems.To be honest, though, I must say the emphasis here is still on the word TRY. But it seems this week made me stop and think what my tiny role in all of this might be.
Fair trade Monday
On Monday our topic for one group's English lesson was 'fair trade'. We studied the related text in our textbook and then watched this Oxfam video clip. It tied in nicely with the text recycling the key vocabulary and also visualizing the conditions of the farmers in the developing world.
During the ensuing discussion, I was surprised to find that none of my students' families bought any fair trade products. Unfortunately, fair trade is still in its infancy in Finland, as the choice of products is very limited compared to many other countries, but it is gradually getting better. I must say I was rather taken aback at the seemingly indifferent 'I couldn't care less' attitude of many of my high school students. Did I manage to arouse empathy and global responsibility and awareness in any of them? I have no clue. Probably I only managed to sprinkle some seeds of ideas amongst them, and can only hope that some of them will fall into fertile ground and take root one day in the future.
Mind you, I am not making much better progress among my colleagues on this front. Somebody threw out the idea of only buying fair trade coffee for the staff room at the beginning of the new school year in August. We all bring a couple of packets of coffee every so often to keep us well stocked in order to avoid ever facing the catastophe of coffee running out in the middle of a busy school day. I took the suggestion seriously and started buying the more expensive fair trade coffee for school, too, only to realize that most of my colleagues refuse to follow suit, for some reason. What a pity to lose one opportunity to model some concrete action to our students.
On Tuesday this week, as every year on September 22, it was the World Carfree Day. Cycling for me, and tweeting about the day was my contribution, but sadly, it mostly looked like 'business as usual' in my town. Mind you, I cycle on other days, too, and sometimes ask myself whether these annual one-off theme days really make any difference in the big picture.
Other Newspaper headlines also brought up the consequences of climate change. Apparently, winters are predicted to get gloomier and gloomier here in Finland increasing the number of SAD sufferers. Bad news for people like me, who are already seriously affected by the dark winter blues. Other than moving to a sunnier climate, is there anything else I could do to mitigate this phenomenon?
Even more environmental content for this week, when I stumbled upon the Edging Ahead blog, where Rob, the teacher-librarian-blogger wrote a post about his juggling between adopting new technologies and taking into account a future where electricity, for example, may be scarce. I share this dilemma of getting my priorities sorted out with so many mixed messages floating around these days. And if I am lost, my students must be even more so!
The global problems that Rob addressed in his post are rather overwhelming, and may lead to a feeling of total helplessness and despair. Personally, I would like to hold up some hope in the face of all this impending doom, though. There is too much scepticism, cynicism and subsequent indifference amongst our students as it it, at least here in Finland. In this respect, Doug Johnson's reply post to Rob especially resonated with me. He wrote:
It has always been my contention that the ONLY solution to our world's problems lies in a truly aware and engaged population. And such awareness will only come by way of education that requires, not believing, but dispassionate thinking and robust problem-solving abilities.I would like to emphasize the problem-solving abilities - and some practical hands-on activities instead of the traditional book-knowledge-only approach of Finnish high schools. It's one thing to know a lot of facts, but quite another to be willing to take action and apply any of that knowledge.
Sustainable development strategy Thursday
The Finnish Ministry of Education has set extensive goals for sustainable development in schools.
The aim is for all schools to have an action plan for sustainable development by 2010 and for 15% to have received external accreditation or certification of their activities by 2014.In our school, we have a team to do the background work for ideas. The problem with a lot of government initiatives is that they tend to be lengthy and wordy, and often just remain empty rhetoric in dusty documents, or rarely visited websites. That's why real concrete ideas are needed at the local level, if the initiatives are to be turned into everyday practices at schools.
Today a meeting was held to come up with our first steps towards a more sustainable direction. We chose to start with saving paper. In a school with only 30 teachers and 400 students, a staggering number of close to 300,000 sheets of copy paper have already been used since the beginning of 2009! It was decided that each member of staff will get their individual copying code to help us all monitor and keep track of our use of paper. It will be interesting to see if this will start making a noticeable difference.
Paperless Friday and environmental seminar
No end to serendipity this week, since a tweet led me to the Teach Paperless blog and the mission of Paperless Friday, which already got over 100 teachers involved after reading the first tweet about it last week. I'm always keen on renewing old practices and trying out something new, so I definitely want to jump on the bandwagon, and challenge some of my colleagues to join me. What's more, this would be an excellent start for the paper saving campaign we embarked on on Thursday.
I couldn't start this week, though, since I wasn't at school on Friday but spent the day in Helsinki to attend a seminar on 'The Social Impact of Climate Change', organized by the Federation of Finnish-British societies at the British Embassy. What an appropriate finish to my green, environmental week. We heard, for example, Mr Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies predict a very grim future, basically telling us that it's too late already. Luckily, young Finnish Green Party MP Oras Tynkkynen emphasized everybody's personal responsibility in making choices in life. More mixed messages again, though. I didn't enjoy hearing my idealistic little everyday endeavours, such as recycling or using energy-efficient light bulbs, labeled as useless tinkering, when really drastic national and global measures are called for. "Climate chaos" instead of "climate change" was one lecturer's opinion of a more appropriate label for our current circumstances.
As a teacher, I am still wondering what message to give to my students, and how. It seems that each individual, even an informed and well-educated one, issuch an insignificant player in the massive, global corporate and political game. Or maybe I should stay on my turf, ie. focus on teaching English grammar, and leave the environment to experts.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Too many teachers merely assign a paper, provide little instruction over the methods for achieving expectations, and scream while grading “these terrible essays.”
For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
It's national final exam time again in Finnish senior high schools. To graduate our students will have to pass national exams in a minimum of 4 subject. The exams are prepared by a special exam board, and there are two occasions to take them during the school year, in the autumn or in the spring. Students are free to work out their own schedule when they prefer to take each exam, yet the dates are set by the board and they are always the same for every school in Finland.
Today was the date for this autumn's English exam. Instead of the conventional set of reading comprehension, structures and vocabulary and composition, they had come up with a new section this time - filling in lines in a dialogue.
Finland is remiss I would claim, for not testing students' oral language skills for the final tests in any way. I don't know many countries where language tests are solely written! I have a feeling that writing lines in a dialogue was the board's attempt at silencing the many critics of the written-only exams. You see, the board, in their great wisdom, have decided that it is impossible to design and organize national oral exams. Maybe so, but I don't think they have come up with a very clever replacement this year. Or what do you think of the following scenario?
There is a dialogue between a farmer who stops his car to pick up a hitchhiker on the road somewhere in the British countryside. The hitchhiker is a travelling Finn, and the students are asked to write what this traveller would say based on Finnish cues. After the students have been prompted to write the words of the hitchhiker to indicate that he/she would like to get off to continue his/her journey, the farmer then goes on: "Well, the wife likes to have a chat with visitors. Are you sure you wouldn't mind comin' in for a cup o' tea?" After which the cue asks the students to decline politely because of a busy schedule, or something to that effect. Honestly, is this a script from a horror movie? If I was in a situation like that, I don't think politeness would be the first thing on my mind, but rather how to get out of the car in one piece and run away as fast as possible!
Not only is the whole story laughably artificial (would you really get in a strange farmer's car in the middle of nowhere these days any more?), but do they really think that they can test what spoken skills students have acquired in 12 years of English studies by asking them to write ONLY 5 lines in a dialogue? Utterly useless, if you ask me.
Photo: Exam Hall by non-partizan on Flickr
Thursday, 10 September 2009
I could meet new people of different countries which have different cultures. Here, I see that intercultural learning is crucial in order to build harmonious relationships between countries.
I enjoyed the opportunity to be able to learn and understand the students involved in the project. I am also more understanding to certain cultural practices of other countries. I could discuss and know others' ideas in the different countries.
I really enjoyed the fact that I could talk to people from other parts of the world. It gave me a chance to learn about other cultures as well as individual people. I also got to learn how to write a blog. This was something I had never done before.
I have learned about European culture and school lives. I am very pleased to have my students have chances to participate in the international understanding. My students could widen their horizons.
Monday, 7 September 2009
the current curriculum leads to mechanical learning of isolated pieces of knowledge
Sunday, 6 September 2009
The irony of all this at the level I teach (senior high school, where students entering our school already have 7 years of English studies behind them) is that students have already been introduced to all the grammar our books deal with, and consequently should know at least the basics. Unfortunately, many students have remained surprisingly immune to all the grammar content taught to them and not acquired a sense of the basic structure of English. No doubt teachers at previous levels have taught it, and students have been exposed to all the metalanguage of grammatical terms and rules, but that must have read like mumbo-jumbo to many of them. Not even the endless gap fill and translation exercises or drilling have made it any clearer for them. They may be able to recite grammar rules word by word, but consistently fail to apply them in speaking or writing. From my experience, students who haven't grasped the basics by the time they come to our school, never will if it's the same methods and types of exercise repeated again.
I often ask myself, what is the point of teaching grammar at all in our style of senior high? As it's already been taught, surely it should only be tweaked whenever a point comes up naturally in the course of a discussion, while reading a text or practising writing, for example. Certain nuances could be added to the basics at this level, and maybe some quick revision every now and then, but I'm inclined to skip the grammatical metalanguage and rules. Why on earth do we believe that repeating the same old rules again and again is going to make a difference? Most students at senior high like English, but hate grammar lessons. No wonder, since they have had the same stuff thrown at them ad nauseam for years on end.
Is it us teachers who feel that it is our job to TEACH who insist on an overdose of grammar of this type? If a colleague of mine, who has worked in the author teams of many Finnish EFL book series, is to go by, that's exactly it. She says every so often some more progressive language book authors suggest easing on the grammar content, but publishers quickly stunt these initiatives claiming that it is grammar and more grammar that their clients - EFL teachers - want. And they are quite right. Whenever I attend book fairs where a new textbook is launched, most of the discussion revolves around the grammar sections. Are they extensive enough, or should we perhaps use an additional grammar book as well? When I try to question the dominance of grammar in language classes I get incredulous and condescending looks from my peers.
The bottom line is: we are teachers and our job is to teach. Grammar is easy to teach. Teachers can lecture to their hearts content in front of the class. They know all the rules better than any of their students. They can feel helpful and efficient. With grammar rules they get the chance to prove to those students whose fluency in actual language use may be far better than the teacher's that they don't know it all, after all! Teaching grammar makes teachers feel that they are truly earning their salaries. You could never teach vocabulary, or listening skills in the same way!
The other week I came across a post in Betty Azar's Teacher Talk blog, where she blogged about this same problem of declarative knowledge of grammar not automatically translating into procedural knowledge. She firmly believes that a cognitive understanding of grammatical concepts is the foundation on which, through practise, the natural use of a second language is built. She also mentions that teachers get frustrated too easily and determine
that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language
Mind you, Betty is writing about adults, which, I feel, is different from regular schools. But I would say she reflects the sentiments and beliefs of most of my colleagues. In Finnish senior high schools, though, you can hardly talk about teachers expecting immediate transfer. You'd think that if a method was good it wouldn't take 10 years of constant repetition, and still so many clueless students! One of the most often heard complaints from my language teacher colleagues is: "I have told them about this grammar rule countless times, and still they keep making the same mistakes!" In other words, the students are lazy or stupid or both. How about looking in the mirror and questioning the method instead?