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Thursday, December 16, 2010

From Summerhill to ELT: Promoting Democracy in the Classroom


Autonomy, democracy, happy children and play are some of the themes of an article I wrote last year, now published in the latest version of HLT Magazine.

The article is titled From Summerhill to ELT: Promoting Democracy in the Classroom and can be found in the Short Articles section.  It outlines some of the principles of "free" schools such as Summerhill and how we can implement them into our language classrooms.

If you are interested, take a look and comment here on my blog if you have anything to say.

Thanks :)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Open Book Tests Part 2 - How it went

Before you start to read I have to warn you that I don't yet have the results of the tests and therefore I don't know how the students have done or what problems they may have had. I left the tests at work yesterday and will be marking them this evening.

What I can say is that the students all appeared to be thinking hard whilst doing the test - I was actually writing some report cards but I had one eye on them all the time (I don't know where I've managed to learn the ability to write without looking at the paper properly!) and they were all concentrated on their work, sometimes looking up to think about something.

Funnily enough, a couple of the students didn't seem to open their books at all. I don't think this is because the test was easy for them but because it was actually harder and would take longer to find the appropriate section in the book than to think it through themselves. This was really one of my objectives for doing the test this way - they would have to think about the answers, using the material available to help them. In a state of such high concentration (as opposed to the usual fun and chatty atmosphere of the class), they would perhaps be more likely to take in and internalise the information and language they were reading about in the book and using in the test exercises.

Most of the learners used their books at some stage, but it seemed to be after thinking about a question that they opened their books, to check the answer they had already formed in their heads. In any case, as I had warned them before we started, they would not have time to look up everything.

One of the problems I had foreseen would be whether or not the tests would actually do their purpose and show me what the students know and what they don't. However, I think that if somebody really didn't know, for example, when to use "will" and "going to", that this will still be apparent in their answers. If they have been looking up individual examples in their book, there are likely to be mistakes in their test. In any case, the point is that even if they weren't sure about something before doing the test, it is quite possible that now, after looking in their books and doing the test, that they understand it.

I will be looking carefully at the test papers this evening. Rather than the number of correct answers, I will be focussing on the areas where the students generally did well, and those that seem to need more work. I will check for consistency within the same grammar point or lexical area for each student.

I think that even if the circumstances of the test turn out to not be ideal, something postive will have been taken from it. The learners felt that there were being some concessions made to them and they felt more confident having their book in front of them, like a kind of security blanket. The latter I believe to be important because it means the affective filter was higher than in a traditional test situation and hopefully this will have provided better working conditions for the students.

I will be asking them next lesson if they thought doing the exam in this way was a good idea, if there could be any improvements, how they felt during the test, if they used their books much etc.

I will report back on their opinions and my conclusions after marking the tests.

Thanks for reading :)


After marking the tests I can say that being able to use their books has not actually helped the students do the test - to be honest, they haven't done as well as I had expected - it is possible that looking in their books may have confused them on some points, but the general impression I have is that they haven't taken advantage of the situation. They don't seem to have looked up the rules for the grammar that was being tested but have relied on their own knowledge, and they ecrtainly haven't used to their books to find examples of collocations that appeared in the test since the questions they got right are of examples they have come across many times.

As I mentioned in the original post, I think I will have to show them how to use their books to find relevant information. Just as they would need training in making notes, they need training in using reference materials.

This has been an experiment, and I am not going to take their test results into account for their end of term reports, because I don't think they are accurate enough. What is clear though, is that if I want to give a test in similar conditions in the future, I am going to have to show the students how to look for information. We will need to do some practice on looking for specific information (scanning) and transferring rules and examples into different types of exercise.

I do think that having their books available for consultation was comforting for the students, but it is clear from the results that they found the test difficult. This obviously isn't very motivating - doing badly in a test is one of the worst things that can happen to a language learner - but I think it will show the learners a need for a change in attitude (they can be particularly lazy). The test was difficult and I will make sure this is clear to the learners, and I plan on going over the exercises and asking the students to find the appropriate pages in the book, encouraging them to find similar examples and rules that they needed to do the exercise well.

The most important thing I need to do today though, is reassure the students that they are making progress, they are improving their English and that their test result isn't so important. What is really important is the work they do every day in class and this is what will be reflected in their reports.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Open Book Tests

By ccarlstead on Flickr with Creative Commons licence

In October I wrote a post about allowing students to take in notes to exams. The idea was students would hopefully spend some time before the test preparing their set of notes, at the same time revising the content without even realising it. I was planning on using this method with a group of thirteen year olds, who are at an age where they need to understand the importance of doing a test properly because for the next five years at secondary school they will be having tests more often than they actually have a proper lesson, such is the educational system in Spain! However, these kids are actually this - kids. They may be taller than me but inside they are just beginning to step away from childhood. For this reason, I don't think allowing them to prepare notes would be of any help. They know what grammatical structures will be in the test, but do they know how to make notes? Has anybody shown them how to make a good set of revision notes? No. At school nobody teaches them study techniques. They mostly just have to memorise facts and even large chunks of information word for word. Unless I show them myself how to create a set of notes and how to focus on the most important parts, they will have difficulty in doing so successfully.

So, I am going one step further. We are having an open-book test.

The test they have is fairly long and is based on the grammar and vocabulary we have been learning this term, with a writing stage for early finishers. As I said in the other post, I'm not a big fan of tests, but this class is quite lazy (I know, it's their age) and I'm hoping that having a test will help them focus more. They are so used to testing that if we don't have one they seem to think that the class is just to doss around in (for those of you who didn't live in the UK in the nineties, "to doss around" means "to spend time doing very little or being unproductive").

Anyway, they will be able to use their books to help them do the test. However, they won't have time to look up everything in their books. In any case, the test questions are not reproductions of tasks in the book, so they will have to find the approriate section. If they have to choose between the Present Continuous and Will to talk about the future, they can read the grammar section (in English) on that to remind them of their uses before doing that particular exercise. If they can't remember the spelling of a vocabulary item, they can find it in their book to double check.

One of the other reasons why I'm doing this is to reduce stress. I didn't want the learners to be worrying about the test, or hurriedly studying five minutes before the class and getting all nervous. Allowing them to use their books means that everyone is relaxed about doing the test and sould hopefully be more successful - essential with this age group.

I do plan to allow notes as mentioned above in the future, but with older students and when we have some time to discuss how to create these notes.

I shall report back tomorrow on how today went!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Festive Fun!

The festive season is now upon us and only two more weeks of the term to go. This year's holidays begin quite late compared with previous years - I won't be truly on holiday until 10pm on the 23rd December. All the students will have two classes in that final week before Christmas, and I'm trying to decide what festive things we can do.

In previous years on the last day, there has always been some Christmas craft type activity with the young learners, games or parties with the teens and a drink in the bar with the adults! However, I'm changing things round a bit this year. I haven't yet decided what to do with the little ones but it won't be a craft as we are doing one in our Winter topic the lesson before. Maybe a Christmas song? A nativity play? That would take up too much preparation time, we just don't have the time for a proper play but we could do a bit of acting out - they always love that! We could write a letter to Santa. Maybe we will watch a bit of Dora the Explorer Christmas Special and maybe we will have a party. In any case, with the youngest ones you can make fun out of anything. The main thing is that they go home for the holidays happy, feeling successful and looking forward to coming back in the new year.

What about the older children? Well they all enjoy singing, so I'm sure we will be performing a Christmas song. But which one? Not wanting to do the dreadful "Jingle Bells" yet again, maybe we will go for something a bit more comic such as When Santa Got Stuck Up The Chimney. One class will be having parties that they themselves have organised. Maybe we could try a traditional Christmas Parlour game like Charades. There are lots of good ideas on the BC Teaching English website.

Now, the tweens are a bit harder to engage, especially at this time of year when they have finished their school work. It can be hard to find materials suitable for their age that actually interest them - they don't want to watch a cartoon as it is too babyish, but adult films and shows are not suitable. I have a copy of the Mr Bean Christmas Special, but it seems so dated now! I think the best think to do is to ask them to suggest several ideas of things to do, put them in a hat, and luck will decide! Either that or have a democratic vote. Maybe it won't be so Christmassy, but they could bring in things they'd like to share such as songs or videos. One idea I have is to do a kind of Christmas Top Ten. I would play ten songs (they could be past UK Chart Number Ones or current songs) and get the students to choose the number one.

That leaves the older teens and adults. My group of adults have suggested having a Christmas party on the last day, with typical local festive treats and English songs and carols. I was thinking of doing something with the Mr Bean episode in the previous lesson - having them write down what Mr Bean would say if he spoke properly, making a note of all the typical British customs the can see in the video.
The teen groups are very small and a party would not work - unless we joined up with another class. Any ideas for a really fun last lesson with the 16 plus?

Sometimes I have just completely ignored Christmas with the adults. They sometimes actually prefer to have a normal lesson. This year they have suggested having a party themselves and they seem quite into the spirit of things, and I'm going to take advantage of this and have a bit of festive fun myself!
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