Homework and other hard choices

choice_homework

How do you feel when you see learners frantically scribbling in their workbooks five minutes before the lesson starts? Before the New Year, we reached that lowpoint with my lower secondary group. The workbook homework had become too quick and easy, and too automatic for them to even attempt doing at home. ‘What kind of homework would you prefer to do then?’ I asked, being the nice democratic teacher I am. ‘Something creative’, they said. ‘We don’t have enough to do at home’. (They are too young to be sarcastic.)

Well, a few days ago I took the great choice board created by Miguel at onthesamepageELT and had a pyramid discussion of which types of tasks they would like to do. We had criteria like ‘fun’, of course, but also ‘helps to learn English’. They quickly dispensed with all tech-related tasks like making a recording and sending it to the teacher, and selected crosswords, stories, synonyms and acrostic poems – go figure. So, each week I will bring the modified choice board up on the IWB, and we’ll choose several options for them to go through by next Monday. Exciting! I’ll let you know how things go.

What do I get from this? Differentiation of course, and a little more engagement because of student agency.  And, frankly, I just love watching them make their own decisions 🙂

P.S. By the way,  here’s an inspiring article about differentiated learning: it’s one of those texts that give you the creeps first (no way am I ever going to find the time for this!), and by the end of the article you’re choosing the date to start.

P.P.S. Homework to fire up minds is an old post of mine about an excellent article describing homework alternatives – you might want to check it too!

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Oh, those fast finishers: 2 of 2

Copy of Oh, those fast finishers_ 1 of 2

As promised in the previous post, here is my account about experiments with fast finishers.

Procedure:

In both groups, lower and upper secondaries, I used this infographic by Mia MacMeekin to give them ideas for discussion. They had to discuss the activities in mini-groups and choose top 3 that would be fun and also help them learn.

Outcomes:

It was funny how they went from wackier ideas to more responsible choices! At first, sleep was the most popular activity 🙂 They shared their ideas (lower secondaries open class, upper secondaries in mini-groups), I boarded the whole list and then we had a vote (a show of hands) and chose top 3. We agreed to experiment with them for a month and then see if we find them useful. The older ones chose working on long-term projects and vocabulary revision. The younger ones – to play Lego with words, share extra time with other students (more on that below), or do homework. You can see who was feeling more overworked – or more honest!

Impressions:

I loved how they came up with their own improvements – for example, one group suggested that we try just one activity each week; the other added Quizlet to the list. And one student came up with a totally new thing – sharing time. If a stronger student finishes first, they can gift their time to a slower student so that they could do the task better. I love the collaborative side of it, but I’m not sure how we can make this work – yet.

Conclusion:

We always talk about learner autonomy, empowering the learner and all that, but it’s really amazing to see how it can really change things. Those kids are generally quite nice, but yesterday they were more engaged than I’d ever seen them these 2 weeks. Well, I’ll let you know in a month how our little experiment goes.

Oh, those fast finishers: 1 of 2

student-jumping

Every lesson with my teens is a tale of two cities: one third of the learners start fidgeting before the others have done half the task. Yes, there was placement testing, but let’s face it: every group has mixed abilities anyway.

All morning, I’ve been digging through teachers’ favourite ways to work with fast finishers, and my impressions are very similar to what Mark from TESOLToolbox wrote: “they [fast-finisher activities] have only ever complicated things and certainly didn’t result in any extra learning”.

And the problems are – well, it reminds me of lessons in Marxist Dialectics because you have to balance so many opposites!

On the one hand, you want to keep the students busy, but on the other hand, you don’t want to give them busywork.

If you want to stretch them with a challenge, they might need more support, whereas you should be supporting the main group.

The extra task should look like a reward, not punishment for doing well, and yet it shouldn’t be so motivating that the learners are encouraged to do sloppy work on the main task.

If you ask fast finishers to help weaker students, it fosters collaboration, but will not challenge stronger students enough.

And – if you differentiate tasks by adding ‘levels’ to them, your preparation and marking time will increase exponentially.

So, what can I do?

I think I’ll delegate it 🙂  In other words, I’ll let the learners decide how they would like to be challenged and kept on task, and report to you tomorrow.

[to be continued]

Seat students as you will

SEAT STUDENTS

Hi all, me and the blog are back from leave. It’s been only two weeks since the academic year has started, and I haven’t even met all my students yet.  Still, I have the groups, I have the coursebooks, and now the most exciting part begins: how do I tailor the syllabus to these particular learners?

That’s why  teacher’s books are my favourite reading now, and here’s what I want to share. In Eyes Open 3, you will find a very strong recommendation not to let lower secondary teens choose their own seats. My first reaction was: no way! We’ll be taking away the last bits of comfort in this new environment. I’ll just reshuffle them when we do pair or mini-group work. But then, once I saw them coming into their second lesson, already in their little cliques… The lesson starts, the seats change, and they are ready to learn. What a relief!

I’ve found an interesting article about it in the Teach magazine: it  explains why and how diffferent seat arrangements work. And here is an ELT blog post with practical tips on how to change the students’ seats in an engaging non-authoritative way.

It’s good to be back 🙂

The Matthew effect for mixed-level classrooms

book-bible

I recently read about the Matthew effect in this post by Paul G Moss: apparently, there is a sociological term based on the New Testament (hence Matthew) which describes how the rich get richer and the poor get even poorer. In the context of education, the Matthew effect results in more cognitively challenging tasks, more development, better learning and better jobs for those learners who have access to more knowledge – and vice versa. Even though the quotes seem to relate to social equality and opportunities for learners of all backgrounds, I’m wondering: is there really some kind of mini-Matthew effect in ELT? If you speak English a little better, you sit with a stronger student, you get a more difficult task together, you develop faster, you get better assessments and you can move to a higher level – possible? Is it what learners are thinking when they are not happy about sitting with a weaker partner?