Project work (4): Writing "thank you" letters

Mum,
Thanks for the soldiers. The kid next door loves them. She got a phone for Christmas and I swopped them with her. She was really upset cos the phone was broken. It wasn't actually but I told her it was cos I really needed the phone so we were both happy.
Des

Example letter shown to learners

What makes a successful task in a language learning classroom?

I'd suggest it's one that (1) produces a lot of interaction and language, including new language; and that (2) your learners like doing it — so much so that someone asks you if they can "do that again".

If you've tried the first three parts of the "Christmas" project proposed (see links below) and they've been successful, there's an obvious fourth part, that has worked well with learners in the past.

In Part 2, we had people writing letters to Santa asking for particular things for Christmas, which — in Part 3 — they didn't get, instead getting something totally random (see Part 1). The follow-up has to be the "thank you" letters! Yes, I know: no one writes "thank you" letters nowadays, do they? But that's no reason why we shouldn't get some fun — and language! — out of writing them.

How you do this is going to depend to a considerable extent on how you've done the first three parts but here are a couple of the alternatives:

If you're printing things and displaying them on a classroom noticeboard, you could do that — and perhaps display, in columns, the letter telling Santa what they wanted from Part 2; the photo and letter accompanying what they actually got (Part 3) below that; and the "thank you" letter below that, thus:

Noticeboard display

I'd make the learners themselves do all the printing and displaying!

If you're using a shared digital space of some kind (Blogger, Edmodo, a G+ Community), you could either (a) have learners write new posts for their thank you letters or (b) simple answer the corresponding "Part 3s" via the comments on the class blog (etc.)

Writing and speaking tasks
Although this and some of the other parts of this project look like writing tasks, in previous years it seems to have been most successful when the learners have really got into discussion of what you would really say (and what you should and shouldn't say!) to, for example, an extremely rich but eccentric old aunt who's given you a mouldy, dog-eared old teddybear when you wanted a iPad Pro?

When they start to see a writing task as a fun speaking task, that's when you've know your task design has been a success!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

8 assumptions you need to make about using classroom technology

Assumptions, in handwritten notes, explained below (just in case… 😉 !)

In July, I teach two face-to-face technology courses for local secondary school teachers working for the Education Department of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the dates of which have just been confirmed for this summer.

In doing the spring cleaning here on my blog, partly in preparation for the summer, I came across the image above, of handwritten notes I made about this time last year, on the assumptions I make about using — or rather not using — classroom technology.

For anyone struggling with my handwriting (!), here's what the list says, with the notes expanded and commented on:

  • It's NOT the teacher but the learner that's using the technology which, among other things makes it less stressful for the teacher and puts the focus on the task and interaction not on the technology. In other words, as far as possible, technology is something that should be used for language learning rather than language teaching
  • There are lots of things that technology has NOT changed, for example you will still want linguistic aims  and language practice — lots of language practice! If the use being made of technology induces a lot of clicking and passive watching, but not much communication and active use of language, then technology isn't moving us forwards, in other words!
  • All classrooms should be creative spaces — and because technology, including mobile phones, allows us to do things like create text and images (both photographs and video) and audio [see the posts on podcasting here on this blog], we should exploit those possibilities and have our learners create such things
  • Simple is better — by which I mean that I never attempt to do, or ask my learners to do, anything complicated with technology. I never edit audio or video (at least not for class), for example, and never ever waste class time having my learners do that. It's far better — from the learner's point of view — to rehearse properly and, if necessary, to re-record as the return on investment is so much higher

It's wrong to copy and paste!

  • It's wrong to allow  students to copy and paste from Wikipedia [etc]. In designing tasks for my learners to do that will require them to use technology, I try to ensure that the answer is ungoggleable and not to be found on Wikipedia. I also always point out that copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia (or anywhere else) is an automatic zero for any assessed work. Copy-paste-cut-quote-and-cite is fine, copy-and-paste is not — because it requires neither thought nor understanding, nor any manipulation of the language, which is where learning occurs.
  • It's wrong to steal images from Google Images — both for the teacher and the learners, that is. As far as the teacher is concerned, I believe we should use fewer, better images; and as for the learners, they have the technology in their pockets to take (and find) their own images, which are of far greater interest to them than 99% of what you could find for them on the Internet. Again, I always try to design tasks that cannot be illustrated with the aid of Google. A pet hate of mine: an imaginary webquest trip to London or New York, illustrated by theft.
  • Creative Commons images are also not a good idea, for the same reasons. A Creative Commons licence may solve your problem of copyright, but it's not making your classroom a creative space and, though it may provide a modest amount of pride in our search skills, is not providing the learners with any real sense of pride in their own project work — an essential ingredient of motivation ("We made all this!")
  • It's impossible (and counter-productive) to attempt to correct every mistake. One of the most frequently-asked questions I get: how do you correct all the errors learners make on places like blogs and Edmodo? The short, simple answer: I don't! As a teacher it's not primarily my job to correct every error that arises, as if errors were cockroaches to be stamped on. It's not my job to correct my learners' language, it's my job to make their language better, by providing help as much as "correction". Here's the long answer to the question.

As you can see from the illustration at the head of this post, these were originally notes handwritten on a sheet of paper taken from the trash bin. They were merely thoughts jotted down, here somewhat expanded, but never intended to be a complete list.

What have I missed, do you think…?

You want comments, not likes

750 shares but only 2 comments

Nearly 750 "shares" and "likes", but only 2 comments…

Here's one that comes from a great blog I follow, Creative Bloq. It's not related to ELT, but the problem you can see them having above is one the vast majority of blogs have nowadays (including this one!): they're getting very few comments.

In language teaching, if you're using a class blog, or something else (an Edmodo group, or Facebook, or whatever), you want lots of comments, as well as the posts. Both should be produced by the learners as often as by the teacher and  you want the comments particularly (a) because it suggests the learners are finding the content interesting and (b) because comments provide meaningful opportunities for more interaction and use of the language.

To get such comments, you really have to add a "comments" stage to your task design, and require it of your learners. It's not enough just to "like"!

Apart from what you're doing with your classes, if you're reading blogs (etc.) for the purposes of professional development, you want to write comments. You want to do so because "liking" and then immediately forgetting and moving on to the next thing to "like" really isn't engaging the brain in any meaningful way whatsoever. Actually having to write some sort of response does, as does entering into dialogue. To develop as a teacher — or as anything else — you need to brain to be engaged. "Liking" isn't enough!

If you think you just don't have time to "comment", my advice would be to stop "following" so many people or use something organised like The Old Reader to follow blogs via RSS, rather than wasting your time "liking" stuff on Facebook (etc).

Rant over. Am I starting to sound like a grumpy old man…?

How do you control what learners are up to?

Learners using mobiles

Learners using mobiles: or are they just WhatsApping their friends…?

Another question raised in the workshop I gave last Friday:

How do you control whether or not your learners are doing the task you set on their mobiles? How do you know they're not using them for something else the moment you turn your back?

It's probably an issue that arises more with young learners than it does with adults, but if you've ever used a computer room with teens you'll know that it's also a danger with desktops, not just with mobile phones.

My best advice would be this, which a teacher on a summer course with me once said when another teacher raised the same question:

If my students start going to Facebook instead of doing the task I've set them, I don't blame them; I blame myself — for not making my task interesting enough to them.

Set a really interesting, creative task, in other words, and the problem is less likely to arise. It's perhaps less a question of controlling than one of motivating.

To that, I'd add the following tips:

  • Set a strictly limited amount of time spent on phones/computers in class (a 5-minute alarm set on your phone, or with a browser countdown / the one on your IWB, works well, but remember to turn the volume up 😉 !
  • Set that time slightly under what you think they'll need
  • Always specify something else for your fast-finishers to get on with
  • Always do everything in pairs, with one computer/phone between each pair — there's more communication, more use of language (provided it's in English!), and less temptation, or possibility, of taking a sneak peek at Facebook

Any other ideas? Do add them in the comments…

Podcasting: 60 seconds to save the world

Outline of task

Above, the fourth of the tasks I suggested in my talk at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference on February 7th.

One of the ways in which I believe that we're getting technology wrong in language teaching is to fail to progress beyond our own use of technology as a word processor; and one of the simple ways we could start to get it right would be to have our learners turn their mobile phones on and start using them for productive language learning tasks.

This task requires them to do just that with Spreaker being an excellent little app to enable them to rehearse and record audio.

In groups of 3-4, they need to:

  • Brainstorm and come up with an idea that would make a difference to the environment and/or climate change, one that could actually be put into practice in your school
  • Rehearse exactly what they are going to say, in class, getting it down to exactly 58-60 seconds,  and not a second longer
  • Record it (and if necessary re-record it), something which is probably — because of the noise — best done somewhere quiet, outside class time
  • Post the finished recording where the rest of the class can listen to it (Edmodo or a class blog are great alternatives), again something which can be done outside class
  • Comment on the recordings made by the other groups (to get the most language out of the task, a vital stage, missing from my slide, above).

Note that, though you might want to try out the technology involved first for yourself, as the teacher your job is to provide the language, including helping with pronunciation and intonation, as well as vocabulary, not to provide technical support.

You want to do the former in class, which will reduce the amount of subsequent correction that will be required, and leave any technical help required up to the learners. Believe me, they will be able to provide it!

A nice simple alternative to Spreaker and audio would be to use PowerPoint (or Prezi) and Present.me, with a webcam, which would give your learners video, though I'd recommend keeping it to three slides, and insisting on that maximum of 60 seconds.

Acknowledgements The idea came from the excellent BBC podcast Forum: 60 Second Idea to Improve the World, one that is well worth both you and your learners subscribing to.

Thanks also to Kate who, as ever, was willing to try the idea out and to my PodcastHERs group, who had so much fun doing something along these lines as a long-term project.