critical skills

 Toward the end of this past school year, I noticed a quick decline in homework completion, student progress and motivation. I knew that it had been a very busy final few weeks full of testing, athletic events, and much more, and thought that I should work on ways to engage the students more, try some new things in class, and finish the year strong. So I used that time to test out some new tools, offer some new opportunities and different choices to the students. I found myself allowing for more spontaneity in our learning, taking a few more risks, and asking the students for more input into what they wanted to do and how they wanted to learn. It became part of my “staying strong till the finish” experiment, which included mixing up the seating arrangements, giving students opportunities to teach class, choosing how to show what they had learned and more. With positive responses, I then shifted to another area which concerned me and that was homework.
Do we need to assign homework?
As a student, I always had homework and it was always the same as everyone else. We did worksheets, or outlined chapters, or had some other task. When I first started teaching, I found myself teaching similar to how I had been taught. Homework was assigned to my students on most days, and on most days it was the same. For a very long time I did not see any problem with this, I was using the homework to assess the students and give them the practice they needed to master the content. But as part of my professional development and interest in trying new methods and focusing more on student needs, I realized that it does not have to be the same. So I shifted my focus to evaluating the types and the frequency of homework assignments that I was giving to my students.
Over the past few years, I have changed my thinking, looking for ways to move away from those “one size fits all” assignments and aim toward providing more personalized, authentic assignments for my students. Some other reasons are that students can possibly find answers online, or worse, copy the homework. And as a language teacher, I also wanted to find ways to discourage students from using online translators. These experiences, along with feeling a bit frustrated about the homework not being completed, led me to really try some new methods at the end of the year. And have led me to really think about what types of homework I will have for the upcoming year. It is an ongoing learning process. Some areas that I have been reflecting on are: the types of assessments used in my classroom, my different groups of students, the frequency of their homework completion, and even more closely, a look at the individual students within each of the classes. My goal is to continue to reflect on whether or not the type of instruction and the strategies I am using, are beneficial to them and if what I am assigning truly has value and is helping to build their skills, or is it simply busy work.
Questions I asked myself I have been thinking about a few areas of my teaching. What are the types of materials use in class? Have I been using the same resources each year with each class? Was I assigning the same homework to each class? There are times when I had used the same worksheet, or a test over the years. Not because I was lazy, but rather, because it was a quick assessment to use or I believed it was the best way to provide the students with practice. But I have been working to find something that would work best for and help the students. And I have realized that it is more than taking a look at each individual class, it means really developing an understanding of the needs of each individual student. What helps them to learn the best? What do our students want and need from us?
An experiment
I do believe in the value of homework and I know that students today have a lot of homework each day. Homework is one of the ways to help students to practice and evaluate what they know, what they don’t know and how they can improve. It is one of many ways teachers can assess students and learn about their needs, provide instruction and valuable feedback. To change things a bit, I decided to make things more personal and have the students decide what they could do for homework.
I assigned each student to be the teacher for the next class period. The students were working in pairs and their homework was to come to class the next day with a lesson to teach. It could be something tangible such as a worksheet or could be a website, a video, a game, or any other resource. I was fine with whatever they chose as long as they could use it in class and more importantly, that they could teach their partner. I thought this would be a great way for the students to have more meaningful learning and also build relationships and collaborative learning skills. And in the process, also see there was more than one teacher in the room.
The results
During the lessons, I interacted with each group to see the lessons they prepared. Students had created worksheets, written notes, brought flashcards, had games and videos and more. A few even created a game for their partner to play. But what was most important was that they sought out resources, they had an opportunity to teach someone else and their homework was personalized not only for them, but also for other students. It went well and they were enjoying it and learning. I was nervous about doing this, about not having clear expectations, and leaving it up to the students. It was a risk. But it went very well and I was impressed with how creative they were, their level of engagement, and the variety of “homework” that had been done.
The student responses
I value student input and regularly engage them in informal conversations because I want to know their thoughts. Did they learn? Was this an effective way to practice? It was a very positive experience and the end result was that the students became teachers, the learning was more personal, they felt valued, and it was meaningful and beneficial to their learning experiences. It is a risk and when you don’t necessarily have the whole plan set out, and you just kind of go with it, you might be surprised at the results. Giving up some control to the students is not always easy, but in doing this, it opened up more opportunities for facilitating their learning, providing more individualized instruction and continuing to build those relationships which are the foundation of education. I still have some time before the new school year and I am looking forward to trying more ideas like this, which give students more control and provide diverse learning opportunities.
There are a lot of great tools out there and students really like having choices in the classroom and learning new ways to use technology that helps them to develop their language skills.

Thanks to Edutopia for this recent post on June 20, 2016

Blogging

As a foreign language teacher, I constantly look for new, engaging ways for students to work on their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in and outside of the classroom.  It is also very important to me that they develop confidence in expressing themselves with the language.  Confidence is sometimes an issue because of the fear students have of making a mistake, either writing something incorrectly, or pronouncing a word wrong. The fear exists and often it causes students to be more hesitant before responding and not participate as much.   The fear of mistakes is not something that is specific to students.  Teachers have this same fear, as do all people.  I have noticed more this year, than in prior years, that students struggle with this and as a result, it limits their learning potential.  So I have worked on finding ways to encourage them to use the language and be creative, and to leave that fear behind.

I took some opportunities to ask students why they did not answer a question on an assignment or a test, or respond in class, and before hearing their response, I already knew what they would say.   They “figured it would be wrong” or they “didn’t know the whole answer” so they left it blank or did not complete the assignment.  Sometimes the students would even write on their papers that they were wrong, or would draw a big X or a frown next to a response.

Seeing these responses, or hearing their reactions, made me want to find ways to help build their confidence levels and to keep them learning.   I tried encouraging them to speak more in class, emphasized that it was more important to try and express themselves and create with the language, rather than worry about being wrong.  I thought that by providing opportunities for them to choose a topic, to know that they were not being graded based on perfect grammar, but rather receiving points for having made the effort and created with the language.  The way to do this was through blogging.

Blogging helps students develop content area skills and confidence

I thought that blogging would be a good way for the students to have a more meaningful and personalized learning experience because they could choose a topic and write about something that they wanted to.  While I emphasized the importance of using the related vocabulary and verbs, I also made it clear that I was more concerned with them using the language, expressing their ideas, and then taking time to look at mistakes and learn from them. Reading their blogs was a great way for me to focus on their individual needs but also to learn more about each student.  It is helpful as a teacher to understand where the students are coming from, what their interests are, and their learning styles, and blogging is a very beneficial method to accomplish these tasks.

Some students initially were not in favor of blogging and at times, seemed almost pained at the idea of having to “blog”, however it is really not any different than filling in a worksheet or making up sentences for class.  It took a little time, but in the end, many students enjoyed blogging and made their blog posts a very creative and personal space, but also were able to look at their growth over the course of the year, and see the progress that they had made.   Blogging is a great tool  for practicing language skills and many others, but also a way to look back and see how you have improved.   The ease of sharing ideas and creating with the language, plus the increase in confidence, are some of the reasons why I think blogging is beneficial for any student or teacher, but also why it will be a practice which continues in my classroom next school year.