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Teachers from around the San Francisco Bay Area, participants in our 2-year old Reflective Practice Group, complete the thought  “Reflecting in a Community of Practice …..”,  our Holiday Greeting to other reflective practice groups and teachers around the world, and especially to teachers in Dnipro, Ukraine, who’ve just begun meeting as a new RPG, guided by Zhenya Polosatova .  And I want to express my personal gratitude to Zhenya, and to Josette LeBlanc and  Michael Griffin in Korea; without them we might not have launched the SF Bay Area RPG, and even if we had, I’m sure we might have run out of ideas!  Instead, we have a solid community of practicing “reflectors”, always eager to come together and share, which enriches our personal and professional lives.  THANK YOU ALL!

Reflecting in a Community of Practice…

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Learning Strategies and Reflection for my Adult Beginner Students

This semester, teaching at the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, CA, I’ve undertaken a small Action Research project.  This is a report on the first few weeks.

The Challenge:

For years I’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many of my adult low-beginner ESL students don’t have learning strategies.  They don’t seem to know what they must do to learn.  For example, when I launch a five minute pairs speaking activity, practicing a dialogue with a partner, they will do it just once, and then sit and wait for me to call the class back to order and move on to the next thing. As I see it, they are wasting a precious opportunity to practice and internalize the material by changing roles or substituting target language, and practicing the dialogue again and again.

Dialogue on board

Profile of the Students

It’s not that they aren’t motivated to learn.  I have over thirty students, who are mostly Guatemalans in their twenties, young men and a few women. They work hard during the day, often doing demanding, physical labor, and then come to an 8-10 pm class twice a week.  Clearly they want to learn English.

Over the years, I’ve observed that this behavior seems to correlate with limited formal education in students’ home country.  When I noticed this phenomenon, it was the first time I really appreciated that one of the most valuable things we learn in school is how to learn. Those who attended school longer are far more likely to embrace the notion of practicing. They do so enthusiastically, and they learn. But the others I worry about, because I believe they’re not getting as much out of the class as they could.

How to Help Students Develop Learning Strategies?

For some time I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change these students’ behavior. But recently, while researching how to develop learner strategies and autonomy, I read something that made me completely question that goal.

In MaryAnn Florez’ article “Reflective Teaching in Adult ESL Classes,” a teacher is advised “to think of ways to facilitate and foster learner input rather than ways to change her practice to accommodate the learners’ reluctance to speak.”  This was an “ah-hah!” moment for me.  It dawned on me that I need to facilitate my students’ reflection and awareness of what helps them learn! And perhaps I should stop thinking prescriptively. I would need to open myself up to learning from the students, rather than being so certain that I know what will help them learn.

Raising Students’ Awareness of What Helps Them Learn

So I decided that I would focus on raising students’ awareness of what they’re learning, how they learn it, and what works for them and what doesn’t.  As I know from my own reflective practice, this is not a skill that’s learned in an evening.  I made this initial action plan for every class:

  • Write the name of each step of the lesson on the board, and draw students’ attention to them as we progress through the class.
  • At the end of class, have students reflect on whether each of the activities did or didn’t help them learn.
  • For the first few weeks, just work on raising awareness, theirs and mine.

We could discuss the lesson in Spanish, but it happens that this semester I have a handful of students from Vietnam.  Since I don’t speak Vietnamese, using Spanish wouldn’t be appropriate.  All of the students are beginners, so talking about learning in English isn’t practical.  So I have to rely on primarily non-verbal methods of communication for the reflection and feedback.

Steps on Board

Feedback from Students

At the end of each class so far, students have been completing a form with the same list of lesson steps as was on the board, and a Likert scale of three faces (smiling, straight face, and frowning). Written above the faces in English, Spanish and Vietnamese is:

This did not help me learn     ……………………………………………     This helped me learn   

Esto no me ayudó a aprender  ……………………………………………. Esto me ayudó a aprender

Điều này đã không giúp tôi được hiểu ……………………………………..…   Điều này đã giúp tôi học được.

Individual Feedback Form

I hesitated about whether to ask students to write their names on the feedback form.  There’s an argument to be made for anonymity:  they might feel “safer” expressing their true feelings if I don’t know who made the comments.  But I opted to ask for the names for two reasons:  one is it would show them I’m interested in each individual. Second, if I didn’t know who was responding, the data would be much less useful; I wouldn’t be able to correlate feedback with students’ performance, participation and proficiency.

Validating the Feedback

Initially, I needed to confirm that students understood the purpose of the feedback form and that the feedback they gave me was actually meaningful to them.  If most of them just checked smiling faces, it would be useless. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really certain how I would know if the feedback was “real”.  Fortunately, when I looked at the results after five successive lessons, several patterns emerged, which persuaded me that I was getting valid data:

Group Feedback on a Lesson
Group Feedback on a Lesson
  • Observation #1: There are clear tendencies: straight faces and a few frowns clump around particular steps in each lesson.  My Interpretations:  If they had been randomly or evenly distributed, I wouldn’t know whether the “data” was valid.  This continuity suggests that students really are expressing how they feel about the activities.
  • Observation #2: After each lesson, the steps that students score with straight or frowning faces are predominantly in the beginning and middle of the lesson, when students are encountering and clarifying new vocabulary and grammar.  As the lesson moves towards the final steps, where students use the target language in freer, more fluent, personalized activities (such as asking for and giving their telephone numbers) the smiling faces become more numerous.  My Interpretations: This rating pattern is repeated after every class.  So one interpretation is that the earlier steps of the lesson are more uncomfortable, because students are more tentative, unsure, and don’t feel confident with the new material, but as they internalize it and are able to use it with confidence, they rate the activities positively. Unfortunately, this would also mean students are indicating what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, which isn’t necessarily the same as what helps them learn.  Another possibility is that there is something about how I set up the encounter and clarifying steps which isn’t effective.  Food for Thought.
  • Observation #3: Contrary to my expectation, the twenty percent who always mark only smiling faces aren’t necessarily the most proficient. My Interpretations: Several ideas:  Some students really enjoy class, regardless of how challenging it is; some students just don’t want to “criticize” the teacher; some students are just going through the motions and aren’t interested in reflecting or sharing what helps them learn; some students have no idea what the feedback form is about.  Inconclusive.
  • Observation #4: During one class, I forgot a couple of essential practice activities meant to help students clarify and internalize the meaning of the new vocabulary before asking them to use it in an authentic, personalized task (making a family tree).  I also assigned an activity from the textbook which (I later realized) required vocabulary that they hadn’t learned yet.  Students were confused and weren’t able to complete the activities.  My Interpretations:  This fiasco was nothing to celebrate as a teacher. But in terms of students’ reflections on the lesson, their confusion and frustration was clearly reflected in their feedback on the particularly problematic parts of the lesson, which allowed me to unequivocally validate their feedback.  (And it proved  the importance of properly sequencing and scaffolding a lesson so that students have plenty of chances to clarify and practice before they have to use new target language independently.)
  • Observation #5: Students in tight, collaborative cliques mark their feedback forms differently.  For example, there is a lovey-dovey couple who practically sit in the same chair through class.  She marks 100% smiling faces, while he always marks a few straight faces for some activities.  Three Vietnamese students who always come together and converse a lot as they work in class also mark their feedback forms differently. My Interpretations:  I might expect these tight groups to either copy one another’s answers OR reach a consensus before marking the form.  The fact that they aren’t doing either makes me believe each person is reflecting independently on their personal experience.

So I’m pleased with the initial feedback process. I believe students are doing some meta thinking about their learning. And it was exciting when I realized that getting student feedback wouldn’t just tell me about what helps students learn; it would also give me valuable information about how effective my teaching is, and point out areas for further reflection!

Next steps:

I plan to continue the Feedback forms after each class.  Soon I will also try to get students to discuss the following in small groups, and then write their individual answers in their first language:

  • How they usually feel at the beginning, middle, and in the final activities of the class, and why.
  • Which generic types of classroom activities help them learn, such as matching pictures and flash cards, substitution dialogue practice, written fill-in-the-blank, etc. , and why.

Questions I still have:

  • Are students marking what they do/don’t like OR what helps them learn? Do they know there is a difference?  How can I tease the two apart?
  • What can I do to deepen their awareness, so we can find out more about why they feel the way they do?
  • How can I shift the focus to developing an awareness of what they are asked to do during class vs. what they actually do?

What do you think?

I would LOVE to hear from teachers who have ideas about getting meaningful feedback from low beginners, and helping them develop learning strategies!

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I recently read an article by Michael Griffin and Manpal Sahota about improving one’s teaching through reflective journal writing.  It inspired me to write about my own amazing experience that proved their point.

When I am training teachers to reflect on their experiences, I ask them “What evidence can you point to that supports your interpretation?”  Evidence is our objective description of what did or didn’t happen. If we can’t point to something concrete that we observed, our interpretations may be faulty, incomplete, and even completely wrong.  I’m such a believer in the power of reflective practice that I always tell teachers if they just take one thing away from the course, it should be the skill of rigorous, disciplined reflection.

So is my belief in the value of reflection based on evidence?  Here’s my story:

In early 2014, at the end of a teacher-training course in Korea, feedback from the teachers indicated that I needed to work on giving clear instructions.  I brought it up at the farewell lunch with co-trainer Phil Thompson. Phil responded that he over-models how to do an activity to such a point that he worries he’s being patronizing.  (I later realized that Phil’s humility was really his graceful way of suggesting that I needed to work on modeling when giving instructions.)

On the 12-hour flight home to San Francisco, I had an inspiration. After a month working with talented trainers like Phil Thompson and German Gomez, who consistently walk the talk, modeling what we trainers say we believe about experiential learning and reflection, I decided to work on improving my instructions-giving by keeping a reflective journal.

My intention to purposefully reflect on how I give instructions and what helps and hinders students’ ability to understand immediately changed how I felt about the upcoming spring term. Suddenly, I thought of my class of adult immigrant beginners as my laboratory, where I could try things out, experiment with various techniques.  There would be no failures, and no disasters; whatever happened would simply be the results of an experiment.  Through reflection, I would process those results, and come up with action plans for the next experiment – the next class session.  This was positively liberating. In fact, it was exciting!

Here’s how it worked:  while planning my lessons, I resolved to actually write down word-for-word how I would say the instructions, how I would model the activity, and what I would write on the board.  Before going to class, I would write a bit in my reflective journal about my plans, especially about anything new I was going to try out, or something I feared would be challenging. Then I went to class, to conduct my experiment.  I noticed that before class I was much more relaxed, thinking “Whatever happens will happen. We’ll see.”

After class, I would have my usual reactions:  something worked really, really well and I was thrilled to be a teacher, and/or something failed horribly and I was the worst teacher on the planet.  I’m my harshest critic, practicing focalism,  a cognitive bias where I devote disproportional attention to the negatives.  While I drove home, I “reflected” on the puzzles from my lesson, but it was the intuitive, gut reaction, undisciplined kind of reflection that we all do automatically, and which often leads us to inaccurate conclusions. For the life of me, even with the intention of reflecting rigorously, I simply couldn’t do it in the car.

Once home, I immediately pulled out my reflective journal.  (I had “borrowed” one of the blank journals we give teachers taking the Korean course.) Then I sat and wrote.  I first wrote an objective description of a slice of the lesson where giving instructions was critical – whether successful or unsuccessful.  The description included everything I could remember about what I said and did, and what students said and did, and whatever else seemed like it might be relevant: the materials, how students were grouped, the environment in the classroom, etc.

Then I started writing interpretations.  This is where the magic happens in reflective practice.  What I couldn’t do in my head, in the car, literally poured out of me once I sat down with my journal and pen. I wrote down my initial gut reaction as to why something went the way it did, but I also came up with many other possible interpretations that I hadn’t thought of, and wouldn’t have thought of, if I hadn’t been doing this written reflection.  When I say this is where the magic happens, what I mean is that when we learn to reflect rigorously, we insist on 1) getting as much evidence down as possible, in the description, and then 2) coming up with multiple interpretations of the evidence, even if at first we’re certain that our initial instinct is correct.  It’s the multiple interpretations, which invariably turn out to be revealing and to contain precious truths, that make reflective practice such a powerful tool. 

Here’s an example of multiple interpretations.  During a Q&A activity to practice the use of the prepositions “on” and” next to,” I observed many students asking “What’s on next to the book?” using both prepositions together. I don’t remember what my preliminary conclusion was as I drove home that day, but I see in my journal that I came up with eight different interpretations of why students might have been using both options together in the same sentence!  Some of them had to do with how I gave instructions or modeled the activity.  Some had to do with the materials students were asked to use for the activity.  Some were more fundamental:  about whether I had sequenced and scaffolded previous activities so that students were ready for this one.  Each interpretation led to generalizations about what helps students, and to specific action plans for me to implement in the future.  My favorite action plan from this particular reflection was  “Don’t let the textbook push me around!”

Every experiment/class/reflection that spring term resulted in action plans, which I would implement in the next class session.  Here’s an example from the first post-teaching entry in my reflective journal:

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For me, hand-writing in a real journal was absolutely essential.  I have no idea why, or even how I knew to begin with paper and pen, since it has been years since I abandoned notepads in favor of the computer. In any case, I am certain that my reflections wouldn’t have generated so many ideas if I had done them on the computer.

This process turned the not-so-successful events in my classroom into useful evidence, which I analyzed so I could keep tinkering with how I gave instructions.  This produced a subtle, but wonderful shift in my attitude about my class, and about myself as a teacher.  It really invigorated my practice.  I tried all kinds of things that term. Some I ultimately rejected, others I still do.  Here’s an example of something I developed back then and I still do it now: I keep the upper left corner of the white board reserved for instructions.  There are permanent bullets and I add the details for each activity:

 Who?  (solo, partners, table group)

What?  (point to pictures, ask and answer questions)

Page?  (worksheet, page 72)

How many times?  (each partner 5+ times)

How long? (5 minutes)

When I’m giving the instructions, I stand near the Instructions Corner of the board, I point to the bullets, and I ask Comprehension Checking Questions (CCQs) like “Are you going to work solo, or with a partner?”  Then I tell students to begin the activity, before I move away from the Instructions Corner, so they know they can stop listening to me and focus on their task.

The reflective journal also helped me maintain realistic, healthy expectations for myself:  sometimes my instructions will be ineffective, sometimes a model of clarity.  And that’s ok. It’s the path, not the destination, that I’m focused on.

Did that spring term of written reflection result in permanent improvement?  Yes and No. I’m much better at giving instructions, and it’s no longer mentioned in trainees’ feedback at the end of courses.  I’ve even developed a fun and effective workshop on Giving Clear Instructions (which I do partly in Haitian Creole). But, as I re-read the journal I kept back then, I re-discovered some “ah-hahs” that I’d totally forgotten about. And that’s another reason to keep a written reflective journal. I will recycle some of those ideas, just in time for the new class that begins next week!