Image made using a photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Roseli Serra, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/
This has to be one of the hardest posts I have ever written. It isn’t that I struggled with the subject matter or that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it was the execution of the idea that was so difficult. Let me backtrack a bit.
This post is a “summary” (it’s actually a bit long) of an #ELTChat completed way back in October on the subject of writing in the language classroom. During the chat, I had this “great” idea that I would volunteer to do the summary, but I wanted to do it in a story format. We had discussed during the chat that it is important that teachers model what we want our students to do and since I don’t often teach classes on story writing, I thought it would be good for me to do something as practice. I also thought it would be fun to rethink the twitter chat as if we were actually meeting together in person. That got me thinking about the personalities of each participant, the place, and even the atmosphere in which we engaged in our discussion. I envisioned us sitting together in an exotic location, sitting in a coffee shop, having a few laughs and even some short disagreements, but in the end, a really fun night out. To be honest, I haven’t met any of these people in person, so I took some artistic license with describing them and their characteristics.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how long this would take for me to do. Going over a transcript and trying to suss out the key points without leaving anyone out is a tricky task. The discussion goes in so many directions and it isn’t always easy to try to figure out who was talking or responding to what. In the end, I tried my best, but I may have left out some important points. All in all, I hope you enjoy it and learn from it as well. In the spirit of the discussion, feel free to add your feedback in the comment section below. Just don’t leave any red marks. I don’t like them.
One last thing, the style of writing with the quotes done they way they are comes from one of my favourite books, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I loved the way he did the dialogue in the story and I tried to copy it a bit, albeit somewhat poorly. I enjoyed how he made it feel like you weren’t always knowing exactly who was saying what, making the story a bit different each time you read it. I hope you can appreciate it in this context.
Fall is typically wet here, but today feels especially cold as the wind whips around the corners of the narrow streets of the old town, slicing though the thin jacket I optimistically put on this morning. I can see my destination isn’t too far off, a small Italian restaurant and cafe often frequented by expats working in various sections of this long, narrow port city. “All roads leads to Rome” or at least in this case to a small Venetian style pizza joint known around here as the only place that serves a real hot latte, not the cold, watered down version typically found throughout the city. It was also a great place to meet up with my fellow English language teacher friends every Wednesday to have a bite to eat and a chat in the upper section of the restaurant. The locals knew to avoid going to the restaurant at this time due to the boisterous conversations in English that spread throughout this 300-year-old building.
I felt like running to get out of the cold, but the wet cobblestone streets are notorious for being incredibly uneven and slippery, causing me to twist my ankle on more than one occasion. No, this time I would take it easy and endure the onslaught of the rain that was now turning into a downpour. Besides, I was already wet and I knew the fireplace would be stoked which would dry me out in no time.
The door chimed as I entered, announcing my entrance for all who were waiting for me. As it turns out, only Sue Annan was there, probably because she works just around the corner and also because she is so conscientious. I ordered my herbal tea at the bar, wondering if I should be adding a little something extra to warm me up, but deciding against it for fear that I would fall asleep in the warmth of the fireplace. I heard the chimes of the door and turned around to see Luke, Naomi, and Joanna coming through the door. They ordered their drinks and I wandered up the stairs gripping onto my cup for warmth. I had just made it to the top of the stairs as Shaun, James, David, and Hana made their way into the restaurant. Out the window, I could see others such as Marisa, Jose, and Daniel making their way through the twisty passageways, fighting the wind and rain as it continued to pelt down. It was a nasty evening outside, but the warmth of my colleagues and friends inside made us forget about the weather for an hour or so.
With all of the usual pleasantry out of the way, the conversation inevitably meandered its way back to our commonality, teaching. In the middle of that transition, Sue Annan leaned over to the rest of the group and posed a question.
— What kind of writing do we want to teach?
To be honest, I had never really thought about it as a question of want, but more of a need.
— I mostly teach EAP, so my focus in on academic writing.
Other began to chime in. Some like Naomi also taught essay writing and short paragraph answers, while others shared ideas such as email and story writing. At the end of the table, Luke sat sipping his coffee while watching the rest of us share our situations. He rested his coffee on the arm of the chair and sat up a bit straighter, signalling that his thought process had come to fruition. He was ready to jump in.
— The most important thing is that it is writing they’ll use. How often do people now write informal letters to each other in this day and age?
Luke leaned back in his chair and took a sip of this coffee. He had stirred the pot; now it was time to sit back and watch it boil a little.
— Good point, but emails are always useful.
— If students had a choice, they would learn writing for What’s App, Facebook. texting, and others forms of social media.
— Is that a bad thing?
— You could certainly start there and harness some of that enthusiasm.
Sue Annan, David, and Shaun bantered back and forth with a few others interjecting along the way, throwing in ideas such as movie review and folk tales. Sue Annan, who had been part of the conversation before heading back downstairs to top up her hot water for her green tea, sat down on the opposite side of the table as if to signal a change of some sort.
— My colleagues often make writing a homework project as they think it is a waste of time in class.
Every turned as she said this. Some hadn’t noticed that she had even left and were probably wondering how she had made her way to the other side of the table. Others, like myself, shook their heads in dismay, including Shaun and Luke.
— Doesn’t surprise me really. This is pretty common.
— But I feel the process is as important as the result!
It seemed we were in agreement as more people shared how it is important to take time in class to go over genres and the writing process with students face to face. Things were really picking up now as others had joined us in the upper room and the noise level was reaching its usual peak. I had a feeling this was going to be a pretty lively debate, so I took the opportunity to shuffle down the table a bit so I wouldn’t just be caught in with a small group. To me, this time is special not just for the content, but also the breadth and depth of opinions and the people who share them. I could tell I was not alone in thinking this as I glanced around the room. Now we were really getting started.
— It isn’t the writing prompts that are a problem for me; It’s the feedback that I struggle with!
Naomi is always one of the bright spots in these meetings, actually, she is always that way whenever you meet her. She is the encourager, the questioner, and the motivator. When she speaks, we listen. This time, it was Shaun who wanted to find out more.
— In what way do you mean, Naomi?
— How much to correct, how to get them to read comments, and the actual correction. Different students make different errors.
Luke, who had been chatting away with James and Sue Annan, spun around as if his name had been called. He was obviously intrigued by what Naomi had started.
— This is what I really wanted to discuss tonight! The best idea I have seen lately is Learner Directed Feedback.
— What is that?
— It’s basically the idea that students ask you to give you feedback on the things they want!
Joanna, always a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, had been sitting over in the corner talking with a few others and overheard what we were talking about, so she quickly excused herself and made her way over.
— I do a lot of that with my EAP classes. The students really get into it!
She went on to explain to Luke and the others how students ask her questions about their writing, while others debated how critical students are of their work. Joanna felt that learners in general were more critical of their work than the teacher, while Naomi felt that it varied with teens. The idea of correction codes and highlighting was bounced around, with some liking one way over another, but the idea that correction is needed was never really questioned.
David and Ceri had wandered in late from their respective workplaces showing signs that the rain had subsided, at least for now. David plopped a tray of snacks down on the table for all to share before throwing in his two-bits.
— I never learned those codes, but it doesn’t bother me now because I do all the corrections in Word.
— I use a lot of recorded oral feedback.
I had just given a session on that subject, so it seemed appropriate at the time to throw that out there. What I hadn’t considered was how this wouldn’t work for Naomi’s students who are hearing impaired. Ceri, David, and myself together with Naomi tried to work out how this could be used effectively.
— Can’t use recorded feedback with my kids who don’t hear well!
— What about using Jing for animated recorded feedback without the audio?
— It’s true that it is good for limited use. Speaking is so much quicker than writing, but I teach 6 days a week and that would be a lot of work!
— I was thinking that you could point out things, say side by side.
— Side by side is a good idea.
In the end, our conversation faded off as we dug into the food David has so generously provided.
Off in the corner, I could hear the unmistakeable laugh of Hana as she waved her arms around, describing something in great detail to Marisa and Anthony. I couldn’t resist on eavesdropping, so I quietly pulled a chair in behind her and pretended to be listening in on the deep conversation James, David and Keirnan were still having about the use of social media apps for writing. It was an interesting discussion, but I really wanted to find out what Hana was going on about. From what I could figure out, I was catching the tail end of a story regarding peer correction and “sandwich feedback”, which I think Hana had confused for someone offering her something to eat. The rest of the group found it wildly humorous, asking her what was REALLY in her coffee cup. Marisa tossed out another question.
— How do you teach writing? Do you connect it with reading? What kind of activities do you use?
— Teacher should be in the habit of writing themselves so they can see how much harder it is to do than to teach!
— I give them a model, then work with it, and eventually have student produce their own followed by peer feedback.
— I give them writing criteria, error codes, and then have them giving peer feedback in groups of four.
By this time, the group had grown and I had shifted my chair so as to be part of the discussion. Luke, Joanna, and Hana were quick to respond to her questions, sparking the discussion to branch off to other topics. Ceri and Marisa discussed the use of micro- teaching and planning, while others carried on the discussion about modelling.
— You know what to focus on if you do some writing yourself! You practice what you preach and teach!
Joanna was getting really excited. Kiernan, who I hadn’t even noticed had arrived, spoke up.
— This would be great for something specific such as an IELTS task one writing.
Other agreed and suggested holding off showing the model until later. Others continued their discussion about feedback, while I decided it was time for another cup of tea. I hadn’t even shifted out of my chair, before Joanna mentioned rewriting and drafts. This sounded interesting, so I stayed put. It must have caught the attention of others since the smaller groups scattered around the room had become one large group in the centre of the room. Marisa, who looked like she was also going to head downstairs to top up her cappuccino, sat back down as Luke added his thoughts.
— Even without feedback between the draft stages, students will improve each time.
— I figure my students can rewrite as many times as they want, as long as they are writing!
I hadn’t joined into many conversations to this point, preferring instead to ‘lurk’ a bit, but this topic intrigued me. Hana jumped in and, once again, everyone listened up.
— It is always good to put the first draft away for a while and come back to it. New language comes to mind and errors become salient.
That got a few heads nodding. I saw my opportunity to escape quickly to get my refill, so I took off.
I love tea in this country. The use of loose tea in those fantastic mugs with ceramic tea strainers and lids makes it so easy to enjoy good tea made nice and hot. I was so deep in thought about this fabulous mode of brewing tea, that I almost bumped into Daniel at the top of the stairs. We laughed about our near accident when I overheard Marisa asking a significant question.
— I think I am preaching to the converts, but many teachers tend to only focus on grammar and vocabulary when correcting. What others areas should we be looking at?
— Style, tone, register, and task achievement.
— Don’t forget content, range of language, ideas, interest holding, and so on.
— And audience should be before all of that!
— We need them to know that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, especially in essays!
— Yeah, planning is so important.
— Content or lack thereof is a big problem for my students.
The idea of planning the writing using large sheets of paper, or online using mindmaps was tossed around. Some people like Hana and Joanna complained about the lack of paragraphs. Others continued talking about the use of different writing formats such as comics to encourage writing and the use of stages. I decided to toss out a question as well.
— Does anyone keep copies of student written work to review with them later?
Hana mentioned that she has to store student work for various reasons and it came in handy. Marisa shared that she stores essays and Ceri says some classes build up a portfolio.
I decided to expand on that a bit more with an additional question.
— How often do you review them with your students?
— Once every couple of weeks or so.
Daniel, who I had almost drenched with my tea, mentioned that keeping texts had been really helpful in encouraging students as well. James isn’t one to speak up too often, but when he does, everyone listens.
— One of the biggest issues my students have is an inability to proofread effectively. Leads to lots of silly mistakes.
— Yes! Proofreading is hard. It is sometimes impossible to find your own mistakes.
People shared ideas about crowdsourcing feedback (which drew a lot of questions) and peer marking. Marisa wanted to know if using a grammar checker with the higher levels would be a help or a hinderance. James explained that his students sometimes don’t even check over their work before handing it in.
It was almost time to head out, so many people started to grab their jackets and hats which had managed to dry out. Some people shared ideas for writing prompts such as Dixit cards and ELTPics, while others continued talking about the amount of correction we should be giving. Most agreed that everything is too much, so we need to pick our battles. I grabbed my jacket and scarf and followed Joan and Ozgur out the door since I hadn’t had a chance to talk with them throughout the night. Once outside, the cool breeze off of the sea was causing me to shiver a bit, but the bright moon which had made an appearance during our time inside was a welcome sight after so many cloudy days and nights. It was a sign that the weather was changing, hopefully for the better.
I waved goodbye to Adam and Kiernan as I turned to walk back home. I felt rejuvenated for teaching once again and I looked forward to getting home and working on my lesson plans for the next week. Maybe it was time for me to spread my wings a bit and try out some of the ideas that were passed around tonight. For now, I was just content to not trip on the cobblestones as I headed towards the bridge.