Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Doing a Task at an Elementary School

On October 31, my universities affiliated elementary school had an "Open Class Conference" (公開授業研究会). As a "collaborative researcher" I teamed up with teachers in the "English study group" (英語班) to plan two classes. The first class was a picture book class with the third grade and the second class was a class using "tasks" with the fifth grade. With all modesty possible, I have to say that both classes were much more successful than I anticipated. In this post, I will talk about the task based class and (hopefully) in a future post discuss the picture book class.

Last June, I went to Sendai with the head of the English study group (Hereafter T Sensei) at the elementary school and a graduate student. We attended a lecture by Dr. Natsuko Shintani about TBLT (Task Based Language Teaching) for young learners. This was a great opportunity for both me and T-Sensei to get on the same page about what TBLT is and understand the types of tasks used with young learners. We left the workshop with a common understanding about the principles of TBLT. However, the tasks that were shown in the workshop were designed for a small group of children at an English school. We had to think how we could design a task for a large group of children (+30 students) with limited command of English and lower motivation to study English.

The four features of tasks introduced in the workshop are below and based on the features we designed two tasks.
  1. A task involves a primary focus on message.
  2. A task has some kind of 'gap"
  3. The learners choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined outcome.
The tasks we did were information gap tasks which are very typical and might make you wonder why I would write a blog post about doing such a ubiquitous activity. Although the type of activity was far from innovative, I will say that the way we adapted the information gap task to their textbook "Hi, Friends 1, lesson 7  What's this" and thought of a way to make it interesting for the students was creative.

The modest success of this lesson was a result of the collaboration between me, the elementary school, and my graduate students. We met two times for about 90 minutes each time (to plan the task and picture book class, not just the task class). By sharing ideas with each other and combining our strengths, we were able to think of original lessons that we could not have done by ourselves. It made me realize how important collaboration is. I will talk about the two tasks we ended up doing:

Task 1: The Locker Task

The words for the unit of Hi, Friends were

Apple, cap, shoe, bat, glove, flower, fish, eggplant, mat, bird, frying pan, cup, tomato, triangle, recorder, piano, microscope, beaker, brush, map, globe, triangle, ruler, notebook, Japanese/science/history/English textbook, eraser, pen, pencil, marker, water bottle.

These are fairly dull words and our challenge was to think of a situation where children could use these words meaningfully.

The first task we designed was called the "locker task". It was a kind of "find the differences task."Students were in pairs, and each had a different picture of a locker. The goal of the task was to find the number of differences in two minutes. The words were words from the unit of high friends (I acknowledge that there was a BIG spelling mistake on the first set of cards). For the first two sets of cards, the teacher performed the task together with the students (the teacher had the card for Locker 1A and the students had the card for Locker 1B). After this, the students did the task twice using the next two sets of cards. It is important to note that the students were familiar with these words.

Locker 1A

Locker 1B

Locker 2A

Locker 2B

Locker 3A

Locker 3B
35 of 36 students report that they were able to communicate the contents of their locker. When asked what helped them, 31 of 36 students wrote that the teacher's demonstration helped them. What was interesting was that the teacher demonstrated how to do the activity but did not explicitly teach which language to use.

Task 2: The Magic Bag
First, I will say that task 2 was the far more innovative task and was the original idea of the elementary school teachers.

This is a little more complicated. The teacher said that all the students had a "magic bag" like Doraemon and they could put anything inside of it. The children had the above worksheet which featured a daily class schedule. The children then had to choose a day, and then based on the class schedule for the day, put objects in their bag.  For example, if the day was Friday, the classes were Japanese, social studies, science and music. A student who chose Friday would then have to put a Japanese textbook, globe, beaker, and piano in their bag. After the students had chosen the days and the corresponding contents of their bag, they made pairs again. They would ask each other, "What do you have in your bag" and write down their partners answers. After writing down what their partner said, they would try to guess the day. The goal of the task was to guess the day of the week their partner had prepared for. As in the first task, 35 of 36 students wrote that they were able to express the contents of their bag and ask their partner the contents of their bag. Twenty-seven of 36 students wrote that their teacher's demonstration was helpful although the teacher did not explicitly teach language.

Both Tasks

Again, tasks are supposed to have the following characteristics:
  1. A task involves a primary focus on message.
  2. A task has some kind of 'gap"
  3. The learners choose the linguistic and non-linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
  4. A task has a clearly defined outcome.

Both tasks featured a focus on the message, there was a clear gap in information between the pair of students, the teacher did not explicitly teach language and students were expected to use their own language, and each task had a clear goal.

We did give questionnaires to the students to find out the techniques they used to accomplish the tasks but I have no idea when I can get around to actually analyzing them so I thought I would write about this experience before I completely forgot about it. If you would like to use these ideas for your own contexts, please feel free to do so. If possible, I would also appreciate it if you contacted me to tell me how it went.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Issues with textbooks and reading/writing assignments for pre-service teachers

I am in charge of a teaching methodology class for second year students university students. Most of them are English majors and about half of them aspire to be English teachers. This year I have 43 students in the class; this means giving them any kind of assignment also gives me a lot of work. Checking 40 + long writing assignments adequately can take over 7 hours easily, and really make it hard for me to prepare the week's lesson. Because the class is conducted mainly in English and the content, theories and practices in TESOL/TEFL, is new to students, it is essential that they read the textbook and do the writing assignments every week.

The textbook that we use is titled 英語科教育の基礎と実践 (An approximate translation is "Basic theory and practice of English Education"), the book is a good introduction to basic theories in TESOL/TEFL, teaching techniques, and teaching English in junior and senior high schools in Japan. Of course, the book cannot go into very much depth, but I think it points students into the right direction for learning more about their field.

Anyway, back to the reading and writing assignments. As you can tell, the book is written in Japanese, but I have the students answer questions about the reading in English.  I think that it is important for the students to be able to explain concepts about English education in English. I hope that they will be able to build off this experience to one day be able to explain their pedagogical choices to ALTs or be able to discuss English teaching with other educators throughout the world.

We have a class blog and students make their own blogs which link to the class blogs. Students put their assignments and reflections of their practice teaching on their personal blogs. These blogs are supposed to serve as portfolios of students' work. I am actually not sure if I have chosen the appropriate technological tool for students' portfolios, but that is a story for another post. Students evaluation is based on whether or not students can explain the concepts written in the textbook in English. I grade them by giving them one of the following marks:

✓- means that a student was not able to explain the concepts in English.
✓ means that students were mostly able to express the concepts but there were some mistakes which made the writing difficult to understand.
✓1/2 means that they were able to express the concepts well with perhaps a few minor areas where the meaning was not completely clear
 ✓+ means that they were able to express the concepts very well 

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered an unexpected problem with these writing assignments. In the first assignment there were many sloppy mistakes. Sloppy mistakes are spelling mistakes, mistakes in plural/singular, mistakes in with subject-verb agreement, etc. Basically, sloppy mistakes are mistakes that students should be able to catch by themselves. To my surprise, well over 50% of the assignments were littered with these sloppy mistakes. For example, some students spelled the word learn as "lean" throughout their whole assignment. This gave me a sense of deja vu as something similar happened to me last year in the same class. On top of that, many of the assignments were full of global errors or awkward English, I was not sure what the students were trying to say. Becoming an English teacher at a public school is very competitive and these days one needs strong English skills to pass the teacher's examination and interview test. For the sake of the students, I cannot accept mediocrity. They have to all work hard to improve their English if are serious about becoming English teachers.

I underlined all the mistakes they made (this took well over 10 hours), and told students that they had to fix their mistakes as an assignment. I also transformed myself to the stern Jimbo and told students that they made too many careless mistakes and this was intolerable (Of course making mistakes because you are experimenting with new and difficult language is a good thing. Also, I should not that I make spelling mistakes all the time and a few mistakes in an assignment will not bother me. In fact, for me to get mad at a few mistakes would be very hypocritical).

As I said before, in addition to the careless mistakes, there was a high amount of unintelligible prose written by the students. Therefore, after the stern Jimbo had said his peace, I decided to give the students about 40 minutes to start the next assignment in pairs and I walked around to observe how there were doing the assignment. One of the most typical strategies was this: they would find the answer to the question of the textbook in Japanese and try to understand it. After grasping the meaning, they would write the answer in Japanese. Lastly, they would translate the answer into English. I realized that the textbook in Japanese was not necessarily clear-cut for them. When I read and summarize parts of the textbook, I understand the concepts already and can use my background knowledge when the language of the book is unambiguous or clear to me. The students, however, do not have the background knowledge that I have. It seems like that when students are unsure what the Japanese is actually saying, they tend to just directly translate it into English. The result of their effort is unintelligible English.

On this day, we ended up working on writing the answers into English the whole time and after the class had ended, I felt that I had just conducted my first grammar-translation class ever. I would not call it a waste of time, students worked very hard and I think they understood better what I expected from them and I understood better the demands that the assignments placed on them. Nevertheless, I did not think this was an ideal way for us to spend the precious little time we have to learn the basics of English teaching. I am now starting to question whether these kinds of assignments are appropriate (Reading in Japanese and answering questions in English). There are textbooks written in fairly simple English such as the TKT Course Module 1,2,3 which I think does a good job of explaining all the basics about English language teaching and learning that teachers need to know. The TKT is a teaching knowledge test for teachers of adult learners made by Cambridge University Press. I would prefer to use a book that also specifically discusses teaching at schools in Japan. In other words, I want a book that will contextualize the knowledge better.

I will say that most of the students in the class are working hard. I hope that this experience will push the students to become better self-monitors of their writing and also help them realize how hard they have to work to improve their English. I hope that I can choose the right kind of textbook and the right way of using the textbook that will help the students learn the basics of English teaching and improve their teaching. I really want to help them realize their dreams. For the next few weeks, we will be preparing for a teaching practice at a local elementary school. Hopefully during this time, I will be able to think of a better way of using the current textbook.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Giving a Workshop at the ALT mid-year Conference

Well, October was a busy month and really flew buy. The new semester started at my university, I started a PhD program, I went to the JALT conference in Shizuoka, I had to write a laboriously tedious grant application, and I planned and conducted an open "research class" with my university's affiliated elementary school. I would actually like to write about all of these but today, I want to tell you about giving a talk at the Iwate ALT mid-year seminar in early October. At the seminar, there were about 25 ALTs and 15 JTEs (Japanese teachers of English). This was a very workable number. I only had 90 minutes and I wanted to do some thing that hopefully would be of some use for the ALTs. I know that no matter how amazing an educator you are (and I am a pretty mediocre one), after 90 minutes you are not going to reinvent the way someone teaches.

When planning for the seminar, I thought back to the days when I was an ALT in Hokkaido for two years in the late nineties. I came to Japan knowing zero Japanese, having little experience in education, knowing next to nothing about Japanese schools, and no formal knowledge of the English language itself. I was about as unqualified for a job of teaching English as possible. I was stationed at a rural junior high school and usually my job was just to stand in class and do nothing but recite the textbook to the students when asked. Sometimes the JTE would give me 20 minutes of the class to teach. I would be very grateful for this opportunity but usually my activities were either too difficult for the students or not interesting. These days, the JET Program (the name of the scheme that brings people from abroad to assist in the teaching of English at Japanese public schools) seems to be much more selective and most of the ALTs are much more knowledgable about Japan and teaching than I was.

Nevertheless, I thought about something I could have learned that would have made me a little better at my job. Coming to Japan, my understanding was that I was supposed to assist in making English more communicative. However, what exactly does that mean? The national curriculum for English in public schools is called the gakushuu shidou youryou or the Course of Study and all English textbooks in Japan follow these guidelines. To be honest, I sometimes intuitively feel a little bit of resistance towards it because all schools MUST follow it (Whenever someone tells me I HAVE to do something, I tend to automatically NOT want to do it). However, the document itself emphasizes that English be taught as a means of communication and I believe that if more schools actually DID follow it, English education would probably be a little better.   In my two years as an ALT, though, I never heard of the Course of Study. In fact, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing rather than "making my classes more communicative." I think now that if I had a better idea about the national curriculum (or what I was supposed to be doing) then maybe back then I could have reached an agreement with the JTE about what our goals were and tailor the activities to try to accomplish these goals. With this in mind, here is how I conducted the workshop:

Part 1 - Icebreaking: We played four corners. The signs agree, disagree, I don't know, and I don't understand are each posted in a corner of the room. I give the participants a statement and they go to the corner which best reflects their feelings. Here are the questions I gave them:
1. I think Japanese food is better than the food in my country.
2. The goal of English Education in junior and senior high schools is for students to become high level communicators of English...
... and others......

Part 2: Introducing the course of study for English education. On Powerpoint I showed them the objectives and recommended content for JHS and SHS English classes. This was written in English but I left blanks in the text and read every thing in Japanese. The ALTs, consulting with the JTEs if necessary, had to try to guess what filled in the blanks.

Part 3: Challenges: Next, I discussed obstacles for achieving the objectives in the course of study based on my experience as an ALT and the limited knowledge I have about English education in Japan. The challenges I discussed were:

I System and Environment
1. High school and university entrance exams
2. Teachers' workloads
3. The communicative goals of the course of study are a little ambiguous.
4. Teachers have to follow a curriculum made by their department.
5. The total number of hours spent in the English classroom in JHS and SHS are insufficient (see a previous blog post)

II People Factors
1. Unmotivated students
2. ALTs lack of knowledge of Japanese, Japanese schools, education, and English teaching (I am talking about myself!)
3. ALTs unwilling to cooperate
4. JTEs do not want to work with ALTs (I think this is a big problem)
5. JTEs cannot or do not explain to ALTs their schools situation, the ALT's role, or give the ALT guidance.
6. JTEs can lack understanding of how to make classes more communicative
7. Some JTEs have insufficient command of English (only a few!)

Part 4: Ways to achieve the goals: In Part 3, I was kind of hoping that someone would try to argue against me but no one did. In Part 4, I took a more optimistic view and said that actually most Alts and JTEs care very much about their students' learning and are very innovative. Also, relatively speaking in very general terms, Japanese JHS and SHS students can be easy to work with. My suggestions were that 1. JTEs and ALTs discuss how they want students to get out of their classes; 2. JTEs and ALTs discuss the kind of teachers they want to be; 3. JTEs and ALTs make plans to routinely conduct a small repertoire of activities to push students and themselves towards their goals. Lastly, I discussed my own goals for my students and the kind of teacher I aspire to be (but am not). Then, I conducted a learning activity I had designed to try to meet these goals. The activity was a task-based activity. I read a picture book in Japanese (showing the pictures on the computer). This was perhaps the most well-received part of the workshop.

Overall, the content of my workshop was probably something that the Japanese English teachers had heard many times: The Course of Study and having thinking about a goal for your students before planning your classes or curriculum. However, when I was an ALT, I never heard any thing like that. I hope that they found it useful.

Epilogue: After the workshop, I went to Hanamaki station to go home. To my surprise, who should I meet in the station but the former K-1 kickboxing champ Ernesto Hoost! He was in Iwate to film an NHK television special. He was nice enough to take a picture with me: