Monday, June 22, 2009

The difficulty of adapting tasks to Japanese Jr. High Schools without destroying them

I teach a graduate school seminar on Task Based Language Learning. For the seminar we have read the Willis book, a Framework for Task Based Learning, and a chapter from the new Paul Nation book, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking which gives a lot of good ideas for tasks. The class consists of 3 Japanese graduate students and a researcher from Pakistan. Next week, they will go to a junior high school (JHS) and teach a lesson that is supposed to feature a language learning task. Our goal (or at least the goal that I imposed) is the following:

"Design a task supported lesson that will encourage communication and interaction among junior high school students to reinforce their understanding of how to use the language they have studied up to that point."

Last week the student-teachers designed a lesson plan which consisted of a jumbling task, where the JHS kids would have to order a story, and then a writing task where the JHS kids would have to write the ending of the story. The problem was that the story was too complex for the JHS kids and the writing task was too long. We went to the JHS last Thursday to present the plan to the teacher and she rightly pointed out that it would take about 3 classes to do such a task. On the way back to the university from the JHS I reiterated to the student-teachers that they needed to drastically reduce the content.

Tonight I got the new lesson plan from the student-teachers and I was shocked. The lesson is only task by name. It changed to a typical JHS lesson. To make a long story short, they plan to read half a story to the JHS kids in English, have them write the ending of the story in Japanese, and then change the story to English. Last the kids will read their English story to each other. What is worse is that the JHS where they will teach did a similar lesson which the student-teachers observed. The lesson was actually pretty good. What bothers me is that the graduate students' lesson is like a bad imitation. If they are going to fail, I want them to at least fail trying something original.

After they made their first lesson I encouraged the student-teachers to "adapt" tasks to the JHS. By "adapt" I meant reduce the content and think about how they could change the task to encourage the JHS students' language use. For some reason, they seemed to perceive my "adapt" to be completely destroy. We have one week until the lesson and I will meet with the graduate students tomorrow. Let's see what happens.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What do kids get out of listening to an English picture book? Developing a questionnaire

At last, tomorrow the picture book pilot lessons will begin. Altogether we have conducted 2 workshops and held 2 separate meetings with teachers. I have also received some phone calls and e-mails from teachers asking for help with finding teaching materials or advice on their lesson plans. I am not sure how the lessons will go, but I can say that I have enjoyed very much working with the teachers. I think that English picture books are a great means to help children learn about language and culture but I now have a full appreciation of the time and effort necessary to make the use of English picture books possible at Japanese primary schools.

Over the past couple of years we have conducted numerous pilot lessons using picture books but this is the first time where we will be giving a questionnaire to the children. We are giving the questionnaire to find out the following:
  1. How many children were able to understand the story?
  2. How were the children able to understand the story?
  3. What did the children enjoy about the story?
  4. What kind of activities during the lesson did the children enjoy?
  5. What English words did the children feel they were able to learn?
  6. Did they learn anything new about the USA or Japan from listening to the story?
The questionnaire was written in Japanese by me. I then asked the elementary school teachers for their feedback. They gave me advice on how to reword the items so that the children could understand and recommended a could of additional items. After that a colleague of mine at the university rewrote the questionnaire. I showed it one more time to the teachers and they gave me their approval. This questionnaire will be given to children in grades 1 - 6 after their picture book lesson. I have just translated the questions to English for this blog but the questions do not seem to be as clear in English. Here are the questions and what I hope to find from each question:

1) Did you understand the story? (Students write a circle next to the answer they agree with)
a. I understood it well ( )
b. I understood it a little ( )
c. I did not understand it well ( )
d. I did not understand it at all ( )
  • What I want to find out: This is pretty straight forward, I want to find out how many children understood the story (or at least thought they understood it)
2)Did you try hard to understand the story?
a. I tried very hard      (  )
b. I tried a little        (  )
c. I did not try so hard    (  )
d. I did not try at all    (  )
  • What I want to find out: If children did not understand the story, I want to know if they made the effort to understand or if they just decided not to pay attention
3)How were you able to understand the story? Please write circle next to what was useful
a. The teacher’s facial expression when he/she was reading (  )
b. The teacher’s voice would change from loud to soft (  )
c. I heard words that I recognized       (  )
d. I would think about what would happen next while I was listening to the story(  )
e. The picture                       (  )
f. Asking the teachers questions              (  )
g. The teacher using Japanese               (  )
h. I did not understand the English but I could follow the story     (  )
i. The teacher’s talk before reading the book       (  )
j. Other: __________                   
  • What I want to find out: I want to know HOW the students were able to understand the story (What listening strategies they used).
4) Was the story interesting?
a. It was very interesting     (  )
b. It was a little interesting    (  )
c. It was not very interesting    (  )
d. It was not interesting at all   (  )

Why do you think so? Please write a reason below.
  • What I want to find out: This is pretty self-explanatory too. I want to know if the children found the story interesting. Four different types of books will be read and it will be interesting to find out which type of book captured the students' interest.
5)What was the most interesting part of the story? Please write it below.
  • What I want to find out:The particular part of the story that the children liked.
6)What did you enjoy most about today’s lesson?
  • What I want to find out: Did children like the pre or post-storytelling activities more than listening to the story or was it vice versa?
7)Did you learn any new English words today? If you did, please them below. You can use katakana to write the words. Do not worry about writing the words correctly.
  • What I want to find out: Were there any particular words that stuck in the children's heads?
8)Today, if you learned anything about the USA, please write it below.
  • What I want to find out: Three of the four books are from a previous project, Cross-cultural Understanding Using Picture Books. In this project the English picture books were used to teach about aspects of the US culture, so I am interested in knowing if children thought they were able to learn anything about the USA.
9)Today, did you learn anything about Japan? If so, please write it below.
  • What I want to find out: Part of cross-cultural learning is making discoveries about your own culture. People say that it is impossible to understand other cultures without understanding your own. So, I want to know if children were realized anything new about their own culture in this lesson.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A speaking task where students did not interact and an interesting discussion with my students

This is a follow-up to my previous post about a speaking task I did in a university freshman English class. In the previous class the students exchanged profiles. As a follow-up, in the next lesson we did if the "World were 100 people" activity (I admit that I am using task and activity interchangeably here) which I had used various times in other classes. In this activity, students filled out a worksheet (html version - some mistakes) (pdf version-some mistakes) citing statistics about the world if it were a village of 100 people.

The worksheet looked something like this:

If the world were 100 people
there would be ____________ Asians
there would be ____________ Europeans
there would be ____________ Africans
there would be ____________ from North America
there would be ____________ from South America and the Caribbean

___________ people would have no clean, safe, water to drink
___________ own 59% of the entire wealth of the community.
___________ would be undernourished
___________ would be unable to read
____________ would be educated at a secondary level
etc... There are a lot of items.

After going over some difficult words/phrases with the students, I asked them to work in pairs and guess how many people for each item. First, students worked individually and filled in the blanks, then they compared answers. When their answers were different, I asked them to explain to each other why they gave that particular answer. For example, if one student thought that 10 people would be unable to read and her partner thought that 40 people would be unable to read, both students would try to justify their answers to each other. In this class, there seemed to be very little interaction among the students. After the class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the statement that

"I was able to use a lot of English when comparing answers with my partner for if the world were 1o0 people activity"

Of 20 students, 10 agreed and 10 disagreed. Their primary reasons for saying that they could not use English was that 1) the worksheet contained too many unknown words, 2) they did not have the vocabulary to explain their answers, 3) they answered based on intuition (which I encouraged them to do) and could not give a reason for their answers. Those who wrote that they agreed with the above statement did so because they were 1) trying to make me feel happy, 2) enjoyed explaining their thinking to their partners, or 3) enjoyed learning and using new words.

After students had compared answers, they watched a movie called Miniature Earth which presents the "If the World were 100 People" data. Students then write the correct answers and I asked them how accurate they were.

Lastly, we had an interesting discussion - in Japanese. As a surprising amount of people in the world live without poverty, clean water, etc. I expected that a group of Japanese university students would feel pretty fortunate about what they have (a roof over their head, an education, the financial flexibility to pursue their dreams, etc.). I asked them if they felt fortunate after watching this video. One student started speaking in Japanese and said that compared to other people in the world she is fortunate but inside Japan she is not fortunate so she does not consider herself to be so. I asked her why and she said because she cannot do what she wants. I asked her what she wants and she said that she wanted to buy a lot of things that she could not. She knew a lot of rich kids who got whatever they wanted. The bell rang and I felt guilty about having this discussion in Japanese. Before students left I told them that I wanted to have a discussion at the beginning of the next class. I told them to think of an answer to the following question and we would talk about it in English.

Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?

The next class we went outside to have the discussion. We made 2 circles, an outer circle of 10 students and an inner circle of 9 students and 1 teacher (one student was absent). At first, I told students to only speak in English and gave them some communication strategies (How do you say ~ in English etc.). One student in the inner circle talked to another in the outer circle. First, they had some light exchanges (Hey, how are you? How was your weekend? etc.) After the pleasantries, the content became deep: "Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?". At first, students had 3 minutes to talk with each other. After three minutes, the inner circle rotated and each student had a new partner. Then the inner circle and outer circle students talked again.

For pair work to be effective, I read that students need to push themselves to produce language that is a little beyond their level or their partners level. If the partner does not understand she should ask for a clarification. When an interlocutor (speaker) reformulates his utterance he can either correct a misunderstanding he has about a particular grammatical item or lexical phrase or the listener can learn a new piece of language (if the interlocutor said something that was correct and the listener just did not understand).
I have no idea what the quality of the students' interactions was because I had to be involved in the activity myself and could not monitor the conversation. I can say, though, that I heard A LOT of noise and I am sure that we annoyed the other classes who left their windows open. Hearing a lot of noise in an English speaking activity is usually a beautiful thing.

At the ending of the activity, I asked some students what their partners had said. Then, I told the whole class that I learned that many of us have problems. However, our problems such as a long commute to school, not being able to buy what we want are much smaller than what many people in this world face; living on one or two dollars a day, etc. Maybe I should have encouraged students to come up with their own conclusions or at least asked them what their conclusions were. I didn't.

At the ending of class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the following question and why:

"I was able to use a lot of English when discussing whether or not I was satisfied with my life"

18 of 19 students agreed with this statement. They wrote that they were able to express their ideas in English.

So, why did the first speaking activity not work so well and the second activity work well? I have learned that these students like to talk about themselves and their own lives. It is a way that they can get to know their classmates and maybe even make some friends. It is also something that they can talk about with very little preparation because (as they should) they know a lot about themselves. As college freshmen, though, they are not so knowledgeable of global issues. Therefore, some students struggled to give a reason for their estimates in "If the World were 100 People activity." Thus, next time we have a discussion about global issues I need to make sure that students have enough knowledge of the content beforehand.