Archive for Tag: Tamara Jones

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dictations Revisited

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Dictations as the Wide Collars of Language Teaching?

I was recently chatting with a colleague about the disappearance of certain “old-fashioned” activities from the language learning classroom. Often, we are so swept up in encouraging communication that we forgo lessons that promote competency. One of the babies that long ago seemed to get thrown out with the grammar translation bath water is doing dictations. For years and years, maybe even as long as I have been teaching, it has been considered very uncool to subject students to the painful task of writing something verbatim. After all, it’s not a real-life communicative task. We very rarely find ourselves writing stories exactly as someone tells them, do we? So, why make our students do it?

The Redeeming Qualities of Dictations

Well, as it turns out, there are some very good reasons to include dictations in our language teaching repertoire. They can offer effective practice for decoding the sounds of English. Dictations can “reinforce the correlation between the spelling system and the sound system of a language.” (Alkire, 2002) They can also help students identify grammatical and pronunciation features, as “dictation activities where students compare their version of the text to the original can increase their ability to notice aspects of the language which are sometimes overlooked, as well as mistakes which they commonly make.” (Lightfoot, 2005) Finally, for the overworked teacher, dictations can provide a quick, useful lesson that requires just a little preparation, a benefit which, in today’s hectic working world, cannot be underestimated. Clearly, there are many pedagogically sound reasons to include dictations into our lessons.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Windows, Rubber Bands, and Neurosculpting

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Recently I attended a professional development session offered by renowned educator and educational psychologist, Dr. Jo Ann Deak. Among many other interesting things, Dr. Deak spoke about the brain’s physiognomy and how it relates to language learning. It was a fascinating session; I learned some new things and found some of my long-held beliefs upheld by current research. (I just love it when both of these things come out of the same professional development session. Don’t you?)

Windows

According to Dr. Deak, everyone is born with about one hundred billion “short, skinny and naked” neurons in their brain. James Zull, in The Art of Changing the Brain, likens these neurons to a “leafless tree in an Ohio winter” because apparently that’s what they look like under a microscope. These neurons become robust at different times. This means that there are optimal time periods for certain kinds of brain development. For instance, the judgement centers of our brains aren’t fully formed until we are in our 40s. So, the window for the growth and expansion of the neurons in the part of our brains that controls the judgements we make is open until we are almost middle aged.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Feel the (English) Burn

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Boot Camp

I am not particularly athletic, but in order to counter my Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions, I have found that I need to exercise a whole lot. So, I recently signed up for a ‘boot camp’ type of class with several other expat women here in Brussels. On the first day, the instructor, a mild looking guy named Dan, had us doing hundreds (oh, I wish I were exaggerating) of lunges and these jumping jack/squat combinations that left my legs trembling. It was brutal. The next day and for days afterwards, my legs were so sore that climbing the stairs had me making little gasping noises and getting off the sofa involved my husband’s help.

So, as you might imagine, when I woke up on the morning of the second of these torture sessions, I was filled with more than a little dread. This time Dan had us alternating sprints up and down a long, cruel hill with planks and other contortions designed to do something called ‘engage the core’. About 2/3 of the way into the lesson, when Dan shouted that we needed to race up and down this hill yet again, I wanted to cry. I felt like I couldn’t face that hill again. As I lined up with the other ladies, I felt tired and sore and a bit sick. When Dan shouted, “Go!” I just wanted to go home. But, I ran. We all did. And, when we got to the bottom of the hill and Dan cheerfully told us that we would have a moment to rest and then run it again, I rested and ran again.

How does Dan do it?

As I was laboring up the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder at the fact that this young, kind, friendly guy was getting a bunch of women to run up and down a hill as fast as we could again and again. It was painful and awful, but we were doing it. How? How was he managing to motivate us to do this? Well, obviously there was a huge amount of self-motivation at play. We paid for the class and we were all there to counteract our own personal Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions. But, there was more than that. Dan did a couple of essential things to get us running and doing all those difficult core exercises that I think all good teachers do to motivate their students.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Conversation or Interrogation?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

My husband, a wonderful man but not an English teacher, thinks that teaching private conversation lessons must be a breeze. In his mind, it’s just basically making conversation for an hour. He knows that I am a chatty person by nature, so how hard can that be?

Well, it IS hard! It IS really, really hard! Even on a good day when the teacher is feeling great and the student has eaten and slept well and they have all sorts of common interests, it can be one of the most demanding hours in the week of an English teacher. And that hour can seem like forever, as the teacher juggles the dual burdens of keeping the conversation flowing and focusing on accuracy at the same time. Sure, I can chat with just about anyone at a party, but when someone pays me for my time and expertise, I feel as though I need to step it up a notch.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Sorry I’m Late, But …

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

I am the kind of person who is usually on time, and I will move heaven and earth to be somewhere at the time I promised. I’ve even arrived early to things, which has resulted in flustered hostesses and long waits in dentist offices. What can I say? It’s just the way I am. However, I know that not everyone is like me. There are many people, and some of them are my students, who don’t make it places on time. Some of them are simply over-committed and running 15 minutes behind everything and some of them are just chronically late. In my social life and the office part of my work life, this doesn’t really bother me. I know who will be on time and who to expect a few minutes later and I adjust my schedule accordingly.

In the classroom, though, it can be a little more difficult to manage. In a perfect world, all students would be in their seats eager to learn at the stroke of the hour. The class could begin without fear of students missing vital information or much-needed review. In reality, however, when I taught adult students, inevitably one, two or more would come late, sidling in with apologetic faces. It can be difficult enough to manage big classes of multi-level learners without students coming in in staggered blocks of time. Over the years, though, I learned some tricks to dealing with late students that helped me manage the class and (to some extent) helped students get to class on time.

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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Some Lessons are MORE DIFFICULT to Plan than Others

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Maybe we all have the same problem: that one grammar point that has us pulling out our hair when it comes time to plan the lesson.  For me, it’s the comparative and superlative.  The actual teaching of it is not the difficult part, really.  They are not hard concepts to understand and many other languages have similar structures.  Students get them pretty quickly; they just need practice to be able to use the comparative and superlative effortlessly, lots and lots of practice.  That’s where my hair pulling comes in.

Most grammar books provide gap fills and conversation and writing prompts.  They are fine.  But, let’s face it, comparing a student’s home country with the target language country again and again can get stale.  So can describing the children in a family or even the students in the class.  This problem is compounded by the fact that comparing and contrasting are key skills, and students encounter them repeatedly as they progress through grammar levels.  So, they get to compare the weather in their country with the weather where they are studying multiple times.  This repetition led me to search out some more interesting practice activities that help reinforce the comparative and superlative.  Here are four of my favorites.

Which Animal Runs Faster?

Shenanigames: Grammar-Focused Interactive ESL/EFL Activities and Games, by James Kealey and Donna Inness (Prolingua) contains some great practice activities, one of which is perfect for practicing both comparative forms of adjectives and adverbs.  This photocopiable resource has instructions for how to play the game, but I have adapted it to use in my classes a little differently.  The book provides a sheet of little cards (which I don’t bother cutting out) each with a comparison. For example, which animal runs faster, a cheetah or an antelope?  I put students into pairs and, after I read out the comparison, students have 1 minute (or more or less) to write a sentence, such as ‘A cheetah is faster than an antelope’.  The groups all read their sentences and then I read the answer.  Pairs get 1 point for every right answer, meaning the sentence has to be both factually accurate and grammatically correct.  Many of the comparisons are really challenging, which adds to the excitement level.  Admittedly, some of the comparisons are a bit dated, so I have also added some of my own, like which car is more expensive, the Bugatti Veyron or the Ferrari Enzo?  Google it to find out!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Star Chart

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Teaching Teenagers is a Whole New Ball Game

It is a bit of an understatement to say that there are some big differences between teaching adults and teaching teenagers. As I noted in a previous blog, this year I broke out of my teaching comfort zone and, after years (and years, and years) of teaching adults, I took a job teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to international teenagers who hope to matriculate to mainstream classes in a British private school here in Brussels. I had a lot to learn in a very short time. I even bought a book called “Your First Year as a High School Teacher, which made the History teachers on my floor laugh.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was learning how to manage my classroom. Unlike most adults, teenagers aren’t always in the class because they actually want to be. In addition, teens have that whole “center of the universe” thing going on, as well as hormonal changes, brain development, growth spurts and all sorts of physical and emotional issues that make them difficult to teach at times. Even though I really do love my students, I cannot deny that they cry and fight and manipulate in ways I was totally unequipped for. And, let’s face it, sometimes the last thing they want to do is answer questions about a reading on coffee growers in Bolivia or take notes on what Bill Nye the Science Guy has to say about how we see colors.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Don’t Speak, Just Panic!

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Une Table Pour Deux

We were literally dodging raindrops as we darted into a bistro on a street corner in Paris. (One of the big advantages to living in Belgium is the ability to nip off to places like Paris for the weekend.) We were starving and all I could think about was one of those huge Parisian salads. We waited by the door for a few minutes as the waiter raced around with steaming plates. When he had a moment, he looked at us inquiringly. “Pour deux.” I said, holding up 2 fingers, just in case.

The Path from French Learner to Unconfident Speaker

One of the other advantages to living in Belgium is being immersed, at least to a limited extent, in a foreign language. For our first 3 years here, I diligently took French classroom-based lessons and shelled out for private lessons. I am the first to admit that I was never the kind of student we all love to have in our classes. My homework was done, but not with any particular care, and I rarely went above and beyond. And we all know that a few hours of lessons a week does not a fluent speaker make. Sadly, for the past year, my job has eaten up a great deal of what used to be free time, and I haven’t cracked a French text in many months. As a result, I have forgotten a lot of the vocabulary I once knew, and my confidence in my speaking has plummeted.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Looking for Learning

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Way back at the beginning of the academic year, my school provided a professional development session called “Looking for Learning.”* We watched some videos, did some group work and listened to a speaker talk about his company’s approach to teacher observations. I think no one really likes being observed by fellow teachers or supervisors. It’s nerve-wracking and opens teachers up to criticisms couched as helpful suggestions. Even though I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, I do get nervous about inviting other people into my classroom. I wasn’t sure the observations demonstrated by the “Looking for Learning” speaker were for me.

The Observation

My job is to prepare a multi-level, multi-age group of students for their mainstream junior high school classes. One of the biggest obstacles has been trying to figure out exactly what the students are learning and expected to produce in these classes. Ideally, I would have a free hour here and there to observe other teachers, but I was literally teaching 6 periods a day with no free time to drop in on my students in their mainstream classes. So, when the Head of Secondary announced that he was looking for volunteers to observe a teacher in a pilot of the “Looking for Learning” process, I might have actually pushed people out of the way to sign up.

First, all the teachers who were participating in the observation met first with the presenter, who had been brought back to follow up on his original session. He explained the process and repeatedly stressed that we would not be paying any attention to the teacher but rather looking for evidence of learning. “Right, right,” I thought. “Who goes into an observation and then ignores the teacher?”

The following day, I met again with the presenter and the other observer for a few minutes before we went into the music class. During that meeting, we were again instructed not to pay attention to what the teacher was doing. We went into the class and stood at the back while the teacher kicked off the lesson by eliciting from the students the main points of the previous lesson. Then, the students started to work on their compositions on the computers. At that point, the observers started to move around the room and talk to a variety of students. I managed to speak with 4 or 5 in the 20 minutes we had left for the observation. I asked them what they were doing, what they had done the lesson before, what they learned that was new, and if they found it easy or difficult. I got lots of different answers, and I wrote down the students’ names and, as accurately as possible, what they said. As I got caught up in interviewing the students, I forgot about the teacher entirely.

The next day, we met again, this time I was with the presenter, the other observer and the teacher. In this meeting, we simply reported back what the children had said. Upon listening to our notes on one student, the teacher had to place him/her on a grid to say whether the child was “learning,” “treading water” or “drowning.” At times, the teacher was not surprised by what we reported a student had said. At other times, the teacher had not anticipated the comments of a student. For instance, one student, a girl the teacher considered one of the top in the class, actually said she found the computer program that they were using in the class quite difficult. The teacher hadn’t known that before, as the student had always produced quality work.

In the end, the strangest thing about this observation was that we did not comment on the teaching at all. We were not permitted to offer any kind of judgment (positive or negative) about the lesson or the approach of the teacher. As observers, we were merely reporters, trying to find out if the students were learning or not.

Move Over “Do you Understand?”

The benefits of this approach are, in my mind, twofold. First, we all know that the students learn both because of us and in spite of us; just because we have a great lesson plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the students in the class are learning. Second, even though I have an overall idea of my students’ abilities (especially since I have a comparatively tiny class and I see the students often), I don’t always know I would be able to completely accurately assess my students “learning” at any given moment of a lesson on any given subject.

How has this changed my teaching? Not drastically, really. I am still pretty much the same instructor that I was before I stepped foot in the music class. However, I do try to make it a regular practice to stop mid-way through a random lesson (whenever I think of it, actually) and ask a few students what they are working on and if they find it easy. I have learned that it is not enough to ask students IF they understand; I have to ask them WHAT they understand.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How Champagne Changed my Teaching

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Two Tours in Champagne

Although neither my husband nor I are Champagne experts, we do like a glass of bubbly from time to time. So, over a recent long weekend, my husband and I drove to the Champagne region of France. Our first stop was at the famous Tattinger Champagne house in Reims. There, we took a tour of the caves lead by an English-speaking guide. We learned where the grapes for Champagne are grown, how the bottles are turned periodically, and how they get the bubbles into the bottle.

After our tasting, we left the city of Reims and began to drive along the touristic Champagne route described in our guidebook. It is a beautiful drive, peppered by plenty of smaller Champagne houses along the way. After passing a few of them, we decided to stop at the Bernard Chauvet et Fils Champagne house. Our experience was completely different at this Champagne house. The tour was shorter, the tasting was free, and the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever. The tour and demonstration was entirely in French.

Now, as you might know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have sporadically been studying French. However, my vocabulary is certainly not technical enough that I would have been able to understand what the proprietor of the smaller Champagne house was saying had I not seen a similar demonstration at the Tattinger house earlier that day.

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