Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Inside Outside Circles Discussion Activity

Do you sometimes set up discussion activities, only to watch as students either gawk at each other uncomfortably, allow 1 or 2 individuals to dominate or end up talking about something completely off-topic? This activity is a great way to generate lots of focused talk. Because the discussions are short and have a specific prompt to guide them, there is no option to not speak, and not enough time to exhaust the points that could be made. Here's how it goes:

  • Divide the class into 2 equal groups.
  • One group forms an outer circle, and the other an inner circle.
  • Students are given a question to discuss a timer is set (the number of minutes depends on the focus of the discussion but usually around 1-3 minutes is enough).
  • When the time has expired, one of the circles moves clockwise or anticlockwise while the other remains stationary. (This alternates between the circles each time.)
  • The activity continues until a preset time has been reached, or all people in inner and outer circles have spoken to each other.

Watch more on this, and see it in action below.

This activity is so adaptable, it can be used in any subject where a discussion is beneficial to the learning. When I'm not using stations, this is my second go-to with task cards, but it can be done even simpler than this by writing or displaying a question on the board at each rotation. 
Give it a go, and see how it enlivens your students. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Cooperative Play - Race the Game!

My teen students had such fun playing my Zombie Apocalypse game; I have mostly used it for review - with the students producing question banks - but sometimes they just play it for the sake of seeing if they can overcome the game. Seeing them work together so enthusiastically convinced me I just had to expand the cooperative model to another game. One aspect I wanted to work on was the fact that Zombie Apocalypse takes at least 30 minutes to play, and sometimes longer depending on the many variables at play in the game (and so is best suited to one sitting). This time I wanted a game that could fill any time from 5-10 minutes upwards.

I'm happy to say I achieved my aim with Race the Game. In fact, I went one step further and created 4 different versions of the title so we can mix it up a bit as the semester continues.

The game is simplicity itself, but with that essential element of tension to keep players engaged. It is essentially another review game where - in 3 of the 4 versions - teams get to move forward one space on their track for every correct answer. For every incorrect response, the game gets to proceed along its much shorter track. The goal is to reach the finish line before the game does.
All that's needed are 2 counters (which could be coins, erasers or even bits of paper) and a set of review questions. I prefer to have students produce these as part of their revision, but sometimes I use it to review our word wall terms. If you are looking for stems or examples for your own game, here are some resources to get you started:

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Cooperative Gaming - Playing Together v Playing Against

A while back, I came across the concept of cooperative gaming through the popular boardgame Pandemic. I thought the idea of having players cooperative rather than compete was brilliant, and getting students to work together toward a common goal much more conducive to positive relationships than traditional boardgames where players are pitched against each other.

Playing is how we learn to behave in life. Practising skills like listening, suggesting, discussing and so on allow us to develop positive relationship skills that have a direct connection to collaboration and teamwork.

Furthermore, when we play cooperatively, we don't just reach a goal but we do so together and this brings its own joy.

So much in school seems to be about competition as students compare scores and grades, go up against each other in sports and strive to be the 'most' in whatever arena they find themselves in. There is an over-preoccupation with 'getting ahead' of others in today's world (IMHO), and cooperative games are a great antidote to this.

A wider aspect of cooperative gaming is the link to sustainability. We have seriously worrying problems to solve at the local, national and global levels and is likely that cooperation - if anything - is the solution: we can achieve much more together than alone.

An interesting fact is that Elinor Ostrom - 2009 Nobel Prize winner - showed through her work that in many cultures across the globe, people work together to preserve the resources necessary for living. This happens without any policies, laws or authorities - it's just makes sense to protect the ecosystem of which you are a part.

While we may be lead to believe that competition is natural, many biologists disagree.  For example, Peter Kropotkin says: “competition . . . is limited in animals to exceptional periods . . . Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support.” You may also be surprised to learn that the phrase “survival of the fittest” was not coined by Charles Darwin but by Industrialist Herbert Spencer!

All in all, the benefits of cooperative gaming are so numerous that I was sold on promoting them with my students. To this end, I created a game to go with our 'brain' (metacognitive study) unit and used the theme of zombies to
stoke their interest. The first encounter with the concept of the game confused many of my students, but after working out the gameplay, they were off! They now ask regularly if they can play it and we've worked it in as a way to review content toward the end of our units.

UPDATE: Another game I created with my mythology-mad teen son is based on Greek Mythology. I've had my secondary students play it, and they love it. One of them commented that they wished they could buy it and play at home, so I decided to list it for sale. Here's a preview. You can also click on the image below for a bigger image.

If you think you might like to try out cooperative gaming, I really encourage you to do so. While creating your own game definitely takes time and effort, you will undoubtedly find it a most rewarding process enhanced by the delight of your students as they play and realise that truly, 'Together everyone achieves more!'

Friday, 18 November 2016

More Ideas for Task Cards

For related posts, click on the 'Task Cards' label in the right-hand column.

I've been using task cards for a long time now, and I've come to love them. For some reason, students never tire of them and the fact I can get students physically moving as they learn is an additional bonus to the differentiation, student choice and variety they allow for.

In a previous post I outlined some ways I've used them but I realised an update was well overdue. So, in no particular order, here are some other ways you can use task cards in your classroom.

Try this!
Give one card to each student to face down on the table. The first student turns over the card, reads it aloud, and each team member takes a turn to respond. When the card has been thoroughly discussed, the next student turns another card over.

Or this!
Give the cards to students who are early-finishers.

Or this!

Give each student one card. If your class has more than 20 students, divide the class into 2 groups so each student within a group has a unique card. Students individually complete their card producing a written response. When done, they partner with another student and swap cards. Repeat the activity. When both students have completed their responses, they then compare and discuss. Repeat the activity until all cards have been explored, or the time limit has been reached.

Or this!
Print off the cards 2 or 4 sets to a page (i.e. 8 or 16 cards to 1 sheet of paper). Give the miniature cards to students to stick into their notebooks and respond beside / under.

Or this!
Use one of the cards as a whole-class starter activity at the beginning of a lesson.

Or this!

Create stations around the room with the different task cards. In partners, students spend a specific time (e.g. 3 minutes) discussing the prompt on the card. When the time has elapsed, they move on to the next station and repeat.

Or this!
Leave a set of cards printed and ready-to-go in case of sickness or absence.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and if you come up with more, do share.
Happy teaching!

Saturday, 11 June 2016

No More Grammar Worksheets! Part 1

Every English teacher soon realises that at least a basic understanding of how grammar works is essential for efficient student-teacher communications. I have no interest in producing near-graduate linguists, but just try asking for an apple, without using the word 'apple'.  It's a lot more time (and energy) consuming than just using the specific word.
The same applies when trying to explain to a student why they can't use a comma to separate 2 complete ideas, and then getting into a further discussion about what an 'idea' consists of in this context. It just isn't as precise or clear as saying, "You can't join 2 independent clauses with a comma." Of course it takes some effort upfront for a student to get to the point where they understand what a clause, never mind an independent clause is, but over 15 years in teaching have lead me to the firm belief that it's time well spent.

So, how to develop these grammar skills without dragging your students (and let's face it - yourself) through another dull-at-the-desk worksheet exercise? Can any teacher hand-on-heart say that grammar worksheets honestly improved their students' writing?) While there are thousands of books, articles and blog posts on the subject, teachers don't have time to read them all, so in this series of posts tagged #nomoreworksheets, I'll explore alternative ways  to help build a more effective toolset of tried-and-tested activities.

One important note - the only way to truly improve student writing is through writing. Neither reading about writing, nor discussing writing will be as effective as actually putting pen to paper to practice any grammatical concept learned. With precise feedback, and regular in-class writing sessions (that can be as short as 10 minutes if you're feeling time-pressured), you will see improvement.

Approach 1: Make Language Board Games 
Objective: Reviewing & building students' grammatical vocabulary
While we may think students will scoff at the idea of such a project, board games are something of a novelty to most, given most of their entertainment is from a screen these days.
Some time near the beginning of the year, I get my students to take on one area of grammar to teach their peers. In any given class, there'll be teams researching and creating materials on whichever aspects of grammar I've seen their age-group struggle with. At this point, I am trying to build a common language around terminology, so they can use various question formats including:

  • multiple choice
  • true or false
  • complete the sentence
  • fill in the missing word
  • what is this an example of
  • give me an example of ...

Asking a local pizza shop for some unused boxes will save a lot of time. Students can use the base as their game board, paste the instructions inside the lid and keep any counters or other items in the box.

Click here for a FREE instruction sheet for your students.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Zombies Everywhere!

In my previous post, I set out my intention to create some 'zombie-themed' resources for my upcoming Learning to Learn unit. While I might not have been posting about it, I've been really busy and now I've made a start on a resource each for reading, writing and speaking and listening. While they are not entirely new, being based on activities I've used before, I'm excited that they are now in a ready-to-go format that I can simply print and provide.
My students gave me some super-helpful reviews and suggestions for improvement, so here are the results of my labours, including a freebie.

And the freebie...

What now? I recently heard about the concept of co-operative board games which has me intrigued. What a great idea for building community and collaboration! Time for some further explorations...

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Learning to Learn with Zombies

In a previous post, I raved about the Coursera 'Learning to Learn' MOOC I took,  and also set out my intention to create a start-of-year unit for my students that would address their readiness to learn, while helping them understand how to work with their brains to maximise learning success.
I'm not sure why it took me so long to settle on a way in, but I finally decided to engage the students with zombies. After all, my son regularly wanders around monotonously repeating the word 'brains' with one trouser-leg rolled up, and the students often talk of their zombie fascination, so why not?

To that end, I am still determined to maintain the integrity of my subject - English - so I've decided to make it a unit on reading, and the final assessment will be a research task.

I got so excited about the idea that I pulled together my tried-and-tested 'learner training' materials to start transforming them for the unit, and I'm pleased to say I'm well on my way. Already, I've created materials for reading, writing, and speaking, and I have been digging up articles on mindset, organisation, memory and inspirational learners so I am sure I will have plenty to draw upon.

Watch this space for updates, or check out my shop for previews and promotions.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

What to do with task cards?

One of the main reasons I have so many sets of task cards is that it allows me to differentiate and give students choice. No longer do I have to stand at the front and teach a concept that some already know, or drag students through the one task on offer. With task cards, I can introduce variety and engagement. My students regularly ask if we can use them more frequently than we do, so that's proof enough for me that they're worthwhile.

As for longevity, I am not a fan of laminating, but I do print them on thick card so I can re-use them year on year and with various classes. I keep the sets in marked shoeboxes so they are easy to identify when I need them in a hurry.

The most common ways I use task cards are below.

Set up stations in the classroom. For example, in a class of 32 students, I might have 16-20 different stations, depending on the number of individual tables available. I always like to have more rather than less so that students can move on without having to wait for everyone to finish. The best method I've found is to assign no more than 2 students at each station to begin. If possible, they sit opposite each other rather than together to minimise distractions, unless the task is actually a collaborative task.

Task cards are also great for students who finish an activity before others. They can simply be assigned one or more cards and can work quietly and individually, hopefully on something they have chosen.

For starters and plenaries, task cards can be used for the whole class or again individually. I like to use my writing prompt cards for students to demonstrate a particular skill we may have explored, such as subordinate clauses or semi-colons. By providing a choice of 3-5 prompts, students can do a 'quick write' in about 10 minutes to demonstrate mastery of the chosen technique: great for formative assessment.

So, that's just a few of the ways I use task cards, but there are many more I'll talk about in future posts. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

Memory and Learning

I recently completed Coursera's offering Learning To Learn. Apparently, it's the most popular MOOC ever and, although I've taken many a course in metacognition and learning, I can totally agree that it was the most useful PD and personal learning experience I've had in a long time.
Barbra Oakley, the main lecturer, fills the course with anecdotes and interesting neuro-research, while offering practical insights to how you really can learn better.
In watching one of the videos which introduced the Pomodoro technique, I sat down at my laptop and finished a book I'd been procrastinating on for over 2 years - it took me all of an hour-and-a-half!
Some of the best take-aways I've had are:

Now, I'm in the process of distilling the most practical and digestible nuggets of wisdom for my future Grade 6 classes, and I have recommended the course to anyone I can contact. A few have taken up the challenge and written to tell me how much they are getting from it - I urge you to take a look too.

(I followed up this course with another MOOC - Memory and Movies - which has complemented this learning. More on that soon.)

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Who'd Have Thought? 6th Grade Rocks!

Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator for the International Baccalaureate Diploma program was my last full-time role, and I saw my future as developing within the IB program. I enjoyed the Language and Literature course immensely and was (and still am) in whole-hearted agreement with the IB's holistic approach.

So how did I end up teaching 6th Grade in a non-IB school? I suppose my current school had originally caught my eye as a non-profit, particularly because it did run the IBDP program in high school. By the time I decided it was a good idea to put in an application, however, middle school teacher was the only position open at the school I truly wanted to work in. When I was asked which middle school grade I'd like to teach in my new school, I went for the one that involved a Digital Literacy class - Grade 6.  I wanted to keep my hand in with technology and felt teaching a class meant it would be part of my P&P rather than working above and beyond my job spec. 

It wasn't really until I had arrived in Vietnam that I really stopped to question that decision. Me. Teaching young students. Full-time. Probably not a great idea. Actually, possibly a terrible idea. Working in a 3-18 school meant regularly I witnessed the empathetic, patient superstar educators dealing with the young ones. Much as I wished I could be like them, I knew I simply wasn't.

Well, perhaps half the battle is realising you're in one. For sure, I wasn't going to let my deficiencies affect my students' learning, so I started the year with a strong focus on the socio-emotional domain in my classroom. I strived extra-hard to be empathetic, to give my students a voice where they were naturally inclined toward compliance and silence, and focused every lesson on communication and building a sense of a team, me included. We still have much work to do but already I'm seeing some great gains. By no means can I prove every student is comfortable approaching me or loves every lesson, but I do feel we've established a general classroom culture of sharing, expecting to be held to high standards but supported at the same time, and feedback indicates they know I care for them as individuals (even when I'm badgering them for their missing assignments).

And the big surprise for me is I am enjoying it immensely. I love being able to see actual growth, even over the few weeks since the start of the year. In teaching older students, you see progress when marking assignments, but with 6th Grade there seems to be a discernible change every week. This might be in their organisation, interaction or academic skills but their learning just seems so more visible. Not to mention they have a great sense of fun, and are willing to take risks when encouraged. I'm finding I have more patience than I ever knew, and they are teaching me to be a much more methodological and routine-based instructor; they need the structure to navigate through the transition from one teacher and one classroom to many.

So there you have it. After 15 years of teaching and seeing young learners as the classes to avoid, I find I've been staying away from some of the most rewarding teaching of my career. Let's see where this leads!