My Teaching ‘Journey’ in Greece (by Christina Markoulaki)
Determined to arrive to her destination, she climbs up the steep slope, ignoring the surrounding thorns and other invisible dangers. What is her eventual reward? She has reached the peak right on time to feel the calming effect of a most memorable sunset.
This is how I personally perceive teaching to be: its initial joys give way to responsibilities, potential trouble in class and special needs to cater for. But every single time the teacher has the chance to witness the progress her class has made, all efforts are justified and there is a soothing effect on the soul.
I now dare say that teaching English in Greece can be as enjoyable, challenging, pleasantly surprising and full of adventure as travelling in it. I also intend to prove this statement, since this is the topic of the present article.
MY PROFESSIONAL REALITY
Since my graduation from university, I have worked in the private school of foreign languages which my mother has successfully run for 34 years in the town of Heraklion in Crete. The principle by which the school invariably operates is the incorporation of all new practices and technologies we consider useful to the students in the teaching procedure.
We have made sure that there is all the supportive equipment needed for such lessons available, having in our disposal not only pleasantly colourful classrooms, but also a spacious projection room, a library with books of all levels and a state-of-the-art computer room. Importantly, all our classes consist of a limited number of learners, which facilitates the teacher to focus on each one of them individually when needed. The school also organizes educational trips to England almost every summer, parents’ meetings and end-of-year celebrations to supplement classroom work.
This is why I feel, without any exaggeration, that all my requirements for doing the best job I can have been met and I am thankful for that.
|From First days in the new computer room!|
Making cards and playing educational on-line games.
THE STUDENTS’ BACKGROUND
Almost all of the students live permanently in Heraklion and are mainly Greek, while some of them are Albanian or Georgian. It is common for them to embark on the full course of learning English (i.e. including oral and written speech) at the age of 8, after being taught the oral and written form of the Greek language for 2 years at school. However, a few parents insist that the starting point should be at the age of 7. I have noticed that in the cases that the children themselves truly want to start earlier, they never have difficulty in keeping up with their slightly older classmates.
One last point I would like to make about my students is that they live in a community where there is considerable exposure to the English language. Not only are there English films and shows on TV all the time, but the students are also passionate about American pop and rap music and like to find information relevant to their interests on webpages written in English. What is also worth mentioning is that quite a lot of native speakers of English live in Heraklion and in Greece, in general, while almost half of the native population appears to speak English as a second language (see this list of countries by English-speaking population on Wikipedia).
THE PRE-JUNIORS’ LEARNING JOURNEY
What is the best course of action for a parent, in my opinion, is having their children do a pre-junior class, starting at the age of 4-5. This cannot even be perceived as a class in its strict meaning, but rather as a pleasant big game, full of games, songs, drawings, collages, stories and fairy tales, all the above involving the extensive use of oral, but not written, English. In fact, this class becomes more and more popular in Greece, as the children who join it are extremely enthusiastic about it (thus, more motivated), learn English in a process similar to learning their mother tongue and become fond of the foreign language from a very young age.
One of my youngest and most talented junior students, George, started at the age of 5 by going through the learning procedure I described above. He is now 7, able to interact as well as write in English with a surprising ease. Since discovering students’ interests and incorporating relevant material in the lesson always pays off, I did the same with little George who is an accomplished expert on all kinds of animals. One resulting project he did when he was 6 consists of stickers, real sea creatures and drawing. You can find the relevant post and photographs here.
|From Various Projects 2009|
Marina’s story is quite similar to George’s. This is her project on word groups. You can read more about it here.
TEACHING YOUNG LEARNERS
Undeniably, 7 to 9-year-old children (not to mention the 4-year-old ones on the pre-junior level) need a lot of guidance to turn into motivated learners. Therefore, I would say that the lesson is mostly teacher-centered, but soon after the presentation stage that each activity entails follows the production stage, which allows the teacher to step back and monitor the students’ progress.
As related research has proven, children’s attention span lasts for a few minutes at this age; therefore, this kind of lesson calls for a variety of techniques which will attract the little ones’ interest at all times as well as relieve their need to move around the room. During the initial stages, the main focus is on vocabulary and self expression, while grammar is taught implicitly, namely the rules are understood through the stories and the examples provided, without being obviously stated. After a couple of years, grammatical phenomena start to manifest themselves in ‘cruelly’ explicit tables whose intimidating effect is immediately alleviated by various games, like the tense train.
|From Verb tenses train! (A’ Class)|
A common lesson of mine with young learners includes revising the material of the previous lesson and checking homework, then alternately presenting and practising new vocabulary and increasingly complex sentence formation. The above are interspersed with rhythmic songs (which allow movement and fun), special projects and collages, flashcard games, board games, puppet games (surprisingly, these stubborn puppets insist on speaking only English!), relevant videos and occasional Internet activities appropriate for the learners’ age.
Personally, I love letting them know about foreign customs and special days in other countries and I more often than not prepare additional activities, which enable them to enrich their knowledge in an amusing way. A case in point would be the Halloween which is not celebrated in Greece, but always excites the children’s imagination. Grabbing the opportunity for more creativity that this day offers, intermediate students created a class glog last year, while the younger ones played tic-tac-toe with Halloween pictures or did some online colouring.
What forms an indispensable part of my teaching ‘toolkit’ is miming new words and urging students to follow together with pronouncing the new items. Miming can serve as an excellent outlet for suppressed body energy and, thus, enable the teacher to discipline the class more easily later on.
My ultimate aim in most activities is to stir the children’s vivid imagination, as I happen to believe in the power of it. Therefore, I try to help them dive in the world of fantasy their books depict, feel the characters as their companions in learning and, subsequently, make their own stories or dialogues with their new ‘friends’. And why not urge them to smell the odours described in the story, share the heroes’ excitement or, perhaps, chatter their teeth when the scary monster is approaching?
Flashcard game involving imitation and asking questions. See also a video of some junior songs and activities on the YouTube page of the school.
WHAT ABOUT ADULT BEGINNERS?
Things are not totally different with people who start learning English at an older age. They do not share the need for movement and pantomime, of course, but they welcome all the board games, crossword puzzles and funny stories the teacher has to offer. They also seem to be a lot more self conscious than the children, as they have the maturity to realize that they are the ones holding the responsibility for their own learning; so, I think error correction and feedback, in general, require painstaking care when it comes to this age group. A video of an adult beginners’ sample lesson can be found here.
A very efficient consolidation technique all adults seem to appreciate is blogging. Even if they do not feel very comfortable using the computer, sooner or later they find themselves experiencing the ‘blogging frenzy’! The perfect example is my student, Aliki, who also happens to be the mother of two children. Not simply aiming at getting a certificate, which is, from my point of view, the key to successful language learning, she was more than willing to create and maintain a blog which she has by now turned into an electronic language portfolio. She has now started publishing her vocabulary calendars every month (find out more about this type of task on the wall below), recording her memorable experiences and collecting her favourite links: only a few of the infinite possibilities blogging offers to students.
MORE SAMPLES OF STUDENT WORK
Here is a collection of links to all kinds of special work done in the school. I hope this list proves useful or gives rise to constructive comments and questions.
- Students’ individual or team blogs and their contribution to the Blogging Challenge 2009 (using blogger or wordpress)
- Students’ glogs (on-line posters) on special days and glogs on the importance of a healthy lifestyle
- Vocabulary calendars for adult learners
- Electronic noticeboards with images, videos and links on the topics of tolerance and world hunger created by advanced students (using wallwisher)
- Reading books and assigning relevant tasks
- Projects with text and images to protest about the forest fires in Greece
SOME TEACHER RESOURCES TO BE USED WITH ADVANCED LEARNERS
- My presentation on teacher and student blogging: how to set up a blog and ideas about how to use it
Note: The publication of students’ photographs and videos is under the parents’ written permission.
Note: This article by Christina Markoulaki originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.