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What I’ve Learned from My PLN (November 14, 2009)

(Note: If this is the first post you’ve read in this series, and you’re mystified by the PLN acronym, start with What’s a PLN, anyway?)

The seven guest authors for the “Front Lines of EFL” series have been the members of my personal learning network I’ve shared with most intensively in the past few weeks, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from them. If you haven’t read all of the posts in this series, then perhaps it will provide a good summary as well, before moving on to more stories.

So far, we’ve had posts from teachers in Turkey, Korea, Japan, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Thailand. While a few of the insights are unique to a specific country (I never knew that nearly half of the people in Greece speak English, for example), the majority seem remarkably universal. There appears to be more difference between EFL in public and private schools than there is in EFL between countries.

So here’s a bit of what I’ve learned from these teachers:

From Özge Karaoğlu in Turkey, I’ve learned that even very young children can learn effectively using technology if it is in the hands of a talented teacher. Transitions and routines are important in children’s classes. If we begin each class with the same English routine, and use the same transition between activities, then students can always succeed at some part of class (even when they struggle with other parts of the lesson). The first English teacher children encounter has an awesome responsibility, for we can influence the attitude students take with them into future classes. To create the most positive atmosphere possible, teachers should identify clear goals, anlayze both what we have available as resources and what our students need. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that we need to be understanding, patient, and caring about each and every one of our students, and a passionate advocate for them as well.

Motivation is a challenge around the world, especially with older children. From Dayle Major in Korea, I’ve learned that sometimes we need to fit our teaching approach to our students’ learning context rather than expecting the context to adapt to our teaching preference–even if that means working with a classroom full of desks in rows, facing the same direction.  Korean middle school students have a hard time seeing the point of learning conversational English when it’s not “on the test.” And passing tests, in South Korea at least, is the primary motivation for learning English. Dayle is also the only teacher who has so far addressed team teaching, and provided a model of one way that might work–with the Korean teacher providing the main instruction in reading and writing, and the foreign teacher providing the speaking and listening part of the lessons. A good team of teachers can make a big difference in how students view the relative “value” of the various language skills.

Motivation was also a keen factor for Steven Herder, in Japan. From Steven, I’ve  learned that motivation can be created by building connections between students, between the teacher and students, and by including meaningful English that might encourage students to create emotional connections with the language. Classroom connections are built on trust, and trust is built in part on knowing the names of our students and showing a genuine respect for them as individuals. Young teen learners work happiest in groups or pairs–situations where they are safe from making public mistakes or being singled out for scrutiny. Both input and repetition are invaluable as they allow students to build the confidence required to risk speaking up. In a teen world full of uncertainty, English class needs to be a safe place in which to take risks.

From Troy Nahumko in Spain I’ve learned that our profession still has a long way to go in best using our professional resources (our teachers). Teachers are still assigned classes they are ill-equipped to handle simply because they fit a school’s marketing criteria (they look foreign and speak English as a first–or only–language). Other, better-qualified teachers are rejected for these same positions because they don’t work well for marketing (they aren’t foreign and speak English as a second language). Until administrators of private schools (and parents, whom the administrators are marketing to) value a teacher’s skill and qualifications over passport and “native” accent, we face a fairly significant speed bump on TEFL’s road to being seen as a “real” profession. I’ve also learned that most teachers, regardless of their teaching context or training background, are doing the best they can to be the best teacher they can for their students.

From Shelly Terrell in Germany, I’ve learned that it’s good to have a lot of goodies to choose from in planning a class. Students need direction from teachers, or they will happily provide their own. It’s good to bring in authentic stories from great children’s authors, and present the stories in a way that is accessible to the students (again, goodies like felt boards and puppets are great resources to have available). In a similar vein, real world objects can provide a way for students to connect the language they’re learning with the world outside their classroom–like using pennies as Bingo markers. Along with direction, students need to move, so TPR and music are useful ways to teach, and also to channel youthful energy in positive ways. Finally, I’ve learned that we should trust students with technology. They can, and will, use it in ways that advance their learning.

From Christina Markoulaki in Greece I’ve learned that a child’s first introduction to English should be more game-like than lesson-like, developing their oral English skills before expecting them to deal with writing and reading. One secret to motivating young learners is to engage their imaginations, discover their interests, and then provide relevant material that builds on both. Young children are most comfortable with a teacher-centered classroom, as long as the teacher centers games and activities around them. Children’s short attention spans require a lot of variety in class, and a lot of activites that involve movement. I’ve also learned that children are as interested in exploring foreign customs and holidays as their teachers are. Everyone loves a party.

From Rob Newberry in Thailand, I’ve learned that paraphrasing skills can run amok in foreign langauge classes. While paraphrasing provides another way to understand the same thing in a class full of English speakers, it sounds like several different ways of saying different things in a foreign language class. We need to speak simply and clearly, and then allow our students time to process our question before they can be expected to answer. I’ve also learned that if we have technology available to use in our classes, we need to evaluate it in terms of our students’ needs. Beyond evaluating technology in relation to our students, we need to constantly re-think our teaching strategies to make sure that we’re making the best use of our resources for different learners.

One final thing I’ve learned is that it can be difficult to persuade teachers that other teachers are interested in their stories. Some teachers are more comfortable sharing information online than others.  But, the goal of this project is to hear from many different voices so we can all learn about the variety of EFL contexts for young learners around the world. So, if you are a teacher who has been hesitant, please consider sharing your story as part of the Stories from the Front Lines of EFL project. Or, if you know a teacher whose story you think should be shared, please consider giving a bit of encouragement.

The next story will be from a Japanese EFL teacher working in a public school. Hers is a story quite different from those that have come before. I owe Stephen Herder a huge thank you for encouraging Tomo to share her story, as she was one of those more hesitant teachers!

9 Comments

  1. Excellent said, Barbara! You have managed to collect and successfully explain valuable bits and pieces of different teachers’ experience. Indeed, every single teacher around the world has a lot to offer to her/his colleagues… and this will make a world of difference in every classroom.

    1. Barbara says:

      Thanks, Christina. I think your post has given other teachers encouragement for sharing their own stories, too. I hope to share many, many, MANY more stories!

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by barbsaka: What I’ve learned from @ozge @daylemajor @StevenHerder @barmadu @ShellTerrell @christina_mark and @RobinThailand http://bit.ly/4EYSM1 #efl…

  3. David says:

    Barb, I love this post. I’ve had very similar thoughts of Ozge, thinking she is a real pioneer when it comes to integrating technology into such a young grade. Also, she has an innate ability w/ the use of video which only advocates her goals of integration.

    1. Barbara says:

      Thanks, David. Ozge is one of my heroes, too. I really value having her as part of my PLN, especially knowing that I would never have met her without the internet, and especially Twitter. Makes me glad that my world is a bit larger these days :)

  4. I love that you wrapped up and summarized this series like this! I really enjoyed every contribution and must make time to go back and digest them more and add comments! Wonderful series!

    1. Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words. This project has been more challenging–and way more rewarding–than I ever imagined. And, we’re far from finished! I’ll keep on with the series as long as I continue to get stories to share :)

      I’m so glad you were willing to be part of it, and even more glad that I’ve gotten to know you via Twitter and in Second Life and through blogging. You are one of the most amazing people I know.

  5. David says:

    Barb, again I have to agree w/ Shelly (who happens to be a very special person in her own right). I love reading you blog, especially posts like this that are specific to PLN’s.

    Stuff like this shows how although we might be far apart in geography we are all alike when it comes to networking/learning/teaching technology.

    Keep up the great work!!

    1. Barbara says:

      Wow, that means a lot, David. I’m a big fan of yours, too! Getting to “meet” people like you is definitely the best reward I’ve found since I started using the internet to network with other teachers. It makes my world infinitely larger but at the same time makes the people I meet feel closer. It’s a nice combination!

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