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.

Project Based Learning – Some Challenges

Guilherme Viana Lima

In the last two years I started working with projects. It all started with online courses I took in the beginning of 2011 with UMBC called Teaching Young Learners and more to the end of the same year I took Methods II on Project\Problem-Based Learning with University of Oregon. In these courses, I developed projects for the courses themselves and tried to synchronize assigned course tasks and the ones in my teaching practice. In this post I will address some of the challenges posed by project based learning while working on some projects with my students.

In my opinion one of the greatest challenges of working with projects is the tight schedules we have in our institutions.  As a result, instructors are generally expected to teach a certain amount of content within a given time frame. In my case, most of the content is broken into units and lessons. Therefore, teachers know what lesson to cover in a given class or week. Besides that, a teacher has to keep an eye on the incoming test date which serves as a sort of time tracker that informs them that they have to squeeze content within certain deadlines. To cope with this limitation, the best approach is to work on mini projects, on something that will not take up more than two consecutive classes. A second solution would involve assigning tasks as homework. Doing so, the instructor  saves valuable class time and adds authenticity to a project.

A second challenge has to do with the syllabus itself and the textbooks we have to use. Most of the textbooks adopted by schools are content-based. Being a teacher myself, I know that some teachers would certainly agree that task-based course books would make the perfect match for a project-based learning approach. However, we do not always have the luxury of inhabiting such perfect worlds. Besides that, I have grown to believe that a task-based syllabus has its own limitations. To win the battle between content versus task, an instructor has to carefully plan tasks that smoothly integrate the content taught into projects he or she plans to carry out.  So, for every piece of content, we should try to think of a realistic task that could be inserted into a mini project. This approach makes the content more palatable and gets learners involved into more authentic activities.

 A third challenge is the sharing of these so-called mini projects. Therefore, once you and your students have invested some precious time and effort into something such as a class project, it seems reasonable to come up with a way for displaying\sharing the work done. If schedule is a little tight, it certainly poses some limitations to the usual group by group presentation scheme. A possible solution is publishing the final result on the web. Such approach allows for the class members and its immediate community (parents and classmates)  to check the outcomes beyond the classroom walls. Besides that, when you decide for this mode of sharing you force your student and yourself to acquire twenty first century learning skills (publishing and all the skills associated with this task). Finally, sharing project outcomes on the web also makes learners aware of the importance of building and online presence and is a valuable opportunity to teaching netiquette (some basic rules for good online behavior).

As a final remark, I would like to point out that this short post is in no way a complete inventory of all the challenges an educator might face when working on projects. I have

just tried to address some of the problems I had to deal with in my specific context – the one of an EFL instructor teaching at a binational language center in Brasilia – Brazil. Nevertheless, I do recommend setting aside some of your class time to work on projects. It is really rewarding and it does change the way you and your students engage with content and learn.