Archive for Tag: Tamara Jones

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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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

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

I always felt cheated as a child because my mother would never follow the advice of that lovely nanny, Mary Poppins. (She also refused to fly, too, to my great irritation.) In the movie, Mary Poppins has asked her charges to clean their room. The boys don’t want to, but she convinces them that a little fun can make a dull task palatable by singing that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Well, I am no flying nanny, but I can certainly appreciate Ms. Poppins’ message now that I am teaching young learners.

Grammar?!? Again?!?
After years of teaching adults who masochistically yearn for the pain of English verb tenses and the passive voice, I assumed that everyone cared as deeply about grammar. Not so! Have you ever tried to convince tired tweens and teens that the answer to their prayers lay in memorizing the simple past form of irregular verbs? Let me tell you, it is easier said than done. I tried everything from practice worksheets to tests to flashcards and more. Nothing could make these students learn their lists of irregular verbs. Nothing, that is, until I broke out the dice and the markers. Apparently the nanny was right all along; turning grammar into a game makes learning easier. The trick is to make the games as easy on the teacher as possible; no one wants to be cutting flashcards at 3:00 in the morning, that’s for sure! Following are some of the easiest games I know that have tricked my students into learning grammar again and again.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joys of YouTube

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

After many years of teaching without access to the internet, I am overjoyed to finally be able to take advantage of some of the great teaching resources on the great ole World Wide Web, particularly those on YouTube. Because of my late start with this resource, I understand that I am behind the curve, so forgive me if some of my enthusiasm seems a bit out of date. There is just so much great stuff out there, if you look hard enough! In addition, the clips are generally bite-sized, so they are perfect for a bit of English practice.

I teach young learners, and I can personally vouch for the sedative quality that video clips seem to have. Nothing quiets my students down faster than the promise of a video activity. The key is to make the video more than just the video. There always has to be a purpose, even if the kids are too busy watching the clip to notice.

Kramer and the Past Tense
I was having a hard time coming up with fun activities for my students to practice the simple past tense. They need so much review to help them remember the irregular forms, but that repetition can get boring fast. So, I showed them a clip from Seinfeld available on YouTube. In it, Jerry is going out for the day and Kramer is in his apartment. The next 1 ½ minutes shows Kramer doing crazy things like riding a bike, putting out a fire, starting a fight, and hosting a party. You get the idea. At the end of the day, Kramer is asleep on the sofa when Jerry comes home and gets irritated because Kramer had not used a coaster.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Students are not the Same

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

After about a million years teaching adults, I have gone over to the dark side. In September, I started a new job as the English as an Additional Language Immersion instructor at a private British school in Belgium. This means that now I spend my days with students who are 11 to 16 years old. What’s the big deal? Teaching English is teaching English is teaching English, right? At least I had thought so, since so many of the evening adjunct instructors in my college in the USA had been public school teachers by day. I was about to find out how wrong I had been.

Thirteen is not the New Thirty!

Teaching children is not the same as teaching adults. For starters, kids cry all the time. Just last week, a boy cried because I gave him a (much deserved) 20 minute detention. Another boy cried because I took away his cell phone in the class. And another boy cried because he got in a dispute with another student and he felt I wasn’t listening to his side of the story.

At first, I took each incident of bawling seriously. After all, if an adult cried in my class (on the rare time it happened in my 16 years of teaching) it was a big deal. But, kids, especially pre-teens (are they called “tweens” now?) and teenagers are hormone-filled, emotional messes much of the time, and after a bit of sobbing, everything returns to normal remarkably quickly.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What’s the Brain Got to Do With It?

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

The Magic of Flying

I am not a nervous flyer, but I really have no idea how a plane actually manages to stay in the air. I mean, if you drop a rock, if falls. So, how on earth does an airplane, which weighs so much more than a stone, even manage to take off from the ground? Of course, there is a scientific explanation for this, but as I strap myself into my tiny little seat on the plane, I am just glad that I can get from my home in Belgium to my mother in Western Canada in hours rather than days.

Similarly, for a long time, I was content with being ignorant as to how learning physically happens in the brain. Just like I can fly all over the planet without understanding exactly why I am able to do so, I had been comfortable teaching without understanding exactly what was happening in students’ brains as they were learning (or not). However, in recent years, I have come to learn that this learning isn’t something opaque or magical. It is physical, and it can now be seen with a microscope because, “[t]hanks to neuroimaging, scientists can now see inside a living, thinking brain.” (Zadina, 2008) How exciting is that!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Breaking the Ice on Day One

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

First Day Fears

I don’t know about you, but even though I have been teaching for 15 years, I still get nervous on the first day of class. Once the students get to know each other, the tension tends to drop and the class takes on a personality of its own. But, those first few moments of the first lesson are silent, awkward and nerve-racking. Luckily, I learned early on in my teaching career the importance of lowering the affective filter. Krashen defines the affective filter as “a mental block, caused by affective factors … that prevents input from reaching the language acquisition device” (Krashen, 1985, page 100). More simply put, nervous students may not learn as well as relaxed students. For this very reason, I always spend time in the first lesson of the semester doing an ice-breaker activity. I also do it for my own sanity. I hate the look of fear and panic that first-day students tend to have, so I try to get them smiling as early in the semester as possible.

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