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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creative Writing with Young Learners - Poetry

By Enokson on Flickr

Many teachers are reluctant to spend time on extensive reading or writing in class. There are various reasons for this, some being:

  1. I don't have enough time to get through the syllabus as well as doing extra work.
  2. My students want/need to learn how to speak English, not read literature.
  3. I would rather teach my students how to function in real-life situations.
  4. I don't know much about literature myself.
  5. My students don't like reading.
  6. My students don't like writing.
  7. This is a language class, not a literature class.
These are some of the possible reasons that I can imagine would prevent teachers from introducing poetry into the classroom, though I'm sure there are many more. I myself have been guilty of the first answer - I have been teaching for eleven years and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have used poetry or literature for any other reason than to introduce a new structure, to focus on forms or as an intensive reading task.

Time is extremely valuable and the fact that doing creative writing in class is time-consuming is an important factor. However, if you can spare ten to fifteen minutes each lesson over several days, it does not have to run too much into your heavy schedule. Below is how I introduced poetry with a group of nine and ten year olds, with the final objective of having my learners take part in an international poetry competition.

Lesson One: Reading Poetry

We discussed poetry - whether the learners ever read  or wrote poems, at home or at school. They seemed to have the opinion that poetry was something very difficult to both understand and write. In Spain it is very rare for children or teenagers to do much creative writing, and if they do it tends to be very structured and limited by the teacher. When I told them that we were going to look at some poems in English before writing our own poems, they seemed gobsmacked. "We don't know how to write poems in Spanish! We can't write them in English!" So I gave them the following poems written by children to read, taken from The Poetry Zone.  First, I gave them a copy and read it aloud myself, twice. This was so the children would get a feeling for how the poem sounded, instead of concentrating on what each word or line meant.

When I look at the sky,
I remember a bird in the air
It came on my finger,
but now it isn't there,
after I looked in the sky
it was exactly where it was
I looked at the clouds
and my bird was flying around in the air
and it was always there.
By Madeeha Saher, age 8

The Poem about an Insect by Joel Oram, aged 12
I am really small
I wish I could be tall
I get covered in leaves
From the huge, huge trees
One side of the wood to the other takes forever
Climbing over mountains which to you are weeds
When the strong wind hits me I fly over the trees like an aeroplane
When I get really cold, I hide under fallen branches
Wherever I go I have to try not to get lost
I don't want to get stepped on
So I shoot off and then I'm gone
I am so small, you will not find me
Hiding in the woodland.

These poems are written by children of around their age. For each poem, we then created actions to go with each poem, focussing on the meaning of the lines. I then asked them to look at the poems and asked them what they noticed about punctuation (there wasn't any in the second poem) and if that was ok in a poem. We discussed that normal rules like punctuation and capital letters aren't necessary in poems (this didn't stop them from using punctuation in their own poems). I then asked them if the poems rhymed and if they thought rhyming poems were better or not. We decided that making poems rhyme is difficult, and for our first poem we would not make it rhyme.

Lesson Two: The topic, preparation and first drafts

I told the learners that the poems they were going to write would be entered into a competition. I had printed off a copy of the poster that can be found, along with lots of useful information and resources, on the British Council's Teaching English Website. We looked at the poster and I explained the rules of the competition.
I then told them that the topic was HOME. I told them to think about what the word HOME meant to them and what they imagined when they heard the word. We brainstormed some vocabulary relating to the topic on the board. Because they were concentrating on their own idea of home, I then asked them to think of the homes of other creatures. We discussed the homes of fish and insects amongst other animals. I made sure that they were aware that it wasn't necessary to write about their own home, if they didn't want to. They could imagine they were somebody or something else and write from their point of view.

Each learner then had a blank sheet of paper on which to write any words that they associated with HOME. They could write whatever came into their heads - as long as it had something to do with the topic. I encouraged them to focus on one aspect of home - Whose home is it?  What is it like? What is there? Why does it feel like home? As they were working, I monitored helping with vocabulary and ideas for those who were finding it hard to get started. I also made my own  personal brainstorm, trying to stick to words that the learners would understand.

When everybody had written what they could, I wrote my words on the board. Then, as a class, we wrote a poem using my words. I started it off by choosing one of the words and writing the first line, and we built it up bit by bit. Here is a Wordle of the words I chose:

 Unfortunately, I didn't make a copy of the poem we created and I don't remember enough to reproduce it here, but you can get an idea of how I imagine home (nothing, in fact, like my real home but a fairly common British idea of the word, I think!) Of course, the students' words were nothing like mine - since it was September and we had recently com back from the summer holidays, many of them wrote about the beach, which is their second home.

The children then drew a picture that represented their idea of home and the words they had written. This was to get them focussing on the different words, and grouping them together to form complete ideas. For example, with my words, I would draw myself sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea, reading a book in front of the fire. Having a disorganised list of words, they would need to bring together their ideas. They could draw circles around groups of words that went together, or that talked about the same thing.

The learners then started working on their first draft of their poems. Luckily, I have found the rough copy of Violeta's work, including her notes. Here is a Wordle of her ideas:

I will be including a link to the children's poetry, but I'm having some formatting problems with the document. I will share the link as soon as I can.

Lesson Three: The finished product

It can be useful to view a first draft with fresh eyes, so we came back to them after the weekend. The students re-read their drafts and made any changes they felt could improve it. I helped correct spelling mistakes, and revised verb forms and agreement (more for the competition than anything else). The learners then copied up their poems and drew pictures to illustrate them. They also had to think of a title that best described their poem.

I entered their poems into the competition that evening. One of the students was eleven and was too old to enter the competition, so I decided to have a parallel competition within the class. My colleague, Stephen, who is actually writes novels when he isn't teaching, was to be the judge. He would choose the three best entries. I then made a booklet on the computer which included all their poems, and gave each student a copy to take home, whilst displaying another on the wall for everyone else to see.

The learners were really proud of their work. The competition element helped motivate them into doing it well, but I think they enjoyed the writing process too. Spelling and grammar were important, but not the be all and end all. The important thing was the content. The poems were judged on content and sound, rather than accuracy. I think it is essential to have students, whatever their age and level, sometimes work on tasks where their ideas are what matters, rather than how they express them. If we constantly focus on form, they will pay much more attention to grammatical accuracy and vocabulary than the planning process and ideas, and to be honest, for a piece of writing to have the desired effect and to be "successful", the ideas and points made can be more important than the way in which they are expressed.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, you don't have to spend full lessons on this. You could do a little each day for several weeks. I wouldn't drag it out too long, as the learners may get bored, but it could be something they could work on if they finish their work early.

I hope you have enjoyed these ideas and found them useful. They worked for this particular class, but may not work so well with a different group of learners. I will get the link to their poems up ASAP.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Swap Shop!

For those of you who weren't around in late 70s to early 80s Britain, Swap Shop was a magazine programme presented by Noel Edmonds (Current presenter of Deal or No Deal - and he hasn't changed much!) where children phoned in to exchange their possessions.

This Saturday I will be attending a Swap Shop organised by TEFLdelSur - a new association for teachers in the Cádiz area of Spain, set up by Teresa Bestwick. We had our first event in October where we enjoyed sessions by Ceri Jones, Guido Europeaantje and Simon Pearlman. This week's session will be different, as instead of a few individuals giving presentations or workshops, all the participants will be sharing our ideas. I'm not sure exactly how it's going to be oragnised - whether we will all have to get up and explain our idea to the others, or whether it will be a kind of group session where each person gives their two-penneth worth as we go along. It sounds like it will be fun, though!

Anyway, I have decided to talk about writing poetry with young learners. I will be posting a summary of what I intend to talk about on here next week with a list of useful links.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Next Step

Credit: Evgeni Dinev

Over the past six months I have been working on a "book". The idea came from a various sources: firstly from a personal lack of inspiration in using traditional ELT materials for specific groups, secondly from an interest in the methodology being implemented in local primary schools and thirdly, after reading last year about the ELTons award for new writers sponsored by MacMillan.

Ever since I started blogging I have had an interest in writing - after eleven years of teaching in basically the same situation, I felt that gradually moving in a new direction may be good for me. I was looking for a new focus, something slightly removed from the day to day teaching but also related to it. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy teaching, but sometimes I can't imagine doing exactly the same job, in the same place, for the same wages and even teaching the same families in ten or twenty years' time. Writing would allow me to do some teaching but also do something different. The ELTons offered me an opportunity - a reason for writing, a deadline for submission of three chapters. And in the summer holidays I spent a few hours every morning working on my proposal.

Now, being completely new to this, and not having any inside information as to what the judges were looking for may have put me at a disadvantage. However, I was really writing for myself. The book in question is the basis for the whole syllabus of one of my classes. And it is working really well! The children are having fun, learning lots (not just English) and I feel they are making much more progress than they would have if we had used a traditional course. The shortlist for this award is now out, and my proposal has not made it. Maybe it was that my proposal wasn't clear enough. Or perhaps it isn't marketable enough. Would it make much money? Would it be sold around the world? Is the idea just not appropriate for today's publishers? Am I just too new and unknown? Were there lots of brilliant entries that far surpassed mine? I think that probably the answers to all these questions play a part. It just isn't good enough.

But the motive for this post is not to talk about either the book itself or the awards. It is "What to do next?".
I plan on finishing my book over the next few months, so what should I do with it? Should I publish it for free online? Should I self publish and try to sell a few copies? Should I contact other publishers? Should I just stick it in my drawer at work and keep it for myself (and colleagues)?

What would you do? One of the main drawbacks I see in self-publishing is that I have little experience in page design or programmes other than the basics of Microsoft Word. How do I make it look good enough for people to want to buy it or even download it for that matter? I think that I should probably ask somebody with experience to look at it and give feedback since I haven't got the experience to critically analyse it myself. But who?

This then, is a call for advice. What would you do? Have you tried to publish anything? Have you published and if so how did you go about it? What should my next step be?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Brick By Brick the Tower is Built


Last night some friends and I were having a nice game of Jenga® which is always good for a laugh. If you've never played it, the game consists of removing blocks from anywhere in the tower using only one hand and then placing them on the top. The tower gets bigger and more unstable as you play and the objective is not to make the tower fall. Some players are more strategic and try to make the tower as unstable as possible for the next person whereas others tend to play safe. Why I am writing about this on my ELT blog? Well, I was thinking about making some New Year's Resolutions related to my teaching and most of them require a step by step approach, doing a little every day, recording and reflecting over time and this made me think of the game we were playing last night.

In fact, Jenga® has quite a lot to do with teaching and learning. One of my objectives for the rest of this year is to work on building up my students' knowledge and use of English, encouraging them to do a little each day, whether this is revisiting vocabulary, doing some grammar reinforcement exercises, sending me an email or watching a video on Youtube. I would also like them to reflect on their own progress, taking time to decide what each individual needs to work on - a bit like thinking carefully about which block to remove in Jenga® and then placing it on top of the tower of knowledge in order to move onto the next block (sorry about that cheesy metaphor there!) My point is that I need to try and make my students understand that in order to be successful at language learning, they must have realistic expectations of what can be achieved before working out what they can do daily to achieve these objectives. And that a little every day often goes much further than a three hour marathon session on a Sunday night or a frantic cramming session before an exam.

As for my other resolutions, they are related to both the classroom and my own professional development outside it.

1) Try to make use of more emergent language and allow the lesson to develop and evolve by itself. I need to loosen the reins a bit. That is not to say that I am going to go full-dogme and abandon the course book or the exam prep, but I would like to extend those dogme moments I have had towards the end of 2010 and let them take over longer parts of the lesson, if relevant.

2) During and after lessons, make a note of any problems, difficulties, and thing that didn't go so well and reflect on possible reasons and solutions or changes that could be made. This refers to materials themselves, the manipulation of those materials, dynamics, individual students, my own behaviour... and probably lots more! I intend to look closely at any problems and try to find logical solutions to them (something that doesn't come very easy to me - I am somewhat lacking in critical thinking skills!) I will try to take up Dave Dodgson's challenge, where he invites us to blog about things that haven't gone too well as well those that do.

3) Try to find the time to create more materials and to organise them properly on my computer... one day maybe I will have a small library of materials in which to dip into and adapt. Again, this is a slow and steady activity that I need to begin and keep up (another characteristic that seems to evade me quite a lot - especially where the gym is concerned!) and regularly update.

4) Continue working every day on my CLIL course (I will blog about that at some point), and when I have finished this particular set of materials, start working on the next age group. Yet again, a little every day is best, allowing my mind to rest in between - unless I have a particularly creative and productive morning. I need to be constant and make myself work on this every weekday, with no buts!

5) Go swimming twice a week. Yes, I know this has nothing to do with teaching, but I do have to try to fit it in with all the other things on my list, AND teaching of course! Also, if I publicly announce it on here, I might just feel an obligation to go! Please feel free to ask me if how many times I have been swimming each week, and don't accept all the excuses I will come up with!

I'm sure there were a few more things in my head before I started writing this post, but I think the ones I have mentioned are enough to be going on with. I really don't want to overwhelm myself with objectives and good intentions, after all, they do need to be realistic and accomplishable (is that a word?) just like those I want my students to set themselves.

Going back to Jenga®, if you think carefully about the blocks to remove and where to place them, if you take your time, you will build a decent tower. If you rush in and try to build up the tower too quickly, this is what will happen.
I'll leave you to think about the analogy with teaching and learning.

Happy 2011 and may you and your students all have a productive, creative, successful and fun year!
Me, panicking during our game - and no, I didn't knock it down once!
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