Some Simple Activities that Wire Students’ Brains

thought synthesizer

photo credit: krischall via photopin cc

Teaching is a craft that is learned by doing and constantly reflecting on your practice. Knowing theory and getting constant training do play an important role in the making of a good teacher. However, very often, we seem to forget the connection between theory and practice so immersed we are on doing. Of course this kind of “automatism” that seems to come with experience is in part the result of diligent investment in professional development, but we do not always know where we learned certain things. We use a given activity because it works for our students. However, we are not always cognizant about why it works so well. These were some the thoughts that crossed my mind when after being done with the overwhelming end-of-semester teaching duties, I resumed reading a book by David A. Souza called Mind, Brain, and Education(specifically Chapter 3 – Impact of Neuroscience on Teaching and Learning – by Judy Willis). To me, at least, and I am sure to many of my colleagues, what the author had to say about the role “intake filters” play on learning and how research on neuroscience validates what we teachers have been doing, made of lot of sense. Therefore, I decided to write a post to summarize and share some connections I made in relation to the effectiveness of some activities I use in class and how they correlate with the latest neuroscience discoveries on how our brains work.

Questions for conversation/discussion

One thing I always do when teaching upper intermediate and advanced levels is to use “questions for conversation/discussion.” Sometimes I create the set of questions on my own or use ESL Discussions questions by Sean Banville. For this activity, I usually give pairs of students a set of different questions and ask them to take turns asking and answering them as if they were engaged in conversation. I generally select questions that have to do with the topic of the lesson we are covering and use them as a lead in or a wrap up activity. For real information gap you might want to warn students not to allow their partners to see/read their questions. According to Judy Willis, one of the reasons why activities such as this one are successful is because they help learners make connections and relate new information with memories they already have. In addition to that, discussion questions allow students to predict what is ahead or review what they had seen.

Run dictation

I also like to use run dictation. This is a very dynamic activity and one of my favorites to use with teens or pre-teens levels. Most textbooks generally feature a series of questions for a lead in, before-while-after reading or a listening activity. So, instead of having the whole class sitting quietly and mechanically asking and answering these questions, I type the questions, ask them to close their books and stick a couple of sets of questions to the classroom walls or outside the classroom. Working in pairs they should run to the board and come back dictating questions one by one to a partner who should write them down. Once they are done, they should get together and answer or discuss them. This is a multisensory activity that activates more than one area of the brain. While doing it, students have to move around, read, listen, and speak. Besides that, it is fun and helps them in dealing with the fear of not knowing in a safer way. Once the responsibility of answering the questions becomes a shared task, it becomes a collaborative endeavor and thus a more rewarding learning experience. This multisensory factor, the author tells us, ends up promoting more connections at the brain and for this reason being more successfully recalled.

True or false

This is one activity I like to use and I always observe that learners cheer at feedback stage as if they were celebrating their luck in a game or the like. I confess, such reactions puzzled me sometimes. We many times take true or false exercises for granted and deem such tasks as only a guessing game. However, according to Judy Willis, the very predictive or guessing nature of true or false exercises can be stimulating for students’ brains. If the student is merely guessing ( in case of a predictive true or false exercise), the dopamine reward he or she gets with the risk associated with making a guess is a guarantee of making learning a pleasurable activity. In fact, it is related to the compelling aspects of achievable challenge present in computer games that our students are addicted to. So, as long as true or false activities are designed to guarantee a reasonable number of correct guesses, they can be a plus for students’ interest and a boost to their brains.

Process writing

In intermediate and advanced courses writing is a vital part of a good English course. This is not different in the school I teach. Therefore, students are supposed to write paragraphs and later four or five-paragraph essays. Using an approach in which they write a first draft, hand in for correction, get feedback in form of symbols and comments on content, and later write a second draft (process writing), seems to be the best way of getting learners involved. The role this plays on students’ brain and thus learning is extremely important. The process of revising and giving constant do feedback, the author points out, is a form of ongoing assessment that is powerful in promoting long term memory and developing reasoning and analysis. Besides that, Willis says, we are recognizing learners effort and achievement and providing an opportunity for improvement, and at the same time reducing frustration.

No News

As you could see, there is nothing new. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that many of the things we teachers do find resonance with the latest scientific research. It also reaffirms the necessity of studying and reassures us (as pointed out by the author) that Vigotsky, Piaget, Kashen and others that have guided us in our practice have been pointing at the right direction. I guess, it is above all, a reminder of the validity of investing in professional development as a way of keeping up with or ahead of our own time when necessary. As educators, we should always make an effort to challenge and require our own brains if we are willing to provide food for thought to our students and our colleagues.


EAP – A Door of Opportunity for EFL Instructors and Language Learners

A gift I received from my EAP group  on their graduation.

In January 2011 I took a course to prepare for teaching a new one. The course I took online through UMBC was called TET (Teaching English to Teens) and the course I would start teaching was named English Access Microscholarship Program or just Access or EAP as we call it now. This program according to the official description on the web “provides a foundation of English language skills to talented 13-20 year-olds from economically disadvantaged sectors through after-school classes.” In this post I will try to describe my experience with the English Access Program and how I applied some of the theory I learned in the preparatory course. (or already knew) to my classes.

The course on teaching English to teens lasted about a month or so and the new EAP group started in March 2011. The TET course was helpful because it reminded me that teenagers, despite social/economical background, are equal in the sense that they share certain characteristics of personality and have needs that are almost universal. Therefore, taking that issue into consideration and trying to address it, is vital for a successful class. Being aware of these variables, what I did was to apply principles for teaching language to this group catering to some of their specific needs.

One important thing I had to do was to change students’ attitude towards the language. Knowing that they were probably coming from a school where English was taught mainly through translation, I could assume that many them believed that learning English was difficult or even impossible. Therefore I told and showed them (through teaching) that translating was not always the best strategy for learning a foreign language. Once they knew it and realized they could understand chunks of language without necessarily finding the equivalent word or expression in their mother tongue, they discovered a new way of learning, and consequently, started changing their attitude towards the target language.

Another important aspect to consider was keeping learners interested in coming to our Friday meetings. Although these students were quite motivated to take the course, I thought it would be advisable to give them something to look forward to when coming to class. To achieve this goal, I used music. Almost every class I played some latest hit song. I usually had some kind of task related to the song. In other occasions I just projected the lyrics on the screen and we sang along. They really had fun and later told me they had that song on their heads all week long. Sometimes songs were not that recent, but if I felt the song had a cultural/historical value, I played it and explained to them why it was important. For example, if there was a major event in which a certain musician (unknown to them because of their age, but famous worldwide) was going to give a performance, I would play his/her most famous hit. This proved to a good strategy because it anticipated something they would see on TV and made them feel more aware of the world around them. So music was a motivator and another way of changing their attitude towards the language.

Providing a range of learning options and resources is also another important issue when teaching a foreign language. In relation to this, I remember that before the course began, we (school coordinators and teachers involved in the program) were concerned about the digital divide. We were a bit cautious about using the web for blended learning because we assumed that these learners, given their social economical background, would not have the desired access to computers with internet connection. To our surprise, however, not only did they have access to the web but were also able to do tasks assigned for web based projects and the available web resources to advance their learning. In this regard, the initial assumption that they had no access to computers was wrong. Under these circumstances, we were able to work on several projects in which they went home, gathered information from their relatives and community, and later shared them in class and published their work on the web. Such projects did not make them more autonomous but also provided an opportunity for reflection and discovery.

It is true that teens have emotional and intellectual needs. However, they also have a very basic physical need: food. Their growing bodies demand a lot of energy and they love eating junk food and sweets. Cooking, however, is not one of my specialties. Nonetheless there is one thing I can make that almost all my students simply love: chocolate chip cookies. Therefore, I made cookies for my EAP class quite often. Once I made them during class Getting some involved in making the though, others in writing the recipe on the board, and others in taking pictures or filming the event. Some of them learned the recipe and baked cookies for their families. I could see that something as simple as this helped them see themselves as more valuable and autonomous learners once they could share something learned in class with their community. Cookies became a sort of transitional object that frequently popped in our conversation and mediated our informal interactions. This connection was so meaningful that we scheduled a reunion some time next year to get together and have some cookies and refreshments.

The enhancement activities were a kind of mandatory part of the course. What we tried to do was to whenever possible draw a parallel between their culture and the target language culture. This was a nice away of contextualizing learning and providing students with an opportunity to make discoveries or recycle their own culture. Once they did that it also made them proud of their background and increased their self-esteem. The latter being an area that deserves special attention first due to their age group and second due to their social economic situation.

All in all, I would definitely say that my experience with this program was a very rewarding one for me and for the students as well. As I watched each one of them walking towards the stage to get their certificate, I felt that they were a bit transformed and had taken their first steps into their journey of learning a foreign language and many other things that will be extremely important for their lives. As a teacher, I felt grateful for the contribution they had given to make my classes better, enabling me to teach teens just like them that will be entering my class next year.

Teaching English to Young Learners


Today, July 24, Dr. Joan Shin conducted a very interesting workshop on Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL). As usual, in the lines below, I will try to summarize what I learned from her and from my colleagues in this workshop.


English has become a lingua franca and in the globalized world we live in. In many countries it has also become a symbol of status and prestige. Besides that, there is a belief that starting learningn thenlanguage earlier is better. As a result of these facts, governments in many countries have implemented policies that oblige schools to make the teaching of English mandatory at younger and younger ages. In addition, parents also feel the need to give their offsprings a lead in the competition for better jobs, and as a consequence, are placing their children in language institutes at earlier ages.


This demand for an earlier exposure to English places an extra resposibility on school admisnistrators and on teachers’ shoulders: they need to come up with best practices for teaching taking into account all the peculiar chacteristics of young learners. Such practices .involve, among other things, designing a curriculum that is appropriate to their age, training teachers in methodology that caters to young learners emotional and psychological development, and building an atmosphere that makes students life long learners. In this respect, Dr Shin’s workshop was really helpful once she conducted a series of activities that were practical, enjoyable, purposeful, and meaningful. Besides that, she also gave us hints on adapting these activities to our context.

To those not familiar with the field of teaching, the task of teaching young learners might an easy one. However, as participants pointed out, there are many challenges to be addressed. Among those problems are: the number of hours dedicated to instruction, the lack of support from parents for exposure to target language outside the classroom, and limited linguistic competence of teachers. Some of these problems require a dramatic change in policies at the government level and there is not much we teachers can do about them. However, all of us believe in the power we have as multipliers. Change that is lasting has to be a bottom up process. So, while governments do not change policies, we can try to reach our peers. And that was exactly what we started doing in the afternoon session: try to come with ideas that promote professional development in our local teaching communities.




A Little on Intercultural Communication

On July 23rd, continuing the UMBC E-Teacher Scholarship Program, we formally started our workshops. I say formally because all of us in the program realized that in the last three days we have been part of a big informal workshop. In the lines below I will try to integrate my perceptions of this whole experience and how the situations we have been through and the interactions we had illustrate concepts related to Intercultural communication.

First, one of the things that Dr. Schwartz showed on his entertaining lecture was that when it comes to communication, we are not any different from our students, and as such we have a drive to communicate and make the uniqueness of our identities perceived. So, as we strolled down streets, went shopping, ate together at The Grits and in restaurants, we were having conversations and expressing our cultural identities through communication. Communication is not restricted to words only, it includes our gestures, the way we dress, and even our silences and pauses. Although we all might claim we teach English, what we really teach is communication.

Once we realize how important communication is, we have to start reflecting on the role that culture plays in communication to be aware of two very important aspects of culture: macro and micro culture. In our interactions with the scholars in the program, the coordinators, and program assistants, while we were striving to memorize names and countries the most salient aspect of their and our identities was the macro culture. Every time we introduced ourselves to the cafeteria staff we tried to snow our macro culture badge. Our macro culture IDs work as an ice breaker and makes communication flow. Macro culture is helpful for small talks and to help us to place people on a map (as we did when we were introducing ourselves and pinning the world map with colored post it notes).

While our macro culture is an important badge or hat to identify us and put a pin in the world map, our micro culture is the one that differentiates and defines us in a unique way. In these three days we have been here we were all lucky to have more meaningful interactions with som e of our peers and express a bit of our uniqueness. In these occasions we talked about our ethnic groups, our marital status, our preferences concerning food and dressing. These were moments that we treasured because they gave us a chance to stop being just a pin on the world map. Our micro culture is what helps us to form more meaningful relationships and break the mold of stereotypes that are many times attributed to our macro culture identities.

Although it seems fascinating to think, talk, and write about this dance of cultural identities, we should take into account that conflicts arise. When different cultures meet, at first everything seems to be a bed of roses. This is true especially if it is long awaited encounter, as is our case. This cultural honeymoon also lasts longer when you already know a lot about the target culture or are otherwise under the spell of the fascination of discovery. However, as time goes by and you start experiencing frustrations due to unmet expectations, difficulties to achieve very basic goals, and other difficulties. As a result of such frustrations a relationship with a person or country (a culture) goes stale – culture shock. Symptoms of culture shock can be subtle such as criticism of aspects of host culture such as food or way of dressing. Other times culture shock can cause depression and a total refusal of further interaction with the target culture. Hopefully all of us are just in this minor state of culture shock (the fun crab feast) and under the spell of discovery. So, let’s hope it continues like that, but if we happen to be victims of such cultural experience we know there are friends we can count on.

Finally, we have also learned from Dr. Schwartz culture shocks are not a privilege of those traveling abroad. Culture shocks happen within the walls of our schools and classes and we have to be aware of them. However, awareness only is not enough. As educators, we should design activities that do not only allow students to express their macro and micro cultures, but that also makes them aware of differences and conflict and teach them strategies to deal with them.

UMBC Day 03 – Baltimore Art Festival, Baltimore Aquarium, and Mezze Restaurant

July 22nd was another surprising day of activities for e-teacher scholars. We started the day with breakfast at The Grits. Next we got into the bus to go to the Baltimore Art Festival. As usual, the bus dropped us at our first destination – the Baltimore Art Festival – and we were told it would pick us up in about three hours. From then on we were on our own. I really like the configuration these group strolls take. We generally depart with a group of friends and change our strolling peers as we walk and get called by someone else or get distracted by our uniqueness of interests. This unintended group arrangement provides an opportunity for a bigger variety of interaction and is itself a very enriching personal and cultural experience.

Apart from the human and interactional side of this excursion, the Art Festival in itself is fantastic. The festival is one the biggest of this kind in The U.S. Part of the downtown area streets are blocked for the event. As you walk up and down you can see lots of interesting works of art. Works of art range from paintings to handcraft and from glass miniatures to installation art. There was even an impressive collection of insect replicas. Besides that, there were food stands with a great assortment of choices in case visitors got hungry. I did and I got myself some smoothie and a gyros. Really a great choice for a Sunday morning.



After the art festival we got the bus and headed to the Baltimore Aquarium. Sitting at the harbor area, this is a four-story building displaying a fascinating collection of water creatures in their different habitats, some rain forest insects and frogs and tropical botanic garden. Again we constantly changed our walking, chatting, picturing peers. I personally found it a very enriching educational experience. As I walked with Valentina, she shared very interesting stories related to animals and the discoveries one can make while closely observing animals in general. We talked about how kids and adults as well can benefit of such experiences and develop a deep respect for all species of life surrounding them. I kept wishing I had my English Access students and my nephews with me. It was so interesting that we had to rush to mange to get a glimpse of everything before our bus arrived. The aquarium showed some of us a world that some of us had only seen on television and it allowed us to share our personal stories about the ones that were familiar to us.


After so much walk, we felt tired and hungry. So, the next stop was the Mezze Restaurant. For this early dinner we sat in parties of five, six, or seven. On my table we talked about so many things. Some of the topics were: food (of course), our students and schools, vacations, what we watch on television, our native languages and their peculiarities and similarities. Needless to say the food was delicious, and being such an unskilled cook, I could not name all the dishes that we were served. The conversation was fantastic, and to be honest, with such wonderful conversation and conversationalists, I could probably go hungry for another two hours. This reminds of a scene of one of my favorite movies AI (a project of Stanley Kubrick directed by Steven Spielberg). In this scene the mother is taking the now unwanted boy robot to disposal ground on the woods. The boy robot, unaware of his “adoptive mother's” intentions strikes a conversation. The mother is extremely sad and really does not want to abandon him because she has grown to love the robot boy. It goes more or less like this.

” What will we have for dinner today? ” asks the boy robot.

” You never eat.” the mother says. He is robot and he can't eat. If he does, he is seriously damaged.

” But I like to sit at the table.” Replies the boy robot.

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E-Teacher – The Grits

The Grits

Meet The Grits. This will  be our first hang out place every morning. This morning I got there at seven something. I had to go back an forth many times. First I had forgotten my umbrella, then my iPad, then my jacket. I guess I am getting old or just forgetful. All these things turned out to be really useful. 
It was really nice to meet everyone rested and enjoy the first meal together.

A Cyber Valentine





As valentines’ day approaches in Brazil (we celebrate it on June 12th), I decided to say a few words about mine and my students’ relationship with computers and technology in general. First I should say I have no pretense to sound as a scholar on the issue. This represents just my humble point of view. It is just an account of how I see the issue of using computers in the classroom. Valentines has to do with relationships and mine to computers seem to be, for me at least, quite an interesting story. Besides that, someone on TV today quoted a teacher admonishing Fall in love for a cause, find something you are passionate about. Love for a person can be temporary, love for a cause can last for a life time. I would say that using the web for teaching and learning qualifies as my passion and that is why I decided to talk about it.


Lets begin from the beginning. In my case, I can trace my story with computers and technology back to a crash course in word processing and related computer skills I took in 1999 before getting my masters in the US. Since then I have gone from downloading and printing everything to the cloud, from floppy discs, to CDs, to flash drives, to flash memory. I have also become mobile in many ways. I have gone from a desktop with so many wires and cables under my desk that looked more a butchered animal to only resorting to a tablet and a smart phoned for my computer needs.


Having said this, I would argue that my relationship to computers and technology has matured and grown into a full-fledged love affair, almost a marriage. I think that as a digital immigrant (borrowing from Prensky) I have been able to adapt. Nonetheless I have to admit that I am in no way as fluent in the use of technology as I would like to be. I still struggle to cope with the frenzy of updates and novelties that pop up on my screens almost every minute. Many times, to my disappointment, I spend hours trying to achieve a very simple goal.


However, when I think about my students, I really think I see a split in the way they view computer technology. Computers seem to be for fun only. This view also seems to be shared by some teachers who resist to giving control of the mouse to students (and to themselves) and make a more creative use of the web and its suite of tools. I guess this has a bit to do with traditional views held by some schools that imply that computers are for playing or only socializing, not for serious, meaningful learning, for integrating skills.  Some students report that teachers refuse to accept typed assignments under the excuse of preventing plagiarism. Plagiarism was not invented by computers or internet. So, banning typed essays is not going to solve the problem.


Being digital natives, students do feel comfortable with technology. However this does not guarantee that they have the necessary skills to engage in some activities a teacher might propose. This creates an opportunity for teachers to show to students and themselves that they are not so computer illiterate as they believe. Nonetheless, younger students are fast learners and would immediately start using whatever you teach with fluency in a matter of seconds. Sometimes they would hesitate in publishing content for fearing criticism, but once they overcome this initial shyness they blossom into an amazing creative frenzy.

To end on romantic note (since this is Valentines season), I think I may be helping my students to build their relationship with technology for learning. I do that, especially when I reassure them that much of prevailing paranoia about the web is not true.  Doing this, I show them the path of sharing and collaborating. If I mange to do this, I think I encourage them to take some steps towards integrating their existing passion for technology a bit more into their lives.